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McKay wonders, later, why he raised his hands.

Before Atlantis, before the expedition, McKay spent several weeks reading about mortal injuries; specifically, how to survive them. It made sense, really – he was going to an entirely new galaxy with a trigger-happy team, would probably find himself in a few (ha!) dangerous situations, might even be mortally wounded; so it payed to be prepared, to know what to expect in case he got stabbed or burned or shot. For instance: most people who get shot don’t even realise they’ve been shot until later. Plenty of reports say that they just feel like they’ve been punched and don’t realise until they see the blood or pass out. McKay spent several weeks grilling Carson about survival rates of taking a bullet in the leg or the arm, or the chest. What if it’s here, just above the heart? What’s the survival rate? What about the statistical likelihood of survival if he gets shot under the ribcage? And so on until Carson lost patience and snapped that if McKay didn’t stop asking him then Carson would shoot him himself and he could run his own bloody statistical analysis of chances of survival.

Medical ‘science’ is guesswork at best, voodoo at worst, but there are still mathematical parameters and variables one can apply to certain situations. Sometimes it depends on physics; how far away the shooter is, what the calibre of the bullet is, what the angle of the shot is. Other times it depends on a variable as flaky as biology: platelet count, heartrate, shock, grace under pressure.

That last one in particular is a bitch.

If McKay had had the slightest bit of sense about him, if he’d had a modicum of grace (seriously, where’s that Samantha Carter hallucination when he needs it?) he could have been able to duck, or roll out of the way, or realise sooner that Sheppard was aiming his gun at him. But all he’d been able to do was flinch and throw his hands up, as if his hands were somehow going to stop the bullet. Instincts: bad.

Here are the hard physics variables:

  1. Sheppard is barely three metres away from McKay.
  2. Sheppard is armed with a Beretta 92FS.
  3. The angle of the bullet is almost a perfect 180o from Sheppard’s wrist to McKay’s throat.

Here are the flaky biological variables:

  1. McKay is borderline hypoglycaemic.
  2. McKay is panicking so hard that his heartrate is at 184 BPM.
  3. McKay pisses himself when he goes down.

Carson tells him later, in a soft, sad voice that McKay hates with every fibre of his being, that it was the flinch that saved his life: the twist of his head to the side, the cringe when he raised his hands that drew him out of the path of Sheppard’s bullet just enough for it to miss his carotid artery, instead slicing through his larynx and voice box. That conversation comes later and when it does, it feels a little like déjà vu; but now, lying in the dirt, covered in his own piss and choking on his own blood, he thinks: those reports were bullshit. He knows he’s been shot, and it fucking hurts. Doesn’t feel anything like a punch. He’s been punched before; usually because he’s pissed a co-worker off. Kolya slapped him. Were those worse? They’d seemed bad at the time. That knife in his arm was like fire and metal twisting his skin open until the words came spilling out and that had barely been a nick. That was nothing compared to this. Aren’t people supposed to pass out from the pain? Maybe if he passes out he doesn’t haven’t to go insane with the visceral horror of holding his own throat together with his slippery blood-slicked fingers.

If he’s completely honest, he’s more upset about wetting himself than anything else. That seems like a strange priority, considering what else is going on, but the stench of urine is pungent and his pants are cold and wet and uncomfortable. If he survives – oh. If. If he survives. Here’s a scenario McKay never got Carson to run him through: the chances of survival when you’ve been shot through the throat. Obviously the carotid arteries haven’t been damaged otherwise he’d already be dead, so instead of quickly bleeding out he’s slowly bleeding out, which he’s pretty sure is worse. Do you drown in your own blood first? Do you suffocate? Is it the blood loss that kills you? How much blood can fill your lungs before revival is impossible? He thinks he hears Teyla’s voice in the background; thinks he feels Ronon’s hand on his shoulder. They’re both talking to him but the words don’t make sense; all he knows is that Sheppard shot him in the throat and if he takes his hands away he’ll die.

Anyway, if he survives, no one will ever let him forget that he pissed himself.

“He’s going into shock,” Carson says, or at least McKay thinks he says it – it’s hard to tell. If it’s true, then – well, that’s another stupid biological variable to add to the list, because that’s what the reports don’t tell you: that often, it’s the shock that kills a gunshot victim, not the bullet itself. How fucked up is that? Your own body turning against you because there isn’t enough blood circulating the body. Pale, cold clammy skin, difficulty breathing (is he still breathing? How can he be breathing when his throat is shredded under his fingers? He supposes he must be, somehow, because if he’s not breathing he should be dead, he should be dead), anxiety, heart palpitations, nausea, vomiting, oh god don’t let him vomit, he hopes he doesn’t vomit, how fucked up would that be, vomiting into his own throat wound?

“Rodney, just hold on,” Sheppard chokes from somewhere above him or behind him or below him, he doesn’t know because the world is spinning and there are hands on him, tugging his fingers away from his neck and black throbs around the edges of his vision. “Oh, god, Rodney – Rodney, I –”

You shot me, McKay tries to say, and in another world where Sheppard was holding something clumsy like a P90 in one hand and the bullet only grazed McKay’s side, Sheppard might reply Yes, Rodney, I shot you and I said I was sorry! It might even be kind of funny. You shot me, McKay wants to say, and all he can taste is blood.


Afterwards – after he wakes up a week later in the infirmary, after the tracheotomy is removed to let him breathe on his own, after Carson tells him in that soft sad voice that he survived because the bullet only nicked his larynx (oh, only), after he has to be sedated because of a panic attack, after he wakes up again – McKay is told three things:

  1. He will almost (key word) make a full recovery.
  2. He will never speak again.

He doesn't actually know what the third thing is because McKay stops listening after the second thing. Carson’s Scottish murmurings become white noise, filling his ears like the words are cotton wool. He gets sedated again – apparently, he tried to throw his food tray at Carson but he doesn’t remember that – and when he wakes up, Teyla and Ronon are there tell him more things.

First Teyla hugs him. That’s nice. She’s also recovering from a gunshot wound, but unlike McKay she will make a full recovery, no ‘almost’ about it. Ronon reaches over to squeeze his shoulder with a grim sympathy that makes McKay want to curl up against him or slap his hand away. Sheppard shot Ronon too, but not in the goddamn throat. Why couldn’t it have been Ronon who was shot in the throat? He barely talks as it is; no one would have known the difference. Unlike Ronon, McKay needs his voice; it’s the third most important thing to him, behind his mind and his hands respectively. Not that McKay believes for a moment he’s permanently mute – medical science is hardly science, after all, so who is Carson to say that McKay’s voice is gone for good? Carson has forbidden him from his duties but that’s fine because sending a message to Radek to bring him his laptop isn’t work, it’s for personal reasons, like downloading voice training exercises.

It’s not until Elizabeth visits him and takes his hand, twining her fingers through his, that that nausea he was worried about when he was lying in the dirt in his own blood and piss hits him between his ribs.

“Oh, Rodney,” she whispers, holding his hand. “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

There are so many things he wants to say to her. It’s not John’s fault is on the tip of his tongue but when he tries he chokes. I’ll be back on duty in no time is also there. Maybe if he thinks it hard and loud enough, she’ll understand. I’m going to get my voice back, is what he also wants to say, but he looks down at their hands, looks at her exhausted face, looks at the tears gleaming in her eyes, and realises that she doesn’t believe she’ll ever hear his voice again.

Carson gave him a whiteboard and marker. No point in learning sign language, McKay thinks. No one on Atlantis knows it fluently enough to communicate meaningfully, and besides, he won’t need it when he gets his voice back. He uses his free hand to write JOHN? on the board, the tip of the marker squeaking on the surface. The marker is almost dry; he’d spent the last few sleepless nights trapped in the infirmary scrawling out equations for Radek to increase shielding on the jumpers by 7.3% – not, McKay thinks bitterly, that that had lifted his spirits at all, because Radek had taken one look at the equations, took off his glasses and pinched his brow and started to weep.

“Thank you, Rodney,” Radek had sniffled when he was quite finished humiliating himself, and took a picture of the equations on the board and basically fled; another doubter who thinks he’ll never hear McKay’s voice again. Or maybe he’d been worried McKay had been brain-damaged – either way, not exactly a confidence booster.

It’s a little flattering, in a way. McKay has spent his whole life being told by others that he talks too much, that he’s too loud, that his voice is annoying, that he’ll get punched in the mouth if he doesn’t shut up. Now that he can’t talk – temporarily, it’s only temporary – everyone misses his words. It’s a sad day when McKay the eternal pessimist (he prefers the term ‘realist’) is the only one who knows he’ll speak again.

All that aside: since waking the third time, McKay knows exactly three things about Sheppard’s status:

  1. Sheppard has removed himself from active duty and put Major Lorne in charge instead.
  2. Sheppard spent the entire week while McKay was in a coma at his bedside.
  3. Sheppard has not come to visit McKay since McKay woke up.

Talk about rude.

Elizabeth takes the board and gazes at John’s name followed by a question mark, and sighs. “He’s been asking for updates on you,” she says, using her diplomat’s voice. “Every few hours, to make sure you’re recovering.”

McKay sneers and snatches the board back, wiping it clear with the sleeve of his gown. Carson hates it when McKay does that. The stains don’t come out easily in the wash.

He shot me, the marker squeaks on the board. The least he could do is come to apologise to me in person!

The corner of Elizabeth’s mouth twitches. “I’ll be sure to pass that along.”


It becomes a game of who’s going to be braver: Sheppard for visiting the friend he shot through the throat because a Wraith mind manipulation machine made him hallucinate enemies; or McKay, for looking in the mirror to assess the damage.

He’s gotten used to the bandages but Carson (some friend he is) keep reminding him that they’ll have to come off eventually. McKay wonders if he can get away with wearing turtlenecks for the rest of his life. Probably not; those have never been a good look for him, emphasising his double-chin and erasing what little throat definition he had to start with. But does he really want to walk around with a scarred mess on his throat on full display? Maybe if it was from something really noble, like if he’d been caught in an explosion while singlehandedly saving the entire city, instead of being shot by his hallucinating best friend. Anyway, it’s not just the scar from the bullet – there’s also the scar from where Carson had sliced open his trachea, below the gunshot wound across his larynx, on M1B-129 to stop McKay from choking on his own blood, which became the hole where the tracheotomy tube was inserted when they got him back to Atlantis. Apparently he’d been conscious during that, but Heightmeyer tells him that the trauma has either repressed or erased the memory of the scalpel in his throat. Small mercies.

So long story short, no, he doesn’t want to walk around with the scars on display, but equally, there aren’t enough pros to justify the turtleneck. Turtlenecks are uncomfortable; he always feels like he’s been gently throttled by a short person, and he’s not sure he can handle any sort of pressure on his throat because unfortunately, he does remember waking up the first time and choking on the tracheotomy tube until Carson pulled it out.

Heightmeyer also tells him the nightmares he’s been having where he wakes up gasping and choking for air is PTSD. No shit Sherlock, he wants to sneer at her; of course it’s fucking PTSD. One does not simply get shot through the throat and remember the feeling of holding it together with his own fingers and emerge from that without significant trauma. He’s just glad that’s the only physical manifestation of his PTSD; choking himself awake instead of wetting the bed, because sometimes when he wakes up he can smell the phantom sting of urine in the air and remembers the way his drenched pants clung to his thighs as he was bleeding out in the dirt. No one’s said anything about him pissing himself back on the planet; they’d have to be a real asshole to do that, and McKay knows damn well that out of all of his teammates, he’s the asshole friend, and even he wouldn’t mock a person for wetting themselves after being shot.

After two weeks trapped in the infirmary, one week into his self-guided speech therapy sessions (since Carson isn’t helping; seriously, why does McKay keep calling him his friend?), Sheppard ends up being the braver man. Well – “brave” is a generous term: Sheppard slinks in in the dead of night when most staff are off-duty, probably thinking McKay would be asleep. He’s only half-right; McKay was asleep but had woken up gasping for air twenty minutes ago, and is now working on the next speech therapy practice. By the time Sheppard realises his mistake, it’s too late, because McKay spots him and glares until he has no choice but to shuffle over to the bedside.

Took you long enough! McKay writes, twisting the whiteboard towards Sheppard. It earns him a half-smile which quickly vanishes as Sheppard sinks into the chair by his bed, shoulders slumped. He looks awful, which is a feat considering present company: gaunt cheeks, dark circles under his eyes, even his hair limp. At first McKay thinks Sheppard isn’t going to say anything at all, but then he hears a broken, choked whisper:

“I’m so sorry, Rodney.”

Well, that’s nice to hear but ‘sorry’ isn’t going to un-shoot McKay, or miraculously give him his voice back without months and months of painstaking speech therapy. Frankly, McKay is fully prepared to hold this over Sheppard for, well, forever, but Sheppard looks so fucking miserable and sorry for himself that McKay actually feels bad for the guy that shot him. If he's pressed to admit it, he'll say that it wasn't Sheppard's fault; the guy was hallucinating, after all. McKay's done some stupid shit while hallucinating, like almost drowning himself at the bottom of the goddamn ocean even though his own hallucination was telling him not to do the stupid thing. He wipes the board with his sleeve and writes, then snaps his fingers in front of Sheppard’s face and shoves the board under his nose.

You shot ME. ‘Me’ is underlined three times. You should be comforting ME, not the other way around!

Sheppard has to take the board and hold it further away from his face to make out the scrawl that passes for McKay’s handwriting. When he deciphers it, he snorts softly and looks up, a small smile lingering on the corner of his mouth in the form of a wry twist. “You’re right,” he says, wiping the board and handing it back. “What can I do?”

See, that’s what McKay appreciates about Sheppard. The man is incapable of communicating anything personal; he’s like a damn fortress, the fewer words spoken the better. McKay talks like he’s running out of time; runs his mouth off like he’ll die any day and he hasn’t imparted enough words of wisdom upon the world. But they’re both similar in one regard, and that that neither of them waste words. Sheppard doesn’t need words; his actions speak louder than all the words he never says. McKay talks all the time and he knows he bitches and moans about everything and everyone all the time but when push comes to shove – he knows his actions speak louder than all the words that stream from his mouth. At least, he knows that now; there’s a certain impact that life and death situations have on a person. The measure of a man, etcetera. McKay divides his life into two stages: before Atlantis and after Atlantis. Before Atlantis, he was a coward. He won’t admit that; if anyone asks, he’ll say he always knew he had it in him to make sacrifices, to power through the worst things a man can endure – torture, loss, failure, terror – but until he came to Atlantis, until he met Sheppard, until he had to face it day after day after day, he didn’t actually know he had it in him, and if he’d never come to Atlantis he wonders if he ever would.

Some of it – a lot of it – is because of Sheppard himself. Not that McKay will admit to that, either.

But back to what Sheppard can do for McKay. His voice will come back soon, the longer he keeps at the therapy, and when it does return the collective sympathies of the expedition will vanish, so there’s a narrow window of opportunity that McKay has to make others bend over backwards for him until they stop feeling bad for him. He writes three things on the board:

  1. Food.
  2. Chess.
  3. Gossip.

Sheppard smiles, and indulges. It’s almost enough to make him forget that the bandages have to come off eventually.


The bandages come off, and it’s not as bad as he’d thought it would be except for the fact that he has a flashback, starts hyperventilating, and passes out. Carson tries to keep him for a few more days – “Just for observation, Rodney!” – but some of that sympathy is wearing off and Carson’s team all but beg him to release McKay. Who says that being annoying isn’t a positive quality?

“You should take things slowly, Rodney,” Teyla urges over lunch in the mess hall. “You were dealt a very serious injury. There is no shame in taking the time you need to fully recover. Ronon agrees.”

“That’s not what I said,” Ronon grumbles, stabbing the Pegasus bargain-discount version of potatoes. “I said if he wants to fuck up his recovery by overdoing it then that’s his choice.”

Oh, zing. Sheppard broke McKay’s voice box, not his brain; there’s no reason he can’t go back to work, which he throws himself back into with wild abandon. It’s almost the same in the labs as before, except that now he can’t yell at the idiots and they all tiptoe around him like he’s going to break, and Radek keeps asking him if he’s all right every two hours for the next three weeks. McKay continues his speech therapy (it’ll work, it’ll work, he just has to keep trying) and finds creative ways to work around the no-talking issue with a program that synchs his tablet to everyone’s laptops: if someone makes a mistake, he runs a script and a message pops up on their screens in blaring red capital letters and an alarm: GO BACK TO PRIMARY SCHOOL, or WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! or KEEP DOING THIS IF YOU WANT TO GET US ALL KILLED!

That stops the tiptoeing, though Radek still asks if he’s all right, at least five times a day until eventually McKay threatens to assign him to repair the Marines’ latrines.

Radek swears loudly in Czech. “Even mute you are the biggest pain in my ass since my last colonoscopy!” he snaps.

Later, when McKay thinks about it, he thinks he can identify the split second where the carefully constructed denial he’d built around his grief and rage shattered into a billion billion tiny pieces.

It’s not what Radek said, not really, but the fact that McKay opened his mouth and tried to reply. He can’t remember what he’d wanted to say; something appropriately snarky, no doubt, that razor-sharp wit capable of reducing scientists to tears. The words themselves didn’t matter: all he remembers is that the instinct to respond was so natural that when he couldn’t, when he opened his mouth to speak and his throat failed him, he realised three fundamental truths at the exact same time:

  1. He will never hear the sound of his own voice again, because;
  2. the damage is permanent, therefore;
  3. he's not okay, not by a long shot.

And just like that – just like that, he falls apart.


Firstly:

He doesn’t leave his room for two weeks straight. Ronon visits him on day five and just about hauls him by the scuff of his shirt into the shower, clothes and all, because of the stench. Teyla visits on days six and seven to have tea with him, but only after she makes him get out of bed to tidy and air his room. Radek visits on day eight of his self-imposed confinement to run McKay through the latest power fluctuations going on in the city.

Secondly:

The bedwetting.

Psychiatrists call this a “goldmine”. It was a problem when he was a kid, all the way up to the age of seven or eight. His parents yelled a lot and he often had to hide in the bedroom with Jeannie, covering her ears with ear warmers and playing the electric keyboard as loudly as he could to drown out the screaming until it stopped. When he was older and earned a living wage he decided to talk to someone about it to understand what the problem was, because any part of his brain that failed him was inexcusable; he needed an explanation, because once something has an explanation, it takes away the mystery and then there’s no reason to fear it. One theory he forked out several thousand dollars for was that it was the one way he was able to subconsciously relieve himself (was that supposed to be a pun on the shrink’s part? How fucking immature) of his self-imposed burden of responsibility towards himself and his baby sister. The bedwetting stopped after three things happened:

  1. Their father moved out.
  2. Their mother started drinking instead of yelling.
  3. McKay stole his mother’s credit card to buy a real piano.

Hard to say which of the three was responsible. He misses it, sometimes. The piano, not yelling or the bedwetting.

Now when he dreams of the bullet slashing across his throat, the gaping wound under his fingers and the dirt under his cheek, he doesn’t just wake up choking on phantom blood; he wakes up drenched in his own urine too. It doesn’t seem to matter how often he relieves himself before taking sleeping pills, or how little water and coffee he drinks during the day.

Thirdly:

When Sheppard visits, McKay punches him.

Thing is, McKay isn’t military. He’s had some self-defence lessons; anyone who goes through the ‘Gate has to. But in a straight fight against someone like Teyla or Ronon or Lorne or Sheppard, McKay knows that his chances of winning are borderline zero. If he was actually fist-fighting with Sheppard, Sheppard would’ve had him on his back in a matter of seconds. But they’re not, and Sheppard can see the punch coming from a mile away and still lets McKay punch him, left fist to Sheppard’s right cheek. It bruises Sheppard’s cheek and fractures McKay’s hand, so it’s not half as satisfying as it should have been, so McKay does it again, and again, and Sheppard lets him, until he’s pounding uselessly on Sheppard’s chest, screaming without words and sobbing without sound. You did this to me, he tries to yell. You did this to me. You took my voice away, you did this to me

“I’m sorry,” Sheppard whispers, his lips against McKay’s ear and his arms around McKay’s body, holding him against him because his legs give way underneath him as he weeps, trembling in Sheppard’s arms. “I’m so sorry. God, Rodney, I – I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I can’t ever make this right, I know I can’t, but I’m – I’m here, you can hit me or you can, you can use me for whatever experiments you want, or you can tell me to go away and never come back, whatever you need, but I’m here and I’m sorry, I’m so fucking sorry –”

Which means Sheppard knew McKay is never getting his voice back, that the damage is permanent; it means everyone knew and the only one who didn’t want to believe it was McKay himself.


The three most important things to McKay, in order, are:

  1. His mind.
  2. His hands.
  3. His voice.

Jeannie used to listen to a Meatloaf song ad nauseam: I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you. Meatloaf had been singing about unrequited love, not permanent disfigurement, but this feels a little bit like that. Two out of three ain’t bad. He’s almost a normal person and oh my god, McKay realises: I’m disabled.

It’s not that he’s disrespectful of the disabled, or – what is the politically correct way to refer to it these days? Differently-abled people? God that sounds so stupid, so condescending; if he was disabled, which, he supposes, now he is, he’d hate to be called “differently-abled”. No – he does hate it, because it’s a lie, it’s a big fat fucking lie for other people to feel better about themselves and their own perfect-health guilt by trying to convince him that just because he’s damaged doesn’t mean he’s broken, doesn’t mean he’s worthless, but he is broken and he is worthless because if he can’t talk then what’s the fucking point? What’s the fucking point? He’s disfigured, disabled, disgruntled.

And then there are the people who say it could be worse. Yes, of course it could be worse but that’s not exactly a comfort, is it? It could be worse: you could have woken up with brain damage. It could be worse: you could be in a wheelchair. It could be worse; you could be dead. So McKay needs to be grateful now that all he has is PTSD and no voice? He might not be able to yell at those well-meaning dumb grunts but he sure as hell can still write and blasts the entire military unit several abusive emails until Sheppard intervenes. The grunts give him a wide berth after that. McKay pretends to ignore the circle of distance he generates in the mess hall.

Anyway, this is the result of his realisation and subsequent mental breakdown:

  1. He’s asked to step down as CSO.
  2. He’s removed from active duty.
  3. He’s told that if he wants to remain on Atlantis, he has to learn ASL.

Elizabeth is very kind about it all, of course. That’s what makes it so hard. She’s being so gentle about it, so genuinely sorrowful that it’s come to this. He wishes she’d cracked a few jokes or badmouthed the IOA folks back in the Milky Way who passed the decisions down the line to her, but she doesn’t, so it feels like a death sentence, and maybe it is because who is Rodney McKay if he isn’t the CSO and isn’t on Sheppard’s team and can’t fucking talk? He grabs a paperweight off her desk and throws it through the glass window before she even finishes speaking, and holes up in the lab for the next four hours until Teyla guilts him into joining her for dinner. He eats with her and Ronon (Sheppard is making himself sparse again: coward), but McKay doesn’t enjoy it, not even when Ronon jokes that McKay is being “unusually quiet”.

Well. Maybe he smiles a bit at that. Because at the end of the day – at the end of the day… yeah. It could be worse. He has his mind; he’s still a genius. He still has use of his hands; he can still fix impending technological and scientific disasters and masturbate, though it’s hard to enjoy masturbating when you’re afraid you’ll wake up in a pool of your own piss every morning. He can find other ways to communicate, but Jesus, learning ASL is so fucking painful. It’s its own complete language. McKay actually likes learning other languages; it's like learning music, but with words. He still speaks French (no, not speaks; he can read and write and understand French but he’ll never speak it again) and he has a basic grasp of Ancient, because there’s something beautiful and mathematical about languages, just like reading sheet music and translating it to the keys of a piano. But ASL – well, he’s sure Daniel Jackson can wax poetic about it until the end of the century, but it seems so – so useless to McKay. Not the existence of it, duh; it serves a brilliant purpose for the deaf and mute, but what’s McKay going to do with it, flap his hands aggressively at a Wraith or a Genii? No one on Atlantis knows ASL. The ‘Gate won’t translate it. Imagine being in a situation out in the Pegasus galaxy and the fate of his team relies on him being able to explain something very complex and scientific, and all he can do is slap his hands together meaninglessly in front of the enemy of the day. Yeah, that’ll save him. Not that he’ll ever be in such a situation again, of course. He’s not allowed.

At least Radek is helpful: he suggests creating a speech-generating device like the one Stephen Hawking uses. Well, ‘helpful’ is a relative term; McKay can’t think of anything worse than hearing a computer generate that mechanical, robotic synthesised voice on his behalf. That’s not to say his own voice was particularly dulcet but it was still his voice, Canadian with inflections and passion and familiarity. He likes the sound of his own voice and now –

Now sometimes he worries he’s forgetting what he sounds like.

It’s a ridiculous thing he never realised he’d ever have to worry about. Who forgets the sound of their own voice? Doesn’t he think in his own voice? And yet when he tries to remember, it slips away like water through his fingers. Recordings don’t help, because they don’t count. It’s like looking through a photo album, recognising moments and figures from the past, frozen in time with no concept of what’s to come. There are several dozen hours of footage and Dictaphone recordings he can probably use, one day, to synthesise his own voice, but that’s even more depressing and pathetic thought which drives him to spend another week spent hiding in his room.

“You need a hobby,” Ronon advises him after beating the crap out of him with a stick, responsible for dragging him out again. McKay wheezes and rubs his bruised side, and shakes his head. “You do,” Ronon insists. “And I don’t mean holing up in the lab or meditating with Teyla. Do something to keep your mind busy.” He taps McKay’s forehead. “You think too much. You need an outlet. That’s why you’ve got issues at night.”

McKay slaps his hand away, his face burning. He wants to ask how Ronon knows, or better yet, yell at him and say he doesn’t know what Ronon’s talking about, but Ronon doesn’t say anything else; he just claps McKay on the shoulder and leaves him to his own humiliation and self-pity.

Ronon’s right, though. He does need a hobby. Learning ASL is not a hobby, but he knows what else could be. When he finishes drawing up his plans, it’s late and the corridors of Atlantis are empty but for the soldiers on night duty. Doesn’t stop him from banging on Sheppard’s door. He could, in theory, use his earpiece, but he’s tried tapping out Morse Code before and that was more trouble than what it was worth, so he knocks until the door slides open and Sheppard is standing there with bleary eyes and bare feet.

“McKay?” he says, confused and half asleep. “What’s wrong?”

Oh, right; it’s the middle of the night. Oh well. He twists the tablet screen towards Sheppard.

I need your help to build something.

Sheppard rubs the sleep from his eyes to focus on the words. His hair is even more of a catastrophe than it usually is. Does that mean he uses product to tame it? Is it sentient? “Right now?” Sheppard says, a whine to his voice, but then he remembers that McKay is mute because Sheppard shot him and quickly adds, “Yeah, of course. Anything, buddy.”

McKay shakes his head and clears the tablet. The next message is longer.

I’m not asking you for help because you feel too guilty to say no. I’m asking for your help as my friend.

Sheppard reads it, then he inhales sharply and closes his eyes. “Shit, McKay,” he mutters, pinching the bridge of his nose and lowering his head.

McKay scrawls the next message and snaps his fingers in front of Sheppard’s face. DON’T start crying. I’ll hit you again if you do.

Sheppard chokes on a laugh instead. “Whaddaya want to build?”

McKay swipes the screen to bring up his blueprints.

“You want to build a grand piano?” Sheppard says dubiously, taking the tablet. “Do you even know how to build a piano?”

Why not? He has his mind and his hands. He’s built more complex things from scratch, like nuclear bombs and hyperdrives. He has the blueprints, the plans, the drive, the desire. He doesn’t need a voice to play the piano and he can only imagine the nightmare of logistics involved in getting a Steinway shipped from Earth to Atlantis. He shrugs at Sheppard: nothing stopping me from trying.

“Yeah, all right,” Sheppard says. “But – not right now, right? It’s the middle of the night.”

McKay knows exactly three insults in ASL. Sheppard won’t know what it means but McKay, well, he’ll get a kick out of it. He places his right fingertips on the palm of his left hand and bends his knuckles twice.

Sheppard’s eyebrows shoot up. “Excuse me? Weak? "

Now McKay is the one with eyebrows raised, because Sheppard knows ASL? Since when? He's never indicated he knows ASL or any other language other than the butchered version of English that Americans speak. Does that mean he's learning -?

"I’ll show you ‘weak’.” Sheppard steps back, still clutching the tablet, to invite McKay into his quarters. “You want a piano? Get in here and show me how to make it. We start tomorrow.”