"It'll be like climbing Mt. Everest," John says. "It'll be an adventure, and it's just the high tower. It's right in our own backyard, so to speak. How can you say no?"
McKay ticks things off on his fingers. "Everest. Adventure. The backyard. No."
"C'mon, Rodney. You're not even the least bit curious about what the Ancients would consider important enough for the penthouse suite?"
McKay looks up from his work. "It could be where they stored Crazy Aunt Mildred," he says. "It could be nothing. Is it worth spending an entire day getting to one empty room with a great view, in a city full of them?"
John stares at him. "The city," he says slowly, "is Atlantis."
"Right." McKay stares back for a moment, then sighs and shuts down his laptop. "I'll just get my coat."
Rodney gets his coat, a scanner, two laptops, seven Powerbars, two slices of the roasted Mystery Beast from N2L-349 that Isn't Quite a Rhinoceros, and an inflatable plastic pillow.
"We're staying on world," John says, watching him load up. "We're staying in the city."
McKay pauses, apparently deliberating, then adds a small Canadian flag to the stuff in his pack. He says, "How many guns are you carrying, Major?"
"And how many devices of an explosive nature?"
"Seven. But that's different."
McKay smiles at him, smug as can be. "Different how? After all, we're staying in the city," he says.
John bares his teeth back. "This is Atlantis. You just never know!"
McKay nods, then shifts his pack over his shoulders. "Exactly," he says, buckling it into place. "Which, you know what? Let's stop in the mess hall on our way out. I don't think we've got enough snacks."
Atlantis is kind of like a big maze. Corridors loop back on themselves; long series of rooms lead on and on while others are accessible only by one complex route, and many more are honeycombed along the hallways, doors opening into everywhere.
The one constant is that every room on their route lights up for John, who resolutely walks past all of them. Even the one with an entry nearly as wide as a football field, which seems to lead into one of the series, each opening getting a little narrower until the last ones they can see are only as wide as hanger bays. From the corridor it's like an optical illusion and he has to literally drag McKay away. He regrets it too but they don't have the time or the supplies for an in-depth exploration. This is more of a walk than a mission, though John was careful about how he phrased it to Elizabeth when he told her they were heading out.
It's a couple miles of stairs and transporters and fascinating corridors till they're at the only transporter that will get them access to the tower room, and then a half hour to reach the wide, spiraling stairway that leads to the top. "You ready? You want me to take anything?" he asks McKay, who is resettling all of his equipment, a Powerbar hanging out of his mouth.
McKay shakes his head. "There's still time to go back to the telescoping rooms and explore them instead," he mumbles around the Powerbar. He's eyeing the stairs with a fair amount of dread but when John grins and turns to follow them up, McKay is right beside him.
Just like in the control room, each step lights up for them, gold and white and kind of dazzling. The walls are covered in intricate patterns and mottled with warm colors. Every so often, a narrow doorway leads off the stairs and into more of the city's mysterious corridors. "This is torture," McKay says after they pass the fifteenth door. He's panting from exertion, but John knows he doesn't mean the stairs.
"We'll come back, McKay," he says for what's probably the fiftieth time since they left the main living area. "Focus on what's ahead. I'm thinking, maybe it's a weapon's station. Big guns, a hidden ZPM, moments-from-finished plans for the destruction of the Wraith." McKay snorts and John grins at him. "C'mon, you too. I played a million rounds of prime/not prime."
"That wasn't a game. I'm writing a paper on how Ford's never right and you're never wrong. Do you have a cheat sheet hidden in your bangs, Major?"
John pushes his hair back from his forehead and shrugs. "Just lucky, I guess. Shut up and play along, Rodney."
"Lucky, my ass," McKay grumbles. "Fine. It's a lighthouse. Did you notice there are fewer doorways now?"
"Yeah. More windows." A lot more windows, really. They're taking over, colored not-quite-glass letting in even more shades of light than before. "I guess it's a...lover's lane. A special place for all the little teen-aged Ancients to go and practice their Ascension, away from prying eyes. Infamous among generations. Beer cans and graffiti everywhere."
"Tourist trap," McKay says. "We'll get to the top and an Ancient vending machine will hand us stickers. 'This fat ass made it to the top of the big tower.'"
"Tourist attraction. Like the top of the Empire State building. Viewfinders and pamphlets and plaques detailing the history of the city, and the remains of a guy selling knock-off watches out of his trenchcloak."
McKay is quiet for a long time before he huffs, "What polite host city makes its tourists go to the tops of tall places without elevators or escalators? It's a--yes. A test. A test of patience and stamina and, and patience."
John sneaks a look at him, trying to make sure that he's not going to have a heart attack so far from help, but he looks okay--a little red in the face, but mostly thoughtful. Contemplative. When he catches John looking, all he does is wave a hand and say, "Although, it is pretty," which is weird but not bad. Atlantis is beautiful, not just functional, which McKay sometimes doesn't notice. John nods, and they keep climbing.
The stairs start to narrow. At the bottom, they were broad and shallow, each one wide enough for a dozen people to walk up shoulder to shoulder. By the time the walls are almost purely glass and they haven't passed a doorway in a half an hour, the stairs are wide enough only for two people, and much steeper.
"Is it just me, or is the air getting thinner?" McKay gasps, and he stops to lean against the wall and take a drink of water. John frowns at him and McKay shakes his head impatiently. "Everest."
John wraps his fingers around McKay's wrist. His skin is warm and a little sweaty, and his pulse is fast but not bad. McKay is looking at him, and John smiles. "You'll make it, Rodney," he says. "You should go back to shutting up and climbing."
McKay snorts. "Yes, yes, your concern for my well-being is very touching, but when will we make it? If we haven't at least hit the base camp yet, I'm going back down for oxygen and a Sherpa--"
"Two levels," John says. McKay's pulse is slower against his fingertips. "I'm pretty sure the air will still be good." He tugs lightly until McKay comes away from the wall, then turns to start climbing again.
"I still want the Sherpa," McKay says a moment later, though he's trudging up the stairs beside John willingly enough. "What was I thinking? A couple hours spent exploring Atlantis, travelling to the highest spot in the city, wandering a million miles from the nearest transporter. Never again do I just follow you off on one of your harebrained adventures."
John laughs. "Never again until next time," he says, and then they're at the top of the stairs. He drops McKay's wrist and opens the door.
At first, the wash of light is so overwhelming that he thinks it's the only thing in the room.
Well, that's not really at first; at first is so overwhelming that he thinks he's made a big mistake, that he's blown up or fried or otherwise gotten himself and McKay killed, but a moment passes and he's still breathing. He turns his head and McKay is standing beside him, eyes wide and dazzled, but not blinded, melted or otherwise harmed.
"Lighthouse?" he says, raising an eyebrow at McKay, who rolls his eyes and takes a step forward, looking around. John follows him and the moment he's over the threshold, the light changes. It's still gold and crystal refractions and brilliant, but it's gentler. More sunset in the forest, less high noon in the desert.
The room isn't empty. At the far end, there's a long, low stone platform kind of thing. Behind that, the one wall that isn't curved faces out over the water, with a completely unobstructed view of the ocean. John thinks he can make out the edge of the continent, almost.
"Watchtower?" he asks, but McKay isn't listening anymore. He's kneeling in front of the platform, mumbling Ancient phrases. John stands behind him and sees that the whole thing is covered in writing, Ancient text, carved incredibly small. He kneels down too and looks closer.
"A test, a trial," McKay mumbles, tapping at symbols. John watches his hands, fascinated. He keeps expecting Ancient text to make sense to him but it hasn't yet, even after a lot of lessons. Even though he knows logically that it wouldn't, sometimes he wishes that having the gene would make Ancient easier to learn.
McKay is getting pretty good at it, at least. He hasn't turned on anything he can't turn off in at least a month.
"It repeats over and over again, do you see? A test. Two, two, two. A journey that ends in light. A test. A journey." He sits back on his heels and rubs at his mouth, thinking.
John is still watching his hands. "Lover's lane?" he asks, raising both eyebrows this time. McKay smirks at him and he grins. "No, seriously. Come on, McKay. Two people, a test, a journey that ends in light? As far as the Ancients go, that's almost lewd, isn't it?"
"Well, you'd be the foremost expert on the lewdness of the Ancients, Major," McKay said. "But no. This isn't 'for a good time, call,' it's more like." He waves his hands. "More formal. Ceremonial?"
John thinks about that for a moment, looking around. "Ceremonial. Like church?"
McKay shakes his head. "I doubt it. The Ancients weren't a particularly religious people, Major. Maybe a sort of treaty room? Somewhere to take diplomats--climb all those stairs together, bond, talk over your differences, and by the time you've reached the top, you've come to an agreement?"
It seems sort of logical, in an Ancient kind of way, but the more John looks around the beautiful, warm, glass-walled room, the more he thinks it's wrong. This isn't the kind of room where you take strangers, people who are more enemy than not. "Lover's lane," he says decisively. "Although, hey, are you sure that's 'two'?"
McKay snorts and leans forward again. "Wishful thinking, Major. The emphasis isn't on what is, for the record, 'two'," he says, touching the symbols. "It's all on 'ligh--'"
The room goes dark.
When John wakes up, the room is exactly the same, warm and full of light. Must've been his head that went dark. He feels okay, not too much like a guy who just took an Ancient weapon to the brain, but McKay is still out cold.
He touches McKay's wrist, then unfastens his collar and feels for a pulse in his neck. Slow and steady and McKay stirs under his hand. John holds him down until McKay's eyes are open and focused on his, confused but not too dazed. "You all right?" he asks, and McKay shifts, frowns, shifts again.
"The pack," he says. "I think I broke something in it. Also, several small but vitally important pieces of my anatomy, such as my knees. However, I'm not paralyzed or suffering from any obvious brain injury, so if you could let go of me, I'll slide on my ass down the stairs till I get to a level where Carson will come with a gurney if he knows what's good for him."
"What amazes me is how nothing in this entire galaxy stops your mouth for long. It's like your superpower," John says as he works at unfastening the pack and pulling McKay's arms out of it. "The Amazing Mr. Talky. Guaranteed to be annoying within fifteen seconds of regaining consciousness. You think you can stand?" He holds out a hand and helps McKay to his feet.
Nothing vital is broken in the pack, and after a couple groaning, lurching steps, it's obvious that nothing is broken in McKay either. John winces with him when he stretches, though; there are a lot more popping and cracking sounds than seem optimal.
When McKay kneels down by the platform again, John has to fight the urge to shove him away from it--it's not enough that he's hurt his back, the man wants to risk death by Ancient technology again? "Sometimes I wonder if you're as smart as everyone says you are, Rodney."
"Pardon me for wanting to know what happened so that it never, ever happens again," McKay says. He's scanning the platform, frowning. "No energy source. No vibrations. Solid. It's just a piece of rock. But in this city, it's never just a piece of rock." He reaches out and touches the damn thing before John can stop him, then shrugs and looks over his shoulder. "Nothing. Just warm stone."
"You know, never mind. I won't wait for the Ancient piece of technology to kill you, I'll do it myself," John says. He reaches down and grabs McKay's shoulder, pulling him back. "Everyone else has wanted to once or twice a day. No one could blame me--huh. Okay. Are you feeling what I'm feeling?"
"Yes, but how could we both be in my head?" McKay stares up at him which is weird because John's never seen himself from that angle before, and then McKay is scrambling backwards, putting as much distance between them as he can without going out one of the tall glass walls.
John scowls at him. "Hey, don't blame me. You were the one who came into my head. I could feel you! Which, by the way, eat something before your blood sugar gets any lower. If you think I'm going to carry your unconscious body down those stairs, you can forget it. I'll just leave you hear to commune with the Ancient mind sharing device."
McKay looks past him toward the platform. "Mind sharing device. That's exactly what it is, Major." He meets John's gaze again. "Treaty room," he says smugly. "Ha."
"Torture chamber," John says. "Ha."
Elizabeth leans back against one of the columns and crosses her arms over her chest, staring at them while they wait for Beckett. John tilts his head back at the ceiling and whistles, but McKay is getting more and more fidgety beside him. He clears his throat and John thinks, five seconds to splashdown--four--three--two--
"It didn't say anything about the mind sharing thing!" McKay snaps. "Didn't even allude to such a possibility. Ask the Major, I read it to him--"
"Two, two, two. A journey that ends in light. A test. A journey," John drones.
"--it could've happened to anyone!"
Elizabeth shakes her head. "No, Rodney," she says, a small smile curling her lips. "Of all the people in the city, something like this could only happen to you. Do you have images of the text?"
Rodney digs through the pack for his digital camera and laptop, setting it up. "You see," he says, pointing. "Two, blah, journey, blah, test, blahblahblah, ends in light, blah. Two, blah, etcetera. No mind sharing."
John stares at him. "You didn't mention the blahblahblah before," he says, and McKay waves his hands without looking in John's direction. "Rodney. You didn't mention the blahblahblah."
"It's not blahblahblah," Elizabeth says before sighing wearily and pinching the bridge of her nose. "You misinterpreted, Rodney. This reads, 'A pair who seek to travel eternity together shall test their bond. Those who fail will dwell in darkness, those who succeed will share the light."
"Ancient fortune cookie blither," McKay says. "Still says nothing about the mind sharing!"
John stares at him for a long moment. "I have to lie down," he says, and he does, putting an arm over his eyes. His fists are clenched. He can feel both Elizabeth and McKay staring at him. "Tell him where you've heard that before, Dr. Weir," he says. "Go on. Tell him."
"The Athosians," she says, sounding reluctant. "They've known it for as long as they've known anything, really. It's a ceremonial phrase."
"Tell me it's about a treaty," McKay says, but it sounds like he already knows it isn't. Good. John would hate to find out that instead of being the galaxy's biggest genius, he's a stupid, stupid man--
"It's a wedding vow."
--since they're married and all, now.
"It doesn't mean anything," McKay says.
"And it's not like we're going to tell anyone, because--"
"And we're not in each other's minds anymore, so whatever happened wasn't permanent. We'll be fine. You can stop sulking any time now."
John turns his head to stare, incredulous. McKay is on his side, watching him, monitors blipping and bleeping all around. John hates the med bay. "Why doesn't this place have more curtains between the beds?" he asks. "Did no one think of what pissed off under observation people would need, other than the people who pissed them off sitting there trying to be reassuring and failing miserably?"
McKay frowns, sniffs, and turns over in his bed. "Fine," he says. "Canada wouldn't want you anyway."
"You can go, gentlemen," Dr. Beckett says in the morning. He's frowning over their charts, but it's not his bad frown of quarantine, it's just thoughtful. "Nothing wrong that I can see."
"No damage to their brains or nervous systems?" Elizabeth asks.
"Not a thing. Sharing minds did naught but put them in bad temper. I can't recommend that they go back and do it again, but I see no harm done."
Elizabeth rises from her chair and stands before them. John resolutely doesn't look at McKay, who he can feel not looking at him. "You were very lucky," she says. "You're both back on active duty, but I must ask you to be more careful in the future, and be aware of any strange symptoms or problems over the next few days. Report anything to either myself or Dr. Beckett. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly clear," John says, not quite looking her in the eyes. Beside him, McKay mumbles something and moves his hands.
She frowns at them both, thoughtful. "I'm not certain that I believe either of you. I wonder why that is?"
John shrugs and stands. "Couldn't tell you. Ready to go, McKay? We should let Teyla and Ford know we're alive."
McKay silently turns left at the fork, instead of going right. John shrugs and watches him go, then heads to the mess to reassure Ford and Teyla. He makes a joke out of McKay throwing out his back and knocking them both down a flight of stairs. Neither of them believe the story, but they can't argue with it either. Then he goes to the gym area, the mess, flies a jumper to the mainland for supplies even though it's way outside his normal range of responsibilities, checks and double checks all the defenses that they've got in place, then finally gives up and goes back to bed.
A couple hours before dawn, he wakes up feeling a little sick. His stomach burns and he's woozy. When he sits up, his back aches dully. He gets out of his bed, throws on pants and a t-shirt, and stumbles down to the labs.
McKay is hunched over his computer, eyes red. There's a cup of coffee steaming at his elbow and reports stacked sky-high all around him. "You should go back to bed," he says without looking up, frowning at his computer monitor.
John stares at him. "You should eat something that won't give you indigestion, take a painkiller, and get some sleep. Otherwise you're going to keep me up the rest of the night."
"Oh, hell," McKay says. "I was hoping it was just me." He leans back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest and shaking his head. "We are so fucked. What are we going to tell Elizabeth?"
"Nothing, for now," John says. "It may just fade away on its own. No need to worry her, right? It's not like I'm hearing what you're thinking or anything--I just knew you had a stomachache and were up too late. It'll be fine."
"Major." McKay is still not looking directly at John. He pauses for a long time, but he's not a guy who holds back what he's thinking, so John just waits him out. Eventually McKay mumbles, "It felt good, when you were sleeping."
"Yeah." John sighs and scrubs his hands through his hair. "Well, generally, that's why people sleep, Rodney. You should try it for yourself."
McKay shakes his head again, but leans forward and shuts down his computer. John watches as he picks up his coffee and dumps it down the sink before he turns and walks away, confident that McKay is really on his way out of the labs. "And seriously, take a painkiller," he says over his shoulder. "Your back is killing me."
He wakes up in the morning wary of his body pulling another weird trick on him, but all systems seem to be in good working order, with no echoes of McKay's discomfort or weariness. Whether everything had gone back to normal or McKay had just gotten some decent sleep, he wasn't sure.
"How are you feeling?" he asks under his breath at the section heads' meeting.
McKay eyes him warily. "Here's a better question. Can you tell me how I'm feeling?"
John thinks about it for a moment and starts to say no, but the look in McKay's eyes tells him he'd better think harder. There's nothing, though. He shrugs and McKay lets out a sigh, nods, and goes back to paying attention to the meeting. John leans back in his chair and listens to McKay talk eagerly about the more interesting rooms they'd passed by on their trip to the high tower, and wonders at his own vague disappointment.
McKay starts looking better rested than he has in a while, and John doesn't let himself wonder what it feels like to share someone's sleep the way McKay had shared his. They don't see each other a lot, which is normal enough, but they do keep ending up in the mess at the same time, and every time that John needs to go for a walk, he sees McKay pacing restlessly through the hallways.
"I want to go back to some of those rooms, but Elizabeth's refuses to let me," McKay tells him on one of the restless days. They've stopped nodding to each other in passing and started walking together. People try to talk to them less when they're together, and it seems silly to pretend that it's purely coincidence. "She seems to think they're dangerous. I said, I'll leave Major Sheppard at home this time, and she had the nerve to suggest that you are not the trouble magnet."
"I did not ignore the blahblahblah," John says. "I'd have paid attention to the blahblahblah. If I had read the blahblahblah--"
McKay waves his hands. "Yes, yes, fine. Sometimes the danger is my fault. But that's no reason not to let me explore that section. Just think what we could be missing out on!"
"Mind meld with Kavanagh, for one."
McKay stops in his tracks, his face horrified, lopsided mouth almost straight with shock. "Can you imagine?" he breathes. "Ugh. Ugh. I'd have thrown him through the glass."
"Would've almost made the whole thing worth it," John says.
"Thank God it was you," McKay says fervently, and then he hurries off to check and make sure that none of the scientists on his team are going to kill anyone with their shoddy workmanship, and John watches him go, thoughtful. When McKay is out of sight, he turns down the hall and goes to find Elizabeth.
Three days later, McKay sprains his ankle while leading a team through the telescoping rooms, and John feels it all the way from the control tower.
"This is not good," he says when McKay is settled in the common area with his foot elevated, some drugs, some food, a stack of books, a stack of movies, and a plate of the cookies the Athosians had sent over.
"I know," McKay says, nodding. "I've already seen all of these!"
John sighs. The sprain is pretty bad, so the drugs are pretty good. McKay always reacts to them like they're high-grade narcotics, anyway. "Well, yes, but also. You know. The other thing."
"Hmm," McKay says. "These cookies could use something. Like, sugar, for example."
McKay looks up. "Major, as you know, I have two modes in the face of certain doom. Panic, and panic with lashing out. Now, as I'm armed with a very long, very heavy crutch, I'd suggest that you allow me to stay in my current happy state of panic, and avoid the lashing out. Thank you. Please bring me some of the nearly milk if you happen to pass by the mess and then come around this way again."
John eyes him moodily. "You know you're lactose-intolerant, right?"
"And I don't care," McKay says. "I guess you'd better just get used to it."
"Do we tell Elizabeth?" John asks later, when they're sitting in front of the laptop watching Gone With the Wind. McKay has chosen to elevate his ankle with his pillows stacked on John's lap. The cookies improved tremendously with some nearly milk.
"Frankly, Sheppard, I just don't give a damn," McKay says. "Cookie, please."
John sighs and hands him another cookie. "I knew you were going to say that."
"I knew you were going to say that. Now we're even. Stop moving. It hurts."
"I'd apologize if I didn't know you were just being a whiny baby," John says, patting McKay's knee and staring at Elizabeth, who is hovering in the doorway, watching them. It's too late to get McKay's stack of pillows off him, though why he feels like he needs to, he isn't sure. He'd do this for any friend who got laid up, really. The fact that by some weird Ancient coincidence, he's married to said friend, well, that doesn't have anything to do with anything. He frowns at Elizabeth to make sure she knows that. Then he takes his hand off McKay's knee.
Elizabeth just shakes her head and walks away.
While McKay is still hobbling around on crutches, John, Ford, Teyla and Zelenka head to M6P-445. It's a hot, bug infested, unpleasant little planet, and the people are sweaty, bug infested, unpleasant little people. John isn't even sure why they're bothering, because the people don't have crops they can trade, don't have technology, and aren't ever going to be any kind of ally, but sometimes these little trips are just about fostering good will.
The first day, he thinks that his rising restlessness is just boredom and distaste. He washes as soon as they get back to their camp, laughs at Zelenka's impression of the high priestess, beats Ford at chess three times, gets his ass kicked by Teyla, and by then everyone else wants to sleep but he's still restless. He takes the first watch and prowls around their camp, alert to every noise and movement, waiting for something to happen just so he can move.
Ford takes the second watch, and John lies down on his pallet of blankets, eyes closed, breathing deep. The night air is a little cooler and he has a bug net, but it's still an unpleasant little planet, and he falls asleep thinking of being home.
The second day is even hotter, and overnight the little bugs all grew massive fangs. John slathers on a cream the sweaty little people give him and it keeps the bugs from biting, but it smells like a foul mold. John spends the day staring at the priestess and biting his lip to keep from grinning because Zelenka's impression had been so dead on, trying not to smell himself, and ignoring the restlessness that had become anxiety.
"Something wrong, sir?" Ford asks him as they hike back to their camp at dusk. "We gotta slow down, Dr. Z. looks about two minutes away from an aneurysm."
John glances back and Zelenka is keeping up, but it's clearly an effort. He slows down and shakes his head. "Nothing's wrong, Lieutenant," he says. "I'm just ready to be off this planet. What do these people use for deodorant? Skunk shit?"
"I believe they use the cream," Teyla says. "To them, there is no point to using any other kind of soap or cosmetic. Anything that would wash away or mask the cream would simply defeat the purpose."
"That explains so much," John says. "But as soon as we get to the camp, I am going for a swim, and no bug is going to stop me."
The pool of water near their camp is clear as glass, with a deep, sandy bottom. Clean enough to drink, their tests had shown, although they use their bottled water just in case. The best part is that the bugs don't like it much. John does fifty laps at a punishing pace--the pool isn't exactly Olympic sized--then dries off thoughtfully.
"Do you think there's something in it that they don't like?" he asks Zelenka back at the camp, and that starts a babble of Czech that he understands two words of, then Zelenka is bent over his test results again, with a plastic spray bottle of water aimed at any bug that wanders too close.
John watches him work until it's time for the first watch. This time, when he walks the perimeter of their camp, he stays close enough to hear Zelenka clattering away at his laptop. All the swimming and bug killing in the world can't seem to kill the feeling growing inside him. He's just freaking out because the planet is so damned awful, and at least the sound of the laptop is familiar and kind of comforting.
At second watch, he lies down. Zelenka mists his bug net with water, and it's cool and smells sweet. The bugs back off far enough that he can't even hear them buzzing anymore so he listens to Zelenka settle down in his own pallet, almost immediately snoring in a sort of triumphant way, and Ford prowling through the woods. He doesn't sleep at all.
The third day, they offer their bug killing mix to the unpleasant little sweaty people, who turn out to be really kind of nice when they're not miserable because their traditional old bug cream got a couple ingredients mixed up over the years and is really more of a bug snack. They get a bunch of vegetables in return, and the high priestess offers to host a feast in their honor, but by noon, John's on the verge of a meltdown.
"I'm sorry," he says, smiling at the high priestess with all the charm he's got at his disposal. "I truly am, and we'll be coming back real soon, but I think I left the tea kettle on at home and I've really gotta go make sure I didn't burn down the city. You understand, right?" Which she doesn't, of course, but Teyla makes their excuses a little more eloquently, in the right language, and they pack up their vegetables, tear down their camp, and are headed for the gate before the afternoon is even half over.
"You seem worried," Teyla says as they climb the last dusty hill.
John hesitates, turns his head to check Ford and Zelenka's progress. "It feels like something's wrong back in Atlantis," he tells her quietly, just in case he's not being stupid, the throbbing pain of a sprained ankle a sharp memory. Could it work like this, across millions of miles? "It's probably nothing, just my imagination, but--"
Teyla nods solemnly. "But you must be certain. I understand."
John dials Atlantis as soon as Ford and Zelenka are cresting the hill, then stands waiting, almost vibrating with impatience. As soon as Ford is over the event horizon, John goes through, and it's like one step to another; he's heading across the main floor of the control room.
McKay is limping down the stairs, no crutches, and the sight of it sends John into a rage. "Did I have to come back to Atlantis early just because you're too stubborn to follow doctor's orders, Rodney?" he drawls, but he's so angry that his voice shakes.
"Air cast," McKay says, pulling up his pant leg far enough for John to see it. "What went wrong on M6P-445? I was just about to go through the gate--"
John shakes his head, impatient. "It was fine, we have cucumbers. You're sure nothing went wrong here? I've been--"
"Gentlemen," Elizabeth calls down. "To my office, please. Now."
John blinks at McKay, then looks up. Elizabeth is standing at the railing and her hands are clenched around it so tightly that he can see her knuckles shining white. He leans closer to McKay. "Uh-oh," he says quietly. "We are so busted."
McKay nods grimly. "It'd probably help if you dropped my hand."
John looks down. He's not holding McKay's hand, not really, but if his grip on McKay's wrist got any tighter, there would be serious complications. "Right." He loosens his grip, and motions McKay onward, ignoring the wide-eyed looks of everyone in the command center. "After you, gimpy," he says, and follows McKay up the stairs, eyeing him like a hawk to make sure that he doesn't stumble or in any way re-injure himself.
If his own brain is gonna be pulling him back from missions just to babysit, well, he's gonna make sure he does it right.
McKay is a guy who firmly believes that a good offense is the best defense. He doesn't even wait for John to shut the door behind them before he's saying, "You can't tell me you didn't already know, Elizabeth!"
"I did know. I was just hoping that, since neither of you had seen fit to tell either myself or Carson there was some kind of problem, I was wrong." She sits behind her desk and leans forward, eyeing them. "I had hoped that the two of you would have more faith in me by now," she says.
McKay coughs and starts pacing back and forth along the far wall. John sits in one of the chairs in front of the desk and eyes Elizabeth back. "It seemed to be going away," he says. "We were just. Waiting. Rodney, could you sit before your ankle starts hurting me?"
"Right." McKay stops pacing, although he stands behind John's chair instead of sitting. "Waiting for it to fade away completely. And it's not like it happens all the time. It's just, you know. Discomfort. If it was everything, we absolutely would've told you."
"Well, it's boredom, too," John says, looking over his shoulder at McKay. "And aggravation. Hunger. And apparently anxiety."
McKay tilts his head, frowning, and then his eyes widen. He finally sinks down into the other chair. "You're right," he says, sounding amazed. "You're absolutely right. And now that I think about it, I knew you were gloating the other day, long before I saw you."
John smiles. "I beat Teyla at the sticks, for once," he says. "It felt pretty good. But I only gloated a little."
"So, you'd consider all of that to be symptoms going away?" Elizabeth shakes her head, then taps her comm. "Carson? Can you come into my office please? And bring Teyla with you." She leans back into her chair and crosses her arms over her chest. "We'll get to the bottom of this," she says, sounding grimly determined. "Whether the two of you help or not."
Teyla, John thinks, is unreasonably fascinated.
"I have said those words myself, many a time," she tells them. "They are very deeply rooted in our marriage celebrations."
McKay is gritting his teeth. "Yes," he says. "So we have heard. They're very nice. Romantic. Loaded with meaning. Now could to you tell us oh, say, what that meaning is?"
Teyla stares at him, reproachful. "My father told me that though they were not a formal part of our ceremony, merely a lovely sentiment used to honor the past and bring good luck to the future, it was different for the Ancestors. Not every pair chose that path, but those that did were bound to it."
"Well, it hardly seems fair that it should bind us."
"Particularly since we didn't even read it," John says. "Also, can I just ask, what the hell were they thinking? It hurt! We were knocked out for hours!"
"One wonders what guests at an Ancient wedding were expected to do with themselves," Rodney agrees. "Take a little nap? Go for a walk? Skydiving?"
John nods. "Exactly. I'm just saying, you know, the more I learn about these people, the less I want to go to their parties."
"Especially the ones that are happening in our heads."
Beckett clears his throat. "Well, it's not as though you're Ancients," he points out. "Perhaps the pain and blackout that you experienced were simply a matter of, well. The whole process not being entirely natural. And don't get your dander even farther up, Rodney, I don't mean it like that."
"Your gene is artificial," Elizabeth says to McKay, who seems intent on ignoring the doctor's order, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring for all he's worth. She sighs and leans back in her chair. "Perhaps for a pair of true Ancients, the process was painless and easy."
"Well, it's unlikely we'll ever know, isn't it?" McKay asks. "All we know is what it felt like when it happened to us. Which, it bears repeating, was mostly oww."
"Of course, there are other interesting questions raised by this situation," Elizabeth says, raising her eyebrows at them. "Teyla had told us that those are words to close a ceremony, and the Ancients seemed to be referring to people who had already--"
"We're barely even friends!" McKay says, then throws up his hands when everyone stares at him. "Oh, fine. But we're not that kind of friends."
John coughs. "Well, there was that time--"
"I was exhausted, stressed, coming down off stimulants, glad to be alive, and you were there," McKay snaps at him ."There wasn't even tongue!"
John shrugs. "I seem to remember that there was tongue. Hey, you never know what information is going to be needed when it comes time to stop mind sharing with--okay, you know what, why don't you talk now, if you're going to have an aneurysm about it."
"Thank you," McKay says. "Sometimes I doubt that you have any instinct for self-preservation at all, Major. If you're done trying to make this situation worse, maybe someone has a suggestion about how we fix it? Teyla, perhaps your father taught you some words for a quickie divorce."
Teyla spreads her hands out, managing to look both amused and helpless. "I know of no such thing," she says. "Separating the threads of your life from those of your spouse--"
"Traditional divorce? Annulment? There has to be something!"
Teyla shakes her head. "With this sort of union, there was no divorce," she says gently. "There was only success--or failure."
McKay lets out his breath in a whoosh. "Failure. Yes. Right. I can do that. What's the best way to fail at this? Don't grin at me like that, Major."
John raises his eyebrows and wipes a hand across his mouth. "Oh, I wasn't grinning at you," he drawls. "The best way to fail the test? I think that sounds like a great plan. Provided that someone has read the directions and knows just how we're supposed to do it."
"And if it's certain that the Ancients don't mean literal blindness," Beckett says thoughtfully. "Or worse. Catatonia. Coma. Brains becoming a gelatinous mush. That sort of thing."
Everyone stares at him, horrified. "That's very good, very helpful," McKay says. "You're just a barrel of optimism, aren't you, Carson?"
"And they say the Scots are dour," John says, shaking his head and smiling with lots of teeth.
McKay turns back to Teyla. "Comments? Suggestions? Wisdom you didn't even know you had till we needed it?"
"I'm sorry," she says. "My people have always just assumed that. Well."
McKay waits roughly three seconds. "Yes? Well?"
"That the test...was life," Teyla says reluctantly.
For a moment, no one reacts. Then McKay slumps, braces his hands on his knees and moans, "I knew this galaxy was determined to kill me."
John pats him on the back and stares at Teyla. "Fail at life?" She shrugs, looking defensive, and he knows it's wrong to blame her for not knowing the details of a ceremony that last happened in this galaxy 10,000 years before she was even born. And he doesn't, not really. He doesn't even blame McKay, though he can tell that McKay is blaming himself. He slides his hand up towards the nape of McKay's neck and feels him shudder.
"Stop touching me," McKay sing-songs, his voice muffled by the way he's hunched over himself. "Haven't you realized that's at least half our problem?"
John starts to move away, but doesn't, startled by a sudden realization. "Well, except it wasn't touching you that caused this," he says slowly, and McKay freezes, then slowly straightens. It's always been easy to figure out when McKay's gotten a crucial step closer to solving a problem, but feeling him do it is just a rush.
"The stone," McKay breathes, and John nods.
They're headed for a transporter before Elizabeth can even order them to wait.
"I say we. Kneel. On opposite sides," McKay pants. "Oww, oww. The man in an air cast should not be running."
John slows and wraps his hand around McKay's elbow. The vague awareness of his discomfort becomes pain, and John scowls. "He really shouldn't," he says, half angry and half guilty, wholly aware of McKay's throbbing ankle. "How on earth did those people live like this?"
McKay shoots him a look. "Well, first of all, on Atlantis--"
"You know, you really piss me off," John says. "How on Atlantis did those people live like this?"
"Well, never fear, divorce is just around the corner and up a couple million stairs."
"Divorce or death," John says. "So hey, you wanna maybe sit down and think about what we're doing?"
McKay shakes his head and closes his eyes for a second. "If we sit and think, we'll never act."
John says, "And that would be so horrible. Uh, okay, never mind. Walking now."
But neither of them moves. After a minute, when McKay's breathing is steady again, John says, "Did you know that you have insane eyelashes?"
"Walking is so a good idea," McKay says, and he hobbles off down the hall.
"Maybe if we read it backwards," John says when they've reached the bottom of the stairs. "Not that we read it forwards, but who knows where the hidden message is, right?"
McKay grunts and pulls a crystal out of the transporter. When Elizabeth's hails had started getting more and more demanding, McKay had started locking doors. It won't take Zelenka more than fifteen minutes to get through, and if they need help they'll have seriously screwed themselves, but this is the third time McKay's messed with something and John hasn't protested yet. It just. Seems like a good idea.
Which probably makes it the worst idea ever, but it's too late.
"If we had a copy of Stairway to Heaven, we'd be in business," McKay says, pushing himself to his feet with a grunt. Then he looks up and his mouth sets in a sort of grim crooked line. "On second thought," he says, and John nods.
"Zepellin was clearly ahead of his time," he says, and they start the long climb up.
"This is starting to seem like a not so good idea," John says. It's almost dark, and the light that comes through the colored walls is blue and grey and weak. The stairs are glowing, fortunately, or they'd have fallen flat on their faces a million times, but reaching the high tower after dark seems kind of like a bad omen.
So is McKay's silence. "Are you still alive in there? C'mon, Rodney, play the new game. What're we going to have to do in the torture chamber to earn our little divorce?"
McKay rubs the back of his hand over his forehead. "I'm thinking. Uh. Defenestration."
John looks at him sideways. "Ten more levels till the kink, then," he drawls. "Excellent."
"Oh yes, Major," McKay says. "The image is good motivation."
"Whatever you need to keep you going," John says. "Did I mention that I think we're going to have to do four jumping jacks and a lap around the room?"
"Defenestration," McKay says, and John shuts up.
Three steps from the top, McKay puts a hand on John's arm and says, "Wait."
John stops. McKay isn't looking at him, he's looking at the doors, and the hallway is so dim now that it's hard to make out his features, but that doesn't matter. McKay was never a closed book and the Ancient mind share is starting to feel like just another level of what was already there.
"If it doesn't work," McKay says. "It might not work. We might make things worse if we don't figure out the right answer."
"We always figure out the right answer."
"Yes, yes, but if this time, we don't--"
John leans forward, smiling, and McKay turns his head. "We always do, Rodney, and that's when our two heads aren't working as one."
McKay bites his lip, searching John's gaze, then he nods. "Right," he says. "You're right, of course. Well. After you, Major."
"Together," John says. They slowly climb the last few stairs, and open up the doors.
"Huh," John says. "Well, at least it was the right time of night in the hallway."
"It's still the right time of night outside this room," McKay says. "I can see stars through the light."
John squints and then he can see them too, little pinpricks of white shining through the warm gold. "That's just weird," he murmurs, but he walks closer to the wall, trying to find Atlantis' moon. McKay follows him to the back wall, the one that looks out over the water like there's no city beneath them at all.
"I begin to despair of seeing normal again in my lifetime." McKay snorts, and leans into John's side. His ankle is killing him, and John can tell that he's amazed he made it up the stairs. He hopes that McKay can feel his own certainty, his deep belief that what needs to get done, McKay will get done, no matter how much he whines about it.
"At least we'll be able to read the writing," he says after a moment, and McKay snorts, straightens.
"Like reading it before did us so much good," he says, but his tone is almost apologetic, which is as close as it's ever going to get. He grins and turns, and finds McKay sinking to his knees in front of the platform. One quick step forward and he has McKay's arm, is slowing him down, saying, "Hey.
McKay looks at him impatiently. "Can't very well figure this out from over there," he says. "C'mon. This is what we need to do, and you know it."
John nods, and reluctantly kneels, studying the stone. It's still gibberish to him, with the occasional meaningful phrase, but nothing that seems likely to solve their problem. He checks his watch, checks the window behind them, checks the door. Nighttime in one direction, weird quasi-daytime in the other. It sends a little shiver down his spine.
"It's different," McKay says, drawing his attention back, pointing to the text carved into the stone. "See? It looks the same, but that really is two. Test isn't quite right, though it's close. And that's not into light, it's. Hmm. Away."
"Are you sure?" John tilts his head. "Because you have to be sure this time, Rodney. No blahblahblah."
"Even if I was sure, I wouldn't know what it means." McKay leans closer to the stone, mumbling to himself, and John holds on to the back of his shirt so he can't get too close. "Look. Pair, journey, almost test, light, two, away from light. Pair, journey, almost test, light, two, away from light. It's almost the same, and it repeats, but--"
John sits back on his heels, lets go of McKay's shirt and crosses his arms over his chest. He stares over the top of the platform. Away from the light.
He takes a deep breath. "Rodney. See, okay, here's what I'm saying. Considering our options--dead, blind, brain mush, whatever--occasionally knowing what you're thinking and having a hard time going off-world without you really doesn't look so bad."
McKay snorts. "And yet, you were gung-ho to get up here. Pair, journey, almost test, light, two, away. Should we just touch it?"
"Well, it didn't kill us last time, and there's no guarantee that it'll--"
John reaches out and pokes him. "Could you do me a favor and shut the hell up? I wanted to solve the puzzle. I didn't want to get rid of you."
"Maybe I want to get rid of you."
"That's not it. I know better." John raises his eyebrows. "Do you really want to argue with me about what you do and don't want while we're sitting over the Ancient mind sharing device that bonded us together, possibly for life, after one kiss a couple months ago and a year of verbal foreplay?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," McKay says. "There wasn't even tongue. It was hardly a kiss at all. Have you got any helpful suggestions at all? Because if I wanted someone to sit there and argue with me while I was trying to save us, I'd have got Kavanagh."
John sighs. He touches McKay's chin and says, "Hey. Hey. Hey. I can be really annoying when I want attention. I learned from you. Could you please just look up? Because I've got more than a suggestion, I've got the answer."
Slowly, McKay looks up. For a moment he just kneels and stares at John, and then he shakes his head. "Excuse me? You've got what?"
"Darkness," John says, pointing to the doorway. It's recessed, and the doors are solid and heavy, but it wasn't until he knelt down that he realized they were like the telescoping room--somehow, and it's gotta be an illusion, the darkness is too deep there. The doors look too far away. "Light." Behind them, the stars twinkle strangely in what looks like a warm, golden sky. "One pair, one test, two journeys."
He leans forward, into McKay's space. He's close enough to count those ridiculous eyelashes, to say, "Except that on this side, it isn't test, is it?" he asks. "I'll bet you anything it's choice."
McKay is staring at him. Maybe it's the heavy golden light makes his eyes look different, darker, but crashing adrenaline can make them like that too, and so can joy. "I know what I'm looking at now," John says. "Don't touch it."
"We need to--" McKay swallows. "It'd be better if--"
"Don't touch it." John shakes his head. "You don't want to, and neither do I."
McKay looks at him for a long time, then sits back and says, "Okay."
John turns his head when the doors burst open just after true dawn. Teyla, Ford, Bates, and Zelenka crowd into the room. "Hi guys," he says, waving them into the room. "Come on in. The view is kinda nice."
Teyla pauses in the doorway, which is still a lot darker and deeper than it should be, then she creeps forward cautiously, edging well around the stone. "Major Sheppard? Has Dr. McKay been injured?"
"Sleeegh," McKay mumbles, shifting restlessly. John looks down at him and realizes that the way he's sprawled facedown across the floor, completely boneless, might look a bit more like injured than it really is. John braces his hand on the back of McKay's calf to keep it from sliding off his lap and hitting the floor.
"It's just his ankle, the rest of him is fine," he says, and smiles, amused. McKay's dreaming about cake and nudity all at once, which isn't really much of a surprise. "We're both fine. But if someone whose comm was working wanted to send for Dr. Beckett, a jumper, and some Tylenol, he probably wouldn't argue."
The rescue team shares another look, clearly wondering if he's delusional, if he's had another hit to the brain. "We can make a litter for Dr. McKay," Ford says hesitantly. "If you think he needs it, sir, we can have it set up in five--"
John shakes his head. "A jumper, please," he says, and turns his head to look back out over the water. He curves his hand over the solid, heavy muscle of McKay's calf, and smiles. "I don't think we want to take the stairs today."