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Rebuilding Babel

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Rodney lost the first day completely, and all he could recall later were a few smeared glimpses of the infirmary ceiling. All through the second day, his body spasmed and jerked like it belonged to someone in the late stages of Huntington's disease, as Carson fought the toxin for control of his nervous system. It was like being trapped on a ride he couldn't stop. Day three, he was exhausted, but by the afternoon he could hold a cup of water and keep most of it from dribbling out the corners of his mouth. The fourth day, the last of the strange, thick swimming feeling left his head. He watched the tremors seep out of his hands and kept his attention fixed on the conversations occurring all around him, thinking, any minute now. Any minute. Trying to stay calm, which had never really been his strong point, and waiting with piano wire tension for that last thing to come back.

On day five, it didn't come back.

Carson ushered everyone else out and sat down to talk to him for a long time. Rodney tried to focus on his voice, waiting for something he would recognize, then tuned that out to concentrate on reading his lips. It didn't work. Carson's expression got more concerned, and his words got even slower and more deliberate. Rodney hadn't tried talking since the second day, when his muscles had still been twisting and torquing at random, but the damn professional worry in Carson's manner drove him crazy enough that he finally opened his mouth to say you're not stupid and I'm anything but, so knock it the fuck off and try something else, because this obviously isn't working--

What came out was just wrong, nothing like the words in his head or the ones anyone else had been saying, nothing like anything at all. He'd never heard anything more terrifying in his life and he bit down way too hard on the inside of his lip, tasted blood as Carson dropped the clipboard. One hand tight on Rodney's arm, Carson whispered something low and horrified, two syllables clipped together in the middle. Only the way he went white when Rodney just sat there made Rodney realize it must have been his name.

The rest of that day and all of the next were tests, the instructions given by modeling and pantomime. Rodney echoed back sounds but couldn't make any sense of them, and when he tried to speak without mimicking someone else, everyone just stared. He copied the things they wrote on the whiteboard, silently identifying the letters as he went -- a, q, f, i, x -- but no matter how hard he tried he couldn't produce their names aloud. Every combination Carson showed him looked unfamiliar, arbitrary.

His hands shook throughout the tests, but it wasn't the toxin, it was the effort of keeping it together, because everything still felt normal. Every internal indicator he had was telling him that he was fine, all systems go. When he drew breath to speak or started to write something, there was this deceptive sense of rightness. He kept thinking maybe this would be the time it worked. But it didn't -- everything came out scrambled, corrupted, and when other people spoke, all he got was fluent babble, a flow of syllables he couldn't penetrate. He tried to treat what he heard like a foreign language -- find the patterns, track them, decode them -- but he couldn't get anything to stick in his head.

Rodney had been seven months old when he'd started speaking, and he'd taught himself to read when he was two and a half. He knew in his bones what it felt like to do these things, but now he couldn't tell a word from a random sequence of characters, a phoneme from a clicked tongue or a huff of breath. It all slipped away from him like sand through a sieve, over and over. No significant features. No significance.

No meaning.

Before one of the nurses went off-shift on the sixth night, Rodney got her to say it for him again, echoed it back and kept it going as she headed out the door. Hunched on the edge of the bed, he continued the repetition like a mantra: not letting himself think about the sounds, how little they meant to him, just trying to force it back into muscle memory. The litany in his head was far more varied: Rodney, Rodney, Meredith Rodney McKay, I know this, I knew this, Rodney McKay, bring it back, Rodney, Rodney McKay, oh my god let it come back, Rodney, McKay, I can't live like this, I need it back, give it back, Rodney, Rodney, Rodney McKay. When each syllable scraped along the inside of his throat, he stopped for water, just one sip, thinking Meredith Rodney McKay, Meredith Rodney McKay for the whole three seconds it took. He opened his mouth to start over, and the shapes of the words were gone from his lips.

He didn't sleep that night.

The next day, Carson brought Sheppard and Elizabeth in, gestured Rodney over to join them for the conference -- patient involvement, what a ludicrous farce. Carson pulled up a dozen different displays on the screens, bio-wave readings and brain scans and interactive molecular models, all of them completely indecipherable if you couldn't understand his explanation or read the text. Elizabeth's frown got very sharp and she went back and forth with Carson at length, both of them serious. Sheppard stood rigidly with his back to the wall, his eyes coming back to Rodney over and over again, asking terse questions and getting stiffer with every answer.

A half-hour into it, Rodney couldn't hold his tongue any longer, and all four of them flinched at the sounds he made when he spoke. He slumped down farther into his chair, but a minute later, he did it again, and again not long after that. He knew it was pointless, cruel even, but disgust was the only recognizable thing he'd heard in his voice in the past week. Carson tried asking him questions, and Elizabeth rolled out the voice of authoritative reassurance, and Sheppard stopped listening to the two of them entirely, just stared at Rodney and waited for the next outburst. It was bullshit, all of it, and it finally tipped him into a harangue. That rhythm was as familiar as breathing -- even with no intelligible content, ha fucking ha, so he just let fly. Belittling their efforts, invoking past failures, baiting the nurses as they drifted into the room with their faces tight. He yelled, demanded retribution against the Tisari for doing this to him, hurled abuse at Elizabeth and Carson as they stepped in closer, hands raised and voices placating.

By then the room was clogged with people circling in on him and he was deep in the underwater crush of a panic attack, heart racing and no air in his lungs. He fisted his hands in Carson's lab coat and just begged him to please, please, make it right, he'd do anything, just fix it. The nurses crowded in to pry his fingers open and he started yelling because he wasn't crazy, he wasn't, please, couldn't they understand, claustrophobic and desperate to get their hands off him. The more he struggled, the tighter they held him, forcing him down onto the bed, and he could hear Sheppard yelling orders now, voice getting closer as he tried to push his way through, but something sharp jabbed into Rodney's bicep and the world warped and melted into black before he could find Sheppard's face.

The eighth day, he stared at the ceiling and didn't say a single thing.

On the ninth day, the doors slid open not ten minutes after Carson had started his shift, and Sheppard walked in with a bundle of clothes under his arm and Teyla and Ronon at his back. Rodney sat up, and Sheppard shot him a look he knew from every mission they'd ever gone on. The one that said, plain as paint, shut up and let me handle this. Carson came out of the back with his eyebrows raised, and Sheppard smiled that casual smile and gestured toward Rodney. The rise and fall of his voice was like a pawn dropped lazily onto the chessboard: let the games begin.

Rodney watched Sheppard work his way through the play book: jocularity, wheedling, reasonable suggestion. Irony, skepticism. Confident assertion. Annoyance. Insistence. Teyla stepped in twice to counter Carson's objections, and Ronon just stood there, arms crossed over his chest. When Elizabeth showed up, all the opening moves were long over and it was the Lieutenant Colonel who turned to face her, military commander of Atlantis with his spine parade-ground straight. He argued them to a stalemate, voice getting louder as Carson balked and Elizabeth frowned, and right when those three were glaring at each other and out of things to say, Teyla swooped in, murmuring persuasively. A few minutes later, something had been decided, because Carson raised a hand in acquiescence and Sheppard flashed his teeth, grinning with the lower half of his face. He sauntered over and tossed the clothes at Rodney, flicking the curtain shut behind him as he walked away.

Rodney fumbled himself dressed with damp palms, listening to the cadence of their voices. When he stepped out, everyone but Sheppard turned to look at him, like they hadn't been sure zippers were on the roster of his remaining abilities. Finishing whatever he was saying to Teyla, Sheppard set a hand in the small of Rodney's back and steered him out into the hall, Ronon following behind them.

It wasn't until they got out of the transporter at Rodney's floor that he really let himself believe they'd sprung him. He was so grateful that his eyes were stinging as they walked down the hall to his quarters, but when they got there he ducked inside and let the door slide shut in Sheppard's face, because what did it matter, what the hell did anything matter now.

Rodney spent the next few days holed up in his room, burning through his hoard of MREs and only venturing out to the mess hall when he ran out. He learned how to tell who knew what had happened, because they were the ones who either stopped to try and talk to him (God, idiots, idiots) or avoided eye contact entirely. He, in turn, avoided everyone, just grabbed a tray and barged through the line and barged back out again. His internal clock still worked, and he used it to pick the lull times, when almost no one would be around. He saw Teyla once, Sheppard a couple times, but he didn't give them a chance to reach him before he hustled away.

It turned out the terms of his parole included daily visits to the infirmary, big surprise there. He submitted to the tests but refused to even open his mouth for the physical therapist, and when Carson brought Heightmeyer in, he turned away and closed his eyes until he heard her footsteps recede out the door. Back in his room, though, he worked for hours. The Daedalus had gone back to Earth for maintenance and upgrades, and he had three and a half months until it was due. If he was still like this, still useless, when it came, he knew they'd send him back. And what the hell would he do on Earth -- start a new career as Madison's wacky uncle, the 24/7 mime? Corrode in his apartment? Or, worse, get stashed in some fucking assisted living home like the one his grandmother had withered and died in, old and mean and hating everyone he looked at -- no. There was no way.

Thinking still felt like it always had -- like language -- but he couldn't translate any of it into speech or writing. He watched every movie he could find from memory in his file tree, trying to parrot back dialogue he'd known by heart, but none of it stuck with him. He pulled books off the shelves at random and attacked the pages like a code breaker, remembering the most common words in English are the short ones: articles, pronoun, prepositions, conjunctions ... All the concepts still felt clear, but he couldn't visualize them as words anymore, or capture what they sounded like in his mind. He tried to make a chart of all the words on each page and how often they appeared, but he had to scribble each combination down on a scrap of paper and hold it up next to every other he'd copied down so far, testing to see if it was a repeat. Even that point-by-point comparison failed him, because he lost what they looked like as soon as he glanced away, and inevitably he ended up hurling the book against the wall to watch its spine break.

The broken connections wouldn't come together, and it was like moving deeper into a lucid nightmare every time logic failed to bridge the gap. He wondered if this was how it felt to go crazy -- you didn't lose your mind, it just stopped syncing up with the world around you. The longer he considered the parallels between what had happened to him and insanity, the blurrier the boundary between them seemed. He forced himself to abandon that train of thought when he started wondering how he'd tell if he crossed the line. If anyone else would know the difference.

Sleep was bad, because the first stages kept turning into the warping darkness of the tranquilizer in the infirmary, or the spangled blur that spread out from the dart in his shoulder back on Tisros, before the pain hit. He really wasn't interested in finding out what his mind could do if he abandoned it to a full dream state. Instead, he roamed the halls at night, avoiding anywhere people were likely to be. Sometimes he headed out past the safe zones into areas they hadn't checked yet. That was almost suicidally stupid, and he knew it, but the clock was running down on the Daedalus' arrival, and he could barely stand the thought of having the city taken away from him, a lifetime of a puzzle he'd only just begun to solve. Besides, what did it matter if he stayed up until his eyes burned and gravity played tricks on him and he couldn't string two thoughts together? No one's fate was in his hands these days -- not even his own.

And Atlantis still understood him, still opened doors and turned on consoles when he asked her to, even though he couldn't read anything on the displays. There was no way he could activate the command chair without getting caught, and even if there had been, he wasn't quite despicable enough to drain the generators for his own consolation. Still, he was haunted by the idea that the chair might work for him, desperate to find out how his city was faring now that she was no longer under his care. To talk to anyone, anything, that knew a way to listen.

Early one morning, mired in the sludge of self-loathing, he slipped into the lab. His work area was eerily untouched; a few piles had been shifted, probably someone searching for notes or a report, but no one had claimed his dry erase markers, his tape dispenser, his chair. In a city where everyone knew to hide the staplers and the good pens when they went to lunch, his colleagues might as well have laid him out in state on the desk. He wanted to sweep it all onto the floor, to wreck things they couldn't afford to lose. Gesture was all he had left, after all, there was no reason for him to curb his tendency toward the melodramatic. But he couldn't do it; he just stood there, fuming and miserable. He no longer had anything to give this city. He couldn't bring himself to take things away from the people who did.

Finally, he seized the eraser and attacked the white board, obliterating the long note he'd scrawled there before Tisros, the one threatening administrative hell to anyone who tampered with the equations. He would reallocate everything himself if they were all too stupid to do it. The board was halfway white before he glanced up toward the top section, and then the eraser slipped out of his hand and skittered down the surface, hitting the ground with a soft thump.

The equations. The equations: clear and precise, their meanings transparent, waiting patiently for him to return. All the words around them were completely senseless, but he could read the math.

Rodney fumbled the cap off a new green pen, wiped away the rest of the text with his sweaty hand and stared at the differentials. He read them over and over in his head, reminding himself what the variables stood for, finding the nut of the idea they'd just started to crack before he'd had to leave for the pre-mission prep. The last equation wasn't finished. His hand trembled as he lifted the pen and drew the two straight lines of an equal sign.

He poured himself headlong into the work for an hour and a half before the doors opened and Radek wandered in, puffy-eyed, cleaning his glasses on his shirt. Rodney didn't even wait for him to get them back on, just ran over and grabbed him by the bicep and hauled him to the densely-filled board, snapping his fingers at it furiously: look, look, look look look look look. Radek's eyes were all the way open now, and they flew between Rodney's face and the board as he shoved his glasses into place.

He studied the board for a long, long time, scanning the numbers and symbols scrawled over its surface. As the silence lengthened, fear wrenched Rodney's stomach. What if lack of sleep was making him hallucinate -- what if he only thought he understood the math? Or what if he understood it, but nothing he'd written was intelligible to anyone else? Or what if it was intelligible but wrong, what if he'd--

Radek groped blindly until he found the back of Rodney's chair, then pulled it over and dropped heavily into it. Pressing the palms of his hands together, he bowed his head and rested it against his thumbs and fingertips. His back swelled as he took a deep breath, which he held for a long time. Then he reached out to pull a pen off the rack, a blue one.

His cheeks were wet when he stood up again. Rodney stared at him in shock, but Radek barely paused, his pen in mid-air, before circling part of an equation and writing out the math of his disagreement with Rodney's calculation of capacity performance.

They worked all day, filling up their four white boards and stealing a fifth from Gerber so they had a place to sidebar, using crude schematics and some really terrible sketches to fill in conceptual gaps that the math couldn't cover. Food showed up somewhere in the middle of the day; Rodney ate it left-handed, trailing crumbs all over the floor and leaving greasy smears on the thighs of his pants where he wiped his fingers. He was vaguely aware that there were more people in the lab than usual, that people were coming in to watch them work, but he didn't pay any attention to who showed up or how long they stayed. It was like he'd spent the last two and a half weeks locked in a box, and when Carson finally came to drag him away, everything in Rodney's head was bright and haloed, like he'd been staring straight into the sun.

In eleven hours, they'd worked out a way to use wave power to recharge the naquadah generators. Only 3% of capacity a month, but with more work on the design, Rodney knew he could get it up to 5% at least.

Back to the infirmary for the full battery of tests, where as far as Rodney could tell the results hadn’t changed. When Elizabeth showed up, Carson went on for a long time, flipping between different scans and 3D models of neural pathways. One of the nurses brought Rodney a dinner tray and he plowed through it, still overcharged and buzzing, not particularly concerned with following the conversation. From their keyed-up movements, their excited frowns, the way all their statements sloped up at the ends, it didn't sound like anyone knew for sure why he could use isolated letters as mathematical variables but couldn't combine them into words. He didn't care.

It was evening by the time Carson clapped him on the shoulder, gave him a look full of warmth and confusion, and then shooed him out. In his quarters, Rodney stripped off his clothes and turned the shower on full blast, lay on his back under the spray and felt the hot water pool over his closed eyes, running down his cheeks. Shaking, he pressed his fists against his chest and dragged air down into his lungs in huge gulps, because he'd been so sure he'd lost everything, everything, and it turned out that wasn't true.

When Rodney finally pulled himself upright and shut the water off, he was so tired that the room dipped and swayed around him. He stumbled to his bed and slept like a rock.

The next morning, he put on his uniform and headed down to the senior staff meeting. Whatever discussion was happening trailed into silence when he walked through the door. After a few seconds of everyone just staring at him, Sheppard leaned back, hooked a boot under the empty chair next to him, and pulled it a few inches out from the table.

Things got a little better after that. He could work again -- in a radically reduced fashion, yes, but he was also freed up from all the day-to-day inanities he'd been saddled with. Instead, he could focus on the problems he'd had cooking in the back of his mind for months, all the things they were really going to need in the long-term. Designs for how to properly facet the crystals growing in the mines of M7L-194 to be used as back-ups for the DHDs. Ways to more efficiently reroute power to key areas of the city in case of emergency (so, they'd probably be using those next week). The maddening, mind-bending work on the ZPM, which required every bit of physics he'd learned in nearly thirty years and felt like trying to build a scale-model of the universe out of Legos.

God. He'd missed it.

No one seem to have determined if he was officially back on duty or what his status was within the expedition, so he took advantage of the confusion to do pretty much as he pleased. There were few enough perks to the situation, particularly when the awfulness still left him shattered and hollow at least half a dozen times a day. Most of the time, though, he fell back into the comfort of old routines, even the parts that were totally pointless now. Once he stopped hiding from the entire city, a surprising number of people went out of their way to welcome him back. The efforts weren't universal (Katie Brown continued to avoid him, though he did find a fern outside his door one night), but it was more than he'd had any grounds to expect.

Sometimes, he wondered if it was just that his effective muteness cut into his ability to piss people off by being right all the time; he wondered if they pitied him, if some of them were relieved. There was no way to know, so he tried not to think about it for too long.

He'd gotten used to everything being hard whenever it wasn't impossible, so he was taken aback to find out that some things were easier, or just not any different. Meetings, for example: exactly as inane as they'd been when he was a part of the conversation, only now he didn't have to fake attention. Also, Sheppard had started bringing a notepad, which everyone else seemed to think was so he could summarize discussions in pictures (ridiculous, clearly they'd never noticed that the man could only draw planes, football plays, and stick figures) but which was actually the site of some really cutthroat games of Tic-Tac-Toe (three-dimensional, with a minimum of 25 squares to a side and plays legal through the middle).

The work kept him sane while one treatment strategy after another failed. The day they successfully re-engineered the first of the generators, Carson took advantage of his high spirits to persuade him to study sign language with one of the nurses. They hadn't found a cure for the aphasia yet, and so for now the focus was occupational therapy, adaptation. Having his actual occupation returned to him gave him enough incentive that he agreed to try it. But the lessons were a complete fiasco -- the more representational signs made sense, but others were as opaque to him the gibberish he heard every time someone spoke. What vocabulary he managed to master slipped away from him whenever they attempted a normal-speed conversation. The more signs he tried to combine, the less he could hang onto any of them meant.

He struggled to get it to come together for a week before Carson sat him down and explained, via a fucking PowerPoint presentation, that the same damaged parts of his brain were preventing him from putting more than a few signs together at a time. Rodney walked out halfway through the explanation, dragged two more generators off to a deserted lab to work on them, and didn't so much as wave to anyone for a day and a half.

Eventually, Teyla came by and coaxed him out of the lab. Instead of plying him with the tea and sympathy he expected, she steered him bodily into the gym, handed him a pair of fighting sticks, and stood with infuriating smugness between him and the door. She kicked his ass up one side and down the other, and he never landed a blow, but by the end of the lesson he'd managed to start blocking some of hers. It turned out that he learned this better when she had to explain by demonstration alone and when he couldn't bicker. By the time he limped back to his quarters, every inch of his body hated him, but he'd started to feel like it belonged to him again. The bruises hadn't faded the next time she came by, but he went with her anyways, and the time after that.

Of everyone in the city, Ronon was the one who seemed most content interacting with him in silence. If anything, they got along even better, especially once Ronon introduced Rodney to Sateda's vocabulary of offensive gestures. Unlike the ASL signs that had thwarted Rodney, the Satedan gestures were anything but abstract, so it didn't take long before he had them all committed to memory. After the lunch where Rodney used two of them on Sheppard in succession and made Ronon snort reconstituted potatoes out his nose, Sheppard and Teyla started picking them up in self-defense.

The good days became more frequent and started to balance out the bad ones, but they still were precarious, hard to navigate. At any moment something idiotically small could send him plummeting downward like someone had shoved him off a cliff. When that happened, it took at least a day for him to claw his way back up again, and another after that before he could really look anyone in the eyes.

Even his work, which was usually a refuge for him, could turn to a kick in the gut instead. Not quite a month after the mission to Tisros, Rodney walked into the lab and found Sheppard in front of a crate of Ancient objects, turning them on as Simpson and Radek chattered away He'd always loved this, watching each piece of equipment start up after ten thousand years of lying dormant, the rapid-fire arguments over what it did. As he stepped forward to join them, he was slammed by the realization that he couldn't. If he did, he'd slow things down to a crawl just trying to get his ideas across. It was like walking face-first into a wall of glass.

Sheppard caught sight of him standing there and froze, opened his mouth, shut it again. The sphere in his hand unfurled like a water lily, its center emanating a soft orange glow. Nightlight, Rodney thought stupidly, and then he turned around and walked back out the door.

That night, someone knocked softly on the door to his quarters. Rodney no longer had the option of yelling until visitors went away, and he'd learned in his first week out of the infirmary that if he didn't answer, people tended to assume he was dead on the floor and call the Marines to force their way in. When he peeled himself off the couch, he found Sheppard leaning against the outside of the door frame. He held up a DVD, then stepped away from the wall to reveal the bag of microwave popcorn in his other hand, steam pouring out the slits in the top.

The last thing Rodney wanted to do was spend two hours trying to decipher plot without the aid of dialogue, but Sheppard couldn't know that. Besides, if there was anything he wanted less than that, it was to go through the twenty minutes of charades it would take to explain that Sheppard shouldn't feel bad, that of course things still needed turning on and time didn't come to a screeching halt just because Rodney wasn't part of the process anymore, and that Rodney appreciated the gesture but really, he was kind of tired and just wanted to go to bed early for reasons that had nothing to do with his superfluousness or crushing depression. Besides, there was popcorn, and Rodney knew a peace offering when he saw one.

He waved Sheppard reluctantly inside and sank down on the couch again. Sheppard tossed him the popcorn and carried Rodney's laptop over, slid the DVD into the drive and dropped down next to Rodney, kicking his feet up on the coffee table. The lights dimmed as the title sequence started, just static lists of names fading in and out, grainy quality to go with the scratchy organ music. The screen went black as the music changed movements, faded in on a cobblestone street, and then Charlie fucking Chaplin was making his way across the frame.

The first ten minutes of the film were blurry and out of focus. Rodney blamed it on shitty DivX compression.

However exhausting the bad days got, they were freshman physics at a liberal arts college compared to the first actual crisis -- because when that happened, Rodney never even found out what the fuck it was. He didn't even know anything was happening until he heard Marines pounding through the halls, and by the time he made it to the control room, everyone else was already there, riding the hard edge of contained panic. He shoved his way past everyone who appeared to be a bystander, trying to get a look at the consoles, because if he could see them, if he could find out what was happening, maybe he could--

But all he could tell was that it was the lower levels on the northwest arm, something was fluctuating and heading for overload -- the environmental systems? Flooding? Radiation? Fuck, what was it, but the readouts were useless without the text, and he tried to get Radek's attention, because there had to be something he could do, something, but Radek was typing furiously and cursing when he wasn't shouting orders, and people kept pulling Rodney back. Elizabeth's eyes darted over to him as she snapped something in a hard voice, and he pushed forward again because she only got that tone when people were going to die if someone didn't pull off a miracle in thirty seconds or less, and he could fix this, he knew he could, he just had to get someone to tell him what the hell was going on--

Elizabeth yanked her headset off and shouted at him, actually shouted, and someone's forearm hooked like a bar across Rodney's chest and hauled him all the way back to the far wall. Rodney planted an elbow against someone's chest and spun, shoving himself free, and it was Sheppard, his face pale and grim as he stepped forward to block Rodney's path. Rodney threw both hands up at shoulder height, fingers splayed, his chest heaving: don't you fucking touch me and what the hell did you expect me to do and dammit, I can't just stand here and fuck you, fuck you.

Sheppard just looked back at him with that tight expression he got when he was obeying an order he hated, like he'd been barred from all unnecessary motion. Rodney realized with brutal clarity that if he stood here with his mouth shut much longer, everything was going to find some other way out. He took three steps backwards and ran out the door.

He headed for the nearest transport chamber and sent it to the highest level of the control tower that still had balconies. Way up there in the cold marine night, he hollered at the top of lungs, shouting his fury to the thin fog, to the ocean, to every fucking thing that couldn't hear and wasn't listening, because this was his city, his city, and the wind snatched the sound of his voice away and shredded it to nothing in the upper reaches of the dark.

When he came back down in the small hours of the morning, his throat was on fire and his knuckles were swollen with cold. He didn't see a single person in the halls, so either the crisis had been averted without him or everyone else was dead. Had to be the former, though, because there was a scrap of paper taped to his door, marked with three not-quite-parallel lines pointing upward and two more curled together to make a wobbly circle. He stared at it numbly for the better part of a minute before realizing it was a hand making the sign for okay. He dropped the paper onto the carpet and went inside.

By lunchtime Rodney was at the un-tender mercies of Satan's own head cold. He stayed in his quarters for three days, blowing green snot out his nose and poking at what remained in his depleted cupboards, too deadened to be glad that for once he really wasn't that hungry. His skin felt sweaty and sticky even though he was practically living in the shower in an attempt to steam-clean his lungs, and he was pretty sure he had a fever. If he didn't kick this thing soon, it meant it was taking up long-term residence, infection going chronic or even turning into pneumonia. His self-preservation was so shot that all he could think was, good, let it, as he punched the lumpy pillows and curled up in whatever position made his joints ache the least.

On the third day, he woke up to the sound of someone pounding on his door like they'd been at it a while. He groaned and pulled the covers over his head, but that only made it harder to breathe and besides, whoever it was didn't sound like they were going away anytime soon. It took him a minute to grope his way to a standing position. No sooner had he managed it than the door slid open without his permission and Sheppard tumbled through, wild-eyed and so energized that Rodney squinted preemptively against the lights flaring.

Striding across the room, Sheppard grabbed Rodney's hand and slapped something into it, closing Rodney's fingers tightly around it. When Rodney opened them, he saw something that looked like an Ancient version of a tie pin: a thin, tapering rod of brushed metal, with a milky blue stone set along the thicker end. It glowed obediently in Rodney's hand. When he looked back up, Sheppard was practically hovering in anticipation, and skepticism tugged Rodney's eyebrows upward because okay, great, this would make it easier for his date to avoid him during the slow songs at the homecoming dance next week, but seriously, what the hell?

Sheppard's eyes got really, really big, and then Rodney was hit with a sudden barrage of input: a wide wave of amazement, an image of himself restrained and hollering in the infirmary, a rapid flicker of Sheppard going through box after box of Ancient miscellany, his own helpless grimace in the control room the other night, frustration, more searching, a surge of triumph--

His blood racing like power through a circuit, Rodney clutched at Sheppard's shoulder, staggered by disbelief and a crazy, reckless hope. Sheppard just grabbed both of Rodney's arms and nodded frantically, but Rodney didn't need to see the motion because he could literally feel the impulse driving it, the bright firework flares of yes yes yes.

They raced to the infirmary, where Rodney's body made its displeasure known by launching into a really epic coughing fit as soon as he skidded through the door. Carson ran over and started checking his pulse and his pupils, firing rapid orders at the nurses. Struggling for breath, Rodney batted at his concerned hands, because he was fine, it was a damn head cold and okay, yes, probably well on its way to bronchitis by now, but there were more important things--

Which was when Carson blinked hard and waved one hand through the air by his face like he'd been attacked by a cloud of insects, and Rodney realized that this thing didn't just work on Sheppard.

Sheppard got on the radio while Carson checked Rodney's vitals, which took longer than usual because he kept getting distracted by Rodney's elated attempts to communicate with him, because oh my god, he could now. Radek and Elizabeth showed up within about a minute of each other, and Rodney thought hello at the two of them as hard as he could, but nothing happened. Sheppard frowned and sent him a wordless question, with the image of Rodney, Radek and Elizabeth engaged in conversation layered in like a watermark. It didn't work, Rodney tried to tell him, and when Sheppard looked puzzled, Rodney sent back an image of himself talking while those two stared blanking into space.

They exchanged a look -- Carson and Sheppard but not Radek and Elizabeth, it wasn't hard to see where this was heading. But Elizabeth was now asking pointed questions, looking from Sheppard to Carson and back again. Rodney waved a hand in her direction, a gesture meaning good luck, this one's all you. In return, he got the exact sensation of what Sheppard's smirk felt like from the inside as Sheppard turned with an earnest expression and started explaining.

He kept at it while Carson settled them both under scanners and motioned awkwardly for the two of them to converse, apparently unaware that a) Rodney was getting a redundant mental depiction of what he wanted them to do, and b) that they were already doing it. Sheppard had been translating for him the whole time, relaying what was said in images or strangely tactile overtones. Rodney could hear the slight hesitation in his voice, the brief pauses he needed to juggle both conversations at once, and a lot of what he sent didn't make any kind of sense at first. It was like putting together a puzzle, assembling what seemed like non-sequiturs until he got the bigger concept Sheppard was trying to convey. In that sense, this wasn't so different from the rounds of charades and pictionary that were now the staple of Rodney's everyday existence -- but in every other way, Jesus, it was so much better.

When the scans were finished, Radek got Rodney to hand over the device, which he really didn't want to do. As it left his hand, Sheppard flagged his attention over and gave him an intent, slightly cross-eyed look. Rodney set his mouth in a thin line and shook his head: nothing.

The half-hour Radek spent examining it dragged by with excruciating slowness. Rodney felt claustrophobic, a prisoner in his own skin, and Sheppard tried to keep him in the loop through gesture, but he was wound too tightly to really focus. Finally, Radek passed the thing back to Rodney, who waited for the wave of relief to subside before turning to Sheppard and picturing the guy from those obnoxious cell phone commercials -- can you hear me now? Sheppard rolled his eyes and smacked Rodney on the back of the head.

The other three were bouncing the conversation back and forth between them, and Sheppard took a stab at catching Rodney up. It sounded like Radek wasn't sure how it worked yet (an image of Radek, shrugging in exaggerated puzzlement), but Carson said it was safe to use (Sheppard paired Carson's "OK" gesture with an equivocal expression, so Rodney though the endorsement might be tentative), and Elizabeth wanted to look for it in the database (Elizabeth scrolling through files at one of the consoles and finding a schematic of the device). In the meantime, he and Sheppard were free to go play (Rodney was pretty sure Elizabeth had used a different verb there, but the image Sheppard sent was of two kids pressing their ears against cups they were holding against opposite sides of a wall). They'd radio Sheppard when they found something (the three of them having an "a-ha!" moment, a radio, and Sheppard touching his earpiece, listening, and jerking a thumb at Rodney to follow).

Rodney detoured back to his quarters to trade his sweats for actual clothes, and then they ran all over the city to test the device's range. Distance didn't seem to matter, so they met up in one of the empty labs for some more organized experimentation. There, they figured out that it needed skin contact with at least one of them, though it didn't seem to matter who. Weirdly, it didn't send language. When they thought at each other in words, the intention or general emotion got through, but the actual message was lost. The other person just picked up confusion without the actual question, or mockery without the actual wit. It worked best when they framed what they meant in sensory terms.

In further proof that he really was wasted in the military, Sheppard got pretty creative about testing his hypotheses. At one point, he held up a finger for Rodney to wait, narrowed his eyes a little, and started bobbing his head in some silent tempo. After about half a minute of that, Rodney snapped his fingers to get Sheppard's attention, and Sheppard broke into a grin. He sent over an image of himself gazing dreamily up at the ceiling, with a cartoon thought-bubble floating over his head, and Rodney frowning, one hand cupped to his ear, apparently hearing nothing. It took Rodney a minute to puzzle this out, but -- okay, Sheppard had demonstrated it didn't transmit everything, just what a user meant to send. Rodney swept an open palm toward Sheppard, kind of impressed, but followed it with an image of himself grabbing the edges of Sheppard's thought bubble and peering inside. Sheppard's grin took on a sharper edge, and then Rodney could suddenly hear the unmistakable tune of "Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall." He yanked his hand back in disgust and retaliated by repeating the experiment in reverse with "O Canada."

They'd just found the auto-transmit function (which kicked in to provide really crude translation when Sheppard addressed him verbally) when Elizabeth radioed them back. Up in the infirmary, Sheppard relayed what they'd learned and Elizabeth took them through the database information. It took a while, because Sheppard kept stopping the verbal conversation to make sure Rodney was following it okay, but by the end they'd gotten some pretty complex ideas across.

The Ancients had developed the device as a means of silent, long-distance communication (two people on opposite continents, lips moving soundlessly). They'd abandoned their work on it (somebody in a lab coat shrugging and hucking the thing into a box) because they couldn't get it to transmit words (one person talking audibly, the other frowning and hearing static). However, there wasn't anything dangerous about it (Carson and Elizabeth displaying the thing Vanna White style, then giving hilariously uncharacteristic thumbs-up). Rodney could use it to communicate with anyone who had the ATA gene (snapshots of Sheppard's mental roster of the city's gene carriers, each stamped with a bright green double helix), but Elizabeth wanted to make an announcement first (big red circle with a slash through it over the pictures, an analogue clock running forward several hours, Elizabeth speechifying in front of Rodney at a podium, Rodney approaching a group of gene carriers with Elizabeth looking on approvingly).

Rodney agreed, through Sheppard -- it wasn't like he'd been planning on running down every gene carrier in the city tonight -- and then Elizabeth offered up something new: the Ancients had designed this thing to work as an implant. This was when Rodney, who'd never voluntarily stuck himself with anything larger than a hypodermic needle, jumped to his feet and thought YES at Carson as loudly as he could. Carson tried to talk him out of it (after two years watching the guy cringe away from all Ancient tech, he'd known Sheppard's imagined endorsement had to be overstating it), but the auto-transmit couldn't handle the voodoo justification. Glaring, Rodney sent him a series of the most emphatic images he could come up with. Himself in his quarters, looking around sneakily before rolling back his sleeve and just jamming the thing into his upper arm. Infection radiating outward from the entry wound, which was red and seeping some vile-looking pus. Carson having to amputate. One-armed Rodney wasting tragically away in a hospital bed. Carson weeping bitter tears at Rodney's funeral-by-sea.

Carson made a really revolted face and gestured wildly for Rodney to knock it off. He sighed and Rodney grinned, because he knew surrender when he heard it. As Carson said something wearily to Elizabeth and headed off to get the necessary equipment, Sheppard gave Rodney a bemused look. Rodney treated him to a brief replay, and Sheppard snorted and shot back Rodney on stage in a toga, wearing a curly wig and some really bad stage makeup: Jesus, you're such a drama queen, McKay.

Rodney shrugged the shrug of hey, it worked, didn't it?, but kept the rest of it to himself. The Pegasus galaxy was making him an expert in what he could survive without, and he didn't think the rest of them would want to know that, after the last few weeks, an arm didn't even top the list of what he'd be willing to trade for this.

The local anesthetic hadn't quite worn off when Carson released him to go get dinner, so Sheppard went with him and loaded two meals up on one tray. It took Rodney longer to finish his food than usual, because his right hand kept sneaking over to cover the bandage Carson had taped high on the inside of his left forearm. Even through the gauze, he could feel the warm curve of the stone.

Afterward, Rodney wandered with Sheppard as far as his quarters, which were sort of on the way to his own. When they reached the door, Rodney found himself suddenly at a loss. He wanted to tell Sheppard thank you, but he was awful with that kind of thing under normal circumstances, and how the hell could you thank someone who'd just returned your ability to say it at all? It was so obviously inadequate.

Sheppard tilted his head curiously -- what's up? -- and Rodney had the uncharacteristic urge to, he didn't know, hug him or something, but that was in clear violation of the buddy code of conduct. After a few seconds of vacillation, he finally lifted both hands in a helpless gesture, grasping at the empty air, and just passed Sheppard the whole jumbled ball of it, amazement and relief and gratitude so intense it was almost gravitational.

Sheppard's head jerked back in surprise, and he stared at Rodney, who felt himself redden, because that was probably a bit much to drop on someone without warning. He was just starting to wish he'd gone with the hug instead when Sheppard's expression shifted into something less guarded, though no easier to read. He sent Rodney a brief, concise image: Sheppard in his quarters, looking penned in and mutely miserable, and Rodney shoving his way in with the device held out in one hand. You'd have done the same for me, it meant, and it wasn't a question.

The corner of Sheppard's mouth tipped up into a smile that was small but genuine. The door slid open behind him and he slipped inside, and Rodney stood there in the hall thinking that yes, he would have.

The next morning, he woke just after dawn. The nervous energy humming through him was a fainter ghost of what he'd felt the morning they'd left for Atlantis: a conviction that his whole life was about to reorganize itself along drastically different lines. With every person he passed in the halls, he wondered if they had the gene, if they were about to take on new significance for him or fade permanently into the background. At lunch, Elizabeth called all available staff to the mess and made a short speech, her voice clear and authoritative. When she'd finished, she waved Rodney up to join her. Staring out at the faces turned toward him, he ran one hand nervously over the other, inhaled, and sent out the image of himself clicking his radio to an open channel, speaking into it, and then other people lifting their hands to their own earpieces and rising to their feet. Stand up if you can hear me, and he closed his eyes as he sent it, held his breath, and then opened them again.

Two weeks later, his life had changed, but not in any of the ways he'd expected. For one thing, it turned out that the device's performance depended on a lot of factors. Partial genes didn't work as well; everything came through blurred, staticky. Some people were so uncomfortable with the experience that trying to have a real conversation was just futile. When he'd looked around the mess after his first attempt at a general greeting, he'd picked out a full third of the gene carriers not because they were standing, but because of their shocked expressions, the way they'd gone rigid in their seats. It had killed half the pleasure of being heard at all.

More than that, though, he'd discovered that older divisions were still stronger: who he needed to work with versus who wasn't relevant. Who was smart enough to be worth his time versus who wasn't. Who he wanted to talk to, period, versus who he didn't.

So he and Radek kept muddling through on math and sketches, arguing in pen and spring-boarding off of each other's ideas. He and Teyla and Ronon built their conversations out of body language and hand gestures and the occasional throwing of food. But all of that was so much less frustrating now that he knew it wasn't the absolute limit of the options he had available; just knowing that he could call for back-up if he needed to made it easier to keep working through it.

Nine times out of ten, back-up meant Sheppard, who was better with the device than anyone else in the city. It made sense -- Sheppard was the best they had at interfacing with Ancient tech, end of story. Also, between staff meeting and missions and the highly dysfunctional friendship they'd founded on jointly suffering through both of those things, they knew each other well enough to give their educated guesses some degree of accuracy. It said something about this galaxy's fucked-up sense of irony that Rodney's unofficial translator was a man whose natural conversation style had two default settings, flippant and laconic. Still, Sheppard seemed willing to put a lot more effort into relaying Rodney's thoughts than he ever did his own.

Rodney tried not to call him in too often, because he knew that would get old fast, but the average workday featured a good twenty significant miscommunications, at least two or three of which posed a major threat to the city's functioning and/or Rodney's sanity. When those came up, he'd reach out and flag down Sheppard's attention. He rarely got even token annoyance; at most, Sheppard would wave him off for a couple minutes, and then he'd be back on their silent line, working his way through Rodney's frustrated explanation. A minute later, his voice would click on over the radio or he'd come jogging through the door, ready to sort out the confusion or take up Rodney's half of an argument for him.

Rodney figured that the months of being summoned to play human "on" switch had built up his tolerance for this kind of thing. He also had a hunch that Sheppard jumped at any excuse to slack off from actual bureaucratic oversight.

The more they used the device, the more fluent they got with it, and the more Rodney learned about who John Sheppard actually was. Rodney'd long since figured out that Sheppard had spent his entire career playing stupid, and that he'd been convincing enough to make his superiors miss his remarkable knack for thinking on his feet. Still, it was something else entirely the first time he managed to convert a senior staff discussion into its non-lingual equivalent fast enough for Rodney to make a meaningful contribution. There was a difference between mocking Sheppard's obsession with carnival rides and football, and finding out that he could and would reframe almost any social interaction in the stage dressing of classic Dick-and-Jane Americana. Rodney spent three days trying to figure out if the images were cynical or nostalgic, before realizing they were both.

After six weeks deprived of the half-glib, half-awkward bickering that had been the mainstay of their friendship, they didn't fully return to it. It was like Tisros had stripped away their bullshit along with Rodney's ability to communicate. He knew Sheppard was almost as emotionally retarded as he was, did pity with the grace of someone walking barefoot over broken glass, and would only prolong an uncomfortable interaction for as long as it took to make a solid escape. If he'd wanted to drop their friendship, Rodney's transformation into an effective deaf-mute was the perfect excuse. The fact that Sheppard hadn't taken it meant -- well, Rodney didn't really know what it meant, but whatever reason Sheppard had for seeking out his company, it must have been a pretty compelling one.

He was doing his absolute best not to over-think it. There wasn't a better way to tie yourself in knots than dwelling too hard on why the guy who'd saved your life on a weekly basis and your sanity at least once kept showing up for movie nights. And Rodney was becoming a master of selective awareness, of boxing off every thought and memory that threatened to trip him up because some days, even with the device, momentum was the only thing that kept him going. To stay in Atlantis, he needed to work, and to work, he needed to communicate, and to communicate, at least some of the time he needed Sheppard. So ixnay all thoughts of the Daedalus's approach, or any awareness that the device's transmissions were a lot more personal than voice over radio. Out with all memories of trading insults with Radek as they finished each other's sentences, and out with all realizations that it'd been nearly two months since he'd been able to recognize the sound of his own name.

In with improvising wordless MST3K commentaries for The Matrix until he and Sheppard were both crying with laughter. In with learning to take any kind of happiness when and where he could get it.

And then, right when Rodney was starting to figure out how to live within the limited options left to him, Sheppard strolled over during breakfast, slid onto the bench next to him, and sent three images. Rodney fastening his tac vest over the rest of his mission gear. The gate technician dialing an address. Teyla, Ronon, Sheppard, and Rodney sitting calmly in the jumper as it slid into the event horizon.

Apparently, he was back on the team.