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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.

Chapter Text

The night before the mission, Rodney stared at the ceiling for an hour and a half before finally contacting Sheppard. He sent the most subdued of their standard greetings, just a quiet tap at the door, because it was late and part of him hoped that Sheppard had already gone to bed, that he'd missed his window to ask this. But Sheppard was on the line right away, answering with puzzlement and faint concern. Rodney took a deep breath and tried to drain as much of the anxiety out of his thoughts as possible. It was hard to filter out emotional content, sometimes, and he'd woken up yelling for the last two nights running, with panic attacks for encores during the day. Either this was going to calm him down or send him completely over the edge.

When he'd gotten himself as close to neutral as he could manage, he laid out the memories like transparencies on an overhead projector. Walking into the temple on Tisros. Running a scanner over the central idol, the one that had given off the energy readings. Reaching out to lay a hand on it. The guard's outraged shout. The sharp pinch of the dart sinking into the muscle over his shoulder blade. Lights going off in the edges of his vision as the toxin swept through his veins like hot sand.

He cut the memory off before the searing touch of corrosion started, before his knees hit the ground and his spine yanked itself back into an arch so tight he'd thought his neck was going to break. He'd already been on his way to blacking out by then, and there were some things Sheppard didn't need to know. Instead, he finished the sequence with blankness, and placed his question into it.

Over a minute went by with no response. Rodney wondered if Sheppard had understood what Rodney was asking, if he was going to acknowledge the question at all. It was possible Sheppard had already closed the line. Then the briefest flicker of input washed over him, a blast of heat and noise that was gone almost as soon as it hit. Before he could put together a response, he got a ceiling-down image of himself pulling the covers up, clicking the lamp off, peacefully asleep. An analogue clock showing tomorrow's ETD. Go to bed, Rodney, like the rest of the conversation hadn't happened, and then Sheppard's hand rising to remove an earpiece. End of transmission.

This was the reason the Ancients had stopped development on the device: you couldn't always tell what was literal and what was figurative. Fact and emotion bled together. The flare of the explosion, the smoke rising around the rubble of the temple, the screaming as the Tisari scattered -- there was no way to know if that had happened or not. It had come across so fast that Rodney couldn't be sure Sheppard had meant to send it at all. But the rage that had burned through in that split second: that was real. Whether or not Sheppard had tossed a grenade into that temple on the way out, he'd wanted to.

That thought held Rodney wide awake in the dark for another two hours, mind circling around and coming up with nothing. But when he finally fell asleep, he slept hard and didn't dream.

Crossing the event horizon brought the same mild rush of disorientation as always, but when as Rodney squinted into the glare of yet another alien sun, it felt like something lost had come back through the wormhole with him, something he'd misplaced. The euphoria only lasted until they came into view of the village, and then he broke into a clammy sweat. There wasn't any sign of a threat, but post-traumatic stress didn't really respond to rationality, especially when your triggering experience was, say, assault and extensive brain damage.

As the first of the locals approached them, his team unexpectedly fell into formation around him -- Sheppard to the front, Ronon and Teyla bracketing him on either side. They didn't even seem to notice that they'd done it, and the unconscious protectiveness of the move knocked him out of the spiraling fright. He looked at the three of them for half a minute before noticing that the opening conversation was already well underway. Now, of course, was when he remembered a detail they'd forgotten to work out in advance: how the hell the team was going to explain Rodney's condition to the locals. This mission was a milk-run, renewing a trade agreement that SGA-1 had brokered last year while Rodney was city-bound with the flu, but God knew he'd managed to screw up simpler missions by running his mouth off. Who could predict how badly he might antagonize people with his silence?

Sheppard seemed to have it covered, though -- he'd finished reintroducing Teyla and Ronon, and now he was gesturing to Rodney and saying something that made the village elders nod and murmur in understanding. They turned to Rodney and performed low salutes of greeting, which he mimicked as best he could. Everyone started in toward the central hall, and Rodney shot Sheppard a confused look. The corner of Sheppard's mouth twitched, and he sent Rodney a five-second clip of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

Rodney scowled and imagined himself elbowing Sheppard in the ribs so vividly that next to him, Sheppard actually flinched. After that, it was relatively easy to summon a nice, non-threatening idiot-savant smile whenever one of the locals caught his eye.

The mission ended without a hitch, and the next few were just as uneventful. His flashes of hyper-vigilance got fewer and farther between, and his team slowly relaxed as well. By the fourth mission, Ronon had stopped looming anytime someone got too close to Rodney, and Sheppard and Teyla weren't subtly shifting to block the line of sight of anyone who looked at him too long. (The people on planet #3 had apparently decided he was something between a holy man and a mob boss and started addressing all the negotiations directly to him. Teyla took shameless advantage of the mistake, making veiled threats in his name while Sheppard had him cross his arms and glower. They wrangled a dirt-cheap deal on some kind of legume, but the technique probably wouldn't work out that well every time, and besides, holding a fixed glare that long gave him a migraine.) Elizabeth looked suspicious during the debriefings, but there wasn't even anything questionable to edit out. Regression toward the mean, Rodney figured -- Tisros had gone about as badly as it could have without any of them dying; this was just the shift back to statistical normalcy.

Of course, "normal" for them was less smooth sailing and more barely averted disaster. On the fifth mission, the locals threw some traditional feast (really, the only perk of losing all linguistic ability was that now no one could expect him to remember the name of whatever backwards pack of Pegasus natives they were dealing with that week, let alone their religious holidays). The great hall was way too hot, the alcohol was strong, and the food was fantastic. They stumbled up to their rooms well after midnight, and Rodney only meant to close his eyes for a minute before taking off his boots.

The next thing he knew, the sky was just starting to go gray through the curtains and someone was slamming their shoulder against his locked door like they meant to break it down. The room swam around him as he sat up -- god, was he still drunk? -- but he could hear Ronon snarling something on the other side of the door and Teyla's voice over his earpiece. He staggered across the room and shot the bolt back, and Ronon stormed inside. He grabbed Rodney by the collar and shook him, which was the last thing his head needed, but over Ronon's shoulder he caught sight of Teyla. There was something -- the tight look on her face, the way she was leaning on the doorframe, or maybe the otherwise empty hall -- and then some of the jumbled pieces locked into place.

Drugged. They'd been drugged. And now Sheppard wasn't with them.

His gun was out and in his hand before he knew he'd gone for it. The ground was still tilting under his feet, geometry bending in his peripheral vision, but he could feel the adrenaline spike chasing the drug out of his system. He was pretty sure that it was anger that was making his grip shake, because he'd been doped and shot up and fucking poisoned by how many different people now? And this time they'd taken Sheppard (again) which -- no, just no.

Pushing herself into the room, Teyla said something urgent and pointed to his arm -- to the device, right, and god but he hated mind-altering chemicals, because everything other than caffeine just made him stupider than he could ever afford to be. He closed his eyes and tried Sheppard, starting with the crackle of a radio, moving to a fist pounding on a door, then a flare of light, and finally just a prolonged blast of undifferentiated sensory noise. No response, and he jerked his chin to the side to signal the negative.

Ronon had one of his knives out, the biggest one, and he'd angled himself toward the door in a way that made it pretty clear he was itching to go beat Sheppard's location out of whoever he could get to first. Rodney was about to gesture his agreement when Teyla grabbed his face and turned it back towards her. She pointed out the window to where the sun was rising, swept her arm out towards the hall and brought her outstretched fingers swiftly inward to stop short at her other palm, which she'd held up in warding. She circled her index finger twice over Rodney's pack and jerked a thumb toward the window again. He scrubbed a hand over his face and nodded, because she had a point. Whatever these assholes were planning, they clearly intended the remaining three-quarters of SGA-1 to sleep until the morning; grabbing their gear and sneaking out now was the best strategic move they had.

They spent a tense hour and a half hidden in the woods to the south of the town before Rodney finally managed to raise Sheppard. Whatever drug they'd used had taken him down hard; his responses were slow and distorted, almost unintelligible. To help him focus, Rodney called upon every bit of the vocabulary they'd established and threw himself into a really satisfying silent rant about how Sheppard was a goddamn lightweight who'd clearly forgotten that his job was to stay alert and, you know, not get kidnapped because his more important job, as he'd also forgotten, was to come to the rescue when technologically impoverished demi-civilizations kidnapped Rodney for his magnificent brain. Only now thanks to Sheppard's failure in the line of duty, Rodney had to orchestrate his rescue, which he was infinitely less suited to -- and did Sheppard realize how incredibly infuriating it was that when they finally saved his ass, Rodney wouldn't even have the option of telling these idiots each and every way this had been the stupidest move they'd made in their long and inglorious history of stupid--

Sheppard slapped a nearly tangible mental hand over Rodney's mouth (they were getting pretty good at faking sensation), waited a moment, and followed it up with a picture of himself smacking Rodney upside the head. More relieved than he was willing to admit, Rodney sent an eye-roll to Sheppard while he snapped for Ronon and Teyla's attention. Both of them were already watching him, and he pointed to the device and flashed an OK to signal that the Colonel was awake and back to his normal jackass self. They exchanged thankful looks while Sheppard suggested to Rodney that hey, now would be a really great time for them to get him out of here. Rodney tossed Sheppard the overly-amazed expression that meant no, seriously, that hadn't occurred to me, why THANK you for pointing that out as he dug the small whiteboard out of his pack, and then the four of them hunkered down to come up with a plan.

Planning turned into a lot of waiting, because Sheppard was locked in some basement with three inch ventilation slits for windows. It took hours to piece together enough information (street noises, glimpses of foot traffic, changing angle of the sun) for Teyla, who'd been the only one paying attention during the tour, to make a couple of guesses about where he was. In the meantime, though, the local dignitaries were kind enough to drop by his cell and run their mouths off for a while.

From what Sheppard could read between the lines of their grand pronouncements, the settlement relied on some kind of Ancient agrarian monitoring system to optimize their farm output. Of course, the whole thing had taken a ridiculous mystical spin over the centuries, so now the system was the voice of the gods, and the gene carriers who used it were the holy priests. Only there hadn't been a new gene carrier identified in a long time, and the last in the line was on his way out the door. Cue SGA-1's arrival and Sheppard accidentally lighting up an innocuous crystal sculpture (this was where Rodney buried his face in his hands and thought, oh my god, my city's survival depends on a guy who can't quit flirting with the knick-knacks). The feast had actually been in his honor -- funny how their hosts had neglected to mention that at the time -- and soon the whole thing would commence in a ceremony where he'd be anointed as the new priest, hosannas would be sung, and they'd fit him with the holy equivalent of an ankle monitor which would prevent him from ever passing through a gate again.

There wasn't really a way to relay this to Teyla and Ronon, but then again, the explanation didn't matter. Those two were deep into a discussion of strategy and tactics; Rodney couldn't follow most of it, but as Sheppard was literally pacing at the other end of the line, he flagged them down whenever they reached an agreement on some point and made them map out what they'd decided. By the early afternoon, they'd sketched out a plan for each of three neighborhoods they thought Sheppard might be stashed in. The next step was for Teyla to swipe a set of clothes and do a pass through the city, to confirm Sheppard's location and get the details they needed to finish the rescue plan.

She was maybe thirty meters into the brush when all of a sudden Rodney got hit with a surge of alarm from Sheppard, and then he had a direct pipeline to everything Sheppard was seeing. He started snapping frantically; when Teyla didn't turn around, Ronon stuck his thumb and index finger into his mouth and let out a high, birdlike whistle. That got her attention, and she started running back as Rodney whirled to Ronon and gestured wildly.

Now. They were moving Sheppard. The ceremony was about to start.

The three of them raced for the city, where Sheppard was being led up to the dais in the great hall. He kept the line open as the ceremony began, and though he was maintaining his outward cool, the first edges of suppressed panic were starting to trickle into what Rodney was getting from him. They made it into the building undetected, came up with half a plan -- but god, it was complicated, there was too much to keep track of. The damn brain damage meant he couldn't string more than four or five hand signals together before he started losing the thread, and with the time pressure Teyla and Ronon kept forgetting to break their communications into chunks like they'd practiced.

The more he missed, the more rushed they got, and meanwhile he was trying to keep Sheppard in the loop, trying to keep two sets of visual information separated, what he was getting from his own eyes and what he was getting from Sheppard. Rodney was used to multitasking in a crisis, but this wasn't multitasking, it was fucking juggling, with six different mental and physical balls in the air. When the man leading the ceremony slid the knife out of the ornate sheath at his belt, Sheppard reined in his own flinch but Rodney didn't, and the crash of the urn he knocked over rang out through the halls.

Three seconds later, both sides of the corridor were clogged with armed guards, carrying bolt-projectiles and wicked-looking scythes. The three of them were disarmed and escorted into the main hall, where the leader magnanimously forgave them the interruption and consented to let them watch the rest of the holy occasion. He used the knife to slice a thin knotted cord of the wrist of the old priest (stupid, Rodney thought to himself furiously, idiot, moron, stupid, stupid) and turned to dab some kind of oil onto Sheppard's forehead and throat. They'd taken Sheppard's uniform jacket and replaced it with a floor-length robe, heavy with beading and embroidery. It should have looked ridiculous but instead it made the whole thing more real, because even from fifty meters back Rodney could see that it was old, probably centuries. This wasn't just wacky local hijinks, this was religious orthodoxy -- there were over two thousand people crammed into the hall with thousands more in the courtyard outside, and all of them were probably ready to kill anyone who tried to take their new priest from them.

Up front, the leader stepped up onto the raised platform behind Sheppard and lifted his hands in the air, chanting loudly. Through Sheppard's eyes, Rodney could see the grim looks on Ronon and Teyla's faces, his own alarmed expression, and dammit, there had to be something he could do, there had to be someone else here who could--

He cut the visual link to Sheppard, and when he felt a phantom hand dig into his bicep as if to shake him, Rodney blocked that off too, flashed a stop sign at Sheppard -- shut up, now, I have to concentrate. He shut his eyes tight for a moment, opened them again, and then as clearly as he could, pictured a glow starting to emanate from the leader's hands. He sent the image out on an open channel, with the glow turning into search beams that moved over the crowd, and filled the transmission with a sense of expectation, of urgency. Nothing happened -- no response, no movement from the auditorium -- and Rodney upped the ante, made his image of the dais radiate a golden light, pictured the crowd turning to beckon the unseen viewer forward. Still there was nothing, and an attendant was handing the leader a thick, Ancient-looking cuff, obviously the monitor they'd mentioned to Sheppard, and fuck, they were out of time. Rodney pulled out all the stops, picturing farms springing up fertile and lush around the city, people rejoicing, small children being lifted towards the sun by ecstatic hands. He broadcast the Hallelujah Chorus, gilded his impatience into hope and sent that out too, promised in every way he could think of that this was the time, that everyone was waiting to welcome the person who could hear this message, so rise and come forward to be blessed but goddammit do it now now now now now--

A murmur rippled through the back of the crowd, and Rodney jerked against the hands of the guards to see a plain, colorless woman wandering up the aisle with a confused expression on her face. Up front, the leader was frowning, gesturing for her to go away. Her footsteps hesitated, and Rodney held his breath and kept his siren song going, urging her forward until she was maybe five meters from the dais. As a pair of guards stepped down to remove her, Sheppard darted forward to snatch the crystal sculpture off the altar and threw it in a low arc. She fumbled and nearly dropped it, but as her fingers closed around it, it started to glow.

Two hours later, the leader sent SGA-1 off with a generous trade agreement on grain and some kind of flax-like material. Sheppard smiled insincerely as he accepted the man's thanks (for finding the new priest) and apology (for withdrawing the offer of holiness, of course, not for almost enslaving him), and the four of them snagged their gear out of the woods and beat a grateful retreat back to the jumper. They spent the walk back bickering about just how far down this rescue attempt fell on the scale set by previous missions, but as they moved to their respective chairs, Sheppard dropped his hand to the top of Rodney's shoulder and squeezed once before stepping past him to the pilot's seat.

Rodney could feel the weight and warmth of the touch all the way through the debrief.

The next day he came back from lunch to find a large, colorful cartoon taped up in grand isolation on one of the lab walls: Sheppard in black and white clerical robes and Rodney dressed like some kind of Biblical prophet, both of them wrestling over a golden halo. He stomped around and gestured threateningly, but everyone feigned ignorance as to how it had gotten there. It had been months since Rodney had been the target of one of the anonymous pranks that flourished in the city in peacetime. He kept up the show of annoyance for the rest of the day, but only because he was taken aback by how good it felt to be included in this; he didn't know how to act, and since infuriated McKay was obviously the intended result, he decided he should oblige. Until he could figure out who'd done it and return the favor, it was the least he could do.

Two days after that, he was just starting to narrow down a list of suspects when Sheppard burst into the lab, grabbed him by the upper arm, and dragged him at a run into the gate room -- just in time to see Lorne and his team step out of a jumper, Parrish cradling a ZPM in his reverent hands.

Every scientist was practically vibrating with excitement by the time they got the ZPM installed in the power room, and the mood swept rapidly through the rest of the city. If one ZPM in wartime meant survival, then a second in peacetime meant discovery -- more off-world missions, more time with the control chair, more exploration within the city. The kitchen staff broke out the good stuff at dinner (chocolate cake with real chocolate, Rodney knew they'd been holding out on him), and everyone who was off-shift or had a break congregated in the mess hall. Rodney didn't need Sheppard to translate the conversations happening around them, and he didn't ask him to. He'd participated in enough of them himself after the Wraith siege had ended and everyone had finally realized that they'd lived to research another day.

Watching the entire science contingent gleefully plan their next three months felt like squeezing a deep bruise or a cut that had only half-healed. He'd painstakingly reinserted himself into the more important long-term projects, but there wasn't much he could do in the way of improvisation or discussion. Couldn't review the new research proposals to ensure efficient resource allocation. Couldn't be more than a secondary presence in the expansion into new facilities. Couldn't search the Ancient database for information on new artifacts. Unless Miko became spontaneously fluent with the device (right now she was at a kindergarten level at best), or the SGC decided Sheppard was best put to use as Rodney's dedicated translator (and God, he wished, but it wasn't going to happen), he was going to stay the slow cog in the city's accelerating machinery, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.

He didn't meet his team's eyes as he got up from the table, and their conversation faltered, but they didn't try to stop him. He dumped his tray and took the long way around the mess hall so he could avoid the traffic down the central aisle where people were approaching Radek in twos and threes, campaigning for project pre-approval. As he headed for the door, he caught Radek watching him as Neves talked his ear off. Rodney jerked his head down to avoid his gaze. Tomorrow, or maybe the day after that, he'd go and, fuck, shake Radek's hand or something, find some way to let him know that Rodney didn't begrudge him the rise in fortune that had come at Rodney's expense. Which he did, of course he did, but keeping his teeth clenched on that kind of pettiness was simpler now that he didn't have another option, and since he couldn't do the job anymore, the least he could do was get out of Radek's way.

Rodney was just about to swipe his hand in front of the door sensor when the overhead lights flickered subtly. He blinked and waited: nothing, and then just as he reached out, they did it again. Turning, he found Radek staring at him with a wary expression on his face. Rodney frowned at him and pointed a finger carefully upward, and Radek pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and started making his way down the aisle. Right as he reached Rodney, the lights flared for a fraction of a second and a distant alarm started. Rodney threw himself through the door as it slid open and sprinted for the transport chamber, Radek's footsteps pounding just behind his own.

Chapter Text

Down in the power room, the glow of the new ZPM was pulsing just perceptibly. Radek scrambled around to the console and grabbed the laptop they'd left down here earlier, typing frantically as Rodney peered intently over his shoulder. He knew every display and schematic on the ZPM by heart, along with all of the equations behind them, and oh shit, these graphs were bad, they were very, very bad. The crystals must have been damaged somehow, too subtly for their tests to catch, but the SST region was losing stability and the fluctuations were spiking closer and closer to the limits of what the containment field could withstand. If they didn't get it out of the city before it blew, that was it, toast, there'd be nothing left of Atlantis but ionized molecules scattered over the ocean's surface. Radek knew it too, because by the time Rodney looked up from the screen Radek was already moving toward the central structure, one hand reaching for the release and the other at his earpiece.

But wait, wait, there was something about the underlying curve of the projected fluctuations. Rodney made a loud wordless noise of negation, and Radek jerked his head up, hands hovering just over the release mechanism. He gestured to the ZPM and said something in a strained voice. Rodney waved him furiously off, because yes, he knew they didn't have much time, but there was something, something they were missing. He scanned the screen for another second and then he had it, a sudden flash of understanding, and he practically vaulted over the console to grab Radek by the shirt and drag him back just before his fingertips could touch the release.

Radek shouted and tried to pull away, but Rodney was heavier and stronger; he hurled Radek down into a chair and put all his weight into keeping him there as he groped for the notepad sitting on the console. He threw open the line to Sheppard and didn't even wait for a response before he started firing information at him: straight pipeline to the hand he had clenched on Radek's shoulder and the graphs and equations he was scribbling on a pad of paper, the frantic sequences of logic running through his head. He got a glimpse of Sheppard scrambling out of his chair in the mess and after that he quit paying attention. Radek was still fighting him and Elizabeth had clicked onto the radio, her voice demanding, Sheppard was hauling ass down the corridor and Rodney ignored all of them for the moment, because they were running out of time in two ways at once and there couldn't be any mistakes on this, they had to get it absolutely right.

Just as Rodney scrawled the last symbol down, Sheppard hurtled through the door with a wild look on his face, and he hadn't even skidded to a stop before he started talking faster than Rodney had ever heard him talk before, trying to match the speed of Rodney's transmission. Radek's face went slack with surprise as he studied what Rodney had written, and then he jerked away to snatch the laptop again, pulling up charts as fast as Sheppard could translate back the information. Rodney could already tell they were confirming what he'd realized: the only thing that had kept the ZPM stable this long was the steady drain of the city's systems. It was headed for overload and fast, but it was going to get there a lot faster once they disconnected it -- and now Radek had the numbers, times Sheppard showed him as an analogue clock hooked to a detonator. Forty-one minutes and seven seconds under the current conditions, but the moment they pulled it out, they had thirty-four seconds, god, nowhere near enough time to get it out the gate.

Elizabeth ran in and none of them turned to acknowledge her, too caught up in the urgent flow of information -- Rodney's thoughts from Sheppard's mouth, Radek's hands flying over the keyboard, his answer to Sheppard's ears and Rodney's reply back, almost fast enough for Sheppard to interrupt Radek's sentence. The only way to buy time was to siphon as much power off as quickly as possible, and Radek jumped up and started gesturing to the floor below them. Sheppard shot him a fast sequence of the sister city they'd found on Eldred's planet, the command chair going dead as Rodney powered up the star drive, but Rodney shook his head because yes, that would work only no, it wouldn't. Using the drive or any other system as high-demand and then yanking the power source out from under it could mean a catastrophic failure; at best, they'd deplete their other ZPM trying to power down safely. Radek scrubbed his hand over his mouth and suggested something else, and Rodney threw a hand up, pacing, because no, the generators couldn't handle anywhere near the load they'd need to buffer the--

He whipped back around. The naquadah generators: he'd spent the last month engineering them to be rechargeable. If Radek could regulate the power flow -- if they could dispatch engineering teams to patch them into the city's circuitry -- keep as many generators hooked up as possible, taking on power at the maximum safe rate--

Radek typed furiously for a few seconds, and his head snapped up as Sheppard transmitted his answer. Optimal depletion speed could buy them twenty-eight seconds. A total of a minute and two seconds to get the ZPM out of the power room, through the transport chamber, gate it out and shut down the wormhole before it blew. Barely possible, but it could be just enough.

Stepping forward so she was shoulder-to-shoulder with Sheppard, Elizabeth forced her way into the conversation with an emphatic question, one that she leveled straight at Rodney. He could read the content just from the tone in her voice, because he'd heard it from her in the storm, in the Wraith siege, during Acturus, and a hundred other times besides. Sheppard was staring at Rodney with a different question written all over his face, because they'd been using the device for five weeks now, but neither of them had done anything like this yet. Are you sure? his expression asked, and Rodney jerked his chin up defiantly in the motion of, I can if you can. Sheppard drew in a long breath in the way that meant, Jesus, you'd better be right about this, then he turned to Elizabeth and told her yes, Rodney could do it. They could do it.

She gave Rodney a sharp nod and stepped back, out of the way, and then Sheppard was talking fast into his radio as Rodney started broadcasting on an open channel: a ship's bell ringing the all-hands, the dangerous pulse of the ZPM and warning lights going off all around it, clock winding rapidly down and a computer simulation of the city exploding, people jumping up at the sound of Rodney's voice and sprinting for the power room. Emergency, emergency, everyone who can hear me get your ass down to the power room right now if you want to survive.

Within thirty seconds the first wave came pounding down the hall, and Rodney ran to the door to perform a rapid-fire interrogation of each new arrival and stamp unfamiliar faces into his mind. He dispatched them off around the city in threes and fours, assembling groups to get the full spread of the skills they were going to need: engineering background, programming, gene strength and brute physical ability. One group per generator, with eight pairs of the most skilled technicians assigned to the key junctions that would have to be rerouted. He kept five people on-hand in the power room and deputized the last dozen to provide back-up the others, because it was way too much to hope that they could drain half the charge of a ZPM in thirty-five minutes and not have any casualties along the way. Then he ran back in and headed for the far wall where he'd be clear of the action, spared a last look each for Radek and Sheppard, neither of whom were looking back, and closed his eyes as he threw the line all the way open.

And then he was everywhere at once, peering over shoulders and providing lightning-fast instructions, showing people which crystal to pull, which circuits to rewire, which screen to watch to make sure the flow of power stayed within a generator's maximum tolerance. He could hear the constant flow of Sheppard's voice from across the room, telling Radek when each team was ready, relaying Rodney's orders to anyone who couldn't follow his transmissions fast enough, and coordinating the Marines in the halls and the technicians in the gate room, getting everyone in place as the clock ran down. Circuits blew and Rodney dragged people through a crash-course in Ancient electrical systems bypasses; generators started to max out and Radek rerouted the flow of power just in time to avoid an explosion. As each generator reached maximum charge, the team assigned to it scrambled to reconfigure it so it could power the city, Sheppard cuing Radek to transfer one more system to naquadah power, isolating the faulty ZPM.

Seventeen minutes to go and they had enough generators hooked up to power the gate, and Rodney had the power room team yank the old ZPM and hustle it to the north pier, far enough from the action that no minor explosion could jeopardize it. Sheppard flagged him down, the technicians were dialing an uninhabitable planet they'd found in the database and the wormhole would be open from here on out. Rodney sent back an image of a stopwatch being wound back -- how much time did they have if they pulled the ZPM now? -- and Sheppard relayed Radek's answer: forty-eight seconds. Shit, not as far along as he'd hoped they'd be, too soon to stop if they wanted to be sure it wouldn't blow in the gate room. There was a sudden surge of alarm from the team in the west tower and then a terrifying blast of shrapnel and panic that echoed up the line: fuck, fuck, a generator had gone up. Rodney shot the images to Sheppard, who signaled that he had a fire crew and a medical team on their way, and that was all the thought Rodney could spare the wounded before he had to go back to the teams that were still working, trying to keep the second round of generators connected and charging.

Eleven minutes, ten, and they had the last dozen generators hooked up with fifty-two seconds on the clock. Eight minutes and Radek's voice was getting more urgent, but not yet, not yet, they needed every minute they had left. There was a relay team of Marines lining the halls from the power room to the transport chamber to the gate room to the gate, the fastest runners they had ready to go the second Sheppard gave the order. Six minutes and Elizabeth was on the radio again, saying things that Sheppard didn't translate; five minutes and only four generators still charging--

At three minutes and eight seconds, Sheppard sent a frantic message that they'd pushed their window to fifty-six seconds, and Rodney's eyes shot open as he waved his arms wildly because that was it, the magic number, go go go go GO! Sheppard's hand clamped down onto Radek's shoulder as he barked an order into the radio, and it was like a line of dominoes, the whole intricate chain the three of them had built in the last half-hour. Radek cut the power from the ZPM and one of the Marines yanked the release, the next one pulled it out of the slot and lunged the four meters to the door in three huge strides, where the person waiting grabbed it out of her hands and sprinted down the hall. Rodney had every gene carrier he could spare shoved into doorways along the relay route, and he bounced Sheppard the input he was getting from them as the ZPM made it to the transport chamber, one guy to take it and another to hit the touchscreen, and the instant the doors opened onto the hall outside the gateroom, the guy holding it thrust it through the opening to the next person, who ran it through the open gate room door to a captain who was perched on the far side of the railing. She hooked it under an arm and jumped off the edge, the zipline they'd rigged dragging her straight down to the lower level and tensing just in time to buffer the impact as she shoved the ZPM to Teyla, who sprinted it to Ronon, who whirled like a Olympic shot-putter and just threw it through the gate, and the second it crossed the event horizon the technician hit the button and the wormhole collapsed on itself and winked out into empty air.

There was a tight pause, as though the whole city was holding its breath. Then the technician's voice came over the radio, rippling with relief, and there were exclamations of triumph and fatigue from everyone within earshot. Rodney cut all transmissions, bent forward until his head was nearly between his knees, and flopped gratefully over onto his back.

He lay there for a while with his eyes blissfully shut, listening to other people coordinate the clean-up efforts. Eventually footsteps approached, and someone's boot nudged him lightly in the side. Rodney cracked an eye halfway and saw Sheppard standing over him, looking about as exhausted as Rodney felt. Sheppard raised his eyebrows in a weary question but didn't transmit anything. That was more than fine by Rodney, who had no interest in using the device anytime in the next eight to twelve hours, and he was guessing Sheppard felt the same. He lifted one of his hands a few inches off the ground and gave Sheppard the OK-sign, then let it drop as his eyelid slid closed again.

Eventually Rodney staggered back to his room, washed down a few ibuprofen, and slept through the night and the better part of the morning. When the infirmary chime woke him, he thought seriously about ignoring it -- his bed was so warm -- but he didn't want Carson to overreact to his silence. He fumbled his way to the desk and hit the button to acknowledge, then headed for the shower.

Carson, in a move that had Rodney ready to nominate him for sainthood, had made sure there was a pot of coffee waiting for him, though he undermined his chances for beatification by holding it hostage through the first half of the tests. None of results looked any different this time, and Rodney'd had about three months to memorize them. Carson didn't show any signs of concern as he went through the sequence, so whether or not the device had been designed for that kind of high-bandwidth use, Rodney didn't think it had done him any harm.

Hand wrapped around the hot mug, he slid off the bed and walked over to where Carson was entering a few notes into his laptop. He finished with his typing and glanced up at Rodney, tilting his head in a way that telegraphed inquiry. Rodney cleared his throat and fidgeted at the handle of the mug. The two of them were still mostly miming their way through conversations, because Carson's discomfort with the device was a thick tint layered over anything he managed to send. He tried, but Rodney was his friend as well as his patient and hated to put him through it, so he usually called Sheppard in for anything complicated. This, though -- Rodney had been putting off this question for almost three months, and he wasn't sure he wanted anyone else around for the answer.

Gazing down into his coffee, he killed a couple seconds reviewing his choice of images and then sent them in a cautious sequence, taking a few extra beats before melting one into the next. Himself and the physical therapist, working diligently as the pages of a calendar flipped in the background. His progression from sounds, to words, to halting conversation, and eventually to fluent speech. The trio of symbols +/- (the closest representational equivalent he could manage for or), and then a repeat of the previous images, but with sign language substituted for verbal. Fade to white, which he filled with uncertainty, like a question mark tagged onto the end of the construction.

He glanced back up to find Carson watching him with a conflicted expression, and the two of them just stood there for a while, looking at each other. Rodney tightened his hands down on the mug and braced himself for the inevitable upturned-palms of confusion, to be followed by a call to Sheppard to translate, which he really didn't want. Then Carson raised one hand in the air -- wait -- and closed his eyes in concentration.

An image bloomed slowly in Rodney's mind: a circuit board. As Rodney watched, a lit match dropped onto one corner of the board and lay there until it burned out, the copper and fiberglass under it blackening and melting with the heat. The image blurred and jumped slightly, like Carson was struggling to keep it clear in his mind. Someone flipped a switch and blue light coursed through the board, but the places on the far side of the slagged paths remained dark. The image flickered and dropped out as Carson opened his eyes, and then he passed Rodney a slow bubble of apology, of regret.

Rodney stared at Carson. This was the clearest transmission he'd managed yet. Swallowing past the lump in his throat, Rodney jerked his chin in a short nod -- got it, message received, and started toward the infirmary door. Halfway there, he stopped, pervaded by an inappropriate, confusing gratefulness. Stockholm Syndrome, he thought with automatic cynicism, but he opened the line again and sent a bit of the feeling along. He didn't really know what he was thanking Carson for: for caring, for trying, for the fact that the damage hadn't been worse. For telling him the truth. Even if he'd understood it himself, he didn't think he could have explained any of that properly; he didn't, so it was a moot point.

Carson's expression cleared a little, and one of his hands drifted up, like he was about to pass the whole thing off as his duty or maybe initiate some kind of emotional moment. The inside of Rodney's chest felt bruised, sort of brittle, so he cut either possibility off with a thumb jerked towards the door and a quick visual blip of the power room. Carson shook his head with a smile and turned back to his laptop, letting Rodney make his getaway unwatched.

Rodney spent the day wedged under consoles and halfway into walls, repairing the city systems that had been damaged the night before. It was the right kind of work for his mood, intricate enough to be absorbing but solitary enough that he didn't need to talk to anyone. Carson's answer hovered around the edges of his thoughts, like a ship that wouldn't land, and he kept waiting for what he'd been told to fully materialize, come slamming down. Every time he pulled his shoulders out from whatever tight space he was working in, he found people watching him -- or not watching him, exactly, but reacting to his presence in weird ways.

On the rare occasions in his life that he'd given his workplace interactions any thought, he'd figured out that people who had to work in proximity to him either tuned him out or twitched whenever he spoke like they were waiting for an opportune moment to strangle him. Today, he got eye contact, a scattering of waves and nods, and even a few transmitted greetings -- tentative, but not as awkward as what he was used to receiving from everyone but Sheppard. No one interrupted his work or tried to make small talk, but their acknowledgment unnerved him, made it hard to stay braced for the awfulness to hit. Twice he ducked into a bathroom just to make sure no one had taped anything to his back.

On the way to dinner, he crossed paths with a woman in hospital pajamas; she had one arm in a sling and a long row of stitches climbing up into her hairline. It took him a moment to place her face, but then he did -- she was one of the gene carriers, Marine with a background in electrical engineering. She'd been on the team at the generator that had blown up. Oh, god, he'd forgotten to ask Carson what happened to them -- he hadn't seen any of them in the infirmary, so that had to be good, right? Or maybe it was bad, maybe they were hurt seriously enough to be put in private beds -- or maybe hurt wasn't it, maybe by the time they'd gotten there it'd been too late for anything at all -- and she was going to pass him in about two seconds, and he didn't know her name--

She didn't slow down as they came toward each other, but she grinned tiredly and sketched a mock-salute when she passed. The surprise hit him like a revelation.

Rodney navigated the food line on autopilot, distracted by the feeling that his world had just undergone a paradigm shift, or been jolted and resettled just to the left of where it had been. It was obvious now that he'd known what Carson was going to tell him. If he hadn't, he'd have asked the question a lot sooner. If there'd been even a chance he could recover, they'd have been begged, bullied and blackmailed him into a treatment regimen, device or no device. The fact that no one had brought it up for over a month had been a pretty clear indication what the prognosis was, and the finality of that wasn't sinking in because it had already sunk in -- probably weeks ago, before he was ready to consciously accept it. And now, apparently, he had.

So what was different? Nothing, really, except that he'd just found out he still had a place in this city, and even if he didn't know exactly what it was yet, everyone around him seemed confident he belonged in it.

Late that night, someone knocked on the door to his quarters. He set down his notepad, wondering if maybe it was Teyla; he'd seen her talking to Carson at dinner, and he wouldn't put it past Carson to have asked her to stop by and see if he was taking the news okay. But when he waved the door open, it was Sheppard standing on the other side, hands shoved in his pockets, his posture as tight as Rodney had ever seen it. Sheppard nodded at the room behind him and Rodney stepped aside to let him in, then watched as Sheppard paced an agitated track across the carpet. Frowning, Rodney sent out a faint thread of concern, but Sheppard waved the transmission off. He came to an uneasy stop in front of the window, and Rodney picked up the faintest flicker of uncertainty, aborted before it could solidify, as though Sheppard had opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again.

The lights of the city cast patterns over Sheppard's face, obscuring his expression. After a minute, he bounced a fist off his thigh and wheeled back toward the door. Rodney wasted the time Sheppard spent in transit, torn between asking what the hell was going on and a weird reluctance to intrude -- and then at the last moment Sheppard changed trajectory, grabbed Rodney by the front of his shirt, and jerked him into a kiss.

Rodney froze, his whole body going rigid with the same reflexive terror that hit him every time he got ambushed. Sheppard's mouth was hot and moving against his own, and his hand was fisted tightly enough that the seams of Rodney's shirt were cutting into his armpits. It was like he was determined to see this through, even with Rodney's non-response, and fuck if that wasn't John Sheppard all over: never a halfway decision, just complete inertia or a cannonball dive. Which was when it hit Rodney that Jesus Christ, this was John Sheppard, John, kissing him like it had been running through his mind for days, like he'd spent that long trying to get the balls to do it. He fumbled both hands around Sheppard's waist and yanked him in, clumsy, but it got Sheppard's long bones and muscles pushed against him, mouth and chest all the way down to the knee shoved in between Rodney's and the side of Sheppard's boot against the inside of his foot. Sheppard inhaled, and Rodney could feel the motion of it against his chest, all six-feet-plus of Sheppard pressing as close into Rodney as he could get, solid and vital and warm to the touch. God, Rodney'd wanted this so badly, so badly -- six straight weeks of feeling John's hands on him when they weren't even in the same room, both of them harnessing touch for communication like it wasn't anything and ignoring the fact that they'd crossed half their old boundaries the night John found the device.

And none of that had been real, none of it had been even close, because the transmissions were only as good as your imagination and no one's imagination, not even Rodney's, could get everything right. He'd forgotten the way Sheppard smelled, like skin and nylon and the cleaning solvent he used on his guns, because the only times they'd ever been this close were when one of the them was dragging the other away from certain death. In the real world the difference in their heights meant that Rodney had to angle his head back to get his tongue into John's open mouth, but when John shoved him against the wall, the hard pressure of his body forced Rodney up higher, put their mouths nearly on the same horizontal plane. Sheppard's hand rasped over the back of Rodney's neck, rough with unfamiliar calluses, and he made a harsh noise low in his throat when he rubbed his dick against Rodney's through the fabric of their pants. Rodney's eyes squeezed shut as he grabbed John's hips, pretty sure his knees would be giving out if John weren't practically pinning him upright. His heart was pounding deafeningly loud, he didn't have the faintest clue why this was happening, and he didn't want to stop, not for a second, not at all.

The longer they kissed and groped each other, hands sliding everywhere they could reach, the stranger and hotter and more intense it all got. By the time they made it to the bed, Rodney felt like he was moving through some kind of dissociative haze. He couldn't remember being this turned on in his adult life, but his mind was whirling in manic circles, and neither part was slowing the other done. The sense of disorientation was even more profound because they weren't using the device at all -- Sheppard hadn't transmitted a thing since he first came in. Rodney didn't know what that meant, but he didn't feel like he was in any position to argue with the parameters that John had set, especially not with his own long and humiliating history of screwing up every first anything (first date, first kiss, first handjob, first sex) via the nervous compulsion that made it impossible for him to shut up.

Whatever had kicked this off, John obviously wanted to be here, he was peeling Rodney's jacket off and grinding his hard-on against Rodney's hip in a way that was insanely distracting. Even Rodney couldn't mistake this for anything but consent -- demand, really -- and so he just tried to give as good as he was getting, palming Sheppard's ass and shoving his hands up under his shirt. The air around them was dense with small noises, things Rodney loved and usually missed for talking over them -- tiny grunts and gasps, the creak of the mattress, the hiss of the sheets shifting under them. They were both sweating through their clothes as they wrestled them off, and it was John who was responsible for most of the progress there. Rodney kept detouring away from the goal, getting caught up in the feel of John's skin, the interrupting traces of scar tissue, the way his back flexed slickly under Rodney's hands. Jesus Christ, neither of them had even gotten off yet and it was already the best sex Rodney had ever had.

John pressed the heel of his hand against Rodney's dick and pushed his mouth hotly against the side of Rodney's neck, working both spots at once. Somewhere in that glorious fog of sensation, Rodney became aware of a change in the sounds spilling quiet and thick into his ear. John was talking. Not sending anything, but talking, murmuring things into the base of Rodney's skull and the place where his neck met his shoulder. And the auto-transmit hadn't kicked in.

Rodney had spent two years with his survival and everyone else's depending on his mental alarm system, the one that went off when anything was even slightly out of place. He didn't want to be thinking about this -- God, he didn't want to think -- but the calibrated mechanisms of his mind had already seized the anomaly and started flipping switches, one after another, hunting down the answer before he could stop himself from looking for it. There was only one explanation: John had to be intentionally blocking the transmission. Whatever he was saying, Rodney wasn't supposed to understand.

The thought sank in like a knife between his ribs, because it all made sense now in the worst way. John showing up like this, when half the people in Atlantis probably would have kicked their own doors down to let him in. Coming here, and doing it now.

What had changed recently? What was the one thing John could get with Rodney that he couldn't get anywhere else?

Rodney shoved himself backwards, and John jerked upright, making a startled grab for his wrist. Twisting to evade it nearly landed Rodney on his ass, but he got his feet under him at the last second and stumbled for the far side of the room, desperate to put some distance between them. It would take next to nothing for John to persuade him to keep going, even with what he'd just figured out, but he knew he was going to hate himself for it. Given long enough, he'd hate John, too. And he couldn't have fucked himself over more if he'd tried, because John Sheppard was part of everything for him now -- his teammate, his friend, his advocate, his fucking translator. The best tether he had to Atlantis. The central link in every chance he had of staying. If he blew this, he was going to lose everything.

If it was too late to keep this from ending disastrously -- and it was, that was appallingly clear -- well, then Rodney guessed he wanted the cold comfort of knowing he'd spotted the rocks he was plummeting toward halfway through the fall. That he'd tried to hit the brakes.

His hand shook as he scrubbed it over his mouth, turning so his back was toward the bed -- not like it mattered, it was dark and his eyes were closed, but at least this way he was sure Sheppard couldn't see his face. Behind him, he heard Sheppard slide to the edge of the mattress, feet hitting the ground with a soft thump. The line went live but Rodney broke it before Sheppard could transmit anything, pressed his thumb into the stone in his forearm and thought off at it until the device was just a dead shape pushed into the muscle, a blank and meaningless weight. He didn't need it for this.

"I don't know what we're doing here," Rodney said to the wall in front of him.

It was the first time he'd really spoken in almost three months, and disuse had left his voice cracked, unsteady. "I don't know what you want from me. I've always been sort of ... emotionally colorblind, and maybe you are too, and that should probably make this okay, but it turns out that it doesn't." He held a hand up in the air by his head, trying to focus -- like coherence mattered now, but all the old habits were still there, even after they'd lost any purpose. "You've done a lot for me, in the last few weeks -- no, the last two years, really. I can't begin to pay you back for any of it, and this, right now, isn't anything I wouldn't have gladly--"

Behind him, he could hear John's breath coming light and quick, and he wished to God he still had his pants on, but any one humiliating aspect of the situation wasn't more than a drop in the bucket. He swallowed hard, took a deep breath. "I don't think you have any idea how much I want this. There's no reason you would, but I just, I can't do this. I can't. Not if you're only here because I'm ..." There should have been some safety in the knowledge that John couldn't understand a word he was saying, but that was the worst of it -- that was the point. He pushed his fingertips hard against his forehead. "I don't want to be the place you leave your secrets."

The sounds hung in the air, and Rodney waited stupidly for something to happen, but of course nothing did. The words didn't mean anything, they weren't words at all. He was too panicked to change tactics, he could barely stand to listen to himself and he had to sound worse to John. If he could keep it up long enough it'd have to work, right? So he just started babbling, drowning everything else out as his voice rose to the breaking point. "Okay, so that's that, now I'm just going to stand here while you get dressed, and tomorrow we'll -- oh God, this is pathetic, who am I kidding? I don't know what the hell we're going to do tomorrow, and you're really not stupid, you know it too, so would you just take the hint and leave, please, you don't want this, God, John, just go--"

Out of nowhere, John's hand clamped down on Rodney's elbow and yanked him around, and before he could pull away John had his palm centered right over the exposed stone. Rodney tried to fight him for it, but genetics had the odds skewed so far it wasn't even a contest. A muted glow lit the flesh of John's hand as the device came on, and then Rodney was bombarded with a storm of input, furious and chaotic, sent without any order at all--

--himself twisted and seizing on the floor on Tisros; John's hand locked around his gun as he stalked the Genii through the halls, running on fury as wide as the sea; excitement humming through his own voice as John called up a projection of the solar system; the green glow of the personal shield as he'd walked straight into the energy creature; his desperate expression as Ford's men had hauled him away from where John was sitting in the dart; the two of them playing chess; shouting at each other on the Dorandan space station; cold sweat beading on John's back as he pounded on the jumper door at the bottom of the ocean; the absolute focus on his own face as they stood in the power room and synchronized the city's population to move through the crisis like gears in a clock--

On and on, like John was pulling the drawers out of filing cabinets and throwing their contents into the air, too fast and vivid not to be a catalog he'd kept for a while, his hand digging into John's shoulder that first time they tried the device; their legs bumping at the cafeteria table as Rodney dodged the napkin Teyla threw at him; the thick span of his own shoulders as John shoved him up against the wall; the heat rolling off his own skin; the inside of John's closed eyes as he pressed his face into the side of Rodney's neck and his dick against Rodney's thigh, the images he'd just transmitted spilling out from his murmuring lips like scattered frames projected through the dark toward a movie screen--

The transmission cut off abruptly, and Rodney realized he had his own hand closed down over the one John had wrapped over his arm, their fingers pressing into each other's skin. He didn't remember putting it there, if he'd been trying to pull John's hand away or hold it in place. Both of them were breathing hard, and in the dark John's face looked almost angry, but his pale eyes were wide, like it was him and not Rodney backed up against the wall.

John shifted his weight and took a step back, stopping just at the distance where he'd have to pull Rodney after him or let go. His expression flickered, like he was struggling to keep it fixed in place. Then the last two years of Rodney's life flipped into a different configuration, familiar events reassembling themselves around different logic, a different set of truths. He blinked, and his hand tightened down over John's. When John took another step backward, Rodney let John lead him back to the bed, and then he spent a long time finding ways to say that he'd understood, and he did, too, and yes, to all of it. Yes.

Sometime not long before dawn, John pressed his mouth under the edge of Rodney's jaw and slid out from under the sheets. Rodney could hear the rustle of cloth as John retrieved his clothes from the floor, and Rodney snagged his own boxers, pulled them on, and headed to the bathroom. He didn't do anything in there but lean again the counter for a minute. When he came back out, John was perched on the edge of the bed, lacing up his boots, and without planning it Rodney found himself stopping halfway across the room to watch him. The watery gray light hung over the slope of his shoulders, the exposed line of his neck, picked out the muscles moving in his forearms as he tugged the laces into place. He didn't look guarded or hurried, or like he was conscious of being watched, though Rodney was sure that John had heard his feet on the tile. It was just an ordinary moment.

Knotting the bow down, John smoothed his hands over the knees of his pants and sat up, his eyes going straight to Rodney's as he lifted his head. The question came out without any direction on Rodney's part: the Daedalus entering orbit eight days from now, Caldwell and Elizabeth watching Rodney in the lab, a focused discussion between representatives of SGC and the IOA. Caldwell handing Elizabeth a file as he shook his head regretfully; himself, duffle over his shoulder, taking a last helpless look at the gate room, and then Caldwell touching his earpiece and the white light of the transporter as they were both beamed away.

John went still, and Rodney swallowed but didn't transmit anything more. He knew that he still mattered to this expedition, that he could find ways to do almost everything important that he had before. He'd seen how far the other people here would go to help him do it. But the SGC employed only the best and the brightest, and he didn't know how the IOA would react to the news that the payroll included a man who couldn't even speak his own name. And if they sent him back to Earth, that was it, there wouldn't be anything he could do about it; he couldn't even tell them what they were forcing him to leave behind.

John closed his eyes for a second, but when he opened them and stood, his gaze was clear and steady, and he had his feet planted shoulder-width apart. The answer came back implacable under the faint sheen of humor: Teyla and Ronon tossing General Landry bodily through the wormhole. Rodney's lips moving as he expounded to a panel of IOA bureaucrats, while Radek crouched behind a pillar and held one hand up by his mouth as he threw his voice. Elizabeth giving a teary-eyed eulogy in the south plaza, all of Atlantis wearing appropriately devastated expressions, and John and Rodney hidden in a balcony and trying desperately not to snicker as Sam Carter hurled herself on the closed coffin.

The humor faded as John showed Rodney the city under Wraith fire, the Daedalus racing toward them from half a galaxy too far out, the two of them dodging flames in the control room and working frantically to get the last of their people out. The image froze over the last, cataclysmic explosion, then bright midday sun washed the somber edge away, and now it was Rodney and John, aged seventy, sprawled in lawn chairs on the west pier. Rodney was bald and grizzled under his eye patch, and John had gray hair and a peg leg. They were drinking beer and scowling at the children weaving through the water in a school of small boats, who laughed as the two of them brandished stunners in an unmistakable gesture of hey, kids, get offa my lawn!

Relief washed thickly over him, and John's mouth twitched as he rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. He tipped his head toward the door, and Rodney nodded and swung a hand in that direction, meaning, yes, go on, it'll be light out soon. As John held his hand out just over the sensor, he looked back with a strangely young expression, and passed one last image to Rodney: an analogue clock moving forward an hour and forty-five minutes, and the two of them seated at a table under an open window, eating breakfast in the wide light of the morning sun. Rodney stood there, caught by the thin net of hope John had wrapped around the scene, then he rolled his eyes dramatically and jabbed a finger at the door -- yes, fine, when do I ever say no to food, now would you get out of here already? John shook his head and complied, leaving Rodney with the faint impression of a thumb run lightly over the back of his hand, and the smile he'd caught just a glimpse of as John had ducked out into the hall.

There were at least two hours before the end of the third shift, which meant those on duty would be hunkered down in their solitary stations while the rest of the city slept. Rodney stepped into the shower and put on a clean uniform, then headed out into the silent halls. He had some half-formed idea of going to the lab, but instead he ended up just wandering, skimming one hand over the surface of the walls as he moved past them. His route turned into a strange inventory of places he didn't normally go -- the catwalk over the jumper bay, the staircase up through the storage rooms, the dim blue corridor running next to the secondary life support artery. Just taking stock of the city, which he'd almost lost any number of times now, but which was still here, still whole.

Eventually, he found himself outside the chair room, and he hesitated for a moment, then palmed the door open and slipped inside. The room was dark, quiescent, and he moved carefully in the gloom as he climbed the platform and settled himself in the chair. It didn't light up when he laid his head back against it, but that was fine, he hadn't meant it to. He closed his eyes and felt the broad lines of it under him, the way it seemed to root right down to the heart of the city. Then he looked up at the ceiling and thought, simply, thank you.

And maybe it was the device, or the ZPM, or just a manifestation of Rodney's uncharacteristically sentimental frame of mind, but he could have sworn that for a moment he felt the whole length and breadth of Atlantis, the cool ocean beneath her and the warm rays of the rising sun where they slid over her reflective skin. Her systems pumped life through the rooms and hallways in a complicated heartbeat, drinking power from the sources they'd brought her and guiding it to where it was needed. The sensors mapped out the small glow of her two hundred and eighty-six residents, as real and safe as if he held them cupped in the palms of his hands. And he felt her looking down on him, rising up into his hands where they were pressed against the arms of the control chair, and telling him that he was welcome. That he could stay.