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Ripple Effect

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The makeshift sled for the supplies salvaged from the jumper caught on roots or wedged between rocks seemingly at every turn, making the trip out of the mountains slow and tedious. By the time they left the last of the hills, the stretcher was torn in several places, and Rodney had begun to wonder if they would be forced to leave the supplies behind after all.

He glanced at the tattered material and had to admit he wasn't in much better shape. He was exhausted, dirty, hungry, and even with whatever Sheppard had done, his hand ached. Glancing over at the others, he could see he wasn't the only one ready for a break. If Sheppard had suggested they return to the village and wait for the morning, Rodney would have willingly agreed.

"Are you certain you do not wish to stop in at the pub first?" Prin asked as they entered the meadow with the 'gate. "Teg will have some sort of supper ready, and Yev should be back by now. She will be disappointed she missed you."

Sheppard shook his head, and Rodney only listened with half an ear to the rest of the conversation as he walked over to the DHD and started to dial. The wormhole formed a few seconds later, and he glanced back at the rest of the team.

Teyla stood in front of Prin, grasping his two hands. "Please give Yev our apologies," she told him. "And we hope to return soon. We should have a good crop for trade later in the season."

"I will," Prin replied. He let go of Teyla's hands and turned to John. "Sheppard, I am sorry you did not find the crystal." He held out his hands to John.

Sheppard took the outstretched hands. "It was a longshot at best," he replied with a shrug.

Prin studied Sheppard's face, and for a moment, Rodney wondered if he had figured out the truth about Atlantis or even what he and John had really found in the cave. After another moment, Prin smiled and let go of John's hands. "Safe travels, Sheppard. Know that you and your people are always welcome."

"Thanks."

Prin nodded and walked over to Mica and Ronon who were busy removing the stretcher from the hreindyr.

"Teyla, you and Rodney head back," John said. "I'll help Ronon with the supplies."

"Yes, Colonel," Teyla replied. She waved to Mica then turned toward the 'gate.

Rodney watched her disappear through the wormhole, then glanced back at John.

"Go," Sheppard said. "We'll be right behind you."

Rodney nodded and stepped into the shimmering pool.

"Rodney," Elizabeth greeted when he exited the 'gate. "Good to see you back. Where are Colonel Sheppard and Ronon?"

Rodney gestured to the still-active 'gate. "They're coming. They're bringing back the supplies we managed to recover from the jumper."

"That's good news. Even with regular contact with Earth, every bit helps." Elizabeth clasped her hands together. "And the ZPM?"

Rodney shook his head and glanced back at the active wormhole.

"I see. In that case --" she started to add, but stopped when Sheppard and Ronon appeared pulling the stretcher behind them.

"Elizabeth," Sheppard said as the wormhole shut down.

"Colonel. I understand you did not find the ZPM."

Sheppard shook his head. He signalled to one of the Marines standing near the stairs leading up to the control room, and let go of his side of the stretcher. "Looks like it was destroyed. Probably a long time ago."

Ronon set his side of the stretcher on the floor and stepped back as two Marines stepped forward and took the stretcher loaded with gear.

Elizabeth waited until the Marines left the room then pursed her lips. "Get cleaned up and checked out. Once you've all had a chance to find something to eat, we'll meet in the conference room."

"Copy that," Sheppard said and motioned them out of the gateroom.

Rodney took his time showering and dressing. He sat on the edge of his bed, staring down at his left hand, poking the pearly white skin of the fresh scars. The moment of truth had finally arrived, and he wasn't looking forward to explaining what had happened to Carson or Elizabeth, never mind Ronon and Teyla.

There was a soft tap at his door, and Rodney suspected he knew who it was even before he opened the door and found Sheppard waiting for him.

"I think I can find my way down to the infirmary without help," he groused. He stepped back from the door and looked around for his boots.

John walked into the room and let the door slide closed behind him. "Figured it wouldn't be fair to make you face Beckett alone," he replied.

Rodney sat in the desk chair and tied his boots. "Ronon knows something happened," he said and stood.

"I know." John paused and studied him for a moment. "You ready?"

Rodney looked down at his hand. "Not really," he replied and led the way out of the room.

They were near the transporter when Sheppard stopped and tapped his earpiece. "Sheppard here," he said. John listened for a moment then closed his eyes and nodded. "Understood. We'll be right there," he said and tapped off the radio.

"What?" Rodney asked as John waved his hand over the sensor for the transporter. "What's happened?"

John stepped into the transporter and tapped the screen for the control room. "Change of plans. Beckett is meeting us in the conference room."

Rodney swallowed. "Why?"

John stepped out of the transporter and led the way to the control room, then over the bridge to the conference room.

"Ronon said something to Carson," Rodney guessed. "Didn't he."

Sheppard nodded.

"Lovely," Rodney muttered as the conference room doors swung open.

He followed Sheppard inside and stopped a few steps into the room. Elizabeth sat at one end of the conference table, her arms on the table and her hands clasped in front of her. Teyla and Ronon sat side-by-side along one side of the table. Teyla looked curious, Ronon glared from Rodney to John.

Carson stood next to Elizabeth's chair with his arms crossed over his chest and a frown on his face. The doors had barely twisted closed before he came around the table and pointed at one of the empty chairs. "Sit," he ordered.

"I'm not a dog," Rodney muttered.

Carson gave him a pointed look and Rodney sat in the indicated chair.

"Colonel?" Elizabeth asked as Carson knelt down, picked up Rodney's hand, and turned it over. "Care to explain?"

"It's … complicated," John replied as he slid into the chair next to Rodney's.

"So we've heard," Ronon replied.

Beckett touched the edges of one of the healed burns. "Any pain," he asked, his gentle fingers and tone belying his earlier frustration.

Rodney shook his head. "Not really. Only if I pick up something heavy."

Carson nodded. He glanced up at Rodney. "Can you straighten your fingers?"

"Umm, yes, but that hurts more." Rodney flexed his fingers a few times and tried not to wince.

"Carson?" Elizabeth asked.

Beckett let go of Rodney's hand and shook his head. "I can't even begin to explain it," he said as he stood and sat on Rodney's other side, "but the burns are completely healed." He turned to Rodney and added, "You'll still need some physical therapy to help with the stiffness in the joints and tendons." He looked back at Elizabeth. "I'll want to run a few scans to be sure, but other than the stiffness and some scarring, he should be fine."

Elizabeth nodded and turned to Sheppard. "You were saying, Colonel?"

Sheppard pinched the bridge of his nose, and Rodney knew precisely how he felt. He wasn't sure how much he really believed about what had happened. He had no idea how to explain it to Elizabeth and the others.

"The Lurrans tell stories of a wise woman who once lived in that cave," Teyla said into the silence. "The stories say she was a great healer." She looked across the table and nodded at Rodney. "I think we can assume at least part of those stories were true."

"Something like that," John agreed, and explained what Yana had told them about the true nature of the mental bond and how Rodney's hand had been healed.

"Incredible," Carson said once John was finished.

"That's one word for it," John replied with a wry smile.

"So what happens now," Ronon asked.

"Good question," Elizabeth replied. "John? Rodney?"

Rodney glanced at Sheppard. "We don't know yet," he replied. "This has all been more than a bit of a shock." He curled his fingers into his palm.

Elizabeth pursed her lips. "Yes, I imagine it has."

John sat forward in his chair. "One thing that hasn't changed," he said and glanced from Elizabeth to Ronon and Teyla, then over at Beckett, "no one outside of this room needs to know about this."

Rodney saw Elizabeth purse her lips. "Stargate Command --" she started to say, but John spoke over her.

"They can't know," John replied. "They find out, and what do you think General Landry will do?"

"Not the way I want to see Area 51 again," Rodney added.

"John, this is getting much bigger than just a feeling when one of you is hurt," Elizabeth told him. "You and Rodney are going to need help dealing with this."

John snorted and sat back in his chair. "I don't think helping would be the first thing on the SGC's mind," he replied.

"My people have heard of The Way," Teyla said. "It is mentioned in the old writings as The Way of the Ancestors. Halling would know more. I can ask him if you wish."

Rodney could tell Sheppard was about to say 'no' and jumped in first. "More information can't hurt," he said.

John shook his head.

"I will be discreet, John," Teyla promised in a low voice. "I will not reveal your secret."

Rodney and John exchanged a look.

"Fine, I guess," Sheppard finally agreed with a sigh.

Teyla smiled and nodded. "It would be best if I spoke to Halling in person," she added.

John glanced at Elizabeth, and when she nodded, he stood and motioned to the door. "I'll take you. I can wait in the jumper while you two talk."

Elizabeth pushed back her chair. "John. Rodney. You both have a lot of thinking to do. I don't expect an answer right away, but I would like to know when you've decided what you want to do next."

John stopped at the doors to the conference room and looked back at her. He nodded to Elizabeth then followed Teyla out of the room.

Carson stood and tapped Rodney on the shoulder. "In the meantime, if you don't want everyone on the base to suspect something, we'd best rewrap that hand. And I still want to run a few tests."

"Oh, umm." He curled his hand against his chest. He toyed with the idea of simply returning to his quarters, or maybe the lab. He needed to think.

"Rodney, go with Carson," Elizabeth told him when he hesitated.

"Come on, lad," Beckett added and tugged his arm.

Rodney nodded and followed Carson out of the conference room and down to the infirmary.

Sharon looked up from the computer on her desk when they entered. "Everything all right, Doctor Beckett?" she asked.

"Nothing to worry about, Sharon, love," Carson replied with a smile. "I just want to check Rodney's hand."

"Do you need help?"

"No, no," Carson said and pushed Rodney toward the back of the infirmary. "I've got it."

Sharon nodded and turned back to her computer.

"Lie down over there," Carson said, pointing to a bed in the corner. "I'll get the scanner set up."

He positioned the Ancient scanner beside Rodney's bed, hooked up the computer, and stood back. "Just lie still now," he said to Rodney and started the scanner.

Rodney tried not to fidget as the scanner passed back and forth over his hand and arm.

The scanner finished its last pass, and Beckett stood at the end of the bed, studying the results on the computer screen.

"Well?" Rodney asked impatiently and sat up.

Carson looked up from the computer. "Nothing too serious," he said with a reassuring smile.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Rodney demanded. "I thought you said I was fine."

"And you are fine," Carson said as he gathered a few supplies and set them on the roll away table next to Rodney's bed. "The scanner doesn't show any signs of permanent damage to the muscles or tendons." He pulled a stool over in front of Rodney, sat down, and started to wrap gauze around Rodney's hand.

"The joints are a bit swollen still, and I imagine you're feeling some tightness in your fingers when you try to move them." He glanced up, and Rodney nodded. "I'll give you something for the inflammation. And as I said, you'll likely need some physical therapy as well."

Rodney grunted.

"How are you doing with everything else?" Beckett asked as he worked.

Rodney shrugged and looked away.

Carson tied off the bandage and sat back. "Now that I know what to look for, I can start a new search through the medical database for information in this 'Way' Yana told you about," he offered.

Rodney made another non-committal noise and refused to look at Carson.

Carson tapped him on the arm. "Rodney? Look at me." He waited until Rodney glanced at him, then continued, "You can talk to me, you know."

Rodney looked down at his freshly bandaged hand. "I came to Atlantis expecting to make new scientific discoveries," he muttered to himself as much as to Carson. "I wanted to learn more about the Ancients. Find some amazing technology that would change the course of human history." He gave Carson a crooked smile. "Win a Nobel Prize."

He looked down at his bandaged hand. "This, though." He sighed. "I've never been one for metaphysical mumbo-jumbo."

"I know," Carson said with a smile. He sat down on the bed next to Rodney and added, "Have you talked to Colonel Sheppard about all of this? What does he think?"

Rodney toyed with the edge of the sheet. "We haven't had a chance to really discuss it," he replied and picked at the fresh gauze. "I know I'm not the easiest person to be around," he admitted. "Part of me wouldn't blame Sheppard if he decided he didn't want to go any farther along this Way Yana mentioned."

"And the other part?" Carson asked.

Rodney shrugged. "I don't know."

Carson smiled and stilled Rodney's fidgeting fingers. "I know such a level of trust is hard for you. I'm willing to bet John is just as scared as you are at the moment." He ducked his head and caught Rodney's eye. "I'd bet he's maybe just a little better at hiding it."

Rodney thought about that for a moment. "So what would you do?" he asked and looked over at Beckett.

"Me?"

"Would you want to," he waved a hand in the air over his head, "ascend to a higher plane?"

Carson sat with his hands braced on the bed and stared down at his feet. "Honestly, I've never given it much thought," he replied.

"Me either," Rodney replied and hopped off the bed. "I guess I'll need to start."

He was almost to the door when Carson called his name.

"Rodney." He waited until Rodney turned around, then added, "Talk to John. You both need to agree on what you want to do next. Whatever you two decide, you won't have to deal with it alone. We'll figure this out."

Rodney gave him a tight smile. "Yeah, Sheppard said the same thing." He gave Carson a nod and left the infirmary. He wasn't in the mood to deal with anyone or anything else at the moment, but his stomach rumbled, reminding him how long it had been since he'd eaten. After a brief hesitation, he stopped in the mess hall long enough to grab a cup of coffee and several power bars before heading down to his lab.

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

The jumper exited the tower, and Teyla watched as John checked their course on the HUD. His movements were tightly controlled as he adjusted their course, then focused on the water skimming past under them.

John certainly wasn't as obvious as Rodney when it came to expressing his emotions. Still, it was clear to her he was feeling just as overwhelmed by what Yana had told them. He hadn't said a word since they had left the conference room, and watching him now, she noted how he looked everywhere but at her.

She thought back to the hike out of the mountains and remembered the sense of unease emanating from her teammates. Rodney had given Ronon more than one furtive glance and tried to keep his distance as they walked. Ronon, for his part, had glared at Rodney and had occasionally given Sheppard a strange look as well. When she glanced back at Sheppard and raised an eyebrow in question, he had merely shaken his head and focused on the surrounding trees.

Considering how Ronon had acted once they had discovered Sheppard and Rodney were missing, Teyla chalked up the awkward feelings as Ronon unable to let go of his concern, but unwilling to tell John or Rodney how he felt. The last thing she would have suspected was that Rodney and John had met one of the Ancestors during the time they were missing, or that Ronon had somehow known about the encounter.

And then for Yana to tell them about the reason for the mental bond …

She remembered how, during the meeting in the conference room, John had sat stiffly upright in his chair, as close as he could get to standing at attention while sitting down. Rodney had sat beside him, splitting his time between staring at his hand and watching Sheppard with a worried crease across his forehead. Throughout the meeting, John had kept tight control of his emotions, his tone flat as he reported to Doctor Weir what had happened in the cave.

If asked, Teyla was sure John would reply it was to keep Rodney from panicking. She suspected, however, that John was just as afraid, but refused to allow anyone to help him. While John freely offered support when something happened to his team, in the year and a half she had known him, there were only a handful of instances Teyla could remember where John allowed one of them to return the favor. She reached across the mini-DHD and rested a hand on Sheppard's arm, hoping this was one of those rare times when he would accept the comfort offered.

"John --"

"Don't," John interrupted. He shook off her light hold and tightened his grip on the control sticks in front of him. He took a deep breath and glanced over at her. "Just … Don't. Please." He stared back at her, and for a moment, Teyla saw the fear hidden behind his carefully constructed mask.

Teyla nodded and curled her fingers into her palm as she retreated back to her side of the ship. She heard John release a slow breath a moment later and let the silence grow between them as the mainland came into view in the distance.

John landed the shuttle ten minutes later. He powered down the ship and opened the rear hatch for her, but stayed in his chair.

"I will find Halling," she told him as she stood.

John gave her a brief nod, then turned back to the control console in front of him.

Teyla pursed her lips and started to reach out to touch him again, but thought better of it. "I will be back as quickly as possible," she said and left the jumper.

"Teyla!" several voices shouted as she walked into the village a few minutes later.

Teyla smiled, and despite the seriousness of her mission, she felt herself relax as she returned the various greetings from the villagers.

"Teyla Emmagan," Iranda said as she stepped out of a nearby tent.

"Hello, Iranda," Teyla replied, and touched her forehead to Iranda's. She felt a tug on her trouser leg and looked down to see a toddler standing precariously at her feet. The little boy grasped the material again just before he lost his balance and plopped down on the ground.

Teyla laughed and scooped up the little boy, balancing him on her hip. "He is getting so big," she said to Iranda with a smile.

"It is nearly time for Jeeta's first sherehe," Iranda replied. "I hope you will be able to attend?"

Teyla nodded. "I would not miss it," she said, glancing around the village. Unfortunately, she didn't see Halling anywhere.

Iranda gave her a measured look. "You did not come merely to visit. Did you?"

Teyla shook her head. "I need to speak to Halling."

Iranda took the baby back and pointed to the fields beyond the village. "He is checking on one of the hunting parties. He should be back soon."

"Thank you, Iranda. Please let me know the date of the feast." She tickled Jeeta's knee. The little boy giggled and hid his head in Iranda's neck.

Teyla walked away from the tents and saw Halling coming across the open field in front of her, the hunting party following behind him. When Halling saw her, his face broke out in a smile, and he held up his hand.

"Teyla," he greeted. "It is good to see you."

"And you," she replied as they touched foreheads.

She greeted the hunters with a nod and a smile, then gave Halling a significant look.

Halling studied her for a moment then turned to the group beside him. "Go," he told them. "We will talk after the evening meal."

The men and women nodded, smiled at Teyla, and continued on toward the village.

Teyla waited until the hunting party was on the outskirts of the village before she started walking as well.

"What brings you?" Halling asked as they strolled back toward the tents.

"We discovered something on a recent trip to Lurra," Teyla said. "Doctor Weir was hoping you may be able to help."

Halling ducked his head. "I will do what I can."

They walked several paces as Teyla considered how to phrase her question. She did not want to lie to Halling; however, she also needed to be careful not to reveal the truth about the link John and Rodney shared.

"Teyla?" Halling prompted.

Teyla stopped and glanced at the village and the people milling near the central tent. She could smell the spices from the evening meal and her stomach twinged.

She took a deep breath and turned back to Halling. "Our recent mission to Lurra was to search for a ZPM rumored to be on the planet."

Halling nodded. "I remember you telling us about these rumors last winter."

Teyla glanced up at him and nodded. "We were in the mountains behind Yev's village and we found a reference to something called The Way in one of the caves."

"I see," Halling replied, and Teyla hoped she was only imagining the defensiveness in his tone.

"You told me about the Way of the Ancestors in some of the old writings when Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay were missing last year. Doctor Weir hoped you might be able to help her understand what this 'Way' may have been."

Halling studied her for a moment, and Teyla wondered if he had guessed there was more to the story than what she was telling him.

After another few moments, Halling steepled his fingers near his chin. "What little I know of The Way of the Ancestors is fragmentary at best," he told her. "Few of the old texts mention it."

"That is what I feared," she admitted and looked out at the nearby forest. "Do you remember anything describing what The Way was? What it did or how it worked?"

Halling looked over at her and shook his head. "There is mention of the wayposts like the one Colonel Sheppard found last year. A few of the texts allude to the releasing of one's burdens and accepting the power of The Way." He looked over at her. "I am sorry I cannot help you more. The impression I have is the Ancestors considered The Way sacred. They did not often speak of it."

"There is no need to apologise," Teyla replied and squeezed his hand. "I will pass on to Doctor Weir what you have told me."

Halling glanced at the jumper parked behind the village. Teyla followed his gaze and saw John standing at the end of the ramp watching several children playing nearby.

"The evening meal is almost ready," Halling said. "You and Colonel Sheppard are welcome to join us."

"Thank you, Halling, but we must return to the city." She touched her forehead to Halling's.

"You will return for the sherehe?" he asked as she stepped back.

"I will," Teyla replied. She gave him a last wave and turned toward the jumper.

She skirted around the edge of the village and met John at the bottom of the ramp.

"You don't look like you have good news," John said as he led the way inside the ship.

"Unfortunately, Halling did not know as much as I had hoped." Teyla sat in the co-pilot's chair and watched as John ran through the preflight checks. "I am sorry I do not have better news."

John flashed her a smile and powered up the jumper. "Not your fault the Ancients liked to keep their secrets."

Teyla reached out and touched John's arm, silently grateful when he didn't flinch away from her. "Whatever you and Rodney decide, I will do whatever we can to help you. I am sure Ronon will, too."

John humphed out a breath as the ship lifted off.

"Have you spoken to Rodney?" Teyla asked once the shuttle was over the ocean.

Sheppard glanced over at her. "There hasn't really been any time."

Teyla nodded as the city appeared in the distance.

"I was married once," Sheppard said softly a few moments later. "Have I told you that?" He glanced over at her, and Teyla shook her head. "It was supposed to be 'til death do us part, you know?"

Teyla didn't know, but John was finally talking, and that was the important thing.

"Things didn't really work out that way." He stared out at the water racing past them. "This, though …"

Teyla sat forward in her chair. "It is understandable to be apprehensive."

John glanced over at her with a wry smile. "I guess that's a better way of saying scared spitless."

Teyla smiled. "I imagine Rodney is equally afraid."

John snorted. "You could say that. Let's just say he did not take Yana's news well."

"You need to talk," she said again. "I do not believe this is a decision that must be made immediately. However, you must be willing to talk to each other, honestly, about what you are feeling."

John sighed as the city loomed closer. "Yeah, I know."

She nodded and let the matter rest.

A few minutes later the sunroof yawned open below them, and it didn't take long for John to manoeuvre the ship into the jumper bay. Once the ship landed, Teyla stood and watched as John fiddled with the controls and refused to look at her.

"I will see you later," she told him and walked toward the rear of the ship, content to leave John to his thoughts. She was near the rear hatch when Sheppard spoke.

"Hey, Teyla?" he called from where he sat in the cockpit. She turned around, and he looked back at her. "Umm. Thanks," he said with a shy smile. He didn't wait for her to reply, he merely turned back to the console and tapped a few more of the controls.

Teyla watched him for a moment, then smiled at his back, nodded to herself, and left the ship.

~*~*~*~ SGA ~*~*~*~

Several hours later, John lay in bed, staring up at the geometric patterns on the ceiling of his room. It had been a long day, between the hike down the mountain and the time difference between Lurra and Atlantis, he should have been soundly asleep. Instead, he'd spent the last couple of hours tossing and turning, unable to settle.

He sighed, pushed the bedcovers aside, and sat on the edge of the bed, his elbows resting on his knees as he held his head in his hands.

"The true purpose of the mental bond was to allow two individuals to remain connected once the path to ascension was complete."

"The link is a permanent part of each of you. Once established, it cannot be broken, except in death."

"Both of you acted on a purely instinctual level."

"Isn't this freaking you out? Because it's really freaking me out."

John stared at the photo sitting on the corner of his desk of the pair of them standing in the embarkation room at the SGC. "Yeah, Rodney," he mumbled to himself. "It's kinda freaking me out, too."

He pushed himself back on the bed until his back rested against the wall, pulled his knees up to his chest, and dangled his arms over his knees.

"He is your chaguo ndugu," Teyla told him once. "You are both fortunate to have such a bond. It is highly respected by my people."

There was that word again, he realised. Bond.

John knocked his head against the wall behind him and thought about how much his life had changed in such a short amount of time.

After his last mission in Afghanistan, he had tried to cut any sort of personal ties. For family, it had been easy. His father and brother were no longer speaking to him, Nancy had divorced him, and his mother had died years before. He'd told himself he was doing his special operations team a favor by transferring before any of the bad blood the Air Force brass felt for him blew back on them. As far as he was concerned, Antarctica had been perfect. He was still able to fly, and everyone left him alone the rest of the time.

Over the last year and a half, something changed.

"Family is important. I-I've come to realise that because the people here have become a sort of a ... kind of a surrogate family to me."

John scrubbed a hand over his face as Rodney's message to his sister echoed in his mind. Somewhere along the line, the same sentiment had become true for him as well. Rodney, Teyla, Elizabeth, Carson, and now Ronon, they were his surrogate family. What surprised him most was that he had been okay with these new personal ties. These bonds.

Until now.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and considered the new wrinkle of the mental bond with McKay and everything that potentially entailed. He twisted his hands until he could see his palms.

It had been Yana who had healed Rodney's burns. Hadn't it? He stared at his hands, lost in thought.

After a moment, he dropped his hands, leant his head back, and stared at the patterns on the ceiling. No matter how he tried to convince himself otherwise, a piece of him suspected he'd had at least as much to do with fixing Rodney's hand as Yana. And that really scared him. Because if that was true, then everything else Yana had told them was true as well.

He thudded his head against the wall. No wonder he couldn't sleep.

Maybe a run would help, he decided and stood. He changed into a pair of sweatpants and a black t-shirt and left his room.

He took a few steps down the hall toward the transporter, then turned and glanced back down the hall toward McKay's room. Between taking Teyla to the mainland and his own desire to avoid the dinner rush in the mess hall, he hadn't seen Rodney since the briefing that afternoon.

Should he try to talk to McKay now? he wondered.

He took a few steps toward Rodney's door before he changed his mind and stopped again.

Do you want to wake him on the off chance he's finally getting some sleep? he asked himself. Besides, what would you even say to him, anyway?

He ducked his head, then backtracked to the transporter and tapped the map on the wall.

He started jogging his usual route through the dimly lit lower section and tried to wrap his head around everything Yana had told them. Unfortunately, other memories bubbled to the surface instead.

"Dad's right, John," David told him with a scowl. "It's time to put the fantasies away. You want to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot? Really?" David scoffed. "You have a responsibility to your family, not to mention Dad's legacy, you know."

"John, I just can't do this anymore," Nancy told him. "I'm tired of worrying about you. Tired of being second in your life." She ducked her head. "Tired of wondering if this time you won't come home." She picked up the suitcase at her feet. "I'm going to my parent's house for the holidays." She took a deep breath and added, "I won't be coming back."

"You know, this isn't about you, Sheppard. It's a lot bigger than that," O'Neill said with a glare.

How many times had he let someone down? he wondered as he finished one lap and started another. His father. Nancy. Certain members of the Air Force brass certainly thought he hadn't lived up to the military standard.

Now, according to Yana, he was bound to another person, potentially for the rest of eternity? That added a whole new level to the word commitment. It was one he wasn't at all sure he could live up to.

He finished the second lap and bent forward with his hands on his knees.

He would be the first to admit the mental link he shared with Rodney had proved useful on more than one occasion; it had saved both of their lives more than once. But ascension? He shook his head and stood up straight. He was not the pure and innocent type. He'd done some terrible things in the name of defending both his country and Atlantis.

Where did that leave Rodney if he did want to eventually ascend and John couldn't? Or what if he decided he wanted to take that step and McKay wouldn't take it with him?

He wiped his brow on the sleeve of his shirt and glanced at his watch. Almost zero two hundred. The run hadn't done as much to clear his head as he'd hoped. He was still no closer to making a decision.

He walked back to the transporter and only gave the map a distracted glance as he tapped the section for his quarters. It wasn't until he stepped out of the transporter that he realised he was in the wrong section. He grimaced and was about to try again when he heard soft music coming from the end of the hall.

So much for the idea McKay was in his quarters asleep, he thought to himself as he glanced down the corridor toward the rec room as the music ended.

John ducked his head, and for a moment, considered letting things lie. He had no idea what to say to Rodney, and he wasn't sure he was ready to hear anything McKay might say to him. The piano started again, playing the same mournful, slow tune.

Not sleeping and probably wrestling with the same questions he was, John decided. Leave him be or try to start talking like Teyla suggested? he wondered as the music drifted down the hall.

He listened for a few more seconds, then pursed his lips and tapped his closed fist on the nearest wall. "Talking it is," he muttered to himself and headed for the rec room.

He crept down the hall and peeked into the rec room where Rodney sat in front of the keyboard. John watched as he swayed to the music, clearly lost in his own head. For a split-second, John wondered if it had really been an accident he'd tapped the wrong section on the transporter map. Before he could decide if it was something with the link or really happenstance, Rodney stopped playing and glanced back at the door.

"I really wish you wouldn't hover," he muttered and turned back to the keyboard.

John stepped into the room and let the door slide closed behind him. He pulled a chair over from a corner of the room and sat down on the other side of the keyboard where he could see Rodney's face.

"I thought you said your fingers were stiff. Doesn't playing make your hand hurt?"

Rodney glanced down at the scars on the palm of his hand and shrugged. "Carson said I needed to do something to loosen up the joints."

John made a non-committal grunt as Rodney started playing the melancholy song again.

"I haven't heard you play this one before," John said after listening for a few moments.

Rodney looked up at him. "The first part of the Gymnopédies by Erik Satie."

John nodded. "Good music to think by."

Rodney snorted and shook his head. "Not your most subtle effort, Sheppard."

John let the comment pass and leant forward in the chair, his arms resting on his knees. "No, probably not," he admitted.

Rodney finished playing and let his hands rest in his lap. "I'm sorry," he muttered at his hands.

"What can you possibly have to be sorry about?" John asked.

McKay glanced up at him, and John easily read the misery in his eyes. "I didn't stop to think what the implications of the link really meant. Maybe if I had …" His voice trailed off, and he looked back down at his hands.

"Hey," John said and waited for Rodney to look at him. "It wouldn't have mattered one way or the other. Remember what Yana said? The link can't be broken."

"Still, I could have --" Rodney started to argue, but John shook his head.

"What's done is done," John told him. "We can't go back and change it. Not that I want to," he added and waited to see how Mckay would react.

Rodney glanced up at him. "No. I-I don't either."

John nodded. "Then the only thing we have to decide is what to do next."

Rodney's fingers fidgeted on the keyboard. "Do you want to ascend?" He waved a hand out beside him. "Someday?"

John sat back in his chair. "Do you?"

The absent scales Rodney's fingers had been playing on the keyboard settled into another tune, this time one John recognised.

"I don't know," Rodney admitted, and John wondered if he even realised he was playing music again. "The idea of knowing everything … having all of the wonders of the universe laid out in front of me …" He gave John a hesitant smile. "There is some appeal."

John smiled back. "I'll bet."

"On the other hand," he continued, "What's the use of having all of that knowledge if you can't do anything with it? Simply knowing the how isn't enough. I want to understand the why. And I want to take that knowledge and do some good with it." He shrugged and looked down at his hands, his expression a mixture of puzzlement and surprise as he realised he'd been unconsciously playing music. He shook his head and started the piece over again.

"Prelude in C," John said with a nod.

Rodney looked up at him. "What?"

"Prelude in C," John told him and nodded at the keyboard. "You play that one a lot."

Rodney smiled. "At least you finally remembered the name." He finished playing, pushed himself away from the keyboard, and focused on John. "You didn't answer my question, you know."

John stood from the chair and paced a few steps. "I'm not sure I could ascend even if I wanted to. Besides, after everything with Chaya," he crossed his arms over his chest, "I really don't know. I'm not really a 'follow the rules' kind of guy."

Rodney snorted but said nothing.

"Exactly," John replied with a smile. He stood against the wall, a few paces away from Rodney as the silence grew between them.

"So what did we just decide here?" Rodney asked a few minutes later.

John shook his head, sat back in his chair, and met Rodney's gaze. "I don't think either of us is ready to take that next step," he admitted and waited for McKay to nod. "I guess we just keep doing what we're doing. If something else happens, or if we ever find one of those journals Yana mentioned, then we can maybe reconsider things."

Rodney rubbed one of the scars on his palm. "This is a lot more than I bargained for when I agreed to come on this mission."

"Yeah, I know what you mean."

"Still, I don't think I'd change any of it, either." He gave John a sideways glance.

John stood and tugged Rodney to his feet. "Believe it or not, neither would I."

FIN


For anyone curious, the "corpse tree" is a real tree. It grows in the southeast US as well as in the Caribbean. Google manchineel tree for more information. And yes, vinegar is the best thing for getting the sap off your skin.