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what she was wearing

this is my suicide dress
she told him
I only wear it on days
when I'm afraid
I might kill myself
if I don't wear it

you've been wearing it
every day since we met
he said

and these are my arson gloves

so you don't set fire to something?
he asked

exactly

and this is my terrorism lipstick
my assault and battery eyeliner
my armed robbery boots

I'd like to undress you he said
but would that make me an accomplice? 

and today she said I'm wearing
my infidelity underwear
so don't get any ideas

and she put on her nervous breakdown hat
and walked out the door

- Denver Butson

*

 

(by zoetrope)

Dr. Heightmeyer always makes sure the billowy, translucent curtains in her offices are open when John comes in for his 8 a.m. standing appointment.  It lets the watery gold light melt into the blue of the room, to a soothing haze of green that makes John think about the Caribbean green of the shallows off the Atlantean mainland.

"You're a morning person," Dr. Heightmeyer says into a cup of coffee.

He chose the time because he'd seen her stagger around the mess hall mainlining coffee with fiercer desperation than even McKay for two years, and John likes being on the higher ground. 

"I was always told the early bird catches the worm," John tells her, and rolls a koosh ball between his hands.  It's red and orange, colors completely absent on Atlantis.

"There's a notable lack of avian life on Atlantis, John," she reproaches.

"Good thing, too," John smirks, unabashed.  "With our luck--Hitchcock."

Heightmeyer wraps her hands around her coffee mug and slumps back against her seat.  "I wouldn't think you'd believe in luck."

John smirks.  "You mean--given ours?"

"Something like that," she laughs.  "Though--" she looks out the window, and framed in the light, her hair is fine and intricate like the shivery spirals of gold filigree in a bookmark John's grandmother kept in her family Bible "--we have survived."

John crushes the kooshball between his palms, watches the red fingers of rubber peek out between his white-knuckled fingers and says, "Yeah, we have."

*

Although if forced to choose, John would default to the physicists, he's had affairs of the heart with the marine biologists.

A slim, bronze woman named Naomi Poore, with large almond eyes and plush lips, exaggerated curves like a Hawaiian dream, heads up the twenty person team.  She's four years his senior and John likes to annoy her with the poorly pronounced Japanese cusses he learned while stationed in Okinawa.

"I have a theory on the two headed sharks," she tells him that day at half past ten in the morning.

She wears sedate brown shoes that go click-click-click across the floors of their labs and gathers all her hair into a riotous ponytail high on her head.

"Does this mean you're not going to make us go fish for one and study it?" John asks.

"It means I am even more eager to go fish one and study it," she laughs, and John has to smile at the way she is practically bouncing.

The marine biology labs are on the east pier, and the light at sunrise is searing.  If John shows up early enough, he can sit next to Beth and Harry and Norman and dip his feet into the ocean, drink their coffee and feel Atlantis' sun bleach out his skin.

"So the sharks.  Mutation?" John suggests.  "Ripley's?"

"None of the above," Dr. Poore says, and waves him over to her workstation, overflowing with charts of ocean currents and topographical maps of the bottom of the sea.

"Coo-sew," John curses, just loudly enough to make Dr. Poore roll her eyes and repress a smile.

"I'll send you back to the physics labs if I have to," she warns.

He remembers the first time he saw one of the sharks--weeks after McKay's journey to the bottom of the sea, when Dr. Poore had invited herself along on an exploratory undersea puddlejumper mission.  They were ghostly in the water, patterned in the shaking lines of white, shadows of light on the surface of the ocean, snapping two vicious jaws, jutting out at forty degree angles, two enormous, glittery eyes rolling in the sockets.

"I'll be good," John promises, and settles on a stool next to her.

She smiles and he sees the expression in the reflection of a picture frame, a sunny, overexposed shot of Dr. Poore and a beautiful woman in a fierce embrace underneath the glass.

*

Before John's father got promoted above the zone and his choice of postings, they globe-hopped, country to country and state to state: a riot of locations and passport stamps.  John learned six languages poorly before he managed to master English.

The only time he remembers the yawning, aching tear of loss at leaving a place was when he was eight and Will Hanson from three houses down their street on the base crouched in the bushes behind John's house and sobbed for an hour.  It was the day before John was supposed to move to Germany.  Will was skinny and had big, plastic glasses and cheeks his mom liked to pinch.  His dad threw footballs at him, too hard and fast to catch.  He said, "Don't be a girl, son."

John remembers promising Will to still be his best friend, even from Germany.

Will had said, "You swear," and John had told him, "Cross my heart and hope to die.  Stick a needle in my eye." 

But even then, Will had looked so miserably abandoned that John had leaned over, heart racing, and kissed the corner of his mouth--brief and awkward and it left him sweaty-palmed, lungs bursting for oxygen, after he pulled away and tore into the house, into his room, closing and locking his bedroom door.

Heightmeyer, who has opinions on everything but refuses to share any of them, smiles when John confesses this, and says, "Do you think about it often?"

"Yes," John says automatically.  "No," he corrects a moment later.  "I wrote him a postcard.  He sent me a letter."

"Do you remember why you kissed him?" she asks, curling her legs up on the couch.

"My parents told me I was always a precocious child," John prevaricates.

Heightmeyer smiles at him, sweet and uncomplicated.  "That's very precocious."

"I just gotta be me," John says, and tosses the koosh ball from hand to hand.

*

The marine biologists are one of the few groups of scientists lucky enough to have located a lab specific to their actual field of study, and the ocean view from their enormous windows can sometimes take John's breath away.  They are also, different from the physicists, less familiar--they know nearly nothing about the old John Sheppard, and very little of the new one, and they seem disinclined to push.

"Muriel's replaced me with a terrifically ugly cat," Dr. Poore says disagreeably.

John glances up from the latest underwater dive data; he's coaxing a stream of it from jumper eight.  Jumper eight has always been a bit reluctant, and like airplanes and cars and instruments have personalities, all of Atlantis has it in spades.  Jumper eight is belligerent.

"I'm pretty sure it's not true," John compromises finally.

Dr. Poore turns around her monitor to show John a digital photograph of what is, admittedly, an extraordinarily unattractive cat and scowls.  "She says she finds herself sublimating all of her affection onto the damn thing.  She made it a sweater."

"She also made you a sweater," John points out.  "It's very pretty.  It brings out your eyes."

"Well," Dr. Poore says, and seems to resettle herself. 

John wonders what it's like to have somebody waiting on the other side of the fine, watery surface of the wormhole, to know that the distance between two points is infinite and so small as to be compressed into the length of a single stride.  The scientists and marines and doctors on Atlantis are her real heroes; John can't imagine it's heroism if there's nothing to lose.

Dr. Poore taps her pen once on the lab table to get John's attention, and when he looks up, she says, "Work.  I need that data, Colonel."

"Aye aye, sirrah," John quips, and she rolls her eyes.

No one touches him anymore, and he rolls from gratitude to hunger, starving for contact, like he's being rocked on a sea with no land in sight.

*

Heightmeyer asks John what it was like to come home.  She doesn't want to talk about his feelings about coming through that wormhole, with Ronon cradling him like a broken child or how Rodney had come down the steps from the control room, eyes huge like the ocean.  She asks about Beckett and the infirmary.

"I gained an appreciation for my ex-girlfriends," John tells her, because he has always been good at talking around the truth.

Heightmeyer raises an eyebrow.  "Oh?"

"Yeah.  Stirrups, cold instruments, clumsy, Scottish hands," John says, and his voice is flat.  There's a flash of heat in his chest.  "Greasy, greasy cold KY."

"If you think you're going to gross me out," Heightmeyer says, "you're very much mistaken."

"You know the song and dance," John acquiesces.

"Not exactly the same steps," she answers, voice softer.  "What did you do after the exam?"

Beckett had sent in two nurses--small, birdlike women, with blond and red hair who had looked at him with luminous and huge eyes--to clean him up.

"I took a shower," John says.  "For--a long time."

He had shoved one into a wall when she'd stroked a sponge over his shoulder, the muscle and skin over his back.  He'd apologized, and she'd said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," until their voices had overlapped.  He limped to the shower a little later, and stood, leaning against the tile wall while the water scalded his skin.

"You're not normally a long shower guy," Heightmeyer concludes.

"Not efficient use of resources," John says by rote, and smiles crookedly.  "You ever get the lecture from McKay about the showers?"

"No," Heighmeyer says, and she's smiling.  "But I spend more time listening to Dr. McKay complain about people than mechanics."

John rolls his eyes.  "Lucky you.  I got out of the business."

"Have you?  Do you spend less time with him now?" Heightmeyer asks, and her voice is measured and calm, but John can see her fierce interest and knows he's been caught.

He scowls.  "No.  Maybe.  I don't time our interactions."

"I saw you were taking Dr. Poore down to study the two-headed sharks," she says.  "When did you start working so closely with the marine biologists?"

John searches around for the koosh ball, but he realizes he's neglected to bring it today.  He'd woken up and the ocean had been singing outside the window, and the curtains billowing.  He had visited the solarium and all its trembling green buds and come directly to Heightmeyer's offices.  The koosh ball is sitting on his bedside table.

"Recently," John says finally.  He squints.  "Can't we just talk about my mother or something?"

"I'm not a Freudian, John," Heightmeyer says.  "We'd have to talk about everybody's mother."

"Damn collective unconscious," John mutters.

"How long?" she presses.

John stares at the wall behind her head for a while.  "Elizabeth suggested it."

"To stop spending time with Dr. McKay?" Heightmeyer asks.

"To do some submersions with the marine biologists," John corrects and shakes the image of Rodney, who writes entire novels with the slackness of his mouth, the naked desperation in his eyes.  "After I got out of the infirmary, I was bored and driving everybody nuts.  Dr. Poore asked Elizabeth if they could have an ATA gene and a jumper to do some more in-depth data collection."

"You got out of the infirmary about a week after you came back from P3X-904," she says.

"They have a great lab," John says defensively.  He has no idea why.  "Also, Dr. Poore is a hot lesbian."  He feels kind of shitty saying it; he was never that kind of guy.

"Are you very interested?" Heightmeyer asks.

John blinks.  She probably means in marine biology.  "In hot lesbians?"

Heightmeyer laughs.  "Sure, why not."

John grins.  "Most guys are interested in hot lesbians."

"Why is that, do you think?" 

"It's a woman," John says matter-of-factly.  "Times two.  There's no bad here."

"There's also no man there," Heightmeyer says quietly.

John stares at his empty hands.

"John?" Heightmeyer asks.

"I've got to stop leaving that thing in my room," he murmurs.

*

John is safe on Atlantis, despite her occasional fits of ill temper that end in dead bodies and cordoned-off hallways.  She tries, mostly with great success, to keep all of them safe, and John feels wrapped in reassurances walking around the city. 

John hates losing, but he hates losing everything far more, so he takes his grounding like a big boy, circulates the city and does months and months of backlog paperwork.  It's almost comical to bang around his office--John didn't know he had an office before this all happened--and look for notes and recordings and files he's got shoved away someplace or another.  It's all so much busywork, but it does keep him busy.

Lieutenant Cadman is his greatest champion these days, although officially she has no idea what happened on P3X-904.

"I'm making a chart, Lieutenant," John tells her.

"Of what, sir?" she asks.  She's sitting cross-legged on the floor, lost in a sea of papers.

"It will be a sliding scale representation of improbable crap in the Pegasus galaxy," John mutters under his breath.  "Although my team unfortunately will win any footraces, I think you and Major Lorne come in fairly depressingly close."

"Thank you, sir," she says proudly.  "Though I argue the tantric pygmies should put us ahead."

John winces.  They had taken photographs.  The anthropologists had insisted.  He can't wait to give that one to General O'Neill.  "You would really think that, wouldn't you?"

That's exactly when Cadman's eyes widen and her mouth wrinkles in disgust as she stares at a file in her hands.

"They found dog-people?" Cadman balks.

"Sick, isn't it?" John drawls.

"We're never going to win at this rate," Cadman mutters.

*

"I think Cadman knows, too," John says to Heightmeyer.  "You should probably talk to her."

Heightmeyer raises one pretty brow at him and asks, "Why do you say that?"

"She's--I get a vibe.  She's circling around me like a mother bear," he says.

"Do you think that's because you and she share history or because she knows about what happened?" Heightmeyer asks reasonably.

"I think she intuited what happened," John says.  "She tries to take care of me a lot."

"Does she," Heightmeyer says, and she's smiling.  "What does she do?"

"Well, she saved me pudding last week--and everybody knows she probably had to engage in hand to hand with M--someone to get it."  Heightmeyer stares at him for a moment and John winces and says, "If I trade you one other uncomfortable topic, can we skip that one for this week?"

She grins at him.  "Deal," she agrees.  "But I'm writing it down." 

She is.  John hates her sometimes.

"Back to Lieutenant Cadman," she says as her pen strokes upward on the paper, turning bright eyes back upward.

"She's funny," John tells Heightmeyer.  "Also, I get the feeling that in a cage match, she could totally take Lorne.  Rip his throat out."  John stares at his hands.  "The Doc's a lucky guy."

"You admire her strength," Heightmeyer says.

"She seems to have hidden reserves," John elaborates.

"We all do," Heightmeyer assures him, and John looks up from his hands just in time to see Kate folding her own across her lap, setting aside her pen and paper.  It's only ten minutes into the session.  It's too early for her to let him off the hook.  "Have you been calling on your own reserves?"

"Worn out," John says.  "Fighting with lifesucking alien catfish really take it out of you."

"That's understandable," she agrees.  "Are you looking to Lieutenant Cadman for strength?"

"I'm fairly certain it's supposed to be the other way around," John sighs.

"You didn't ask for this job," Heightmeyer comments lightly, half-question, half-fact.

"No," John admits and smoothes a hand along the armrest of the chair, watching his fingers brown against the alien-soft surface of the upholstery.  Kate Heightmeyer has the only comfortable loungers in the entire city.  "But I pulled the trigger."

Heightmeyer watches him for a minute before she asks, "What's so interesting about your hands?"

"Pardon?"  John blinks at her placid expression.

"You've been staring at your hands," Heightmeyer tells him.

"It's nothing," John says, annoyed.

"You traded me the M-word for one other uncomfortable subject," Heightmeyer reminds him easily and holds up her yellow legal pad of paper.  At the bottom of a scribbled-full page she has written JOHN--IOU.  "I choose this one."

"Hands are not an uncomfortable subject," John snaps.

"They are if you're uncomfortable talking about them," she says.  "What happened?"

Atlantis curves up beneath John's hands, the walls warm and the consoles glow and in his room, the space around him hums when he touches the air with his palms.  Atlantis is a living city and John has never loved anyone so well.  He likes to touch her, knows her imperfections and finds them charming.  John never thought about his hands much, though his past lovers liked them, and he liked how his hands made their bodies arch beneath his touch. 

That's all very far away now.

"He made me touch him," John says passively, and his hands are now as far from his own body as possible without seeming strange.  "It's not a big deal."

"It's a big deal," Heightmeyer corrects.

"In a relative sense, not really," John says.  "I've killed people with these hands."

"I never saw you avoid your own hands before," Heightmeyer points out, merciless.  John knows it's exaggeration but he can't help but think he's had drill sergeants more sympathetic than Heightmeyer is.

John looks at his palms for a long time.  They look the same: pale and heavily lined.  He has the same calluses and his right middle finger still has a bump on it, from holding his pencil poorly all throughout school.  Nothing has changed outwardly, but where John has held hands and babies and textbooks, the familiar metal body of a P90 and of Berettas, he's now had his wrist dislocated, his hands pressed to unfamiliar skin.  His skin feels scoured.

So John looks everywhere but at Heightmeyer and struggles to explain it to her.

"So there's this house," John finally tells her, and glances up long enough to see that Heightmeyer's expression is watchful and patient.  "And imagine that this is my house.  Filled with my stuff."

"What sorts of things?"  Heightmeyer has set away her pen and pad again, and John for some reason takes an outward breath at this.  He knows it's pointless, that she must be recording their sessions, that she'll remember all of this, anyway.

"Just stuff," John says.  "Photo albums.  History books.  Videos.  Stuff you like.  Stuff you keep."

"Okay," Heightmeyer allows.

"You feel safe in your house," John says.

"Homes are important to us, as more than shelter, yes," she says inanely, and John gets the impression that sometimes she breaks into the conversation just so he can take a deep breath, get the lightheaded rush of oxygen he needs to push through the next admission.

John appropriates a glass figurine on one of the tables nearby for his hands, and his palms look strange through the heart of the dancing girl with her translucent curves.

"We used to get these horrible storms when I was growing up," John says finally.  "The kind where you thought your whole house was going to lift up off of the ground.  Gulf storms, the pissy kind.  With the wind and the rain going at it so hard you couldn't tell which way any of the water was falling."

"Did your house blow away?" Heightmeyer asks curiously.

John shakes his head.  "No, I mean, they were cookie-cutter military housing, but the foundations stuck."  He frowns and stares out a window, at the ocean that's a supernatural shade of green that looks solid, with light skimming off its surface.  "One time, though, hurricane season, the rains were so heavy the first floor of our house flooded.  It was a wreck.  We tried to move everything upstairs, but my mom and I couldn't get the bookshelves up in time."

Heightmeyer blinks at him and leans back in her chair, hands folded over her lap.

"It was a flash flood--you can't fight nature, right?  So my mom and I, we were sitting on the stairs of our house watching all these old photo albums and books and LPs float by, and every time we saw one, if it was close enough she'd try to wade out and get it," John says ruefully.  "But the water was filled with garbage and chemicals and God knows what else."

"Toxic, then," Heightmeyer murmurs.

"Yeah, basically," John agreed.  "So I'd always tell her to leave it.  That it wasn't worth it.  That we got most of the stuff upstairs."  He clutches the figurine in his left hand tightly and takes a deep breath.  "So sometimes I think I'm like that house."

"Filled with toxic water?" she asks softly.

"To a degree," John agrees after a beat, and he can't help but smile at her and say, "But I always had the second floor, you know?"

She reaches over and pulls the figurine gently from his fingertips.  "Flash flood."

"Flash flood," John repeats.

"You should let the water out," she tells him gently.  "Open the door.  Your fingers are getting all pruny in it."

John makes a face.  "Isn't that considered carrying the metaphor too far?"

She smiles vaguely at him.  "You're the one who's afraid to touch your hands, John," she points out, and glances at her watch.  "Time's up."

*

That afternoon the marine biologists are in a buzzing uproar.  John tries to ignore it, but jumper eight continues to be belligerent and the two-headed sharks aren't biting either, so he finally abandons the sonar and starts knuckling down for data entry.  It's mindless, monotonous work that leaves him free to hear words like, "physics lab" and "cold war."

"Christ," Dr. Poore mutters.  "It must be bad if it's affecting us."

John blinks in surprise.  "It's probably just gossip."

Dr. Poore smiles at him ruefully.  "We had an unscheduled brownout this morning before you got here."

"Could have been an accident," John argues.

She shakes her head.  "That's just the problem--it was."

John stares at her for a long time before he says, "Oh," and decides to start chanting the data points out loud in his head to tune out the babble of annoyed voices in the background. 

The marine biologists have four languages between them.  English overlaps German overlaps Malaysian overlaps Spanish because everyone curses in their mother tongue.  John likes nothing better than watching sweet, slender Dr. Norman Vioget saying terribly scandalous things in his mother tongue before looking around with an embarrassed flush on his face.  John decides not to tell Norman about the two years he spent in France as a kid.

*

"Did I ever tell you about spending time in France?" John asks, because Kate has a look on her face like the M-word may come up today.

"No, you haven't," she says pleasantly.  "How long?"

"Off and on, maybe altogether three years?  I was there just long enough to learn things I would never say in front of a lady."  John smiles and Heightmeyer smiles her soft, comfortable smile back.  If this is a dance, they know all the steps very well.

"What did you think of it?" she asks.

"Cheesy butter, buttery cheese," John tells her dismissively.  "I liked the countryside.  And the underaged drinking.  And the kissing."

She settles back in her chair and kicks her heels up on the coffee table she's found for herself.  It's very nice--a soothing pale green to match the rest of her offices.  She's wearing sneakers.

"Did you do a lot of kissing?" she asks, grinning.

"I was thirteen, one of those years," John admits.  "The flesh was willing but you know, incapable of finding much other willing flesh."

"You must have found somebody."

John raises his eyebrows and leans back in his own seat, putting his feet up next to her own.  His boots look strange next to her dainty gray sneakers, and he has this strange, aching desire to stroke the side of his shoe against her own.  Heightmeyer is beautiful, disarmingly so, but more than that, he thinks that it would be nice to be touched by somebody who he finds is so terribly safe, who would hold still and let him re-remember what the skin of his hands feels like.

"One girl.  She lived three doors down from us," John admits.  "My mother hated her."

"Why did your mother hate her?"

"She'd been there two years already," John explains.  "She showed me all the best places to get this cheap, fizzy peach wine and clove cigarettes." 

Amanda drank the five franc wine like it was water, and John has a flash of her, a vivid sense memory of her sweet, soft mouth, the bite of cloves like smoky candies at the back of her throat.  He remembers the freckle at the corner of her left eye and the soft, wonderful curve of her side, how he had put his hand on her hip, already rounded and warm for his palms, and kissed her mouth, sloppy and awkward and more curious than wanting.  Amanda had put her hands on his waist, his shoulders, his back, like she couldn't decide.

He's silent for a moment before he says, "Nobody touches me."

Heightmeyer looks at him with a considering expression.  "Do you want someone to touch you?"

"Yes," John says automatically.  "No," he corrects a moment later.  "I think I'd like to want to be touched," he finally decides.

"How does that make you feel?" she asks.  "To want to be touched."

John stares at his hands.  They are laced together in his lap and in some way that feels like an accomplishment.  This morning, in his now-daily hour-long shower, he hadn't even thought about his hands, sluicing hot, soapy water down his body.  The last scabs and angry, puckered mouths of cuts are slowly disappearing, and then all that will be left are the marks in his own head.

"I have the second worst job in the city," John says to Heightmeyer suddenly.  "Elizabeth has it the worst because she doesn't have anybody else to blame for anything.  She's kind of all by herself."  He flushes, awkward.  "She can't--be with anybody."

Heightmeyer raises one eyebrow curiously.  "You can't be with anyone either."

John fists his hands.  It's kind of amazing.  It's a stupid breakthrough but it's his.

"It's just a very long time to be alone," John finally tells her, but he looks out of the opened window of her office, watches the curtains flutter and thinks, it's worth it, of course it's worth it.  After everything--it will always still be worth it.

*

The thing that John forgets sometimes in between all the off-world missions is that there is actually an enormous amount of work to be done in the city itself.  For the engineers and scientists who have been all but back-burnered, having John as a constant presence to both run security and offer a little light switch action is the best thing since the physics department turned into their very own containment camp.

It's Thursday and seasonably warm in Atlantis, with the sheer wind off the ocean deliciously cool from all the thrown-open windows of the city and John is walking along the upper decks with the botanists. 

"Atlantis was designed to be completely mobile," Dr. Parrish tells him, his hands flying against the blue air. 

He's squinting in the sun.  John's explained the concept of sunglasses but for all the geniuses they've trapped in this city none of them has a clue--even as they're slathering on McKay's grout-like sunblock.

"Like a trailer home, sort of," Parrish adds.

"Let's not malign her, please," John answers with a grin.  The light feels incredibly good through the thin material of his shirt and when he touches his palm to his stomach, it presses the sunshine against his skin and it sweet like Southern lemonade.

"I meant that in the coolest way possible."  Parrish smiles indulgently, and waves his hands again, this time at the curling green fuzz that has appeared all over the surfaces of this vast, curved building, glassy-walled and high-peaked, a marriage of a circus tent and a concert shell. 

"This is her botanical garden," he tells John, so excited his voice almost breaks.  "It's--well, temperamental, to say the least, but with Major Lorne's help--" and Parrish sounds a little starry at the mention of John's 2IC "--we got the first seedlings going."

John has a strict I Don't Even Want To Know policy with his subordinates ever since that thing with the captain and the person and the tree on that planet he doesn't remember at all.

"It's very nice," John tells Parrish.

"Isn't it?" he gushes back, and starts off with surprising speed while John lags behind.

The Pegasus galaxy has similar plant life as the Milky Way galaxy.  Ferns and pines and waxy, huge leaves in tropical paradises, hissing red flowers, night-blooming miracles, pale purple and astonishing.  There are strange and wonderful things--and John remembers a flower in the shape of a sunburst and colored like the inside of a conch shell that wreathed the still waters near a waterfall, and how the fish pulled silk threads out of the flower's mouth to make into tiny nests beneath the perfectly-clear water.

Atlantis' own nursery is far more practical, and Parrish identifies the beginnings of fruit trees, vegetable gardens, drags him through rows of experimental cross-pollination things, and finally John follows him into the hothouse. 

It's dead and musty and sleepy in the semi-dark, and John has a moment of nauseating vertigo, remembering the very small and marble-floored room inside the palace, the way the drug had tasted in his mouth, acid and brown.

But the moment he touches one of the wall panels for support the lights start coming on--one by one--until the entire facility explodes in a shattering bloom of white that leaves them all half-blind. 

John hears a clatter of feet, a chorus of worried voices, and then Katie Brown saying, "Oh my God."

The botanists clearly don't get enough attention, John decides.  If every time he accidentally started something it got named after him, it'd get really old.  But when he looks at the shockingly beautiful trellises, the exotic hothouse blossoms--the tropical rainforest that has been hiding here, flash-frozen and awakened in a bang Parrish and Brown are struggling to explain, he cannot help but think he wouldn't mind being remembered for this.

Over dinner that night, John listens to the botanists talk over one another in rising and falling voices, so excited they're shaking out of their flushed skins.  Katie talks about medicinal uses and Parrish murmurs about the tiny, fist-like roses. 

"They could be poisonous," Katie Brown teases.

"They could be delicious," Parrish retorts.

"They could be deliciously poisonous," Katie corrects.

Katie Brown never, before she reached the city, touched a gun, and the day Cadman had taught her how to use a nine millimeter John had hung in the background, watched her wrap her shaking hands around it and blink the tears out of her eyes.  Katie once fought off an attacker with her nails.  She ripped three of them right out of her fingers.  It's in her personnel file.

John wonders how women do this, to live with the threat of this all their lives, and to come out of their trials by fire burnished like a precious stone.

*

"I wanted to tell you that the physics team is worried about you," Heightmeyer says, before John ever gets an opportunity to launch into some slightly less-painful diatribe.

"They're good guys," John says, and his digs his nails into the sofa and remembers Katie--remembers Alison Simpson, who punched Kavanagh in the gut a few months ago.  "Well, they're good people."

John knows, despite his best efforts not to, that there is a cold war in the physics labs.  He knows that Rodney and Radek aren't speaking to one another and when they do they explode into violent argument.  He knows but he tries not to.

"Do you blame them?" Heightmeyer asks curiously.

John blinks.  "No," he says simply.

"Then why aren't you speaking with them?"

John fidgets in his seat.  "I talk to them," John lies.  "Zelenka gave me the koosh ball."  It's sitting on John's desk; he doesn't carry it around anymore.  It feels a little silly.

"When did he give it to you?" she asks.

Zelenka had given it to him that first night in Atlantis, when they were all quarantined, their bodies shaking off the shivery cloud of brown the drug had left on them.  Teyla was vomiting in another room, and they could hear the horrible noises, the gasping, wet sounds and then the painful dry gasps.  John had wished he could throw up, exorcise himself.  He remembered tasting the faintest suggestion of fruit wine on the corner of his mouth--he didn't put it there.  John had been digging bloody wells into his own hands and Zelenka had pulled the koosh ball out of his field vest, hushed John's protests and pressed it into his hands.  He'd whispered, "I stole it.  From sister's horrible children.  It is yours now."

"That day," John finally tells her.  "That night we got back."

He spent the first three sessions trying to lie to her.  The problem with Atlantis is their paranoia is surpassed only by their technology.  Everything is on tape.

"He stole it from his sister's kids," John explains.

"Why did he give it to you?" Heightmeyer asks.

John touches his knees, his elbows, his neck, because he can and he likes that now, that his body is solid beneath his hands again.  He has an itching need to find the koosh again, feel its comforting, sticky rubber on his palms, but it's not real, it's not what he really wants and he hates being bullied by Heightmeyer into these sorts of things.

"How about we talk about McKay instead?" John offers, but Heightmeyer doesn't bat an eye.

"Why did he give it to you, John?" she persists.

John doesn't think he can ever tell her--the way he had scratched at his own hands, how he'd scraped his bloody nails down his thighs, down his stomach.  How eventually, quarantine be damned, Carson had shoved everybody else out of the room and put John down in restraints.  How he'd broken like a lopsided wave and cried so hard he'd passed out from it, woken up numb and cold and how he hasn't been warm since.

"He was trying to comfort me, I think," John finally decides to say.  "Dr. Zelenka's a good guy."

"If you like him so well, why haven't you spoken to him since that night?"

"Have I ever told you about the time I had an erotic dream about Colonel Caldwell and a horse?" John asks desperately.

Heightmeyer flashes him a tight smile.  "No, but feel free to talk to me about Dr. Zelenka."

"I haven't had an erotic dreams about Dr. Zelenka," John prevaricates.

"Who have you had an erotic dream about?" Heightmeyer asks, and John opens his mouth only to realize that he might be better off talking about Dr. Zelenka in a nonsexual context after all.

"He's bad offworld," John finally says, and mentally, he gives Heightmeyer another tick mark.

"Bad?"

"Nervous," John elaborates.  "He--he lacks the gross arrogance McKay uses to hide how freaked out he is.  So he's all over the place.  I've picked up more Czech cussing than Canadian cussing and I've only been on three offworld trips with him."

"There's Canadian cussing?"

John smirks. "Apparently."

"So Zelenka's made more of an impact than Dr. McKay on you," she ventures.

"No, no," John says.  "It's not like that."

Heightmeyer doesn't bother to ask the question, just raises her eyebrows and looks at John until he can put his thoughts together in coherent English.  He wishes he could find some Ancient machine to get a hard copy of the jumble in his head.  He would give it to Heightmeyer and she would make corrections before they would download it back into his skull again.

"It's just--he is bad offworld," John finally tells her, slow, slow--careful.  "So it's easier to think it's his fault.  It's easier for him to think it's his own fault."

"Do you think he blames himself?"

"I know he does.  Haven't you heard about the physics department war?"

Her mouth flattens.  "Enough."

"It's not--good," John says, and it's weird.  He feels like a gossiping thirteen year old, like he's passing notes to the pretty girl in row three from her friend the seat behind him.  "I feel kind of bad talking about them."

"Okay," she acquiesces, and John knows that something big must have happened today, for her to let him off the hook like this.  Their hour is almost over, and she leans forward, eyes shining a little as she asks, "So have you had any erotic dreams about anybody?"

John scowls.  "That cannot be a legitimate question."

"It is," she argues, but her mouth is twitching.

John colors.

"Oh," she says knowingly.

"I don't want to talk about it," he informs her.

"I'll trade you this uncomfortable topic for another on Friday's meeting," she tells him.

John glares.  "I don't actually think you can barter my way to mental health."

"It's a radical new theory I'm trying," she dismisses, and glances at the clock.  "Okay.  Time's up.  Friday we'll talk about Dr. McKay."

*

The botanists attempt to name the hothouse after John, only to discover it's named after the dazzlingly orange flowers that grow nearly wild against the back wall.

"It's a rare blossom," Katie Brown tells John one day, and she is almost tracing her hands over their ragged petals, dotted with large and small brown spots, like freckles.  "The Ancients were researching its medicinal qualities."

The Ancients have almost nothing impractical.  Everything combines form and function, so seamlessly and wisely it's a little stunning to know that the beautifully lit columns of bubbling ocean water that John has watched for hours are enormous tubes leading to desalinization tanks.  There's nothing simply for beauty in the central city, everything pared down to essentials.

But John likes to think that the Ancients liked beautiful things.  They wouldn't have wasted so much time curving the hallways, lighting them blue and green like their longing ocean otherwise.  They wouldn't be growing these orange flowers, brown and reckless like children too long in the sun on the back wall of their enormous hothouse.

"What kind of medicinal qualities?" he asks, and reaches out to touch a leaf.  It's softly furred beneath the pad of his finger--like skin, he cannot help but think.

"We're not certain yet," Katie admits, but her smile is luminous.  "But we think it's some sort of pain reliever."

John smirks.  "Good name, then."

Katie smiles back, and it's gentle and wobbling, because she's always so uncertain.  It's another remarkable thing about her, John thinks, that she can question everything and still live so easily by principles John has only begun to understand. 

He wants to ask Elizabeth how she went into war torn Middle Eastern countries, to cloak herself in a scarf and walk with her head held high anyway.  He wants to ask Cadman what it was like, going to the Annapolis.  He wants to ask Katie how she fought off her attacker, wants to smooth her hands and say that she is amazing.

"Elysium," she says softly.  "It's probably where the myth comes from."

"It's not really a myth then, is it?" John muses.  "If it really does take away your worries."

Katie makes a face.  "That sounds more like marijuana than ibuprofen."

"And we wouldn't want that," John agrees.

"No," she says, but her eyes are shining.  "Despite the potential boon to morale."

"Despite that, even," John laughs.

John thinks Katie knows, too.  John has this sinking suspicion that all the women in Atlantis know--even Atlantis herself.  Women think about it too much; men never do.  John is stuck in between the two, trapped in an organic separation.  During a particularly long flight once, he picked up a copy of Nature at the airport and read about how men and women's brains are wired differently, how men think linearly down one lobe or the other, how women operate an interlocking network of firing synapses, woven and knotted and as complicated and busy as their hands, flying from task to task to task.

He wonders now if that isn't the way the muscles of their heart are held together, in artful swirls and loops, never revealing.

Katie never touches him, but she stands so close that he smells the Elysium on her skin, on her clothes, like a lingering comfort, the warmth after a hand has gone.

*

"Did you send a memo?"

Kate raises her eyebrows.  She's sitting cross-legged today, in a puddle of yellow sunshine near a window.  All the couches are gone and John heard a rumor earlier this week about hair-trigger anthropologists and projectile vomiting so he figures the less said the better.  It feels like meditating with Teyla, sitting on the floor, knees to knees, the koosh ball in the well between his thighs.

"I send lots of memos," she says.  "Most of which get ignored."

"Because they're about stress management and getting eight hours of sleep."  John curls his lip.

Kate frowns.  "It's important, John."

"We're on an alien planet in another galaxy," he insists.

"What memo do you think I sent?" she asks him blithely.

John leans back, weight on the heel of his palm and he thinks about the length of his chest, the long stretch of his legs, all the muscles in his body and the skin that wraps around it.  He thinks about his flooded house, his old copies of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, his mother's albums, his father's records, floating and littered in the muddy water.

"Did you alert all the women?  Tell them I was their new charity case?" he asks, meaner than intended.

Kate pauses.  "Have they been treating you like a charity case?"

"Did you tell them?"  John digs his nails into the carpet.

"No," she says, and John knows it's not a lie.  "Why do you think someone told them?"

He feels stupid and slow, clumsy.  He's been watching women all week, their thin fingers, their slender arms, the long arch of their neck, the graceful curves of their bodies.  It's all just subtleties--scientists aren't known for their flamboyance and John has seen less skin on Atlantis in three years than one afternoon on Wrightsville beach.  But he sees the suggestions of them, their secrets, and he feels like he's unraveling a mystery.

"They're being too nice," he finally admits, and it sounds even dumber out loud than in his head.

Kate doesn't bat an eye.  "What's considered too nice?"

He doesn't really know.  He feels like they've been crowding around him, a press of hands and curves and round hips, red lips and sleek skin that he doesn't touch--that he knows from proximity.  Or maybe he is paying more attention.  It makes something in his stomach lurch.

"Maybe you should send a memo," John says in a rush.

"What should I write in it?"

John imagines that if his body is a house and it is filled with water, and all his words are just a perimeter, and he keeps talking round and round it like building a fence around it.  John used to live on the second floor, but he's sitting on the roof now, and maybe it is time to jump--to take that leap and live outside his body, put away all those memories and make new ones.  He reaches for the koosh ball and touches the inside of his thigh instead, and a shudder runs through him.

He says, "I don't like being good at math."

"Dr. McKay says it's your greatest strength," Kate tells him.

"I had this teacher," John continues. 

He thinks about Florida, about the flat, boring brown suburbs that seemed to be held beneath a damp cloud of mosquitoes, about how they swelled outward with the humidity.  He thinks about the taste of oranges, sweet and sharp in his mouth and the bitter tang of wood and graphite from a mechanical pencil, the shiny gray smear across his fingertips after school in Mr. Newberry's room in the ninth grade.

"A math teacher?"

"He was the seniors' math teacher, but I tested into the class."  John strokes a finger over the back of his thigh, because his skin rolls when he does it and he needs to distract himself from admitting something he can barely believe really ever happened.  "Mr. Newberry.  He gave me oranges during tutoring."

Kate raises her brows.  "You tested into the senior math class.  Why did you need tutoring?"

"He wanted me to be all I could be," John says, without a trace of irony.  "He picked the oranges himself, he said.  He said there was a grove near his house, and he'd pay five dollars to pick a basket of oranges and he'd bring them into the classroom.  The whole room smelled like them."

Kate makes a mark on her notepad.  "What did you study?"

"Calculus, mostly," John says.  "Limits and functions.  This was before graphing calculators so we drew all the graphs onto this big chalkboard with white chalk.  It'd get all over my hands."  He strokes the back of his hand over the koosh ball.  "It left smears."

"On your hands?"

"On his arms," John said.  He's staring out the window now.  "It'd--I'd see these white fingerprints all over his wrists and I'd know I'd made them.  I'd look at them for the rest of the day."

"How'd they get on his arms?" Kate asks, and John can't imagine she doesn't already know the answer here, that she didn't think oranges and poison the way McKay has trained everybody on Atlantis to think of the sunshine burn of citrus and the way his throat closes up, his body seizes up, the way the edges darken at the edge of his vision.

John can't help but laugh a little, and it comes out shaky, like Katie Brown's.

"Now you're just being intentionally dull," John accuses.

"How old were you?" Kate asks.  Nothing fazes her, and though John's moved past wanting to shock her into silence he thinks he deserves a moment of thoughtful reflection at least.

"Old enough," he snaps.

"How old was he?" she asks, and John falls silent.  She clears her throat and asks, "Did he force you?"

"No," John tells her easily.  It's true. 

Mr. Newberry had dark brown hair and an animated face, bright with excitement and gray eyes.  He wore button-down shirts with the sleeves rolled up and had a dark sprinkling of hair on his forearms.  He padded around the high school in brown shoes and was forever pushing up his silver-frame glasses, and all the girls in the senior class flirted outrageously with him.  John remembers the first day the principal had introduced Mr. Newberry, before homeroom, when the school was still empty and filled with ghosts.

"Did he tutor you in the mornings?" she asks, and her voice is so flatly nonjudgmental it's a little infuriating.

"He didn't force me to do anything against my will." 

John remembers being curious, about the way he would wet his mouth, smooth his hand over his stomach, lean back a little too much when Mr. Newberry came behind him, closed his hand over John's wrist and helped him trace the bones of a mathematical truth out on the smooth green board.  He remembers smiling too brightly and sulking too much and learning much, much too quickly--outstripping Mr. Newberry's old college textbooks, asking always for more.

"Was it your idea then?" she asks, and she's almost curious now, John thinks.

"It just happened," John says. 

It'd been in the middle of a related-rates problem, as huge and complex as the panting, conflicted feelings John had been hiding in his chest, thick and inconvenient.  John had reached over to correct the wayward arch of a two and Mr. Newberry had taken his wrist--not to correct him or guide him but pull him in, and John remembers thinking, finally finally finally.

That first kiss was nothing like French kisses, fizzy with peach wine and rich with smoke, but just a sudden, shocking burst of blinding, morning sunlight, the very gray of Mr. Newberry's eyes, the overpowering sweetness of oranges, and the bruising force of a hand on his waist, the dull throb of his shoulder as he was shoved up against the chalkboard. 

He hadn't known what to touch, just ran his hands over Mr. Newberry's shoulders, his back, his hair, like Amanda, and John can barely remember what it's like to want something half as much as he had wanted to crawl into Mr. Newberry's skin.

"How long did it happen?"

"We moved the end of my sophomore year," John says.

"Did you sleep with him?"

"He wrote equations into my skin," John says, in a sudden burst of honesty. 

He can still feel the sharp line of the rolling-ball ink pen on his back.  He remembers the way the wood of the desk felt, as he was bent over it, shirt pulled up and his hands fisted at the head of it, body bent over in the sunshine, all golden, nearly bleached white in the light.  He remembers closing his eyes and feeling his skin rise up to meet the brush of Mr. Newberry's hands, drawing parabolas, curves, asymptotic functions between his shoulder blades, using his spine as the y-axis.  He remembers the secret signs, their language of numbers, and he only now realizes the irony of speaking in variables, more than twenty years older and still wearing those marks on his skin.

Kate is silent for a long time, and John think that it's not so much out of surprise as worry, and he cannot help but feel heavier for it.

"You're not going to turn into a predator, John," she tells him softly.

"That's not why I told you about him."  Irritation worms its way into his chest.

"Then why don't you like being good at math?" she asks, and it's so faint and so distantly sad John feels the ocean wind roll over him in sudden sympathy.

"We'll talk about Dr. McKay tomorrow," she says.

John takes off and runs for more than an hour, all around Atlantis, in her dizzying hallways and cavernous pathways until he collapses on the uppermost observatory, flat and scorching from the sun and lets it burn his skin red and painful, until it brands the memory of her into his neck and his hands and his back.

*

On Thursday, John doesn't make his appointment because a little after six in the morning he gets a frantic squawk over his radio that a team of physicists is trapped in the curling bowels of the city, that the water level is rising.  John is off and running before he can so much as panic over the gross irony of it all.

The city is tight and irritated and disagreeable all the way down to the eighth sublevel where she has trapped Rodney and Zelenka and Simpson and Heller beneath three feet and rising of water.  The doors take a little too long to open and the floors are sluggish to light beneath his feet.

More than worrying about them drowning, John thinks as he half-tumbles down flight after flight of stairs, he's a little worried about them drowning each other, so he hurry, hurry, hurries, and when he reaches SL8 to find a panicking group of scientists, so fresh off the Daedelus they still smell like Asgard life support, he feels the beginning of a headache.

"This was all your fault!  You touched the top to the bottom!" one of them shrieks.

"My fault?" another yells in reply.  "You--!"

"I will kill all of you as soon as I'm out there again!" John hears Rodney yell from inside the door, over the muffled sound of water.

"We just got here," a redheaded man with watery eyes protests.

"Has never stopped him before!" Zelenka yells back, and then shrieks something that sounds completely filthy in Czech.  "No!  It--no, Rodney!"

"Shut up!  Shut up shut up!  I'm doing a thing!  Give me that!" John hears Rodney bellow.

John's already stepped up to the door and knocked before he remembers he hasn't spoken to Rodney in more than three months--remembers that he hasn't spoken to Zelenka since that night, but then it's too late because Rodney's yelling, "Yeswhat?" and somehow, John still knows that tone of voice like the back of his hand.

"We've got a bunch of marines headed down here," John says, finally, around the marble ball in his throat, cold and huge and sickening, a painful stretch in his larynx.

There's a long silence before--and it's strange to hear a whispered shout--Rodney shouts over the sound of water sloshing:

"Is that Colonel Sheppard?"

"Affirmative, McKay," John says, and thinks that if he was still in his house, he'd be dipping his toes into the water.  It isn't killing him yet. 

"Well.  I.  Which one of those morons around you called?" Rodney finally snaps, and John can nearly see him, red-cheeked and belligerent.

John hasn't talked to Rodney since he was released from the infirmary. 

"Don't worry about it," he croaks, and he fights the urge to just walk away.  He makes himself say, "Is the water still rising over there?"

"No," Rodney reports sullenly.  "But Radek and I are hip deep and very unhappy about it!" he adds, and the new scientists share a collective wince.

"Can I be of any assistance until the marines and I bust this door open with a huge ass gun?"

The scientists gather in a circle around him and gape.  John isn't enamored of this part of the Atlantis socialization process, and eventually he's going to be okay enough to talk to Elizabeth and ask that she stipulate not staring.

"Kill everybody around you right now," Rodney requests seriously.

"Negative, McKay," John shouts back.  "Anything I can do to this doorway?"

There's another silence before McKay curses and says, "Are you sure you can't kill them?"

Collectively, the scientists make a tiny noise of distress, and John feels almost terrible for them.  McKay was already rumored to be monstrous to his staff--and if he was anything like he was when sulky and offworld, then John offered Rodney's subordinates his very deepest sympathy.

"Kinda," John says finally, and he nearly laughs out loud at the palpable relief in the room.

The marines arrive, and John is halfway through charging the biggest, most badass laser in the world when Zelenka ruins everything and figures out how to open the door.  John's only consolations are

(a) the gun is waterproof;

(b) he heard Zelenka's cry of triumph and braced himself before the water rushed out;

and (c) all the scientists fall down in the rush of briny seawater.

"Oh my God!" Rodney yells immediately, bubbling over the water.  "You're all fired!  Fired!"

"Yep," John says to the damp if very amused marines.  "I think we can clear out now," he confides, and he abandons the scientists to their fate.  He sees Rodney, just for a second, in the reflection of the puddles on the floor, and he looks tired and wobbly--John doesn't know if that's his fault or the water.  He leaves before he can think about it too much.

John's always hated a coward, but he's never been a fan of fighting a losing war, either.

*

John says, "Sorry about this morning." 

He bolts into her office to find Kate rearranging the furniture.  Her hair is pulled up, away from her face, and she's wearing a t-shirt.  John doesn't know if there's protocol about catching his shrink dressed down, but it makes him kind of uneasy--they have a rhythm.

"It's fine.  Come on in," she welcomes him, tucking some hair behind her ear.  "The furniture came back from the cleaners and I think I'm ready for a change.  Want to lend a hand?"

"Sure," John agrees.

Kate is shoving one of the couches toward a window, and John says, "Hey, no, that'll be backlit," and she says, "Oh, good point."

So she starts kicking the sofa around as she says, "What happened this morning?"

John puts his hands on the armrest and leans into it hard, looking closely at the pattern of the fabric.  He says, "There was a little trouble.  Turned out to be nothing big." 

And then he asks, "Is Rodney in love with me?"

Kate pauses a moment and raises her eyebrows at him.  "What makes you say that?"

"Look," John snaps, and he feels irritable, feels it crawling under his skin.  It's a strange first feeling to have after weeks and weeks of numbness.  "You're his doctor.  You know."

"And he's my patient," she reminds him gently, settling on the couch where it is, "which means he's entitled to the same privileges of confidence you are."

John decides to hate her, just for today.  "But it's about me."

"But it's not just about you," she corrects him.  "Sit down."

John looks around, at the loveseat six feet away and the floor and finally at the opposite end of the couch Kate has appropriated and scowls.  If this is some trick they taught in third-year psych he wouldn't be surprised at all, he thinks and sits down, because his legs are suddenly weak with misery, soft with relief to finally push those words off his chest.

"Why do you think Rodney's in love with you?" she asks.

"I haven't talked to him," John says after a beat.

"Since you came back from Darfin?"

"Since I got let out of the infirmary after I came back from Darfin," John says.  He doesn't remember much of his stay.  There was the exam and then there was panic, Kate's calm expression as she slipped him drugs and he slipped under.  "I don't remember Darfin, much."

"That sometimes happens," Kate assures him.

"I'm not upset about it," John lies. 

He remembers just enough to know he doesn't want to know the rest.  His senior year of high school, his English teacher handed them badly-abused copies of "A Rose for Emily" and they talked about the Southern fascination with the grotesque.  John wonders a little what he looked like, gasping dimly for oxygen, face-down on that marble floor with somebody's fist around his neck.  He wonders what he looked like, when Zelenka found him, hours later.

"Are you upset about Rodney?"  Kate cocks her head at him.

"Rodney's a crappy liar," John manages, and he surprises himself saying it.

Kate blinks curiously at him.  "Did he try to lie to you about being in love with you?"

"No, it was just--" all over his face, is what John wants to say.  Rodney's so naked with his expressions.  Can't lie worth beans.  "That's the problem with him."

"Not everybody is a good liar," Kate prevaricates.

John clutches his leg.  He's been relearning his body, slowly, smoothing his palms down his arms and stomach, his thighs.  It's strange and new and scary, but he's been reclaiming his skin.  It's not all so burned with fingerprints anymore, not rubbed so raw.  It's strange to think that he can live inside this new skin, all new muscles and bones that wear the history of what's happened and still breathe in and out every day.

"After Darfin, after Dr. Beckett let me out."  John is stumbling over the words.  He doesn't know what he's talking about.  This is all wrong.  "I thought I'd talk to him."

"To Rodney?"

"Yeah," John admits.  "He's distracting, you know?  And he wasn't there, so I could talk to him."

"How could you talk to him if he wasn't there?" Kate asks, and her voice has that edge she wears when she wants to explore something.  John lives dreading it.

"He wasn't there," John corrects.  "On Darfin.  So I could talk to him."

"Why couldn't you talk about the others?"

Kate knows and John knows and everybody knows there's an easy answer to that.  John hasn't spoken to Teyla or Ronon, either, but he sees them sometimes, their shadows or their profiles, as they're getting ready to go offworld with other teams.  Rodney is always here.  He looks at his hands instead of answering.

"Okay," Kate allows finally.  "About Darfin?"

John knows there's not really a point to lying to her but he still wants to all the time. 

"About anything else," he says after a long, long silence.

"But Rodney's a bad liar," Kate rejoins smoothly. 

Rodney had been all fringed in gold from the backlighting in John's doorway when he'd stopped by.  All of John's lights were on and the windows were open and John was on page one hundred and six of War and Peace when Rodney had opened and closed his mouth three times and blinked just a little too hard.  He'd said, "Oh, God," and "John," and John had felt his eyes go huge and scared and overwhelmed.

"Really, really bad," John whispers.

"Did he tell you?" she asks kindly.  Kate knows Rodney, too.

"No," John says, and he hates that he sounds relieved.  "It's Rodney.  He just wears it all over."

"I think I understand," Kate agrees.  "What did you do?"

"I don't really remember.  I haven't spoken to him since."  John fists his hands on his knees.

Kate reaches over and pries open on of his fists before she presses a Jolly Rancher into his palm: watermelon, his favorite.  He doesn't know if he's told her.  She smiles at him when he looks at her in surprise, and whispers, "I bribed a guy on the last Daedelus supply run."

"It's all right for you to be scared," she tells him softly.

"Okay," John says, so soft he can barely hear it over his racing heart.

She touches the back of his hand, fingers over his wrist, and John thinks that he's not so scared anymore, not like before, and that it might mean something.

"I'm not--" he tries, and stops, frustrated, because he doesn't have the words.  "There's water-damage." 

All his favorite comic books were mush and so many of the family photos were gone.  He'd watched his mother cry as she gathered them up out of the mud, and his father's tight face as he'd helped scrub out the house.  There was always a mark on their wall, ever afterward, that was pale brown and unsightly, and whenever guests came, they asked what had happened, and John's mother said, "Oh, you'd never believe…" and everybody knew. 

"Not everything's going to work the same way anymore," John says, too carefully.  "I'm not the same person."

"You'll adapt," Kate promises him gently.  "Rodney will, too.  If you want."

The problem that John is too scared to say out loud is maybe once Rodney sees John all slick with oily mud and wrinkled from water, brown and marked by what has happened whatever gets written all over Rodney's face won't be what John is looking for, anymore.

*

Teyla is injured later that day, and late at night John gives up pacing in his own room to pace in the infirmary.  Carson is passed out in his office and John figures he'll get away with breaking strict visiting hours as long as he's quiet, so he sits at Teyla's bedside and stares at her face, her fine, fine features. 

He thinks that of all the people he misses, he misses Teyla the most, and just as he is reaching over to stroke a few strands of hair from her face, her dark eyes blink open.

John freezes, hand suspended in the air and it's one of those moments that lasts forever until she blinks again and says, "Oh--John."

"Hi," he tells her around the lump in his throat.  She looks tired; John should be on her six.

She reaches up and takes his hand, and John almost jerks it away but doesn't, because Teyla's hands are calloused in all these wonderful, familiar places: from the fighting sticks, from the P90, from the sewing she did as a young girl.  John folds their hands together and smiles because it feels a little like coming home, and Teyla has never cared about marks on the walls.

"Are you well?" she asks finally, and her eyes are big.

"I should be asking that question," he chastises.

"I merely have a bruised rib," she retorts, and her eyes darken as she says, "I have missed you."

"You're a sight for sore eyes, too," he tells her quietly.

She smiles and tightens her fingers around his.  "I wanted," she starts gently, like she knows that John is always, always ready to bolt, "to speak with you.  To apologize--after."

"There's nothing to apologize for," John tells her, and for the first time he realizes he means it.

He wants to tell her, I'm sorry if you felt responsible.  He wants to say, There was nothing you could have done.  He wants to say, I've missed you, and most of all, he wants to say, I'm sorry I've been gone so long.

They sit like that for a long, long time until they fall asleep.  And when sunlight starts creeping in through the windows, John blinks awake in the uncomfortable seat by the bed to watch Teyla's chest rising and falling with her steady breaths, and Dr. Beckett smiles at him faintly from the other side of the room.

"You can't run forever, lad," Carson murmurs.

John raises his eyebrows.  "I got all the way to another galaxy, though."

"Aye," Carson agrees.  "And look what you found here."

John looks at his and Teyla's intertwined fingers and Carson goes quietly away.

He really has been alone for a very, very long time.

*

"So my ass hurts," John finishes.

"And you're happy about this."  Kate's voice sounds like there is a laugh bubbling underneath it, and John's too high on his day to care that she's laughing at him.

"I mean, in the sense that Teyla and I did the sticks again--yes, I am happy.  In the sense that I then tried to go jogging with Ronon and fell down some steps, not so much," John admits, but he can't shake the image of Ronon's face, bright with a sideways smile, and it makes the dull throb in his tailbone worth it.  "I'm mending fences," he finishes.

"Were they ever really broken?" Kate asks playfully.  She's happy for him, too.

"Well, everything can fall into disrepair."

"That's true," she agrees, and leaning forward, she asks, "Have you spoken with Rodney yet?"

John makes a face.  "Every time you let me think I've gotten away with something, you're really just waiting until a more perfect time to take out my knees, aren't you?"

"Yes," she deadpans.  "Uncle Rocco taught me well."

"I'll bet," John mutters.

"When are you talking to Rodney?"

"Why does the healing process end with Rodney?" John asks.  "It seems a little counterintuitive."

Kate cocks her eyebrow at him.  "John."

"Have you noticed that you're not as nice to me anymore?" John complains.

Kate laughs, and she runs a hand through her hair, tapping a pen against a pad of paper.  The scribbles are fewer and fewer in numbers and John doesn't know what it really means but he likes to pretend it means he's getting better--that there're less problems to jot down.  He feels better.  It's been months and months now.

"I don't like coddling people, John.  I'm here to make you make the hard decisions."

"I guess that's why they call it a breakthrough."  John pauses a moment and he says suddenly, "I think I should talk to Dr. Zelenka."

"Why?" Kate asks.

"I don't know.  I mean, I have an idea," John admits.  "I think Rodney's still mad at him."

"And you don't believe Rodney should be."  Kate never really asks questions, asks things with a tilt to her voice--fake questions.  They both know the answers.  It's like they're wandering around and Kate has the map, but she's riddling him like a sphinx.

John frowns.  "It wasn't Zelenka's fault."

"Then why is Rodney angry with him?" Kate asks reasonably.  Too reasonably.

"Rodney's not like, rationally angry about it," John tells her.  "I mean, you're his doctor.  You know it--" Kate opens her mouth to protest and John cuts her off "--and you don't have to tell me if I'm right.  But I think Rodney thinks he could have done something."

Kate raises her eyebrow.  "You disagree?"

"I think there's no point in examining what's already been done," John decides.  "It'll just make you crazy.  You can't second-guess yourself every time; you get scared and make mistakes."

"You're not scared?"

John stares at her for a long time.  "I'm not scared about what already happened," John lies.

She stares back, and just as John thinks he's about to admit everything, let it all spill outward like a cresting wave, she looks down at her pad, satisfied, and says, "Okay."

John thinks Kate is like a diary with missing pages--running ink. 

*

That night, after John wakes up screaming and covered in a cold sweat, and bolts to the bathroom to throw up everything he's eaten for the last day, he goes to the labs because maybe Kate knows what she's doing with this psychology junk. 

All of the things he'd almost said today are still sitting just beneath his skin, and he can feel it crawl with a resurgence of memories, of the way his skin felt, cold and aching, how he'd ripped apart and gone all black around the edges--the way Zelenka's eyes looked, huge and horrible, when John had finally woken up.

At half past four in the morning, it turns out even Rodney has gone to bed, and the lab is echoing and empty.  John sits at Rodney's work station, stroking his hands over Rodney's haphazard papers, over the messily-scrawled notes, and frowns.  Rodney is meticulous, and when John chooses an older notebook--creamy with acid-free paper--he sees Rodney's anal-retentive script documenting things like his daily caloric intake as well as velocity.

He frowns at abandoned experiments, the new power distribution grid that had been almost-done just before Darfin, and now is old and still only almost-done months later. 

It's just after dawn when Zelenka staggers in, and the bags under his eyes are almost as deep and unhappy as John's own.

"Oh," Zelenka says, eyes going huge and John has a sudden, miserable lurch, a shuddering sense memory of the after after and he has to clutch at the lab table to bring himself back enough to say:

"Morning."  He looks at the power grid plans.  "You guys never finished?"

Zelenka pales and rushes over, tugs the papers away--and he's careful not to touch John either, and the absence of it is so huge that it swallows John up.

"No, not yet," Zelenka says, faux-casual.  "It is complex."

"You were almost done," John points out.

Zelenka looks away.  "Atlantis is busy.  Many things break."

And John can feel his own chest bow and bend as he says it, but he has to say it, and when he does, his voice breaks.

"It wasn't your fault," John says. 

This may or may not be true; there are butterflies in China who could be blamed, but John knows enough about entropy to know that it only breeds more entropy, and he has needed time and space and borders, vast and casual and blue like the sea, to reach a certain stillness. 

Zelenka sets the papers down and presses his chin to his chest, heaving for breath, and it's like he's been waiting for this for as long as John has been afraid to come here.

*

The thing is--

The thing that makes this more frightening than anything else John has ever done is not the night terrors or the way he hasn't had a hard-on since, or how he thinks he might always be afraid to touch himself again--much less let anyone else.  The thing that is larger than the coldness that has settled deep in his stomach, and the fire that nips at his memory, that is bigger than this alien planet--

The thing is that John has never loved anything like Atlantis, never loved anyone else the way he loves the people he has here, has never felt the ground rise to meet him.  And if as a child John always felt out of context, Atlantis feels as if she is in his key, humming and harmonizing and making him vibrate with the joy of belonging--

The thing is that he's not that person anymore.

*

"The thing is," John tells Kate at 8 a.m. that day, "it's all changed now."

Kate frowns at him.  "What all?"

"Me," John says.

"Of course you have, John," she agrees gently.  "You can't not change when--"

"No, see, the thing is," John pushes on, because he's frantic with this knowledge now.  It's burning a hole in the back of his mind.  He's talking to fast and he doesn't know if he makes sense, but it's all coming tumbling out, like an adrenaline rush and that initial push--like if he doesn't do it now he never will at all.

"The thing is that everybody has this idea of me.  Everybody knows me.  Elizabeth knows me.  Teyla knows me.  Ronon knows me.  Zelenka knows me," John babbles.

"Rodney knows you," Kate supplies softly.

"Rodney knows me," John says.  "And they don't, anymore.  They don't, and they won't--"

"John," Kate all but yells, and John blinks in surprise when she closes her hands over his and smiles and says, "Give them a little credit."

"But--"

"They do.  They will," she promises him, and John feels a sunburst of relief in his chest because once upon a time, when John was still trying to lie to her, Kate had said that he already knew what he was going to say and do--that he just wanted her to agree--and this is true, it's still true.

He's never wanted to her to promise him anything more than this, and he says, "All right," because it must be true, he's known it all along.

*

When John tells Rodney, "I know," and "You just really surprised me," and "It's all right if you don't anymore--because of all of this," Rodney only stares at John like Atlantis sinking into the ocean again, like water is cracking all of her beautiful windows. 

"It's okay," John croaks.  "It's really okay." 

He thinks he's dying.  He must be dying.  He can't have lost everything, and he thought after Darfin, after that night in the palace and the brown sting of memory, nothing could hurt this much.

"It's really--"

"Oh my God shut up," Rodney manages, and John does, because he's tired and wrung out, brittle and he thinks that his hand is on the doorknob.  He's drowning, lungs burning for oxygen and the water is deep and blurry around him--his whole life waterlogged and floating around him like ghosts.

Rodney's eyes are as blue as the sea and too bright, and in the end, all he does is take John's hands--very carefully--in his, and opens them facing up, to press his mouth to John's palms.

And when Rodney looks up, with his face all wet from the same water that was drowning the both of them, and says, "Oh God, I'm so sorry--I didn't--I'm so glad--" and "Wait--can I--should I--" as John pulls him closer, pulls him in, and let's Rodney touch--let's himself touch--

All John hears is the click of a door, a sudden rush of air, the torrential pour of water and finally, finally, finally, John feels the sun.

*

Later, John will think about a field of the Elysium flowers, huge and stunning and riotously orange, and how he will lay in them now and melt under the alien sun like Alice in a field of poppies and sleep, deep and untroubled.

 

(by ileliberte)