John hadn't really thought they were invincible. He knew they were flesh and blood, muscle and bone, flimsy like most other life forms. It's just that they were so damn lucky. He'd run how many suicide missions now, something saving him every time? The Daedalus, Rodney, Radek, even Chuck'd saved his bacon once with a random piece of Ancient machinery and a bit of quick thinking. They'd all died at least once too, except Teyla, who'd been kidnapped for months, so he figured that counted.
Seeing Rodney with an arrow sticking out of his chest, though, that was different. That was the stupidest way to die in any galaxy, and John wouldn't believe it. He wouldn't believe there wasn't some Ancient healing machine, organ regenerator, a fucking sarcophagus, for fuck's sake, something that could heal Rodney. There was no way he was going to be taken out by an arrow, god damn it, it was laughable.
Then he saw Jennifer's face. She was Rodney's doctor in times like this, first and foremost; she had a remarkable ability to strip away that other part of her and do whatever was necessary to save the person in front of her, even if it was Rodney, her fiancé, the guy she was supposed to marry in three weeks. But she'd taken one look at Rodney and all the color had drained out of her like someone had pulled the stopper on a bathtub.
"No," John snarled, grabbing the head of the gurney and wheeling it toward the infirmary, ripping it out of the hands of the techs. Ronon took a quick step forward and got on the other end of the gurney, pushing it behind John. Teyla grabbed Jennifer by the shoulders and marched her after them, looking like a limp rag doll, one Teyla was carrying along with no free will of her own.
"He only stopped breathing a minute ago, doc, not even," John said over his shoulder. "The arrow hit him right after he dialed the gate, and Ronon grabbed him by the vest and pulled him through. A minute, that's all – that's nothing."
Jennifer was silent. He could hear Teyla speaking softly to her, but John started to think of other options. Biro was second-in-command of the medical staff. He clicked his radio and said, "Dr. Biro to the infirmary, now." She wasn't emotionally invested; she'd be able to see that there were other options, that they could do something about this medieval bullshit way to die. At least John would've died by nuke, a mid-twentieth century weapon. He was going to give Rodney hell forever when he woke up.
Biro was waiting for them by the time they hit the infirmary, normally cheerful face scrunched up with stress. She took one look at all of them, a longer glance over Jennifer's now catatonic frame, and looked back at Rodney, lying still on the gurney, arrow sticking out of him at the strangest upward angle; they'd been shooting down from the trees, John thought.
"How long has he been down?"
"Less than two minutes," John answered. "Ten seconds or so from the arrow to the gate room, about thirty seconds in the gate room, and then the minute walk down here."
"Good," Biro said. "Come on, we have to run. Get him in the transporter," she said, shaking her head at Teyla. John couldn't read whatever that was supposed to mean, but he knew when to take orders, and he trusted Biro. He and Ronon ran for the transporter, and she kept up, huffing and puffing, and squeezing herself into the tiny space with them and the gurney. "Six floors down," she said, and Ronon touched the screen.
"Time?" she asked as they unfolded out of the transporter. John was good with time, but it was starting to spiral in that way that meant he couldn't be sure anymore – the adrenaline was starting to make everything go funny.
"Three minutes, a little more, maybe?"
"Okay," Biro said, and sprinted ahead of them and down the hall. "Come on!" she yelled.
Ronon and John pushed the gurney down the hall behind her. John was glad he was at the head of it; he wasn't at all sure he'd be able to do this if he had to watch Rodney's body jiggle around on the gurney, limp and loose.
When they got to the room behind Biro, John stopped so suddenly Ronon pushed the cart into him and nudged him forward another couple steps. "This is your idea?" John asked, staring at the stasis chamber. Rodney couldn't even stand, there was no way to get him in there unless they rigged him up somehow.
"Hurry," Biro said urgently. "We have to keep it under four minutes to avoid brain damage."
John thought hard at the chamber, asking it for help holding Rodney up. Silvery undulating tentacles came out of the wall, looking like open arms waiting to hug Rodney close.
"Oh!" Biro said, jumping back. "Did you do that?"
"I think so," John said, staring at the tentacles.
Ronon elbowed him. "Help me get him over there."
John turned to the gurney, and the gut punch of oh shit hit him as Ronon wormed his arms under Rodney's limp body, trying to pick him up without shifting the arrow any more than he had to. "Let me take his arms," John said, grabbing Rodney under the armpits and waiting for Ronon to shift down Rodney's body and grab something else. He put his arms under Rodney's back and thighs, and together they got him off the gurney without too much jostling.
Ronon set Rodney's feet down so John was holding him up by the armpits, face forward like an offering to a tentacle god. The smooth appendages slithered around Rodney, a cool metal barrier forming between him and John as they pulled him in, turned him around, and held him upright. As soon as Rodney was pulled beyond the front row of emitters, Biro turned the stasis field on. Rodney was held there, head lolling to the side, looking like a child in its parents' arms, sleeping peacefully.
John had a list when things went to shit. How far on the list he got depended on how far to shit things went, or how long it was before things went to shit again. Assessment, medical, debrief, work off the adrenaline, team, personal assessment, drunk. The assessment of the situation was chugging along in his brain right next to his freak-out over Rodney looking like a life-size Ken doll with tentacle attachments and bonus arrow wound. It was creepy, seeing him standing there, tranquil despite the thick-shafted brown arrow sticking straight up out of his chest.
Biro checked John over in the stasis room. She stayed by the console, keeping an eye on it as she gave him the perfunctory physical, asked the usual questions, decided the more invasive tests weren't necessary. She checked Ronon over too, while John stood quietly, staring at Rodney. When she finished with Ronon, she coughed delicately.
John nodded, heart still in thudding his throat. He didn't want to leave Rodney here, not alone. Ronon put a hand on his arm and said, "Sheppard."
John looked up at him briefly before Biro caught his attention again.
"I'll send Radek down to make sure I haven't missed anything," Biro said, and John had to bite back his response of tell him to hurry. He nodded again, knowing that he was probably in shock; he'd need to hide it better before debriefing came around.
They met Teyla on the way back to the control room to debrief Woolsey; Marie had given her a quick exam and sent her on her way. Teyla told them Jennifer was in shock and Marie was taking care of her. John added Jennifer to his mental to-do list, slotting her in place of personal assessment. It was a relief – he wasn't one for introspection most of the time, and if there was a person who was going to miss Rodney as much as he was, it'd be Jennifer.
The debrief was short and Teyla handled most of it, only handing it over to John once she said she'd stepped through the wormhole and all had still looked well. John felt a pang of guilt; Teyla must have been shocked to see Rodney come through like that when she thought everything had gone perfectly fine. "Shot him from above," Ronon said. "As he was walking to the gate."
Woolsey took a deep breath. "So the gate was surrounded and you walked into a trap after you'd already had your negotiations."
"Perhaps there are other peoples on that world," Teyla guessed. "Jealous of the Umack people or wary of the Stargate."
"Why didn't they tell us about them?" John asked, though he could think of ten reasons off the top of his head why they wouldn't. "I want to go back," John said. "I want to find out what happened, who those people are, why they shot Rodney."
The rage he'd been expecting since it happened flooded through him, sweeping away the vague numbness that had come over him since they put Rodney in stasis. "I want answers."
"Yes, Colonel," Woolsey answered, soothingly, like he was talking to a recalcitrant child. "But we'll send a different team, in a jumper, one looking for ambushes. Major Lorne is already getting his team together."
"I want to go along," John said, and Teyla and Ronon shifted forward in their seats to indicate their interest, too.
"No," Woolsey said simply. "You're all in shock. Besides, I'd think you'll want to be here when Biro gives her medical report."
That took the wind out of their sails, and all three of them slumped back into their chairs. John was still in limbo. He knew that technically Rodney was dead, but until he heard it from every medical person on base, there was no way he was going to believe that something couldn't be done. Biro wouldn't have put him in stasis if that wasn't the case. It was the only thing he had left to hold onto, and he was holding on for dear life.
The medical debrief wasn't for another two hours; Biro needed to get readings off the stasis chamber and do some research. John didn't know what to do with himself; he debated a run, but in this state it meant too much thinking. Neither Teyla nor Ronon worked out when they grieved, so bantos training or hand to hand was out of the question. The gym was probably full of marines, and he couldn't swim for more than a couple laps without wanting to drown himself instead.
He took a long shower, almost wishing he had blood to wash off. There hadn't been any, not that he could see, and it would've been soaked up by Rodney's clothes under the tac vest anyway. It was part of what made the whole situation so surreal. No blood, no screams, no Rodney babbling about how much it hurt or what he wanted to tell people because he knew he was going to die, just boom. Rodney was gone, and there was a yawning void in the universe.
John'd lost people before, people he cared about, even team members. He wasn't a crier by nature, so he mourned them, sad and hollow and self-reproachful, trying to figure out what he could have done better, faster, or smarter to save them. This was so stupid, though, and it was Rodney. He'd never felt gutted like this before, disbelieving and empty. He sat down in the shower and let the water run over him, closed his eyes and rocked himself, telling himself there was hope, there was a plan, that he'd hear it when he went to the meeting in a couple of hours.
John got dressed and went to the meeting room. He could brood there as well as anywhere, and he didn't want to sit around his quarters at loose ends anymore. At least in the briefing room it felt like he was waiting for something, like maybe he'd be able to do something soon. Teyla and Ronon came in not long after and sat on either side of him, silently. Teyla put her hand on his forearm and squeezed. He nodded his thanks and she folded her hands in front of herself, meditating.
"Must be able to fix him," Ronon said. No one but Amelia could read Ronon very well, except when he was obviously happy or angry. John knew he'd seen Ronon sad, but mostly it felt like sadness was a thing he carried around all the time, and it just shifted size as things happened. John had noticed, though, that he comforted with words. He touched occasionally, in support, or frustration, or friendship. He talked a fair amount, too, though not in serious situations. That's why these words were so precious, and he knew Ronon must think he was pretty close to the edge. He supposed he was. He hadn't felt flayed open and vulnerable like this since Holland.
"I know, buddy," John answered finally. He allowed himself a small place for hope. He wasn't a realist, not the way he probably should be in a position like his. He was an optimistic realist, he thought – it had worked out pretty well for him and Atlantis so far. Pessimism was Rodney's department, though it was largely superficial. He knew Rodney was just considering all the possibilities and probably doing the statistics in his head, like C3PO or Spock. If he could give the percent chance of failure with any accuracy, he would have. It made John feel better though, because while Rodney knew the odds every time, he always managed to pull it off. He was their miracle worker. John had to trust that he'd get his miracle too.
Woolsey came in a few minutes early, starting a little when he saw the team in their seats. "Colonel Sheppard, early to a meeting. Now I know the world is ending."
John smiled tightly, an acknowledgement of Woolsey's attempt at lightening the mood. He was a good guy, Woolsey, but he'd come into Atlantis unprepared, trying to understand and fit in with the tight-knit group. John knew he felt like an outsider most of the time, so he made sure to visit with Woolsey off the clock (hardly a hardship with the quality of booze and cigars the man had) and tried to get Rodney to visit, too, but Rodney was still mourning Elizabeth. He didn't think Rodney'd manage a friendship with Woolsey or anyone else in charge of Atlantis for quite a while.
Lorne came in, talked to Woolsey briefly, and took a seat, waving the rest of his team off as he did so. He glanced at John and looked like he was about to say something, but Radek hustled in, clapping Lorne on the shoulder and leaning in to tell Ronon that Miko was with Rodney now.
Finally Biro came in, derailing John's rambling train of thought. Marie and Jennifer were there too, Marie holding Jennifer's arm, guiding her. Biro reminded him oddly of Rodney, carrying two laptops and lit with the joy of a great idea. Seeing the team look so somber made her face briefly wrinkle with concern, but the shine of discovery came right back up with a wide smile and bright eyes. John could feel the hope light up in his chest.
"Bad news first," Biro said, the coals of her happiness banked as she became all business. "Rodney's dead." John knew this, so it wasn't a big shock. He hadn't been breathing when he came through the gate, and Biro'd confirmed there was no pulse while they were in the transporter. "The arrow was a freak shot, coming in above his tac vest and going straight down into his heart. It broke the rib on its way in – a testament to the strength of the archer and the huge size of the arrow. Radek confirms that the arrow has pierced his heart, but it has not damaged his lung." Radek nodded, and Biro went on. "The heart muscle is completely destroyed. There is not enough tissue to attempt heart surgery to repair the damage."
Teyla sucked in a breath, sounding horrified. Nothing so far had surprised John. He wasn't here for the diagnosis. He was here for that bright idea shining in Biro's eyes.
"Now, we have a couple of options," Biro said, and this was what John wanted to hear. He leaned in, watching her intently. "Well, obviously there's nanites," Biro said, and took a step back when she saw all the glares leveled in her direction. "Right. I assumed that you wouldn't want to do that, not without Rodney to code."
"Though," Radek broke in, putting his hands up as their glares swung around the table at him, "Jeannie Miller is better with nanites than Rodney. She could work on the coding."
Woolsey shook his head. "I'm sorry, but nanites are too great a security risk. If it comes down to nanites or Dr. McKay, well." He looked at the team, meeting each of their eyes in turn. "I'm sorry."
John nodded. He knew. He'd make the same decision. Hell, he had made the same decision, and he was mostly glad it wouldn't be his call this time, if it came down to it.
"Okay," Biro said, bringing the conversation back on track. "There's always the heart transplant list, which is long and takes months, and would be a nightmare of falsified paperwork, since we can hardly ship the stasis chamber to the Milky Way."
She looked at John, and John glanced around the room, wondering why he would be expected to say something. "I'm assuming you have a better idea?"
"I do," Biro said, beaming. This was what he had been waiting for. "We can grow him a heart."
Radek shook his head. "We don't have that technology. The replicators never reprogrammed the machine to be able to create human cells, and we don't have the information from any of the replicator…" Radek stopped, his eyes growing wide. "Unless you mean to go find Dr. Weir to –"
Biro put a hand up to stop him. "No." She looked at Jennifer, and Marie nudged Jennifer to look up. "Earth technology. They're already growing organs for transplant. It's not too common because of the expense, but it's been done successfully a number of times."
Jennifer perked up at that, looking a little like a puppet coming to life. "Bladders," she said. "Not hearts."
"No," Biro agreed, "But they've made rat hearts, and transplanted them successfully. They're working on pig hearts. The technology exists. We can do it. We can grow a heart and transplant it with no worry of rejection."
"How long will that take?" John asked. He didn't understand biology too well, but this didn't seem like a particularly quick solution.
"Two to three weeks to grow the heart, once we figure out how to."
"But you can figure it out?" Woolsey asked.
Biro nodded. "I know the theory behind it, and some of my postdoc research was in stem cell creation. I'm sure I can figure it out, if I have Jennifer's help."
Jennifer's eyes lit up at that. "Of course," she said, "you create the stem cells and then grow them into heart cells."
Hope finally took hold; relief rushed into John's body, making him feel like he was shaking inside his skin. They'd be able to save Rodney. It might take months, but he'd be back. John sagged down onto the table, putting his head down onto his arms while Jennifer and Biro talked across the table excitedly.
"Of course we'd need your permission," Jennifer said, and John perked up and looked at Woolsey. It didn't seem like something like this would require permission, but he was a stickler for the paperwork. Then he realized Woolsey was staring at him, and when he turned to Jennifer, she was staring at him too.
"Me?" he asked. "Why would you need my permission?"
Jennifer looked confused. "Because you're Rodney's power of attorney."
"I'm what?" The bottom dropped out on John again, the weird flatness of surprise making him blank out a little. He should have known if he was Rodney's power of attorney; that wasn't the kind of thing you could accidentally set up. He'd been thinking about doing an advance directive for years, but he wasn't sure Teyla or Ronon could be authorized powers of attorney on Earth documents, and he didn't trust Rodney not to do something stupid on his behalf. He'd always planned to have Elizabeth do it, and then it'd been too late for that.
"He has an advance directive in his medical file, naming you power of attorney. You signed it and Elizabeth notarized it, back in two thousand five. You don't remember?"
John sat very still. He was positive he'd never signed anything, but if it meant that he got to give the green light on Rodney's care, he was going to do it. "I guess I forgot," John said. "It's been a while."
"So you give us permission?" Biro prompted.
"Yes," John said fervently. Absolutely yes.
"Major Lorne," Woolsey said brusquely. John took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "What did you get from the planet?"
"It…" Lorne started, slanting a brief, sympathetic look at John, "It was an accident."
John's mouth dropped open, and he could feel Teyla stiffen and sit up straighter next to him, and Ronon bristle with anger. Lorne put his hands up placatingly. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but we checked it out. It was a rogue arrow from a big game trap."
"There isn't any big game on Umack," Teyla said, a quiver in her voice. "They go to the other continent to hunt big game. It is a biennial event."
"Yeah," Lorne said, looking even worse. "There's a contest for biggest kill; three kids raided the Ancient outpost nearby – the one without any ZPMs? – and found an auto-targeting device. They used the big game arrows and were testing it in the woods near the gate."
"But humans aren't big game," John said, his voice so low it was a growl.
"No," Radek said, putting a hand on Lorne's shoulder before he could answer, "but if it was an Ancient auto-targeting device, it probably sensed its job was to protect the gate."
"Or it was malfunctioning," Lorne said quietly, but John didn't believe that. It was a one in a million shot; there's no way that the aim was an accident. The selection of the target, maybe, but not the aim.
"They feel horrible," Lorne said. "Consul Turiat asked if there was anything they could do, any amends they could make."
John put his head in his hands. Amends.
"I told them we appreciated their concern and would follow up with them when we could."
John nodded. He should have known he could trust Lorne. He was still in shock, and suddenly he felt completely wrung out, like he might fall asleep at the table if Woolsey didn't dismiss them soon.
"Thank you, Major Lorne," Woolsey said, and turned to look at John, then Teyla and Ronon. "You're off the roster for two weeks," Woolsey said. "After that, we must resume regular missions, so you should give some thought to who will replace Dr. McKay."
Ronon was out of his seat and Teyla'd already opened her mouth to protest, but John got a hand on each of them. "Temporarily replace Dr. McKay," John said.
"Yes, of course," Woolsey said, like he couldn't possibly have meant it any other way.
That was as much as John could hope for, so he rose too. "Come on," he said, low enough that only Teyla and Ronon would hear him. "Let's go visit Rodney."
They walked in silence down the corridor to Rodney's stasis chamber. Miko was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of Rodney, but when she saw them she excused herself and told them to call her back when they were done.
John went to stand right in front of Rodney, staring at the thick, dark brown shaft of wood sticking up out of his chest. It had dark brown fletching, and was at least dime-sized in diameter. It was huge. "Big game hunting," John said, the senselessness of it making his head buzz.
"Come, John, we should sleep. It will help with the shock."
"I know," John said. Biro had told him as much after she checked him and Ronon out.
John turned to leave, Teyla with him, but Ronon moved to stand in front of Rodney as they made their way to the door. "Get some sleep," John said, unable to give Ronon the order to stand down. "Radek's got a rotation to watch him, I'm sure."
Ronon rumbled something in agreement, but John knew he'd be there a long while. He parted ways with Teyla at her quarters, accepting a hug and leaning into her warmth just a little, ending with the Athosian head touch.
By the time he got back to his room, he was too exhausted to even undress and he fell on his bed, asleep before his head hit the pillow.
The pounding at the door was insistent; John woke up and wanted to let whoever it was in, it sounded so much like Rodney. Then he remembered Rodney was dead, in stasis, and not capable of pounding on any doors. He rolled over and put the pillow over his head. If it was something important, they would have radioed him.
The pounding continued though, with an eerily McKay-like persistence. Only McKay could keep up with something long enough to annoy John. "John?" a voice came through the door.
John sat bolt upright. That was Rodney's voice. He ran to the door and opened it, and Rodney was standing in front of it, looking confused and scared and alive.
"Rodney?" he asked.
"John!" Rodney cried, and pushed into John's quarters. "Why would you leave me alone in there? I woke up and there was no one around, and I can't remember how I got there and there was no one there!"
"You were dead," John said, and Rodney's eyes got scarily big.
"Dead? Like, no pulse dead? Like –"
"Yeah, buddy, you were dead. And we weren't leaving you alone. Ronon was there when I left."
"No one was there when I woke up," Rodney said, still looking confused, but he was getting a little color back, and with it, John's sense of relief was so strong it nearly knocked him off his feet.
"It's okay, buddy," John said, grabbing Rodney by the shoulders and squeezing. "Come on, let's get you to the infirmary. We'll sort this out."
When they got to the infirmary, Marie's eyes went very round and she radioed Dr. Keller. Dr. Pearson did a preliminary exam before Jennifer got there, but Rodney seemed perfectly healthy.
"What do you remember?" Jennifer asked, wiping the tears from her eyes after she finally let go of Rodney.
"Being on M6X-C94," Rodney answered, letting go of her reluctantly. "The last thing I remember was the toasting round, with all the tea drinking."
John looked at Jennifer, and she nodded. "Amnesia of the event is common for trauma. We're lucky it's only a couple of hours. Okay," she said, suddenly all no-nonsense, "let's get you under the scanner." John's not sure he would've been able to do the same, if it was him. "Just to check that everything is where it's supposed to be, and try to figure out what Atlantis did to heal you."
Rodney nodded, looking shell-shocked again. John couldn't imagine what it must've been like in his brain at that moment. He lay back, letting Jennifer position the scanner over him. Pearson gasped as soon as the first image came up.
"What?" Jennifer asked, running to look at the screen. John couldn't see anything. It looked like the machine was still warming up; Rodney's body was showing up as solid white, almost like a childish drawing of a human body rather than an x-ray. Jennifer turned to Rodney. "You're a replicator."
John reached for his gun automatically before he realized it wasn't there. There weren't any guns here, no one had even thought to put Rodney under guard, they were so thrilled to have him back. Idiot, John reprimanded himself. "Who are you?"
The replicator was trapped under the scanner. It shouldn't have been a problem for a replicator, but this one was struggling.
"I'm Rodney," it answered. "And look, I told you I woke up in the replicator lab!"
"No," John said calmly, even though he was itching for a gun, "you just said you'd woken up alone."
"In the replicator lab!" it shouted, sounding just like Rodney when he was on the verge of hysterics. "Look, you didn't even question that it was me! Neither of you! I'm me," the thing said. "I don't know what happened, but I can tell you every intimate and embarrassing detail about my life, and a quite a few about each of yours."
John tapped his radio. "Ronon?"
"You still in the stasis chamber with McKay?"
Ronon took a second to answer. It was as close to an admission of guilt as John would ever get. "Yeah."
"McKay's still there?"
This silence was confused. Even over the radio, Ronon's silences were distinctive. "Yeah?"
"Well, you might want to come to the infirmary. And bring an anti-replicator gun with you."
"Be there in three minutes."
John let out a deep breath. Only Ronon could make it from the stasis pods to the infirmary with a detour to the munitions locker in three minutes.
"Sheppard," the replicator said. "Please, John, you knew it was me, didn't you? You knew it before you opened your door."
John had known it was Rodney, and the fact that he hadn't questioned it just meant he was worse off from Rodney's death than he realized.
"You may feel like you're McKay, but you're not. You're a copy."
The replicator let out an exasperated sigh. "That makes me the same as him. We have the same memories, knowledge, skills. I can still program an Ancient door one-handed and give incredible head." Jennifer blushed bright pink and took a step behind John. It pointed a finger awkwardly at John. "I remember holding your head over the toilet when we got back from MX3-644, when you'd gotten so drunk on that berry wine that you couldn't walk straight. I could tell you some of the things you admitted to me that night."
John only had fuzzy memories of that night, mostly centering around Rodney holding his head up by the hair and feeling like he was being flayed alive on the inside. If the replicator really had Rodney's sensibilities, it'd never repeat something John told him in confidence. John looked at him.
"Well, fine, I'm not going to air your dirty laundry here, but you did mention that your brother went through a Velvet Goldmine phase, with the glittery nail polish and everything."
Dave had gone through a Velvet Goldmine phase; he had bought several bottles of glittery nail polish. John had stolen them before Dave could paint his nails, though, because he was too afraid Dave would embarrass him, or his father would kill Dave, or his mother would offer to paint Dave's toenails. John had painted a single finger, desperate to see what was so attractive about it. He'd stared at the sparkling nail for a long time before suddenly freaking out and going through his parents' medicine cabinet looking for the nail polish remover.
John didn't say anything. He didn't doubt that the replicator had all of Rodney's memories and knowledge. He only doubted its ability to be in control of itself.
"You don't have to prove that you're a replicator copy of McKay," John said. "If you've really got his memories, then you know exactly why you're dangerous."
The replicator's head dropped back down to the table. "Yes." It started to make choked noises, and John realized it was sobbing. He was poleaxed. On one hand, this thing thought it was Rodney. It felt like it was Rodney, and if it actually had been Rodney, John would be feeling pretty sorry for it right now. But it wasn't Rodney, and John needed to keep the threat under control until they could decide what to do with it.
"Call Jeannie," it said. Before John could figure out what trick it was trying to play, it said, "Call my sister, you'll need her help with the nanites."
After that, it stayed silent. John was thankful for that. He didn't want it to look and sound and feel so much like Rodney; that was too dangerous, and one look at Jennifer's hands tightened down on his arm told him he wasn't the only one who thought so.
It took three hours for the thing to fall asleep. "Technically, it doesn't need to sleep. Or eat. Or cry," Jennifer said, sitting on a gurney next to John. "It's sleeping because it still thinks it's human. It thinks it's Rodney."
John nodded. "How do you think it got here?"
Jennifer shrugged. "That's probably a question for Radek. Maybe Rodney programmed the replication machine to make a replicate when he died? Maybe the tentacles in the stasis pod did something?"
John looked down at her in shock. Those had been his doing – if he had caused this...
"I just... It's like losing him twice in the same day."
John knew. Did he ever. Pearson and Biro were talking with Radek and Lorne, and the call had already been made to request Jeannie's services. "Come on, doc," John said, knocking his knee into hers. "You need some sleep. I'll walk you back to your quarters."
She went to the drug cabinet and got Ambien for both of them. "I think you'll need this too, John." John let her press the pills into his palm. He wouldn't take them unless he was desperate, but desperation was nipping at his heels, and who knew what he'd feel like when he was alone in his quarters again. Besides, he told himself, Lorne was on top of things. He'd swooped in and started ordering people around, called in two marines with ARGs to guard the replicator. He and Radek had already implemented a plan to get Jeannie and investigate the replicator lab, and John hadn't been any help, just sat in the infirmary watching replicator-Rodney and trying to get rid of the weird mix of dread and relief coiled up in his gut.
They didn't talk as they walked to Jennifer's quarters. John was thankful for that. He wasn't ready to examine any of this yet, to think logically about losing Rodney twice in one day. When he dropped her at her quarters, she put a hand on his arm. He'd been ready to give her a hug – he didn't mind hugging for comfort, especially with Jennifer since she was a good hugger, whole body, firm, and no squirming. No holding on too long, either. She surprised him by squeezing his arm and stepping into her quarters.
"He's not Rodney," she said, turning around.
John blinked. He hadn't expected Jennifer to be quite so adamant about the replicator, especially since it really was so similar to Rodney. "I know. We'll know more when Jeannie gets here. Maybe it can help us bring Rodney back."
Jennifer smiled sadly at him. It was pretty obvious she didn't think that was an option. "Get some sleep, John. Doctor's orders."
"Good night," John said, fingers twirling the Ambien in his pocket.
It hadn't taken John any time at all to fall back asleep. His mind had been going a hundred miles an hour, too many different feelings rattling around in his chest, but as soon as he put his head to the pillow he'd fallen asleep without a single wayward thought.
He woke up feeling well-rested, something that almost never happened on Atlantis. He didn't normally sleep in – that just wasn't his style. But this morning at oh nine hundred, he woke up and stretched, feeling pretty good. Until it all crashed in on him. No emergencies during the night at least, that was good. Lorne and Radek were flawless second-in-commands, knowing their bosses' minds and holding their own. Radek was fiercely protective of Rodney's time, and he generally believed Lorne was the same way with his.
He showered and shaved and got dressed in a leisurely fashion, still trying to figure out what he thought about replicator-Rodney. It'd been so convincing he'd thought it was Rodney. It was sleeping and crying and doing other human things, but it was basically a robot, made of lots of tiny robots. If it was as smart as Rodney, it might be able to rewrite its own code, or shut down parts of it. It could certainly shut down the protocols Rodney and Radek had written to keep FRAN under control.
John gave up. He needed to be doing things, not thinking. He put on his radio and clicked it on. "Lorne?"
"Good morning, sir."
"Yeah, good morning. Where are you?" He sat on the bed, tying his boots around his ankles, leaving the tops open. Then he rethought it and laced them all the way up.
"We're in the replicator lab. Zelenka and half his crew are here, Mrs. Miller, Ronon, and a couple of marines with ARGs."
Ronon was still awake? Damn. John was going to have to order him to sleep. "Great. I'll be right down."
The lab was buzzing. There were two marines inside, plastered against the walls with their ARGs, tracking the replicator at all times. It didn't seem to mind; it was laughing and chatting with Radek and Jeannie as they went from laptop to laptop, pointing at the screens and typing sometimes. Lorne wasn't exactly smiling, but he didn't look like he considered the situation threatening.
As if to prove his point, Ronon was asleep standing up, his head resting against the wall.
"Why don't you get some sleep on a horizontal surface, buddy?" John asked, and Ronon's eyes snapped open to look at the small group of people clustered around one of the laptops.
"Ah, Sheppard," the replicator said. John blinked. "Good to see you got some sleep. If you want to come over, I'm showing Jeannie my –"
Radek interrupted, "– our –"
The replicator frowned, but said, "– our firewall."
"Firewall?" John asked.
"Yes," it said. "Before we made FRAN, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to keep her from receiving the replicator code updates, at least automatic ones that we didn't have a chance to analyze before they went into effect. We pretty much perfected it with FRAN, and when Atlantis made me, it used the coding from that, tweaked with a couple of other things I couldn't place until Jeannie came. They're parts of the medical replicators' code."
Jeannie smiled. "Mer's nanites are a composite; they're builders and healers."
John couldn't get past Jeannie calling him Mer, like he was the real Rodney, the one wrapped up in a stasis pod, the one that should be getting the bulk of their attention. It bothered him, all this work on a fake Rodney when the real one was still waiting to be fixed. "Radek, what are you doing for Rodney?"
Radek frowned. "Growing organs is not my area of expertise, Colonel."
Replicator Rodney waved his hand dismissively, such a Rodney move John could hardly stand it. "Biro and Jennifer are hard at work on it."
"So they are at work in the medical lab," Radek continued, "and Simpson and Teyla are with Rodney's body in the stasis area, trying to tell us if anything triggered the replicator machine from there."
John glanced over his shoulder at Lorne, who shrugged. Ronon caught his eye again, watching their small group with interest. "Hey, big guy, why don't you join us."
He shrugged one shoulder and came over. "So are you Rodney, or not?"
"Of course he's Meredith," Jeannie said immediately. "He has all the same knowledge, skills, and experiences as my brother. And what are we, if not a sum of our experiences?"
John didn't have a handy answer for that, but he simply couldn't discount flesh and blood and bone. This Rodney was basically a minimalist robot.
"Why does he need to sleep if he's a replicator?" Ronon asked.
"I'm right here," the replicator said, eyes flashing with irritation as he stared Ronon down. "I'm me, Ronon. Everything that made me Rodney in that other body – that other dead body, I'll remind you – is here in this one. I have my consciousness, I have my memories, I have my love for my sister and my team and Atlantis, and if I thought I could be a danger to you, I wouldn't let myself just traipse around the place, free as a bird."
Ronon raised an eyebrow and looked at the marines stationed around the room with anti-replicator guns.
"Those aren't my doing, and you'll notice I'm not protesting them. If that's what Sheppard and Lorne need to let them sleep at night, then I'll put up with it. I know – and Radek and Jeannie know – that the most important line of defense is in my code, and if Jeannie says it's safe, then I believe her."
Jeannie beamed at him. "Thanks, Mer."
"Well, I might as well take advantage of my time here to spill all my secrets," he said, squeezing Jeannie's hand. "I have no doubt they'll eventually grow him a heart. He'll be the real McKay when he gets back and I'll be put down like a rabid dog."
"No!" Jeannie said, turning around to look at John. "You wouldn't do that! Rodney would want himself to be kept around – twice as much genius, right, Mer?"
Replicator Rodney just smiled sadly behind her. "Yes," he said. "I would want two of me. But they will never believe that flesh-and-blood Rodney would want me around – even though it was demonstrated clearly when we met up with that replicator team on M34-227."
"Then they wait until Mer wakes up and ask him. Right?" Jeannie looked first at Lorne and then at John. She kept John's eyes, and he swallowed convulsively.
"I can't make that promise, Jeannie, and it –" John tipped his chin up at the replicator, "– knows that."
"I do," the replicator sighed. "You're going to need to call me something, Sheppard, and I'd appreciate it if it wasn't 'repli-Rodney.'"
John winced. He should have known it would sense John's hesitation about calling it by Rodney's name.
"How about McKay?" it asked. "I won't be leaving Atlantis, and you usually call me Rodney in Atlantis, so that should be enough of a mental separation. Unless you want to call me Mer, like Jeannie does. It'd be weird, but I'd get used to it."
"I call you McKay," Ronon said. A brief expression of confusion crossed Ronon's face, and he looked like he wanted to say something more, but he kept his mouth shut.
"Do you think you could manage Mer?" the replicator asked.
McKay, John thought. McKay asked.
Ronon shook his head. "I know the difference. I can call you both McKay."
"And suppose he gets back on his feet, and you don't kill me, and we end up working together to save the day and you need to call one of us. What do you do then?"
Ronon looked stymied. Then he frowned. "We'll deal with that when the time comes," he said.
"And you, Sheppard?"
John closed his eyes and sighed deeply. "Fine. McKay."
"Zelenka?" Simpson's voice came over the radio. "I think we have something here."
"Yes?" Radek answered, pointing out something on the screen of the laptop they were currently clustered around to Jeannie and McKay.
"Information was downloaded from Dr. McKay's stasis pod. It looks like DNA."
"Atlantis downloaded Rodney's DNA?" Radek asked. He went over to the replicator machine and grabbed the tablet they had hooked in there. "What time?"
"One thirty seven last night," Simpson answered.
Radek turned the tablet toward McKay. "The machine self-activated at one thirty seven last night."
"Doc?" John asked. "I assume Atlantis did this on its own; none of your staff would do it?"
Radek shook his head. "After Elizabeth, we locked down the lab with a mutating algorithm. Not even Rodney should have been able to open the door."
"How did you open the door?" John asked the replicator.
McKay shrugged. "Wasn't locked from the inside. Besides, I was pretty freaked out. Imagine waking up on that table, completely alone, and not remembering how you got there."
John let that sink in; Atlantis downloaded Rodney's DNA and created a replicator duplicate. Why? What purpose could it serve? Was it trying to tell them that the real Rodney was never coming back? That they needed Rodney's own help to figure out how to bring him back?
"There was a second download," Simpson said, "at one forty two. Looks like a transporter signal, almost."
"That would be when the actual body was created," Radek said. "There was an aborted attempt at one thirty nine; this body was created at one forty three." He looked McKay up and down and nodded. "Happy birthday."
John heard a low chuckle over the radio and Simpson said, "I'm going to see if I can get anything else out of the transmissions. Let me know if you need anything."
"Thanks, Simpson," Radek said, clicking off his radio.
"Mer," Jeannie said, "I think Atlantis created you because it knows something we don't. Maybe the damage to your systems is greater than Dr. Biro estimated. Maybe a heart transplant – even of your own tissue – isn't feasible."
McKay nodded. "Or maybe it needed my help to... do something with growing the cells. Maybe there's an organ-growing lab somewhere on Atlantis, and I'm the only one who can find it."
Radek rolled his eyes. "Yes, because it takes your expertise to search the database."
"Maybe it recognizes my brilliance and doesn't want all you clods playing with its insides without me," McKay said.
Jeannie took a step between Radek and McKay. "I'm hungry. Let's take a break and see if we can figure out Atlantis's logic in the cafeteria. She turned to John. "Join us?"
John shook his head. "I should check in on Jennifer."
"Your loss," Jeannie said, grabbing McKay's arm and heading out the door.
Lorne signaled the marines to follow and stayed behind long enough to tell John that he didn't think McKay was a threat. John looked to Ronon for confirmation. "I don't trust him, but he doesn't feel dangerous. Jeannie says he's got some kind of lock on his code, so he can't change shape."
"That's a relief," John said. "At least we don't have to worry about him impersonating anyone."
"I think it'll be fine if we keep the marines on him," Lorne said, and John nodded, still thinking about why Atlantis had made McKay.
"C'mon," he said to Ronon. "Let's go check in on Teyla, and then I think you probably need some sleep."
Simpson was clacking away on a keyboard when they got down to the stasis room; Teyla was standing quietly behind her, watching whatever she was typing scroll by.
"John, Ronon," Teyla said as they entered, giving them a bright smile. "Have you had any luck with the replicator?"
John shrugged. "Depends what you call luck. It's asked that we call it McKay."
"Him," Simpson corrected, looking up from her tablet. "It will help if you think of it as a him, not an it."
"Help what?" John asked.
"Acclimation," Simpson answered. John raised an eyebrow and she hurried on. "He's going to be here a while. At least until they grow the heart and Rodney has his surgery and wakes up again. Possibly longer."
John swallowed thickly. He really didn't want to think about the fact that maybe Atlantis knew Rodney wasn't going to make it, and that's why it'd made McKay.
Simpson must have caught a flicker of his thought because she said, "I mean, perhaps we can keep him, and then we'll have two McKays." She laughed gruffly. "As horrifying as that would be, it would mean we could get a lot more work done. He doesn't have enough time as it is, and he was already perpetually low on sleep before. It's one of the reasons he was so cranky, I think."
The thought made John's blood run cold. Two McKays. The idea of it made him extremely uncomfortable, and he couldn't put his finger on exactly why.
"I think I'll stop digging myself a hole and grab some lunch," Simpson said. "I'll send Rodriguez down in half an hour or so."
"No, it's fine," John said, but Simpson's sad smile disarmed him. "I mean, we need to..."
She shook her head. "No need to explain, Colonel. I'll see you later."
Simpson locked down the laptop and left the room. Teyla sat down heavily in her seat. "I don't wish to meet McKay," she said. That surprised John. He hadn't expected Teyla to have an issue with a replicator.
"Ever?" John asked.
Teyla looked down. "Perhaps if the situation changes. But I don't wish to confuse my feelings where Rodney is concerned. I would feel disloyal."
"You'll always be loyal to Rodney," John said, moving closer to her. "McKay, as much as it – he – is like Rodney, is not Rodney. He knows it as well as we do."
"Yes," Teyla said, standing and rubbing her eyes. "Perhaps I simply need more time to think about it."
"It's like an alternate timeline," Ronon said, out of the blue. John and Teyla both looked up at him, shocked. "What, you think I didn't watch Star Trek?"
"I didn't think you were paying that close attention," John said.
Ronon frowned at John. "He's McKay, but from here on out, he's a different version of the McKay we know. It's why he's not a threat."
Something about Ronon's assessment put John's mind at ease. If he could live with McKay and understand how he was and yet wasn't Rodney... maybe that meant John would get there eventually.
"Okay," he said. "I'm starting to get hungry. Lunch?"
"I'm going to bed," Ronon said, taking a look at Rodney in the stasis chamber and nodding at him before heading toward the door. "Pick me up for dinner."
"Of course," Teyla said, getting up herself. "Is it mashed potatoes day?" she asked. John snorted. Why Teyla loved mashed potatoes so much, he'd never figure out. He had a feeling it was because it made Rodney nearly apoplectic when she dipped her spoonfuls of potatoes into the gravy instead of pouring it over the top.
"No idea," John said, grinning. "Let's find out."
After lunch, John stopped by the lab where Jennifer and Biro had set up shop. Jennifer was asleep at her desk, her head pillowed on one arm. He crept around her, trying not to wake her and trying to find a way to alert Biro to his presence at the same time, so Biro didn't have a heart attack when she finally saw him.
Biro glanced up as he rounded the corner of Jennifer's desk and jumped a little. She looked over her shoulder at Jennifer and smiled, fond and a little sad, and turned back to her petri dishes.
"How's it going?" John whispered, trying to figure out if he could see what she was doing. He'd always liked biology classes, even if he was never particularly good at them.
Biro shrugged. "All right, I suppose," she said, in a normal voice. Jennifer shifted and Biro winced involuntarily and continued in a whisper. "I'm trying to create the stem cells; it's an arduous process and it'll be a while before we know if they've taken."
There was a large stack of paper on her desk, packets of stapled paper, maybe twenty to thirty pages thick. "What's all this?"
"Articles," Biro said. "I'm still used to paper when it comes to doing research. I know it's not environmentally friendly, but sometimes ease and comfort are more important. Paper is easier to mark up, and easier on the eyes, if you're doing a lot of reading."
John nodded. He wasn't a big fan of reading on a computer screen either.
"So, you've worked out how to do it?"
"No," she said simply, not looking bothered in the least. "Creating the stem cells I actually know how to do; that will take a couple of weeks, minimum. That gives us plenty of time to work on the setup for growing the heart. Miko is helping us search the database, seeing if there are any Ancient technologies that we can use to shorten the process."
John sighed. He knew the work could be time-consuming and tedious, but it chafed to think they were looking at three months or more without Rodney. Maybe six or more; he didn't know how long it took to recover from heart transplant surgery.
Maybe Atlantis knew how much they'd miss Rodney, and that's why it created McKay. Damn, he hoped not.
"Thank you," John said. "I know this means a lot of work for you."
"Oh, I'm happy to do it," Biro said, smiling. "I know it's not the sort of whiz-bang result you like to get, but we'll get there. We'll get him back." She looked over at Jennifer again. "We have to."
John went back to his quarters, thinking maybe he'd try a nap. His body wasn't big on naps, though, so eventually he picked up War and Peace. His eyes glazed over as he tried to figure out what to do about the replicator. McKay. No matter what they did, a replicator was a threat. It knew that. If it really was Rodney, it had to know. Whatever modifications they did to the coding, they were possible to undo – and likely by McKay himself. John couldn't just trust it not to do that, especially if they threatened to shut it down once they got the real Rodney back.
The more he thought about it, the tighter the knot of logic got; he felt like he was circling a drain. He finally got up and started pacing, six steps from the door to the far side of his rooms. It didn't help; he still had too much energy and his thoughts were going in circles. He gave up and changed into his running gear. Just as he was tying his shoes, his door slid open.
"I wanted to talk to you," McKay said, looking John up and down. "About Rodney. And me. And you."
The last thing John wanted to do was talk to the machine wearing Rodney's face, but it wasn't like he really had a choice. "Okay," John said, sitting down hard on the bed.
"I know you don't trust replicators, and I know why," McKay said, pacing a few steps back and forth next to John's bed. John had seen Rodney do that dozens of times during their friendship. It was how he always started the hard conversations. "I know it takes forever to earn your trust, and there's no way to do it until I've performed under pressure a couple of times."
That felt a little unfair. It wasn't that John wasn't trusting, just that it was prudent to keep your distance until you knew what you were dealing with.
"This is Atlantis, though," McKay continued, "and I'm sure I'll help save the day a couple of times in the near future." McKay stopped pacing and turned to face John. "Assuming you let me help, which at this point is still a question."
John nodded. This wasn't Rodney no matter how much he protested. He was a robot, a very sophisticated robot made of miniscule parts, but still technically a robot.
"I just wanted to..." McKay cleared his throat. "I wanted to clear a couple of things up that might make it a little easier to work with me."
"Okay," John said, wanting to lean forward but forcing himself to lean back against the wall, trying to keep his nonchalance.
"I am Rodney, on some level. I have all his memories, so I remember you telling me that you'd always wanted a little sister and that you were positive you were never going to have kids. I remember the look on your face when you told me, too, like it was the worst thing that could ever happen to you."
John was gutted. He'd told Rodney these things over beer on the pier; they had an unwritten rule that they never brought up things said out there again, ever.
"I know you're thinking that the real Rodney would never say these things to you, that you never talked about this stuff after, but I wanted you to know that those small glimmers of truth about you, they were so precious to him." John swallowed. Those times meant a lot to John, too. They were the only times he and Rodney could let everything go. He'd guarded Rodney's secrets jealously, and a couple of them he'd be willing to wager not even Jennifer knew. Thinking about this machine having those secrets made him angry, all of a sudden, a heat building in his chest like a fire had been stoked there.
"He loved spending time with you, goofing around and team missions and the beer on the pier and everything," McKay said. It just made John even angrier; this thing was trying to replace Rodney, and no matter what it said, it wasn't. It couldn't be. It must have seen his anger, though, because the look it turned on him was pleading. "Those memories are precious to me too, John, and even though I'm going to be someone different from Rodney from here on out, I don't want to lose our shared history because you need to separate us, or because you feel like there can only be one true Rodney."
But there could only be one true Rodney. "First of all, you are not Rodney," John said. "You may have his memories, but you are a machine." McKay's face did something complicated and settled on what looked like hurt. John was not going to apologize. He was not the one who was being unreasonable here. "Second, you're a security risk, just because of what you are. You know it as well as I do. Even well-intentioned replicators fuck things up, so you've got a long history of fuck-ups to overcome before I can trust you. And no offense, but I don't think you'll have the opportunity to do that before we fix Rodney."
"I know," McKay said, looking morose for half a second, then suddenly lighting up and snapping his fingers. "I've been so stupid about this!" He started pacing the distance from the door to John's desk, fast, waving his hands around. "I shouldn't be trying to convince you I'm Rodney. I can't fit into his niche, try to have his relationships. I have to forge ahead, do the things he wouldn't do, blaze new trails. If I want to have relationships with the people that were important to Rodney, I have to find a different way to have them. Base them on something different."
John didn't know if it was better or worse to hear McKay talking about Rodney as a separate person. It was weird, having someone who looked like Rodney talking about himself this way. It looked like he was going crazy.
"Thank you, John," McKay said, coming over to the bed and patting John's shoulder awkwardly. "This has really helped. Thank you so much."
John didn't have it together enough to answer him, but McKay was out the door before John could even form a thought, and John had a bad feeling that whatever he'd done, it wasn't going to make things better.
John ran into McKay coming out of Woolsey's office later that afternoon. He was wearing BDU pants and a t-shirt with a couple of robots on it that looked a little too small and a lot too cool for him. He'd cut his hair really short, too.
"Thank you," McKay was saying. "I think this will help everyone with..." He looked sidelong at John. "...things."
"Thank you for having the foresight to consider the issue," Woolsey said, and John rolled his eyes at the politeness of it all.
"John," McKay said, brushing past and heading down the hallway with his marine escort in tow. John and Lorne had had to whip up a rotation of guys to make sure McKay was covered at all times. Lorne had thought only two marines, but John insisted on four. If McKay did go homicidal, replicators were tough and fast, and he wasn't taking any chances.
"I've always had the feeling that Atlantis wants to help us. I just don't see how this is actually helping," John remarked.
"Atlantis knows Rodney's value better than anyone, I suspect," Woolsey said, his eyebrows raised as he watched the marines hump it after McKay. He walked fast, just the way Rodney always did.
"I'm sure it does," John answered. I just wish Atlantis understood the risks.
Jeannie was scheduled to go home with their weekly dial-out to Earth that evening. John was in the gate room, checking over the crates of things they were sending back to Earth, checking the people heading home against the roster when she and McKay came in, grinning like kids.
"You'll send the stuff?" McKay asked.
"As soon as I get there, Mer. Don't worry. And thank you for the gift for Madison. I'm sure she'll love it."
"It was Rodney's, really," McKay said. "He'd had it for a while, just kept forgetting to pack it up and send it."
"Well, thank you for remembering," Jeannie said.
John sidled over to them, trying not to be obtrusive but wanting to say his good-bye to Jeannie before she had to go through the gate.
Chuck announced the dial in and the gate whooshed into life, and there went any chance of him being subtle. "It was good to see you again," John said, and Jeannie turned her smile on him.
"You too," she said. "Keep me up to date with the progress on the heart? I'd like to come back for the surgery, when it's ready."
John nodded, and Jeannie stepped in to give him a quick hug. "It's going to be fine," she said, and there wasn't even a hint of sadness in her tone. What he would give to be such a bright optimist.
McKay handed over the duffel bag he was carrying for Jeannie and gave her a hug. She smiled and hugged him back fiercely. "I'm sure I'll see you soon," she said, letting go and squeezing his arms. "You know you have to call for my help all the time."
McKay smiled softly and answered, "I know we do, Jeannie. I'll see you soon."
John frowned. It was supposed to be a joke, he knew – Jeannie's sense of humor was razor sharp when she was dealing with Rodney and his ego, but McKay's answer made her smile go soft and a little sad. "Thanks, Mer."
"Give my love to Mads," McKay yelled just as Jeannie was about to step through the event horizon. She grinned over her shoulder at him and walked into the wormhole.
When John got back to his office, he had a small stack of paperwork on his desk and twenty-five messages in his inbox. Most of them were memos, so he forwarded them on to the appropriate personnel, and saved the ones from Woolsey for last. One was about field training for the scientists, something John'd been doing informally that Woolsey wanted firmed up, and one was simply marked urgent with a subject line of PLEASE READ IMMEDIATELY.
To all personnel:
Dr. McKay is incapacitated for the time being. The man who resembles Dr. McKay has asked that he be called Meredith, or Mer for short, so as to steer clear of any confusion between them.
Dr. Zelenka is in charge of the science team in Dr. McKay's stead.
If you have any questions, my door is always open.
"I can't call you Mer," John said, glaring at McKay, who was sitting on top of a pipe, banging on it with a wrench.
"Why not?" He didn't even look up from where he was working on the huge piece of machinery. John had no idea what it was, but it was bigger than anything he'd seen in Atlantis before, and clunky-looking compared to most of what the Ancients had built.
"Because, McKay, a mare is a female horse. And as much as you are a horse's ass, I can't seriously call you Mer."
"Then give me a nickname." He snapped his fingers at John. "And pass me that tablet next to you."
John handed it up. "I'll just call you McKay," he said, but he knew as soon as the words were out of his mouth that it would never work. Rodney was McKay too; it was just Rodney in a different context. It was working to call this thing McKay now, because he needed the distance and he was kind of pissed at it. But when Rodney came back, he'd need both names to deal with him.
"Whatever works for you," McKay said magnanimously, pounding on something with a dull clang. "Listen, can you hold this for me?" He held up a largish bit of metal that looked a little like a giant U joint.
John sighed. "Fine." McKay chucked it at him, and he barely caught it before it took off his head.
John spent the next several days trying to simultaneously avoid McKay and come up with a nickname he could take seriously. Of course McKay had been around every corner, which seemed to make John randomly blurt nicknames at him to see if they stuck. "Ace," he said.
McKay snorted. "Deuce is more like it, and no one wants to be called that."
"Off the old block? Seriously?"
"Ha ha, that's a label, not a nickname, and are you stuck in the eighties or what?"
Nothing John tried stuck. He knew nicknames were like that, that they never stuck unless they were organic, but it was starting to annoy him.
John hadn't worked out with Teyla since Rodney's accident. They always took some time off when stuff like that happened, but it'd been over a week and he was itching for something to do besides running. He and Ronon had started up running in the mornings and they'd sparred yesterday. John finally sucked it up and went to Teyla's quarters to ask. She answered the door on the first ping; John was surprised. Usually the door had gotten in its second set of automatic chimes before she could get there to open it.
"John," she said, with an air of surprise. "I wasn't expecting you."
Considering he'd just stopped by, he hadn't thought she would be expecting him. "Is now a bad time?"
"Actually," she said, and her eyes slid off him to his right. "Meredith."
"Hi," McKay said, knocking his shoulder into John's and shoving him aside enough to step into Teyla's quarters. "John," he said as he passed.
"Meredith is practicing meditation this afternoon," Teyla said, giving him a half-smile. "You could join us."
"I don't want to interrupt," John said, continuing before Teyla could tell him he wasn't an interruption. "I just thought I should see if we could do some hand to hand this afternoon."
"Yes," Teyla answered smoothly, smiling at him and stepping aside to allow two of McKay's marine escort into her quarters. "Are you free in two hours?"
Two hours? Who meditated for two hours? "Um, sure," John said, taking a step back. "See you in the gym?"
"Yes, see you there," Teyla said, and let the door slide shut in his face. McKay's other two guards took up their station outside the door as he turned to go.
"I thought you said you weren't going to talk to McKay," John said, taking a swipe at Teyla's side that she blocked neatly.
"He stopped by my quarters unannounced," Teyla said with a rueful smile. "And he explained that he needed help with some things, and that we needed to build a separate relationship from the one I have with Rodney."
"And you agreed?" John said, jumping back gracelessly to get out of reach of Teyla's bantos.
"He seemed sincere, and he has not tried to push me in any direction I don't want to go," Teyla said, spinning and sweeping low, delivering a stinging blow to his calf. He hopped out of the way of her second strike, saving himself one bruise, anyway.
"Is he running with Ronon?" John asked, a little annoyed with himself that he cared.
"I believe he is working with Ronon on a project to preserve the information from Sateda's museums and libraries. They're trying to get permission from Mr. Woolsey to go off-world so Meredith can see the systems and try to devise a way to convert the information."
John did a foot sweep and actually managed to get Teyla off-balance, but not enough to get in an effective strike before she'd recovered. "And you're teaching him meditation."
"And bantos," Teyla said. "He was looking for..." She knocked one of his bantos aside and delivered a sharp rap to his rib cage. "...a particular kind of training."
"Oh really," John said, putting a hand up to stop her. That blow to his ribs had really hurt. He gasped for breath a couple of times. "What kind of training?"
"Are you injured?" Teyla asked, ignoring his question and reaching for his shirt like she wanted to look at his ribs.
He shook his head and took a couple more deep breaths. "What kind of training?"
Her sticks clacked together as she set them aside, leaning them against the bench and bringing John a water bottle and towel. "How to continue fighting when hurt," she said. "He is getting much better at it. Some of the marines are calling him Tank now."
John chuckled once before groaning at the pain in his ribs. "He just keeps coming."
"Yes," Teyla said. "We should get you to the infirmary. I may have cracked a rib."
"Great," John said with as much sarcasm as he could muster.
She hadn't cracked a rib, just given him a deep bruise that hurt all the way down to the bone. "You're out of practice," she said, but she put a gentle hand on his arm that told him she was sorry for pushing him so hard.
She left him to get wrapped up and asked him to come by the gym after he was released, and John settled in for a wait. Even though his x-ray and wrapping were done, they wanted him to stick around until his breathing was less labored. He did some of Teyla's breathing exercises, long enough that his breathing calmed down and the wheezing stopped.
Marie finally discharged him after half an hour and he waved at the doctor on duty as he left. Aggarwal, he thought.
He stopped by the gym and was surprised to see McKay sparring with Teyla, and a small crowd of marines egging him on. He stayed to the back of the room, trying not to distract anyone, and was surprised to hear someone yell, "Come on, Tank, get her!" Obviously someone who didn't train with Teyla on a regular basis.
McKay did get a hold of one of her bantos rods, and he didn't let go, even when she smacked him on the knuckles hard enough to make a loud crack. He huffed out a breath but didn't make any other noise. He blocked her second blow with his forearm, and he grabbed the bantos rod further up, turning his body so his back and side were the only targets for her second stick. Smart.
She whacked him on the head then, something that made John start. One of the marines crowed, though, and McKay just held on, shaking his head a little. He got a little further up the bantos rod, and the marines started chanting "Tank, Tank, Tank," under their breath. He could see the appeal; he'd never seen someone best Teyla at bantos before, not even Ronon. He had always had the feeling Ronon did bantos with John because it made him feel better about not being able to beat Teyla.
McKay was nearly to the guard on the bantos rod, and Teyla let go to give him a solid punch to the jaw. McKay let go out of surprise, John thought, because he turned around almost immediately. Unfortunately Teyla was ready for him, and pounded him into the ground with a flurry of bruising jabs anywhere she could reach. The last one, a hit to his collarbone, finally made him give up. "Uncle!" he cried. "Ow, that one really hurt."
There was a collective groan from the marines, and money started changing hands as the ones that weren't supposed to be guarding McKay left the room. John left with the crowd, and saw Dusty counting her money as she turned down the other corridor.
Later that week, John and Lorne sat down to work up the next month's duty roster.
"I know you want Tank to have a constant escort," Lorne said, "but four marines on all day duty is too much of a strain. Not to mention it's distracting; he's making friends with most of them, so they're too lax to be decent security anyway."
"He's making friends with the marines?" John asked, knowing he was about one step from cartoon-faced eye popping. "The marines."
"Yeah," Lorne said, "the marines. They like him. He lets them win at poker and he teaches them how to do useful tech stuff like lock their quarters."
John put a hand to his forehead and sighed. "Major," he said, and when he looked up, Lorne was looking guilty. "He taught you how to lock your door."
"And you like him."
Lorne looked apologetic. "He listens to us, asks our opinions. He's not like McKay at all."
John gave up and let his head fall to his desk. "You're calling him Tank too?"
"The point is," Lorne said, apparently able to get back on track when John wasn't staring at him disbelievingly, "that he doesn't seem to be a threat and the four-man guard isn't at its most effective anyway. Better to get a few people that hate him and give them rotations."
John raised his head. "Is there anyone left that hates him?"
Lorne looked down at his stack of paperwork.
John sighed. "Fine, cut it down to two guards."
"Well, sir," Lorne said, and if John could have killed him with his brain, Lorne would be on the floor. "It's just that we don't have that many ARGs and we've already lost one because his escort followed him into a sewage emergency and it shorted out. Zelenka said it's not even reparable."
"So, what, are you suggesting he not have any guards?"
Lorne looked at him sheepishly. "The only person that seems to think he's a threat is you, sir."
John hadn't lived this long by ignoring his instincts, and he'd been in this position before, a solid gut feeling about something that everyone else seemed to think was harmless. "I'm not willing to cut it out altogether, Major."
"One, then," Lorne said. "One guard with an ARG would be plenty effective if it came down to it."
"You hope," John said darkly.
John got to the gate room early; the contingent from Roditild was expected at oh nine hundred.
Woolsey wanted to open Atlantis up, both to a wider contingent from Earth, and to the peoples of the Pegasus galaxy as well; he liked to invite small groups in to tour the facilities and talk trade. It made John nervous, but he appreciated the way Woolsey wanted to reach out, so he just doubled the gate room guards and smiled like it wasn't a huge security risk.
It hadn't bitten him in the ass yet, but he knew even thinking like that was just tempting fate. He had an apple to keep him busy, and no one seemed too bothered that he was hanging around. He did spend a fair amount of time in the gate room, even when he wasn't going on missions or waiting for trade negotiations to start. He just liked to watch the gate engage – who didn't? It was cool.
McKay was around too. John'd seen him when he first came in, but he was hiding under one of the consoles now. John thought it might not be a great time to test new gate algorithms, when they had people coming from a friendly planet, but he supposed Radek knew what he was doing. For all John knew, McKay was scraping the gum off the bottom of the equipment.
The gate started dialing and Chuck announced the expected dial-in, and then the gate whooshed open and John couldn't help his stupid grin. No one looked around when the gate was dialing, so he figured he was safe enough. Chuck waited for a moment, tilting his head slightly in the way that John associated with listening to an earbud and announced the proper confirmation code had been sent from Roditild.
"We read you loud and clear, Envoy Natel. Please bring your people through the gate."
John glanced around the gate room, checking his people one more time. There were four marines on the floor of the gate room and another four on the upper level. Chuck, McKay, McKay's marine escort, himself, Woolsey, and two more techs or scientists that he didn't know. There were so many new people after their stay on Earth; he'd be learning names for the next several months yet.
Natel came through first, looking like a religious figure in his long robe. His sleeves were huge and looked heavy; he held his arms wide like he was welcoming them to his city instead of the other way around. "Natel," Woolsey said, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. He started down the stairs, but stopped in his tracks when Natel flipped up a huge gun out of the sleeve of his robe and pointed it at him. John had his M9 in hand immediately, aiming for Natel's forehead.
"Richard," Natel said, almost sweetly. "So good to see you again."
As if that was a signal, people flooded through the gate, all holding large, multi-chambered guns. There were at least twenty, which meant the Lanteans in the gate room were well and truly outnumbered.
"I don't know what you think you're going to accomplish by this," Woolsey said, but John already knew. As soon as they got their hands of someone of importance, they were going to ask for the city in return. He was surprised no one had tried to take Atlantis by force since the storm that first year. He suspected the Genii's defeat had kept most people at bay.
"Why don't you join me and we can discuss it," Natel said, but John put a hand on Woolsey's shoulder, preventing him from going any further down the stairs.
"I don't think so," John said, and half the guns in the room were suddenly pointed at him.
"Join us," Natel said, "or we shoot Colonel Sheppard in the head."
McKay came out from behind a console with his hands up and started moving toward the stairs. "You can have me," he said.
"McKay," John said, but McKay just kept moving, arms up. He was moving sideways, as well as down the steps, getting between Woolsey and the guns as best he could. It worked, too; his movement drew all the guns to it, and McKay just kept going down the steps, like there was no way they would shoot him.
"I'm a more valuable hostage anyway."
Natel smiled broadly. "That may be true. I believe my niece is enamored of your work in her cloning lab. She said you helped her find the power fluctuation that was causing us to lose batches of cloned cells."
McKay shrugged. "Glad to help." He was standing stubbornly on the fifth stair from the bottom; just out of reach of Natel and all the members of the Roditild NRA.
"And now, Richard," Natel said, pointing his gun directly at McKay's heart, "I think you shall turn the city over to us, or we will kill your most valuable scientist."
John hated being right. He also hated zealots, and Natel smelled like a zealot from fifty feet away. He'd be willing to bet he'd convinced the rest of the folk to come with him because the Lanteans dared live in the city of the Ancestors.
"We don't yield to terrorists," McKay said, and as if on cue, Chuck put the shield up. Several of the Roditild turned around in surprise.
McKay used the distraction to leap onto Natel, knocking his gun to the side and making Natel's shot go wide. McKay tried to wrestle the gun out of Natel's hands, taking several punches to the face, and at least another shot somewhere. John saw his body twist with the force of it, and he was moving closer before he could even think. There were more shots fired and John could see holes in McKay's shirt, and in his skin. John still had his gun up, but he hadn't taken a shot yet; he couldn't shoot into a melee without a chance of hitting Rodney.
The name struck a chord. This wasn't Rodney, it was McKay. A replicator. He started shooting, not aiming for McKay, but less worried about hitting him than putting down whatever the hell situation was going on right now. The marines followed his lead and raised their guns to aim at the outliers – most of them being folks that hadn't expected to shoot anyone, probably, as they laid down their guns and put their hands up without a fight.
Natel, still wrestling with McKay, cold cocked him with the butt of his massive gun, and McKay went down hard. "Rodney!" John yelled, running down the steps to put his M9 right in Natel's grinning face. Natel's gun fell to the ground with a clatter and he raised his hands in surrender, but that crazy grin never faltered.
"Sergeant," John said to the marine on his left in his coldest tone of voice, "take these folks to the brig."
As soon as they were all out of the gate room, John holstered his gun and dropped to his knees next to McKay, shaking his shoulders and giving him one sharp slap to the face. His shirt was shredded. There was blood everywhere, but it was hard to tell exactly what that meant, since he could see one wound on McKay's arm already healing up.
"Tank!" Chuck yelled, running down the steps two by two. He knelt on the other side of McKay and started checking him over for injuries.
McKay's eyes opened and he looked pained for a second before it passed. "Ow," he said, trying to sit up.
"Hey," John said, pushing him back down. "You've got a half-ton of lead in you. Just stay there until one of the docs gets here."
McKay turned one of his most frightening glares on John. Chuck let out a single little laugh, covering his mouth before he could laugh for real. "I'm fine," McKay said, sitting up. The floor where he'd been lying down was covered in oddly shaped bits of metal – impacted bullets, John realized. He looked at McKay's back, and it was smooth. Covered in rivulets of blood, but the skin was smooth.
"I'm going to go clean up. I feel disgusting."
McKay was up and out of the gate room before John could protest. "That was amazing," Chuck said, awestruck, as he watched McKay leave.
The absolute terror John had felt when he'd seen McKay go down had abated, but he was left with an uncomfortable sort of feeling about McKay getting up and walking away from being shot multiple times and hit hard enough on the head to give him brain damage.
Tank, John thought. It really did fit.
John debated whether or not to visit Tank, but the cleanup and debrief and interrogation took several hours before he could even think about it. By the time they'd taken care of the dead (three Roditild) and injured (three more Roditild and two marines) and made sure to John's satisfaction that it was just the Roditild being idiots and not some larger plan, John was ready to fall asleep on his feet. He went back to his quarters and dropped into his bed without another thought.
He woke sometime in the middle of the night, his heart pounding in his chest, calling Rodney's name.
He ran a hand down his face and took a deep breath. He was wide awake, and he didn't remember the dream, but it didn't take a genius to figure out what it was about. He got dressed and went down to Rodney's stasis chamber. He looked exactly the same as when they'd put him in there over a week ago; it was strange looking at him, now that he'd gotten used to Tank's short hair.
"Rodney, I really could use your help here," John said.
Rodney didn't move.
"I know he's not you," John said, pacing so he didn't have to stare at Rodney's lifeless form, "but I keep forgetting. Why did Atlantis do this? I know we miss you and all, but creating this thing... What, to replace you? To help us bring you back? What is he doing here?"
Rodney didn't answer.
The next morning John got up early and stopped by Rodney's quarters before his run. The door opened when he swiped his hand over the crystals, and he was surprised to see the room looking just like Rodney'd left it. He'd picked Rodney up for breakfast the morning he'd been shot, and John remembered the pile of laundry in the middle of the floor. "What?" Rodney'd asked accusingly. "I'm going to do it tomorrow."
It was still there, a mound of rumpled BDUs and blue science shirts. As he looked around a little closer, it didn't look like Tank was living here at all. He wasn't sure why he'd expected Tank would, especially after his 'blaze new trails' speech, but he had expected Tank to at least grab some clothes.
He met up with Ronon and tried to put it out of his mind.
When he checked with Chuck, it turned out Tank had been assigned living quarters with the rest of the scientists. It only made sense, John supposed. He wasn't senior staff anymore; he was just another one of the geeks. He was sure Tank wouldn't be in his quarters in the middle of the day, so he stopped by the lab to check with Radek about what Tank was working on.
"He's taken over the entire desalination project," Radek said. "If he's not in the control room under the central tower, then he'll be in one of the desalination rooms. There are two under each of Atlantis's arms."
"Thanks," John said, and clicked on his radio as he turned to leave the lab. "Tank?" he asked.
"John?" Tank's amused-sounding voice came over the earpiece. "You're calling me Tank now?"
"Your little performance yesterday convinced me," John said. "Where are you?"
"Main desalination facility on the northwest arm," Tank said. "Any idea where that is?"
"Nah," John said, "but I'll check in once I get a little closer."
"I'm on sublevel two, in the primary hallway. It's halfway down the arm. Check in if you can't find me by the noise."
It didn't require a check-in after all. Tank was making a godawful lot of noise and his marine escort was standing outside the room with his hands over his ears. "What the hell are you doing?" John asked as he came in. They were in a room similar to the last time he'd tracked Tank down, one with huge, clunky machinery that seemed to be working perfectly fine, as far as John could tell. Tank was knocking on pipes and listening, marking some of them with a chalk X.
"What's wrong with those pipes?" John asked.
"They're full of sludge. You can tell by the sound whether it's empty, full of water, or full of something thicker than water. My guess is rust, but who knows? Maybe it's sentient plant life."
John hummed, waiting for Tank to finish his ramble. Unfortunately, like Rodney, when Tank was on a roll it was tough to stop him.
"The technology is extremely primitive for the Ancients; I'm thinking the primary systems were damaged at some point and these are back-ups – that or they didn't bother to upgrade since it would take a lot of work and take out water to a fifth of the city whenever they took down one of the chambers."
"Well, if these are back-ups, why not find the primary systems and fix those?" John asked. Seemed simpler to him.
"I wish it were that easy," Tank said. "We can't find information on them, though, which means either that part of the database has been damaged, or these are the primary desalination chambers." Tank turned around and looked John up and down. "I know you're not here to talk desalination with me, John. What do you want?"
He turned back to the pipes – intake pipes, it looked like – and knocked on one.
"Just… checking in. You took a hell of a beating yesterday."
Tank shrugged. "I'm fine. Not a scratch on me." Clank.
Tank put an x on the pipe and moved on to the next one. "Did you need something?"
"I…" John said. He understood that Tank was a replicator, but he was still Rodney-ish on the inside. He should be more freaked out about this. "I'm surprised how well you're taking your injuries," he said, deciding the oblique approach was probably best.
"Because Rodney's a hypochondriac?" Tank asked. Claaaaaaaaang. Tank smiled and gave a little nod. Claaaaaaaaaaaang.
"Could you stop for a second?" John asked, putting his hands over his ears. The ringing was making him dizzy. "I'm worried, okay? I just want to make sure you're all right." John looked at the offending pipes. "And why aren't they see-through, anyway?"
Tank shrugged. "My first idea was that their desalination was done with shielding technology. It would be easy enough if we had three full ZPMs. If that's the case, we'd never even recognize a desalination room. It'd just look like an empty room, maybe with emitters we could see, maybe not."
John was absolutely convinced of Tank's nickname by this point. Rodney would never keep up with the bravado this long. "Whatever," John said. "You're okay? And I don't mean physically – I don't care what kind of workouts you're doing with Teyla, getting shot that many times would freak anybody out."
Tank turned a crooked smile on John, an achingly familiar one. "I'm fine, John. Really."
Tank raised the wrench to test another pipe and John decided to get out of there. He had no idea why he was checking in with a replicator anyway. It was nice, John thought as he hurried down the hallway, the pipes ringing like church bells behind him, not to have to visit someone from his team in the infirmary for once.
Late that night, long after John'd put his stilted conversation with Tank out of his mind, his door pinged. "Yeah?" he asked, thinking the door open from where he sat. Tank stood in the doorway, for the moment taken aback that John was across the room.
"You can think your door open?" Tank asked. "How come I've never done that?"
John shrugged. "No idea. I did it when I was feeling too sick to get out of bed – that Verrdenian flu, remember?"
"Right," Tank said, coming in and twirling around suddenly as the door shut behind him, leaving the marine that had been following him in the hall. "Did you do that too, or was it automatic?"
"Automatic," John said, setting his book down. "What's up?"
Tank fidgeted. It was weird, seeing Tank fidget – he hadn't realized how sure of himself Tank seemed all the time. "I need to talk to you."
"All right," John said, leaning back against the wall, trying to look as unconcerned as possible. Rodney had done this a couple times, too, barged into John's room with a proclamation of "need to talk to you" and making John tense with the imagined things he might say before he finally spit something out. It was always something innocuous, something that didn't really deserve the whole nervous, "I need to talk to you" bullshit.
"I've been thinking of ways to separate myself from Rodney," Tank started, and John looked Tank up and down. T-shirt with some kind of scrollwork that was tight across the chest and jeans – wait, jeans? He'd never seen Rodney in jeans; he didn't think he owned a pair.
"Where did you get the clothes?"
"Jeannie bought me a bunch of stuff and sent it through on the last dial-up from Earth."
"Oh," John said, thinking again of Rodney's room, and how he'd been surprised Tank hadn't gone there. He looked at Tank again and even though some of the hand gestures were familiar, with the clothes and the hair he must have buzzed again that morning, Tank only looked like he was related to Rodney, not like Rodney himself. "So, separating yourself from Rodney," John prompted.
"Yes, and one of the things is reevaluating my relationships, seeing what things I might have missed, things I can capitalize on to build new relationships with people."
"Like the library thing with Ronon and training with Teyla," John said.
"Yes," Tank answered, "though it was easier with them, because as much as they're family, I don't see them that much. I've been thinking about our "relationship"" – Tank actually made the air quotes – "and realized there's not a whole lot of room left outside your relationship with Rodney."
"Wait," John said, the hair on his arms standing up. He had a bad feeling about this. "Did you give this speech to Jennifer? Or is this practice for that?"
Tank shook his head. "Hers was a dry run for this one. And it crashed and burned pretty spectacularly."
"Ouch," John said, feeling a pang of sympathy. "She turned you down flat?"
"I wasn't looking to step into Rodney's relationship," Tank said, giving John a look of disgust. "I would never do that, even though it feels like it was my relationship just last week. That's the hardest part of all this, that I have to change the way I engage with everyone and everything I know because their perceptions of me have changed."
"So, Jennifer?" John pressed.
"We talked, she was civil. She said she needed to concentrate on the things she could do to bring Rodney back."
"And seeing you just distracted her?"
Tank stopped pacing. "She said seeing me was too tempting. She said she knew Rodney would understand, but he'd be unhappy about it. Which is true, that's exactly how I'd feel."
"Oh," John said, not sure what else to say. "I'm sorry."
Tank nodded. "Me too. She's holding on to hope that they're going to fix Rodney and she'll have him back. I have to go through a break-up because she loves me."
John hadn't even thought of that; he still was trying to understand how a replicator even had feelings. Weren't they based on hormones and stuff? Nanites couldn't replicate that, could they? He couldn't find a polite way to ask. Tank sat down heavily on his bed and put his head in his hands. "This is not the way I pictured this conversation going," Tank said, coughing out a wet laugh. "I intended to be all noble about it, not cry on your shoulder about my one-sided break-up."
"I'm sorry," John said again, because he really didn't know what he ought to say. "I know this feels really unfair –"
"Oh shut up," Tank said, and John did, out of pure shock. "You have no idea how this feels, and you're not terribly good with empathy, so don't bother."
"Hey," John said. He was good with empathy. He empathied all the time.
"Don't even try," Tank said, wiping his eyes and getting up, moving into the track he liked to pace when he was in John's room – the diagonal from the door to the wall opposite John's bed. "I don't care, it's not why I came here anyway."
John's heart dropped. "Why did you come here?"
"Because I've thought about all the things we used to do together, and…" Tank stopped pacing and looked at John. "I'm probably not thinking straight," he laughed again, a low, self-deprecating chuckle that John had never heard out of Rodney, "but the only way I can think of to create a new relationship with you is to have sex."
John took a startled breath, choking on some spit going down the wrong tube and coughing, hard. He'd never been exactly straight but he was pretty sure Rodney was, and the whole thing was pretty high up on their do not talk about list.
John kept coughing, letting the spark of pain in his throat and lungs blot out any thoughts of sex with Rodney, or Tank, or anyone that resembled any McKay ever. Rod had hit on him while he was here too, he remembered with sudden clarity. A throwaway double entendre that John had purposely played dumb about. Maybe they were always circling each other like that, in every universe, and that just made John's chest ache more than his coughing fit. If he and Rodney had been too scared to take their chance, where did that leave him? Rodney was happy with Jennifer, any fool could see that. Jennifer was happy with Rodney too, and that had been a not-insignificant concern of his when they'd started dating.
Tank continued to stare at him, arms crossed in the utterly defiant way Rodney had. His chin was sticking up too, like he was daring John to tell him he was wrong. John didn't let himself think about teammates that way anymore, not since Holland. It was off limits; John couldn't let it get in the way of his judgment, and that had become crucial when he'd blundered his way into the military commander position.
"I don't think that's a good idea," John managed, finally. "And I'm pretty sure Rodney is straight."
"I'm pretty sure he's not," Tank said, tapping a finger on his temple, "and I'm also pretty sure that he never said anything because he didn't want to lose your friendship." Tank laughed again, hollowly. "I've never had your friendship, so I don't have anything to lose."
"Rodney loves Jennifer," John said, desperately trying to hold on to some semblance of his sanity. "If you're him, then you should love her too."
"I'm not him anymore," Tank said, mean. "I have his history, but I've made my own choices, choices Rodney never could. I wouldn't even want to be him anymore."
John did nothing for a moment, surprised by the vehemence in Tank's tone. "Rodney is a good guy," John said. "He's a member of my team, and I want him back. I need him back."
"No you don't," Tank said. "I'm three times the man he was. I'm just as smart – probably smarter, actually, I'm faster and stronger, and not a hypochondriac or a coward."
John was on his feet before he knew what he was doing, grabbing Tank's t-shirt and shoving him hard, backing him into the wall. "Don't you talk about Rodney that way."
"You know that's all true," Tank said, giving John a hard smile, an unpleasant smile of being right about something he'd rather not be right about. "You know it, or it wouldn't piss you off."
John backed off, letting go and starting to pace the room himself. "He's not a coward."
"He's afraid of everything," Tank said.
"And he's here anyway," John said, glaring at Tank. "That's a hell of a lot braver than wading into a gunfight when you already know you're invulnerable."
"Fine, not a coward," Tank said irritably, "not the point." He glared at John. "I do love Jennifer. But since Rodney is going to live, he's going to get the girl." He crossed his arms angrily, looking for a moment just like Rodney. John stopped pacing to look at him. "I don't know why you don't want this as much as I do. It's the only way you'll ever get it because you were an idiot back when things might have worked out." Tank put his hand up before John could protest. "He was an idiot too, I know. But I'm not, and I'm here. Please, John."
"That's another thing," John said, grasping for anything to veer the conversation off track, any way to keep from thinking about the way his heart was beating triple time and there was hope and fear and general fucked-up-ness coiling in his gut. "You keep calling me John. Rodney never did that."
"I know," Tank said, taking a step closer. "It was the only way I could think of to separate myself from him. That, and sex."
"I never –"
"Oh, you never?" Tank said, sneering at John. "Well, Rodney did. He thought about it all the time. He jerked off to thoughts of you for years. He had a lot of fantasies."
John's fight or flight response had long since kicked in. Half of him wanted to get the hell out of the room, and part of him wanted to punch Tank hard enough to get him to stop talking. He was just scared that if he got close enough to punch him, he was going to do something even dumber than take a swing.
"He thought," Tank said, his eyes flicking downward, "that you have a pretty mouth. You lick your lips sometimes while you're thinking." Tank's eyes traveled even further down. "He thought your thigh holster was hot. And he knew you dress to the right."
"Shut up," John growled, but he couldn't help the hope that flared up in his chest as Tank gave away Rodney's secrets like he was having a fire sale. "Stop talking like Rodney's dead."
Tank laughed bitterly. "Fuck, John, he is dead. Just because you're going to bring him back to life doesn't make him any less dead. Besides," he said, raking his gaze up John until he met John's eyes again, "I didn't say he used to think it because he's dead, I said it because he hasn't thought of you like that, not for years."
John hadn't even known he could have a physical reaction to hope being taken away from him, but it felt like he was dying. He couldn't catch his breath, his heart was trying to beat its way out of his chest, his head felt like it was going to explode.
"I've thought about it, though," Tank said, still holding John's eyes. "I've thought about it a lot these last couple of weeks." Tank took a step closer. "He used to think about you sucking his cock," Tank said, and John could feel himself reacting to the words, his dick half-hard and getting uncomfortable tucked into his BDUs. Tank's eyes dipped down and he raised an eyebrow. "He liked to think about you on your knees. He liked the idea of putting his hands in your hair and fucking your face."
John wasn't doing anything but breathing hard now, standing still and feeling the blood rushing through his body, not knowing what he'd do if Tank kept coming, but desperately wanting to find out.
"He had a lot of fantasies about tying you up," Tank said, taking another step. They were less than three feet apart, close enough that he could put up a hand, stop Tank's advance. Or grab onto him, pull him closer. "I think it's because he wasn't sure you wouldn't punch him," Tank said, taking another step and making him uncomfortably close. "Or run away."
John swallowed. He knew he should leave, or get Tank to shut up, or something. He was betraying Rodney's trust just listening to this, not to mention, what was he doing, letting Tank get this close, throw him off balance? Fuck.
"John," Tank said, still looking him right in the eye. John squinted, blinked, did everything but actually look away. "Tell me you don't want this and I'll leave."
John wanted to say no. He did; just thinking about the conversation he would have to have with Rodney when he woke up was enough to make his interest flag a little. But Tank dropped to his knees, his face right in front of John's dick, and the ache for someone, anyone to touch him was too much. It'd been so long.
"Personally," Tank said, "I think Rodney had it backwards." He looked up at John, blue eyes calm. "I want your cock in my mouth."
John's whole body jerked, and he leaned forward a little, the front of his BDUs barely connecting with Tank's chin, but enough to make John's breath hitch.
"I want you to fuck me, too," Tank said, and John closed his eyes. If this was a battle against his resistance, Tank came loaded for bear, and he was going to batter at John's defenses until John gave in. John almost laughed. If there was a more appropriate nickname for Tank, he couldn't figure out what it could be.
The anticipation was killing him. Tank had to know that all he had to do was touch John and there was no going back. John looked down at him, suddenly knowing he had to touch first, he had to be the one to make the choice. It was like a bucket of ice water splashing over him; he had to choose Tank, and that meant not choosing Rodney.
Tank's eyes shuttered; it was something he'd only seen Rodney do twice in the entire time John knew him and it was fucked up that someone as expressive as Rodney could close off that way. Tank got up off the floor, easy as pie, no complaints about forty-year-old muscles or creaking knees or even putting a hand out for help. He turned his back on John. "I'm sorry," Tank said over his shoulder, his voice flat. "I won't bother you again."
"Wait," John said, suddenly panicked. "I… we can do stuff. Other stuff. Gun certification, flying the jumpers."
Tank turned to him and the shuttered look was gone, but the look of sadness and hope and relief on his face wasn't any better. He gave John a small smile. "I'd like that."
"Good," John said, trying to find something else to say but finding all the words backed up in his throat. Tank quirked a half-smile at him that said he knew exactly what John was trying to do.
"I should go," Tank said. "Don't want Mark getting the wrong idea."
John had completely forgotten about the marine stationed outside his door. He sincerely hoped the rooms were soundproofed. John should have taken Lorne's advice after all and dropped the escort altogether. He supposed he'd been right – Tank was dangerous. Just not in the way he'd expected.
John tried to sleep after Tank left, but he ended up staring at the ceiling and thinking about Tank on his knees in front of him, and then Rodney on his knees in front of him. He gave in and jerked off, Tank's voice in his mind, telling him Rodney's fantasies.
He came, feeling worse than he had since Rodney'd died, feeling empty and alone and pissed off at himself for not handling this whole situation better. What the hell was he going to tell Rodney when he woke up?
He got dressed and took off, wanting to get the hell out of his quarters. He wandered around the city, no destination in mind, but he ended up wandering past Jennifer's quarters. Maybe it was just misery loving company, but he stopped, passing his hand over the door to let her know he was there.
"Come in," she called, when the door chimed. It slid open for him, and he saw her all bundled up on her bed, staring at something. He couldn't see what it was until he got a few steps into the room. Her wedding gown.
It was pretty, and plain. Well, maybe not plain, exactly, more… elegant. There wasn't a lot of lace or beading or all the layers and layers of fluff that John remembered from Nancy's dress. There was some embroidery, but the bottom half was a smooth sheet of satin, plain and strangely pretty under the detailed bodice. It was exactly what he would expect Jennifer to wear.
"I should have left it at my dad's after we got it," Jennifer said, sniffling. "But I wanted to be able to look at it, you know? A girl only gets married once."
John didn't say that a lot of people get married more than once. He didn't have to. She chuckled and said, "A girl only gets married for the first time once."
He laughed a little too. "I'm sorry."
"I need to find a way to pack it up," she said. "It'll yellow if it's not packed away properly. I guess I'll send it through the gate to my dad."
John nodded and took her hand in his. "You'll still wear it, you know."
"I know," she said, sighing deeply. "But it will be ages, probably. The stem cells aren't taking. We'll get them, but it's taking longer than we expected. Then we have to grow the heart, make sure it's suitable, operate, and wait for Rodney to recover. It'll be months, at least." She sniffled again, and his heart clenched with sympathetic heartbreak. "I was really hoping it would only take a few weeks."
"Yeah," John said, squeezing her hand. "Me too." He smiled sadly. "I'm not the patient type."
She laughed and put her arms around him, hugging him tight for a few seconds. "I know. It's one of the things I like about you." She let him go, dropping her arms and sitting next to him companionably. "I wish I could be around Tank without breaking down," she said. "I know he's not exactly Rodney, but I can't seem to get it. If he was totally Rodney, or if he wasn't Rodney at all, that'd be easier."
John nodded. "Yeah. I wish he wasn't a replicator, either."
Jennifer laughed so hard she snorted. "That too."
John laughed, because hearing the delicate little Jennifer snort was too much for him. "That's classy, doc. I can see why Rodney loves you."
"He loves me because I have the entire Star Trek collection in my closet," she said, without a trace of self-consciousness. "Want to watch some DS9? I've got beer."
"Yeah," John said, getting up to go to her couch. "I'd like that."
The next day, John went to the labs to find Radek. The labs were always a swirl of activity, one John didn't try to understand. He was usually only there to meet Rodney for dinner or to turn on random Ancient tech they'd found around the city. Something about the place looked different, though, and he couldn't place what it was until Miko caught his eye and waved. Radek was at Rodney's desk, working on Rodney's laptops. At least, John thought they were Rodney's; two of them might be general work computers, but there was a Hello, Kitty sticker on one of them that Madison had given Rodney on their last trip Earthside. That one was definitely Rodney's.
"Hey, Radek," John said, wandering over to the desk in the middle of the action. "How's it going?"
Radek glanced at him with the vague, distracted look Rodney usually gave him in the labs if he came down unannounced. "Busy. What can I do for you, Colonel?"
"I was just..." He looked over Radek's shoulder and saw the design for one of the naquadah generators; he knew optimizing output had been one of Rodney's pet projects.
"Yes?" Radek asked irritably. "I'm a busy man, Colonel."
John's eyes snapped to Radek. Those were Rodney's words, not Radek's. "I was just wondering about Tank."
"He is still working on desalination," Radek said. "He has a radio, you can call him directly."
"No," John said, and Radek pinned him with a glare. "I mean," he said, forgetting to glare back because he'd never seen Radek look quite this intense before. "I mean, why is he here? Why did Atlantis make him?"
The glare melted off Radek's face and left him with the owlish blankness that meant he was thinking very hard about something. "I don't know," Radek said, slowly. "We didn't get any more information before Jeannie had to leave and then we had the sewage emergency and it... dropped off our radar." He sounded guilty.
"I'd appreciate it if you'd put it back on your radar," John said. "I can't believe Atlantis didn't have something specific in mind, and if it's something that will actually help Rodney, I'd like to have it sooner rather than later."
"Yes, of course," Radek said distractedly, "I will put Simpson on it."
John sighed and left, going to his office and booting up his laptop. Maybe Jeannie had an idea.
I honestly don't know what Atlantis was thinking; it probably wasn't thinking anything. But clearly something sparked it to create another Meredith. Radek thought it was trying to replace him, give the expedition a working Rodney for a defective model, but I don't think that's it, actually. There wouldn't be any reason to have the type of nanites Mer does if that was the case.
I think the nanites are your best clue. They're not just regular nanites, and they're not the medical nanites we use for healing, either. Those nanites can build a replicator body, but they can also heal human cells. Maybe, combined, they could build human cells, too? I didn't see any particular indication of that while I was there, but I don't know what the timeline would be on that sort of thing anyway. I have no idea how long it takes to create human cells. Maybe Jennifer can let you know?
I'll email again if I think of anything else.
Madison says hi and would like to remind you that her birthday is in September. On a similar note, if you were planning on Christmas out this way, we'd love to have you for a few days. Kaleb's been going through Sudoku books like crazy since you showed him how to do them. I'm going to get him a smartphone just so he doesn't waste so much paper.
Take care of yourself.
"I don't know." Jennifer looked really irritated, and Biro shot him a sympathetic look. "We haven't gotten the stem cells to take and until we get that done, we have nothing to build the heart out of."
"They rebuilt the rat hearts in eight days," Biro said quietly, but Jennifer turned a fierce glare on her.
"Into a frame made out of a dead heart," Jennifer snapped. "We're trying to build one from scratch, and we can't even get the basic cells together."
John raised his hand in a half-hearted thank you to Biro. "Okay," John said, backing out of the infirmary. "Forget I asked."
Biro tracked John down in his office later that afternoon to apologize for Jennifer. "She's distraught," Biro said. "We'll get there, but it takes time. It's just not the way things work around here. And she misses him."
"I know," John said. He missed Rodney too, a constant sort of ache. "I didn't want to say anything in front of Jennifer, but is it possible to take Rodney's damaged heart as a frame? I don't know how it works, but…"
Biro shook her head. "Rodney's heart is destroyed, completely beyond use. It's no good to us."
John sighed and let his head drop into his hands. "I didn't think we'd even be able to keep going without Rodney. I thought Atlantis would sink the bottom of the ocean again."
"Maybe that's why Atlantis made Tank," Biro said, patting John's arm. John closed his eyes. He wouldn't believe Atlantis thought them all that interchangeable.
"Thanks, and no apologies necessary. I know where Jennifer's coming from."
Tank had been avoiding John since their conversation in his quarters, and John was mostly happy with that. He was a firm believer in ignoring things until they went away. Unfortunately Tank was the only one who had half a chance of solving the mystery of his existence, and John was determined to get to the bottom of this mess and get Rodney back.
Tank rolled his eyes when he saw John wandering into the desalination chamber on the east pier. "Thank you for calling off my escort," he said. "I hope you don't think I hit on you to –"
"Don't worry about it," John said, cutting him off before they could even head down that avenue of conversation. "That's not why I'm here."
"What, then?" Tank asked, throwing up his hands. "What could you possibly want?"
John blinked. Of all the reactions he'd readied himself for, that wasn't one of them. "I need you to figure out why Atlantis made you," he said, the truth startled out of him.
Tank looked annoyed. "I'm a little busy here."
"No, you're not," John said, stalking over to Tank, grabbing an elbow, and turning him around. "Atlantis created you for a reason, and I want to know what it was. I'm pretty sure it wasn't because the desalination tanks needed a good cleaning."
"We don't know," Tank said, yanking his arm out of John's grip. "We tried to work it out while Jeannie was here and couldn't come up with anything."
"She said your nanites were different."
"Yes, they both build a regular replicator body and heal a human one. It's a weird hybrid. Maybe Atlantis wants you to heal Rodney with my nanites." Tank gave him a thin-lipped, mean smile. "It's not like there are any other replicators left besides me. I don't know what you're so afraid of."
John'd had too many close calls with replicators to dismiss them that easily, but it wasn't really the time. "Jeannie said maybe your nanites could build human cells."
Tank leveled a glare at John. "So what, I'm going to be a phylactery and you're just going to put Rodney in my body? Rodney would be horrified to find out he'd taken over another consciousness's body."
John knew that. "Will you at least look into it? If you're really just supposed to be a replacement for Rodney, I'll leave you alone. I just…" John looked at the floor. "I don't think that Atlantis would have made that leap."
"Fine," Tank said, snippy. "I'll see what I can dig up."
John hunted Ronon down to practice some stick fighting that night. Sometimes he just wanted to get the crap beaten out of him so he could sleep, and Ronon didn't give him all the soul-searching looks Teyla did.
After the fourth blow to the same spot on his thigh, though, John surrendered. "Jesus, are you purposely trying to give me a charlie horse?"
"Charlie horse?" Ronon asked.
"Cramp," John answered. "In my leg. I think you bruised me all the way to the bone."
"You weren't paying attention," Ronon said, shrugging. "Sometimes it helps."
"I'm a little distracted. That was the whole point of the stick fighting in the first place." John squeezed the muscle around the bruise.
"Still trying to figure Tank out?"
John nodded, limping over to the bench to get some water. "I don't think Tank is just supposed to replace Rodney. I don't know why, I just know."
"Maybe Atlantis knows McKay can't be saved," Ronon said, stretching his arms overhead.
"You know it's –"
Ronon shrugged again and took the water bottle from John. "Is it because it's McKay?" Ronon asked. "Would Atlantis have made another Lorne, if he was the one who got shot?"
John hadn't even thought of that. He couldn't say for sure that he'd even have allowed Lorne to be put in stasis, if the injury had been so obviously fatal as Rodney's.
But if he had, if he had gone crazy the same way he did with Rodney, and he had gotten Lorne in stasis, would Atlantis have given him another Lorne? He didn't know.
"All right," John said, testing out his bruised leg gingerly. "Enough talking. I'm going to kick your ass this time."
"Right," Ronon said, and jabbed his stick at John's bruised thigh.
John didn't have any idea what time it was when Tank knocked on his door, only that he'd been trying to sleep for several hours with absolutely no success, his thoughts going in circles. Why had Atlantis made Tank? He couldn't understand Atlantis sometimes. It wasn't sentient, or at least it had never tried to communicate directly with them before. But it did try to 'help' them, usually with disastrous results. It's like it was a big, clumsy dog, wanting to please its masters but usually just getting in the way and breaking the good china with its cheerily wagging tail. The idea that Atlantis had created Tank because John asked for help made him feel incredibly guilty.
"John?" Tank's voice came from outside the door. John hadn't consciously ignored the knock; maybe he was drifting in and out of sleep already. He debated feigning sleep a little longer, at least until Tank's muffled, " John. Please."
John got up and went to the door. Tank was leaning against the doorframe looking rumpled and exhausted. "I'm growing a heart."
John stared blankly at Tank. He couldn't mean –
"Yes. I am nothing more than an incubator for a heart to transplant into your Rodney."
Of all the possibilities John had considered, this was not even close to the list. "How did you…"
"It sparked an idea when you mentioned my nanites being different," Tank said, coming into John's room and letting the door close behind him. "I couldn't understand the point of healing nanites if there was nothing to heal." He sat down heavily on John's bed. "I had Biro scan me and she confirmed. I don't have any other internal organs, just the heart."
John stared, his breath stolen. They could have Rodney back, good as new. "When will it be ready?"
Tank looked up sharply, frowning. "A week, maybe. No more than two."
Finally, Rodney would be back. John closed his eyes, taking a deep breath and sighing it out slowly. "Thank god."
"Gee, thanks," Tank said, getting up to pace. "I know you don't like me, but you could be less of an asshole about it."
"What?" John asked. "You just told me my best friend is going to live, how am I supposed to react?"
"You're going to literally rip my heart out, John, to fix the Rodney that will never have you."
John felt like he'd been kicked in the chest.
"And it gets better," Tank said, staring at John with anguish written all over his face. "My coding says that my mission is complete once the heart is taken for transplant. I'll just… stop working."
John hadn't even thought about what would happen to Tank when they took the heart out, but he'd assumed Tank would just go on being a replicator. "I don't understand."
"The nanites will go inert as soon as the heart is removed," Tank said. John shook his head, still not clear on what that meant. "I'll cease to exist. I'll turn into nanite dust."
"Why?" John asked.
"I will have successfully completed the objective I was created for."
"Why would Atlantis create a whole…" John waved his hand up and down Tank, "…you, if all it wanted to make was the heart?"
Tank shrugged miserably. "Maybe it didn't know how to make any other container."
"Well if the nanites made a human heart for Rodney, can't they make a human body for you?" John had no idea why he was even arguing this. It would be better, in the long run, to have Tank decommissioned – but the idea of sacrificing Tank to get Rodney back made him squirm.
"Possibly," Tank said. "But they won't, not with the coding restrictions on them."
"So change it," John said. "Are you Rodney or aren't you?"
"Ha ha," Tank said. "I have his skills, but between you and me, he's not terribly good with nanites. Jeannie's much better at them."
"Then call her up," John said. "I have a feeling she'll be willing to come back."
The next two weeks went by in a whirlwind. Woolsey gave them another two weeks off, probably realizing they'd be useless in the field; Jeannie was brought in again, looking tired; Tank spent all his hours in the replicator lab, joined by Jeannie when she arrived. Jennifer happily gave up on trying to create stem cells and took over watching Tank, scanning him daily and checking the heart several times a day. The couple times John had been there for an exam, it had been surprisingly upbeat, Tank smiling at Jennifer and cracking jokes about his heart beating only for her. Jeannie looked on fondly and let Jennifer boss her into eating and sleeping.
John couldn't do much but hover, so he did. He and Jeannie chatted about gifts for Madison while Tank worked with preternatural speed identifying the code that needed tweaking.
"I don't think we'll be able to rewrite enough code for it to build me a human body," Tank said, and John glanced over at him. He was being surprisingly low key about this whole thing; if they didn't get this to work, he would die. Either he'd come to terms with that or he had more faith in Jeannie than John would have guessed.
"Not before the heart is ready," Jeannie said, "but I've already aborted the mission protocols, so when they remove the heart you'll just go into stand-by mode. After that it's just a matter of rewriting the code, line by line. Even Rodney could do it."
Tank laughed darkly.
Teyla and Ronon took turns coaxing John out of the lab for running or hand-to-hand or meals, and one night they even stole him away to watch some movie or other. He couldn't remember what it was about or who was in it, but it was nice to sit between Teyla and Ronon on the couch and share some popcorn.
Woolsey invited him over for brandy and cigars, and John went because he was going crazy with nothing to do, and besides, it was Woolsey. It wasn't like John could really say no.
"I've been meaning to ask," Woolsey said, "if it is wise to keep Tank active after Rodney returns."
John took a drink and let it rest on his tongue before swallowing and answering. "If we can make him a human body, then yes."
"And if we can't?"
John shook his head. "I don't know."
"My only concern is for the expedition," Woolsey said, and John knew that, did he ever. He had been forced to make these decisions for the good of the expedition before, and Elizabeth's death would always weigh heavily on him.
"I've been thinking about it," John said, to throw Woolsey a bone. "I don't honestly know. Tank seems to trust that Jeannie will be able to rewrite all the code, but we can't keep her here forever. She's already antsy to get back home."
"I've been thinking about that too," Woolsey said, and John sat back and puffed on the cigar, waiting to hear Woolsey's plan. "Mrs. Miller has been an incredible asset. If we could lure her to the expedition –"
"She'd never leave Kaleb and Madison."
"There are children on Atlantis now," Woolsey said. "Besides Torren, there's Emilie Martin and Hugo Sanchez. And there are two pregnancies that I'm aware of; we're not reassigning anyone based on that."
"Fine, that's Madison, but what about Kaleb? He's an English professor. What would he do here?"
"Well," Woolsey said, crossing his legs casually, "should Tank come through, he is working on the Satedan museum and library preservation with Ronon. There could be a place for Kaleb on that project."
John sat back and considered Woolsey for a while. The Wraith had nearly fought themselves to extinction, but they weren't there yet. And it wasn't like Pegasus was all fun and games even without the Wraith. Even Atlantis could be deadly if people went wandering around in the city. He hadn't thought they were at this point yet, the point of Atlantis being a truly civilian base. It didn't bother him; Atlantis would need a military contingent for a long time to come, and if somehow it came to the point of being reassigned or retiring, he knew he'd retire and Rodney would find someplace for him in the science division.
"We can ask," John said, "but I'm bad at reading Jeannie's mind. She might not want Mads to miss the ballet lessons and play dates."
"I thought perhaps you might try to persuade her," Woolsey said, looking intently at the brandy he was swirling in his snifter.
John huffed out a laugh. He and Jeannie got on fine, mostly because John was the person she trusted to tell her about Rodney when he couldn't do it himself; that had changed when Jennifer and Rodney had gotten engaged. He was just a family acquaintance now, polite invitations to holidays, nothing more. "I think Jennifer might be more the person you want to handle this one," John said. "She's closer to Jeannie than I am."
Woolsey nodded slowly. "I think you're underestimating yourself," he said. "And Jennifer's got other things on her mind at the moment." He looked right at John, a piercing stare that made John uncomfortable. Woolsey could play the part of clueless civilian commander to a tee, but John knew better than to underestimate him. He saw a lot more than he let on and he was smart and loyal to his people. He just wasn't sure what Woolsey thought he knew about John.
"Okay," John said. "I'll ask. But don't expect an answer right away, if at all. She'll need to ask Kaleb, and probably Madison too, for that matter."
"I know," Woolsey said. "But the sooner we offer, the sooner she can start thinking about it."
John wandered back down to the replicator lab, watching Jeannie and Tank work. Radek came down and talked to Jeannie briefly, asking her opinion about some equations and cracking a physics joke that was just out of John's reach, but made Jeannie and Tank laugh out loud. Not two seconds after he was out of the lab, Jennifer came down to check on Tank again. "Last one tonight," she said, smiling warmly at Tank.
"Hey, what can I say," Tank said, grinning back at her. "I don't mind giving you excuses to put your hands all over me."
Jennifer blushed and gave Tank a good natured elbow before lifting his shirt and putting her stethoscope on his back. "It's so weird," she said, her brows knitted together, "I can feel your chest moving like you're breathing but I can't hear any breath sounds."
"You say that every time," Tank said.
"I know," Jennifer answered, "it's just... you have no idea how weird it is. Like a sound that's part of your everyday life suddenly going missing."
They all turned to her then, and she blushed again. "It sounds fine," she said, lowering his shirt. "But it's got to be almost ready. Come by the infirmary for a scan when you're done?"
"Will do," Tank said, smiling at her. He kept watching her until she was out of the room. It was good to see Jennifer more like herself, obviously as thrilled about Rodney coming back as John was.
"You're taking all this pretty well," John said. "If the heart is ready, they'll operate tomorrow."
Jeannie glared at John and then looked at Tank with sympathy. "I've got you covered. You'll be fine, and Mer and I will get you back on your feet in no time after the surgery."
"I know," Tank said, smiling at Jeannie. "You're the reason I'm not worried."
John rolled his eyes, and when he looked at Tank again, he thought he saw a flicker of a knowing expression. "I think I'm going to get that scan," he said. "You should get some rest, Jeannie-bean. The code isn't going anywhere."
"Actually," John said, nodding to Tank as he left the room, "I have to talk to you. Want a midnight snack?"
"It's only eight thirty," Jeannie said, but she smiled at him. "Sure. Let's see what kind of vegetarian treats your canteen has on offer."
"So, what is it?" she asked. Before he could even form a protest she added, "I know you want to talk to me about something. You were acting all strange in the lab."
"No I wasn't."
"Yes, you were," Jeannie said. "You kept looking at Tank and Jennifer like they'd grown extra heads."
"It was just weird seeing them like that. Jennifer has been..."
"Yeah, I know," Jeannie said, crunching a couple of chips. "Cranky."
"That too," John said. "But that's not what I need to talk to you about anyway."
"A ha!" Jeannie crowed, sounding exactly like Rodney. "I knew you wanted something."
John grinned. It would be good to have her here; besides her expertise and her ability to deal with Rodney, she had that inimitable McKay charm that always made him smile. "Woolsey wanted me to offer you a position on Atlantis's science staff."
"Would be invited, too, of course," John answered smoothly. "I don't know if you've talked to Ronon while you were here, but –"
"The Satedan library project?" Jeannie breathed. "Oh, really?"
Jeannie chewed on her cookie thoughtfully for moment. "We'd have to home school Madison."
"I think you'd have some help with that," John said.
"I know," Jeannie said. "It's the socialization that worries me."
John nodded. "Think about it. We could use you, and I know Rodney would love to have you here."
John stopped by the infirmary after escorting Jeannie to her guest quarters and found Jennifer staring at a large hi-res monitor. It was a chest x-ray, but the strangest one he'd ever seen. There was a bright white scaffolding in an exact square, and inside the square was a perfect-looking human heart.
"It's amazing," Jennifer said, still staring. "If we could create this without a whole person attached, we'd never have to worry about transplantation ever again. Four weeks, we can grow you your very own heart!" She said the last like a toothpaste ad.
"So it's ready?" he asked. "You're going to operate?"
"Tomorrow morning," Jennifer answered. "Biro is in charge of prepping Rodney at oh six hundred and the transplant surgery is scheduled at oh seven thirty, if all goes well."
John blew out a breath. They'd be getting Rodney back tomorrow. It'd been just over a month, but it felt like years since he and Ronon had put Rodney in stasis. "Better get a good night's rest, doc."
Jennifer smiled at him. "Pearson and Biro are the surgeons," she said. "I'm just assisting on this one. Besides," she said, grinning ruefully, "I don't really think I'll be able to sleep."
John knew the feeling. His own heart had been beating double-time from the second he saw the heart in its sharp, square frame.
John debated the Ambien he'd stuffed away when Jennifer gave it to him. He had enough time to get eight hours, but only if he could force himself to calm down and fall asleep in the next thirty minutes. Considering how jumbled his thoughts were with all the things that could go wrong tomorrow, he didn't think that was going to happen. He put on his running gear and decided to run himself into a stupor instead.
When he was trying to sleep, he usually ran in circles around the central towers. If you took the right-hand hallway every time, you could go in an infinite circle. Sometimes he zigged to the left, just to keep from the tedium and to see if he had lost his bearings – not usually because running was generally meditative for him. He was just running out to the east-facing balcony when he heard voices carried to him on the wind. He'd already turned around to give the people some privacy when he realized it was Tank's voice he'd heard.
"I just want you to be happy," Tank said, and John stopped in his tracks. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes for that to happen."
"But I don't want you to have to suffer for my happiness."
John's heart dropped. That was Jennifer's voice. He stopped moving – he felt dizzy. Probably from shock.
"I won't suffer," Tank said. "I won't feel anything at all."
"But if Rodney –"
"It's okay," Tank said. "It will all work out. I promise."
John stepped away from the balcony, heading further in toward the center ring of corridors. There wouldn't be any sleeping for him.
John did manage to get three or four hours of restless sleep before his alarm went off at oh five hundred. Despite the lack of sleep, he had no trouble bouncing out of bed and getting through his usual morning routine in half the time. He went to the mess for coffee at oh five thirty and was surprised to see Jennifer wandering out with a mug.
"Hey, doc," John said as they passed each other.
"Why are you up so early?" she asked, trying for chipper, but falling short. She smiled at him tiredly. "You know you shouldn't be in the surgery."
John nodded. "Can't hurt to try. I thought I'd check if they'd let me see Rodney beforehand, anyway."
"You'll need to scrub in, then," Jennifer said. "You should probably head down there now – it takes quite a while."
"I will," John said, putting a hand on her arm. "Just want to make sure you're okay, first."
"I am," she said, nodding as she tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "Or I will be."
"I know," John said, giving her forearm a squeeze. "Rodney's going to be just fine," he said, and when she looked up at him, her eyebrows knit into a half scowl, he added, "and Tank too. Jeannie's already taken care of it, she's fixed the de-resolution code over a week ago."
"Yeah," Jennifer said, sighing. "Come on, let's get you some coffee and get down there."
There was a washing in station in the room next to the stasis chamber, with towels and scrubs and gloves and little bootie things for their shoes. John wasn't sure what to do, but Jennifer pointed at the pile of blue scrubs. "You're going to have to change," she said, and grabbed a set of scrubs for herself and went behind a changing curtain.
John grabbed the nearest piece of clothing, which turned out to be a top that might fit Teyla, if she didn't mind form-fitting scrub tops. "Hey," Marie said from where she was directing Miko on washing her hands and arms. "Don't touch them all. They're in size piles – that's extra-small." Now that John looked closer, he could see the size printed on the back of the shirt. "You guys are unbelievable," Marie said, as John dug out a pair of large pants and a top.
"What?" John asked, holding up the scrubs. "What guys?"
"You and Teyla and Ronon," Marie answered. "I had to go get extra large scrubs for Ronon. And if it were up to me, I wouldn't even let you in there. You're lucky Biro's a softie."
By the time John, Jennifer, Marie, and Miko had scrubbed themselves raw and put on gloves, gowns, scrub caps, masks, and goggles, it was nearly oh six hundred. Marie led them to the stasis chamber, and Miko went straight to Radek's side at the console. John came up behind Teyla and Ronon, staring at Rodney who still looked weirdly peaceful, even with the arrow standing up out of his chest.
There were six or seven people doing various things around a gurney: one person messing with a machine with lots of whirling dials, a nurse putting instruments on cloth-lined trays, Jennifer, Biro, Aggarwal, Pearson, and another person John couldn't recognize from the tiny bit of her face he could see around the cap, goggles, and mask.
Biro waved John, Ronon, and Teyla over. "I figured you'd come," she said. "We're going to need you to get Rodney from his standing position onto this gurney as fast as you can. I'll need to crack his chest and hook him up to the heart-lung machine as quickly as possible."
The sound of that was not encouraging. John didn't think having Rodney attached to something called a heart-lung machine was a good thing.
"Ronon, I think it will be easiest if you scoop him up and put him on the gurney."
"Okay," Ronon said, moving around the side of the stasis machine to squint at Rodney and the tentacles.
"John, Teyla," Biro said. "You're welcome to…" she waved her hand at Rodney's stasis chamber, "…but if you would step back behind the console with Radek and Miko when you're done, we can get this party started."
Teyla gripped John's hand and led him over to stare at Rodney in the stasis chamber. He had no idea what to do, or if he should say something. Teyla took a deep breath and nodded her head at Rodney, letting go of John's hand and taking up a position just behind Radek and Miko. John stared at Rodney some more. Just be okay, John thought. You have to be okay.
He looked up at Ronon. Ronon was still intently examining the tentacles, probably trying to figure out where to put his arms. "I can help," John said.
"I've got it," Ronon said gruffly, and there was nothing else to do but to join Teyla behind Radek's station.
The heart-lung machine was making some funny noises behind Biro. "Ready, Ronon?" Biro asked, and when Ronon nodded, Radek started a countdown.
"Three, two, one," Radek said. The stasis shield melted backward and the tentacles shifted to get out of the way as Ronon dove in to wrap his arms around Rodney.
He got Rodney over his shoulder – probably not ideal, given the grimace on Biro's face, but fast. It was less than ten seconds from the stasis field to the gurney, and with Pearson and Biro's help, Ronon laid Rodney down surprisingly gently.
Ronon made his way over to them, and the only view they had now was of Jennifer cutting Rodney's tac vest off so Aggarwal could do something to the arrow, and Biro's back as she bent over Rodney's chest. John paced behind the console, trying to get a better view, but also trying to get rid of his nervous energy. Seeing Rodney lying so still was creepy. Watching his legs jiggle as Jennifer took off his shoes and cut through the rest of his clothes was even creepier.
There was a loud snap, and John held his breath until he could see what had happened. Aggarwal set down the shaft of the arrow on the instrument tray, cut off cleanly, probably as close to Rodney's chest as they could get. John couldn't help staring at it – it was still massive, and to think of the size of the arrowhead that would have been attached to it and was currently embedded in Rodney's heart made him queasy.
A high-pitched whine snapped him out of his distraction. It sounded like a drill, and John tried to see around Biro, see if he could figure out what was going on. The room filled with the smell of burning flesh, and the drill sounded like it had bitten into something solid. The sound reminded him of the procedure they'd done at the shrine when Rodney'd had his second childhood; thinking of how Rodney'd come through that with flying colors helped John get control of himself. Teyla, Miko, and Radek had their hands over their ears. John didn't blame them.
"Bill," Biro said sharply, and John could see Aggarwal and Jennifer trying to do something on the side of Rodney's chest with the arrow in it. Rodney's body rocked on the gurney a few times before they accomplished their goal; the drilling noise stopped and Biro joined in. Even Pearson had a hand in the action. When they all got out of the line of sight at once, John blinked at seeing Rodney's chest wide open, held in place by a large, gunmetal-colored clamp. Pearson was doing something with Rodney's heart, but before John could get any idea of what it was, Biro leaned in again, swiftly moving things around with sharp, precise arm movements. Suddenly the big machine behind Biro came to life, whirring and clicking, and Biro looked over her shoulder at them with a big grin. She gave them a thumbs up.
Radek nodded and typed something into the computer.
John stared at Rodney, horrified by the fact that his chest was wide open, and there was a machine breathing and beating his heart for him. He was more alive now than he had been for weeks, but it felt much more precarious than Rodney being in stasis. The thought of it gave John gooseflesh.
Biro and Aggarwal continued to work on Rodney while Pearson, Jennifer, and Marie split off, setting up a second station. John hadn't realized that they'd be doing the surgery in the stasis room. He supposed he figured they would have transported Rodney down to the surgery room, but considering Rodney now had a large machine breathing for him, it made much more sense to bring Tank here.
Speak of the devil, Tank entered the room in scrub bottoms, his chest bare and shaved clean. He was followed by Jeannie, all dressed in blue like the rest of them. She was carrying a laptop, staring at it intently, her body turned ever so slightly away from Rodney. Marie set up an instrument stand for her, and Jeannie propped her laptop on it.
John started to pace again, more to dispel the nerves he had about Rodney's chest hanging open than to try and see anything else. Everyone in the front of the room was talking in low voices, so he couldn't really hear them. It was all a dull roar mixed in with the machines whirring and clicking.
It seemed to take forever before things started moving forward. There was a big commotion by Biro and Aggarwal, and John looked over in time to see Rodney's heart taken out of his chest, a gigantic arrowhead piercing it completely. John's entire body went cold, and he put a hand on Ronon to steady himself.
"I have never seen a human heart before," Teyla murmured. "It is not what I expected."
"The new one will look much better," Miko said. "That one is mostly ruined."
John wondered how many hearts Miko had seen to talk so casually about them. He was just glad he couldn't see it any more. He glanced over at Tank and Jeannie and saw Tank hop up onto the gurney. His face was set with grim determination, and Jeannie kept touching his leg every few seconds. "I'm going to put you in stand-by mode in a few minutes," Jeannie said. Jennifer's head snapped up at that, and she went to stand next to Tank, holding his hand.
John felt for Tank; this couldn't be easy. John wished he could go over and say some last soothing words, something that would tell Tank how much John admired him, how much John hoped he'd see Tank up and about soon.
"We will take care of you," Teyla said, bright and clear, crushing all of John's good intentions with an actual voice. "Be at peace."
Tank smiled at her, and his eyes traveled over Ronon and John too, where they were standing close. "I know you will," Tank said. "I love you guys. And you, Jeannie," he said, nudging her with his foot. He lifted Jennifer's hand to his mouth and kissed it. "You especially, Jennifer."
Biro cleared her throat delicately, and Jeannie nodded. "Ready?"
"Yeah," Tank said and closed his eyes, looking like he was about to take a nap. Jeannie tapped a few keys on the computer and Tank went from looking like he was sleeping to looking like he was a mannequin. Jennifer squealed and yanked her hand away. John had to admit, as eerie as Rodney's limp body was, Tank's stone still one was even creepier.
Pearson leaned in with his stethoscope. "Heart's still beating," he said, and picked up a saw of some sort. It didn't look like the saw they'd used on Rodney; John thought it might be a metal saw.
"I'm going to cut along the frame," Pearson said, as if he was giving a lecture. "Then I don't risk damaging the heart."
"You're not at a teaching hospital," Biro snapped. "Just get on with it."
Pearson glared at her, but didn't say anything. He sawed a neat line into the top of Tank's pectoral muscle. When he'd made a couple more incisions – nearly bloodless incisions, John couldn't help but notice – he peeled back a bit of Tank's skin.
"Perfect," Pearson said, cutting three sides of the frame's square quickly. He put a metal rod under the skin and rolled it back, like the key on a can of sardines.
John couldn't keep his eyes off Tank; it was the strangest thing seeing him look like an honest to god robot for a change. No crying, no bleeding, no movement. John felt weirdly validated and mildly guilty, at least until Pearson lifted the heart out of Tank's chest and put it in the tray Marie was holding. The gratitude he had for Tank at that moment was overwhelming.
He couldn't see Jeannie's face, but her shoulders were hitching like she was crying. Jennifer's eyes were wet too, and her gaze followed the heart until Aggarwal picked it up and inserted it into Rodney's chest cavity.
After that, it was mostly waiting; there was a lot of talk amongst the doctors. Aggarwal stepped out and let Pearson take his place. Jennifer took up a position next to Pearson and the pair of them worked steadily for over an hour. John was dead on his feet. He paced until Teyla put a firm hand on his arm –
she always hated pacing. Normally he was careful about it around her, but it was soothing for him, sometimes the only way he could think if he was stuck in a small space.
Ronon had gone to the chairs behind the console and sat down, and his head was slowly dipping down toward his chest. John wondered if he'd slept last night. Teyla took John's hand and led him over to the chairs, shoving him up against Ronon and sitting down on his other side, her shoulder and thigh a warm presence along his side. John couldn't see Rodney at all from this angle, but he could still see Jeannie, frowning at her laptop and clacking away.
At some point John must have fallen asleep as well, because a cheer woke him up, and as soon as he blinked the sleep out of his eyes, he realized that Rodney was hooked up to a monitor, and it was registering his heartbeat.
John couldn't remember ever feeling so relieved. They still weren't able to get close to Rodney, but Ronon gave him a one-armed hug and Teyla wrapped her arms around his waist, and it felt like he could finally breathe again.
It took another couple hours before Rodney was transferred back to the infirmary. Jeannie was still typing away at the code, settled into a chair on Teyla's other side. When they finally wheeled Rodney and Tank out of the stasis room, Marie took them all back into the scrubbing room to deposit their gear and change back into their clothes. Ronon asked to keep the scrub bottoms, and Marie mock-frowned at him and said she'd order him a pair when they did the next inventory.
None of the doctors could tell them when Rodney might wake up; they all stayed by his bedside the first hour or so, but Ronon got antsy after that, and John was feeling a little crazed himself. They decided to go for a run and John told Teyla he'd be back to relieve her in an hour or two on their way out the door.
Ronon pushed them hard; no small talk today. John felt better after, too, even with wobbly legs and burning lungs. He got back to Teyla right before the two hour mark and she gave his arm a grateful squeeze before she left, looking just as relieved as he'd felt to leave the sterile, white infirmary for a little while.
John checked in with Jennifer first. She was sleeping fitfully on the cot for the overnight docs, twitchy and restless, but still – sleeping. Pearson was the doc on duty and nodded at John as he walked by. "Rodney's doing well," he said. "Solid heart rhythm, no indication of rejection."
"Great," John said as he passed, though he thought the whole point of Tank was to create a heart that wouldn't be rejected. He didn't want to know if there might be some other reason for Rodney to reject the heart, so he just kept moving to the back of the infirmary where they'd installed Rodney and Tank.
Tank had been separated from Rodney by a white cloth curtain. Even though the "skin" had been rolled back into place, the incisions were still obvious across the top and sides of his chest. He was still utterly unmoving, and John had a surprising stab of grief looking at him like this. There was still a stubborn sense of rightness, though, as he could hear the beeping of Rodney's monitor from the bed next door. He sighed out a deep breath and went back around the curtain, grabbing a seat next to Jeannie.
He had plenty of paperwork to do and several variations of solitaire, mahjong, and sudoku to pass the time, so he and Jeannie sat in companionable silence, typing away on their laptops. When Jeannie started to list to the side, he pried away her computer and tucked a blanket around her. When Marie came in a little while later, she poked Jeannie into accepting a gurney to sleep on, and she curled up on her side, only her unruly blonde curls showing above her blanket.
John had no idea when he had started to fall asleep as well, but he nearly lost the laptop when he jolted awake. He glanced around the room, checking over Jeannie and Rodney, and setting the laptop on the chair to get up and look at Tank again. When he came back around the curtain, Rodney's eyes were open and he was blinking slowly.
He groaned a little, his mouth open like he was trying to say something. John rushed to the side of the gurney, leaning in to let Rodney know he was there, since he wasn't sure he should touch Rodney anywhere.
"Hey, buddy," John said softly. "Are you tracking?" John snapped his fingers once in front of Rodney's face. Rodney winced for a split second, but before any real annoyance could form, his eyes were slipping shut again. John ran out to the front of the infirmary to tell Dr. Pearson.
Pearson came in and tried to get Rodney to wake again, but Rodney was fast asleep. It was strange how John could tell the difference between Rodney being sedated and sleeping. It was another baby step toward really believing Rodney was going to be okay.
Jennifer came in a little while later and they played a game of solitaire together on his laptop before she kicked him out to get some food. "Go on," she said. "And send a tray for me. Oh, and Jeannie."
He stopped by Jeannie's gurney before he left. She hadn't looked tired that morning, but the extreme paleness of her skin and the slight circles under her eyes told him she'd probably been up most of last night. He pulled her covers up and went to the mess to get some dinner.
Ronon was at a table by himself, mechanically eating his way through a mountain of food. "Hey," John said, pulling up a chair and tucking into his own lasagna.
"Hey," Ronon answered, shoveling another forkful of vegetables into his mouth. "Any news?"
"Opened his eyes for a second," John said, and Ronon broke out into a wide grin. "He's sleeping. Probably wake up tomorrow, if I know McKay."
Ronon snorted. "Good. We all need the sleep."
John chuckled and they ate the rest of their meal trading stories about monsters they'd killed. John's stories were all from movies, which used to be more fun before Ronon inhaled the DVD collection of the entire expedition. John still liked trying to stump him with weird creatures from obscure movies.
After they bussed their table and Ronon was presumably headed back to his room to catch up on sleep, John grabbed two trays and headed back to the infirmary.
He set Jeannie's down on the table next to her bed, and put Jennifer's on the table next to Rodney's. She wasn't in the chairs by Rodney's bed and he hadn't seen her on his way in, so he figured she'd probably gotten up to stretch her legs or go to the bathroom. He picked up his laptop, intent on starting a game of spider when he heard the hiccupping sigh from the other side of the curtain separating Rodney and Tank.
He debated sneaking out; he was never good with crying, and Jennifer especially because she so rarely fell apart. He decided he was being stupid and put down the laptop and crossed over to Tank's side of the curtain. Jennifer was staring at Tank, looking hollow.
"Hey, doc," John said. "Come on, there's no use worrying about it."
"He just looks so… empty," Jennifer said, hugging herself.
"I know," John said. "But there's nothing we can do to help him right now. Come on, I brought you lasagna."
Jennifer smiled, bright even with the tears still on her cheeks. "I love lasagna."
"I know," John said. "Better eat it before it gets cold."
Teyla came back for a couple hours that night, and Jennifer took advantage of her visit to get out of the infirmary and go for a swim. "I'll be back soon," she said, taking Jeannie's tray with her on the way out.
They rotated in and out every hour or so after Jennifer got back. Teyla and Jeannie walked the corridors for a while and John went out to sit on a nearby balcony, the wind whipping his face. Jennifer went back to the night doc's cot around twenty two hundred and Teyla conked out shortly thereafter, stretching out over the three chairs they'd been sitting on all evening. Jeannie had gone back to coding, the blue of her screen reflecting on her face and making her look ghostlike. Ronon came in sometime after oh one hundred and picked Teyla up enough to sit down and give her his lap to use as a pillow.
John crashed on the bank of chairs next to Jeannie's bed, jerking awake sometime in the middle of the night. When he looked up, Jennifer was standing at Rodney's bedside, looking down at him thoughtfully. "Doc?" he croaked, and cleared his throat when Jennifer turned around. "Everything okay?"
"Mmm hmm," she hummed, turning back to Rodney. John got up and went over to Rodney's gurney. Rodney had shifted, like he'd wanted to turn over, but the IV tubes had kept him stuck in place.
Rodney suddenly took a noisy, quick breath. John recognized the sound – Rodney always woke up after that kind of breath, wide awake and usually talking fast in the middle of a sentence. John leaned in and Jennifer leaned back at the same time. She smacked into his chest, and he put a hand on her shoulder to steady her.
Rodney's eyes blinked open and he attempted to talk. It only took two words for him to realize his voice wasn't really working, and he looked John straight in the eye. "John?" He blinked a couple more times and his gaze shifted to Jennifer's face. "Jennifer?" Her name was a little slurred, but John had never heard anything more perfect in his life.
"Hey, buddy," John said, sure he was grinning ear to ear.
"How are you feeling?" Jennifer asked, inching forward toward Rodney.
"M'chest hurts," Rodney said, starting to lift a hand. The movement stopped and he stared down at the place where the IV needle was stuck into the back of his hand. "What happened?"
"Long story," John said. That was one thing he didn't want to get into any sooner than he had to.
"You'll have to wait on that," Jennifer said. "We need to run some tests now that you're awake."
"Kay," Rodney said, sounding sluggish.
"What's the last thing you remember?"
"Tea," Rodney said. "Lots of tea."
Jennifer nodded. "Where are you feeling pain?"
"Chest," Rodney answered. He looked down at the hand with the IV in it and said, "Hand."
"Okay," Jennifer said, but before she could get another question out, Rodney's eyes were closing again. "That's perfectly normal," Jennifer said defensively, and John realized he was gripping her shoulder tightly. It must have been painful, but she didn't say anything.
"Sorry," John said. "It's just…"
"I know," Jennifer said, patting his hand. "He probably won't wake up again before dawn. You should get some rest."
John snorted. "Look who's talking. I hear they have a cot over there with your name on it."
"Well, no, actually," Jennifer said, turning around and giving him a shove on the chest. "It's for the night shift person and currently, Biro's sleeping in it."
"Oh," John said, finally shifting his weight and letting her push him toward the bank of chairs where he'd been sleeping. "Well, I have a little extra space, in that case. Pull up a seat."
John took a seat at one end of the chairs and Jennifer sat down next to him and let her head rest against his arm. He looked down at the top of her head and it struck him how tiny she was. He didn't notice normally because she had a pretty forceful personality.
One of the nurses popped his head in a moment later and brought in a couple of blankets, wrapping one around Jennifer's shoulders and shaking another out and spreading it over John's legs. John grinned at him and he smiled back. John was too tired to even guess his name; he'd have to ask Jennifer tomorrow.
John woke up the next morning sprawled across all three chairs, two blankets over him and a pillow under his head. He was alone with Rodney, who was snoring pretty loudly. John felt for him; usually Rodney slept on his side or front – anything else made him snore loud enough to scare local wildlife when they camped out.
John shook off the blankets. He was sweating, he was so warm. He could hear people bustling about in the main part of the infirmary, but no one was talking. It couldn't have been an emergency or he would have heard it in his radio.
He glanced at Rodney over his shoulder and peeked out of the curtained off area. There were two nurses busily restocking and a doctor – Aggarwal, he thought, though it was tough to tell from the back – reading an article on the computer.
John turned back around and looked at Rodney. There was only ambient light in the room, but with all the white curtains, it was actually pretty bright. Rodney was sleeping peacefully for all the snoring, and John couldn't help grinning down at him.
Rodney gave a loud snort and his head snapped up, eyes open wide. "Hi," he said, staring at John.
"Hi," John said, still grinning. "How are you feeling?"
Rodney cleared his throat. "Floaty," he said. "But better. Better than the last time I woke up."
He raised his arm gingerly and went for his chest. John caught his hand. "Oh, no – better not."
"Why?" Rodney said, yanking his hand out of John's grip and plucking open his gown. His mouth dropped open when he looked down at his chest. "Holy shit! What happened to me?" The beeping of the monitor spiked and went suddenly faster.
John knew he probably should call for Aggarwal or one of the nurses, but he wanted to calm Rodney down first. "Relax," John said. "Deep breaths."
The beeping kept on, insistent, and John said, "Doesn't matter, here you are, and you're just fine!"
"I've had open heart surgery," Rodney shouted, "I am not fine!"
That brought Aggarwal in, except it wasn't Aggarwal, it was Eastin, and he immediately made the wrong choice in demanding Rodney keep his voice down.
"Absolutely not," Rodney growled, and John pushed Eastin out of the way.
"Call Dr. Keller," John said, elbowing Eastin when he tried to shove his way back in. "Call Dr. Keller right now," John said, "and remember that she's your boss."
Eastin looked pissed at that, but he backed off while John tried to calm Rodney down. He put his hands up, surrendering to Rodney's tantrum. "Just breathe, Rodney. You're not helping, here."
"What happened?" Rodney asked again, whining this time. "Did I have a heart attack?"
"No," John said, keeping his hands up, trying to placate Rodney. "It's complicated."
"It's not that complicated," Rodney said, the monitor beeping faster again.
"Fine," John said, figuring at this point it was probably better to rip the band-aid off. "You were shot with an arrow."
Rodney's head turtled backward. "I was what?"
"Shot with an arrow. Through the heart."
Rodney blinked a couple times, and strangely, the monitor seemed to be beeping slower.
"Rodney?" Jennifer's voice came from the front of the infirmary. She peeked around the curtain a second later. "You're awake!"
She ran to his side and Teyla, Ronon, Jeannie, Woolsey, and Radek all tromped in behind her.
John stared at them all, lined up in a neat row. "Did I miss a staff meeting?"
Teyla laughed, coming over to stand at the foot of Rodney's bed. "Breakfast," she said. "And we're all on the emergency channel Eastin used."
"Oh," John said, squinching his face up. "I hadn't thought about how it might sound when he called for Jennifer."
"It's good news, that's all that matters," Teyla said, patting his arm.
Rodney finally looked up from where he had been talking in low tones with Jennifer and smiled at them all. "So," he said. "How long have I been out of it?"
Everyone started making excuses at once, Woolsey, Ronon, Teyla, and Radek shuffling sideways out of the curtained area, throwing well-wishes on their way out. John was about to follow suit when Jeannie grabbed his arm and wrapped herself around it like a boa constrictor.
"Jeannie?" Rodney asked, looking at her incredulously. "It was that bad?"
Jeannie nodded. "And there was some other stuff."
"Other stuff," Rodney repeated, looking at his sister.
"Hey," Jennifer said, snapping her fingers in front of Rodney's face. "Medical first; we're going to do a bunch of tests while you're conscious, so Jeannie is going to take John to get some breakfast."
Jeannie tugged on John's arm and he happily let her lead him away. He was starving.
Rodney was asleep again when John checked back. Jeannie set up her laptop and worked on code, typing furiously, eyes going side to side fast enough to give John eye strain just watching her.
"What's the verdict?" John asked, sitting down next to Jennifer in the chairs by Rodney's bed. "He sounded pretty good for someone who got a new heart yesterday."
"Yeah, about that," Jennifer said in an undertone. "He's healing too quickly."
John nodded. "Nanites." He'd expected as much.
"I think so," Jennifer said. "But not enough that they're showing up on the regular medical scanners."
"And?" John wasn't sure how he felt about the nanites; technically they were hostile, and he should be worried, but anything that helped Rodney get better quickly was hard to pass up. "We could do an EMP."
Jennifer shook her head. "I'd… rather let it go until I'm sure," she said. "Radek can tweak the scanners to detect them. We've done it before."
"Right," John said.
"So, as his POA, you're giving me permission to… let things stand for another day or two?"
John frowned. "Am I seriously his power of attorney?" he asked. "I don't actually remember signing anything."
Jennifer leveled a stare at him. "Hang on," she said, getting up and leaving the room. She came right back in, laptop in tow. She logged in and pulled something up, handing the laptop to John to read. It was Rodney's advance directive and the power of attorney papers. There was his signature, large as life. It was a scan of the original document, impossible to tell if it was a forgery. It sure looked like his signature.
He read some of the advance directive. He'd already gone against some of Rodney's wishes, and he hadn't even known. Apparently Rodney never wanted to be on a ventilator. He didn't want to be resuscitated if there might be brain damage. John sank down into the chair as he read. Why would Rodney leave such explicit instructions and then put his medical decisions in John's hands?
John handed the laptop back to her and stood up. "That's why you were so devastated when you saw him. You knew what was in his advance directive and you thought I wouldn't do anything to save him."
"Yes," she said very quietly.
He should have, he realized. He should have let his best friend die. John stalked out and broke into a run as he left the infirmary.
He didn't stop until he was at ground level, running along Atlantis's southwest arm. It was windy, and every once in a while he got sprayed in the face with ocean water. He sat down half way down the arm – one of their favorite spots for beer and hanging out.
He stared out at the ocean, waves going out to the horizon, not a scrap of land in sight. Why would Rodney make John his power of attorney without telling him? Without letting him know what was in his advance directive?
Why did he go crazy, not letting Rodney go like he should have? He bent forward suddenly with the need to throw up. His eggs and coffee splashed against the side of the pier, spattering on his BDUs. Fuck, he'd gone against everything he knew and believed in; he'd gone against what he would've wanted done for himself. He'd gone against what Rodney'd wanted done for himself.
He threw up again, just bile now. His rib cage hurt.
"Hey." Ronon put a heavy hand on John's shoulder. "No point in regrets."
John shrugged, trying to dislodge Ronon's hand. "I should have known. I should've –"
"You went with your gut," Ronon said. "And it worked out all right."
John twisted to look up at Ronon. "Are you kidding? Things couldn't be more fucked up."
Ronon shrugged. "McKay is fine. Tank'll be fine. Sounds like it worked out to me."
"Tank shouldn't exist," John said. "And Rodney should be dead."
Ronon punched him, hard, and John's head snapped to the side.
"Ow," John said, cupping his bruised jaw.
"You deserved it," Ronon said, holding a hand out. John took it and Ronon hauled him to his feet. "Can't you just be glad McKay's still here?" Ronon asked. "His sister and Keller are glad you did it."
John nodded. A lot of people were glad Rodney was still alive.
"And we get Tank, too," Ronon said. "It's like a bonus life."
John shook his head at the Super Mario reference. "Video games too, now?"
"They're fun," Ronon said. "We should play Mario Kart."
John and Ronon parted ways when they got back inside. John needed a shower and fresh BDUs. Ronon wanted to see if he could catch Rodney while he was awake.
Every time John started to think about things, he ran a hand over his jaw. There was a nice sized goose egg and it was distracting as hell. He felt almost human once he was clean, even better once he'd shaved. He was just glad Rodney was here, and he had to let go of the rest of it or drive himself crazy.
His door pinged just as he was about to head back out and try to replace the breakfast he'd left on the pier. When he thought the door open, Jennifer was on the other side.
John stepped back, letting her into his quarters. She stopped just inside the door, pulling down her uniform jacket nervously. "I shouldn't have shown you," she said. "I had a feeling something wasn't quite right with it."
John sighed. "I don't know how he did it. The signature looks like mine, but I have no idea how he would have gotten it without asking me directly. I don't sign a whole lot of stuff."
Jennifer nodded. "I'm sorry."
John gave her a perfunctory smile. "Not your fault."
"I'm sorry you had to find out that way," Jennifer said, putting her hands on her hips. "I'm sorry I made you second guess what you did."
John huffed out a low, ironic laugh. "I shouldn't –"
"I'm glad you did, though," Jennifer said. "I'm glad he's here now. Don't tell me you're not."
"You're right," John said. "Ronon already convinced me of the error of my ways." John passed a hand over his clean shaven goose egg.
"Ouch," Jennifer said. "That looks painful."
"Yep," John said. "And a nice reminder not to overthink things. Breakfast?"
"It's almost thirteen hundred," Jennifer said.
"Lunch then," John answered, and she teasingly punched him on the arm and led the way to the mess.
Teyla and Jeannie eyed him in the mess but neither said anything. He could read Teyla's disapproval loud and clear, though he couldn't tell if it was for him doubting his decisions or for Ronon's debating methods. Probably both.
Jeannie just looked closed off, and if he thought that looked strange on Rodney's face, it was nothing compared to what it looked like on Jeannie's face. It was like someone had dimmed her whole being. She ate slowly and methodically, nodding along with the conversation at the table, but not joining in.
They went back to the infirmary as a group, and when John pulled back the curtain around Rodney's bed, he was surprised to see Woolsey standing next to him, chatting genially.
Woolsey smiled broadly, backing away from Rodney's bedside as they straggled in. "Good to have you back," Woolsey said, nodding at Rodney, and then everyone else as he made his way out.
Rodney stayed awake for another half an hour, but his eyelids started drooping as Jeannie talked about Madison's swim team ribbons, and eventually Biro shooed them all out. Jeannie grabbed a chair and her laptop and went into Tank's area. John watched her go and wondered how long she'd stay. He could tell she missed Madison and Kaleb, and Rodney was looking pretty good for a guy who'd been dead for a month.
Rodney was staying awake for longer intervals. They'd scanned him and gotten most of his preliminary medical evaluation done, and it wasn't going to be long before Rodney was awake enough and sharp enough to ask what the hell had happened to him and expect an answer. John just hoped it wouldn't be on his watch.
That was nearly impossible, of course, because John wasn't planning on leaving the infirmary for more than ten minutes at a time until Rodney was looking enough like himself for John to relax, so of course he was there when Rodney finally asked. He and Teyla had been working on a logic puzzle, and when Rodney finally got sick of Jennifer poking and prodding him, he'd asked, archly annoyed and indistractible.
"What happened while I was gone?"
John laughed. He couldn't help it. "Oh, man, Rodney, if you had any idea."
"Well tell me then," Rodney groused. "I've only been asking all day."
"You died," John said. Rodney stared at him, unblinking, and the room was silent except for the surprisingly steady beeping of Rodney's monitor.
"Died?" Rodney asked. "Like, my heart stopped beating but you started CPR and –"
"Like, your heart stopped beating and we put you in stasis until we could figure out what to do," John said.
The beeping of the heart monitor ticked up ever so slightly. "Stasis," Rodney said flatly. He looked at John, then Teyla, and finally Jennifer. "It can't have been too long. None of you look different than I remember."
"About a month," John said.
Rodney looked confused. "What changed between my death and the open heart surgery?"
John and Jennifer shared a look, but before anyone could answer, Jeannie pulled back the curtain separating Rodney and Tank.
Rodney looked at the other bed, yelped, and went very pale. "What is that? Wait, what am I? Am I me?" The heart monitor was beeping frantically, and Jennifer reached forward to grab Rodney's hands.
"Breathe," she said, squeezing his hands. "Breathe, Rodney."
Rodney gulped air, but he didn't stop staring at Tank. Jeannie was blushing furiously, looking down at her computer screen and avoiding everyone's eyes.
When the heart monitor got back into a steady pace, Jennifer said, "Atlantis created a replicated version of you."
Rodney kept breathing, and the beeping steadied into nice, rhythmic pattern. "How?"
"We don't really know," John answered, looking away.
"Tell me the rest of it," Rodney said, sounding irritated, though the heart monitor was chugging along solidly.
"We didn't figure out why Atlantis had created the replicator right away," John said.
"Tank," Jennifer added. "The replicator goes by Tank."
"Tank?" Rodney stared at her. "The replicator has a name, and it's Tank?"
"The marines started it," John said.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "So what was Tank's purpose, then?"
"To grow you a heart," Jeannie said softly. She set down her laptop and walked over to the side of Rodney's bed. "He incubated a human heart with your DNA, so you wouldn't reject it."
"Wait a minute," Rodney said, looking at Jeannie, Jennifer, Teyla, and finally John. "I needed a whole new heart?"
Jeannie nodded. "You weren't just dead, Mer, your heart was…"
"Destroyed," Jennifer said.
Rodney kept doing the deep breathing, squeezing Jennifer's hands now, and John wanted to reach in, too, put a hand on Rodney's shoulder, let him know it was okay.
"But if it's a replicator, why isn't it still up and about? It should have been able to pluck the heart right out of itself and hand it to you."
John could hear the catch, the point where Rodney's mind caught on a problem and started to work on it. Jeannie must have heard it too, because she leaned in a little and said, "His coding is extremely limited. He isn't able to change shape."
"And why is he in stand-by?" Rodney asked.
"Shutdown protocol once his mission is completed," Jeannie answered, a grin taking over her whole face.
"This is the 'other thing' you're here for," Rodney said.
Jeannie nodded. "I stopped him from turning into his component parts, but I'm still working on getting the modified nanites to build him a human body."
Rodney's eyes nearly glowed. "Have you tried –"
"Of course I did, Mer, do you think I'm stupid?"
While the siblings were bickering, John glanced back and forth between Jeannie and Rodney and sidestepped out of the conversation and then out of the room.
With Rodney working on the problem of Tank's coding, John knew everything was going to be all right. He was back to his cranky self, snapping his fingers at Jeannie and demanding trays of Jell-o. He hadn't had an appetite for much else yet, but he was eating Jell-o like it was going out of style.
Jennifer took out his staples on the third day, and John knew that had to be too early. They hadn't mentioned the possible nanites to anyone, yet, but John had a feeling they would have to soon. He was surprised none of the other docs had said anything.
Once Rodney started working on the coding and was eating food other than Jell-o, Jeannie insisted on going home. "I'm going crazy without Kaleb and Madison," she told Rodney.
"I know, Jeannie-bean," Rodney said. "I'm going to be fine, don't worry about me."
"And you'll keep working on Tank's coding?" Jeannie insisted, for the third time since John had come in to escort her to the gate room.
"Of course," Rodney said, looking irritated. "It's not like I have much else to do."
Jeannie nodded, smiling. "Please come visit," she said. "Madison misses you."
"Come work in Atlantis," Rodney said. "Then Madison wouldn't miss me."
Jeannie rolled her eyes and kissed Rodney on the forehead. "I'll talk to Kaleb. Get Tank up and running so Kaleb can work on his project."
It was Rodney's turn to roll his eyes. "Yes, I'll get your pet robot up and running, now shoo."
John took that opportunity to step forward, catching Jeannie's attention before they could bicker any more. Atlantis dialed out precisely on time, and if she wasn't there when the last crate went through the gate then she was out of luck. She let John take her duffel bag and waved a short good-bye to Rodney as they headed out.
John came back to the infirmary after he sent Jeannie back to Earth. Rodney was staring at his computer, face bunched up in what John thought of as his mentally-constipated face.
"Jeannie's coding too tough for you?" John asked, because with Jeannie gone, Rodney needed someone to needle him constantly.
"No," he snapped, more annoyed than John originally thought. "I can't figure out how the nanites built the heart. Normal nanites only appear to have human tissue – skin, muscles, bones. They don't actually create a human-type body. Medical nanites only work on human tissue, they don't create it. You can't just pluck it out of thin air. Where did they get the materials?"
John shrugged. He had no idea how these things worked; he just knew they did. Rodney was living proof of it, grouchy as he was. "Does it matter? Can't you just tell them what to do and then let them do it? You don't actually have to order them to do every little thing, right?"
"But there isn't anything in the code that says 'build a human heart' either, or I could just modify that."
"Sorry, buddy," John said, picking up his laptop. "Chess?"
Rodney rolled his eyes but said, "King's pawn to king four."
John shook his head. Rodney never won with the king's pawn gambit.
"So," Rodney said, after he lost their second game of chess. "Tank."
John had been waiting for this, trying to sort things out, what to tell Rodney, what to leave out.
"Jeannie said you thought he was me at first."
John nodded. "He came to my quarters after we'd put you in stasis."
"And it was more likely that he was a Rodney who'd been miraculously healed and resuscitated than a replicator?"
"Well, yeah," John said. "We locked down the lab after Elizabeth. And he looked and sounded just like you."
Rodney chewed on that bit of information for a while. "How long did it take before you found out?"
John shrugged. "Not long. I took him straight to the infirmary."
"Jeannie…" Rodney started, thought better of it, and started again. "He's different from me, though? How?"
John frowned, lacing his fingers together and looking down into them. "He decided to be."
Rodney didn't say anything for a while. John kept staring at his hands, rubbing his thumbs over the calluses at the base of his fingers.
"Once you knew it wasn't me, you…" Rodney's voice trailed off. "I don't even know what I'm asking."
John winced, thinking of the rocky way he'd started out with Tank. "He couldn't replace you," John said. "None of us were willing to let him just step into your life."
"So you exiled me?" Rodney asked.
John frowned, confused. "What? I don't –"
"For a given value of me-ness, he was me," Rodney said. "He had my memories. He was me, just… not human."
"Yeah, but not being human –"
"I understand the threat," Rodney said, "and so I assume he did as well."
"And you thought that to be loyal to me, you had to reject him."
This is not how John pictured this conversation going; his heart was beating too fast and he was worried he was going to say something he regretted. "No," John said petulantly, slumping down lower in the chair.
"Interesting," Rodney said. "Now I know why he looks so strange. I would never give myself a buzz cut."
"You should see his wardrobe," John said, and wished he hadn't.
"You wouldn't let him wear my clothes?" Rodney asked, sounding horrified. "I'm understanding Jeannie's reaction more and more. She talked about him like he was a younger brother."
"That's what you want to know? How we treated him?"
Rodney shrugged. "It's intriguing. I consider him an extension of myself; probably separate now, but basically more of me. I know how hard it must have been for him."
"Excuse me," John growled, standing up hurriedly. "You'd just been killed and when I thought a miracle had happened and Atlantis had somehow healed you, it turned out you weren't you. I'd had a pretty bad day." He turned to storm out, but Rodney reached out and grabbed his arm.
"Hey," he said, squeezing John's forearm. "I'm sorry, I…"
John turned around to look at him, hoping the interrogation was over.
Rodney let John's arm go, and took a deep breath, the kind that meant he was going to barrel through a painful story as quickly as possible. "I started kindergarten at four and went straight to second grade, and then fourth," he said. "I was a scrawny kid, too, so by the time I was in fifth grade, everyone towered over me and it's not like I was cool or fashionable or…" Rodney grimaced. "Well, obviously. So anyway, I used to come home every day dirty or beat up or missing homework or schoolbooks, and Jeannie was only four, but it really upset her. When she went to kindergarten, she used to hold my hand all the way to school and back, and glare at anyone that got too close."
John could just imagine Jeannie scaring off fifth graders with the patented McKay glare.
"She's been protective of me ever since," Rodney said, "which is so stupid, I'm the big brother, I should –"
"Hey," John said. "Don't beat yourself up. Jeannie is capable of handling herself."
"Yes," Rodney said, clearing his throat. "The point is, the way she was protective of Tank reminded me of fifth grade all over again. I felt bad for him."
"Tank found a way to fit in," John said. "He did just fine." Thinking of Tank's determination to create new relationships with everyone Rodney held dear, John decided it was time to change the subject, not to mention time for some payback. "Were you ever going to tell me I'm your power of attorney?"
Rodney choked and stared at John. "Crap."
"Yeah," John said. "I didn't even know you had an advance directive."
"That… I…" Rodney looked sheepish. "I trusted you to do what was necessary," Rodney said. "But not until all the options were exhausted. I really hoped you'd never have to be asked about my health care."
"Rodney," John said, exasperated. "How the hell did you get my signature? Or did you forge it?"
Rodney blushed bright red. "You remember all the paperwork when we came back to Atlantis after those three weeks on Earth, all the forms we had to fill out?"
John nodded. He'd read all those forms. At least, he was pretty sure he actually read them.
"They were in triplicate, right?"
Some of them had been in more than triplicate. John nodded.
"I put the form between some of the pages of the inventory request form. Pulled it out afterward and just inked the imprint of your signature."
"I still don't understand," John said. "Why me?"
Rodney shrugged. "You're the luckiest man in two galaxies," he said. "I knew you'd only let me go if there was no other way." Rodney gestured at the beeping heart monitor. John listened to its steady rhythm for a few beats; he'd become so used to it, he didn't even hear it anymore. "I was right."
"But what about your advance directive?" John said. "No ventilators, no resuscitation if there was a chance of brain damage?"
Rodney looked away. "That's Earth stuff. It has to be admissible in court, blah blah blah. Those were never for you – those were instructions for people who weren't you."
"Luckiest man in two galaxies," John murmured. He looked down into his hands again. "Why didn't you just ask me?"
Rodney frowned. "I thought you'd say no."
John thought about it. He might have, especially back in those early years when everything was so unsettled and he already had more on his plate than he was sure he could handle. He thought about bringing up Jennifer, but this was already years' worth of uncomfortable conversations. He let it go.
"So, Tank's coding," John said. "You're stuck?"
"Jeannie was stuck before she handed it over to me," Rodney griped. "She couldn't work out a way around it either."
"Maybe you're missing something," John said.
"Of course," Rodney said irritably, "or we would have figured it out by now."
"I just meant maybe you should get some rest. You can work on it tomorrow." John closed his laptop and tucked it under his arm. "Maybe you'll get a revelation while you sleep."
"I don't know," Rodney said doubtfully, but he put a hand over his mouth as he yawned. "I keep dreaming of out of tune church bells."
John tracked Jennifer down after he left Rodney. She was swimming in the pool on the south arm. It was one of the first things they'd checked out, once Atlantis was on the surface. A glassed-in room along a quarter of the south arm. Parrish had been hoping for a greenhouse, but it'd turned out to be a natatorium. They found the greenhouses a couple of weeks later when they were searching everywhere for extra drones or ZPMs.
He sat on the stone steps, watching her swim her laps with long, even strokes. It was so easy for her, she looked so graceful. Swimming lessons would forever be some of the worst memories of his childhood. She swam over as soon as she caught sight of him; he'd been there for six or seven laps by then.
"Hey," she said, kicking her way over to the side of the pool. "What's up?"
"You can finish your swim," John offered.
"I was almost done anyway," she said, doing a quick jump-lift to her feet. "Is Rodney okay?"
"I think you know he's better than okay," John said, leaning out of the way as she reached for her towel and dripped on his BDUs.
She frowned at him. "He is about a week ahead of schedule," she said. "But that's not too far ahead." She tipped her head to one side and shook it forcefully.
"Really? Only a week?" John asked. If it'd been any other injury, he'd be wheedling her to let Rodney out of the infirmary by now. His appetite was back, he was cranky from being stuck in a bed, he was forgetting to whine about how much pain he was in… normally she'd be grateful to get him out of the infirmary by this point.
"Maybe two," Jennifer amended, tipping her head the other way. "But I don't see what harm it's doing."
"Yes you do," John said.
She wiped her face and settled the towel on her shoulders. "Fine," she said. "I do."
"It'll probably take Radek a week to adjust the scanners anyway," John said. "Maybe he'll be totally healed by then."
Jennifer snorted and punched him on the arm. "We can only hope. Do you want to talk to Radek, or should I?"
"Why don't you," John said. "I don't even know what you guys are talking about most of the time."
Jennifer rolled her eyes. "I call bullshit. You know exactly what needs to be done. But," she said, when John took a breath to protest, "I'll do it. I wanted to talk to Radek about the dermal regenerators anyway."
"Great," John said, clapping his hands together. "Hungry?"
"I could eat a horse," Jennifer said, wiping down and pulling on a pair of track pants over her suit. "Lead the way."
John felt the weariness kick in after he left Jennifer at her quarters to shower before her shift. He decided it was time to call it an early night. He'd been sleeping here and there wherever he could grab the time and space, but the chairs in Rodney's infirmary fiefdom were far from comfortable.
He debated a shower before bed, but he wouldn't be able to keep himself from shaving, and a hand over the half day's growth on his jaw convinced him it was best left until morning. He undressed in a hurry and climbed into bed, stretching until his feet hung off the end. It felt good not to have to resort to contortionism to be able to sleep.
His mind replayed fragments of his conversation with Rodney as he fell asleep, bits and pieces of his arguments coming to mind. The last thing he remembered before he drifted off was Rodney calling Jeannie "Jeannie-bean" and the fond annoyance on her face.
John took almost the entire day away from Rodney the next day. Ronon came by early for a run; he made an appearance in his office and got a report from Lorne ("Eight o'clock and all's well, sir"); he met Teyla, Kanaan, and Torren for breakfast. After that he managed to clean out his inbox. It took him all morning and the better part of the afternoon, but every email he'd put in his follow up folder had actually been followed up, and he put his electronic John Hancock on several vacation requests, change of quarters requests, an inventory report, and two incident reports. He even finished his own incident report for Tank. He'd found the half-finished paperwork in his docs folder, and when he opened it, the cursor was blinking after the replicator hadn't realized it wasn't human.
He finished it and attached it to the fourth of Woolsey's urgent reminder emails.
He treated himself to two desserts at his late lunch. He deserved it. He went to his homemade golfing range, too, spent a couple hours knocking balls out over the ocean. He debated trying to get Lorne to try golfing again. He seemed like the type, and everyone else John had tried to get into it had either mangled his clubs or hated it.
He went in for dinner around eighteen hundred; that used to be the unofficial team dinner hour before things had gone to hell a month ago. Teyla was in the mess, so he sat with her and broached the subject of going off-world again soon. They debated where to go for their first few missions; she only half-jokingly suggested they try a few first contact situations while Rodney was still recovering. They could save the milk runs to get Rodney back into the swing of things.
Teyla picked up a tray for Jennifer, and when John and Teyla finally made it to the infirmary, they were surprised to see a couple of cranky nurses and a cranky doctor muttering under their breath about Rodney. It turned out he and Ronon were racing remote controlled cars underfoot – literally, underfoot – and had nearly caused Brandon (ah, that was the nurse's name, Brandon) to fall.
"Better not have messed up my car," John said.
Ronon was running Rodney's car, thankfully, as it looked like it had been in a demolition derby. John's looked pretty good, but he scooped it up off the floor as it went by just to be sure it stayed that way.
"Come on," Rodney whined. "I've been taking good care of it."
"You shouldn't be playing with these in here at all," John admonished, trying to hide a grin because he wished he'd thought of it. He would have made an obstacle course inside Rodney's curtained-off area, but there was no way they'd get away with it now.
Ronon ran Rodney's car into the back of his boot. "Spoilsport."
"It's probably not wise to anger the people who are taking care of you," Teyla said, picking up Rodney's car. Ronon frowned at her and set the remote control down with a pouty huff.
"I'm bored," Rodney said. "I'm ready to work on desalination, I'm so bored."
"We could play sheepshead," Teyla offered.
Jennifer had been trying to teach them all for months. It was a card game, a trump game, close enough to hearts that John and Rodney got the concept pretty quickly. Once Teyla memorized the order of trump, she caught on quickly too, but Ronon had never really liked it. He didn't like card games in general. Probably, John thought, because it was a lot of sitting around doing nothing but staring at small pieces of paper. He agreed to play, though, which always made things interesting as he couldn't remember any of the rules, so there was no way to count trump because Ronon would play his seemingly at random.
They laughed for a while, teasing Ronon about his failure to remember even the simplest rules – or recognize what a suit was – until Teyla was yawning and excusing herself to head back to her quarters. Ronon walked her out and John was left alone with Rodney again, trying to find something to do that wasn't chess or remote control cars.
They made it through three hands of rummy – now that was a game Rodney kicked his ass at – before Rodney started to get quiet and thoughtful. John rode these times out; they only had a fifty percent chance of turning into uncomfortable conversations. The rest of the time Rodney started getting sleepy or withdrawn and John would leave him alone to sleep or brood.
"I'm getting better too quickly," Rodney said.
"Which means I probably have nanites."
"Yep." John knew Rodney would have thought of that from the beginning, so these were just the opening moves in the chess game of the conversation.
"Is there a procedure in place for this?" Rodney asked.
John shrugged. "We can EMP you. But there haven't been any nanites on the scans."
"Of course not," Rodney said. "Nanites are impossible to see on scans, they'd be microscopic little dots. Though," he interrupted himself, "usually they cluster in large enough groups when they're fixing something to be visible."
"Like with Elizabeth," John confirmed.
"Exactly." Rodney looked thoughtful for a moment. "You'd think I'd have clusters on my heart big enough to be visible – I mean, they don't have anything to work on but my heart." His eyes got wide. "I didn't have brain damage, did I?"
John cringed. He had no idea how long Rodney had been without oxygen or what kind of toll it would have taken, but it was most certainly over the four minutes Biro had mentioned when they put him in stasis. "You'd have to ask a doctor that question," John dodged. "But you seem like your regular self to me. Have you tried working on any of your pet projects?"
"Of course I have," Rodney answered. "I've nearly finished the theoretical work on the shield emitters. I had a brilliant thought about shields and desalination, actually. The Ancients might have used shield emitters to create the... the…" Rodney stammered to a stop, looking at John. John knew he had to look pretty shocked. "What?"
"Nothing," John said, trying to look bored. "It's just… desalination? Sounds boring."
"Well, it is," Rodney said, handing the deck to John. "It's your deal."
Jennifer and Radek came in half an hour later, wheeling a cart between them with one of the portable medical scanners on it. Rodney looked up at them, rolled his eyes, and handed John his cards. Figured. It was the first game John had come close to winning all night.
"This should be able to tell us how many nanites you have in your body," Radek said, "and let us know the rate at which they are replicating."
"Great," Rodney said, lying back on his gurney. "Let's get this over with."
It took a few minutes to position everything and hook the scanner up to the Ancient display screen hanging on the wall behind Rodney's head, but when they did, the scanned image was half as big as Rodney's body. It was more detail than John ever wanted to see about Rodney's internal organs. There was a text box in the lower left hand corner, some incomprehensible shorthand and what looked like a counter. It was at zero and didn't budge.
After they scanned Rodney from head to toe, the number was still at zero. Radek scratched his head.
"No nanites," Jennifer said, staring up at the screen. "Not a single one?"
"Well," Radek hedged, "not exactly. I set the counter to show thousands. Less than one thousand nanites would be an infinitesimally small number."
"I think in this case we should set it to count individual nanites," Jennifer said. "Can you do that?"
"Of course," Radek said, hooking a tablet into the scanner and typing at lightning speed. "It is only a change to the display." The number cycled up rapidly, until it hit eight hundred sixty-two.
Radek stared at the number. John glanced at Rodney, who looked confused. "Eight sixty-two? Not even a thousand nanites?"
As they all watched the screen, it ticked down one to eight hundred sixty-one.
Rodney blinked. "That must be…"
"A faulty nanite," Radek said, "or one destroyed by your immune system."
"Right," Rodney said, but he looked doubtful.
"Why aren't they replicating?" John asked. Rodney and Radek shared a look, one John recognized as 'we have no idea.'
"Perhaps the healing is nearly complete," Radek said, looking to Jennifer for confirmation. "Medical nanites are designed to become dormant as their objective is reached."
"Rodney's recovery is ahead of schedule," Jennifer said, "but it takes months to fully recover from a heart transplant. Rodney's not there yet."
"Actually," Rodney said, "I feel pretty good. The IV site and the incision are itchy, but there's no pain anymore."
John checked the counter again. It was still at eight hundred sixty-one.
"Let's do it again in the morning," Jennifer said, shutting off the display. "Radek can check to make sure it's working properly."
Radek gave her a sour look but helped her move the scanner out of the room. "You should get some rest, Rodney," Jennifer said on her way out.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "I've repaid my sleep debt from graduate school at this point. I really don't want to sleep anymore. Give me the deck, I'll deal."
Jennifer came in half an hour later and raised an eyebrow at John. "You're not helping when you encourage him to ignore doctor's orders."
John smiled, watching her draw the curtain between Rodney and Tank and come over to look down at Rodney fondly. "You better behave," she said, "or I'll sing you a lullaby."
That got John to move. Jennifer was infamous for her tone deafness and her complete unabashedness at singing anyway. When he took a final look over his shoulder before leaving Rodney's area, Rodney was helping Jennifer up onto the gurney with him. John smiled to himself and headed back to his quarters.
The next morning when they ran the scan, the nanites were down to seven hundred eighteen. "I don't understand," Jennifer said. "Let me do a scan of his heart."
She repositioned the scanner and increased the magnification, gasping when she looked at the muscle pumping away on the screen. "That's impossible," she said, walking over to touch the image. She set her fingers on the blood vessel beneath the heart. "There's no scar tissue."
"That's what nanites do," Rodney said derisively.
"It is not," Jennifer countered, tracing the curve of the heart up to the valve at the top. "I've seen the x-rays and scans of nanite repaired injuries, and if anything, they have more scar tissue than those that recover normally. Nanites don't know when to stop."
"Well, Wallace did say they were defective," John said. "There hasn't been any more progress on them since then?"
Jennifer shook her head. "There are a couple of companies with government contracts working on them and I know there's a whole division of Area 51, but it's the self-replicating feature they're having a problem with. They usually end up using an EMP to kill them before they cause too much scar tissue."
She backed away from the screen and set her hand down on Rodney's shoulder. "These nanites look like they're actually using themselves to bridge the gap. Like we would have done with stem cells. You put a stem cell coating on the heart and they just… turn into heart cells, stitching the different areas of the heart together."
"Wait a minute," Rodney said, his face lit up with an idea. "You're saying the nanites are converting themselves into human tissue somehow?"
"That's what it looks like from here," Jennifer said.
Rodney snapped his fingers at John. "Laptop." When John didn't move right away, Rodney snapped again. "Sheppard, laptop, get with it!"
John blinked once and looked around the room. Rodney's laptop was stacked on top of his on the chair next to his bed. He picked it up and handed it over. Jennifer and Radek turned the scanner off and moved it out of the way and Rodney sat up and put the laptop on his legs, hunching over it.
"That's what…" he trailed off and started typing, grinning like a mad scientist and occasionally giggling at himself. John was glad no one that didn't know this side of Rodney was around. It was all well and good to have a genius on Atlantis, but occasionally he had fits like this, the kind that made him look a little crazy to non-geniuses and people who didn't know him well.
Sometimes when Rodney started a project like this, he would go on for hours or even days. Sometimes, though, it only took a few minutes. John usually stuck around for fifteen minutes and if the manic look didn't go away, he'd check in with food a couple hours later. He was pretty sure Rodney didn't even know people were around when he was working in this state; maybe he thought the food was brought by science fairies. He never acknowledged John's presence, anyway, and John'd been doing this for years.
Radek left, probably knowing all too well what was happening. The science staff all seemed to have their moments; John'd seen Radek and Simpson and Miko all with their eyes lit up and lips chapped because they couldn't bother to stay hydrated when they were typing two hundred words a minute.
Jennifer came over and took John's hand. "It scares me when he's like this," she said. "If he wasn't a genius, he probably would have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder."
John shrugged. He didn't understand much about geniuses or psychiatry, but it was hard to argue with the results of Rodney's intensive work episodes.
"Aha!" Rodney said, and John grinned. This was going to be one of those quick problem-solving sessions.
Rodney typed in a couple more things and hit Enter with a flourish.
Not even a second later, Tank sat straight up on his gurney and screamed.
There was a long moment where all any of them could do was stare, but then Rodney started typing furiously and Jennifer ran to Tank's side. Tank stopped screaming, looked down at Jennifer, and fell back on the bed.
"Sorry," Rodney said. "I shouldn't have just activated the process, I should have immobilized him first."
"What did you do?" Jennifer asked, staring down at Tank's limp body. John went over to join her. Tank looked like a human being again, a loose-limbed, sleeping human being, not a solid piece of machinery.
"I figured out the command had to do with the conversion language Jeannie had picked out but hadn't realized what it was for. I reset it to build a human body out of the nanites that make up his body now. It took him out of stand-by."
"He's not in stand-by now," John said, poking his arm. It wobbled a little.
"No, but I've put him under while they construct the skeleton. We don't want him wandering around while his bones are forming."
John kept staring down at Tank. He looked human again, but there was still a massive hole in his chest. John almost wanted to roll the skin back to see what was happening in there. Jennifer must have had the same idea, because she brought the scanner over and hooked it into the screen above Tank's head.
It was amazing. The nanite counter was off the charts, in the trillions or maybe quadrillions, and there was the strangest looking scan of a human body John had ever seen. There were small openings forming, shifting visibly. John recognized the structure of bones growing, shown in the absences, the dark spots on the scan, like an x-ray in negative space.
"That's so cool," Jennifer said, positioning the scanner over Tank's rib cage. John heard some rustling behind them, but he was so busy watching the outline of the bones knit together, he didn't even turn around. It was like watching slow motion nature photography.
"You'll be able to wake him up in a couple of minutes," John said, and when Rodney snorted, it was right behind them. Jennifer whirled around in surprise.
"You shouldn't be out of bed!" She looked down at his hand; he'd ripped his IV out.
"I just wanted to see my handiwork," he said. "And those aren't the bones – they're just the spaces the bones are going to grow into. If it took a month to grow my heart, it'll probably take a couple weeks to grow his skeleton. Maybe more."
"Oh," Jennifer said, sounding disappointed. John felt a little disappointed himself, but still – two weeks. Rodney out of his bed in under a week and Tank back in two or three? It was better than his best case scenario.
"I'm right here," Rodney said, and Jennifer blushed.
"It's not like that," John said. "And in case you've forgotten, we basically killed Tank to bring you back."
Rodney snorted, but it didn't sound disparaging. "Because I was the only one who could fix him," he said, but all of them knew that wasn't the real reason, and they lapsed into companionable silence, staring at the nanites as they created the structure for Tank's human body.
John kept looking back at Tank's chest, too, watching the incisions heal up until the skin was smooth , like they'd never cut him open and removed his heart. "How long will it take to grow the whole body?" John asked.
"No idea," Rodney said. "I'm not even sure how they're determining which systems to work on first."
"Skeletal structure first," Jennifer said, still looking at the screen like she was staring at a piece of art, "probably muscles next. Maybe it's going system by system. Cardiovascular or respiratory."
"Digestive or urinary," Rodney said. "To get rid of waste. They've got to have byproducts."
The conversation had definitely taken a turn for the worse, and John took a step away from Tank's bed.
"On that note," he said, "I think I'm going to go tell Woolsey about the breakthrough."
Rodney put his arm around Jennifer and looked up to watch the show. "Thanks."
John left them staring raptly at the screen.
"So Rodney's nanites are actually decreasing in number?" Woolsey asked. "Do you think they will destroy themselves completely?"
"No idea," John said. "Jeannie would be the person to ask."
"You should email her the findings," Woolsey said, giving him a professional-looking smile. "And let her know the progress on Tank as well."
"And follow up on your offer," John added, since he knew exactly where Woolsey was going with this.
"If it comes up," Woolsey said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his legs. "It seems to me her expertise would be quite valuable in the upcoming months."
"Of course." John sighed. "It might help if I could offer her some sort of reassurances about Madison."
"What do you suggest?" Woolsey asked.
John thought about it. Madison was a pretty independent kid. He didn't think home schooling would be a problem, but he did think Jeannie's worry about the socialization of a small child on a base with a strong military contingent could be a concern.
"She'll worry about the military presence."
Woolsey thought for a moment. "I understand. Perhaps her living arrangements could be off-base? With the Athosians?"
The Athosians were nomads; John wasn't sure Jeannie would appreciate the impermanence of their lifestyle. "I was thinking more… creating civilian spaces. Military personnel would be allowed, but no uniforms or weapons."
Woolsey nodded slowly. "Good thought, Colonel. I'll start working on some plans. Let Mrs. Miller know her input would be appreciated."
"Laying it on a little thick," John said, and Woolsey's smile twisted into something more devilish.
"The SGC has been trying to recruit Mrs. Miller for four years and she's staunchly refused. If I got her to Atlantis…" Woolsey said, leaving the sentence hang in the air.
"It'd up your cred with the IOC," John finished for him.
"Exactly." Woolsey's smile turned professional again. "So your help is greatly appreciated."
"And will be rewarded," John said, leaning back and putting his legs out, crossed at the ankle.
"Of course," Woolsey said, "commensurate with the outcome of the situation."
I'm so happy to hear about Tank. I should have realized – the fact that Tank's nanites are a hybrid is the reason they're able to create tissue – it should have been obvious from the start. I'm sure now that the process is started it'll go along nice and smoothly.
Glad to hear about Mer, too, I suspected he had nanites helping along his healing. Are you going to simply let them use themselves up and hope they'll completely leave his system, or will you use an EMP on him just to be sure?
We're still thinking about Mr. Woolsey's offer. Kaleb and I have discussed it, but we don't want to talk to Mads about it until we're sure we're both okay with everything it entails. Can you tell us more about the military concerns? I understand that there's a certain amount of danger inherent in being on the front lines of a different galaxy, but I'd feel better about it if you could reassure me that the likelihood anything might happen to Madison was pretty slim.
Thank Mr. Woolsey for his thoughtfulness regarding civilian spaces. I think we'd like to have a place to eat as a family. I know the mess is good for the expedition, but we would need to set some family time too. Maybe somewhere to relax, a communal game room, with a special area for the kids, or special hours that would be kid-friendly.
We are thinking about it, it will just take some more time. There are a lot of things to consider.
Give my love to Mer and tell him it wouldn't kill him to email once in a while too.
Rodney was at three hundred thirty-seven nanites the next morning, and forty-nine the next day.
"You're losing one every five minutes," Radek said. "It's as steady as an atomic clock. Tomorrow you should have none left."
John had to admit, Rodney sure felt like he was back to a hundred percent, and when you kept him in a hospital bed when he was one hundred percent, it made for a cranky Rodney and an annoyed infirmary staff.
"Just let him out already," John pleaded. "I don't know how you're standing it, he's driving me crazy. He emails me fifty times a day for Jell-o requests and planets with coffee-like plants that we should schedule missions to."
"He'll be nanite-free tomorrow, you can live with one more day." Jennifer tapped her foot. "It's only been a week since the surgery and he likes keeping an eye on Tank. Besides," she said, "his room is a mess."
John gave her a look. "And by that, you mean that you're planning to clean his quarters, I assume, because I sure as hell am not."
"You know what they say about assuming things, John. Roshambo?" she asked, putting her fist on top of her palm.
He had a bad feeling about it, but he put up his fist anyway.
"One, two, three," Jennifer said, and John went with scissors – he usually had great luck with scissors. Jennifer had done some weird thing, though, her fingers curved and looking vicious.
"What's that?" John asked.
"The claw," Jennifer said, giving him an evil grin. "You can only use it once a day, but it beats everything."
"What?" John asked. "You made that up! I am not falling for that."
"No, really," she said. "It's from my ER rotation at Mayo. When a new patient came in, we'd roshambo for them, and you got one claw a day for something you didn't want to do. There was a doc that used it to avoid this one regular who stuffed pens and things into his penis."
"He did what?" John asked, tensing his thighs. "No, don't tell me. You win. I'll clean Rodney's room. You owe me, though."
"Well," Jennifer said, "now you know about the claw, so I guess we're even."
It was a pretty fair trade, John had to admit.
Aside from the small mountain of clothes on the floor, Rodney's quarters weren't really that bad. A little stale, since the windows hadn't been opened in over a month, but John ended up doing two loads of laundry – Rodney's underwear, for pete's sake – and tidying up the magazines and books and laptops around the room into semi-respectable piles. He did a quick dusting, too, but it didn't take that long.
He sat down on Rodney's bed, looking around the apartment. John had only moved quarters once, a slightly bigger place so he'd have room for his growing collection of toys. Rodney had moved four times, the first closer to the infirmary, the second to a room with a balcony, the third to a room without a balcony, and the fourth to this apartment with a bathtub and kitchenette. He still hadn't gotten any of the ancient cooking equipment working, but his coffeemaker and hotplate were plugged in, and John knew they got a surprising amount of use. He'd almost gotten Rodney a pizza oven while they were on Earth, but he figured he'd stop seeing Rodney at team dinners all together if he did that.
He sighed and got up. Rodney was back. Things could go back to normal.
Rodney's scan the next day turned up one nanite.
"Really?" Rodney asked, frowning at the screen. "One?"
Radek shrugged. "That is all you need."
John hadn't thought about it, but it was true. One nanite could replicate to millions within minutes.
"You're not thinking of doing an EMP for one nanite, Colonel," Rodney said, clearly indicating he thought it was a ridiculous idea.
It did sound a little overboard, but considering how poorly the Ancients had done with the replicators, John was inclined to be on the safe side.
"And you're not saying that you'd like to keep the nanite as protection in case you get injured," John said, even though he knew damn well Rodney was.
"That's not what I… no!" Rodney sputtered, but the indignation was short-lived. "Well, it doesn't seem like it'd be any big deal."
"I don't know, Rodney. How fast could that thing replicate enough to take over your body?"
"There's no way to know," Rodney started, but he gave up before John even had to mention he understood exponential growth. "Fine, a matter of minutes. But that means it's a matter of minutes before it can heal almost any injury."
"A matter of minutes before the nanites can start working," John corrected. "It still takes time to actually heal things."
"It took me a week to recover from a heart transplant, John."
John frowned at Rodney. That was low, using his name.
"Can I go?" Rodney asked, turning to Jennifer, who hadn't weighed in on the conversation. "I'm hungry and I have a headache, and we're going to have to bring Woolsey into the conversation before a decision is made anyway."
That stung. Rodney's first trip to the mess since his surgery and he was blowing both John and Jennifer off.
"You can go to the mess, with John," Jennifer said, raising her voice as she crossed the room to open the medicine cabinet, "and take these for your headache."
"Fine," Rodney said. "As long as we don't talk about it over lunch."
John put his radio on all channels for the first time in five weeks. He'd forgotten how much chatter there was on comms around Atlantis. He'd forgotten how busy the place felt, how there were people outside his little clutch of family. He knew he'd insulated himself (and Lorne and Radek had helped with that), but he hadn't realized quite how much. It had been a long time since he listened to anything but urgent messages.
He clicked on and told Teyla and Ronon to join them for lunch if they were free. The line went completely dead for a second, but the chatter started back up almost immediately.
Teyla was waiting for them when they arrived at the mess and Ronon showed up a couple minutes after they sat down. Just in time, since the mess started filling up. There weren't well defined meal times on Atlantis, but there were hours when hot food was served, and there was usually a decent-sized crowd for those. Still, John had never actually seen the mess full before. Most of the people were glancing surreptitiously at their table, and it was satisfying to know that so many people were glad to have Rodney back on his feet.
Dinner wasn't anything special, but Ronon and Rodney's thumb war over the extra cookie John'd taken was epic. Rodney kept insisting Ronon cheated, raising his arm and twisting the angle of their hands. Then Rodney would do the same thing back, eventually standing in an attempt to tower over Ronon. Teyla eventually got up and got another cookie, waving it in front of Rodney's face to get him to forfeit. Ronon grabbed John's cookie off his tray and put the whole thing in his mouth.
Teyla'd commandeered one of the rec rooms and picked out a movie. John knew it'd be animated – she had a real soft spot for animated movies – but he was surprisingly pleased with How To Train Your Dragon. By the end of the movie, Rodney had decided he wanted his own dragon, which was stupid because he didn't even like to fly, but Rodney ignored John and told him how he was going to program the nanites to make dragons next.
They were all awake at the end, too, which was a minor miracle for a team movie. "What else have you got?" Rodney asked. "I must have missed something over the last month."
"We could play Mario Kart," Ronon offered, and that's how John ended up sitting on the floor between Rodney and Ronon, elbowed on both sides without mercy, and all of them getting their asses kicked by Teyla, who'd insisted on playing Wario.
Rodney met with Woolsey the next morning, and John and Jennifer joined him at oh nine hundred to discuss the nanite issue. Rodney argued unconvincingly for a while and eventually gave in. John knew his heart wasn't in it. Rodney had even more issues with replicators than he did. He was probably just feeling insecure because… well, because he'd died.
"Still," Rodney said, "it's no small thing to create an EMP. If we're going to have to do it for Tank anyway, we might as well do us both at the same time."
He had a point. John bit the corner of his mouth to keep from grinning. He didn't mind having an invulnerable Rodney for a few months.
"And how is Tank coming along?" Woolsey asked.
"The bones are calcifying more quickly than we thought," Jennifer said. "It looks like it will only take another five or six days before they'll be solid and we can wake him up."
John was surprised, he hadn't expected Tank to be on his feet so quickly. "And then what?"
"There's no telling what kind of logic the nanites have about building a human body," Rodney answered. "We'll see what they work on next when they start working on it."
Once that was settled, they moved to the conference room and Teyla, Ronon, and Radek joined them. John hadn't taken a good look at Radek in a while, but he was looking even more frazzled than usual. His hair was sticking up all over, which was normal, but he was wild around the eyes and looking almost maniacal.
"I would be happy to step down if Rodney is feeling up to coming back," Radek said with remarkable diplomacy considering he looked like a slavering dog about to get fed. "The department misses his leadership."
"Oh, ha," Rodney said. "And you thought I was cranky because of the coffee rationing."
"Yes," Radek said, with complete sincerity. "I can more fully appreciate the stresses of your position. Now please take it back."
Rodney looked at Jennifer. "I think that's up to my doctor."
Jennifer shook her head. "Sorry, Rodney, but you're fully healed. There's no reason for you not to go back on duty."
Woolsey leaned in, folding his hands on top of his binder. "Why don't you jointly manage the science team for the first week. Then Radek can get you up to speed."
"Great," Rodney and Radek said together, though Rodney sounded distinctly more excited than Radek.
"Speaking of back on duty," John said, "We're back on the mission roster, tomorrow at thirteen hundred. Just a refresher for our relationship with the Edari. Should be a tea and cookies kind of milk run."
"Oh, I love their little almond cakes," Rodney said. "With the honey drizzle."
John grinned. It would be good to get back to normal.
The rest of Rodney's morning was spent inspecting all the work they'd done since he'd left. John ran into him a couple of times, once checking out the transporters and again in the infirmary. John had actually gone to request injury reports to go with the mission reports for his field teams. He knew he could email Jennifer, but sometimes you needed to get up and stretch your legs.
The infirmary looked weird, back to its almost-normal state. There was still a curtain around Tank's bed in the very back, but the rest of the place looked like it always did, no circus tent for Rodney's entourage in the back half.
When John went to check on Tank as Biro downloaded the files onto his thumb drive, he found Rodney behind the curtain, typing away on a laptop.
"What are you doing?" John asked, and Rodney slammed the lid down and turned to face John, keeping the computer behind him, like he was trying to hide it. "Rodney?" John asked. He hadn't worried about Rodney's acceptance of Tank at all, not since the little heart to heart about the way they'd treated Tank while Rodney was gone, but alarm bells were ringing in his mind, and he really hoped Rodney wasn't sabotaging Tank somehow.
"Nothing, Colonel," Rodney lied, fidgeting. John stalked over and Rodney looked distressed, putting his hand on the computer as if to keep John from opening it.
It was the one thing he could do to make sure John was going to open that laptop. John feinted, making Rodney dodge to the left, and he slid by Rodney in a smooth arc on Rodney's other side to grab the computer and open it up. It was just a bunch of coding, nothing John could interpret to save his life.
"What are you doing?" John asked. "You better not be doing anything to hurt Tank."
"Oh please," Rodney said. "Like I'd do that. I was just making some adjustments."
"To what?" John asked.
Rodney looked at the floor and mumbled something.
"What?" John asked again, tilting his head to listen.
"Fine, to his height." Rodney frowned, still looking anywhere but at John. "And to his hair."
"What do you mean, to his height?" John asked. "You can change his height?"
"I did that before," Rodney said. "Before I started the nanites. I figured it wouldn't hurt if we were a little more easily discernable, and I've always wanted to be taller. I figured he'd appreciate a little height."
John shook his head. Sometimes Rodney was unbelievable. "How much height did you give him?"
"Just a couple inches. He'll be six foot one."
"And his hair?" John prodded.
Rodney actually blushed. "It's a sore spot, okay? I thought he might like it, especially if he really favors that buzz cut."
John tried not to laugh. Tank didn't seem anywhere near as conscious of how he looked as Rodney. It was interesting to see what Rodney thought of as his flaws. "I'm sure he will. Hey, got time for lunch?"
"Sure," Rodney said, closing up the laptop and setting it on Tank's bedside table. "I'm going to check out what Tank was doing on desalination after lunch. Apparently Radek set him loose without ever checking in on him."
"Wanted to get him out of his hair, probably," John said. "You can hardly blame him."
"Oh, think again," Rodney said. "I can blame him to the tune of a bag of chocolate every week for a month."
John tagged along with Rodney when he went to inspect the desalination stations. He wasn't quite sure why he did it except Rodney'd been so weird about desalination, and having the same idea about the shield technology as Tank creeped John out.
He supposed the idea had just been in the back of Rodney's mind for a while and Tank had picked up on it as something to do that wouldn't interfere with the rest of the science team, but it made him uneasy nonetheless.
There was nothing in the control room, so they went out along the arms, starting with mid-point station on the northwest one. The room was empty, but John recognized the x's marked on roughly half of the metal pipes.
"Those have sludge in them," Rodney said, putting his hand on one of the pipes. "The marked ones, they're full of gunk."
John frowned at Rodney but didn't say anything. Had he been marking things before Tank decided to make desalination his pet project? It didn't seem like Rodney's cup of tea, though he was always having random ideas about all kinds of different things around Atlantis.
"Church bells," Rodney said, sounding distracted.
John felt his stomach take a dive into his shoes. He swallowed, but didn't say anything.
"You were here too," Rodney said, turning around to look at John. "You came to check on me."
John held his breath, waiting to see what Rodney would say before giving him any more information.
"That's so weird," Rodney said. "It's so strong, the sense of déjà vu. It's like I can picture you there, with your hands over your ears."
John blew out his breath. "Yeah," he said, "weird."
John tracked Jennifer down as soon as he could ditch Rodney without being obvious.
"There's a problem."
Jennifer scrunched up her forehead and looked him over. "With what?"
"I think Rodney has Tank's memories."
Jennifer went white. "He does? Are you sure?"
"I think so," John said. "He just remembered a conversation Tank and I had in the desalination room. Just the gist of it, not the whole thing, but…" He looked at Jennifer, debating how much to tell her. "There's some stuff with Tank I'd really hate for him to remember."
Jennifer was staring straight ahead, he wasn't sure she'd heard him.
"Jennifer?" he asked, and she turned her head, toward him, but her eyes didn't track. "Hey," John said, putting a hand on her arm. "You with me?"
"Stuff you don't want him to remember," she said, but it was like she was repeating a tape in her head. Her eyes were still a mile off.
"Yeah," John said. "There's definitely stuff I think Rodney would be better off not knowing. I don't suppose there's a medical way to handle that?"
"Are you asking me to drug him?" Jennifer nearly screeched, right on topic now, and John put his hands up in defense before she could go on.
"No!" he said, but that was such a lie he couldn't even pretend. "I don't know, I mean – isn't it… a breach of privacy or something?"
"Yes, but you're suggesting that I medically alter Rodney's memories –" Jennifer suddenly twigged to John's situation. "Oh, John." Her eyes went wide. "What did you do?"
"Nothing!" John cried. "I didn't do anything!"
"What did Tank do?" Jennifer asked, her voice soft. He couldn't answer, but she didn't need him to. "Crap, he hit on you."
John could feel himself making a face. It wasn't like he could lie at this point. "Yeah."
"You turned him down, though," Jennifer said thoughtfully. She finally looked him in the eye. "Why?"
"If he really was Rodney, then he was yours. And if he wasn't Rodney…" John trailed off, shrugging.
"You didn't want him," Jennifer said, still looking pale.
John nodded. He'd never meant to admit any of this to her, ever, but he had a bad feeling things with Rodney were going to get much, much worse before they got better.
John was right.
I'm sorry to do this to you, but I have people calling me several times a week now. Can you nudge Mer and just… get him to think about the wedding? An indefinite answer is fine – sometime next year, for example – but I can't just tell people he's recovering because then they ask me all kinds of questions I can't answer. I'll happily send out something more formal, 'sorry, the wedding's been postponed' postcards or whatever, but I need their go ahead, and neither one is talking to me right now.
I'm sorry to put you in the middle, but I don't know who else to ask.
---------- Forwarded message ----------
> Do not ignore me. I'll email John.
---------- Jean M. Miller wrote:
>> It's a simple question. People are asking, and I'm not
>> trained in evasive social media. Should I just say the
>> recovery process will be a while and you can't set a
>> date? I need to tell these people something.
---------- Rodney McKay wrote:
>>> I don't know, Jeannie, don't bug me about it. Ask
---------- Jean M. Miller wrote:
>>>> People I don't know are starting to call me. I just
>>>> need to know if you've set a new date. Or if I can
>>>> tell them it's postponed indefinitely.
>>>> Also, Madison's birthday is next week and you
>>>> better have a really good present. She's annoyed
>>>> you didn't make it for Christmas last year. It's not
>>>> like I could tell her you were between galaxies. She
>>>> misses you.
>>>> I miss you too.
John sighed and closed his email. Of all the things he didn't want to talk to Rodney about, his postponed wedding was second only to the thing that had him nervous all the time these days. Pretty soon he was going to tell Rodney what happened between him and Tank just so he didn't have to walk on eggshells anymore.
Bits and pieces of Tank's memories came out in ideas Rodney had or sometimes in the middle of conversations, but apparently they weren't very clear, because Rodney always put it down to déjà vu and left it at that.
John decided to ask Jennifer about the wedding. If they'd just postponed it, Jennifer would be able to give him enough information to give Jeannie an answer.
He found Jennifer in the pool and John grabbed a seat on the steps again, leaning forward to watch her glide through the water. It was soothing to watch her. She didn't see him this time, and it was twenty minutes before she stopped swimming and popped herself out of the water.
"Oh, jeez," Jennifer said, when she saw him, holding a towel up to her mouth. "You scared me. How long have you been there?"
John shrugged. "A while."
"That's a little creepy."
"I know," John said, shrugging. "I just like watching you swim."
"Creepy," Jennifer repeated, but went through her post-swim ritual, toweling off and getting the water out of her ears. "What do you need?"
"Jeannie emailed me," John started, and Jennifer grimaced.
John nodded. Jennifer sat down on the steps abruptly, putting her face in the towel. "Damn it."
"What?" John asked. Rodney hadn't mentioned anything to him about the wedding, and if there had been problems, he would have stormed into John's room or office or wherever John was and ranted like there was no tomorrow.
"He was so upset he'd missed it," Jennifer said, squeezing the water out of her plait and unbraiding it, finger-combing the kinks out. "He wanted to go back to Earth and do it right away." She laughed.
John didn't. He knew what a production weddings could be; it'd take them a year to plan another wedding, maybe more, since they were in Pegasus now. It had been one of the few nice things about being on Earth, the easy availability of everything you might need, from information to wedding dresses.
"I should have explained how much work it would be to plan another wedding," Jennifer said, "but I was annoyed. It took me every spare minute of the eight months on Earth to plan that wedding, and he never did realize how much work it was. So I told him we had bigger things to think about right now, like getting Tank back on his feet."
John groaned. "You didn't."
"I'm sorry," John said, because sometimes it was best to apologize for Rodney and leave it at that.
"Yeah, me too," Jennifer said, but she sighed and stood. "I'll talk to him. It was mean of me to leave it this long. I'm so tired, lately."
John nodded. She'd been walking around with bags under her eyes since Rodney woke up. "So, you'll get him to email Jeannie?" John asked. He was actually willing to make the call and tell her it was postponed indefinitely, but only as a last resort.
"I'll email her," Jennifer said. "I wonder why she didn't send something to me in the first place."
John wasn't even sure how he knew, but he was absolutely certain he'd find Rodney in the infirmary. Part of him hoped that Rodney was just sticking close to Jennifer but most of him knew Rodney was spending his time with Tank. Which, considering Tank was still unconscious, was just a little weird.
As soon as he walked in, Marie rolled her eyes and pointed to Tank's area at the back of the infirmary.
John expected Rodney to be typing away, but there wasn't any noise coming from the other side of the curtain. It wasn't easy to be stealthy in boots; he did his best, though, trying to give himself a chance to escape if he needed it.
As he inched his way over, Rodney's eerily still silhouette was visible on the curtain. He was standing with his arms crossed, staring down at the bed. John stopped as soon as he could see Rodney fully. He looked miserable. John stood for a long time, undecided about what to do.
He sucked it up. He wanted to hang out with Rodney. If that meant talking about whatever was making him unhappy, then that's what it took. He forced himself forward another two steps, into Rodney's field of vision. "Hey, buddy."
"Sheppard." Rodney turned to look at him and frowned. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you," John said. "We've missed you at dinner the last couple nights."
"I've been busy," Rodney said, but John had a feeling he'd been spending a lot of time considering his doppelganger.
John shrugged. "Want to get out of here? Grab a six pack and head out on the southwest arm?"
Rodney looked up at him, like he'd just noticed John was there.
"Why not," Rodney said, and he sounded as miserable as he looked.
John didn't know how to bring things up. He could tell Rodney was unhappy but he wasn't sure why, unless something more was wrong about the wedding than rescheduling. While he didn't really want to talk about it, it seemed Rodney didn't want to talk about it even more.
John took a deep breath and took the plunge. "Jeannie emailed me," he said.
Rodney gave him a sour look. "I'm sorry."
"Come on," John said. "It's not her fault."
Rodney took a long swallow. "I know. I should have emailed her, but it was such a sore spot with Jennifer."
"Sorry to hear that, buddy," John said, in a leading sort of tone. "Weddings take a lot of planning."
"Oh, like you know," Rodney said, and John frowned. Sometimes Rodney really could be a dick.
"I know," John said, irritated. "I spent a lot of hours getting ready for my very large, very formal wedding."
"Taking dance lessons and having bachelor's parties."
"No," John said, trying and failing to regain his patience. "Talking about flowers, and how many people were going to stand up, and who was going to sit next to crazy Uncle Harry at the reception."
Rodney gaped at him. "You planned the reception?"
"We planned it together," John said. "The whole thing took a hell of a lot of work."
"Huh," Rodney said, looking down into his beer. "I hadn't really expected that you'd have had one of those big church weddings."
"Let's just say it was what was expected," John said. He'd been young and stupid and still wanting to win his father's approval. He'd basked in it for the few years he had it.
"Oh," Rodney said. "Were you young?"
John nodded. "Twenty-four."
Rodney sighed. "I know it was a lot of work, but Jennifer seemed to enjoy it. She liked organizing everything."
"You still have to be invested, Rodney," John said. "It's your big day, too. I know it's all about the bride, but she wants you to enjoy it too."
Rodney snorted. "I'm not sure she wants to marry me anymore."
"Oh, bullshit," John said, wishing none of this had happened, because he wasn't sure himself anymore, and he didn't know how to reassure Rodney. "She loves you. It was a scare that would have unsettled anyone. Give her some time."
"I don't think time is going to do me any favors," Rodney said. "Once Tank is back, I think I'm going to lose my fiancée to Rodney version 2.0."
"Rodney," John said, wincing. "Don't."
"I'm sorry," Rodney said. "I know you're Jennifer's friend too, that's why I don't usually talk to you about this stuff."
Exactly, John thought. So stop talking.
"But you'd tell me, right? If she'd had second thoughts? If she liked Tank better than me?"
"Rodney," John whined.
"I know," Rodney said, waving the words away with his hand. "I know, I'm sorry. I rescind the question." He finished beer number two, and when John didn't hand him a third one fast enough, Rodney elbowed him in the ribs. "Come on, are you getting me drunk to console me, or what?"
John rolled his eyes and handed over the rest of the six pack.
"At least I know you still like me best," Rodney said, chuckling darkly. "Nothing at all likeable about a replicator that saves everyone's lives by jumping into a pack of well-armed zealots. Or cares about the preservation of Sateda's culture. Or likes to do Athosian meditation for hours at a time."
"Hey," John said gently. "He did those things because he had to separate himself from you. You're team. Tank didn't replace you – he just carved out a space for himself."
"By showing what a horrible human being I am," Rodney said morosely.
"You're not a horrible human being," John said, sighing. "You're a maudlin drunk, but I guess I should be used to that by now."
"Oh, ha ha, Colonel Pukes-A-Lot."
"And that would be why I don't get drunk if I can help it," John said, knocking his shoulder into Rodney's.
"I think I have some of Tank's memories," Rodney said abruptly, and John straightened up. Maybe they'd finally clear the air. He could explain and stop worrying all the time.
"Just snippets, really, feelings and a flash of a picture. There's one of Jennifer's face, in her quarters, and she looks so sad. There's another one where we're sitting on a balcony and she has her head on my shoulder. There's one where she's got her hands on my back, under my shirt, and I'm staring down at Tank's coding. That one feels really weird, like I'm excited and nervous and sad and kind of morbid."
John nodded, thinking of Jennifer commenting on Tank's lack of breath sounds in the replicator lab. "I was there for that one. It was the day before the surgery. She was listening to the heart."
Rodney lowered his head, frowning. "He loves her as much as I do."
"He does have all your memories," John said. "It's not like he could turn that off."
"I know," Rodney said, looking even more miserable. "It's just… what if she likes Tank more than me? Some of the memories are…" Rodney sighed. "He just changed, just like that. How did he do it? It's not like I haven't tried to be more likeable."
John grimaced. Rodney'd tried it once after he and Jennifer started dating. It was horribly uncomfortable and John had avoided Rodney for two weeks and had Lorne give the marines a talking-to.
"He had no other choice," John said. "He couldn't be you. That meant he had to be the things that you weren't."
"Some of those things are exactly what Jennifer has always wanted me to be," Rodney said. "I'm the leader of the science division, sometimes I have to be an asshole. I have to make an impression so people don't do things that end up killing us all. Hello, exploding tumors, anyone?"
John didn't have any problem with Rodney's methods or tactics on Atlantis. Sometimes his natural tendency to insult people caused problems off-world, but they'd trained him to respond to various verbal and physical nudges to shut up in those instances. He didn't think a kinder, gentler Rodney would be useful in the physics lab.
"I don't suppose you have any other memories?" John asked. It was probably stupid to bring it up, but he'd been waiting this whole time, figuring Rodney would say something, even just let it slip that he knew what happened.
"Like what?" Rodney asked. "There's lots of weird stuff about desalination."
John shook his head. "Never mind."
Rodney frowned at him, then tipped up his third beer and sighed deeply. "I have no idea what to do. I hate the waiting part."
"Me too," John agreed, for lack of anything to add to the conversation. He decided maybe changing the subject might cut Rodney off at the pass. "So what do you think about Jeannie coming to Atlantis?"
"I'm not sure," Rodney said, settling his weight back onto his straightened arms. "I don't know. I want them closer, but I also want them safe. It's hard to tell your baby sister everything's going to be all right when you were recently dead for a month."
"True," John said. He'd given Jeannie an honest statistical probability of Madison's safety (roughly ninety-three percent, if they were careful with where she went on Atlantis – and that included a tracking bracelet or invisible fence-type dog collar), Kaleb's safety (roughly eighty-seven percent because since Ronon's last showdown, there hadn't been any activity on Sateda at all), and her own safety (roughly sixty-two percent because she'd be third in line for people who were needed for emergency saves, and that put her in the line of fire), and even though he'd rounded up, those figures were not really all that encouraging, not compared to the relative safety of living a normal life on Earth. "But if Madison were nearby, you wouldn't have so much riding on those birthday and Christmas presents. I hope you got her something cool."
"Oh, I got her an awesome present," Rodney said smugly.
Rodney had gotten Madison an awesome present – an iPod nano. John sent her an iTunes gift card, and Jennifer sent her matching purple headphones – the expensive kind. They all got an effusive email from Madison telling them how much she loved their gifts, and a request to come home for Christmas in that earnest tone only eight-year-olds can achieve.
He dashed off a note to Madison before he went to the locker room to gear up. It was their third milk run, and he was going to have to worry about Rodney getting out of shape if they kept going places where the people fed them huge banquets and there was no running for their lives.
Rodney was distracted, though, and John couldn't say he was totally on top of his game, either. They were waking Tank up tomorrow, and as confused as John's feelings were on the matter, Rodney's had to have been ten times worse.
"I talked to Jennifer last night," Rodney said.
John blew out a breath. He hadn't talked to Jennifer about Rodney and Tank because he didn't want to be that much in the middle of the whole mess. He was starting to worry about Rodney, though. He'd brought a pitcher of sangria to their last team movie night. They'd had alcoholic team nights before –
once, when John had really wanted a damn margarita, and another time when Teyla'd scored some really good mead off a trading mission. Sangria wasn't something John'd had a lot of, but this had been good and it went down smooth. It wasn't until his second glass that he realized that one of the fruity flavors he was getting was orange. Rodney was flushed with good humor and when he saw the alarmed look on John's face he'd crowed, "I thought the nanites fixed my allergies! I guess I was right."
It wasn't completely stupid – Rodney knew the whole team carried epipens on them at all times, and Ronon was quicker to use his than anyone John had ever seen – but it was still risky and John didn't like Rodney taking dumb risks. It didn't speak well of his state of mind.
"Talking is good," John finally answered. He had no idea when having adult relationships with his friends became the norm (probably around the time Rodney died, his sarcastic inner voice insisted), but talking about the hard stuff was actually getting easier. Not a lot, but enough that he didn't openly cringe when Rodney said the word "talk" in that particular "let's have a conversation about our feelings" way.
Teyla and Ronon were listening, too. It wasn't eavesdropping, because neither John nor Rodney kept their voices down, and it wasn't like they had any secrets from Teyla or Ronon anyway.
They were all so preoccupied they stumbled right into a trap.
It wasn't a good trap, or even a worrisome one; they cut themselves out of the rope net and went on to the village to find out what was going on. The village had been attacked by a raiding party a couple of months prior, and so they'd set up some perimeter defenses. John sat down with the town militia leader and gave him some better ideas.
Rodney asked to fly them home – he'd been asking to fly more since he'd come back, and while John was occasionally willing to let him take the stick, he wasn't going to let Rodney try and thread the needle of the gate, not with the whole team in the back.
"Rock, paper, scissors," he said, putting his right fist on his left palm. Rodney rolled his eyes, but he set up too. "One, two, three," John counted, and brought out the claw.
Rodney'd thrown paper, and tilted his head sideways to stare at John's hand. "The claw? No fair! You didn't say we were playing with the claw!"
"We're always playing with the claw," John said, thankful Jennifer hadn't used it on Rodney enough for him to be wary. Rodney was looking put out, so he generously offered, "We can go out next week sometime and give you a shot at a space gate." The worst Rodney could do if he missed a space gate was knock it around a little, and most of them had thrusters that lined them up again.
"I'm going to hold you to that," Rodney said, slumping back in the co-pilot's seat.
"Of course you will," John said, grinning as he lined the jumper up with the gate and dialed.
John forced himself to go to Jennifer's quarters that night. They usually made time to hang out every couple of weeks, but they'd gotten out of the habit while Rodney was out of commission. It was about time to get back into the habit, he thought, and he wanted to check in on her. If Rodney was having a hard time, Jennifer certainly wasn't having an easy one.
"Hey, stranger," Jennifer said, standing back to let him into her quarters. "Long time no see."
She was in her pajamas, soft purple cotton with Eeyore on them. John smiled. PJs were a big deal on Atlantis; they were comfort and security and sometimes what you wore to the movies. They were usually closer to regular clothes than underwear or racy little numbers because the chance that you might be called out of bed in the middle of the night was pretty damn high.
"Sorry," John said. "I guess I figured we'd been seeing a whole lot of each other already."
"It's true," Jennifer said. "I was getting sick of your ugly mug." She laughed as filled her electric kettle and started it. "I'm having tea. Want some? Or hot chocolate?"
"It's not even cold out," John complained, but nodded anyway.
"It's the jammies," Jennifer said. "I always want tea when I'm lounging."
John wasn't a big tea drinker, but he'd become more fond of it since Teyla liked it so much. She always seemed to have it on hand and it was kind of soothing.
"You're awful thoughtful tonight. Something on your mind?" Jennifer asked, bringing out her tea collection for John to pick something.
John shrugged, pointing at the mint. Jennifer rolled her eyes. John didn't even know why she asked anymore, he always picked mint.
"Come on," Jennifer said, putting the tea bags into the mugs. "You're worried about waking Tank up. I'm worried, I know Rodney's worried. What's on your mind?"
What wasn't on John's mind. "Everything."
Jennifer nodded. "You're worried about the nanites."
"And how Rodney's going to handle having Tank around," John said, and looked up at her. "And how you are."
Jennifer cracked a grin, but it was sad and kind of sarcastic. "I'm scared out of my wits," Jennifer said. "There's a reason I told Tank to stay away."
"You're not going to have that luxury anymore."
Jennifer nodded, putting her head down on the counter for a moment, only to pick it up a second later as the kettle started to boil. "No matter what happens," she said, pouring the hot water over the tea bags, "someone ends up with a broken heart, and I'll be the person that causes it. What kind of a jerk does that make me?"
John didn’t have any sort of answer for that. He took his mug and poked at the tea bag with his spoon. "You're not a jerk."
Jennifer gave him a hard look. "Don't tell me you'd be fine with me dumping Rodney and getting together with Tank tomorrow."
"What?!" John couldn't do anything but gape.
Jennifer sighed. "I'm not going to dump Rodney tomorrow," Jennifer said. "But Rodney knows – he's the one that brought it up, that I shouldn't feel guilty if I like Tank better than him. How the hell am I supposed to respond to that?"
"Do you like Tank better than him?" John asked, his heart in his throat.
"Not better," Jennifer said, her face twisting up in discomfort. "Not exactly."
John stared at her, knowing exactly where this was all headed, and the whole thing making his heart ache. Worse, Rodney already knew.
"I told you I'm a jerk," Jennifer said, putting her head back down on her arms.
The next morning, the team, Jennifer, Biro, and Woolsey were in the infirmary at oh six hundred. John wasn't sure why they had planned it for such an early hour, but it meant he didn't get his run in, and he didn't really feel awake, or at least not awake enough for Tank to suddenly burst back into his life.
"So his bones are all done?" Woolsey asked. "That's what we've been waiting for?"
"His muscles too," Jennifer said, running the scanner up and down Tank's body. Still gazillions of nanites, but the mostly white image of his body had morphed into something that looked much more human, at least in the arms and legs. The center of his body was still a solid-looking mass of nanites, but his arms, legs, and skull looked just like any human scan John had ever seen.
Jennifer did a close-up on his torso, carefully moving the scanner slowly from his clavicles to his thighs. "You can see small protrusions in his torso," she said. "I think they're growing all of his organs the way they grew Rodney's heart. As they get bigger, you'll actually be able to see his ribs. Right now they're not visible because everything's surrounded by nanites."
It was mesmerizing; they all stood there for a moment, staring at the screen, trying to see the shadows and shapes Jennifer was talking about. "This looks good," Jennifer said, nodding at Rodney. "Whenever you're ready."
Rodney typed something into the laptop and Tank's eyes opened.
John let out the breath he was holding. Part of him had hoped it wouldn't work; there were so many complications they could avoid without Tank. The replicators still concerned him, all three hundred trillion, seventy-nine billion, six hundred twenty-six million, forty-three thousand eight hundred and eighty-six of them. EMPing Rodney's single nanite did seem a little like overkill in the face of Tank's nanite army.
Tank sat up gingerly, assisted by Jennifer, and looked at them all standing around, watching him. "Welcome back," Teyla said, and Tank broke out into a huge grin.
"It's good to be back," he said, still smiling happily. He turned to Rodney. "Hi."
Rodney nodded and gave an abortive little wave. "Hi." He fidgeted, looking down at his hands as they clenched into fists and released, fingers stretching open. "Thank you, for… for saving my life."
Tank grinned. "Same to you."
"Oh," Rodney said, looking up at him. "I guess I did."
"Yeah, you did," Tank said, still grinning widely. Rodney grinned back. Tank swung his legs over the side of the gurney and hopped off. He stumbled forward a couple of steps, and Teyla lunged toward him to give him support. Jennifer ran around the gurney to offer her arm.
"It may be a little different, walking with this skeletal structure," she said.
Tank frowned. "It does feel different. But the nanites didn't feel any different than my human body before… why is there a difference now?"
Jennifer shook her head. "I think you were mostly running on your memories of what your body felt like. It's not like you had nerves, or lymph nodes, or hormones."
"Oh, those should be fun when they come online," Tank said, and Woolsey let out a little snicker. John turned to stare at him, because that was about the most surprising thing that he'd ever seen Woolsey do.
"Okay," Jennifer said, "Tank's up and about and I think Dr. Biro and I will do a quick PT session to make sure he's feeling up to moving around. John, if you'll come back in about an hour, you can escort him to his quarters?"
"I can do it," Rodney said. "I should be here anyway, to make sure nothing goes weird with his code."
"I'll come back too," John offered. "Since I know where Tank's quarters are, and you don't." Rodney shot him a hurt look. He probably wanted some alone time with Tank. He'd have to wait a while, though – John wasn't going to leave Tank to Rodney's machinations on his very first day back.
It occurred to John that no one had cleaned Tank's quarters since he had been out of commission, nearly three weeks. He decided he'd pop by to dust and organize things like he had with Rodney's quarters.
It was like walking into a Twilight Zone episode, John thought, looking over Tank's impossibly neat quarters. There was nothing out of place and not a single decorative item anywhere. He supposed Tank had only had a month, and he wasn't sure he'd be coming back, but still. His clothes all organized in his closet by color, his tablet set exactly in the center of his desk. It was bizarre. John spent ten minutes dusting everything and left to get his morning email out of the way.
John was almost late. He looked up from his fourth email about MRE inventory to see that forty-five minutes had passed. He hoofed it for the infirmary, surprised to see Tank concentrating on walking, leaning forward from the hip.
He was walking toward Biro, so he went to stand next to Jennifer, giving her a nudge with his elbow. "What's with the leaning?" he asked. He hadn't expected basic movement to be troublesome for Tank.
"I think it might be the way the hips can move in so many directions," Jennifer said, though he could tell it was one of her beginning theories, one she was going to test for a while before she said anything more conclusive. "Leaning forward is like giving them an indicator that you want the body to move this direction."
"So are you going to keep him for a while, then?" John asked, glancing around the infirmary for Rodney and finding him hunched over a tablet next to Jennifer's desk. "Yes," Jennifer said, "but I want you to bring me some clothes from his quarters. Jeans, preferably. The stiffness of the material should help."
"Okay," John said, "be right back."
John brought the robot t-shirt and the pair of jeans that seemed to be the least loose. John was slightly surprised that he could tell which jeans were which, much less how they fit Tank. He hadn't thought he was paying attention that closely.
He tucked a pair of socks and a pair of underwear between the shirt and jeans – boxer-briefs, and John knew for a fact Rodney wore boxers, so that was a little strange – and grabbed a pair of sneakers from the four next to the door, heading back to the infirmary to drop everything off. Rodney'd left by the time he got back, and John was glad. It couldn't be easy to concentrate on re-learning to walk with Rodney not-so-surreptitiously watching you from behind a computer.
John waited around for Tank to get dressed, trying not to laugh at the inch of white sock showing under the hem of his jeans.
"Why don't my jeans fit?" Tank asked. "Did someone leave them in the dryer too long?"
John looked up at his hairline. It was a little more filled in than Rodney's, but not so much that he'd noticed right away when Tank sat up. "What?" Tank asked. "What are you staring at?"
Tank ran into the bathroom and John heard a low whistle. "Wow."
"Like it?" John asked as he came out of the bathroom. "Rodney thought it'd be nice."
"What would be nice?" Jennifer asked. Then she looked up at Tank more closely too. "Oh! That's… weird."
"Yeah," Tank said. "It's going to take some getting used to."
"Probably not as much as the extra two inches," John said.
Jennifer slapped her forehead. "Really?"
"Yeah," John said, "why?"
"That's probably what it is," Biro said. "A sudden change in height like that would affect Tank's center of gravity, among other things. But it's easy to fix, now that we know."
"Okay," Jennifer said, "I think we should work on some stretches."
Tank looked at John pleadingly, but John just shook his head. "Give me a call if you need me," he said, waving on his way out of the infirmary.
John sent Lorne to spring Tank from the infirmary and take him to the mess for lunch. Lorne was better than anyone John had ever seen at getting people out without angry doctors. His team had the record for the least amount of time in the infirmary, and not because they had any fewer injuries than the rest of the teams, either.
John and Ronon headed to lunch after a painful hand-to-hand session where Ronon decided he was going to make John eat mat as many times as he could in an hour. He counted. It was twenty-six. Lorne brought Tank over to their table when he spotted them, and their table filled up with a bunch of marines right afterward, most of them giving Tank a hard time about his new hair growth.
Tank took it all good-naturedly and smiled and asked every single one of the marines about what was going on in their lives. He knew the names of significant others, parents, and pets. After they got up to bus their trays, Lorne told John they were Tank's original security detail.
John was just about to get up and head to his office when Rodney, Radek, Jennifer, and Biro came in, grabbing trays just before the hot food line closed. John settled back in, but he almost wished he hadn't as Rodney, Tank, and Radek spent twenty minutes prioritizing the science department's non-emergent work. Tank kept arguing for desalination, which earned him weird looks from Rodney, but he eventually convinced them, and Rodney put it on the list, but behind shield emitters and working on maximizing the ZPM output in times of emergency and minimizing it for daily consumption.
Ronon asked if Tank was going to be on a gate team, and the whole table turned to stare at John. Why hadn't he thought of that?
"Dibs!" Lorne called, and Tank broke out into a wide grin.
John found a careful balance between time spent with Jennifer, Tank, and Rodney. He'd learned how to juggle Rodney and Jennifer not too long after they'd started dating; adding Tank into the mix made it ten times harder. None of them talked about the elephant in the room, and only Tank could actually keep up a conversation that didn't lead them back around to what had to be the weirdest love triangle John had ever seen.
Rodney brought a six pack to John's quarters the night before Halloween, and John grabbed his jacket and followed Rodney out to the southwest arm without a single word.
Rodney nursed a beer for the first fifteen minutes or so, just looking out over the ocean silently. John wanted to start guzzling them and not stop until Rodney was holding his head over the toilet again, but this wasn't his broken heart, though somehow it felt like it was.
"Jennifer's with Tank now," Rodney said, calmly, like he was talking about the weather.
"Rodney," John said, like maybe he could change things if he talked enough sense into Rodney. "Why –"
"I didn't want her to stay with me out of duty," Rodney said. "I watched my parents implode from that."
John nodded. He'd seen plenty of his friends' parents do the same thing. His own parents had no intention of doing that – they'd just had strings of lovers, and then when his mother had died, his father had remarried and done the same to his second wife.
"So, what, you just let her and Tank…" He didn't even know how to finish that sentence. Date? Court? Fuck?
"I didn't let her do anything. I told her that she shouldn't feel guilty, and that I understood, whatever she decided."
John nodded, tipping his beer up and finishing it in three swallows. Rodney was way too calm about this. "I thought you were happy," he said finally.
"We were happy," Rodney said, his voice low. That was the sadness John had been expecting. It made his throat ache to hear. "But we'd worked hard for it. We'd compromised to get there. Which is totally fine," Rodney said, as if he expected John to disagree, "that's what adults do in relationships."
John thought that might be a sideways sort of insult, but he hadn't had a meaningful romantic relationship as long as he'd known Rodney, so he didn't think it could be directed at him.
"Then Tank came along, and he was all the parts of me she loved and none of the parts of me she only had to tolerate. I couldn't make the changes Tank did, and he made all the changes he knew she'd wanted. They're good changes; I'm glad to see how well-liked he is, how respected."
John nodded. He'd been watching them work together on all kinds of projects, and Rodney did actually seem fond of Tank.
"It's a compliment, really," Rodney said, turning the beer can around in his hands. "She still loves the best parts of me."
John felt the air go out of his lungs, searing his throat on the way out. "Rodney," John said, "it's about loving all the parts of you."
Rodney laughed. "No one loves all the parts of me. I don't think that's humanly possible."
The next day was Tank's scan, and Jennifer pointed out his liver and the ropey growth of his large intestines. Tank made a face and hopped off the gurney as soon as she was done, running off to the desalination chambers. John waited for him to clear the room before turning around to face Jennifer.
She took one look at him and furrowed her brow. "Don't," she said, but she sighed deeply and crashed into him, giving him a short, solid hug. "I thought he was going to tell you last night. He stole my beer."
"It's so soon," John said. "I thought…"
Jennifer shook her head. "I think we all knew exactly where things were headed from the moment Tank woke up…" She trailed off, and looked at John like she might hug him again. He really didn't want another hug, not right now.
"Tank is sweet in a way Rodney can never be. I think partly it's who Rodney has to be," she said, turning her smile on John. "He has the responsibility for Atlantis on his shoulders. It's the man he wants to be, too. You're that man, the one who puts everyone else first, and there's no one he admires more."
John wanted to deny that, he wasn't some kind of self-sacrificing martyr. The words stuck in his throat, though, and Jennifer shook her head and gave him another hug after all, a quick squeeze around his rib cage. "We're okay, me and Rodney," she said. "I mean, I think Rodney's doing okay, but I'm counting on you for that one."
John sighed. He'd gotten Rodney through a break-up before. It was a lot of high-maintenance ego-stroking, but it wasn't impossible. He decided to up their rotation on the mission roster. Off-world adventures always made Rodney feel better.
Things were just settling into the new normal when the Millers came through the gate with the November supply shipment from Earth. John stared for a second, not really believing they were there, and then Madison pointed at him and said, "Uncle John!" and he was running down the steps to pick her up and twirl her around, to give Jeannie a kiss on the cheek, and to shake Kaleb's hand.
"Surprise," Jeannie said, her eyes sparkling. He had a feeling she'd been planning this for a while.
"Does Rodney know?"
Jeannie shook her head. "I thought we'd surprise him."
"That's one hell of a surprise," John said. "And Tank's going to want to see you, too."
Jeannie nodded. "We've been emailing."
John rolled his eyes. "Of course you have."
Madison took to Atlantis like a duck to water. John had no idea what Jeannie said to her about wandering around, but she never went outside her area without an adult, and if she wanted to go exploring, she would have Jeannie call him, Rodney, or Tank on the radio.
She didn't seem fazed by suddenly having another uncle, either, just took to calling him Uncle Tank and expected him to show up and tutor her a couple of hours a week. She had a full complement of rotating tutors, and she was the apple of the entire science team's eye. Jennifer taught her biology and Radek taught her basic chemistry. John claimed math as his territory while Tank, Rodney, and Jeannie all talked about who was going to teach her physics. John thought eight was perhaps a little young for physics, but he wasn't going to get in the middle of that mess for anything.
Chuck found the Millers a three bedroom apartment two floors below John. They moved in and immediately hosted a game night. It turned into a bi-weekly thing, an hour of Apples to Apples or Pictionary for Madison, and then sheepshead or poker or sometimes charades because there was nothing funnier than Kaleb trying to do a movie title he'd never heard of.
There were occasional family dinners, too, and John was expected to attend. He went, and it was surprisingly easy to sit around a table with these people and think of them not just as a family, but as his family. It made him want to do better by Dave, but he thought maybe Dave was relieved not to hear from him anymore. He'd signed over his shares of the company and left everything without looking back, not a second glance, not even for the horses.
It made him ache, sometimes, watching Jeannie and Kaleb or Jennifer and Tank, or even the way Rodney watched Jennifer and Tank. Sometimes he wondered if he should say something to Rodney, but it was too soon, just watching Rodney steal glances at Jennifer told him that. Besides, Tank's words still rang in his ears sometimes, and sometimes in his nightmares.
He hasn't thought of you like that, not for years.
Two months after Tank came back, John got permission from Woolsey to add him to a gate team. Woolsey enthusiastically agreed, and Lorne helped Tank with his gun qualifications. Knowing how long that'd taken with Rodney, John was just thrilled not to have to do it himself.
Two weeks later Tank was cleared to go off-world, and Lorne's team took him on a trading mission to M32-X98 and walked away with a better deal than they'd ever scored before – two more bags of the purple-y spinach thing and a bonus tray of the cake-y dessert that the whole expedition had gone crazy for when they brought it back the last time.
Tank was Atlantis's golden boy for a while after that. Lorne's team came back with all kinds of good stuff every time they went out.
John's team… did not. Rodney got bored with the milk runs after the fourth or fifth one and started arguing with John about going to abandoned research facilities and outposts. They currently had a rotation that was working pretty well for them. One first contact mission, one possible ZPM factory, one reconnection with an ally, one completely unknown planet. It covered all their favorites, and gave them plenty of variety. The last completely unknown planet had been an absolute bust. That world might have been able to support life when they put the gate there, but something had shifted in the planet or the sun and it was a wasteland, nothing but hardpan desert. Not even a breath of wind.
Teyla was excited for the next mission – a first contact meeting on M9X-C37. She'd heard of the Keltai but never gone to their planet, not for trade or travel. They were famous for their berry wine and honey ale, and Teyla, John had learned the hard way, enjoyed tying one on every now and again.
They let her lead, John and Rodney bickering in the middle, and Ronon on their six. He never said anything to John but he was always on Rodney's six now, and John silently approved. When they reached the outskirts of town, there was a group of people waiting for them. Teyla gave them the signal that they should stay back; the three of them kept a polite distance.
When Teyla came back, her face was pinched. "There is a ritual," she said, and John frowned. He hated rituals. Even the innocuous ones were often embarrassing for them, doubly for him and Rodney if it was something Teyla and Ronon were familiar with.
"Only one of us needs to perform it," Teyla said, though something sounded off in the way she said 'perform.' "I suggest we roshambo for it."
Ah – that was it. Teyla had found out about the claw.
"Ready?" Teyla asked, her fist resting atop her palm, counting off while Rodney was still rolling his eyes. "One, two, three!"
Rodney had clearly heard the same thing in Teyla's voice that he had – he'd thrown a claw as well. To his surprise, Teyla had thrown scissors, which she had to know would lose to Ronon. He always played rock. He still argued that it could crush everything else, every time.
"I guess the first ritual is mine, then," Teyla said, smiling like the cat who got the cream. John and Rodney looked at each other. They'd totally been had. "And the claw may only be played once a day, correct?"
Ronon laughed. Rodney crossed his arms and glared, but John had to laugh, too. He couldn't help but appreciate Teyla's prowess in tricking them into giving her exactly what she wanted and giving up their own immunity for the day. If he was going to lose to someone that spectacularly, he was glad it was her. Rodney continued to glare sourly for a while, but he perked up when he found out the first ritual was just putting on a bracelet and touching a statue. John had perked up, too. If all the rituals were that easy, they were home free.
It was smart of Teyla to take the artifact-touching-ritual, too. If it was Ancient and John or Rodney lit it up, there was only a thirty percent chance the consequences would shake out in their favor. John'd done the math.
Unfortunately, there were special ceremonial outfits. The Keltai took their clothes, including their shoes, and their weapons. They were left standing around completely naked underneath soft leathery robes. At least they hadn't taken their radios. They seemed to think they were jewelry.
It was smart, John thought, taking away weapons and shoes. He'd have to give some thought to coming up with some ridiculous ritual for people who visited Atlantis. Maybe people would think twice about doing stupid things like trying to stage a coup if they had to strip down to their skivvies and get water dripped on their heads.
They were led out and prodded into a triangle shape behind Teyla, Rodney and Ronon in front and John two steps back and between them. Teyla was kneeling in front of a woman who was so wrinkled she looked like a shar-pei. The woman – John already just thought of her as some nameless elder – made an incomprehensible pronouncement and Teyla presented her arm, keeping her eyes down and staring at the stones beneath her knees. The elder put a gauntlet on her arm, a clear-ish sort of white plastic that didn't look Ancient in design. It felt familiar, though, and John cast about in his memories for where he'd seen it, but he couldn't place it. The elder placed her hand under Teyla's chin and lifted it, smiling down at her. "She is blessed!" the elder cried.
John hadn't noticed anything particularly interesting with the bracelet, but he could feel Ronon tense at the proclamation.
"She will be tested at the fountain of life!"
The elder took Teyla's hand and the two of them shuffled toward the fountain in the center of the town square. There was something round and coppery in the middle of it, soccer ball sized. That looked familiar too, but John still couldn't put that together with the gauntlet. It was too advanced for Genii, and not Ancient enough to be Replicator-made. They'd only run into a handful of more technologically advanced peoples. It hit him just as she reached for the ball, too late to say anything.
The sphere glowed when Teyla touched it. Ronon took a step forward, but that's all the further he got. His own gun was pointed at him. They had the team's P90s as well. Rodney put up his hands out of habit. John didn't mind anymore; somewhere along the line he'd started to think of it as Rodney's thinking stance.
He put his hands up too, smiling genially. "I'm sure we can –"
"Silence!" the elder shouted, glaring at John. "You do not speak unless our goddess gives you leave."
John shut up. If they were going to make Teyla their goddess, she could vouch for the team and eventually they'd find a way to sneak out of there.
"Tie this one at her feet," the elder proclaimed, pointing at Ronon. "He will provide tomorrow's challenge."
That didn't sound good. John wasn't sure he wanted to know what tomorrow's challenge might be. Ronon allowed them to tie him up, still following their general if-someone-is-made-a-deity protocol. Nine times out of ten, the person who'd been named a god, goddess, demon, or sovereign could talk them out of the situation.
"Come, goddess," the elder said, leading Teyla to a stone dais behind the fountain. The glow from the copper ball bathed it in a sickly greenish light, and Teyla sat on the carved stone bench in the middle of it. "Tell us your bidding for these two." The elder gestured at John and Rodney. Rodney put his hands down, fidgeting but hiding it mostly, and quiet. John supposed he could relax a little. With Teyla as a goddess, they were probably safe enough for the moment.
"They are my servants," Teyla said smoothly.
"We will need one for today's challenge," the elder said. "The big one will be perfect for tomorrow, but we need one for today's feast."
John supposed if they had Wraith artifacts, it only made sense that they were cannibals. John nodded at Teyla slowly. She knew she had to choose him, he was just reassuring her at this point. "This one is too valuable for challenges," she said haughtily, pointing at Rodney. "You may have that one."
John saw Rodney in his peripheral vision, his face horrified and miserable and obstinate. Rodney knew the procedure, too, John had made him promise more times than he could count that he would save himself first. He counted on Rodney to be the one to get everyone else out of trouble, and Rodney just had to count on John to buy him the time to do it.
Rodney was brought onto the dais to stand behind Teyla's bench. He played the servant part remarkably well, keeping his eyes averted and bowing a lot. John saw Teyla slyly touched a hand to his leg in reassurance. There was nothing she could do for John, or for Ronon, who had been bound wrists to ankles and was crouched on the stones in front of her.
"Bring the elixir for the hunt," the elder called, and while John's heart sank at the word "hunt," the carved wooden jugs that were passed around the crowd gave him a little hope. Maybe it was alcohol, and this was more like a joke, part of the ritual, for someone to get "hunted."
As the jugs went around the crowd everyone drank, men and women and children, and John's hope that it was alcohol turned to worry that it was caffeine or some other kind of speed and this was no joke.
A metal cup was brought out and held out for him to take. It was copper-colored metal like the sphere – not quite a chalice, but a bowl that might have had aspirations at some point. The liquid inside was clear, but he could tell from the smell – turpentine, he thought – that it wasn't water.
"Drink," the elder said, and John tipped the bowl up. He only wet his lips to start with, just in case they'd fall for that trick, but the elder glared at him and two thuggish men stepped out of the crowd to stand on either side of him threateningly. He up-ended the bowl, letting it dribble out of the sides of his mouth as much as he could, trying not to shudder at the liquid dripping down his face and neck and under the ceremonial robes. He kept as much as he could in his mouth without swallowing, but the elder made a slashing hand motion and one of the thugs forced John's head back and grabbed John's nose hard enough to make his eyes water. John swallowed out of surprise, coughing on some of the liquid that went down the wrong pipe. It burned his throat, but hurt his windpipe even worse, and he couldn't stop coughing.
The people were grinning maliciously, several small children pointing and laughing. They were already starting to shift and whirl, and whatever the hell was in that bowl was strong stuff.
The man who had grabbed him turned him toward the front gate and gave him a shove. "You have to fifty," he said, but John could hear the people chanting behind him and they were already at twelve.
John ran, actually thankful for the hallucinogenic rubbing alcohol because he couldn't feel his feet, and he knew that between the cobblestones of the town and the gravel road they'd walked into town on, his feet were going to be bloody as hell.
He was also thankful for Ronon. John had run before he'd met Ronon, but Ronon was a machine. There were no excuses, just oh six hundred every morning unless something really bad happened. Even then, it was only a day or two before Ronon was knocking on John's door again, forcing him to get out of bed, to put on his shoes and start running long before his brain shifted into gear.
It meant John could focus all his energy on remembering exactly where the jumper was, hoping he could coax it to open for him since the remote was with his clothes back in town. He ran as hard as he could, not looking back, not risking even a micro-second by trying to guess their movements. He was listening for them, listening hard, but he was also running as fast as he could, faster than sprints with Ronon, faster than he had when he thought Kolya had shot Elizabeth during the super-storm, faster than any other time in his life. His lungs were burning, fumes burning his throat and lungs with every breath. He could hear himself wheezing, but he kept going, legs and lungs and face all burning.
As soon as he got close to the jumper, and he put feelers out. Come on, baby, please open up. He could feel its answer, shuddering to life. The hatch lowered as soon as he put a hand on her, and just in time since he could hear someone on the path behind him. They had to be close, too, because John could hardly hear anything over the sound of his shallow gasping and the blood rushing in his ears. He dove into the jumper, smashing the button for the hatch to close before it'd even gone halfway down. It juddered to a stop and closed up, a little faster than usual, he thought. Good girl, he told it, resting his forehead on the cool floor. He was burning up from the inside out.
He got himself up onto his hands and knees. He just had to fly to the gate, open up a channel. If he could do that much, they'd send in the cavalry, guns blazing. He stopped on his hands and knees for a second, trying to catch his breath. He was panting like a dog in heat and still not getting any air. His stomach lurched, and he threw up so hard he saw stars. He supposed that was good, it was getting that crap out of his system, but it made him kind of dizzy and
John tried to open his eyes; that was Rodney calling for him and he seemed to remember Rodney was in trouble.
John frowned. That was Lorne. Lorne wasn't supposed to be here.
There was something wet against his cheek. Oh, he threw up. Right. He tried to say, "Here," or "Lorne," or anything, but the breath he took seared his lungs. He coughed into his radio.
That was Lorne, again. He didn't like not hearing Rodney's voice, but he didn't have the lung power to tell him to speak up.
"Sir, there are a lot of folks around these woods, and I think they're looking for you. We're looking for you too, but we don't know where you parked the jumper. Can you give us some help, here?"
"Colonel, are you injured?"
John wheezed again. And then he put his cheek back down on the nice cool floor and thought, cloak off, his eyes drifting shut as soon as he did.
The next time he came to, the jumper was pitching back and forth. It was soothing, actually, a little like being rocked. He smiled and slipped back into the blackness.
John tried to smile. It was Rodney again.
"John, you're pretty messed up."
John coughed. He could tell. He was lying in a puddle. He wondered if maybe he'd lost control of his bladder when he passed out. That would be embarrassing.
"John, you're bleeding from everywhere, I…"
Something niggled at him. That wasn't Rodney, there was something off about the voice. He opened his eyes, and he could just barely make out Tank's shape above him.
"John," Tank said, and John felt like it might be a question, like he should pay attention because Tank needed an answer. He couldn't quite stay on point, though, everything hurt, everything fucking burned, and –
"John," Tank said, harsh, like an order, and John opened his eyes again. "I'm really, really sorry."
Tank held his hunting knife in front of John's face. John thought maybe he should be more worried, but it was Tank, and he was too tired to care. His eyes slipped closed and Tank said, "John," in that harsh tone of voice again, so John opened his eyes. Tank was bleeding from his hand. There was blood welling up and dripping down his thumb with ridiculous speed. Drip, drip, drip.
John heard the knife fall to the floor of the jumper and then felt Tank's hand on his face, blessedly cool. Suddenly his eye was being forced open and he couldn't focus, his eye twitching in its socket, trying to close, but Tank held it open easily.
"I'm sorry, John," Tank said again, and a spike of fear ripped through John as he felt something drip into his eye. It was cool and his eye rolled in his head, up and back to shut out the brightness. His eye shuddered back around as John tried to close it against the dripping, the slow tap of drops falling on its surface, the dull redness that coated his vision.
Tank finally let his face go and John writhed, trying to get his hands loose to rub his eye. Tank was kneeling on one hand, though, and he caught the other as soon as it got close to John's face. "Shh," Tank said, leaning in to stare in John's eyes. "Rest, John."
John woke up in the infirmary. He'd dreamed about it, and he hated dreaming that he was in the infirmary before actually waking up there. It made it feel twice as long before he could get out. He didn't open his eyes right away, trying to see if he could pick out who was in the room and what time of day it was.
There was everyday sort of noise, carts being moved and the low hum of conversation, so it was probably daytime. The night shift was usually much quieter. There was someone breathing heavily next to the bed. Rodney, probably, having fallen asleep in the chair. He'd snore himself awake in another half an hour.
There were low voices at the end of his bed. Teyla, he could pick her voice out anywhere, and someone else. Jennifer, or maybe Jeannie. It was hard to tell from the soft non-words they were saying. He opened his eyes. Jennifer. He smiled at her, and caught Teyla's eyes for a second, too, as he struggled to sit up.
"John," Teyla said, relief obvious in her voice. "It is good to see you."
John had a feeling Teyla'd seen a lot of him. He had a knack for knowing how long he'd been out, and it felt like several days, maybe up to a week.
Jennifer nudged Rodney's shoe and he snorted himself awake. "What?" he glanced over at John and stood up weirdly fast. "John!"
"Rodney!" John mimicked, unable to keep a straight face.
Rodney raised an eyebrow but didn't move away from the side of John's bed. He still looked worried. John might have to revise his estimate of how long he'd been out; the level of relief was too high and Rodney and Teyla looked too anxious, too awake. The exhaustion of hours in the infirmary hadn't drained away the bright edge of worry.
"How long have I been out?" He couldn't remember much after he drank that clear liquid, nothing but the awful taste and the burning, everything burning.
An image came to him then, himself, lying on the floor of the jumper, looking pale. He was sprawled on his back, robe open and legs wide, covered in blood. There was a huge puddle of blood on his thighs and the robe, there was another next to his head. There was some leaking from his mouth. He felt hysteria, but not his own, and a primal fear, one he recognized immediately. Fear of losing someone you loved. In the second after there was another feeling, one of determination, willingness to do whatever it took to save them.
"John." Tank's voice echoed in his mind.
John hadn't even remembered closing his eyes, but when he opened them, everyone was looking at him with pinched faces, worry and unhappiness etched all over them. "Eighteen hours," Jennifer said, finally. "You've been still. Too still."
"I've got nanites," John said. Revulsion crashed over him in a wave, made him itch, made him want to scratch at his skin like the things crawling under it were bugs.
"Yes," Jennifer said. "Tank saved your life."
John knew better than to say he'd rather have died, though it might even be true. He just nodded.
"Whatever they gave you," Jennifer said, "it nearly exsanguinated you. It burned your lungs, and liquefied your intestines."
John nodded again. There was nothing to do but to take the information in. "And the Keltai?
"There were some casualties," Lorne said, standing. John tried to keep the surprise off his face, but he didn't think he did a good job of it. He hadn't even seen Lorne sitting on the chairs behind where Teyla was standing. Now that he looked, though, he could see Tank and Jeannie as well.
"Where's Ronon?" John asked, his absence suddenly much more obvious.
"He's fine," Jennifer said, putting a hand on his arm. "He broke both wrists trying to free himself from his restraints when they used Teyla as a human shield against the marines."
John could only imagine. He was surprised Ronon hadn't broken both ankles as well. He glanced around the infirmary and didn't see him, though. "He's getting his casts," Jennifer said. "He's going to be pretty unhappy when he tries to eat."
Ronon eating with two wrist casts. John felt bad, laughing at the thought of Ronon picking his entire plate up and tipping it into his mouth all at once, but then he thought about Ronon face-planting into a big pile of mashed potatoes, and he couldn't help himself, he chuckled. This was going to be comedy gold.
"That's the only injury?" John asked, pleased to have gotten off so lightly.
"Except for McKay's cracked rib," Lorne said, and John could hear the teasing in his voice.
"Very funny, Major," Rodney said, but he did put a hand to his ribs. "It's only bruised," Rodney said, looking down at John.
"Rodney was very brave," Teyla said, pushing Lorne in a little closer. "After you ran, more than half the town followed."
"About three quarters," Rodney corrected, and Teyla tilted her head in an acknowledging nod.
"There were few enough people that I thought we might be able to fight our way out. I asked for entertainment, hoping for a diversion."
"Of course they fight for entertainment." Rodney grimaced. "And I was the only one left."
"They do not let goddesses fight," Teyla clarified. She smiled a little. "Rodney did quite well. He defended himself and kept his wits when the marines entered the square. Four men grabbed my arms and legs, insisting I protect them as their goddess. They hid behind me and put me between themselves and the marines," Teyla said, the distaste clear in her tone.
"Ronon kind of lost it, then," Rodney said. "He was yelling so loudly everyone was staring at him."
"And Rodney used the distraction to throw me his weapon," Teyla said, "so I subdued the men, freed Ronon, and we left to find you."
"But not before I got a crack in the ribs from the asshole I was supposed to be fighting," Rodney said. "Attacking an unarmed man. Hmph."
John grinned. Sounded like his team. "I assume things didn't go as well outside town."
"No, sir," Lorne said. "We couldn't find the jumper and we could hear your wheezing over the radio. You gave us a hell of a scare."
John nodded. He remembered being unable to speak. "I tried to uncloak the jumper."
"You did," Lorne said. "And the natives found you first. They were trying to roll it. I'm not sure what good they thought it would do, but…" Lorne spread his hands as if to say who knows what people think. "We shot a drone just shy of the crowd and they dispersed, and we finally managed to get the jumper to lower her hatch and let us in." He swallowed loudly. "You didn't look too good, sir."
The image of himself sprawled on the floor, half-naked and covered in blood flashed in front of John's eyes.
"I can imagine," John said, not at all happy that he actually could imagine, a crystal clear snapshot, and a spike of emotion to match. "Tank," John said, and Tank finally stood. John knew why he didn't want to talk, but John needed to hear it for sure.
"You were dying," Tank said, moving closer. He grabbed Jennifer's hand as soon as she was in reach. "You wouldn't even have made it another ten minutes to get you through the gate and to the infirmary."
John nodded. He could tell that from the disjointedness of his memories, from that one clear memory of Tank's.
"You bled in my eye?" John asked, because he had to know he hadn't been hallucinating.
"It's a mucus membrane," Tank said defensively. "It was the fastest way to get the nanites in and working. It was that or bleeding into your mouth. I figured you'd rather not taste it."
John nodded. "Thanks," he said, though he wasn't all that sure he was thankful for being bled on and having tiny robots invade his body. He had the urge to scratch again.
"I'm tired," John said, and let the calmness from the drugs in his system take over. Only Lorne left, probably to report to Woolsey, and everyone else went back to their chairs to sit down. John wanted to tell them he was fine, they could go, but he was too tired and let his eyes drop closed instead.
When John woke up the next time, only Rodney was left, snoring in the bed next to his, nestled in among three extra pillows. He thought again of what Tank said, of Rodney not thinking of him, not like that.
John stared up at the ceiling. He wondered if he could get other memories, since he had Tank's nanites. Searching his memory for something, anything that might catch, he got another image of his face, worry and relief and fondness as he looked back at Tank. The night Tank had first woken up. There was a deep feeling of peace, of safety, like Tank knew he'd be okay if John was there. John couldn't help smiling.
He tried for another, and of course the first thing that came to mind was Tank in front of him on his knees. He was staring at the outline of his own dick, thickening in his BDUs, and he could smell it too, so close he could almost taste it. Then he heard himself say, "I can't," but before John could explore it any further, Rodney snuffled in his sleep and sat straight up, muttering math equations.
"Rodney," John said, snapping his fingers. Rodney's eyes opened and he blinked at John.
"What?" Rodney asked. "Are you okay? Do you need something?"
John smiled. No, he didn't need anything. "You were sleep-talking."
"Oh," Rodney said. "You didn't write any of it down, did you? I was dreaming of Ancient doughnut makers."
"Sorry, buddy," John said, and rolled onto his side to stare at Rodney. "Just go back to sleep."
"Okay," Rodney said, flopping back down into his pillows and pulling the blankets over his head.
John felt like new the next morning. Better than he had in years. His trick knee felt better. The usual dull ache in his muscles when he woke up was gone.
"I feel great, doc," he said when Biro came in to examine him. "I think we should get a naquadah generator right now and EMP these things…" He dropped off when he saw Biro's face. "What?"
"I think you should see your scans."
"Okay," John said, getting up and following her to the bank of monitors the infirmary used for imaging. She pulled up a scan of what he assumed was him. His skull looked pretty good, but he could see clumps of nanites in his neck, and then lots of clusters in his lungs. That wasn't good. As the scan went on and showed the space where his intestines would be, it was nearly a solid white mass.
"Liquefied my intestines," John said, staring at the white mass of his lower torso.
"Sorry, Colonel," Biro said. "They're building you new intestines, but it will take a couple weeks. Probably closer to six or eight. There's a lot of intestines packed into that area."
Six or eight weeks of nanites, building him shiny new intestines. "Oh," John said. "I see."
"You should be able to eat normally," Biro said. "Your stomach is still intact, and nanites should replace the other functions." She smiled at him. "Just come in if you experience any trouble. We can feed you intravenously if it ends up being a problem."
"Sounds like fun," John said.
"You're cleared to go," Biro said. "Dr. Keller said so last night. She just wanted to let you rest. She seems to think you're perpetually lacking sleep."
He shrugged; he probably was. He'd never slept much, and the older he got, the less sleep he needed. Seven hours was about as long as he could lie still these days, and he didn't feel all that tired if he only slept for six.
Rodney's bed was empty and had been made back up to hospital standard, so John nodded. "I'm ready to get out of here," he said, feeling like his luck had nearly run out this time. If Tank hadn't been there, he would have died. He shivered.
"Everything okay, Colonel?" Biro asked.
"Yeah," John said. "Just feeling my mortality."
"Not for the next six or eight weeks," Biro said, grinning.
It didn't take John long to appreciate his nanites. He ran longer and faster with Ronon than he had in years. He could work out with Teyla for hours on end, and come out without any bruises. He didn't go so far as purposely injure himself, but he pushed his body to its limits. He understood Rodney's decision to test out his allergies with something deadly. He felt invincible.
He went in for scans with Tank, watching Tank's baby organs growing into life-sized versions and watching the ropey coils of his intestines squishing into the space below his stomach.
He started fishing around in Tank's memories, too. He found that he could even get glimpses of Rodney's memories from before Tank. They were much fuzzier and the emotions were less complex, but he could still see them. There was one from when he'd come to John's room during his second childhood, where he'd been so scared, so afraid, and when he saw John, it all melted away into warmth and trust. John liked that one, he went back to it a lot.
There was a moment in the jumper bay, back in their second or third year in Atlantis. They were waiting for Teyla and Ronon – it was a rescue mission – and John had been reaching up to pull down the first aid kit, and Rodney had felt longing and desire. It'd been weird the first time, looking at himself and feeling that, but he got used it. He liked the feeling of Rodney wanting him.
Sometimes things came to him when he wasn't looking for them. There was a bright memory of Jennifer while he was waiting to be scanned one morning. It was the one Rodney'd told him about, where she had her head on his shoulder, sitting on a balcony. The multitude of Tank's emotions was overwhelming.
After that, John tried to get a feeling for how Rodney felt about Jennifer. There was one, where she was in danger, and Rodney'd been so frightened for her. It was typical Rodney – scared stiff and then going on to be brave in spite of it. John forgot, sometimes, that Rodney had never really trained for this. He hadn't known how to put aside the fear, how to just do things because it was his job. He'd learned to do that because John pushed him, because the team or Atlantis needed him.
There was another moment, a simple one of Jennifer leaning against him while they watched movies. It was peaceful and warm, and it was something he'd give anything for Rodney to feel again, because in that one moment, he felt content.
John also took advantage of the nanites by scheduling them for more off-world missions. They tended to be the ones with abandoned outposts, because every time they found something cool, Rodney lit up like a Christmas tree. Rodney had stopped bitching about camping off-world, too. He used to complain about his back, but he hadn't really done that since the surgery, and John could only assume the nanites fixed it for him.
Ronon was not nearly as put out by the casts as John would have thought. It didn't affect them off-world at all, and he managed a trick with his plate in one hand and two forks in the other that meant he could eat almost as fast as before. It was less comedy gold and more Ripley's Believe It or Not.
They discovered several weapons outposts – enough to fill up their depleted drone banks – and one ZPM more than half full. Most of the good stuff was too broken to even give a hint as to what it was for. It didn't stop John from packing the pup tents twice a week and watching Rodney fall asleep in his sleeping bag before drifting off himself.
John could only tell that his intestines were growing in by the reduction in the number of nanites on his scans. They were at about seventy thousand now, down from almost a million right after the incident with the Keltai. Tank was down to a hundred thousand himself. His organs were life-sized, though not functioning yet. Everyone could tell when his hormones came online because he took to carrying around a tablet to hold in front of himself when he got an inappropriate hard-on. Rodney took pity on him and assigned him to desalination until his hormones were properly regulated.
After that, there were the nerves. Tank was in an incredible amount of pain for three weeks while his nerves grew in. Nothing worked to lessen the sensation; the only thing they could do was keep him knocked out for days at a time. They set up a rotating vigil, someone at his bedside at all hours, and thankfully Lorne's team took up a lot of that slack.
Once the nerves grew in, the number of nanites was negligible. He and Tank were both down to several thousand. In a meeting with Woolsey and Jennifer, they decided to let the nanites get down to one, like Rodney, and then EMP them all at the same time.
Ronon's casts came off somewhere around there, and the three of them stood around staring at Tank's scans, trying to figure out what his last eight thousand nanites needed to do.
The only problem with Tank's organs was that while they looked like perfect specimens, they weren't actually functioning. He still wasn't breathing, his heart wasn't pumping, and his stomach wasn't digesting. Jennifer seemed deeply vexed by this. John understood why, but he tried not to let it bother him. He put his faith in Jeannie and Rodney. They would find a way to fix the nanites to get Tank's heart beating. They'd make it work. They always did.
Atlantis wasn't too big on holidays, and they stumbled over Christmas more than kept track. Madison had been counting down on her calendar – one she'd designed for herself for the difference in solar calendars between their current planet and Earth – and she announced at the family dinner that Santa was going to be coming to visit in three days.
The shock on the faces of almost everyone at the table was hilarious. John had never exchanged presents with anyone on Atlantis, so he never really had to remember it. The last couple of years he'd bought something for Madison, but that was the joy of shopping over the internet – he could ship it to Jeannie already wrapped and she could put it under the tree whenever she got it.
He'd thought of it at some point in November, and bought her a sonic screwdriver from ThinkGeek.It was shipped in with the next dial-in from Earth. Just the thought of Madison following Rodney, Tank, and Jeannie around with it made him grin.
Christmas morning came surprisingly early. Jeannie told Madison she could only open her Santa gifts before the adults got there for breakfast, so as soon as those were all opened (and thank goodness for the wild variety of things people brought to Pegasus with them, and how willing they were to trade for some of Rodney's coffee stash, some of John's chocolate stash, or some of their time as an IOU), she ran down the hallways, pounding on their doors until they all woke up and made their way to the Millers' apartment.
Tank had weaseled all kinds of things out of the marines and made Madison a care package of odds and ends, cards and silly putty and chocolate and pencils. She hugged him tight and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
John's sonic screwdriver got a puzzled look from Madison, but Jeannie, Rodney, and Tank all rolled their eyes in unison. John was going to have to sneak Madison Doctor Who episodes so she would get the joke.
Jennifer had also thought ahead, and she'd gotten a Hello, Kitty blanket that was immediately wrapped around Madison's neck like a cape.
Madison handed out her gifts before she opened Rodney's gift; possibly because his was the largest and he had a feeling she knew Rodney was old hat at getting her good presents. Madison had made them all bracelets out of brightly colored string. They were tightly woven, too, carefully done and they had obviously taken a lot of effort. The bracelets were in pairs, so Jeannie and Kaleb got two that were purple and blue, Tank and Jennifer got a pair that were pink and brown, and John and Rodney both got black and orange. No one at the table even seemed fazed that John and Rodney had gotten matching bracelets, so John just tried to stay calm and figured this was what being part of the family meant.
After the bracelets were handed out, Madison tore into Rodney's gift. It was a collection of board games, and it was a huge hit. He'd rounded up Twister, Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit, Life, and Star Wars Monopoly. They were all used, of course, but Madison didn't even seem to notice. They were all required to play Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit, except Jeannie and Kaleb, who were allowed to go make breakfast.
After Jennifer and Madison wiped the board with the rest of them, they sat down to a breakfast of french toast and vegetarian sausages. John didn't risk the sausage, but the french toast was good enough that he took a second helping. Madison encouraged them to eat faster so they could play Twister next, and John groaned at thinking of twisting his body around with a distended stomach.
It was the best Christmas he could remember since his mother had been alive.
That night, John dreamed of Rodney. It felt like a memory, fuzzy around the edges the way Rodney's memories were. It just Rodney in the shower, humming under his breath. John felt his breath catch too, because he'd never thought of doing this, of imagining Rodney at some time when he might be naked. He already felt guilty just for looking at the memories; they weren't his, he should be trying to forget them.
Rodney had just rinsed the shampoo out of his hair – John could feel the suds running down his back – and he had the soap in hand. John was running his hands over Rodney's skin and he was inside and outside at the same time, the toucher and the person being touched, and then he was in his room and on his knees, and staring at his own dick in his BDUs, so close, so very close. John heard himself say, "I can't," and his hopes were dashed, he hated himself, he thought he was stupid for even thinking that anyone would ever actually want him –
John woke up, breathing hard. That wasn't right. That wasn't what John had meant.
John put in his radio. "Tank."
It took a second for Tank to answer. "John?"
"I need to talk to you right now."
"I have your memories," John said, handing Tank a beer. They'd walked out on the northeast arm, looking for somewhere comfortable to sit. They'd gone nearly to the end before they found a place to dangle their legs over the side.
"What?" Tank asked, beer frozen halfway to his lips.
"I have your memories. And I'm pretty sure Rodney does too."
"My memories?" Tank asked. "What, all of them?"
John shrugged. "Strong emotional reactions that resonate with me. Stuff I was there for, stuff that pertains to me."
"So Rodney has all my memories?" Tank asked. "Because that might be… uncomfortable."
John took a deep breath. He wasn't going to pry. "I think Rodney's come to terms with you and Jennifer by now. He seems okay with it."
Tank waved that off. "That's because we didn't do anything untoward while he was in stasis. She was strictly professional, except for my last night, but that was just sitting on a balcony. We didn't even hold hands."
John remembered. He had a strong sense memory of that night, a strange stitched-together homemade movie of his eavesdropped conversation and the snapshot of Jennifer with her head on Tank's shoulder.
"Then what?" John asked. "What might be uncomfortable?"
"Well, to be fair, John, you're a hard man to be friends with." Tank stared down at his beer can, twisting the tab around and around.
"That's not true," John said, mostly disagreeing out of habit with everything any McKay said, ever. It actually might be true, he thought. He didn't have a lot of friends, and the few good ones he had – Ronon, Teyla, Rodney, and Jennifer, maybe Tank too, now – they were family.
"You know it is," Tank said. "But I just wanted to explain that I was desperate, okay? I didn't know how I was going to make it in Atlantis if I didn't have you."
John's heart dropped. "What are you talking about?"
"John," Tank said, "I don't think you realize how important you are to Rodney. It was much easier for me to contemplate losing Jennifer than losing you. I loved Jennifer, but I needed you." Tank shuddered and set his beer down to rub his hands up and down his arms. "That's Rodney talking, there. That's what I got from him, a need to have you in my life. I was desperate to make that happen."
There was a creeping numbness coming over John, the strange emptiness that meant he wasn't sure how he was supposed to feel, he wasn't sure what this meant.
"Look, I lied to you, okay?" Tank said. "Rodney hadn't stopped thinking of you. Yes, mostly he didn't jerk off to you anymore because, well, hello, Jennifer. Have you seen her?"
John couldn't help a small smile. He most certainly had seen Jennifer.
"But there was no thought of his future that didn't include you. There were times when he wondered if he should ask Jennifer if they could invite you in. And then he'd jerk off to his fantasies of the three of you together."
John blinked. He couldn't really process that.
"Sorry," Tank said. "I know you don't really feel that way about Jen, but you see what I mean? He never stopped wanting every part of you he could…" Tank trailed off and shuddered again.
"Tank?" John asked. He looked kind of pale, but John couldn't tell, not by the moonlight. "Tank, are you okay?"
Tank gasped, a huge, squeaky intake of breath, and laughed loudly. "It's beating," Tank shouted, grinning from ear to ear. "I can feel my heart beating."
John smiled too, holding Tank still enough to put his head against Tank's chest to listen. The solid thump-thump of his heart was the best thing John had ever heard.
John and Tank ran back in together, radioing Jennifer to meet them at the infirmary. Several scans later, Jennifer released Tank into her own custody and took his hand, leading the way to her quarters. John smiled his goodbye as they parted ways, and Tank called over his shoulder, "If you're not going to Rodney's quarters right now, John Sheppard, I'm going to shove that sonic screwdriver where the sun don't shine."
John didn't dignify that with a response.
Rodney's door swished open on his first chime. Rodney was in bed, curled on his side and the covers all twisted around him. One bare foot hung out over the side of the bed and a knot of blanket had lodged itself underneath his right shoulder.
"Sheppard?" Rodney slurred.
John had completely forgotten it was the middle of the night. Neither Tank nor Jennifer had said anything.
"Yeah," John said. "I need to talk to you."
Rodney blinked at John, not comprehending. "Is something broken? Is someone dying?"
"No," John said, "It's not that kind of emergency."
"Then it can wait until morning," Rodney said, and rolled over. The blankets went with him, and his entire backside, shoulders and ass and legs, was left open to the air.
John couldn't help smiling, and he reached in to pull the covers loose so he could cover Rodney up. Rodney yanked the covers back, and John with them. John put a knee down on the bed and decided what the hell. It could wait until morning. He was tired and Rodney was warm, and he worked the covers out from under Rodney's hands and tucked them both in.
John rolled onto his back. Normally his hip would be sore from sleeping on his side, but it wasn't. Rodney looked down at him.
"Sheppard," Rodney asked carefully, "why are you in my bed?"
John thought about all the things Tank told him, and all the ways to answer the question, with words or kisses or slow, smirky smiles…
"I wanted to talk to you."
"So you camped out in my bed?" Rodney asked incredulously. "With your boots on?"
John shrugged. "Yep."
The boots seemed to fluster Rodney more than John being in his bed. John hadn't fallen asleep in his clothes, outside of missions, for a long time. He was still plenty used to it though, between off-world prisons or camping places it was too cold to sleep in boxers or any number of things. The boots were a little weird, he had to admit.
"So, what did you want to talk to me about?" Rodney prompted, and then remembered to be annoyed. "That apparently couldn't wait until after breakfast like a normal person."
John thought about the million and one things he had to say and decided to steal a line from Tank. "I can't imagine a future without you in it."
Rodney stared at him blankly for a second, and then there was the slightest glimmer of fear in his eyes. John knew that glimmer. It was a glimmer that thought John might be under the influence of malfunctioning Ancient equipment, drugged, or hallucinating. Possibly all three. Rodney pulled on the covers, slowly gathering them to himself like a shield.
"A future for me," John clarified. "Rodney, I need you with me, here, I won't be able to make it on my own." A piercing memory came to him, of Rodney in the gate room, arrow through his heart, lying dead on the gurney, and his own absolutely incontrovertible denial, that Rodney couldn't possibly be dead because John was still here.
"O… kay," Rodney said, and he looked like he was debating how best to get a whole lot of space between him and John without actually giving up the covers he was clutching to his chest.
"What do you want from me, Rodney?" John asked. "I'm trying to tell you I fucking love you, okay?"
Rodney's eyes went very round, but he stopped pulling on the covers. "You what?"
John rolled his eyes. "Are you a genius or aren't you?"
"Of course I am," Rodney said, and there was nothing like insulting his intelligence to kick his brain cells into gear. "But you don't…" he made vague hand motions between them "…with guys."
"Where did you get that idea?" John asked.
"Well, you don't want me," Rodney said, his face all bunched up. "I have a perfectly clear memory of that, thanks to Tank. You didn't want –"
"I didn't want Tank," John said. "I didn't want Tank because he wasn't you. Why is that so hard to understand?"
"But…" Rodney said, his face smoothing out. John waited. There couldn't be too many more buts before Rodney figured it out. "But…"
When Rodney finally won whatever argument he was having with himself, he dropped the blankets and launched himself at John. John caught him, but Rodney had momentum on his side and they toppled off the bed and onto the floor.
"I fucking love you," Rodney said, looking down at John.
"Yeah." John grinned. "I fucking love you too, Rodney."
Getting rid of their nanites was a slightly bigger deal than John had expected. He'd figured they could just use some random piece of equipment to generate a small EM field and that'd take care of it. But apparently they couldn't use just any piece of equipment, and they couldn't do it just anywhere and there was a slight delay on Woolsey's account, though he wouldn't tell them what for.
When they finally lined up in front of a small generator in a building on the very end of the east arm, it only took a minute or two of standing around with the generator making whirring sounds before Tank declared them all well-nuked. "No nanites left around here," he said.
"That was a little anti-climactic," John said. He was glad Tank hadn't fallen over dead or anything, but standing around for a couple of minutes and doing nothing seemed much less momentous than he expected.
"Well then," Woolsey said from the hall where he was waiting for them. "I believe we should proceed to Isaac Albert McKay's birthday party in the mess. I hear there's going to be cake."
"And presents!" Rodney said, grinning.
"Aw, what'd you get me, big brother?" Tank asked.
Rodney smacked Tank upside the head. "I'm forgiving all the money you spent out of my account while I was in stasis."
"Hey!" Tank said, rubbing his head. "I earned that money. I was doing your work while you were in stasis."
"No you weren't," Rodney said. "Radek was doing my work. You were mucking around on desalination."
"Fine then," Tank said. "I was hitting on your boyfriend, and your girlfriend, and I would've adopted your cat if I could've gotten back to Earth."
John smacked Tank upside the head for that one. "You're lucky it's your birthday."
"I hate to see what kind of abuse I'm going to have to endure on a regular day," Tank said, hurrying to catch up with Woolsey and stay out of smacking range.
"You'll find out soon enough," Rodney said, but Tank and Woolsey stepped into the transporter and the doors slid shut before Rodney could act on his threat.
The door opened again and John and Rodney stepped in, waiting for a second before pressing their destination. When they arrived, the noise from the party greeted them and John smiled. He'd never been a hand-holder, but for some reason, he wanted to twine his fingers in Rodney's. He grabbed for Rodney's hand and they wrestled a bit with whose thumb was going to be in front before John just hooked his arm around Rodney's neck and gave him a noogie. "No wonder I hate holding hands," John complained. He left his arm around Rodney's shoulders, though, and they wandered into the party, surrounded by the din of family and friends and eighties hair metal.