Rodney drifts up towards wakefulness in no hurry, feeling warm and snug and comfortable and pushing unselfconsciously back against the body tucked around him in the bed. From behind him comes a sleepy, inarticulate murmur as John shifts, and burrows deeper under the covers. Still half-asleep, Rodney smiles at nothing, and shuts his eyes again.
Long minutes pass before he realizes that anything's wrong.
Maybe because for the past sixteen days the memory he's been carefully, jealously treasuring is that last morning, the morning before they went off-world, a memory that seems to flow easily into the substance of the present.
He wakes up slowly to the dim grey murk of his room with the curtains closed, one slanted bar of early morning light falling across the bed. The warmth of John's body is curled around his, face pressed between Rodney's shoulder blades, breathing slow and deep against his skin. John's hand is curled around his hipbone, careless and heavy. It's the way he's been getting used to waking up; with something to look forward to. It's been almost four months of this, this somehow-natural thing he never saw coming, this thing that has become as necessary to him as breathing, as easy. This particular morning, this memory, was seventeen days ago.
Sixteen days ago, John died.
He had the same dream over and over: that John was there. During the first week he woke up constantly in the middle of the night, convinced he was somewhere he wasn't meant to be because the bed didn't feel right. Because there was no bristly chin tickling the back of his neck, or hot damp breath in his ear, no comforting weight against his back; no other heartbeat in touching distance.
Of course, he couldn't tell anyone about those dreams - couldn't tell anyone why he wasn't getting any sleep. Instead, he spent whole days hunched over his computer, going over the data downloaded from the research station on Ralna, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. It shouldn't have happened; he was sure of that. He was sure he had accounted for all the variables. More frustratingly, the theoretical data still made no sense to him; it was all flash and no substance and there were gaps in the logic. He stared at the screen until the equations swam before his eyes, just trying to pretend he wasn't afraid to sleep and find himself imagining again, imagining John.
Teyla figured it out anyway, of course. She came to his room with sad eyes and a tray of tea things, sat with him on the floor next to his bed that still smelled of John's aftershave and his weird woody shampoo. Sat with her back against Rodney's dresser where several pairs of John's boxer shorts shared space with Rodney's socks. Then she got up and sat next to him and laced their fingers together and let him lean on her until he finally fell asleep in her lap.
The morning after the tea, he woke up and Ronon was sitting on the floor next to the bed, asleep with his head pillowed on his arms on the mattress, a book lying discarded next to him on the covers. It looked highly uncomfortable. Rodney was momentarily distracted by how young Ronon looked, hair newly cut and curling, face smooth and relaxed in sleep. It wasn't until Ronon opened his eyes, studying him seriously, that he remembered all over again. Ronon had climbed into bed with him and let him lean some more, his long arms looped unhesitatingly around Rodney's shoulders. Then he told Rodney stories about his sisters and his mother, about the schools he'd gone to, studying Satedan poetry and declaiming before lecture halls of other students before the war broke out. Eventually Rodney fell asleep to the low, even timbre of Ronon's voice.
The room is dark, and it feels... familiar, he thinks. Yesterday he remembers realising that at some point John's smell would fade from his sheets, that he'd maybe have another minor breakdown when that happens. He's been seeing them coming now for a few days, fewer and further between than they were at the beginning, easier now that he doesn't have to hide them, at least not from his friends.
But the bed is warm, and he isn't alone. He can feel John - he can smell him - and he wants nothing more than to turn and see if it's real but he's never been more afraid to do anything in his life.
The further he rises into wakefulness, the more terrified he becomes, his brain coming online and processing and tick-tick-ticking against the facts. John's dead. John died. Rodney saw him. He remembers. It happened. And just two days ago he said to himself: "He's not coming back this time," and sobbed until he was breathless and exhausted. He missed dinner and Ronon and Teyla came and brought him food and stayed with him until he fell asleep again, and he never felt so alone in his life.
John is dead.
But Rodney's body says - his senses insist - that John is here. Rodney knows, now, knows intimately the weight of John Sheppard's presence. Knows how the air moves. Know how he smells, knows the rhythm of his pulse and how it feels pressed through John's wrist to Rodney's belly, the way it is right now. He knows what John's breathing sounds like when he's asleep, coming awake and fighting waking for just five minutes more.
Slowly he realises his muscles are cramping up, that he's cold all over though he's flushed. That his heart is battering in high gear, thudding painfully in his chest. It's perhaps for all of these reasons that he doesn't notice that John is awake - that whoever it is - is sliding a palm up his ribs, just firm enough not to tickle. That there's a hot, raspy kiss being pressed to the back of his neck.
That's what does it: Rodney draws in a ragged breath that sounds like a sob, and suddenly John - John's voice - is saying "Rodney?" And then, in a more urgent tone: "Rodney? Hey, what's—" and then rolling him onto his back. Rodney keeps his eyes closed, afraid of what he might see.
"Rodney, you — god, you're shaking. What's—" John sounds worried, tone soft and urgent as he touches Rodney's shoulders, his neck, his face. Rodney realises his face is wet.
Then John's warmth is back, draped against his side. One hand frames the side of his face and he can feel John's attention against his closed eyelids. "Jesus Christ, Rodney, tell me what's wrong! You're freaking me out here."
Rodney can barely contain a slightly hysterical laugh. John sounds pretty freaked out, like Rodney's the one going crazy instead of the Universe. Though Rodney reflects that's totally like Sheppard, to be freaking out when it's so blatantly, obviously Rodney's turn.
John is still talking, shaking him a little, telling him to open his eyes. Maybe Rodney really is going crazy. And as though that thought has put everything else in perspective, Rodney thinks, what the hell, and does.
John is propped up on one elbow, staring down at him. His achingly familiar is face scrunched up in confusion and worry, hair sleep-messy and wild, a pillow-crease pink across his cheek. Rodney can't stop staring at him, not bothering to fight down the pressure of relief overflowing in his chest.
He pulls John against him and holds on with all his strength.
And John, thank God, the Ancients, and anybody else who's listening, just goes with it, melts down against Rodney's body and puts his arms around him, hand cradling the back of Rodney's head. He keeps saying "Hey, hey, hey," and pulls Rodney close as he clings and shakes. Rodney knows vaguely that this should be embarrassing, that he shouldn't be crying and trembling and gasping for breath out of pure, debilitating relief, but he is. And he doesn't care.
The way it happened — they happened — was not extraordinary. No one was hurt and no one was dying. They weren't under siege or in danger of imminent annihilation. In fact, if anything, Rodney remembered crushing boredom. The team had been grounded, one man short — Ronon laid low by, of all things, a Pegasus Galaxy variation on the common cold. He'd been red-nosed and bad-tempered for days, bundled up like he never was even the dead of winter, causing most of the city to give him a wide berth.
John seemed to feel that the cure for misery was terrible 80s science fiction, and was taking advantage of their downtime to finally force the entire Back to the Future franchise down their throats. To Rodney's annoyance, Ronon and Teyla seemed to be enjoying themselves, and even Torren seemed transfixed. Kanaan, at least, seemed puzzled, but he was trying to play along, gamely eating chips and occasionally reaching forward to pluck candy wrappers from Torren's fingers before he could stick them in his mouth.
Rodney had eventually given in, slumped in the corner of one of the several lumpy brown couches scattered about this far-flung lounge. Most of the city avoided this room, being too far from the city centre for convenience. Ronon was on the floor in a veritable nest of blankets, with Torren going from person to person as his concentration waxed and waned. At the moment he was ensconced between Teyla and Kanaan on the other couch, avidly studying a handful of Lego men clutched in his chubby fingers.
"Oh, hey, this is the best part," John said, leaning forwards, elbows on his knees. On the screen, Michael J. Fox was climbing the clock tower. John was an animated presence at Rodney's side, all gangly elbows and knees and enthusiasm.
Not for the first time, Rodney wondered what John had been like as a teenager — whether he'd leant more towards the sullen, closed-off persona he affected in his worst moments, or this: this grinning, effusive idiot filling up the room. He was willing to bet that John was always inclined to one, but driven to the other. He was never sure which was which. Either way, he liked this John better; especially for the way he every so often turned to Rodney with the slightly taunting smile meant to invite him in on the joke. Rodney crossed his arms defiantly, but he couldn't keep the smile off his face entirely.
He dozed off at some point, and woke up to find John looking at him with a weird, soft little smile on his face. The remote dangled from his fingers and the TV was showing the DVD menu — Teyla, Kanaan, Torren and Ronon were gone. It had to be dinner time by now.
This wasn't the first time he'd caught John looking at him like this — with this odd, uncharacteristic softening of all his sharp edges. With most people, John was careful — not like Rodney, who was prickly all over, most of the time. But sometimes, Rodney would turn his head, or wake up from an uncomfortable nap in the jumper, or turn around to ask a question... and John would be looking at him, just like this. It never lasted for more than a second or two, and usually John packed it quickly away and they both pretended it hadn't happened. But Rodney had seen it enough times to recognize it, and he knew he'd had his moments like this, too.
This time, though, the smile didn't disappear. It dimmed, a little, and John looked away for a second, fussing with the remote. But when he looked back, Rodney could still see... something. He sat up a little, stretching his arms above his head so that his spine popped. "Everybody's gone?"
John shrugged. "Went to dinner."
"You should've woken me up," Rodney complained.
John shrugged again. "You looked comfortable."
Rodney considered this; rotated his shoulders a little. He did feel pretty good; rested like he rarely was even after a full night's sleep. Comfortable, and a little confused, because suddenly the room felt... he didn't know how to describe it. Tense, maybe. Or — no. Drawn, like a bowstring. Like something was about to happen.
John was looking at him again.
"Oh," said Rodney, softly.
John started, guiltily, and flushed. "Yeah," he said, just as softly, and then almost in a whisper: "Sorry."
Rodney stared at him for a second, and then sputtered. "Sorry?" he demanded. "Sorry?" And then he grabbed John by the wrist and yanked him across the couch. John just barely caught himself from toppling over, their faces inches apart.
"No?" he asked, relieved.
"If you don't shut up, you're going to give me a complex," Rodney warned. John grinned.
"Like you need another one," John said, and kissed him.
There's no good way to explain it, Rodney realizes once he's convinced that this is real — that John is here, healthy and whole. John assumes he's had a bad dream. This is certainly one way of putting it, except for the part where he's completely certain it was real. He remembers the hollowing grief too clearly — and he knows what it feels like to only dream of grieving.
Finally John calls Jennifer. Rodney only just barely convinces him not to drag them both down to the infirmary, because he's not at all sure he's up their usual just-friends act when he absolutely cannot bear to let John out of his sight. Jennifer, thankfully, comes without comment and without delay, though she looks concerned and puzzled when John makes him explain to her exactly why he's shaking. She listens, though, only raising her eyebrows and glancing at John when he gets to the bad parts.
This is a new thing, a strange thing — this silent exchange of looks that takes place between John and Jennifer whenever they're worried about Rodney. And they are worried: Rodney can tell. Usually when this happens it's over his allergies or some minor injury that happens off-world. Neither John nor Jennifer exactly coddles him, but they both tend to pay him closer attention than Ronon or Teyla, even when he's just complaining for the sake of complaint (a holdover from a childhood where the only attention he got from his parents was when he was deathly ill — something Heightmeyer used to try to get him to work on, with varying levels of success). He's shocked to realize that John and Jennifer seem, at some point, to have bonded — not that they were ever exactly enemies, even after things between Rodney and Jennifer faded inevitably away and he and John began... whatever it is they've begun — over the ordeal of being involved with Rodney McKay.
He's not sure if he's touched or insulted.
"I don't see anything wrong in a cursory exam, Rodney," Jennifer says uncertainly, sitting back in her chair. Rodney is sitting on the edge of the bed, John next to him, one hand between his shoulder blades. "I can bring you into the infirmary for a full-body scan, but..."
"I'm not crazy," Rodney insists, clenching his fists in his lap. He's feeling shaky again, even with John's hand warm on his back. "I'm not making it up. I am telling you—"
"We hear you, Rodney," Jennifer says, earnestly, sharing another of those looks with John. "But—"
"I'm fine, buddy," John says, the hand on Rodney's back sliding further to loop around his shoulders. "See? All in one piece. Totally fine."
Rodney draws in a deep, unsteady breath. "I know what happened," he insists. "I didn't imagine it, and I didn't hallucinate it. We were on Ralna, and we found one of the Ancient stations. There was an accident, and you were—"
"Rodney — Rodney," John says, interrupting him, leaning around to look him in the face. "Rodney. That never happened. We were called away to evacuate Eldan, remember? Because of the storm."
Rodney stares at him. "What? No. Lorne's team was supposed to—"
John shakes his head. "Gill and Velasquez were caught in a collapsing building. We were dispatched to help them out. Rodney, we never went to Ralna."
It's another ten minutes before they manage to calm Rodney down — as calm as he ever gets, anyway. When the two of them have apparently determined him sane enough, they let him get up, get dressed, and walk with him to Woolsey's quarters. All the way there they walk on either side of him like bodyguards.
Woolsey is remarkably calm and collected for someone who's been dragged out of bed in the obscenely early morning hours by a ranting and jittery physicist. He's even dressed, more or less, though much less informally than Rodney's ever seen him. He would have bet actual money against Woolsey even owning a pair of sweatpants, even though these ones say Yale on them, and he's paired them with a flawlessly ironed white Oxford shirt. He does look a bit puzzled at first, and increasingly concerned as Rodney explains what he remembers happening on Ralna.
When Rodney's finished, or at least run out of breath, Woolsey looks at John and Jennifer. "And we're quite sure that Dr. McKay is not — please forgive the question, Dr. McKay — in any way compromised?"
Jennifer talks over him before he can answer indignantly: "I can't find any evidence of an injury or any obvious imbalance — nothing that might...i explain this," she says, glancing at Rodney even as John jostles him with an elbow.
Woolsey looks at John. "Am I correct in thinking that Ralna is the same world that suffered a massive earthquake two weeks ago?"
Rodney's head whips around as John nods. "Yeah, that's what it looks like. The day after we were supposed to go." He looks at Rodney. "We haven't been able to raise them by radio. And we know they were experiencing tremors."
Rodney stares. Ralna gone? Perhaps from the same earthquake that occurred when they were there. Though hadn't Moel said they had only had minor tremors? Maybe in this timeline, the device really did go critical. Maybe before they'd helped it along by disturbing the station.
"And what explanation can you offer, Dr. McKay?" Woolsey asks him, and Rodney is so relieved to be taken seriously that for a moment he can't think of anything to say.
"I don't know," he finally admits. "But I know I — it was real. But... so is this." He looks at John, his heart still jumping in his chest to see him sitting there, alive and well. "Maybe it had something to do with the device."
"The... probability device?" Woolsey ventures, sitting back in his chair. "The one you say you discovered on Ralna?"
Rodney does not miss the very careful choice of words. "Yes," he says fiercely. "The notes said it would allow us to... to sway events in our favour, whatever that means. But then there was a quake, and... and something went wrong. The power source became unstable. And we had to —"
It was the only way. There wasn't time for anything else.
"And Colonel Sheppard was killed in the explosion," Woolsey states. Not a question, which Rodney appreciates.
Rodney swallows hard. "Yes," he says, voice hoarse.
After the meeting, Rodney feels even more exhausted than he was before, but the clawing panic that has been crouching behind his ribcage since he woke up has subsided slightly.
Back in Rodney's room, John sits next to him on the edge of the bed, not saying anything. Rodney's exhausted, but he's almost afraid to lie down, afraid to sleep, in case this all, after all, is just a particularly vivid dream. Eventually John clears his throat, and bumps their shoulders together.
"So," says John.
"Go on," Rodney says miserably. "Say it. I've lost my mind. It was really only a matter of time, anyway."
John turns to face him, pulling one knee up onto the bed. "Hey, I didn't say that."
"You were thinking it," Rodney says, as John puts his hands on Rodney's shoulders.
"I wasn't," John tells him. And then he says: "You're scared. I know what that looks like."
Rodney's silent for a few seconds. "I'm sorry about this morning," he finally says.
"Did I ask for an apology?" John demands, suddenly annoyed, and Rodney finally looks at his face. He looks... not angry, but... something. Indignant, maybe. "I didn't," he adds, after a second, touching the side of Rodney's face. "I understand."
Rodney blinks at him. "You do?"
John almost growls. "Of course I do. Jesus, Rodney, you think I've never had that dream?"
It takes a moment for Rodney to get it. "Oh."
"Yeah," John says, apparently disgruntled at having had to admit that aloud.
Rodney lets his head fall forward and rest on John's chest. "Sorry," he says quietly.
John's hand curls around the back of his neck. "Hey, I told you," he says against the top of Rodney's head, "don't be sorry."
They sit like that for long minutes, and eventually John says: "I don't know about you, but I'm about to fall asleep sitting up." He kicks off his boots, unbuckles his holster and sets it aside; peels off his BDU pants, and turns back to Rodney in t-shirt, boxers and socks. "Rodney?"
Rodney hesitates, but decides he's being ridiculous and strips off his own clothes before crawling up to the head of the bed. John pulls him close, the way he does without comment when he himself is worried, and Rodney goes without hesitation. The fight they had days ago seems entirely forgotten.
"Don't worry," John says, which is ridiculous, but comforting when said into the space between them on the pillow. "We'll figure this out."
Rodney feels warm, and safe - just long enough to drift off to sleep.
When he wakes again, he's cold, and John is gone, and Teyla is asleep in the chair next to the bed, and he knows it's all gone wrong again.
The fight was stupid, of course — Rodney had it on excellent authority that most fights were, especially when you were involved with someone. In the heat of the moment, though, it didn't feel stupid. It felt real, and urgent, and important, because he was also aware that sometimes fights were final ones. He had no basis for comparison. He'd never been in a relationship long enough to get to the fighting parts.
It started when Ronon and Teyla found out. However they found out, it became clear that they knew, which was fine. Rodney trusted Ronon and Teyla like he trusted no one else, except maybe his sister and John. But John took it differently. For days after they realized their secret wasn't entirely secret — Teyla walked in on them unexpectedly, then told them not to worry; that she already knew — John started acting weird with Rodney in public.
Rodney finally called him on it after a senior staff meeting where John was acting like a total asshole — his version; in John's version, he'd just been trying to move the meeting along while Rodney got off on a tangent.
They ended up in John's quarters, the door closed and locked behind them. Actually John dragged him inside, glancing melodramatically up and down the hall as though there might be someone lurking nearby, just waiting to catch them out.
"Rodney, we talked about this," John said, in that infuriatingly patient way he had when he was totally full of shit and trying to make Rodney look like the irrational one. "You knew going in we had to be careful."
"Careful, yes!" Rodney burst out. "But not strangers!"
"You're exaggerating," John said, looking harassed.
"You've been acting like a dick in public ever since Teyla told us she and Ronon knew," Rodney replied, hands on hips. "Look, I know this freaks you out, but—"
"No, Rodney, you really don't know," John said darkly.
"Don't you think this involves me too?" Rodney demanded.
"I think that maybe you don't really understand the consequences if what we're doing becomes general knowledge."
"What we're doing?" Rodney mimicked angrily, because John made it sound like something wrong. "I've been just as careful as you. More, even! And let me remind you, you started this!"
John scrubbed a frustrated hand through his hair. "I know that, Rodney. I'm just saying that you're not as used to being careful as I am. And you're not exactly — I mean, at the best of times, you're—"
"What?" Rodney asked, as John hesitated.
"Not that great at... at keeping stuff to yourself," John said delicately.
"I'm sorry — do you want me to pull up the seven or eight hundred pages worth of non-disclosure agreements I've signed in the past twenty years, or shall I recite them from memory?"
"That's not what I meant, and you know it," John told him, crossing his arms, and then uncrossing them when he realized that this was a gesture he'd picked up from Rodney.
"I know you're overcompensating," Rodney said angrily. "I know it's damned difficult to tell if you're being careful or just sick of me already."
For the first time John stopped looking annoyed and started looking alarmed.
"Hey, come on, that's not fair," he said, dropping his arms to his sides. "I just—"
"Come find me when you decide I'm worth the risk," Rodney told him, before storming out.
He flails out of the bed in a panic, waking Teyla, who is immediately on her feet, trying to calm him down. He supposes it was Teyla's turn to sit with him. It seems they worked something out together, because either Ronon or Teyla has been with him each night since Ralna. He's appreciated it more than he could express, but right now he just wants Teyla to get out of his way.
She has both hands on his shoulders, speaking slow and quiet. "Rodney, you were dreaming," she says, and when that doesn't work, her grip tightens a little. "Please, tell me what's wrong."
Rodney takes a deep breath, tries to centre himself, to appear sane long enough to convince her to let him go. She looks worried, even alarmed, but eventually she lets him duck past her, out into the corridor, and across the way to John's door, which slides open for him without delay.
The room is dark.
He remembers it now — coming here after the funeral. Helping to pack up John's things. Finding his books, his toys, his laundry, still in a heap on the floor of his closet. He also remembers losing the will for the thing halfway through and sitting on John's bed as Ronon and Teyla went through John's things. He watched them sort through it all, deciding what would go back to Earth, what would be distributed among the expedition members; what was on John's list of things bequeathed to his team. It was a short list, because John never attached that much importance to things. He'd left Ronon his books and his comics and his surfboard; Teyla had gotten the guitar and his music.
To Rodney, he'd left a flash drive containing a spreadsheet of all the reasons he'd compiled over five years — reasons not to say anything; reasons not to upset their friendship for something that might not even work.
At the bottom were appended the words: Fuck it. If it does work, it's worth it.
The room is dark and empty now. The bed is neatly made, the closet empty, the bathroom free of John's clutter. It even smells wrong; clean and empty and cold, without personality. Without John.
This time he doesn't bother with intermediaries — he goes straight to Woolsey, who agrees to listen, but only if they first visit the infirmary. Rodney's never met anyone who can look comfortable while sitting in the hard plastic visitors chairs, but Woolsey manages it — perhaps because he never quite looks comfortable anywhere. He listens to Rodney tell his story while Jennifer fusses over him, and Rodney interrupts himself only when he remembers the last time he played out this scene, in his room with John sitting next to him. He can still feel the warmth of John's hand on the skin between his shoulder blades. He's well aware that he's twice as agitated, and that this hurts his credibility. Woolsey seems a little less inclined to believe him this time than last time — probably because in this reality, the worst has already happened. John is already dead, and everyone knows. Everyone remembers.
Woolsey agrees to have someone look into it in the morning, but this time Rodney is not reassured, and this time there is even less he can do.
When he gets back to his room, Ronon and Teyla are waiting at his door. Ronon has a chess set tucked under his arm. Teyla's holding a sleeping Torren.
"Game?" Ronon asks, hefting the chess set.
Rodney is at once annoyed and endlessly grateful. "You guys don't have to — just because I'm going crazy—"
Ronon shrugs. "I'm not tired," he says. Over his shoulder, Teyla tilts her head in agreement.
"We have all night," she says.
M49-366 — Ralna — was suspiciously pleasant: green trees, singing birds, fragrant flowers, and singing villagers. He was in a bad mood from the moment the gate closed behind them, despite John's friendly jibes and Teyla's quelling frown, which served only to get him to reduce the volume of his complaints.
Ralna was green but dry, the air heavy with spice, and they'd arrived at the height of summer. One of Rodney's many complaints was about the heat: humid, pressing and all-consuming. It made him feel slow and tired, and made John smile and laugh easily, though he still wasn't quite meeting Rodney's eyes.
They'd never had a fight before — rather, they'd never had a fight like this, as them — and Rodney knew he wasn't handling it well. He knew the fight itself had been mostly his fault, throwing out childish accusations when he should have been listening. Teyla had cornered him in his quarters not two hours after he'd stormed out, and he'd nodded and agreed with her, feeling as miserable as she'd probably wanted him to, but he wasn't quite ready to apologize. He wasn't the only one who'd acted like a jackass, and he thought it only fair this be acknowledged by all parties.
John wasn't making it easier, by pretending nothing was wrong. This was, in fact, exactly what Rodney had accused him of doing. Asshole.
They'd come to Ralna for reasons that were part trade, part rumour. Its people were well-respected traders of fine spices and fruits, and their settlement was built on the ruins of an Ancient outpost. Ralnan hunters, farmers and children were forever returning home from the surrounding countryside with Ancient trinkets of varying interest and usefulness. SGA-4 had encountered Ralnan traders two months ago on a market planet and made arrangements for SGA-1 to visit Ralna to discuss a possible trade agreement and study the Ancient installations. Rodney had been excited about it when it had been proposed last week; now it was just an interruption in his embarrassingly domestic dispute with John.
Even worse, the Ralnan representatives who met them at the outskirts of town were unfailingly polite, pleasant and even (by the standards Rodney used for ordinary people) relatively intelligent. He kept trying to find reasons to be bad-tempered with them and getting more and more annoyed when he couldn't find justifiable ones.
They spent most of the afternoon touring the mostly-ruined Ancient installations, half a dozen in total, and it wasn't until nearly sundown that they finally came to the one Rodney had been reading since the beginning: a steady power reading deep underground. The structure on the surface was dome-shaped and mostly intact, though the interior was covered in a thick layer of dust.
As they crossed the threshold, both he and John felt the usual tingle of Ancient technology recognizing the ATA gene — he saw John pause and shake his head. A moment later, the ground shook suddenly, causing Rodney to dive for the open doorway and the rest of his team to brace themselves and look warily at the ceiling until it subsided. Their Ralnan guide shrugged it off.
"Only a tremor," she said, waving a hand dismissively. "They are common. Do not trouble yourselves."
Rodney was less than convinced, but he went on with his scans, and even managed to get a few consoles up and running.
"It looks like they were studying the planet's plate tectonics. Maybe research for terraforming technology?" he ventured, scrolling through the station's logs. "There's a whole section of files I can't access... it looks like another part of the research mission. Hang on..."
He switched consoles, hummed absently to himself as the database gave up its secrets. "It looks like theoretical research, though not related to the geological stuff... the notes talk about some kind of... I must be reading this wrong. It almost looks like an Ancient version of the Infinite Improbability Drive." He looked up, grinning, but John wasn't there to get his joke; Ronon was leaning against the far wall, looking bored. And... right. He and John were fighting. He couldn't believe he'd forgotten.
Ronon shrugged. "They went to see the last set of ruins. Said they'd see us at dinner."
"Oh," Rodney said, turning back to the screen, not sure if he was annoyed or disappointed.
"What'd you find that was so exciting?" Ronon asked, almost managing to sound as though he cared.
Rodney sighed, but wanted to tell somebody. "It looks like they were trying to find some way of influencing probability."
"You mean like controlling how things happen?"
Rodney looked at him again, trying not to act as surprised as he actually was. "Uh, sort of," he allowed. "It looks like it would only have been effective in a very limited way. Like, they would choose one event to influence, and then give it a little nudge. Not that it's in any way that simple, of course," he added quickly.
"Of course," Ronon agreed, dryly.
"And it's unclear how they were planning to target these... let's call them lines of probability, or how the influence would be exerted. I can't find any evidence that it ever got beyond the theoretical, and even that isn't very well fleshed-out. A lot of it doesn't make any sense." He sighed again, leaning back from the console. "Probably just another crazy Ancient's pet project," he said, rotating his neck and shaking out his wrists. He looked at Ronon. "Is it time for dinner yet?"
Ronon brightened. "Finish up, and we'll go find out."
Sitting at the long table in the town square, Rodney's mood had not improved. He was book-ended by Ronon on his left and the curvy, diminutive Second Hand of Trade, Moel, who had spent most of the meal with one small brown hand on Rodney's wrist. Her black hair hung nearly to her waist, and every time she leaned in his direction and it brushed against his arm, he was assaulted with a cloud of scent, spicy and sweet. Under other circumstances he really would have been enjoying himself, and he was really pissed at John for ruining this for him.
By the time Ralna's single, reddish moon was cresting behind the mountains, Rodney was full and sleepy and would be content except for how he wasn't. Moel had long abandoned him with a regretful sigh when she noticed his gaze kept drifting away from her.
The First Hand had left John to sit with his wife and sons, and John was sitting alone with his back against the wall of the Parliament Hall. He had his hands folded over his stomach, watching the dancing and the musicians and Ronon and Teyla. They were giving the Ralnans' leaping, spinning dances a try. Ronon had discarded his jacket and was dancing in bare feet and a sleeveless grey shirt, skin gleaming with sweat and a bright white grin on his face. Rodney paused to watch him for only a moment, his grace and energy both astonishing and enviable, making him young. Teyla, retreating to the edge of the circle, was laughing and clapping her hands, looking indulgent. And then Rodney turned away from the dance.
John looked so beautiful in the lamplight that it made Rodney's throat hurt a little.
When minutes passed and nobody else approached, Rodney did. He couldn't help himself. He found himself, as always, like everyone did, drawn to John Sheppard like an iron filing to a magnet. He wasn't sure what he was going to say - the words evading one or both of them had been why he'd backed off to begin with, when his struggle for the right words was met with only casual blankness and finally anger. He'd been afraid he'd get nothing back if he tried, and thought silence was better than saying the wrong thing.
But as his shadow fell across John's hands that were methodically tearing one of the puffed-bread-things to tiny pieces, eating them one by one, John looked up and his face... froze.
It had only been a day. It had felt a lot longer.
He looked guilty. Only for a second, before John's usual ability to hide what he was feeling wiped his face clean, but it had been there. Rodney had always been torn between resenting John for this and feeling sad for him. But John had been mostly right — barring state secrets and life-and-death situations, Rodney couldn't hide a damned thing, and right now, he was sure his face was angry, frightened, confused. He'd long ago given up on trying to control his emotions the way John did. He'd long known he felt things too deeply, too immediately — the part of him that was brilliant, that produced answers out of nothing at the last moment, was too close to the part of him that exploded everywhere when he was angry or nervous or scared. If he tried to contain himself, like John did, there'd be nothing safe to say. He'd never open his mouth.
He stopped just short of John's chair. Behind him, a laugh rose above the voices of the dancers. It sounded like Ronon, but Rodney didn't turn his head. John's eyes, focused on Rodney, looked dark.
"Uh, hey," Rodney said, clasping his hands together. His palms were sweaty. But this made sense. This — whatever it was, this moment. It was necessary, one way or the other.
But John leaned back in his chair, and one corner of his mouth twitched up. Not quite a smile, but something like. "Hey," John said, and ducked his head.
And then he hooked a foot around the chair to his left, and pulled it out from the table. He looked briefly up at Rodney, just a flicker of his eyes, and then inclined his head towards the empty chair.
"Sit down," he said, quietly, and Rodney, letting out a shaky breath, nodded.
"Sure," he said, and sat down.
Later, they didn't say much as they quietly excused themselves from the gathering. The Ralnans had given them a suite of four rooms but they always doubled up off-world, even with allies, which the Ralnans weren't, yet.
John had always been careful with him. Had been since the beginning. Spent half an hour peeling Rodney out of his clothes the first time, pausing to honour every new inch of skin revealed with a brush of his fingers, a soft exhalation. By the time he was naked, Rodney had been hot and dazed and pink all over, just from the weight of John's attention on his skin, shivering and hard and so turned on he hadn't thought he'd last. But he had, while John stripped out of his own clothes and stretched out over him, a hundred miles of skin and long lean muscles and hammering pulse. He'd just laid there for a long minute, all but quivering, breathing careful and shallow like he was trying to get himself under control. Rodney had been no help, of course, unable to resist wrapping arms and legs around John's body, swallowing John's startled "fuck, Rodney" with a kiss. They'd laid there so long, so astonished at the pleasure of just clinging and being aware of one another's skin, that they nearly hadn't gotten around to the sex.
They had, eventually. Rodney was nothing if not goal-oriented.
Tonight, John was solemn in a way that lightened Rodney's heart, for an endless day made heavy with the knowledge of what he was holding in, the burden heavier than it had ever seemed before. Like so many other things with John, as with almost no one else, it seemed that words were unnecessary; or at least, not as necessary as he thought they were.
The music sounded muffled and distant. The lights of the square were far enough removed that their room was lit only by moon and lamplight. As John reached for the hem of Rodney's shirt, Rodney caught him smiling that familiar odd, soft smile. Warm and bare, like the rounded curve of John's bare shoulders, and Rodney couldn't help but reach out to touch. The room was faintly chilly in contrast, but John's skin was warm. It always was, even though John himself was always cold, always marvelled at Rodney's warmth, pressed them together like he was stealing heat.
Rodney felt almost weak with relief when John pulled him close, thumbed Rodney's jaw before leaning in, like seeing him anew.
They hadn't been doing this long; maybe a month. They hadn't jumped straight into bed together after that first kiss — they were careful, and slow, and despite the definite mounting frustration on both their parts, Rodney thought this made things easier, at least for him. This was, after all, new.
His first time with John wasn't his first time. It was his first time with a man that lasted longer than five minutes. It was, notably, the first sex he'd had where both parties had taken off all of their clothes. Before John there had been a handful — okay, seven other instances. Seven and a half if he counted the time in Siberia where Yuri Petrokov backed him into a corner to dress him down in a low hiss for finally being such an arrogant ass that it merited verbal censure, but ended jerking him off instead. Rodney only gave that time half marks because he didn't get to reciprocate. Yuri glared at him and hurried off while Rodney was still catching his breath, his fly still hanging open. He always suspected Yuri came in his pants, actually. Nobody was more surprised than Rodney, though he's suspected for years that it was less that Yuri was possessed with sudden desire and more that he'd hit upon a more efficient means of shutting Rodney up.
The point was that Rodney's sexual history, while not brief, had been sporadic and not particularly memorable, unless one took into account the variety of uncomfortable locales involved. He knew that in a lot of ways he was socially retarded, and this was one of them. He'd never successfully initiated sex while both parties were sober, he'd never been allowed to stay the night if it happened in somebody else's bed, and with only one exception, he'd never woken up the next morning without feeling regretful and disappointed that it hadn't gone the way he'd always imagined it was supposed to. That it didn't feel the way it was supposed to.
After John, Rodney had concluded, with distant horror and only a little surprise, that maybe it was just that he'd never had good sex before. He wondered how much of that was him and how much was choosing unsuitable partners, but the noises John had made the first time told him pretty conclusively that it wasn't all him. And all they'd done their first time was moan a lot and rub off on each other. It had been messy and awkward and nothing like anything Rodney had ever done and it had been fantastic.
Another thing Rodney still hadn't been able to get used to was that John actually seemed to be attracted to him. Oh, he'd had appreciative partners before — Rodney had yet to discover a task that didn't benefit from an application of the scientific method - but most of them, outside of carnal situations, had hated his guts. He'd even met people who liked him, at least a little. He and Svetlana Markov had gotten along famously, and he thought she was even sorry to see him go, but there had never been even a spark of sexual chemistry between them. The people who liked having sex with him liked it because he was methodical and good with his hands, not because they were hot for his body.
But John — John, who was almost too pretty; who on numerous occasions had elicited actual catfights for his attention; who could have had literally anyone he wanted at the drop of a hat and whom Rodney had long ago dismissed as way, way out of his league — liked Rodney's body. Would lay Rodney out on his bed and take off his clothes, piece by piece, touching and smiling and clearly enjoying the view. Curled proprietary fingers behind the bend of Rodney's knee, his elbow. Smoothed his hands over Rodney's shoulders, spanned them around Rodney's hipbones, thumbs stroking in the crease between belly and thigh. Even the parts of himself Rodney had always tried to downplay seemed to appeal to him. He was kind of infatuated with Rodney's ass, and had once spent fifteen minutes licking Rodney's nipples just to make Rodney make high whimpering noises and tremble, before bending his head and swallowing Rodney whole.
They'd never gotten quite this far before, though they'd talked about it, in a halting, openness-is-emotionally-healthy, be-honest-with-your-partner sort of way. Neither of them was very good at it, but Rodney thought they were getting better — at least they had been, before the fight. Rodney had been thinking about it but hadn't quite worked up to asking, and he was sure John, who by now had worked out that Rodney hadn't done a whole lot of this, hadn't been planning to make the suggestion himself.
It wasn't exactly an accident, though. John liked to kiss with Rodney on top, his weight pressing John down into the mattress. He liked to sweep hands up and down Rodney's back, and the first time John cupped a hand around his ass, Rodney jumped, like he did every time. But John, carefully watching his face, just spread his fingers wide over Rodney's ass, squeezing gently, before letting two fingers slide down between Rodney's cheeks, slow and gentle. When John's fingertips just barely brushed the edge of his hole, Rodney jerked, a shudder running from head to toe, a jolt that made his cock twitch. He let out a startled groan and let his head hang down as he dragged in a sharp breath, because holy fuck, that was like being electrocuted, only about five million times more enjoyable.
John paused, fingers brushing up and down, not quite on target now, still watching Rodney's face for a reaction. He was being patient, but Rodney could see the way his eyes were shining, the way he was licking his lips.
"Rodney?" he asked , voice low, and Rodney didn't bother to answer him, just reached back and grabbed John's hand, pressed their fingers, together, against his hole again. This time the pressure kept his muscles from liquefying, but then John pulled his hand away, and licked his fingers, and then John's hand was back, fingers circling with purpose. When the tip of John's index finger just barely pressed inside, Rodney bit out a "fuck!" before shoving back with his hips. Under him, John laughed.
"Okay, so that's a yes, I guess," he said, delighted, and Rodney let his head fall to John's shoulder.
"I didn't," he forced out, his face flaming, "I didn't know it was—"
John's other hand was circling comfortingly at the small of Rodney's back. Rodney felt slow and achy, his cock heavy and tight against his belly. He wasn't sure he'd ever been this hard, because it had just dawned on him that they could do this. That John wanted to fuck him. That all Rodney had to do was say yes.
"John," he said instead, "I want—"
"Yeah?" John asked, a little breathlessly, rutting a little absently against Rodney's hip while those fingers were still busy between Rodney's legs. "Rodney? Really?" Like he couldn't believe his good luck, and Rodney kissed him.
"Yes, I — yes. Yes, please."
John managed to reach the lube from his pack without shifting them, and he coaxed Rodney up onto his knees, straddling John's belly. "Easier, this way," John said, still breathless, as he pushed up to kiss Rodney, messy and slow. Rodney's heart was pounding hard against his ribs, half scared and half can't-wait. The snap of the cap on the lube bottle seemed unnaturally loud in a room where the loudest things so far had been their breathing and Rodney's panted demands.
"I've never—" he said, and John kissed him again.
"Yeah, I figured," he admitted, one hand on Rodney's hip.
"But you, you like it, right?"
John's eyes, if it was even possible, went darker, hotter. "Yeah, Rodney," he said. "I like it. I like it a lot."
"Okay then," Rodney agreed, as John put down the bottle and rubbed his fingers together, right there where Rodney could see, and then reached down, leaving slippery trails across Rodney's ass as he slid two fingers down Rodney's crease, and then—
"Holy fuck," Rodney said, all in one exhalation, and then the tip of John's finger was sliding inside, just the tip, careful, careful.
"Hey," John murmured, low and calm though Rodney could feel the tension in his body, his every muscle straining to fuck, to fuck Rodney, "it's okay. Relax. I know it feels weird, but it gets better—"
And then it did, because John's voice let him relax just enough for the finger to slide deeper, and John twisted and suddenly Rodney understood what all the fuss was about.
This time when Rodney wakes up, John is still sleeping soundly. He spends a very long time watching John: the relaxed smoothness of his brow and the dark stubble shadowing his cheeks and jaw; the slight frown he wears. The way his hand is curled, palm-up, in the space between them.
This is getting harder, not easier. He's worked out that it seems to happen when he sleeps - not every time, but often. Sometimes when he wakes up, John's there. Sometimes the days match up, but not always. He never stops being tired. The math still doesn't make sense.
He's almost asleep again when John shifts, opens his eyes, smiles at him. "Hey," he says, and Rodney wishes he knew what they did last night; why John is so happy this morning. But he smiles back anyway, leaning in as John beckons, letting John throw an arm and a leg over him and kiss him for a long, long time.
"I want a day off," Rodney says, when they come to a natural pause.
John grins. "Yeah?" Rodney never wants to take time off; John practically has to tie him to the bed on Woolsey's Mandatory Sundays — not that that doesn't have its advantages, too — just to keep him from going into the lab.
"Yeah," Rodney tells him, kissing him again, almost desperately. He wants all the time he can get, before he wakes up in the other world again — the one where John's gone, has been gone for weeks.
"Hey, hey," John says after a moment, breaking away with his hands around Rodney's face, looking a little concerned. "What's wrong?"
Rodney stares at him, trying very hard to keep the desperation off of his face. He presses his face to John's shoulders. "Nothing," he says, he thinks convincingly. "I'm just... I'm tired. I just want a day off, okay? You people are always trying to make me take time off, and when suddenly I want to do it willingly..."
He sounds petulant enough that John is convinced. He relaxes around Rodney, his whole body going loose. He presses a whiskery kiss to Rodney's temple and sighs.
"I think we're owed a vacation," John says thoughtfully, and a moment later he's radioing Woolsey.
They end up on the pier as the sun is going down, as Rodney knew they would. There's a shabby plaid blanket, and beer, and sandwiches, and John, who is barefoot and unshaven and perfect and alive...
...and Rodney is going to make sure he stays that way.
This time the quake woke them, and a second later there came a loud and piercing klaxon that seemed to be sounding inside their heads, bypassing their ears altogether. A moment later, after Ronon and Teyla had stumbled into their room, it turned out to be doing almost exactly that — only he and John could hear it.
"Moel says the quakes have never been this bad," Teyla says, standing at the open door.
Rodney pulled out his scanner. "It's the research station," he said, and they ran towards the sound that became a real sound only as they neared the dome.
This time he found what he'd missed before — a door in a shadowy alcove at the back of the station, which responded only to his ATA gene, and sluggishly. Behind the door was a flight of stairs curving down into the inky darkness of some kind of underground chamber; probably the home of the power source Rodney had detected before. John stopped him just short of dashing down the stairs — the ground was still shaking fitfully, on and off, and bits of tile were raining down on their heads.
"I've got to get down there!" Rodney shouted above the sound of the alarm blaring through the station, and John looked at him, unsure for only a moment before nodding, curtly. The whole team followed him down, nearly going headlong down the staircase a handful of times as the shaking tried to pitch them over.
At the bottom, half a dozen consoles were blazing brightly, a semi-circle surrounding a circular platform that looked like a holographic projector similar to the one in the teaching room in Atlantis. Mounted to the ceiling was a massive neural interface array, bigger than any Rodney had ever seen. On the other side of the room was a vast squarish column swirling with blue lights, more and more of them going red by the moment. On top of that, the moment Rodney set foot on the floor of the room he was consumed with the sense of wrongness that infused him whenever an Ancient device was seriously out of whack; though this was almost as strong as he'd ever felt it. Down here, the alarm was still audible, but muted by the several metres of rock and earth.
He rushed to the far console, and as he reached it, the central platform lit up in a soothing violet. Suddenly a woman stood there, clad in the usual bland white Ancient robe, hands folded demurely.
"Please enter parameters," it said.
"Parameters?" Rodney stared at it for a long few seconds. "Parameters for what?"
"Please enter parameters for probability targeting," it said, its facial expression not changing even slightly.
Rodney stared at it for a few seconds more, his mind putting together the pieces. Then he snapped his fingers. "The Infinite Improbability Drive!" he exclaimed. Next to him, John gave him a baffled look.
Rodney can't believe it. They actually built it. "The— you weren't here. The station seems to have been at least partially designed to house some kind of... probability-influencing engine. Don't ask me how it works — I'd need weeks to even scratch the surface of the practical applications — but the preliminary theory I could access earlier seemed to indicate that it could be used to... influence temporal events according to the wishes of the user. I think it draws power from the magma layer, which might explain how it's suddenly active now — the tremors might have done it. It was still dormant when we were here earlier, otherwise I'd have detected it. I assumed it was a standard reactor, shielded underground. We've seen it before."
"Okay," John said, practically quivering with the need to do something. "So now what?"
Rodney looked around, went to another console, scrolled through one directory, then another, and then another. He wasn't seeing anything that encouraged him. When he switched consoles again, John followed him. "Rodney," he pressed, "what do we do?"
"I don't know!" Rodney said, pulling anxiously at his hair. The alarms were getting louder, echoing down the staircase. Across the room, Ronon and Teyla were eyeing the exit uneasily.
"Rodney," John said, studying one of the screens with a worried expression, "this doesn't look good. Maybe we'd better get out of here."
Rodney wanted to agree with him. They had time to make it to the gate. But a sense of dread was creeping over him. "We can't," he told John. "The power source is about to go critical. Either we shut it down, or it's going to go out in an explosion that — I don't even know how big. It's not a ZPM, but it's powerful. It could take out half the planet. It would definitely destroy the settlement. Look, there's still time to evacuate--"
"There's not enough time to get everyone out." There were nearly fifteen thousand people in the Ralnan settlement and in hamlets in the surrounding hills. John took Rodney by the shoulders, looked into his face. "Rodney. What do we do?"
Rodney stared at him. This was just like every other time — disaster looming, John pushing, and Rodney the only hope for salvation. He'd thought it might not feel the same now that they were different, but it wasn't different at all.
"Okay," he said softly, and then more loudly, "okay. Over there." He pointed, and John went to the furthest console. Rodney pointed to a panel in its front. "Open that. It's a secured primary access panel, but you're ATA so it shouldn't kill you."
John glared at him. "What?" Rodney demanded. "This is not a one-person job! I can't be on both sides of the room at once. It's either risk a little shock or we run for the gate now, because in a few minutes there's going to be nothing here but a big smoking crater."
He tossed John a screwdriver, which John caught easily and began unscrewing the panel. "Guys," John said to Ronon and Teyla, "maybe you'd better head for the gate. If this doesn't..."
"Yeah, no," Ronon said, arms crossed, and Rodney tuned them out.
He hooked up a laptop to the main input and began typing madly. If he could force the control system into shutdown, the overload should stop.
"Ronon, I need my secondary scanner — from my kit by the door," Rodney said without turning around.
"Got it," said Ronon, and a few seconds later the scanner appeared next to Rodney's left hand.
"Teyla, I need that spliced into the secondary input," he said over his shoulder.
"I remember how," she said, and got to work. It took her only a few seconds, and then the panel John was removing fell to the floor with a clang.
"Okay, now what?" he asked. "I've got three rows of crystals and a manual separator."
Rodney plucked a crystal probe and a clamp from the collection of tools in front of him and tossed them to John, one after the other. "Find the interrupter circuit — it's usually in the second row. Once you've got it, clamp the separator in the open position and pull the crystal, but not until I say."
There was a minute or so of silence filled only by the rising alarm as John followed his instructions, and then said: "Ready!"
"Okay," Rodney said, half to himself, and went back to typing madly. "Teyla, have you—"
"I am finished, Rodney," Teyla said.
"Good, great. Sheppard, pull the crystal now." He nearly had it. Power levels were peaking, but John's fix should make sure they hit a maximum and then dropped. He toggled over to the scanner Teyla had spliced into the control system — and felt his breath freeze in his chest. Out of nowhere, a surge.
He saw it starting, was already turning to shout out a warning as the explosion shook the floor and threw John backwards across the room.
The alarm cut off abruptly. It was silent as the three of them rushed through the smoke to John's side. They almost didn't find him. It took nearly ten seconds for the air circulators to kick in, clearing the smoke a little.
John was still. He was a man of extremes, either in motion or, simply, not — but this was different. For a second Rodney thought him already dead. He stood just short of John's boots, unable to move as Teyla dropped to the floor, taking John's pulse and saying his name. A moment later, John coughed, then cried out in pain as the motion pulled at the cuts all over his face and torso; bits of the exploded console. There were shards embedded in his forearms. There was blood oozing from seemingly everywhere.
"Rodney," John croaked, head turning in his direction even though he hadn't spoken. Rodney hurried over, reaching out a hand to restrain John when he tried to move.
"Ronon," said Teyla over their heads, "run to the gate. Send for help." Ronon was gone, running, almost before Rodney could turn around.
"John, hold still," she said, almost pleading, and then Rodney looked at her face, saw tears in her eyes, and knew there was nothing they could do.
"Rodney," John said again, hand reaching blindly, though when Rodney leaned over him John's gaze found him immediately. "Rodney, I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what?" asked Rodney, baffled.
"For bein' a dick," John said. "I was—"
Rodney almost laughed; instead he shook his head. "I'm not mad anymore. I don't care. We're both idiots, okay? It's fine."
John's hand landed on his thigh, squeezed hard. "Jus' — I wanna say it—"
"Don't," Rodney begged. "Please don't. You're going to be fine." He struggled to his feet and went to stand before the hologram. "Do you recognize my input?"
"This pattern was recognized at time index one one six seven four as an established author of events," the hologram said placidly. "Please state parameters."
Hope leapt in Rodney's chest. He looked back and John, then turned frantically back to the hologram, who still stood white-robed and impassive on the platform. "Fix it," he said urgently, fists clenched before him. "Fix him. That's what I want you to do. Save him."
The hologram barely looked at him. "Retroactive targeting may cause temporal instability," it said calmly. "This unit was designed to influence future events in a particular scope of influence. This unit cannot comply."
"Why the hell not?" Rodney shouted angrily, reaching for his laptop. Somewhere in the mess of the station's database there had to be an administrator override, but he couldn't find any directories labelled for the probability drive. Just the power source and the operational subroutines of the huge neural interface array mounted in the ceiling which he assumed was part of the drive. Why would you build something so powerful and then make it impossible to fix?
"Come on, come on, give me a system access route." This made no sense. He typed command after command, but it kept overriding him, telling him FILE NOT FOUND and NO RESULTS like it was hiding from him. The hologram flickered briefly blue, but then everything was bathed in violet again.
"Retroactive targeting may cause temporal instability."
Rodney wants to smash its glowing purple face in. With all this power at their fingertips, this couldn't happen — this couldn't be allowed. This couldn't happen.
"Rodney!" Teyla called urgently, and Rodney spun around to see John reaching for him.
Rodney hurried over, falling to his knees and catching up John's hand; there was blood everywhere, and the smell of burning flesh. Rodney had to fight not to retch. John's eyes were feverish and intent.
"Rodney, you can't," he said, his voice rough and growing fainter by the second.
"The hell I can't," Rodney protested, clasping John's hand to his chest. John squeezed his fingers, but weakly, as though he had no strength, and no wonder; it was bleeding out all over the floor. "And we don't have time for this. The power source is shutting down. Time is not an established entity. We can—"
"Rodney, the settlement."
"We'll find a way around it!" Rodney insisted.
"No. You don't know what'll happen."
"I know what's happening now!" Rodney shouted. He was crying now; tears running down his face. He didn't care. He had to do something; John was dying while they wasted time arguing—
—and then, suddenly, it was too late. The lights went out.
By the time their reinforcements arrived, John was gone.
This time he wakes with a start, and Ronon is there — feet kicked up on the bed, reading one of John's battered mystery novels. When Rodney sits up, fully awake, Ronon watches him warily and with interest.
When he says "I need to go back," Ronon only nods and helps him to his feet.
They go to Teyla together — radio her from out in the corridor to keep from waking Kanaan and Torren — and she comes out, dressed and alert.
"You two have been planning this," he says wonderingly. Teyla regards him solemnly for a while, and then nods. Ronon only smiles.
Getting through the gate is almost disturbingly easy. Rodney erases their life signs from the visual scan, turning them into ghosts. Ronon and Teyla — carefully, gently — stun the handful of people on guard in the gate room while Rodney punches in Ralna's address, and then the gate is whooshing to life, and then they're stepping through.
Ralna's day is more or less synced with Lantea, so it's full dark on the other side, as well as so hot Rodney can almost taste the heat; a weight on his tongue. They hurry through the darkened outskirts of the sleeping settlement, skirting around the town and making for the woods beyond. Or rather, hurry as much as they can lugging a Mark II Naquadah generator, the only one Rodney could get out of the labs without raising the alarm.
The research station is dark and silent and from the outside, unassuming. You would never know what misery this place caused a mere eighteen days ago.
It's just as dark and silent inside, though here there's also the lingering smell of smoke. The lights come on when Rodney steps through the door, but low and muted.
"Reserve power," Rodney says, waving at the blue-tinged lights on the console. "The main power source is still shut down."
"This gonna work with just this?" Ronon gestures to the generator he's now carrying on one shoulder.
"It should," Rodney says absently. He spent much of the first four days after John's death studying off of the information they downloaded from the research station; obsessively going over every detail again and again and again until Jennifer finally ordered him out of the lab. The Forte Contentia - what he's been calling the Infinite Improbability Drive, because he can't help it; the name just stuck — seems to operate on surprisingly little power. It's supposed to exert relatively little influence, after all, if used properly. The Ancient who built it apparently meant it as some kind of social engineering tool: to "nudge" social and economic trends in "desirable" directions.
Rodney doesn't plan on using it properly.
There wasn't much information on the drive. No matter how deeply he dug into the code, it still yielded no substantive information about the practical workings of the hardware. The information about the drive consists mainly of brief instructions for the end-user and preliminary equations; like somebody's lab notes or a proposal. There are no technical specifications, no development logs, no documented evidence that the drive exists at all, except for its very material existence in that underground room. It wouldn't be the first time they encountered an Ancient device whose documentation has been wiped out by a jealous Ancient inventor, but it's still strange, given how easily it gave them access to the room itself.
The hidden door is closed again, but it opens readily enough at his touch. The station's computer recognizes him now as the "author of events," which he hopes is a shoddy translation, but knowing the Ancients, probably isn't.
The room below is in worse shape than the one above; part of the ceiling has fallen in and collapsed one of the end consoles, though the neural interface array is undamaged; he stands staring up at it for a long several seconds. Rodney hopes that the Ancients' love of systematic redundancy has saved enough of the control system to do what they've come to do. He can burn out as many naquadah generators as he wants — he's already resigned himself to the fate of this one — but if the control system is fried, there really will be nothing he can do.
Rodney's never really believed in a god, but as he cobbles together a converter between the generator and the main power input, he considers praying a little anyway. On the other side of the room, in the midst of her own Rodney-appointed task, he can hear Teyla murmuring to herself, probably doing the same thing. Ronon is standing by the door, glaring at the still-dark hologram platform.
It takes him nearly half an hour to be sure that he won't overload the whole thing, and by then it's nearly morning. "Sun'll be up soon," Ronon warns, coming back down the stairs from where he's been checking the sky outside. "Better hurry."
"Yes," says Rodney irritably. "I know that, thank you."
He flips the switch.
For a moment, nothing happens. Then the lights flare to life and Rodney is momentarily weak with relief. He stands and the female hologram flickers into existence, filling the room with purplish light. The array above them starts to hum.
"Forte Contentia online," it intones, turning until it sees Rodney. "Ready to initiate target acquisition."
For the first time since they stepped through the gate, Rodney hesitates. "Wait, ready? You mean you haven't already been activated?"
"This unit is in standby and review mode,"
"What does that mean, exactly?" demands Rodney.
"This unit is in standby and review mode," it repeats.
"That can't be right," Rodney says, beginning to pace. Then he stops. "Summarize review mode."
The hologram flickers, the way Ancient holograms always do when accessing information. "Standby and review mode is the first of three stages. In this mode, the author of events reviews various potential outcomes of a potential target, before making a final selection and moving on to Stage Two."
"Reviews potential outcomes," Rodney repeats flatly. He can't decide if he's relieved or incredibly pissed off, but he claps his hands together anyway. "Okay, okay, that explains why I kept jumping back and forth, though obviously it wasn't meant to manifest like that. Probably it's supposed to happen all at once, while you're still in the lab. Differences between the Ancient and human brain, I guess. But at least it means I'm not losing my mind, right?"
He looks at Teyla, who nods encouragingly.
"What is your intended purpose?" he asks the hologram.
Another flicker. "The Forte Contentia was created by Alus Pronem as a tool for beneficial social engineering by exerting minor influence to encourage positive societal trends."
It looks at Rodney expectantly, but Rodney isn't buying it this time. He turns back to his laptop and pulls up the directory he'd ignored the first time; the subroutines for the neural interface array. Suddenly the hologram flickers again, blurring and then resolving into the blue-lit form of an Ancient male.
"Let's try this again," he says. "What is your intended purpose?"
This hologram actually looks at him. It's almost smiling, as though pleased that someone saw through the smokescreen.
"The Forte Contentia was designed to examine the impact of interpersonal alliances on the decision-making process. This unit's creator, Alus Pronem, hoped to determine—"
"Holy shit," Rodney breathes, as it continues on, talking about personality types and multiple timelines and the impacts of temporal probability shifting.
"What?" asks Ronon, who's still over by the door.
"It's not a social engineering tool, it's a social experiment." Okay, definitely pissed off now. Which is a little easier to take, actually. At least until he remembers something else.
"Stop," he tells the hologram, which stops immediately, waiting for instructions. "Why did you choose me?" he demands.
There's a pause, a flicker. "Please re-state the question."
"Oh, no, you don't," he mutters. "When you were activated - eighteen days ago. There were two ATA gene carriers present. Why did you choose me, and not John?"
Another flicker. A longer pause. Then: "This unit is designed to compare potential authors with an ideal subject personality profile. Current author represented a thirty-six percent better match on all points than alternate carrier."
Rodney stumbles backwards, catches himself on the console behind him.
"Rodney? What's wrong?" asks Teyla, coming over and touching him carefully on the arm. "You are very white."
Rodney covers his face with his hands and takes several slow, deep breaths.
"It picked me because its creator wanted to see what would happen if you gave someone the power to... to save people they cared about despite a hugely negative consequence. It picked me because John was too predictable, because it knew he would never make that choice." He realizes his voice has been getting louder and louder and shuts his eyes, biting down on his tongue until he tastes blood. He looks at Teyla, whose eyes are wide and horrified with growing understanding.
"Don't you see?" he asks, voice lower now — he's just so damned tired, and he's tired of being afraid to sleep, not knowing whether John will be dead or alive when he wakes. "All of this — it was an experiment. The device did all this." He points up at the ceiling, at the humming array.
Teyla looks up, and then back at Rodney. "So this has all been..."
"This isn't real?" Ronon asks, taking a step closer to the hologram and looking dangerously angry in that silent, scary way he has.
"It depends on how you define 'real," Rodney answers. "But..." God, he's so tired. "It wasn't an accident. Maybe the quakes destabilized the power source, but the, the explosion that - it wanted to see what we would do. What I would do. It chose me instead of John because John is a better person than I am."
"Rodney," Teyla says, hands firm on his shoulders, and he looks at her again. She is grave, but no longer afraid. "I do not believe that is true."
Another hand lands heavily on his shoulder, covering Teyla's, and Rodney looks up to find Ronon standing behind him. He doesn't say anything, just tilts his head towards the hologram, which for lack of further instructions has shimmered, flickered, and settled once again into its default interface, filling the room with violet light.
"Please state parameters for Stage Two," says the female hologram, and Rodney turns to his laptop screen.
He pulls up his interface program and starts entering commands, and the hologram stutters visibly.
"Ret-ret-retroactive targeting may cause tem-tem-temporal instability."The light under it turns a darker, somehow more threatening shade of purple. The pillar at the back of the room is blinking red, red, red. The array's hum has become a low buzz, making Rodney's teeth rattle.
"Yeah, I'm not falling for that this time," Rodney mutters, then stabs the Enter key and turns around to face the hologram again. Another, smaller console is rising from the floor; a second later it has locked into position, and Rodney wants to laugh.
Right in the middle of the console, itself about the size of a podium, is a big, red button.
"Target acquisition complete," says the hologram. "Operator override acknowledged. Ready to proceed to final stage."
He takes a step forward, looks back. Ronon is still glaring at the hologram, his arms crossed over his chest. Teyla is watching him carefully.
"I don't really know for sure what's going to happen," he admits, and Teyla and Ronon look at each other, sharing what might almost be a fond smile.
"We would not be here if we did not trust you," Teyla says.
Ronon nods. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to end the experiment."
Rodney takes the four steps across the space between himself and the platform. Big red button; well, now he knows where humanity got that cliché.
"You should have just fixed things the first time," he says to the hologram, though it can't really understand him, or care. "Instead of putting us through all this."
"Retroactive targeting may cause temporal instability. Potential side-effects include—"
"God, just shut up," he says, again, and the hologram stops, waiting but not interested. "Look — I can't. I can't... and maybe that's why you picked me instead of John, because he'd pick the greater good. He always picks the greater good, because he's a moron, and you know what?" He shakes his head. His throat is thick with tears. He just... he can't.
"I can live with that. I can live with being the selfish bastard here because — because I can't live with what the alternative means. I can't — he can't not be here. It doesn't mean anything if he isn't here."
He pushes the button, and the world fills up with light.
When he can see again, he's flat on the floor with his arms thrown up to protect his face - an instinct that would probably have done him little good if they'd really been in danger. He looks around, finds Ronon and Teyla crouched against the console, in more or less the same place he left them. The room is dark but for reserve power, which is already slowly dimming, flickering. And John—
"Hey, buddy, you okay?"
John is leaning over him, hair ridiculous and face bruised but alive, alive, alive.
Rodney almost knocks him over.
"Whoa, whoa, buddy, it's okay. I'm okay, really. I swear I'm okay." John hugs him back just as tightly for a minute or two, until Rodney stops shaking quite so badly and can actually get his arms to let go of John. John holds him out at arm's length, a little amused, but mostly he looks just as glad to see Rodney as Rodney is to see him.
Rodney looks over John's shoulder. The console that killed him the first time round has certainly blown out, but it's only blackened, not burning, and the room isn't filled with smoke.
Rodney glances at his watch — eighteen days ago. They've gone back to the beginning. Or maybe they never left.
Teyla hugs John next, and then Ronon does, actually lifting him off the floor before turning and giving a loudly protesting Rodney the same treatment. Once he's back on his feet Rodney hurries over to the console where he'd been working before the explosion, but the screen is dark. His tools are still spread out on the console and the scanner is spliced in where Teyla left it.
"It's like it never happened," he says, half to himself, and almost drops the crystal probe he's holding because his hands are still shaking.
John catches it, puts it back on the flat console, and turns Rodney to face him. "You okay?" he asks, clearly aware of how stupid a question that is.
Rodney just glares at him, managing a solid three seconds before the spirit of it leaves him entirely. "Do you remember... any of it?" he asks John, then looks at Ronon and Teyla. Ronon is harder to read, but Teyla still looks haunted. Not just Rodney, then.
"Sort of?" says John. "I mean, I remember the console exploding in my face. I... know what happened, but I don't remember it, exactly. It's more like it's something I read about than something that actually happened to me." He looks a little uncomfortable but manages to ask: "You guys okay?"
Ronon, Teyla and Rodney look at each other. Ronon shrugs, though he's still looking at the hologram platform as if he'd like to take it to pieces and then shoot the pieces. Teyla still has a hand on John's shoulder, and she squeezes a little before letting go. Rodney can't take his eyes off John for more than a few seconds.
"We will be well, John," Teyla says, at last.
John and Teyla share a speaking look, but then John nods. He runs a hand through his hair, which is standing on end a little more than usual. "Any way we can make sure this thing doesn't ever pull this on someone else?"
"I've got some C4," volunteers Ronon.
Rodney glances around the room - the glowing pillar, which probably houses the main core, is completely dark now. "I think we killed it," he says, not caring how vindictive that sounded coming out of his mouth.
"Right," John nods. "We should probably—"
They hear one of the Ralnans — Moel, Rodney thinks — calling them from the top of the stairs.
"Colonel Sheppard? Doctor McKay? Are you well? Trader Emmagan?" Moel sounds worried and frightened, as well she might. If this weren't an Ancient complex the quake probably would have buried them all alive.
"We are well," Teyla calls back up, and the lights flicker again. "We should probably return to the surface," she suggests.
Suddenly aware that they're about to be deep underground with no lights, Rodney follows the others up into daylight with no argument.
It's unfair that what follows is only the strangest mission debriefing of Rodney's experience by only a very narrow margin. It's definitely one of the most uncomfortable. He's suspected that Woolsey suspects for a few weeks now, but nothing proves the point more definitely than the way he carefully navigates Rodney around having to talk about the private parts of his and John's relationship when he tells the story of how John died, but didn't really die.
As it turns out, less than twelve hours have passed since the quake that drove them from their beds in the middle of the night. Despite the evidence at hand Rodney still can't quite believe it. His body certainly supports the eighteen-days-with-no-real-sleep theory, and right after this meeting he plans to go straight to bed and not stir for at least ten hours.
When Woolsey finally dismisses them, he's nodding at his seat, and John has to nudge him awake, then pull him to his feet and steady him when he starts to sway.
"You sure you don't want to go back to the infirmary?" John asks as they walk back to their quarters. Rodney just shakes his head, yawning.
To his surprise, when Rodney goes into his room, John follows, the door shutting behind him and the lock engaging while Rodney is still kicking off his shoes. Rodney stares at him. "What are you doing?" he asks, as John toes off his boots and arranges them neatly at the foot of Rodney's bed.
John looks at him funny. "What's it look like?" He carries on unbuckling his holster, setting it aside, and then unzipping his fly and starting to peel off his BDUs. "I think you've seen it before."
Rodney waves a hand desperately at the window, which very clearly shows a blue, daytime sky. "I thought we didn't do this in broad daylight? I seem to remember a rather spirited fight on the subject. I'm almost completely sure that that part actually happened."
John sinks down onto the mattress and regards Rodney seriously, hands dangling between his knees. "Yes, Rodney, that happened," he says patiently. "You do remember the part that happened after that, right?"
"I—" Rodney blushes — probably head to toe — and crosses his arms. Then he uncrosses them. "Yes," he agrees. "I remember."
John beams at him.
"Oh, just... stop that," Rodney tells him, and strips off his socks, sitting down next to John on the bed. For several breaths neither of them says anything, and abruptly Rodney is angry with himself all over again. "Go on, then," he says, hunching over his knees.
There's a long, long pause. Then John says: "Huh?"
"Ask me how I could be so selfish. Ask me how I could pick one person over an entire civilization. How I could be so irresponsible." With every word Rodney hunches in on himself a little more, until John reaches out and pulls him bodily up.
"I wasn't going to say anything," John tells him, and Rodney's head snaps up.
John shrugs. "It's like you said: you only knew what was right in front of you. And hell, Rodney, none of it was real, right?"
"And if it had been?" Rodney challenges. "The first time, when I tried to get it to save you, I didn't know—" He stops, swallowing hard, because he doesn't like the way his voice is breaking. "The first time, I didn't know. I didn't care. What if it had been real?"
John tilts his head. "If it had been, I maybe would have kicked your ass — though I guess I wouldn't have been around to do it." He looks Rodney in the eye for only a second before he looks away. "I would have understood, Rodney."
"How could you possibly—"
"Look, that thing maybe didn't know me as well as it thought it did, okay?" John says angrily, then slumps a little, frowning.
Rodney's exhausted, so it takes him a little longer than usual to piece this together. Then he remembers that John once talked a man into killing himself so that Rodney wouldn't have to.
"Forte Contentia... it means 'selfish chance.'"
"Yeah," agrees John, and they're both quiet for a long time.
Eventually John gets up, pulls back the covers, and stares at Rodney until Rodney finishes undressing, crawls up the bed and gets underneath the blankets. John takes his time a little more, folding his BDUS and his t-shirt, taking off his socks, closing the curtains.
"I guess we're not talking about this," Rodney mumbles sleepily as John finally climbs into bed, slinging an arm and a leg over Rodney the way he always does, the way Rodney found annoying at first but has gotten used to.
"I decided it was worth the risk," John replies.
But Rodney's already asleep, and might have dreamed it.