Rodney's really got to hand it to the Pegasus Galaxy: it's got some pretty impressive timing, maybe the worst timing ever.
It's not regular, of course—that would be too easy, too predictable. If they got a new crisis every two weeks, they'd probably get lazy and sloppy, and then they'd get dead, and that would suck. It's more of a Jaws thing, really: just when they think it's safe to go back through the Stargate, something else goes completely to shit, usually in new and exciting ways.
For example: Rodney spends a week in the infirmary, after his stint as the Amazing Underwater McKay, seven whole days of carefully monitored body temperature and sleeping round-the-clock, whining for blue jello in the fifteen-minute stretches he spends awake. The first mission, afterward—to a planet with no bodies of water larger than a kids' swimming pool—he stares at the gate with his face gone suddenly slack, bathed in blue light, and resists the urge to check for blood on his scalp. Sheppard doesn't say anything, and neither do Teyla and Ronon, but they keep him to the center of the group, and don't stop watching him.
Rodney considers complaining, but is mostly just pathetically grateful.
The mission goes fine, though—pretty planet, nice weather, friendly natives—and the one after it is the same, and the one after that. Rodney even manages to joke about it, after another twelve days. He's hanging off the underside of a catwalk, patching together the circuits that run the internal sensors, and Sheppard's pacing underneath him, ready to catch him. Which is all fine and good, except that the harness isn't going to break, and Sheppard's endless back-and-forth, just at the edge of his field of vision, is making Rodney vaguely dizzy.
"Oh, for - can you go somewhere else? Be somewhere else?" Below him, which is actually behind him because of the angle he's working at, Sheppard snorts.
"Just doing my job, McKay," he says, and then it's Rodney's turn to snort.
"Thank you for your concern, Colonel, and not to say that you shouldn't be concerned about the health of the smartest man in two galaxies, but can you be concerned somewhere that isn't in my peripheral vision? Contrary to popular belief," he finishes, "I am not actually a delicate flower."
It's not funny, not at all—it's really, deeply not funny—but Sheppard smiles an upside-down smile, and pats Rodney's shoulder, and tells him not to worry about it, he's doing fine.
So naturally, three whole months after the Puddlejumper Thing, when Rodney's laughing and joking, teasing Ronon for his ridiculous and completely unsubtle crush on one of the linguists, the ground falls out from under him, sending him hurtling down into blackness.
It didn't even make a noise, he thinks, turning his face out of the puddle of mud he's landed in. The whole thing strikes him as vaguely unfair.
Then he's unconscious, and it's not bothering him any more.
He wakes up in darkness, with a pounding headache and the knowledge that the Pegasus Galaxy has once again managed to fuck him over.
A quick check reveals that it's dark because he's at the bottom of what can only be termed a Really Big Hole. The headache is a result of the head wound that he discovers when he rubs his forehead and his hands come away wet and smelling of iron; the head wound is almost certainly a result of falling down the hole.
That's probably also where the sinking feeling come from.
He tries to stand up, watches as the darkness somehow manages to go blurry around him, and settles for rolling onto his back. From there, he can see a circle of light, watery-pale and much farther away than he'd like it to be. A Really Big Hole, indeed.
He tries to think about his situation, but there's not a lot that he can do. His resources are limited to what he was carrying when he fell, which means that he's got a scanner, the laptop he uses for offworld missions to unsecured planets, several powerbars, an emergency medical kit, spare socks, a flashlight, a bottle of water, and the bar of chocolate he'd been planning to share with the team at lunch. He'd won it from Rutherford, who had been stupid enough to bet that Zelenka couldn't fix the wiring issues in jumper #4.
It was an unfair bet, in retrospect—Rutherford's only had a few months of exposure to Zelenka's skill with the jumpers, which borders on the miraculous—but Rodney had figured that if Rutherford was stupid enough to bet against insider information, he was too stupid to properly enjoy a bar of 70% cocoa.
He'd been planning to share it with the team, this mission, because Ronon claims he doesn't like chocolate—which is only to be expected since he's never had the chance to try the good stuff—and because Sheppard loves it with a passion that borders on the obscene, and, yeah, because Teyla had caught him with it outside the labs and suggested that he bring it along.
None of which is the point. His mind is wandering, and he knows it, but he fights against sluggish synapses and the pain that arcs along his forehead in time with his pulse, focusing on his resources. The laptop is a bust, but that's all right; it's a lousy machine, and he's very careful to take all the useful data off it between missions, so that he's never going to lose more than a day's worth of information if he loses it to a landslide or a radioactive bear or unfriendly natives. The scanner will be fine, though; it's shown itself to be more or less indestructible. The medical kit and the flashlight will be helpful, but only if he can manage to sit up long enough to put them to their intended uses. Even then, he'll have to hold the light with one hand and bandage his head with another, and that's not likely to work well.
The water and the powerbars won't get him out of this hole, of course, but since it doesn't look like he's getting out under his own power anyway, he'll need them to keep his strength up until his team gets him.
That, of course, is when the roof falls in.
Rodney scoots to one side, ignoring the way the circle of sunlight goes wobbly and multicolored, until he's crouched up against one side of the hole. He's trying to get under an overhang, and it works, mostly; at the very least, the rocks that hit him are more fist-sized than toaster-sized.
Eventually, the noise stops, although it still echoes in his head, sending off ricochets of pain and little flares of light around the edges of his vision. The sunlight is gone, though, blocked by rocks.
Rodney rolls back over, trying to get at the chocolate bar—at this point, he doesn't think any of the team will mind if he doesn't share—and realizes that his pack is buried under the rocks.
Oh no, he thinks, oh, this is not good, this is definitely not good, and that's when he passes out again.
The second time he wakes up, it's because more rocks are falling on him. This strikes Rodney as being the last unfair thing in a series of very unfair events, and—as is appropriate in such situations—he complains about it. Loudly.
"Fuck!" is his first choice. He doesn't use profanity often, but there are times when it's the best of a set of very bad options. In this case—where it's either swear, cry, or pass out again—it's by far the best solution. He doesn't think anyone would argue with him.
Then again, he doesn't really expect anyone to be listening, either.
"Such language, McKay," the voice says, from somewhere out of the fathomless black over to his left. "What would Elizabeth say?" The voice is Sheppard's, and it's breathless and panting but otherwise relieved, which makes sense: Sheppard probably hadn't expected to find him, not after the rockslide. The adrenaline flooding Rodney's body washes away in a rush of safe safe thank you yes please, because if anyone can get him out of a Really Big Hole, it's Sheppard.
"That's it, Rodney," Sheppard's disembodied voice says, "keep talking, give me a way to find you." His words are punctuated by the clatter of other, smaller rockslides, along with Sheppard's own gasps of pain and frustration. Rodney hadn't realized he'd been speaking aloud, but he's perfectly willing to talk. If it will get him to sunlight—he resolves, briefly and devoutly, to spend more time in the sun once he's out of here, and skin cancer be damned, because he misses it so much—he'll talk until his vocal cords give out.
"Yes, of course," he says, because good ideas deserve reward and encouragement, "is there any topic in particular you'd prefer?" A pause, and then a breathless laugh, and Sheppard tells him to talk about whatever the hell he wants, Rodney, whatever makes him happy. And, well, the Really Big Hole isn't exactly making him happy right now, but it's the most pressing issue at the moment, and Rodney's always been good at putting the important ahead of the merely enjoyable, so he talks about the cave.
"There must have been a fault," he says, talking to the voice in the emptiness, "a fault, I think, because nothing could make a burrow that big—although of course that's a fallacy, because I'm speaking purely from my knowledge of Earth animals, and there's no telling what size of burrows Pegasus Galaxy animals might dig—but still, it seems like an odd shape for a burrow, wouldn't you say? I mean, vertical, that's not one of your great design innovations. Sheppard?" he finishes, because Sheppard hasn't said anything in a while, and if he's fallen down another hole, he'll just have to get himself out, because Rodney can't really move right now.
"Right here, Rodney," is the response, and Rodney lets out a sigh of relief. It hurts, of course; hurts like hell and starts off a coughing fit that lasts at least seventy-three seconds, but that's okay, that's totally fine. As long as Sheppard's alive and down here, Rodney's willing to cough for as long as he has to, although he's naturally relieved when he can draw a clear breath again.
He spends a couple of seconds doing just that, but then he remembers that Sheppard needs him to talk, so he continues from where he'd left off.
"A fault, then, right, and obviously fairly unstable—for the sake of argument, I'm leaving out the possibility of vicious natives building a brilliant scientist trap—" a bad joke, a terrible joke, but Sheppard laughs anyway, "—and when I stepped on it, whoosh!" The appropriate accompanying hand gesture makes his arm hurt, so he discontinues it after fifteen degrees of rotation. "The secondary slide was either a continuation of that, or a reaction to your weight, or maybe a reaction to your descent—"
Rodney is a man of many talents; one of those is the ability to talk for hours about nothing at all, and he puts that to use now. He keeps talking, blithering about instabilities and flaws in the rock surface, various rock-climbing techniques and their benefits, things Sheppard could have done so as not to bring several tons of rocks down on the space Rodney's head used to occupy, until Sheppard's hands close on his arm. They're cooler than Rodney had expected, and that small fact brings together a number of other small facts.
Rodney thinks, Sheppard got down here remarkably fast.
Rodney thinks, It doesn't make sense to send someone else down the hole that just ate one of your team members, especially when you're not sure that team member is even alive.
Rodney thinks, And wouldn't it have been easier to send Teyla? She's lighter and has better balance.
Rodney thinks, I wonder why he didn't use a flashlight.
Rodney thinks, with growing dismay, I probably hit my head on the way down.
"And, fuck, you're just a hallucination, aren't you?" he says, ending his latest tirade on a completely unrelated note, but it's not as though it matters, is it?
Sheppard—the fake Sheppard, the Sheppard that's nothing but a product of Rodney's concussed brain—laughs, which of course he would, because Rodney knows Sheppard well enough to know that his response to the unknown is, more often than not, bemused, dismissive laughter.
"Sure thing, Rodney," he says, sounding exactly like he should, "In fact, this whole thing is nothing but a bad dream. In reality—" he slides one arm under Rodney's shoulders and lifts, gently, using the other hand to keep Rodney's head steady, "—in reality, you're back in Atlantis, sleeping straight through the early briefing, and none of this is happening at all." His laugh is short and bitter, but his hands—his imaginary hands, the hands that Rodney is hallucinating for him—are gentle and steady across Rodney's back, behind his neck. "I'm probably trying to get through to you on the radio, and you're just inserting me into your dream-world as a rescue mission. That sound about right?"
It does, it really does, and that's the worst part: John sounds exactly right, says all the things that John Sheppard really would say if he were helping a team member get out of a Really Big Hole. He's exactly the right combination of amused and annoyed, managing to be sly and charming when he's got to be hip-deep in mud. He's also a hallucination, something that Rodney's subconscious is inserting into his environment in order to make it seem like things will be all right.
"A hallucination, Sheppard, not a dream, and will you pay attention?"
"In case you hadn't noticed, Rodney," the hallucination replies, "I'm trying to rescue you, here, and that involves a certain amount of paying attention." There's a pause in their argument, as Sheppard's hallucinatory stunt-double tries to get them both on their feet and Rodney tries not to throw up. Rodney wonders idly whether he's actually standing up, or whether he's still sprawled on the floor, imagining this all, but decides that it doesn't really matter. Once they're upright and leaning not-too-uncomfortably against a slab of stone, Sheppard picks up the thread of the argument.
"So, if you don't mind my asking," he says, in that tone of his that makes it perfectly clear that he doesn't care if you do mind, "how are you so sure I'm a hallucination? I mean, isn't the point of a hallucination that you can't tell the difference between the hallucination and the real world?" It hurts to hear him asking, because that's exactly what Sheppard would do, and just how he'd do it, and Rodney only hopes that the real Sheppard is out there somewhere, working on a non-hallucinatory rescue.
He considers not answering, but discards the idea. After all, his subconscious is just as smart as the rest of him; Sam Carter (the hallucination, not the real deal; Rodney claims no responsibility for her) was proof of that. In that case, talking to this hallucination is nothing but talking to himself, and he might get a few good ideas out of the process.
"You're a hallucination because you can't possibly be real," he says, and then, realizing that that's less than crystal clear, he elaborates, ticking points off on his bruised fingers. "You couldn't possibly have gotten down here that fast; you wouldn't be stupid enough to send someone down if you weren't sure I was alive; you wouldn't have come down yourself, you'd have sent Teyla; you would have brought a flashlight." He shakes his head, forgetting for a moment that Sheppard can't see him.
"It took me most of two hours to get all the way down safely, McKay," Sheppard retorts, "and Teyla sprained her ankle in the initial slide, so there was no sending her down. I had a flashlight with me, and I used it to see that you were down here, but Ronon set off some sort of secondary slide when he was holding the rope, and I must have dropped it then." It all makes plenty of sense, but that's only to be expected; Rodney is, after all, an very intelligent man, with an exceptionally vivid imagination.
"What I can't figure out," he says, leaning heavily on Sheppard's non-shoulder, "is why I'm hallucinating you at all. I mean, there's literally nothing I can do to get myself out of this situation, since I'm concussed and any remotely useful equipment is buried under half a ton of really big rocks."
"Under the rocks? Damn," Sheppard says, "and also, not a hallucination."
Rodney snorts. "You'll have to do better than that, Colonel Imaginary," he says, "by which I mean there's nothing you can do to convince me that you're anything other than the unfortunate byproduct of a very unfortunate head injury."
"Head injury?" Sheppard slides them down, inching along the rock against their backs, until they're sitting against the wall instead of leaning against it. "Can you sit up on your own?" he asks, which of course Rodney can. After all, since he's technically alone in here, any and all sitting up will necessarily be done on his own. He mentions it, but Sheppard just hmms, poking at Rodney's forehead with surprisingly gentle fingers. It still hurts like a bitch, of course, but Sheppard's not actually trying to make it worse, and that helps.
It also helps when Rodney reminds himself that this isn't actually happening.
"It's not that bad, McKay," Sheppard says, pulling away for a second. "I'm going to rinse it out, though, so close your eyes." He feels the water on his forehead, dripping from his eyebrows and running down the side of his nose. He flicks out his tongue and tastes it: Atlantis water, clean and fresh, with a hint of iron that must be his blood. Sheppard's hands are warm on the side of Rodney's face, and he's so close that Rodney can feel his breath. Sheppard bandages his head quickly and efficiently, then settles back against the wall, looping his arm around Rodney when he wobbles al little.
"I have to admit," Rodney says, "you're very realistic, for a hallucination."
The shoulder he's not actually leaning on starts to shake, and Rodney tries to pull back—although if he's started another rockslide, there's not much he can do about it. Sheppard grabs him by the arm, though, holding him steady, and Rodney realizes that, no, not a rockslide, just Sheppard, bent over, head between his knees, gasping for breath, shaking with laughter, the inconsiderate bastard.
"Ow!" Sheppard says, which seems silly: true, Rodney's just hit him, but it's not as though he's actually there. "Only you, McKay," Sheppard says with another breathless chuckle, straightening back up and taking a little more of Rodney's weight across his shoulders.
"Only me?" Rodney rolls his eyes, not caring that Sheppard can't see it. "That's something, coming from one of my hallucinations." Sheppard laughs again, like he can't help it, and while that's remarkably in character for the man himself, Rodney would appreciate a little more respect from figments of his imagination. He smacks the back of Sheppard's head again, and gets another yelp for his efforts.
"Enough with the hitting, Rodney," Sheppard says, grabbing Rodney's arm and holding it still. "And anyway, if you can hit me, doesn't that mean I'm really here?"
Rodney scoffs. "Hardly, Sheppard," he says. "Visual, tactile, and auditory hallucinations are all symptomatic of head trauma. You're extraordinarily vivid, it's true, but that shouldn't be a problem—Carter was vivid, too, and I didn't die."
"Carter?" Sheppard's voice is dangerously soft, and Rodney has a moment of panic, of realizing that he's said more, shared more, than he should have done. Reality reasserts itself quickly enough, though: Sheppard's a hallucination. If he doesn't know everything that's happened to Rodney already—which he doesn't, which is strange—there's still no harm in telling him, because he's not real.
"Carter, in the jumper, under the sea—I hallucinated her then. She helped me figure out the solution," no sense in mentioning that he hadn't followed it, not if fake-Sheppard didn't already know, "and argued with me, to keep me awake."
"Argued with you?" It's sad, really—these days, Rodney likes Sheppard a lot more than he likes Carter, proximity and repeated life-saving being what they are, but the Sheppard hallucination is pretty clearly inferior to the Carter model. Less independent thought, unable to recognize itself as a hallucination, fewer brilliant ideas, no breasts—really, it's a shame.
"You want me to have breasts, McKay?"
"Oh, shut up," Rodney snaps. "And anyway, if you were a good hallucination, you'd do it."
Beside him, Sheppard snorts, his shoulder lifting under Rodney's arm. "Well, now," he says, "I didn't realize it was a competition." There's a pause, and Rodney considers explaining that he doesn't actually want Sheppard to have breasts. Even knowing it was hallucination, it would still be Sheppard with breasts, which, no. It's just—well, if he's going to be stuck down here anyway, it would be nice to have something else to focus on.
"Like breasts?" Sheppard asks, and, yes, exactly like breasts.
"Seriously, though," Rodney says, knowing that it's not important but not caring enough, "why am I hallucinating you? Sam, at least, was useful."
"That hurts, McKay, it really does," but his voice is laughing and Rodney knows that it doesn't, not really. Rodney rolls his eyes, knowing that Sheppard will know what he's doing even if he can't see it.
"Yes, Colonel—you are a substandard hallucination and I no longer love you." Sheppard laughs, trying not to, and the quiver of his imaginary shoulder under Rodney's arm is its own sort of reassurance. "My point was that there's nothing for me to do down here but wait to be rescued, which means that there's no need for me to hallucinate anyone at all."
"Maybe I'm moral support," Sheppard says, and Rodney's spitting out a denial when he stops, thinking. Carter had been an argument, parts of his brain fighting over the best thing to do, his subconscious made blonde and feisty in an attempt to get him to pay attention. Sheppard is—nothing like that, not challenging or difficult in any real way, just quiet conversation, easy and humorous. Carter wanted him to do something, but there was something to do, in the jumper. Sheppard just seems to want him to sit here and talk—
"—but, of course, that makes perfect sense!"
"It does?" Sheppard's just messing with him, now—puts a whole new spin on 'mind games', doesn't it?—but Rodney's willing to play, since apparently this is what his subconscious thinks is best.
"I can't do anything to rescue myself, from here," he says, and feels Sheppard's nod against his elbow, "but at the same time it's important for me to stay conscious while I wait for my eventual rescue. Conversation, even with you, will do that, and has the added bonus of giving the real Sheppard a way to find me." There, that makes sense.
"Sure thing, Rodney," Sheppard says. "That makes plenty of sense, if you ignore the part where I'm the real Sheppard." It's actually an interesting question: why won't Sheppard admit that he's a hallucination? There's no point in asking Sheppard, though, since he's the source of the problem and will just deny his non-real status until they're rescued.
"All right, 'Real Sheppard,'" he says, "what's your brilliant escape plan?" Sheppard's silent, and Rodney knows he has him.
"Keep you conscious and unsquashed until Ronon gets back with the marines and a hoist," he says, talking louder to project past Rodney's triumphant, convulsive 'ha!' "That's different, though," Sheppard says, "because I'm a real person, waiting for other real people."
"Yes, and if you wish upon a star, maybe you'll turn into a real boy." In the end, though, it doesn't matter whether or not Sheppard is willing to admit that he's a hallucination: either way, they're just going to sit around and talk until the real Sheppard can rescue them. "All right, Sheppard," he says, "what do you want to talk about?" Maybe his subconscious will surprise him—it has before, after all.
"Why don't you tell me about Sam Carter?" Which is not actually what Rodney had been expecting, so there's one point to his subconscious. It does make sense, though—even though he knows Sheppard is a hallucination, Sheppard's still insisting on acting like Sheppard, and there's no way that John Sheppard would let something like that go unquestioned. "Come on, McKay," he says, "don't you trust me?"
"Well, given that you're a fragment of my subconscious mind, yes, of course," Rodney snaps. "I mean, you're hardly going to spread it around Atlantis once we're rescued."
"Do you think I would? I mean, if I were real," Sheppard asks, quiet and honest, and Rodney has to admit that, no, Sheppard probably wouldn't.
"Fine, yes," he says, "although I don't know why you want to hear about it, given that you were there at the time."
"You hallucinated me, too?" Sheppard says, but then he shakes his head, saying, "Right, of course: I'm a part of your subconscious, I was there too."
"Exactly, so there's no need for you to hear the story, unless you just get off on my misery—in which case, wow, I'm even more screwed up than Kate thinks I am." Which is not actually that screwed up, really. Kate thinks he's "poorly socialized and somewhat obsessive," both of which Rodney could have figured out for himself, thank you very much.
Sheppard laughs, that snorting, braying noise that always reminds Rodney of an ungulate. "Yep, Rodney," he says, "I'm actually plotting against you as we speak."
"Really?" Because it's always worth asking.
"Well, not unless you count 'escaping from the hole in the ground' as a plot," Sheppard says, "and weren't you going to tell me about Carter?"
"Carter, right." He has to think about it, for a moment, to frame it like he would, if this were really Sheppard. There's no real need, of course, but it's surprisingly fun to preserve the illusion. "It was during the jumper crash, when I was trapped underwater. I was trying to fix things, of course." Trying and failing and panicking, actually, but there's no need to tell Sheppard that, even a fake-Sheppard. "I turned around, and there she was, arguing with me about what to do."
"And you believed it was her?"
Rodney snorts. "Of course not, she's on Earth," he says, "and anyway, she admitted to being a hallucination, unlike some people I could name." Sheppard starts to say something, but Rodney keeps going, talking over him. "Yes, yes, I know, insert more protestations of your reality here, and can we move on? I thought I was supposed to be doing the talking, anyway."
"What, and you're not?" Sheppard asks, which Rodney interprets as an invitation to continue Story Hour.
"Right, so, Sam Carter," he says. "Well, as you know, I was on the test flight for the jumper that got shot down, flying back from the mainland. Our repairs proved to be less thorough than I, personally, would have liked, and we wound up crashing into the ocean." He swallows hard, wincing a little; he's told the next part before, but only to Heightmeyer, in a careful, colorless monotone. Well, and to Sam, of course, but that definitely didn't count. "The windshield cracked, and Griffin, the pilot, he went to the front to shut the doors from that side. I could have done it from the back," he adds, looking towards where Sheppard's head would be, "I could have, if he'd given me a minute or two, but—"
"I know this part, McKay," Sheppard says, and his voice is quiet and gentle. "Where does Carter come into it?"
"Oh, what, and setting the scene isn't important?" But the scene is more than set, so he keeps going, telling Sheppard about the power problems, the CO2 scrubbers, the temperature, the inertial dampeners, the ridiculous little interface screens that become completely unusable after twenty minutes of hard work.
"And then I heard this voice behind me, saying, 'Let me have a look.'" He shrugs, feeling the weight of Sheppard's arm against bruised shoulders. "I turned around, and there was Carter, offering to look over my work."
"So what did you do?" Sheppard's playing along, anticipatory, waiting for Rodney's answers even though they know each other well enough for him to write this particular script himself, by now.
"Oh, you know," Rodney ways, "panicked, backed into a corner, covered my face, contemplated my own mortality, told her she couldn't possibly be real."
"Which she admitted."
"Which she admitted, yes, and you could learn from her example!" That gets him a good-natured nudge to the shoulder, and Rodney smiles into the darkness, remembering. "She said she was a part of my subconscious, and that I was seeing her because I was scared and lonely and secretly thought she was smarter than me." He doesn't need light; he can hear Sheppard's eyebrows go up. "I know, can you believe it?"
"So what did you do?"
"Oh, we talked for a bit. Words were said—" and of course Sheppard's not going to let that slide, so Rodney has to elaborate: "I accused her of being, well, the fruit of my subconscious desire for one last roll in the hay, she impugned my intelligence and my dignity. The usual, really."
"You told her she was a fantasy? Geez, Rodney—that's harsh."
"Yes, and if it were true, it would have some terrifying implications for my fantasy life, but let's not forget that I was trapped in a jumper with a concussion, limited power, only one escape plan, and an extremely contrary hallucination for help."
Sheppard laughs, shaking his head again. "All right, Rodney," he says, "I'll cut you some slack. So Carter helped you with your plan?"
"Well, no." Rodney sighs, remembering. "Samantha Carter, like some other Colonels I could name, turned out to be of the 'sit around and wait for your team to rescue you' school of escape artistry."
"It's a good school, McKay," Sheppard says, his voice mild. "Saved your ass, didn't it?"
"Yes, fine, Carter was right and my plan was crap—that doesn't mean that inaction should be your default course of action, Sheppard!"
Sheppard just hmmms, quiet and thoughtful, and Rodney spends a moment drifting in blackness, watching the patterns that the non-existent light makes on the walls of the cave. The next thing he knows, Sheppard is poking him viciously in the shoulder, saying his name over and over in an increasingly panicked tone of voice.
"I'm fine, I'm fine—will you stop that?" The poking stops, and Rodney settles back against the cave wall, using Sheppard's shoulder to prop his head up. "More conversation, please, and less with the fingers in tender places."
"Fine, Rodney," Sheppard says, "tell me how Carter kept you from panicking without actually being there—that sounds like a useful skill, if you ask me."
Rodney sighs—of course Sheppard wants to know about this, about Rodney arguing with another figment of his imagination. Rodney's life is like that, these days. It's a good thing Sheppard's only a hallucination; Rodney has logged more than enough minutes of critical embarrassment already this year.
"She argued with me, mostly," he says, "tried to reverse-psychology me into thinking her ideas were better, talked about how, since she was part of my consciousness, I should trust her implicitly."
"And that worked?"
Rodney shrugs. "The arguing did, for a while, until I saw through her plan. Oh, and she took off her shirt and made out with me. That probably would have worked, actually," he adds, thinking, "but she'd already shot me down earlier, so I was suspicious."
"You made out with your hallucination of Carter?" Sheppard sounds shocked, amused, a little impressed. "You knew she was a hallucination and you made out with her anyways?"
"She was hot, okay?" Rodney's trying to work up some indignation, or at least some shame, but neither seems to be forthcoming. "She was hot, and she started it, and I was hypothermic and concussed, and anyways she was only doing it to keep me from passing out."
"That's—you know that that's really weird, right?"
Rodney sighs. "Believe it or not, that had in fact occurred to me, Sheppard," he says. "I deal with it by reminding myself that I was concussed." Sheppard's silent for a long moment, and Rodney pokes him in the ear with the hand that's over Sheppard's shoulder. "Come on, keep talking, don't let me fall asleep and stop breathing."
"That would throw a wrench in the whole 'rescue' thing, wouldn't it?" Sheppard pauses again, but it's short enough that Rodney doesn't have to hit him again. "Fine, fine," he says, "I guess that explains why you still don't believe I'm real, huh?"
"Exactly," Rodney replies, pleased that Sheppard's finally showing the reasoning skills befitting a part, however fragmentary, of Rodney's colossally intelligent brain. "Like I said: auditory, visual and tactile hallucinations are pretty much all par for the course, at this point."
A pause, and then: "What did it feel like? The kissing, I mean."
Which is a ridiculous question, really, if entirely in character for John Sheppard. "It felt like kissing, Sheppard, what do you think it felt like?"
"Inasmuch as I know what to expect from kissing Samantha Carter, I'd have to say that, yes, it was very real kissing. Is there a point to this?"
"Not really," Sheppard says, friendly and flippant. "I was just wondering if I had any chance of convincing you that I'm not actually a hallucination any time soon. Not that it hasn't been fun, I mean," he adds, "but if you say I'm not here one more time, I'm going to get a complex or something."
"I see." Really, Sheppard's insistence on his own reality is getting annoying—although, of course, that's the point; annoying things will keep him conscious and focused in a way that simply interesting things won't. "Well, Colonel," he says, "I'm afraid you're out of luck: poking me in the ribs, as realistically aggravating as it may be, isn't going to win you an upgrade."
"That isn't exactly what I had in mind," Sheppard says, and before Rodney can ask him what he means, Sheppard's leaning forward and kissing him, slow and soft and sweet, delicious and stunning even with the head injury and the bruises. Sheppard pulls back with a delicate bite to Rodney's lower lip, and his indrawn breath is echoingly loud, sound waves bouncing off the rocks and coming back to Rodney from all directions.
It feels like Sheppard is about to try and say something, which is, god, the last thing Rodney wants, at this point, and so Rodney leans forward, aiming at where Sheppard's lips ought to be. He's a little off, and catches his lips on the corner of Sheppard's mouth, but it's easy enough to correct for that, and then—and then they're kissing again, less gently this time, hot and wet and messy and perfect. Rodney pushes forward, wanting more and more and more, until he leans too far and puts pressure on his arm, pain rocketing up from abused muscles and tendons. He pulls back, swearing, and Sheppard's there, arms around him, settling them back side-by-side, hushing out apologies.
"Not exactly the best idea, Rodney," he says, hands sliding gently over the bandages. Satisfied that Rodney's not any more injured than he was five minutes ago, he starts to move away again; fortunately, Rodney gets his good arm up in time to grab Sheppard by the shoulder.
"Faulty execution doesn't mean that the underlying premise is flawed," he says, and then, when Sheppard stays frozen, "Come here, you idiot."
"Aww, Rodney," Sheppard says, "do you say that to everyone?" He's smiling, though—Rodney can feel the upward tilt of his lips when they kiss again, slow and dirty. Sheppard sucks on his lower lip until it feels fat and swollen, then follows the urging of Rodney's hand and presents his jaw to be kissed and bitten.
Rodney's just trying to figure out if he has the range of motion necessary to get Sheppard's pants open—and has decided that he doesn't care, he's going to try anyway—when there's a sharp clatter somewhere above them, and weak, watery light pouring down.
Rodney looks up, too fast, and has to curl forward, wincing and coughing, his feet—he can see his feet! —graying in and out. Beside him, Sheppard disappears from under his arm, and he's not really surprised.
There are voices, too: Teyla, and Ronon, and other people Rodney can't make out very well. Some of them are shouting his name, asking if he's OK.
"I have a head injury," he says, "and I hate this galaxy, but I'm fine." He closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, Sheppard—the real Sheppard, sweaty and human and bruised and scraped and incontrovertibly there—is standing in front of him, a harness in one hand and a flashlight in the other, lighting the planes and angles of his face.
"Let's get you out of here, Rodney," he says, pushing Rodney into the harness. Rodney lets himself be manhandled and abused and lifted, slowly, into the sunlight.
Really, the Pegasus Galaxy has the worst timing ever.
"Ow," Rodney says, and then, as he wakes up a little more, "Ow, fuck, oh god, ow."
There's a flurry of activity in front of his closed eyes, shifting patterns of light and dark, and then someone's holding an ice chip to his mouth. It feels amazing—water, cold fresh water, sliding across his tongue and down his throat, and god, it feels incredible.
"Rodney?" Beckett's voice, which means he's on Atlantis, which means—adjusting for any remaining injuries—that everything will be fine. "Rodney, can you open your eyes for us?"
It seems like a reasonable request, so Rodney complies. There's an instant of light, bright and painful, slicing his head open without benefit of anesthesia, and then he snaps his eyes shut again, swearing the entire time.
"See, Elizabeth? Mouth like a sailor, I told you." Sheppard, of course, and Rodney opens his eyes just enough to glare at him. Sheppard isn't fazed, though – he just grins at Rodney, and pats him on the arm. "How are you doing, McKay?"
"I hate you," Rodney says, "and—" He's got this great rant lined up, about the relation between leaving brilliant scientists in holes and sudden power malfunctions in the living quarters, but all of a sudden he's remembering things, and it cuts him off before he can get going.
He remembers: Sheppard, the reluctant hallucination, arguing him conscious. Talking about Carter. Talking about kissing Carter, and then—then Sheppard's mouth on his, warm and soft and entirely real, too close to the truth he won't have.
I hallucinated you, he thinks, staring at Sheppard, and then I made out with the hallucination, even though I knew it wasn't real. It makes him feel vaguely ill.
Sheppard looks similarly awkward, and Rodney takes a moment out of hating his life to hope that he wasn't babbling anything embarrassing on the stretcher ride back to the 'gate. He'd been full of Carson's special reserve painkillers, the stuff that can knock out a small horse or Ronon, so there's no telling what he might have considered appropriate topics of conversation.
And somehow it's worse, with Sheppard, miles and megawatts worse than it was with Carter. His attraction to Carter was acknowledged and documented, a known quantity with set properties. He knows, too, with no egotism attached, that she's attracted to him, even is she's never acted on it, even if she never does act on it. Exposing that, even in a hallucination, had just been proving the obvious. One plus one equals two; Rodney McKay has the hots for Samantha Carter.
Sheppard, though—Rodney knows Sheppard, and he knows himself, and he knows the shape of the world they occupy. No matter how close he and Sheppard are, no matter how many stories and adventures and memories they share, there are some lines they won't ever cross. Breaching those boundaries, making Sheppard want something that Rodney knows he doesn't, feels dishonest and dirty, like fingerprints on crystal.
And even with all of that, all Rodney wants to do is kiss Sheppard again.
He can't, of course. Even apart from all of the reasons he shouldn't, there's the simple undeniable fact that he can't move, and asking Carson to lift up the bed so that he could play tonsil hockey with the military commander of Atlantis would be beyond awkward. Instead, he stares, and Sheppard stares back, and it's too much, too close, too soon—
—and then Carson's there again, his hands going unerringly to the least bruised part of Rodney's wrist.
"Now, Rodney," he says, and it's a measure of how bad Rodney's injuries are that he doesn't even try to smile, "we need to run a few tests." Rodney's least favorite words in the universe, coming from Beckett, but at least it helps him look away from Sheppard.
The tests aren't the invasively painful kind, at least. There's the ritual drawing of blood, of course, and then checking Rodney's cognitive function by shining a light in his eyes and making him solve word problems and spell "world" backwards. Then, a nice trip through the bioorganic scanner, and they all get to stare at a glowing 3-D image of his body. The nurses wince and take notes as Beckett goes over the image inch by inch and layer by layer, pointing out all the areas that are flashing red. Rodney stays limp and flat on the bed, watching the monitor and noting, in the back of his mind, how the pain flares up as Carson's careful, meticulous analysis brings it to the forefront of his attention.
Somewhere in all of this, Sheppard slips away. Rodney doesn't notice it, at first, and then when he does he spends so much time not paying attention to it that he almost misses one of Beckett's "Now, Rodney, can you please…" questions.
Fortunately, Beckett just takes it as a sign that Rodney's tired, not as evidence of impending cognitive doom. Rodney gets wheeled back to his bed and settled down with a blanket and a fistful of drugs; he takes them all, figuring that they can hardly make him feel worse, at this point. He's just planning to sleep for a week, anyway.
Then, the kicker: he can't. He has a head injury, after all, and "if there's been any bruising to the brain, Rodney, you might very well fall asleep and forget to breathe!"
"Oh, shut up," Rodney says, "I never forget anything."
He gets to sleep for an hour at a time, in the end, and drifts off to the sounds of Beckett organizing a rotation of people responsible for waking him up.
The first time, it's Elizabeth. She strokes his hand and tells him that they're all very glad to see him alive. He offers to give a report, but she just shakes her head and laughs, soft and sad.
"You fell down a hole, Rodney," she says. "What do you say we leave it at that?" Rodney has a number of things to say to that, actually, but he falls asleep before any of them can organize themselves into words.
The second time, it's Teyla, who presses her forehead against his and drips tears on his chin as she pulls away. When he asks if she's all right, she raises her eyebrows in her best 'inscrutably amused' expression, and says that she is "fine, Rodney, thank you." He winces, then, pulling away from the nurse as she takes his pulse, and Teyla sings him lullabies until he drowses off again.
When he wakes up again, it's Ronon leaning over him. Rodney's about to ask what he's going to do for entertainment, but then he notices the tray of food at Ronon's elbow and just smiles. Ronon doesn't baby him or coddle him at all; he just feeds Rodney, with the same matter-of-fact calm he uses on everything he does. It's reassuring, if slightly bizarre.
After Ronon is Zelenka, the nap between them passing so fast that they seem to blur together. He's got schematics for Dawson's rotating energy conduits, as laughably bad as all of Dawson's practical designs, and he projects them onto the wall opposite Rodney's bed. They pick through the flaws together, building Dawson's ridiculous premises through to their absurd conclusions, and Rodney falls asleep laughing.
When he wakes up again, the room is dark—true dark, nighttime dark, not Atlantis' simulated evening—and Sheppard is there. Rodney thinks about going back to sleep, or at least faking it, but it's no good; he snores, when he sleeps, in a way he's never been able to fake. Any second now, Sheppard's going to notice the lack of sawed logs and—
"Hey, Rodney," he says, sitting up a little in the chair next to the bed. "How's it going?" The lights start to come up, and Rodney winces; it's not as bad as before, but he's still more photosensitive than usual. Before he can complain, though, they're easing back down again.
"Sorry about that," Sheppard says. "You okay?"
"Fine, fine," Rodney croaks, and even he's not convinced by it. Sheppard doesn't comment, though; he just hands Rodney a glass of water and helps him drink it.
"More?' he asks, but Rodney just shakes his head, and Sheppard sets the glass back on the table and waits.
Rodney McKay is not a patient man; he makes it maybe two minutes before he cracks.
"What?" he snaps, and is both gratified and ashamed of how Sheppard very carefully doesn't react.
"Just thought I should apologize, McKay," Sheppard says, which is so patently ridiculous that Rodney ignores the pain in his ribs and side to laugh.
"For what, exactly? You didn't create the flaw in the rock, and you didn't make me fall in—wait, did you? Did you push me?"
"It's a valid question! So, fine, you didn't create the hole, and you didn't throw me in, and you did get me out—oh," he says, "oh, come on." He glares at Sheppard, ignoring the way it makes his head ache. "Are you seriously blaming yourself for taking too long to get me out?" Sheppard's silence is a confirmation, his awkward fidgeting incontrovertible proof. "Well, stop it," Rodney tells him. "You're being ridiculous."
"Gee, thanks, Dr. McKay," Sheppard drawls, "I feel so much better now."
The lights come up, because Rodney's glares are much more effective when Sheppard can see them. "You saved my life, you idiot," he says, "what more do you want? You went back to Atlantis, got a remarkably well-designed winch set up, and got me out before I had time to bleed to—oh." Sheppard's running the backs of his knuckles along one cheek, tracing the edges of the cut that's there. He's got a few other cuts, a complement to the ones Rodney can feel on his own arms and hands, and there's a pretty spectacular bruise coming up on his left wrist.
There's also a line of marks going up his jaw and down the side of his neck, little red-purple bruises that match the shape of Rodney's mouth.
"Oh, fuck," Rodney says, and Sheppard's smile is as sharp as a cliff.
"Pretty much," he says, standing up. "I make a good hallucination, though, don't I?" He's moving towards the door, slow awkward steps, and Rodney's still trying to breathe around this revelation when—
"I'm sorry!" It's not what he was intending to say, but none of this has been what he wanted to say, so he keeps going. "I'm sorry—look, I know there's no excuse, and I'm really, really sorry."
"You're sorry?" Sheppard's face is carefully blank, but he's not leaving anymore, so Rodney swallows what's left of his pride and keeps going.
"Yes, Colonel," he says, "I'm sorry that I assumed you were a hallucination. I mean, in my defense, there was no way to tell—or, well, there were, obviously, but the point is that the circumstances weren't exactly the best—and it's not like I didn't have a precedent, you know! I mean, stressful situation, no option for escape, head injury—well, it made perfect sense at the time."
Sheppard just stares at him.
"And, right, I'm supposed to be apologizing, right? Well, I'm sorry for doubting your reality, and I'm sorry for hitting you, and I'm sorry for the—the kissing," he says, "and, hey, don't hit me! I'm injured, you can't hit me now!"
Sheppard—next to the bed, again, and leaning over Rodney—rolls his eyes, smiling.
"Rodney," he says, "calm down." And then they're kissing.
Sheppard's mouth is warm, his lips a little chapped; his hair brushes against Rodney's forehead. He tastes like toothpaste and coffee, and smells like someone who spent the afternoon in a very big hole. He's leaning over Rodney, trying not to put pressure on any of his injuries, and the only points of contact are his lips on Rodney's. It's careful and gentle and real; it's better than any hallucination could ever be.
"Gee, thanks, Rodney," Sheppard says. "I'm really flattered."
"You should be," Rodney tells him. "I have an exceptionally vivid imagination."