John lied to Rodney three times between the moment the welts began appearing on Rodney's arm and the moment he finally lost consciousness. "Don't worry, don't worry, you're fine," John said, hastily uncapping the epi-pen and jabbing it into Rodney's thigh, and then, when it became clear the epinephrine wasn't doing jack shit to stave off whatever was choking up Rodney's system: "Hey, relax, okay? Help'll be here in a jiffy."
"Right," Rodney said uncertainly. "Relaxing." His breathing was labored, and his eyes seemed to be darker than they usually were. Dilating, John realized. All pupil. Rodney sat in his chair, struggling to breathe, while Teyla tried to hold off the distraught Kiborian ambassador and his "doctor" (who'd brought something like a jam jar full of leeches). John paced and tried to radio Ronon, running for the gate.
There was only static.
Rodney slid forward in his chair, hands in front of him, reaching out, down, like he couldn't see. Rodney gasped, "I think, I need to—" and suddenly John understood that Rodney was trying to lower himself to the hard-packed dirt floor.
"Wait." John crouched beside him, tensing his thighs. "Rodney. Let me help you—"
"I'm fine," Rodney gritted out, but he was gripping John's arm. He sat down and immediately rolled onto one side, pillowing his head on the crook of his arm. His face was a grimace of pain. "I just—need to put my head down. Call me when help..."
He didn't finish the sentence; he just lay there and stared up at John. John stared back, irrationally furious, because he could see in Rodney's eyes that Rodney didn't think help was going to get there in time. He was wheezing badly now; his face and neck were swollen. John raised his free hand to his radio and said, casually, easily, without taking his eyes off Rodney, "Ronon, buddy, we really need that jumper." Still only static.
John found himself wondering if he could do a tracheotomy, if it came to that: if Rodney's throat closed up entirely. He knew the procedure: dig a hole in the trachea, insert some kind of tube. The bright orange cylinder of the epi-pen would do; if he could do it. Dig a hole in Rodney's McKay's throat. He wasn't sure he could. Except...
Rodney's face was changing color: he was going blue around the eyes and mouth. He was staring up at John with those too-huge, too-dilated eyes, sides heaving as he struggled to breathe, and that was just so goddamned wrong, because Rodney bitched about everything: every bug bite, every bunion, every paper cut, and now here he was, dying of fucking anaphylaxis and—Holy Christ. John felt sick. Rodney didn't think he was going to make it and maybe he was right.
His knife was in his belt. It was sharp and clean; he'd checked. He could sterilize it with—
Rodney's fingers clamped down on John's arm, digging in, and John jerked up to look at him. Rodney's lips moved, jaw working and chest convulsing as he struggled to suck in a breath, and then he said, "Do you love me?" His voice was a bare scrape, a choking noise, and John jerked back, shocked. "I mean, do you think you could ever—?" Rodney slid his hand down John's arm and gripped his fingers. There was affection there, and urgency.
John stared down at Rodney's hand, ringed with puffy red welts, and at his own hairy knuckles. Rodney was squeezing John's fingers. Rodney was holding his hand.
"Sure I do," John said finally. "You, Teyla, Ronon..." and nothing in Rodney's expression changed except everything changed. Rodney fought for another strangled breath.
"Right." Rodney was still holding John's fingers. "The team. Me too." John had expected convulsions or thrashing, not this terrible quiet, so it wasn't until Rodney's hand thunked onto the dirt that he fumbled for his knife, and even then, he was too late.
"You did fine," all the doctors kept telling him. "You did good. Nobody could have done better in that situation," they said, except Rodney was in a coma with a hole in his neck.
"Whatever reaction he had isn't responding to the normal course of antihistamines," and yeah, thanks, he'd figured that much out, "so it's not a straightforward anaphylaxis: more like a poisoning. We'll know more when we identify the triggering toxin; in the meantime, we're giving him fluids and vasopressure drugs as well as intravenous corticosteroids, and we've intubated his trachea. Nice incision, by the way."
They all said this, all the doctors, with a kind of wink that said, "Welcome to our medical fraternity,"—as if he could give a shit, as if that hadn't been the worst fifteen seconds of his life, screwing up his courage to cut into Rodney's throat, feeling the rough ridge of cartilage with his thumb and then digging the knife point in. And the blood, oh God. It was like murdering him—like killing Sumner but worse, because it was up close, because he was using his hands, because there was blood everywhere. Because it was Rodney lying there: blue and unconscious.
"Fuck off," he wanted to say, but didn't. Instead, he rubbed his eyes and said, "We've got teams down on Kibor taking samples of every damn thing: the air, food, water, soil. We're bagging everything he ate or touched, but is there something in particular we should be..." He gave a dispirited wave. "I don't know, something to narrow it down?"
They just stood there in their scrubs and shrugged at him. He endured a series of thin smiles and some platitudes about patience and persistence in the face of medical uncertainty. Translation: "Hey, it's another galaxy, pal. We have no fucking clue."
But it was only the fact that they were in another galaxy that kept them from shipping Rodney back to earth for medical treatment: if the toxin was from Pegasus, probably the antidote was, too. The doctors worked to distill and test each sample, one by one, while Rodney lay there, hooked up to tubes and wires in a curtained-off corner of the infirmary.
In the end, they sent for Jeannie. "Oh my God," she said, hands flying to her mouth: they'd told her she was there for a scientific consult, there being no SGC procedure for bedside visits by next-of-kin. She looked at John. "What did you do to him?"
John could only stare at her; what the hell could he say to that? And then Keller said, giving him a strange, sideways glance: "A little over a month," and John replayed the question in his head and heard it clearly this time: How long has it been?
"We don't want to put him into stasis," Keller told Jeannie, smoothly taking over while John stood there like an idiot, "because we're coming up with new things to test all the time. We're just trying to be careful," she added, "because obviously this substance is extremely toxic to your brother's system—"
"You think?" Jeannie said, and made a beeline for Rodney's bed.
Jeannie turned to John abruptly and said, "Where's that girl?"
John had no idea what she was talking about. "What?"
"That girl, Katie whatever her name was. I mean, you're here, and Teyla and Ronon swing by every half hour, but I haven't seen hide or hair of—Oh my God, how did he screw that up? She seemed really into him—which fine, is nuts, I know, but she really did seem to be into him. I mean, I told him she was his last, best chance, so you think he'd take it seriously. Talk about shooting yourself in the—hello, does he want to get married or not? I mean, I swear, does he even like girls, or—? Oh my God," Jeannie said, blue eyes wide and impossibly McKay-like, hands flying up involuntarily. "Oh my God, does he like girls?" Jeannie looked at him with something very near panic. "I've been assuming he likes girls, but holy crap, he's forty, he's never been married or had a serious—well, is he, or isn't he?"
"What?" John said.
"Gay, gay, is he or isn't he? Gay," she said again, like he was a moron, and then, suddenly ignoring him, "Oh my god, I'm such a fascist."
"I don't know; how the hell should I know?" John said, too loudly, and in his head Rodney whispered, Do you love me? I mean, do you think you could ever—
"Well, I mean," Jeannie said, rolling her eyes. "You're the closest thing he has to a friend, right? I wouldn't even know who else to—"
"We're really not that—" not that close, he nearly said, but it was one lie too many. Jesus, Rodney was right there—right here—unconscious, comatose, but not dead for fuck's sake, and John's throat closed up, rings of muscle like a too-tight collar. He couldn't breathe. He—maybe this was how Rodney had felt when—"I—excuse me," John said, and blindly pushed at the orange hospital curtains, and fled.
He hid on the highest balcony of his favorite tower and stared out at the sea until the sky turned golden-orange and the twin suns started going down. He had his radio but nobody called. With Rodney out, the team was on temporary stand-down. With Rodney out...well, it was surprising how little he was required. The suns dropped low in the sky.
Behind him, Ronon said, "Stop beating yourself up about it."
"I'm not," John said without turning around.
"Do you think it's my fault?" Ronon asked, after a moment. "Could've run faster."
John snorted. "Yeah, I'm not sure that's even possible."
"Uh-huh. So quit beating yourself up about—"
"I'm not beating myself up. About that," John added a moment later, in the interest of full disclosure; man, he had to give up bullshitting like this. "I'm beating myself up over something else entirely, all right?"
Ronon thought about this. "Yeah. So maybe quit that, too," he said.
The duty nurse barely looked up at him as he walked down the dim central corridor of the long-term ward and slipped into Rodney's curtained-off area. Rodney's face was tinged blue; this time it was just light, reflected from the beeping monitors. There were gray hairs among the brown stubble on his throat; they sparkled silver in the blue light. Rodney looked younger, despite them, and unnaturally, bizarrely relaxed.
John braced his forearms on the metal railing at the side of the bed and gazed down at Rodney's receding hairline and long eyelashes, the upturned point of his nose. He was funny-looking, really: a ridiculous person. Except. John slid his fingertips down along Rodney's stubbled jawline, then bent in to kiss his mouth. His dick throbbed unexpectedly when their mouths touched; he maybe didn't know what he wanted, but his body knew. Rodney's mouth was soft and cool, almost cold, and John kissed him deeper than he meant to considering that it was their first kiss and Rodney was in a coma and everything. But Jesus, he wanted to feel a little heat.
"Wake up," John said finally, urgently, when Rodney's mouth had warmed against his. He pulled back to look at Rodney's face, and realized that some part of him expected Rodney to be awake, or awakening—groggily coming to consciousness like some pointy-nosed Sleeping Beauty. That sort of thing happened to him. But Rodney was still out of it, his head fallen to one side though his limbs had been tightly arranged by some fucking medic or other.
John said, "Rodney, I'm sorry," irrationally certain that this was the password, the catchphrase, that would bring Rodney back and make everything all right. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I'm sorry, Rodney," and then, it having occurred to him that he hadn't actually said what he'd come here to say, he bent down low and whispered into the blue-lit shell of Rodney's ear: "I love you. I do. Please wake up."
He was still there in the morning when Jeannie came back. She looked surprised to see him, though he couldn't think why she should be surprised. "Did you," she began, then glanced over her shoulder like he'd just raced past her. "Have you been here all night?"
John handed her the battered trade paperback she'd left on the visitor's chair: Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda. He'd gotten through about half of it. Caleb Miller's name was neatly printed on the inside flap.
"I love your brother," John said, determined to say it or be damned. "I know he's weird and annoying, also very controlling, but that doesn't seem to matter. No," he added, preemptively interrupting her when she opened her mouth, "I can't figure it out either."
"Okay," Jeannie Miller said, nodding slowly at him.
"It just is. It's just what it is," John said.
"Okay." Jeannie was still nodding; she seemed to be trying to think of what to say. "Does he," she began finally, glancing over at her brother. "I mean, are you—"
"I don't know. Do I know? No. He's in a coma," John said, flinging an exasperated hand at Rodney. "I can't ask him, so I don't know. If he would fucking wake up, I'd ask him."
"Okay," Jeannie said again. Behind her, the orange curtain rustled and Teyla came through the gap. "Hi," Jeannie said to Teyla, a little desperately.
"Good morning." Teyla looked at each of them, perhaps sensing some weirdness in the room, before moving to Rodney's bedside. "Has there been any change?"
I kissed him. I told his sister I was in love with him. But he's still— "No," John managed. "It's the— Everything's the—" and Teyla must have heard something in his voice, because she turned to him, tilting her face up to his. John saw worry in her eyes a moment before she closed them and put her hands on his shoulders. John closed his own eyes and let his forehead drop against hers. She was breathing slowly, deeply, and John breathed with her. In, out. In, out. The infirmary monitors beeped softly behind them.
"I can't stand this," John said, and Teyla's hands tightened reassuringly on his shoulders.
"Come with me," Teyla said finally, lifting her head. "You need breakfast, I think."
He followed Teyla to the mess and forced himself to eat a few spoonfuls of the gluey white gruel they served for breakfast; Rodney poured fake maple syrup on the stuff and ate it by the bucket. They ate together in companionable silence. The ritual of eating seemed to settle him. He almost made it through: he was nearly done with his coffee when he felt compelled to blurt, "Teyla, I'm so screwed; I think I'm in love with him."
Teyla's spoon clattered into her bowl. John nodded frantically, helplessly mirroring her shocked expression, and mimed, See? See? Totally screwed! Talking about feelings! Teyla's eyes widened in sympathy, and John was just about to beg her to come down to the gym and beat the shit out of him when they were interrupted by Keller, who stopped short at their table, beaming and a little out of breath.
"I think we've got something," she said excitedly.
They didn't. It didn't work: eleven hours later, and Rodney had shown absolutely no reaction to whatever concoction Keller had whipped up. "I'm sorry," Keller said, trying to blow a strand of fine brown hair off her sweaty forehead, and when that failed, swiping her pale forearm across her face. "I was so sure, but... I'll keep trying."
"I'm going to fucking kill somebody," John said grimly.
Ronon immediately unholstered his superbad energy blaster and handed it to John. "Let's do it," he said, and they went down to the shooting range, where John maliciously blew holes through the heads and groins of about a thousand paper targets, and then he and Ronon went to launch grenades off the south pier. The first one exploded in midair with a boom that rattled the windows of the nearest tower.
"Awesome," Ronon sighed happily. "Too bad there's nobody around for you to cap for real," except suddenly John knew just who he wanted to cap: those bastards on Kibor.
"Get Teyla," he told Ronon, swinging the grenade launcher down to the floor. "We're going back there."
His senses were on high alert the moment he stepped through the gate; beside him, he could see Teyla and Ronon looking around too. The Kiborian gate was outside, on the gentle slope of a hill. Around them were fields of waving grasses dotted with little yellow flowers and floppy orange and white blossoms. John looked at Ronon.
"Tried 'em," Ronon said, shaking his head; he'd gone on most of the sample-gathering missions. "The orange ones, the yellow ones, the grasses. The birds that pollinate 'em. The bugs that—" and John sighed and nodded, then jerked his head toward the path.
They were halfway to the village when they saw the Kiborian delegation, off in the distance, coming to meet them. It was their first mission all over again, except Rodney had been with them, then, wearing his tac vest and clutching his P-90.
When they got close enough to meet, John groaned and saw it was the same Kiborian ambassador as last time. Ronon looked at John and said, "I'll handle this."
"Nah, I got it," John said, and leaned back, eyes narrowed, waiting.
"Colonel Sheppard," the ambassador said breathlessly, coming to a halt before him. Behind him on the dusty road was his entourage, a familiar-looking group of ten or so people in brightly decorated robes. "I am so very glad you have returned. The others that came, I tried to tell them, I tried to send a message to you, but they would not listen."
John smiled thinly. "What message?"
The ambassador glanced nervously at Ronon and Teyla, then stepped closer to John and lowered his voice. "I wish to send my healer to Atlantis," he said. "To treat your Dr. McKay," and behind him, the Kiborian "doctor" stepped out of the crowd, protectively clutching his jam jar of leeches in the crook of one arm. He was holding some kind of large club in his other hand. It had a leathery bulb on the top, and he gave it an optimistic little shake. It went shucka, shucka like a maraca or a tambourine, and he smiled.
John looked at him for a long moment, and then said, "Yeah, okay."
"Sheppard," Ronon said skeptically. "You sure that's a good idea?" and John remembered that Ronon's wife had been a doctor or something on Sateda. And okay, no way did this look like reasonable medical science, but he was at the point where he was willing to try anything: leeches, acupuncture, herbs, chanting. He shrugged elaborately at Ronon— What's to lose?—and Ronon rolled his eyes and said, "Yeah, whatever."
"Oh my God," Keller said, hands raised as she tried to intercept them. "No, no—what are you bringing into my infirmary?" "Let 'em in, that's an order," John said, and waved the ambassador and his healer toward Rodney's curtained-off cell. Jeannie looked up, startled, from Oscar and Lucinda and got to her feet. "Just let them try whatever they want to try," John said before she could say anything. "It can't hurt and it might help."
"It totally might hurt," Keller told Jeannie, and crossed her arms. John rolled his eyes.
The "doctor" was already examining Rodney, thumb gently lifting his eyelid to peer at a pupil. He made a thoughtful noise, then uncorked the top of his jam jar and used a kind of carved wooden twig to pull out—
"Oh no, no, no," Keller said, but John grabbed her wrist and held her back. The thing was thick, black and slimy, more like a slug or a snake. It had a glistening sheen of slime along its underside, and the healer lifted it out of the jar and slowly, slowly put it on Rodney's muscular forearm.
"Colonel," Keller said in a strangled voice. "I really can't permit this to—"
"Just let him do it," John muttered.
"I'm going to hurl," Jeannie Miller said.
The fat thing slithered up Rodney's arm, leaving a shining trail. It just sat there for a moment, its narrow tail faintly vibrating, and then, before any of them could do anything, it plunged a single white fang into the soft inside of Rodney's elbow. Jeannie gasped, and Keller broke free and moved to snatch it up with a pair of metal tongs, but John grabbed her wrist again, stopping her, because Rodney's eyelids were flickering open.
He saw Jeannie first. "Jeannie?" Rodney croaked, and then Keller was pushing forward and saying, "Rodney, don't try to talk," and gesturing frantically for water. Jeannie reached down, picked up her brother's hand, and held it tight. "You're going to be all right," she said, "everything's going to be all right," while behind him, someone on Keller's team said quietly, "We need to scan him, check for brain damage—"
John seized the guy's arm. "Brain damage? Who said anything about—"
The guy shook Sheppard off and gave him a look. "He was in a coma because the oxygen to his brain was cut off, so it's possible there'll be—" but John wasn't listening any more, he was pushing his way to the open foot of Rodney's bed.
"Rodney!" John called, trying to steal Rodney's dazed gaze away from Jeannie and Keller and the healer and the fat black slug still coiled on the inside of Rodney's arm. Rodney's head rolled toward the sound of John's voice, and then, to John's profound pleasure, Rodney saw him. His face changed—brightening, sharpening, suddenly interested—and he tried to lift his head off the pillow. John reached out for the blanket-covered lump that had to be Rodney's right foot and squeezed his toes.
"55,441," John said, and Rodney stared at him for a too-long moment before giving him a weak thumbs-up. "55,443." Rodney turned his thumb down. "55,457," and at Rodney's next thumbs-up, John glared at the doctor and said, "He's not brain damaged."
Rodney looked shocked. "I'm—" he squawked, and Keller quickly handed him a plastic bottle with a straw. Rodney took a few thirsty sips and then said, sounding stronger, "I am most certainly not brain damaged!" His expression faltered. "But, um," he added, shooting a pathetic look at Keller while waving weakly, "you know, check anyway."
"Out!" Keller was waving her arms, and to be fair, it was getting crowded, what with Keller, Jeannie, Teyla, Ronon, the two Kiborians, three doctors, two nurses, the jar of slugs, and John. "Everybody out!" Keller said, driving them before her like sheep, but John held his ground at the foot of Rodney's bed, hand still squeezing Rodney's toes.
"Colonel," Keller said pointedly, holding the curtain open.
John didn't even glance in her direction. "I need a minute," he said. The curtain closed, and he and Rodney were alone. All at once, he didn't know what to say. "I'm sorry about what happened," he said finally.
"I'm actually not entirely sure what happened," Rodney said, his voice still rusty from a month of disuse. "But I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that you saved me."
"Not that," John said, and then: "I mean, that too. But I'm talking about the other thing, that thing you said to me, when you were, when—" and this was it, now or never. "I should have said yes, Rodney, okay? I'm saying it now. Yes. I do. Yes."
"Oh." Rodney blinked at him.
John took a deep breath: geez, lying was easy, because you had to invent everything. With the truth, how did you know when to stop? "I love you," John said. "And—I think I want you. To go to bed with you." He was breathing hard now, fighting to keep his voice low and quiet. He drifted up the side of Rodney's bed. "Goddammit, Rodney, you scared the shit out of me. I wasn't sure you would, that you would ever—"
"I—God, come here. I've got something to—" Rodney's hand came up, shakily, and closed around the loose front of John's shirt. He tugged, and John let himself bend forward, over the railing. He thought Rodney was going to say something comforting, maybe reassure him that he was all right or something, but Rodney surprised him with a kiss so dirty that John felt it like crackling fire along his nervous system. Rodney's tongue slid into his mouth, hot and slick, his stubble prickling John's lips. The kiss gentled gradually into something warm and sweet, and when Rodney finally broke it off, he whispered: "You won't regret this. I'm going to make you come so hard you'll see stars," and John closed his eyes and shivered, because Jesus, that had the unmistakable ring of truth to it.