When Rodney McKay had been alive, John often ate with him -- one, two or even all three meals. Rodney might have been an arrogant jackass to a lot of people, but he had a biting sense of humor and John often found his running commentary hilarious. They would sit together in a corner of the mess hall and snipe about people, sotto voce, trying hard to crack each other up, practically daring that one, loud guffaw which would mean game over.
When Rodney McKay had been alive, John would sometimes play 'buzzword bingo' with him at staff meetings. Elizabeth had never been very fond of using the latest in management boss-speak, but while they had been on senior staff, both Bates and Kavanagh had been easy money. John always suspected Rodney of cheating whenever Radek presented anything.
When Rodney McKay had been alive, John would sometimes have elaborate, ridiculous masturbatory fantasies about him. They would be off-world and caught in some weird fertility rite where they'd have to fuck each other. Or they'd find a strange artifact which made them screw like bunnies or it would turn them into bunnies -- or penguins or komodo dragons or duck-billed platypuses -- that would have to screw.
But Rodney McKay was gone, and all John Sheppard had left were dreams.
"...So the drain on the zero-point module will continue to increase, unfortunately." Radek looked more depressed than usual as he presented his news to the senior staff.
"Is there any possibility of reversing this drain?" Elizabeth said. She looked like she had a headache, John thought. Which made sense; he'd had a headache for what felt like the last six months. "And do you have any estimate on how long the ZPM will continue to hold a charge?"
"Stop or reverse the drain? No. Not that I can tell," Radek said. "If we were merely supplying power to key systems, we could have thousands of years left. But now that the naquadah generators are dying, the load has increased exponentially. And every time we need to use the shield as a cloak to hide, the power levels decrease further."
"Do we have any hope of recharging the naquadah generators?" Carson asked.
"We have not found a large enough or sufficiently accessible vein of naquadah in the Pegasus galaxy," Radek said. "Without a supply of naquadah, we cannot recharge the generators. And since we have no idea what is causing their discharge, we cannot stop that, either."
Elizabeth sighed and John heard it echoed around the table. "As you all know, we haven't been able to contact Earth at all for months, now," Elizabeth said. "We have to assume that... the war is going badly, or..." John willed her not to say it, and with a glance around the table, Elizabeth cut herself off. "Yes. Well. With this new drain on the ZPM, we're going to have to cut gate travel back even more severely. Dr. Hashaibo, have you had any luck finding naquadah in the Ancient database?"
"No, I'm afraid not," Ranah Hashaibo said, her voice heavy with fatigue. "But there are terabytes of information there. I have not given up yet."
"We'll keep looking," Elizabeth said, nodding. "I'm making this a top priority for everyone. As of this date, there will be no more gate travel unless absolutely necessary. Teyla, are your people capable of feeding themselves and us as well?"
"I will ask," Teyla said, her voice soft. "I do know that the harvest this year was expected to be very good, which is in our favor."
"Yes, it is," Elizabeth nodded. She looked so weary, but John knew they all had the same look. "Please let me know, Teyla. If there's nothing else...?" She looked around the table but no one spoke. "Very well, then. Let's get back to work."
John Sheppard was a closet cuddler. His girlfriends had all thought it was fabulous until it began to creep them out. His boyfriends had just thought it was weird. But John liked to cuddle, it was his favorite thing next to sex, so he indulged as often as he could.
He was on a beach, on the mainland, dressed in board shorts. The sun was hot in an absolutely beautiful, cloudless sky. John was stretched out with his head on Rodney's lap -- Rodney was also in board shorts, sitting on a ground-level beach chair, his legs crossed at the ankles, and he was running his fingers through John's hair. It was so perfect it made John's heart ache.
He sighed and nestled deeper into Rodney's lap. "God, this is wonderful."
"I'm glad you're comfortable, but it's damn hot." John chuckled. "I'm not kidding. What the hell are we doing out here? And why don't I have any sunscreen on? I burn very easily... this is an absolutely classic invitation for melanoma, I'll have you know."
"McKay, relax," John said. He was grinning -- how he'd missed Rodney's complaining!
"Relax? When I could be developing skin cancer? I don't think so. We're moving to the shade."
"But I don't want to move to the shade," John said, leaving his head where it was. "The sun is warm and so are you, so I'd just..."
"No, we're moving. Come on, get up."
"McKay, quit it. It's just a dream."
John's eyes popped open and he frowned. "Wait a minute..."
"Colonel, would you please get your head out of my lap. I mean, not that it's very nice to have you cuddling with me, but I really think we get enough radiation exposure as it is without pushing our luck any further."
"Wait, wait..." John struggled to sit up and turned. "This... this isn't real."
Rodney shook his head and rolled his eyes heavenward; classic McKay exasperation. "Excuse me?"
"I'm... this is a dream." John looked around and saw an empty beach bracketed by two rocky promontories and backed with dense vegetation. No sign of a jumper anywhere, no sign of other people or even a way to get to or back from the beach. "This doesn't even look like Atlantis. Or, I mean, the mainland." He turned to Rodney. "And you... you're..."
"You're making even less sense than usual, Colonel. I'm what?"
"You're... you're dead." John whispered the last word, coldness filling him. He waited for Rodney to contradict his statement, waited and hoped.
But all Rodney did was frown at him. "I'm dead? I don't feel particularly dead. How do you know I'm supposed to be dead?"
And that wasn't right, John would have expected Rodney to freak out at that statement. Rodney had a very unhealthy preoccupation with death -- his own in particular -- and the mere mention of it was generally enough to put him into panic mode.
"Well?" Rodney was calmly waiting for an answer.
"I... I know because... because I miss you," John finally replied, hesitantly. How did he know Rodney was dead?
Rodney blinked and a quietly pleased expression came over his face. "You miss me?"
"More than I can say," John murmured. "More than I ever thought I'd miss anyone. We all do."
"Yeah. Really." John swallowed the lump in his throat and reached up with one hand, meaning to caress Rodney's cheek.
That's when his alarm went off.
John woke with a stopped-up nose and tears on his cheeks. He roughly scrubbed the moisture off his face and went to take his shower and get ready for the day, knowing already that it was going to be a bad one. Damn his subconscious anyway.
Elizabeth caught up with him in the mess. "Can you and Teyla take a jumper to the mainland today?" She asked. "Halling radioed he had some fruit and grains ready for us and Teyla needs to meet with him about the food supply."
"Sure." John carefully ate every little bit of his seedy, bitter muffin. He used his tea to clear his mouth. "There's nothing else to do, except paperwork, unless we've found a vein of naquadah somewhere?"
She sighed and shook her head. "I'll be working with Dr. Hashaibo as much as I can, trying to translate some of the database. There's just so much of it to go through."
"I know." Elizabeth looked like John felt -- exhausted, depressed, defeated. John carried the additional burden of the dream he only vaguely remembered. "We'll find some, soon. We have to." We don't have a choice, he added in his head.
Elizabeth nodded and it was almost as though she could hear his thoughts. "At least we have the Athosians and the mainland to fall back on, if it comes to that. And the jumpers still work." She frowned. "John, do you think we should start asking for volunteers to move to the mainland? It would cut our power consumption down drastically."
John closed his eyes. He'd been dreading this question, because he knew it did make sense. He didn't have to like it, though. "I don't know. We could start a quiet rumor, see what people think, unofficially." He looked her in the face. "There might be several people who'd want to go, it's not like a lot of us have anything to do, what with 'gate travel being shut down."
She rubbed her forehead. "I know. Running the city with a skeleton crew would definitely help all the way around, though. And if we had more farmers, more harvesters, we could get more food in."
"I'll float it around," John said. He wanted to curse, to scream and rail against all of it. He'd always thought Atlantis would go out in a blaze of glory or a radioactive cloud, not dying step by step, inch by inch, a terminal wasting disease that made everything ten times worse. There was no sense in dwelling on what might have beens -- because all the way down to his toes, John knew if Rodney were still alive, none of it would have happened. Rodney would have been able to fix it.
But Rodney was gone.
They were sitting on the sofa in the common room, sharing a bowl of popcorn as they watched (for at least the five hundredth time) the extended version of Return of the King. Rodney liked to point out the flaws in Shelob and make fun of John whenever he winced.
"So, tell me again, why do you think I'm dead?" Rodney asked, out of the blue. On the screen, Sam was half-falling, half-sliding down the long stair from the top of Cirith Ungol.
John blinked and turned to look at Rodney. "You're here."
"Yeah, and you're here too. But I think the popcorn is stale." Rodney frowned. "And I'm getting really hungry. But you were saying...?"
"You're dead, you're gone," John said, feeling stupid. "It was an accident. There wasn't anything anyone could have done..."
"An accident? When? Where?" Rodney looked at him, very calm, very inquisitive.
"Umm..." John shook his head. "I'm not sure. This is a dream, after all." He grimaced. "Isn't it?"
"You tell me. First we were risking skin cancer and now we're eating stale popcorn and watching Elijah Wood try to act. And you insist I'm dead. I certainly don't feel dead."
"But I'm dreaming. I know I am." John looked around; the room was dark. Just past the doors was the 'gate room, and it was dark too. No one was around. "Look. No one else is here."
Rodney looked around. "Hmm. Yes, you're right, though I'm not sure that proves it to be a dream, or even one of your dreams. Perhaps I'm the one dreaming."
John shook his head and snorted in laughter. Rodney could always mess him up, it was so damn easy for him. "Well, if you're the one dreaming, why are we watching that movie, yet again?"
"Good point." Rodney twisted his face up in thought. "Well, maybe there's another way to see who's dreaming and who's in the dream."
"Oh, yeah? How?"
Rodney put the bowl of popcorn on the floor and twisted in his seat. "Considering you actually had your head in my lap on the beach, I don't think I'm risking much bodily harm by doing this..." With that, he put his hands on John's head and pulled him down into a kiss.
As first kisses went, John had had better; in his defense, it had been a surprise. Rodney's mouth was sweet and buttery and about as good as he'd always suspected it would be. When Rodney broke the kiss and pulled away, John opened eyes he didn't remember closing and blinked in astonishment. "You kissed me."
"Empirical evidence points that way," Rodney said calmly, though there was the gleam of laughter in his eyes. "So, who's dreaming?"
"I used to dream about you kissing me," John said softly. "I used to make out with you in my dreams."
"You were using me as an erotic fixation?" Rodney demanded, his eyes wide. "I'm not sure if I'm complimented or insulted by that. You could have told me!"
"Told you what, that you were a wet dream for me? Yeah, right."
"A wet dream? Me? Please. I can't believe you used me like that, not when there are a hundred women -- well, okay, several dozen -- far better looking than me in Atlantis," Rodney said, though his voice was less disgusted and more pleased. "Or, since apparently you swing that way, a couple dozen men, too."
"Yeah, but none of them are smart-assed geniuses with poor social skills," John said with a grin.
"Poor social skills? Hello, pot, may I introduce you to kettle?"
"Never claimed otherwise," John said, remembering a very awkward discussion with Teyla some time ago. "God, I missed this."
"This. You and me. Antagonizing each other, baiting each other, driving each other crazy. It's been so damn quiet on Atlantis without you."
Rodney frowned and seemed to be about to say something, but John woke up before he could.
John spent the day in a puddle jumper, ferrying people to and food from the mainland. The rumor he had started had spread like wildfire, and to his and Elizabeth's surprise there were quite a few who offered to move. Apparently John wasn't the only one feeling bored and useless.
At noon, he stopped for lunch with Teyla and Halling. Ronon, who had returned from a hunting and scouting expedition just that morning, joined them before they'd started eating. Over better food than what was available on Atlantis, they talked about a new settlement.
"There's plenty of flat, open land perfect for farming," Ronon said. "Not a lot of game here, though."
"There is always fish available," Halling said. "Which is a help, but I do long for red meat at times."
John, who was beginning to have wet dreams about Big Macs, nodded. Wait. Wet dreams...
"If we could use the stargate to go to other worlds with game, it would be a blessing," Teyla said. "But we will have to make do with what we have. Makson has been trying to start a captive breeding program with the small herbivores native to this land. That will help."
John let them talk about problems he had never needed to worry about in the past. He wasn't a farmer, he was a military commander and a pilot, but it looked like he was going to have to change professions if he wanted to continue to live on Atlantis.
Ronon went back with him to the jumper, both of them carrying boxes of fruit. "You look like shit," he said in typical Ronon-speak -- short, direct and to the point.
"Not sleeping so good," John grunted, dropping his case of weird, blue things that looked like cucumbers. "Dreams."
"Must be bad ones then."
John straightened slowly, rubbing at his lower back. He wasn't supposed to be a stevedore either. "About McKay."
Ronon made a wordless sound that might have been understanding. "It was an accident. There wasn't anything anyone could have done. But you know, I miss him. Never thought I would say that, though."
"I miss his complaining," John said softly. He swallowed around the lump in his throat.
"Yeah. It's a lot quieter now." There were other boxes to load but neither of them moved for a long moment. "He would have been able to fix this, wouldn't he?"
John didn't want to look at Ronon. Ronon wasn't a farmer either; he looked as out of place as John felt. "I think he would have," John whispered. "Somehow, he would have."
John was walking down the endless, dim corridors of Atlantis, glancing through open doors into darkened rooms.
"You know, I think there's something fishy going on here," Rodney said.
Turning his head, John gave Rodney a puzzled look. "You think?"
"Yeah. Because I sure as hell don't feel dead." They walked on for a while before Rodney spoke again. "Yet you seem sure that I am. How did I die?"
"It was an accident," John replied automatically. "There wasn't anything anyone could have done."
"Well, that's fine, but what kind of accident? And when?"
"Umm..." John frowned. "It was..."
"An accident, yeah, I got that. And people tell me to focus. Once again: what kind of accident? When was it? Six months ago? A year?"
John was getting a headache. "I don't... I don't remember." Without thinking, he walked into a room that was empty except for a large, overstuffed couch. It looked like the one in his grandma's house, a galaxy and half a lifetime away. He sat and Rodney sat with him. "Why can't I remember?"
"I don't know. But I seriously think something really weird is going on here." Rodney grabbed John's head and pulled him down for a kiss. "But, you know, if I get to make out with you, maybe I shouldn't complain."
John kissed Rodney back, shutting him up decisively. He tasted like coffee and chocolate, his two great passions -- well, maybe two of his three passions, though John didn't like to hope without evidence.
Rodney pulled them down until they were stretched out, John on top of Rodney. Their clothes disappeared and Rodney groaned. "How did that happen?" he gasped, arching into John's body.
"I don't know... we're dreaming, or I am, or..." Rodney spread his legs and John fell between them, driving up, aligning their dicks and starting a delicious friction. "I haven't gotten this hard since I was a teenager," John gasped.
"It's good... why the hell didn't we do this sooner?!" Rodney replied, his voice rough. "Yeah! More, you gotta..."
"No... wait, there, yeah!" Rodney surged up and locked his lips on John's as John came.
John woke up to sticky sheets.
He hadn't finished his breakfast before Elizabeth was calling, asking him to come to her office. The gateroom looked eerily empty as John made his way across the bridge.
Elizabeth tried to give him a smile but failed, dismally. "Morning," she said, and John nodded. "Dr. Hashaibo and I have a lead on some naquadah. We're not sure, though."
"Well, any lead is better than nothing," John said and she nodded. "From the database?"
"Yes. The difficulty is the Ancients here apparently brought what they thought they'd need from the Milky Way, and didn't try to find too much here." She sighed and rubbed her forehead. "Get a team together and take a jumper. Cloak it, there might be Wraith," she added.
"Oh, and take Radek with you. He's got some ideas for mining if what we find is buried too deeply."
John nodded and turned to go. As he got to her door, though, he stopped. "Elizabeth..."
She gave him a puzzled look as he trailed to a stop. "John?"
He took a deep breath and let some of it out. "Do you remember..." Frowning, he let his gaze rove around the room, looking at everything but her. "McKay. Do you remember how he... I mean, what happened?"
She sighed. "It was an accident, John. There wasn't anything anyone could have done."
"Yeah, I remember, but... I haven't been sleeping well, and it's like my mind is playing tricks on me. What was the cause? I can't remember."
Elizabeth shook her head. "John... we all miss him." She gave him a tired, half-smile. "Though I never thought I'd say that. But I think it's past time to move on. Dwelling on the past is not going to help. And don't think you're alone in that lack of sleep thing, we're all in there with you. Carson has got some sedatives that have been working for me, at least. Go see him."
Something about their conversation bothered John on a profound level. He nodded shortly and left to assemble his team out of whoever had remained in the city. 'It was an accident' kept running through his brain and he remembered his dream from the night before -- he hadn't shot in his pants since he was thirteen and accidentally got a look at Adrienne Thompson's panties.
But why did the dreams seem so real? And why couldn't he remember how Rodney had died?
P3X-547 seemed to be uninhabited but there had been hibernating Wraith there at some point, he saw the signs. He didn't like the odds of a hive ship returning but they needed the naquadah that was, indeed, there. Radek pinpointed the location of the vein and followed it into small mountain range ten or so miles from the 'gate and estimated it was a good eight hundred feet to the very top of it. It was going to take a lot of muscle to get even some of it out.
It was an exhausting day but by the end of it, they'd gotten a good start on the dig. John and the remaining marines built a tent city for the personnel who would be mining and, at John's insistence, covered it in as much camouflage as possible, just in case. They needed that naquadah but not at the expense of the scientists and other personnel working there.
John spent the night there, taking watch in the middle of the night. He spoke with the lieutenant he put in charge of the dig and with Elizabeth, making sure that there would always be at least two jumpers on the site in case the entire place would have to be evacuated in a hurry. Luckily, jumpers weren't in short supply -- one of the few things that weren't.
He didn't dream at all that night, not that he could remember.
Rodney was standing at the window in John's quarters, his hands behind his back. "Rodney?" Every time John saw him, Rodney seemed more real, more like himself. Like he was becoming more complete, more himself and less of a shadowy, vague dream.
He turned at John's words and blinked in surprise, looking around. "Wait... what the hell? We were just naked and I might not be big on the afterglow, but this is ridiculous." Rodney walked over to John and grabbed his head, pulling it down for a kiss. John went with it, plastering himself to Rodney's body, giving as good as he got. And it was good, because Rodney was, surprisingly, a very good kisser.
They broke for air and Rodney panted as John began nipping at his neck. "Yeah, yeah, do that thing again, get us naked, because I didn't come yet and you're such a goddamned cock-tease..."
"Christ you feel good," John mumbled against the skin of Rodney's neck. Then the words he heard registered and he froze. "Wait... wait..."
"Sheppard! What is wrong with you? Sex now, please! It's not like we haven't been wanting to do this forever!" Rodney's hand found its way under John's t-shirt and John groaned.
"No, wait, I didn't see you at all last night, I was -- ugh, yeah, harder -- I was... was on the planet, on the dig..."
Rodney, who had been pinching one of John's nipples hard, just the way John liked it, froze as well. "Wait."
"Yeah," John replied, still gasping for breath.
"Last night? Last night? We've only... I mean, first we were on the beach, then on the sofa, and you know, you've really got to stop bouncing around, though if it is your dream, that would make sense--"
"Rodney." John put his hand over Rodney's mouth. "Focus. It's only been one night to you?"
"Not night, I mean, look. It's broad daylight." Then Rodney frowned. "But it was night. Earlier. Okay this is weird. I thought something odd was going on."
They looked into each other's eyes for a long beat. "I need -- we need to figure this out," John murmured.
"Yeah." Rodney's voice had never carried that husky timbre before and it went straight to John's dick.
John couldn't wrench his gaze away from Rodney's mouth. "Shit. Later. On the off-chance this is real, or maybe not real, whatever... I want you to fuck me."
All it took was John thinking 'naked' and they were, it was better than letting Atlantis read his mind. His bed was narrow but even as he thought that, it widened until it was an acre of softness covered by fluffy pillows and comforters. They fell on it together, still kissing and using their hands to touch and tickle and pinch and caress. John rolled them until he was on top then pushed himself upright.
"What are you doing? Get back here," Rodney protested, rising up on his elbows.
"No, wait, I think..." Reaching behind himself, John found Rodney's cock and guided it into him.
"What the hell are you doing? We need lube! We need -- oh, my God, oh my God ohmigod..."
"No, just a dream..." John gasped, and a damn good one too. He could feel Rodney slip inside and it didn't hurt, there was only pleasure, hot, scorching pleasure. John didn't stop lowering himself until Rodney was all the way in.
"Christ..." Rodney's voice was as soft as a prayer. "Okay, dream sex good, very, very good..."
"Yeah," John said, panting and almost laughing. "Real good... you feel so damn good, Rodney."
"Why the hell didn't we do this sooner?!" Rodney groaned and arched his back, making John want to come. "You asshole, you should have told me you wanted this!"
"Later, McKay," John growled. He swallowed hard and began riding Rodney's dick, until Rodney arched up again, harder than before.
"Coming--!" Rodney choked out the word as he froze, trembling.
John watched, holding off his own orgasm, not sure if it would wake him and not wanting to wake up. Rodney in climax was beautiful, his face red and his fists clutching the bed covers. He finally relaxed, all at once, nearly melting into the bedspread.
A few long minutes later... "Gaaah," Rodney slurred. His eyelids opened slowly. "Okay, that makes up for some of the not knowing stuff, but not all of it." His expression, as he looked up and down John's body, was dazed and absolutely lascivious. "I want to blow you," he whispered, looking at John's erection.
"Later," John said. "I need to figure out what's going on here." He closed his eyes and had to really struggle with his body to lift himself off Rodney. He half-fell to the bed beside Rodney, but when he opened his eyes, it was into muted daylight coming in his room and his alarm beeping.
John was disoriented and still hard as a rock, but it didn't take him long to realize the dream was over. He slammed his hand on his alarm then pressed both of them over his face -- it was so damn unfair! He still hadn't had the chance to talk to Rodney, or whoever, whatever it was, about what was going on. Deep down inside he realized there was something strange happening and his instinctive reaction was to ask McKay. How often had he asked himself that question, what would McKay do?
Well, at the moment, McKay would probably masturbate since all of the blood in John's brain had apparently migrated south. Almost angrily he shoved down his boxers and took himself in hand. He wanted Rodney, dammit; why the hell hadn't they done it earlier?
The feel of Rodney's body around his was a good incentive. John licked his palm and closed his eyes as he started to pull on himself, not trying to delay, just trying to get off without feeling so damned depressed. He came, groaning Rodney's name and feeling more confused than ever.
At the senior staff meeting, a disheveled and exhausted-looking Radek gave them close to the best news they'd heard in months. "The vein is deep, and ends almost half a mile beneath the surface, but it is very good quality. We've managed to delve to the top of the vein and have already brought some samples back for testing."
"That is wonderful news, Radek," Elizabeth said. It was the first time John had seen her smile in months. "How long before it can be refined?"
"That is less good news," Radek admitted with a sigh. "We are not set up here to refine such a super-heavy material as naquadah. Give us another week and we'll have an answer for you."
"I think we can wait a week," Elizabeth said. "Thank you, so much."
Radek looked pleased but still tired. He nodded to the room in general and left, headed for his lab, John was certain.
"We've also gotten a bit further in the database," Elizabeth said once the conference room door was closed again. She nodded at Dr. Hashaibo who also smiled.
"Elizabeth and I think we have found an important clue," she said. "The Ancients used naquadah but not as much as the Goa'uld did, and I was beginning to wonder if it was even present in Pegasus at all -- after all, we know how rare it is in the Milky Way. Then we discovered that we may have be using the wrong word all along. Do you remember when Dr. Jackson was here, last?"
Everyone, including John, nodded. He certainly did remember Jackson's and SG1's visit. He'd given Mitchell a fake lemon as a joke on Rodney then ended up paying a very dear price for that joke. Rodney had been livid, even after he'd grudgingly admitted it was pretty funny.
"He and I were working with the holographic interface and the idea of how language can change after millennia. So I went back to the interface and used some of our precious energy, but what I found was worth it, I think."
Ranah Hashaibo was definitely competent, but she was no Rodney and her voice had a tendency to drone. John had long since learned the art of looking attentive even when one was bored to tears, and it stood him in good stead. What he determined from the discussion which arose was that the word for 'naquadah' apparently had mutated in Pegasus, so now they were looking for something entirely different. The upshot was that there were two more planets to survey for possible deposits. He woke himself up sufficiently to take part in the discussion of when those missions would begin, then made notations on his laptop for the rest of the meeting.
He was thinking about Rodney. He was wondering why he couldn't remember how Rodney had died. He was also trying to figure out why he hadn't said something to Rodney about his attraction, which had, apparently, been mutual. Well, that is, if his dream Rodney was actually Rodney.
The whole thing gave him another headache.
Rodney was sitting on John's bed, fully dressed, his back propped up on some pillows. "Hi, honey, I'm home," he murmured when he saw John.
"Rodney?" John sat on the bed beside him. "You--"
"There's a disconnect," Rodney said, nodding. "I didn't notice it before but there's a blip. I assume you went through another day."
"Yeah." John scrubbed his face with his hands. "Another day of being a glorified taxi driver for our current crisis. I thought I'd left that behind with Antarctica."
"Tell me what's happening."
John sighed. "We haven't been able to contact Earth for weeks, the 'gate won't connect. The naquadah generators are dying and the drain on the ZPM is accelerating. Elizabeth has--"
"Wait, wait, wait..." Rodney scooted forward until he was next to John. "Why are the generators dying?"
Blinking in surprise, John said, "I don't know, not really, I haven't been paying enough attention. But we're scouting for naquadah in Pegasus in order to recharge or replenish them, or something like that."
"Recharge them?" Rodney leapt to his feet and began to pace; his hands flew everywhere as he spoke. "That's ridiculous. You don't recharge naquadah, that's like... that's like saying there won't be any more solar power because the sun has set! Naquadah has a half-life of one hundred fifty years! And I know it hasn't been that long since whatever happened to me that makes you think I died."
"It was an accident," John said, weary of it all and fully aware of how absurd it was to be weary while asleep. "There wasn't anything anyone could have done."
Rodney froze in mid-pace, turned and stared at John for a long moment. John was just starting to squirm under that regard when Rodney spoke again. "What does Zelenka think about all this?"
"I think he's the one who discovered it," John said. "We were having these odd brown-outs, sort of like that time we had the energy-eating cloud, you remember?"
"Yes, yes," Rodney said impatiently. "What did Radek say about the generators?"
"I don't remember! Not exactly, anyway. Something about the naquadah being depleted and the electrical something not being stored, or the neutrino emission not doing something right. I don't know that stuff, that's your field."
"Okay, okay fine. Listen." Rodney grabbed a stool to perch on, then looked around in confusion. "How did we get to the lab?" John opened his mouth to speak but Rodney prevented him. "Never mind, it's not germane. Naquadah is a superconductor and is the only material able to interact with neutrinos. A naquadah generator creates electricity by that interaction and stores it for later discharge."
Rodney paused and looked hard at John, who nodded, even though he wasn't really understanding what Rodney was saying.
"For a naquadah generator to cease being functional, the naquadah would have to disappear. There are two ways of getting naquadah to disappear -- one is to blow it up, convert it to pure energy -- something you've had intimate contact with -- and the other is to physically pick it up and toss it out the window. Naquadah doesn't just get 'used up' or need replenishing. The idea is ludicrous! So don't give me anymore shit about it because it simply can't be happening!"
John blinked. "If you say so, but, why are our generators dying, then?"
"I don't know! It makes no sense, it is impossible. In the real world, this--" Rodney interrupted himself, a wide-eyed expression spreading across his face.
They must have been on the same wavelength because John stood, a horrible idea filling his brain. "Not real life."
"This is bad, this is very bad," Rodney muttered. "The Aurora?"
"Um..." John looked around, frantic. "It doesn't quite feel..."
"Then... oh fuck."
"I'll see that and raise it to shit." John reached out and grabbed Rodney's hand before he knew what he was doing; when he noticed, it was because Rodney was squeezing his hand harder than he was squeezing Rodney's. "But it's... it's different, isn't it?"
"Only one scenario. Right? And no one she knew--"
"Except for O'Neill."
"But he was creepy, she said."
"Yeah, well, he is in general anyway." They were no longer in the lab, they were in the darkened gateroom, echoingly silent. "I don't think this is nanites. God, it can't be... I can't go through that..."
"Wait, what?" John gave Rodney a hard stare. "You never told me what they did to you. Tell me, Rodney."
"No..." Rodney wouldn't look at him but wouldn't move away, either, and wouldn't let go of John's hand. "They... they tortured..."
"You said that, you said they tortured you..."
"No. Not me." Rodney bit his lip and the look on his face made John want to cry. "You. They tortured you. In front of me."
"Oh." What else could he say to that?
"You were screaming, they were... they were..."
"Stop." John tugged on their clasped hands. "You don't have to."
Rodney looked at their hands in silence for a long moment. "But this doesn't feel the same. And the dream thing... No. I don't think it's them. Nanites."
"I didn't say that, did I?" Rodney snapped, his frustration and fear evident in his voice. "Feels different than M5S-224 too... you remember, the mist planet?"
Their hands were sweating, but John just squeezed harder. "Don't take this the wrong way -- fuck that. Do take it the wrong way or whatever, but please, please be real. Don't be dead, Rodney. I can't..."
Rodney used the leverage of their clasped hands to haul John around then wrapped him in a tight hug; John gave as good as he got. They were both shaking and Rodney felt close to hyperventilating. That, more than anything else, convinced John of Rodney's reality. "I don't want to be dead either, you moron," Rodney muttered.
John woke clutching his pillow, Rodney's words echoing in his brain.
John arranged things so that he'd have some time alone with Radek Zelenka in the jumper, doing a covert survey of the two planets identified with possible deposits of naquadah. Radek had changed a lot since Rodney had died; he was quieter and the shadows around his eyes seemed to never go away.
The first planet they went to had a Wraith hive ship in orbit, so they scratched that. The second one had been inhabited but wasn't any longer -- it had been culled. John shoved down the familiar guilt he felt at waking the Wraith and concentrated on flying.
The vein was there, but it was halfway around the planet under a desert. They marked it as 'last resort' and turned to come home. John didn't hurry; he had something he wanted to discuss with Radek.
"Hey, doc," he began, as nonchalantly as he could, "you gotta help me with something. And don't get mad that I wasn't paying proper attention." He shot a weak smile at Radek and saw him roll his eyes up in response.
"Of course, Colonel. And I promise I won't be angry."
"It's about the naquadah generators. I know you explained to us what's happening, but damned if I understand it."
Radek sighed. "They are dying."
"Well, I know that," John said, trying to keep his voice light, "I just don't know why. I thought they could last pretty much forever, something about neutrinos and stuff."
"Yes, yes, that is true. Naquadah generates electricity by interaction with neutrinos, which are ubiquitous. You understand about the big bang theory? Cosmic background noise?"
"It doesn't matter. But our generators are dying. The naquadah has stopped that interaction and it has led to a failure of electrical containment, though we don't know why."
"Then how are you sure that getting more naquadah will fix the problem?" John asked. Radek was silent so long that John finally turned to look at him. "Radek?"
Radek was even paler than he had been, and his expression was indescribable. "I..." When he spoke, it appeared to John as if he were actually forcing the words out. "I... do not know," he finally said.
"Shit! Don't do that!"
Rodney almost bowled John over, hugging him tightly. "I take it there was a longer disconnect this time?" John asked, his voice shaking.
"One minute I was..." Rodney trailed off and closed his eyes. "Never mind. Where were we?"
"Right about here," John replied, wrapping his arms around Rodney. "I believe you were squeezing me in manly terror."
"Right. Manly terror. I can do that." After a long moment, his arms around John loosened. "Okay, okay, we need to think, not panic."
"Right. Thinking. No panicking."
"Is there an echo in here? You need to tell me everything you've found out, everything you've heard. And you need to stay asleep until you're done, dammit!"
"Okay, I get it, McKay. And I talked with Radek today, asked him about the generators."
"What did he say?"
John repeated the conversation he'd had in the jumper. "He started and stopped a lot, trying to describe a reason, but I could tell he hadn't really thought about it. When we got back to Atlantis, he didn't say a word before almost running to the lab."
"That's good, you've got him thinking, then." Rodney nodded and with an obvious -- and flattering -- reluctance, released John from his embrace. "What else?"
"Nothing, really, I still don't know how long it's been since you... you know."
Rodney stilled and gave him a strange, narrow-eyed look. "Tell me. How did I die?"
"It was an accident. There wasn't anything anyone could have done," John replied with a sigh. "We've been over this."
"Uh-huh. And does everyone else in the city reply with that phrase when you ask them about me?"
John froze. "Jesus," he breathed.
"I'm taking that as a yes."
The world under John's feet wobbled slightly. "What's happening here?" he asked, his voice almost inaudible to himself.
"You need to find out how long it's been, and if you can, how it happened. I know it has something to do with this whole thing... someone is manipulating us, and they wanted to get me out of the way before they did it. Obviously, they knew I'd see right through whatever they did, so--"
"But why are you here? Why only when I dream?" John demanded.
"I--" Rodney licked his lips. "I don't know. I don't have enough data."
With sudden inspiration, John asked, "What's the last thing you remember doing?"
Rodney's face lit up. "Excellent! Yes, that's a good place to start. Let me see..." They were back in the room empty except for John's grandmother's sofa, and they both sat. "I remember..." Rodney interrupted himself, giving John a wild-eyed look. "Who's dreaming here? Is it you or is it me? What if--"
"Rodney, stop," John said sharply, over his own clench of fear. "You're letting it overwhelm you."
"Wait." A sudden thought made John blink. "With the nanites, the... the... whatever they did to us, it felt real, didn't it? It felt like it was really happening,"
"Yes, yes, of course it did, it's how-- Yes! I get it, I see where you're going! This doesn't feel real, it feels like, like..."
"A dream. It's a dream. And it doesn't matter who's dreaming it, does it?"
"But it might! I mean, what if we figure out how to get out of here and I'm really dead on the other side?" The hand Rodney had on John's thigh was trembling. "What if that's the only way to go, me dead here as well as there?"
"No, no," John said, shaking his head hard, "I don't believe that. It's too pat. Why go to this whole Potemkin village thing on Atlantis if you're really dead?"
Rodney looked like he was trying desperately to believe John's words, but whether he did or not, it didn't matter... at least he wasn't arguing or panicking. "Okay, what was I doing, what were we doing, the last time we remember."
"It feels like it's been a year or more," John muttered. "But it can't be, can it?"
"God I hope not." Rodney swallowed and visibly calmed himself. "Okay. Let's start with Elizabeth. She was back on full duty..."
"Right. The nanite thing." John managed to suppress his shudder, but only just.
"Something Colonel Stupid-head exposed himself to," Rodney added, glaring at John. "What is it with you, do you have a death-wish or something?"
"Rodney, focus, goddamnit." John took a deep breath and released it slowly. "I would have done it for any of you and you'll never be able to stop me so get off it. Now. The Daedalus had arrived, what, a week after that?"
Rodney scowled at him but replied, "Yeah, that's right. New supplies. I finally got my new jacket."
"And we weren't going out on missions. Elizabeth had locked us down."
"Right. Right. I was... was getting caught up in the lab. You were exploring the city."
"Yeah. Teyla was on the mainland, and Ronon was with me. We found that manufacturing machinery on the northeast pier."
Rodney snapped his fingers. "Allain! He'd been working with the database and got the location of a possible ZedPM on... on... M72-837. Do you remember?"
John sat up straight. "Right. A mission. You and me and Ronon and Teyla. That planet--"
"Moon," Rodney said, distracted.
"Whatever. It was empty except for those ruins. And there was... and there was..." The light seemed to be changing, both darkening and lightening at the same time.
"John! Talk to Carson!" Rodney yelled and John blinked in surprise. He couldn't ever remember Rodney calling him by his given name and it startled him.
Startled him right awake, in fact.
Another day of ferrying people and food and John was just about to go stir-crazy. He didn't get to talk to Radek at all, who was holed up in his lab, ostensibly working on the naquadah refinement process. John surveyed two other planets for naquadah and checked up on the mining project on P3X-547, finally returning for the evening just before dinner.
Carson was in his office when John finally found him. He was nearly asleep at his desk and John decided to get him out and feed him before urging him back to his quarters to sleep. "Carson?"
With a start, Carson jerked upright. "John? What's wrong?"
John smiled sadly. "Nothing. Nothing's wrong except you're exhausted, and probably hungry. C'mon, I'm taking you to dinner."
Carson protested mildly but allowed himself to be dragged to the mess. The food, supplemented by what the Athosians had sent, was better than it had been in months. Or perhaps days. John's headache was intensifying, making it hard for him to think straight at times.
After dinner -- Carson ate every bite under John's watchful gaze -- Carson sighed and patted his stomach. "This was a good idea. Thank you, John."
"You're welcome. You work too hard." We all work too hard, John added to himself.
"Aye, but there's no one who'll do it but us, lad." Carson sat forward again and pinned John to his chair with a calm stare. "Elizabeth told me you haven't been sleeping well."
John rolled his eyes. "Elizabeth is talking out of school again, isn't she?" The smile Carson gave him in reply was genuine if tired. "It's not so much... not sleeping, it's more like... dreams. Seems like my mind won't turn off sometimes. Dunno why," he added, heavy on the sarcasm.
Carson sighed. "Aye, it's not like we don't have enough to think about, lately."
"Uh..." John tried to crank up the charm and dissembling but wasn't sure (he was never sure) if he succeeded. "Thing is, most of my dreams are about... about Rodney."
"It was an--"
"I know, it was an accident, but you know what's weird? I can't remember what happened. Not clearly." John shook his head. "Isn't that weird?"
"Well, I'm not Kate, but no, it doesn't sound too odd to me," Carson replied. "Rodney was... well, I can't say he was well-liked now, can I?" John met Carson's rueful smile with one of his own. "But he was... integral. He was part of the city, a rude, obnoxious, noisy part, but that just means his absence is more keenly felt. The squeaky wheel getting the grease, if you follow me."
"I guess..." John said slowly. "But still. I can't even remember the day he died. I'm not even sure how long ago it was... not that that's anything new. We've been so busy I don't even know my own name half the time, let alone what day it is."
"I know that feeling," Carson said with sincerity. "It's been..." Carson trailed to a stop, frowning. "Hmm. How long has it been?"
"Well, it's been at least since the Daedalus' last trip," John said, helpfully.
"Aye," Carson said. His frown grew deeper and he began to look a little disconcerted. "That was... what? A... a... month? No, it must have been longer..."
"Has it been?" John asked quietly. "Or has it been less than that?"
"There you are." Dr. Hashaibo, carrying her dinner on a tray, stopped at their table. "I assumed I would have to drag you out of your lair again to make you eat, Carson. May I join you?"
"Certainly, Ranah," Carson said with a smile. "Though we're just finished."
"Thank you for getting food into him, John," Dr. Hashaibo said. "Between Elizabeth and I, we're trying to get this guy to take it a bit easier."
John grinned as Carson bristled. "These scientists, you know, they're really funny," he said. "I think you guys need a babysitter sometimes."
Carson raised an eyebrow at John. "And you're not tarring yourself with the same brush, boyo?" he asked.
Chuckling, John put his hands up defensively. "Not denying it, doc, honest. But you guys really burn the candle at both ends. I remember Rodney..." John stopped, the pain of loss rising up in him again.
After a long moment, Carson turned to Ranah and said, "We were just talking about Rodney. I canna believe it's been so long since we lost him."
"His shoes have been hard to fill," Ranah said, nodding. She patted John's hand. "We all miss him, John, though I think most of us have been surprised by that."
"I miss his complaining, even," John murmured. There was something he was forgetting but he couldn't, for the life of him, remember what it was.
"It was an accident, John," Carson said, sadly. "There wasn't anything anyone could have done."
John sighed and nodded. After a few moments, Carson added, "Come see me, son, if you still have problems sleeping. I can help."
"Thanks, Carson," John said.
"You've been having problems sleeping?" Ranah asked.
"Not... well, not really. It's been hard to turn my brain off, at times. Just a lot of dreams."
Carson rose, picked up his tray and said, "I've got a few things to look in on, so I'll bid you goodnight."
"Goodnight, Carson," John said.
Ranah looked puzzled. "Dreams?" she asked John with a smile.
"Oh, thank God you're here," Rodney said, once again making like an octopus. "Did you talk to Carson?"
"Jesus." John wrapped his arms around Rodney and clung.
"What's wrong? What happened?" Rodney demanded. "Something happened, didn't it? Tell me!"
"I... I forgot. I forgot about you, about this; until you spoke, I'd forgotten. Rodney..."
"Oh, fuck." Rodney paled. "Tell me everything. Everything that happened in your day. Tell me all of it."
"There's not much to tell!" John shot back. Rodney started to pull away but John tightened his arms, not willing to lose the contact. "I spent most of it as a taxi driver again, ferrying people to the mainland and food back, going out to the dig--"
"Yeah, the mining operation for naquadah."
"Oh, yeah. Then what?"
"Then nothing. I just... I was in a jumper most of the day, like a taxi. Like a FedEx delivery guy. Then..." John wracked his brain. "Then Carson. I went to Carson, dragged him out of the infirmary and made him eat. We ate dinner together."
"Good. You did hear me then," Rodney nodded. "I've got some idea that it might be an ATA gene thing..."
"He didn't remember either, Rodney." John swallowed hard. "I asked him how long it had been and he didn't know. He couldn't tell me."
"Just like Radek?" Rodney's face was intent. "He couldn't make up a number, even?"
Rodney took a deep breath and reluctantly let go of John. "Okay, okay, thinking time. No panicking allowed, thinking only." He pressed a hand to his forehead. "Damn, I'm so hungry, you know I don't think best when--"
"You're hungry?" John asked, appalled.
"Yeah, I just--" Rodney cut himself short. "Oh. Oh fuck. I'm hungry." They stared at each other, and John tried to focus on not hyperventilating. "Conjure me up some food. You know, like you do with the clothes."
John thought about food and suddenly, they were in the mess hall. It wasn't empty, though, it was filled with people, all of their teammates, all eating and talking as if it were a normal day, ignoring them.
"Okay, this is bizarre," Rodney said. He grabbed John's hand. "I am not letting go of you, just in case. Come on."
The food line looked like it always had, all the choices laid out for them to take. Rodney let go of John's hand long enough to grab a container of Jell-O, rip the cover off and suck it down. After a moment, he gave John a stricken look.
"Nothing?" John asked quietly.
"Nothing." Rodney tossed the container over his shoulder and grabbed John's hand again. "Okay, so you're on a time limit here."
"Excuse me? I'm the one dying of starvation!"
"You're not dying of starvation!" John shot back. "You've got time before--" He cut himself off with a horrified thought.
"Yeah, welcome to my nightmare!" Rodney said.
"Crap. Okay, okay, okay, let's think, then. Start with what you know."
"Right. Okay. We know that someone or something is messing with people's minds on Atlantis, and possibly with time as well."
John gave Rodney an incredulous look. "How do we know that?"
Rodney glared at John. "I thought we'd agreed I'd be the brains and you'd be the muscle in this relationship? It's an intuitive leap given available data now shut up and let me think."
"Fine. I'll just put a sign up, 'genius at work.'"
"Whatever you need," Rodney said with a withering glance. Then he looked around in surprise. "Quit that."
"Quit changing the scene on me! Why do you put us in the lab -- okay, never mind. It's probably a subconscious 'id' thing or whatever it is. Soft sciences suck. So we know we've got someone or something playing with our minds. Or your mind, at least, and has somehow gotten me out of the picture, mostly." They sat together on the sofa which reappeared; Rodney let go of John's hand so he could wave both of his around as he spoke. "There's a possibility this unknown thing or person is also playing with time. Though dream time is supposed to be different, I think."
"Yeah, I can dream hours in the minute before I wake up," John said, nodding.
"Okay. And I think it started on the mission to M72-837, because I can't quite remember everything that happened there and definitely don't remember anything after, until you put us on a beach getting skin cancer."
John found he could calm down when Rodney was calm, which was helpful. He nodded again. "Yeah, I'm with you so far."
"You're going to need to get back there. And you're going to need Radek. He's probably going out of his mind with work between managing our idiots and that unnecessary mining operation, but--"
"Managing?" John shook his head. "He's not managing, Dr. Hashaibo is."
Rodney's head whipped around so fast his brain should have rattled. "Who?"
"Hashaibo. Your 2IC. She's been the one..."
John could actually feel it, this time, feel the dreamscape begin to melt away and he looked around in confusion.
Rodney yelled, "Oh no you don't!" and lunged across the small space between them, plastering his lips to John's and bearing them both down until they were horizontal. "Stay with me, please John, stay with me..." he pleaded in between frantic kisses.
John returned the kisses with enthusiasm, holding Rodney's head still in his hands. When they broke for air, he gasped, "John, you called me John, you never call me John..."
"I don't? I -- I thought..."
"Not important," John said as he kissed Rodney's neck then rolled them over so he was on top.
"Naked, get us naked," Rodney said, and abruptly they were, back on a huge, soft bed in what looked like John's quarters but wasn't. "Always wanted to try fucking, was always too scared. Can't get hurt here..." Between words, Rodney was still kissing John with an urgency and passion that made John hard as a rock. "Yeah, yeah, like this..." Rodney spread his legs so John could fall between them and John groaned.
"Want to taste you, need to feel you," John muttered, petting and stroking the skin under his hands. "Dammit, I want to do this for real!"
"Later, after you've found me, we can -- oh, God, do that again..."
John slid into Rodney quickly and easily, holding his legs up. Rodney rested one leg on John's shoulder and arched, his eyes rolling up into his head as he panted. "Good! Oh, God! Good!"
It wasn't real, it was a dream or he was dreaming, but Rodney was right (Rodney was almost always right), it felt so good. John set up an easy rhythm, push and pull and in and out, watching Rodney's face contort with pleasure. "Touch yourself," John whispered and Rodney's eyes flew open to stare up at him.
So hot, it was so hot to watch Rodney stroke himself in the same rhythm John was fucking him, it was so very, very hot to hear the little noises John always thought he'd make. John made sure to keep his eyes open, watching every movement Rodney made, every little hitch of his breath and twist of his hand as he jacked himself. When Rodney came, John just fucked him through it, drawing hitching breaths and holding off from coming himself with an effort that made him sweat and shake. He knew, somehow, that when he came, he'd wake up and he didn't want to wake to an Atlantis without Rodney again. Ever.
Finally, Rodney opened his eyes and his dazed expression made John lean down for a long kiss. Into John's mouth, Rodney whispered, "I don't know who that person is, John, Hasha-whosits. Radek is my 2IC and has been for almost two years."
John pulled back enough to see into Rodney's face. He could feel his orgasm burning up his spine even with his best efforts to hold back.
"Remember that weird movie we watched, Eternal Sunshine or something like that?" Rodney's face held all his emotions, his fear, his intensity. "Look for me on M72-837, John. Please find me..."
"I'll find you," John swore, then he came.
It was very early when John woke, grimacing at the mess in his boxers. He remained in bed for a few minutes, carefully committing the dream to memory. When he finally stood, he moved to his desk and with a pen, wrote M72-837 on a yellow sticky note then on his hand, determined to remember.
He remained off the radar by the simple expedient of taking a jumper out before anyone else rose to start the day. He went to the mainland for a while and watched the breakers on his favorite beach, then returned, radioing for Radek Zelenka when he was close enough.
Radek was already out at the dig. Making up an excuse, John hurried through the stargate, hoping no one would stop him and no one did. It might have looked a bit worrisome since he was in full uniform, including a P-90, but luckily he was waved through with little hesitancy.
John found Radek supervising the mining operations. He gave John a puzzled and wary look when John asked him to come back to the jumper with him but went willingly enough. When John took off without warning, however, he objected mildly, "I am quite busy, Colonel and don't have a lot of time for joyrides."
"Do you remember when I asked you about Rodney?" John said by way of a reply.
Radek blinked. "I think so, why?"
"Don't you think it's odd that we don't know how he died? Or when he died?"
"It was an accident--"
John wanted to scream. "Yeah, I know, that's what we all say but what accident? Where? How did he die? When?" The 'gate was appearing and John dialed M72-837 quickly. "Something is messing with our minds, doc."
The whooshed through the 'gate, going from sunny, midday skies to crepuscular dawn. "And I think it happened here."
Radek was frowning, shaking his head. "I... Where are we?"
"M72-837. Someone in your department found a reference to ruins, to an outpost, to a--"
"A zero-point module," Radek said. "I remember this. It was Allain, he found the reference, we decided to chance an off-world..."
The ruins were less than a half-mile away from the stargate; it took only an instant by jumper. John put them down on the 'gate side of the ruins. "Yeah. Take some readings, doc, please? Power levels?"
Radek gaped at John for a moment then hurriedly booted the tablet laptop John made sure was in the jumper. "There are readings... a faint power signal, but I cannot determine..."
John was experiencing his own deja-vu as he looked at the ruins around them. "I remember this," he murmured.
"We need to leave the jumper, Colonel. I must trace these power signals."
The ruins were partially buried and in the dim light of pre-dawn, they looked eerie. They were on some sort of plain, to John it had looked like a dried-out marsh -- from the jumper, you could see a river leading to an inland sea. There was no noise anywhere but for the constant breath of the wind, stirring the dust between the buildings. He remembered, suddenly, how they'd all felt creeped out by the emptiness around the area, and he remembered boosting into a sub-orbital altitude to check for any other lifesigns on the planet. There had been none; the HUD had been all but blank.
It was still damn weird, especially since he had almost no memory of it happening in the past.
John concentrated on leading Radek through the maze of ruined buildings, since Radek was focused on his laptop. In the dust and dirt beneath his feet, he noted faint footprints. Rather than reassure him that he was on the right track, it frightened him more. What if Rodney really was a ghost, having starved to death on this damn planet or moon or whatever the hell it was?
Radek came to a stop before the same 'building' Rodney had, John was sure of it. And there were four sets of prints leading into the half-open entrance. "They are coming from here," Radek said. "Can we get the door open more?"
John wedged himself into the doorway and shoved, creating a bigger entrance, then flipped on the light on his P-90. "I really remember this," John muttered, looking around. The building was nothing but a stair landing, treads heading down. "There's a glow from down there," he added. "We came in this way and went downstairs."
"My team and me. Rodney was taking readings." John's heart was racing and his mouth was dry. "But I don't remember coming back."
"Rodney was here?" Radek looked just as freaked out as John was becoming. "Before... wait, no, how did... it was an accident..."
"No, it wasn't. He's not dead." John really wished his voice sounded more certain.
"How do you know?"
"I've... I've been dreaming him." John made a frustrated noise. "It's not my subconscious, it's him, it's really him. I... I can't explain it any better, I just know it. Please, let's go downstairs."
Radek nodded and stood up straight after taking a deep breath. They moved down the steps together and John kept his P-90 ready, just in case.
The glow, yes, that was right, the golden glow came from the downstairs portion. Only it was... brighter? Bigger? The area at the foot of the stairs was much larger than the building above it and it was obvious that all the buildings were connected. The glow emanated from an area off to their left, a knee-high, circular wall. When they got there, they realized it was like a well, set into the floor of the building. Inside, floating serenely just off the floor, was Rodney.
"Rodney," John breathed. "Rodney!"
"No, no, it is no good, he's..." Radek reached out with his hand. "There. There is some kind of field, preventing our entrance, his departure." Radek's voice was shaking, slightly.
John reached out and his hand just stopped, as if it were encountering a wall. "We need to get him out of there," he said.
"Yes, yes, we do," Radek agreed. "This is very strange, a very strange place. What was he touching? Before this happened?"
John looked around. Scattered among the stairs were small, square things. Some of them had lights on and some didn't, but there was no interface, nothing that made them look remotely familiar. "That." John pointed to the 'terminal' (or whatever it was) closest to Rodney's position. "The strongest energy reading came from that. Rodney..." John looked away, wracking his brain. What had happened? "Rodney was looking at it, blowing the dust off it, trying to figure out what it was." He remembered that. He remembered telling Rodney to be careful and Rodney's normal, sarcastic reply. Then... John squeezed his eyes shut. "I don't remember. Why don't I remember?"
Radek was nodding. "I see... yes. Come this way."
"Please. Look, there are other areas, other 'pits' like the one Rodney is in." Radek moved to the closest one and John followed, reluctantly. He didn't remember checking out any others before Rodney... did whatever it was he did that got him trapped, floating in a golden well. Where was Lassie when you needed her?
There was nothing in the other well, not even dust. "Ah," Radek said, reaching out. His hand stopped like John's had over Rodney's well.
"What? There's nothing here."
"Yes, there is, actually." Radek moved to the terminal (or whatever it was) nearest to that pit and carefully looked it over, not touching it. "The force field is controlled by this device," he said, looking from his tablet to the thing. "And though you cannot see anything, there is something there, some kind of energy trapped by the force field."
Radek shrugged and shook his head. "I -- I know of no better word. Not a person, but not nothing."
"Like that black cloud thingy a couple years ago?"
"Perhaps." Radek shook his head again, harder. "I am having significant problems staying focused on Rodney," he added. His voice was half an octave higher than normal and he kept looking around, occasionally turning completely around, as though looking for monsters. "I want to leave him here and return to Atlantis. Are you having the same thoughts?"
And damn if John wasn't having them. "Yes." He clenched his hands into fists. "We need to get him out, now." They moved back to Rodney.
"I will see if I can interface the terminal to my laptop. I have no wish to take his place, especially since I think that may be what happened."
"What, you think he released something? Something that took his place?"
"I don't know, I don't know. Perhaps these are cages, holding something which Rodney released. Please stop talking now," Radek said, frantically typing on his tablet with one hand.
"Right. I can do that." John could almost feel Rodney, which was ridiculous. Well, not so ridiculous as making love to a ghost, but pretty odd. He looked down at Rodney and wanted to scream, wanted to brute-force a way to get to him, to get him out before he starved... "I'm going back to the jumper, get some food and water, blankets and stuff. I have no idea how long he's been down here, but I know he's already pretty hungry."
Radek nodded, distracted, and waved him away. John took the steps two at a time and jogged down the narrow 'street' to where he'd parked the jumper. He rummaged in it, pulling out MREs and water from the emergency stash always present in every puddlejumper and made it into an ungainly pile. Just as he was exiting the jumper, he heard the familiar whoosh of the stargate activating in the distance.
No one knew where John was. He hadn't told anyone where he would be going. Radek's words kept echoing in his head, along with Rodney's whispers from the last time they were together and when he added them up, he didn't get Wraith. Which, upon reflection, would actually have been better -- the enemy you know, and all that.
John put the pile of supplies on the bench and stepped off the jumper, his hand on his P-90. He had a feeling that whatever was happening was coming to a head, and he wanted to be ready for it.
It was another jumper, piloted by Miller, who waved cheerily at John through the forward port. Sitting next to him in the co-pilot's seat was Ranah Hashaibo.
"I don't know who that person is, John," echoed in his head, in Rodney's voice.
Miller turned the jumper around and lowered the back port. Hashaibo smiled as she walked out of the jumper. "Hello, John. What are you doing here?"
"You can leave, Miller," John called over her shoulder, hoping it would work. "I've got it under control."
"Yes, sir!" Good, it did work.
The back hatch closed and Hashaibo stood on the ground behind John's jumper. "You're supposed to be back on Atlantis at the moment. Why are you here?" Behind her, Miller's jumper lifted and soared towards the 'gate.
"Who are you?" John asked, his voice flat.
She smiled. When had her smile become frightening? "You know who I am, John. You're distraught. You should come back to Atlantis, we need you there."
"I'm not going anywhere without Rodney," John said, taking a half a step back. He could almost feel the fuzziness descend on his brain.
"Rodney's gone, John. It was an accident. There wasn't anything anyone could do."
"He's not gone, he's not dead, and I won't go back to Atlantis without him!" John yelled, wincing as he fought against... something. Something that wanted control of him, of his mind. It almost felt like the time the hive queen had probed him and he gritted his teeth in concentration. "Damn you..." he pushed out from his tight jaw. "What are you?"
Her smile became impossibly wider and she took a step forward. "You know who I am, John. I'm Ranah. Let's get in the jumper and you can fly me back to Atlantis." She took another step.
"Don't... come... any... closer..." Time was slowing down for him; it was like trying to move and breathe submerged in a pool of molasses. With everything he had, John dragged his P-90 up to aim at her. Just pulling the trigger caused him pain beyond belief, but he thought of Rodney, starving to death in his golden prison, and wrenched it back.
As his gun stuttered in his hand, she jerked with every impact, dozens of bullets hitting her. He released the trigger and felt his heart sink -- she was still standing, smiling, looking as though nothing had happened. "You can't kill me with your impact weapon, John," she said quietly. "I've made sure this body is pretty much indestructible. In fact, you can't kill me with any weapon you've got. Let's go back--"
From behind his right shoulder, John heard a hoarse, exhausted and wonderfully familiar voice. "Maybe he can't, but I can."
John whipped around to see Rodney, supported bodily by Radek, press something on the tablet Radek held. Ranah screamed, a horrifying sound that John knew would haunt him in his nightmares for months to come. From beneath her, a golden glow shot out of the ground and engulfed her, seemed to burn her up from the inside. With one last shriek, she shriveled and sank down, through the ground, to the underground chamber.
John was only frozen for an instant before he was running to Rodney, holding him up when he sagged, hugging him as hard as he dared. "You okay?" he finally asked, pulling back far enough to see Rodney's face.
"I will be," was Rodney's exhausted reply. Radek had to help John get him on the jumper for the trip back, because he couldn't support himself.
"Maybe it was astral projection," Elizabeth said, her voice teasing, her face graced with a relieved smile. "Or maybe one of those out-of-body--"
"I think he just wanted to find a way to haunt our dreams," Ronon interrupted, his voice deeply amused. "You'll never be free of him now, Sheppard."
"Oh God, my worst nightmare," John said, his smile bigger than Elizabeth's. "Oh, wait, that didn't come out right..."
Rodney was rolling his eyes and everyone else was groaning.
"But what was that place," Teyla asked. "How did you get there, Rodney?"
"I think it was like a prison," Rodney said. They were all in the infirmary, clustered around Rodney, who was propped up on a hospital bed with two intravenous lines going into him. "I think, anyway. The fields were designed to hold them -- whatever they were -- there. I don't know what those things were, but they weren't human."
"A shell, she took; a human shell," Radek agreed. He was standing next to Elizabeth, who was standing next to Carson. Ronon and Teyla, fresh from the mainland, stood behind John, who hovered at Rodney's right and had done so for the previous eight hours. "You released her and she imprisoned you in her place."
"Exactly. And yes, human shell, but she -- or maybe it, I don't know -- wasn't in the least bit human." Rodney still sounded exhausted but his color was good and he was obviously recovering.
"And, obviously, time passed for her, even in her prison," Carson said. "It wasn't quite five and a half weeks for you, thankfully, but much longer and you would have been in serious trouble."
Rodney had been dehydrated and malnourished, bearded and sticky with sweat and other bodily fluids, but he hadn't been dead; whatever kind of stasis the golden light created, it kept him alive long enough to be rescued. He hadn't been so bad off that he needed more than a night in the infirmary and intravenous fluids to recover. Thankfully.
"We need to make sure that planet is put off-limits. Even if there's a ZPM there," Elizabeth began, but Rodney cut her off with a hand wave.
"Yes, yes, there is one there, and no, I have no interest in it. And I've been thinking about it. I think that gate would be ideal to add to the gate harvesting program."
John grinned. Leave it to Rodney to come up with an elegant solution. "Good thinking, Rodney," he said, just to watch Rodney's expression. "But going back to my original question, how did you get into my dreams?" John asked.
"I don't know," Rodney said, picking at the blanket. "I don't... I don't remember anything about that, I mean, what you've said. All that. Maybe I was just looking for someone to rescue me. Or maybe... I don't know, I just don't remember it." Rodney was lying through his teeth, but John kept his frustrated silence.
"Whatever it was, dreamwalking or astral projection or whatever," Carson said with a broad grin, "at least you were able to reach one of us, and that's all that counts."
"I don't think she understood dreaming," Elizabeth mused and everyone turned to her in surprise. "I remember talking to her, while we were 'working' on the database. I mentioned dreaming about home and she had no idea what I was talking about."
"Well, that would explain some of it," Teyla said. "But what happened to the naquadah?"
The generators, it was quickly determined, weren't 'dying' so much as the naquadah itself had been depleted in each of them. "I think it was an energy, or maybe a food source for her," Rodney said, sighing. "We'll get new generators when the Daedalus gets here in two weeks." SGC on Earth had been so worried about them that they sent a sub-space burst to the Daedalus, turning the ship around to find out what had happened to them.
"At least we got a source of naquadah in Pegasus out of it," John said. Rodney snorted and rolled his eyes up.
"Here comes your dinner, Rodney," Carson said, looking up as the tray was wheeled in. "Soft foods only, you know, and you need your rest."
That was everyone else's cue to leave, though John stayed, slouched in what he'd come to think of as his personal infirmary chair. And wasn't that a pathetic thing to have, his own personal place to sit whenever one of his friends -- one of his family -- was sick or injured?
"I know you're lying, you know," John said after the orderly had arranged Rodney's dinner tray and left.
Rodney, in the process of lifting a spoonful of soup to his mouth, froze. His face had that 'deer in the headlights' look that John had seen so often and John thought, gotcha. "Um... lying?"
"Uh-huh. I know you remember our dreams. You're a terrible liar."
John straightened up and quickly snatched the container of blue Jell-O from Rodney's tray. "Come clean or the Jell-O gets it," he said, raising one eyebrow.
"Hey, that's mine!" Rodney protested. "Recovering man, here!"
"Nuh-uh. First tell me you remember."
Rodney's glare was significantly weaker than usual, something John was rather grateful for. "Christ, you really are five, aren't you? Okay, okay. Yes. I remember. Sort of."
"I mean, it was just... just dreams, wasn't it? All in my -- or rather, all in your head." Rodney put his spoon in his bowl and picked up his bottle of water. Classic McKay avoidance, but it was getting old.
"No, it wasn't just dreams. And it wasn't just in my head." Damn Rodney anyway, he knew how hard it was for John to talk about this shit.
Almost as hard as it was for Rodney to talk about this shit. John sighed and mentally smacked himself. Then he reached out and put the Jell-O back on the tray. "It wasn't just dreams, Rodney," he said quietly. "And I remember all..." John frowned. "Okay, not all of it, but most of it."
Rodney still wouldn't meet his eyes. With his gaze firmly on the tray in front of him, Rodney said, so quietly John almost couldn't hear him, "I remember. I remember a lot of stuff -- a lot of things we did, a lot of things we said. But that was... was inside, you know, not in the real world. There were... I mean, it was different." He toyed with the spoon in his soup bowl.
"Not to me," John said. He wanted to say a whole hell of a lot more than that, but, as usual, the words clotted up in his throat. "Listen," he said, finally. "You need to rest, get your strength back. You want me to bring you anything?"
"No, no, that's okay," Rodney said, his voice sounding relieved but his face still pale. He still wouldn't look at John. "I'm good. Carson won't let me bring a laptop in here anymore anyway."
"Okay. We'll... we'll talk. Later."
"Goodnight, Rodney," John said, trying to put as much feeling in the words as he could, fighting -- he couldn't tell if it was for or against -- the impulse to lean over and kiss Rodney goodnight.
Halfway to the door, he heard Rodney murmur, "Goodnight, John."
Rodney was avoiding him.
That was the only conclusion John could reach after not being able to even see Rodney in private for several days. Rodney had been released from the infirmary the morning after John left and told to take it easy -- which, of course, he hadn't done. John kept trying to catch up with him, but never could. He'd be just on his way out or headed to a meeting or running tests, and John had finally had enough.
The lab was about half full when John managed to take his resolve in both hands and walked in. He didn't want to do this with an audience, but Rodney had finally forced his hand. He came to a stop next to Rodney's workstation. "McKay."
Rodney gave him an irritated look out of the corner of his eyes. "What? Can't you see I'm busy here, Colonel?"
"You're always busy, especially lately. We need to talk."
"No, we don't."
"Yes, we do."
"McKay! We need to talk!"
Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and glared. "Fine!" he said loudly. "Talk, then!"
"My God, you're a pain in my ass," John muttered, putting one hand over his eyes. When he looked back up, Rodney was still glaring -- at John's t-shirt. John narrowed his eyes and glanced around the room at the scientists who were studiously ignoring them. "Look, Rodney. I'm not good at this, you know, all this..." John made a frustrated sound. "Can't we do this in private?" he hissed.
Rodney set his jaw. "You wanted to talk, so talk already!"
"Jesus! Fine! I am talking! If you'd just shut up for a minute I would keep talking!" Rodney was now staring at a point over John's right shoulder. "I just wanted to say, that, you know, we -- we shared, stuff, things, in dreams, and no, it's not the same, but..." John tried to control his shaking, but without much success. "Goddammit, it's... it's hard for me to... to talk about, you know, feelings and all that..."
"Oh my God, you're breaking up with me," Rodney said, his voice as panicked as John felt.
"What? No! Wait, what?" Damn Rodney and his weird thought processes anyway. "There's no us to break up! Will you just listen for a minute?"
"If that's all you're going to tell me--"
"If you'd just shut up for a minute--"
"You can just leave now, I don't want--"
"No! Goddammit McKay, would you--"
"I don't need the aggravation!"
"I'm trying to tell you something!"
"I'm trying to tell you I love you, you asshole!"
"Fine! I love you too!"
"Fine! Can we just get out of here and go have real sex now?"
"Good! Let's go, then!"
John turned to go but was halted in his tracks by a wave of applause and whistling. He froze, appalled once he realized what he'd just been shouting at Rodney (and what Rodney had been shouting back). He closed his eyes, mortified... he was never going to live this one down.
"Don't turn," Rodney said, his voice choked. "They can smell fear."
"Right. Smell fear. Don't turn. I can do that." Trying desperately not to look at anyone or anything, John just grabbed Rodney's elbow and hustled him out of the lab, into their future.