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Through the Gate

Chapter Text


Monster, Skillet


The secret side of me
I never let you see
I keep it caged but I can't control it
So stay away from me
The beast is ugly
I feel the rage and I just can't hold it

It's scratching on the walls
In the closet, in the halls
It comes awake and I can't control it
Hiding under the bed
In my body, in my head
Why won't somebody come and save me from this
Make it end


Dr. Rodney McKay strode purposefully through the corridors of Atlantis, scientists falling back from his wake; they whispered and muttered, but were careful not to make eye contact. Even the Marines were careful to give him his space, though he was certain any number of them would’ve happily dropped him off the nearest pier if they had the choice. It was no matter; he’d long since given up caring what anyone thought about him.

The mess hall was only sparsely populated this long after the lunch rush, which suited him just fine. He didn’t look around to see if there was anyone to eat with or if a table was free; there always seemed to be a small table in the corner waiting for him no matter what time he came in, as if people were afraid he might join them otherwise.

Rodney was steps away from the chow line when he saw them. Turkey sandwiches. The anger that lay perpetually coiled in his gut like a venomous snake unfurled, and all he could see was red. Turkey sandwiches. He turned sharply on his heel and marched right back out of the room without getting anything to eat. Anger and resentment burned under his skin, made him sick to his stomach, but he couldn’t stop it.

John wasn’t there to eat the damned sandwiches.

He went back to the labs, his presence stifling all conversations but increasing the appearance of activity. He logged into his laptop and checked for updates from his staff. It was the easiest method of communication, and preferred by the other scientists because Rodney screaming at them in all caps was a lot easier to deal with then him screaming and belittling them in full voice.

For the most part the program reports were good. He responded to questions, gave some suggestions where needed, and then looked through Grant’s latest schematics. He shook his head, scowling, and tapped at his ear piece.

“Grant, in my office. Now.”

Yes, Dr. McKay.

Grant took his time, but that was fine; it gave Rodney a chance to type up his dismissal letter. Douglas Grant had been with the expedition for three months and he wasn’t staying one more day.

“Dr. McKay?” Grant was hovering in the doorway and Rodney waved him in.

“Dr. Grant. I regret to inform you that your time with the Atlantis Expedition has come to an end. You will clear out your things, give Dr. Zelenka all of your work, and take the Daedalus back to Earth next week.” Rodney laid it out for him coolly and dispassionately, just the facts. He didn’t know anything about the man, personally, and that had been by choice. All he needed to know was that he was a piss poor physicist.

“You can’t do that!” Grant protested, face flushed with either anger or fear or a mix of both.

“I can and I did. You have shown no growth in the time you’ve been here, your equations are sloppy, and you are most assuredly not an asset to the continuing survival of this city.” Rodney crossed his arms, hands clenched painfully. It was all he could do not to take a swing at the man standing in front of him, for no other reason than the mess hall serving the wrong type of sandwich.

“I’ll go to Dr. Weir.”

“I’m the CSO and my word is law as far as the science team is concerned. You want to go tattle to mommy, be my guest. It won’t change the fact that you’re gone. Now get out of here before I call for a military escort.”

Rodney turned his back on Grant, part of him hoping the man would come at him; he was spoiling for a fight. But the scientist stomped off and Rodney was forced to take several deep breaths to get himself back under control. Not for the first time he wished Ronon was around to give him a proper workout.

He worked in silence in the lab for the next several hours, going through five power bars and even more cups of coffee. He had several projects going at once, plus everything he was overseeing, but he was still hard at work trying to reverse engineer the personal shield. He’d found a way to recharge the one they had, but the power cell didn’t last long. If he could find a way to recreate the shield, he was sure he’d be able to give it longer life as well.

Dr. McKay, do you have a moment?

Elizabeth’s voice came over the ear piece and Rodney sighed. He hated being interrupted when he was working, but he’d learned to respect the chain of command, particularly when Elizabeth was probably the only person between him and a one way ticket back to Earth.

“Yes, fine. Give me a minute.” He saved his work and enabled his passcodes; no computer system in two galaxies was as secure as Rodney McKay’s laptop.

He once more took to the halls, making his way to Elizabeth’s office just off the Gate Room. She sat behind her desk, hands clasped, and nodded when he came in. He dropped down into a chair and flapped one hand impatiently.

“I’m very busy, Elizabeth. Can we just get to it?”

She sighed but otherwise maintained her carefully neutral expression. “Rodney, about Dr. Grant.”

“You’ve received the paperwork. He has to go. If you read the e-mail you’ve seen that I outlined my reasons for dismissing him.”

“You can’t keep firing the scientists, Rodney. Dr. Grant is the third one you’ve sent home in the last two months.”

Rodney frowned. “They weren’t a good fit, Elizabeth, and you know it. I don’t do this on a whim. My priority is the safety of Atlantis.”

Elizabeth held her hands up in a placating gesture. “I don’t doubt that you have our best interests at heart, but you’re not giving them much of a chance to prove themselves. If you’d just go to the SCG and interview them in advance…”

“No.” Rodney got up and made for the door. Elizabeth knew as well as anyone that Rodney wasn’t going back there, not for a day and not for the two weeks of leave they’d tried to make him take after they’d lost John. They couldn’t force him out of the city, not when he was so important to the expedition, and he suspected that the second he set foot in the SGC he’d be whisked away for a comprehensive psych eval.

“Rodney.”

“Make sure they do the standard search on Grant before they beam him aboard the Daedalus; I don’t want him taking any of our tech back with him.” Rodney didn’t wait for a response before he left.

*o*o*o*

Rodney stood out on his balcony and watched the sunset. He’d changed rooms four months ago, and while the new room was a bit smaller than the old one, it had a spectacular view of the city. He hated it, perversely because John would’ve loved it, but that was also why he had to have it. No-one loved Atlantis more than John did, and that was part of the reason Rodney couldn’t leave; someone had to watch over things.

The late day sun cast a warm, golden glow over the spires of the city as the sky slowly bled from bright blue to violet to indigo. The first stars were starting to twinkle, constellations that John and Rodney had named sometime during that first year – Batman, Flying Bunny, Space Needle, Bob. The memory only served to feed the anger; one more thing that John wasn’t there to enjoy.

Rodney stayed out on the balcony until the last bit of light had gone. Then it was back to work. He logged back onto his laptop and returned to his simulations of the personal shield. He knew he was obsessive about it, but he couldn’t help thinking that having something like the shield would’ve saved John’s life. And then Rodney wouldn’t have to avoid sleeping, because sleep brought dreams of a fiery explosion and the burning agony of loss.

The sad truth of the matter, though, was that he could only stay awake so long. The caffeine and stimulants couldn’t keep his flagging system going indefinitely, and eventually Rodney would face plant on his laptop. And dream.

*o*o*o*

“There’s an energy reading but it’s pretty faint,” Rodney said, consulting his tablet. “Strange that it didn’t show up earlier.”

The team had just finished up negotiations with the Varden, who had some raw materials that Atlantis could certainly use. All they wanted in exchange were some simple tools. On their way back to the Stargate, though, the energy signal had pinged, which meant it needed to be checked out. Standard operating procedure.

Sheppard squinted up at the bright blue sky and shrugged. “No problem. It’s a nice day. Ronon, you and Teyla head back to the Gate. This shouldn’t take long.”

The readings were coming from a pile of stone that had once been a structure of some kind; there were vague indications of walls and a foundation.

“Boldly exploring new worlds and rockpiles,” Rodney joked. He didn’t mind having some time alone with Sheppard. They had a really good rapport, and of course the Colonel was no hardship on the eyes; Rodney’d been crushing on him now for the better part of two years and nothing much seemed likely to change that. Luckily he was skilled at keeping secrets, be they government or personal.

“You getting anything on that?” Sheppard slouched against the rock pile – really, the man had the worst posture for a Lieutenant Colonel – and grinned at him like he had nothing else to do all day but stand around in the sun.

They’d been doing a lot of that look-but-don’t-touch thing lately, which frustrated Rodney to no end. He had the sense that Sheppard was interested in him, at least in a naked bodies kind of way, but he knew nothing would be said, no moves would be made. He’d say the man was a tease, but that wasn’t precisely true; it was more that Sheppard never took anything for himself.

“Not enough to warrant sifting any of these boulders.” Rodney made a show of scanning the ruins when he was really checking out his teammate. No-one rocked the man in black look quite like Sheppard, particularly with the shades and the P90 strapped to his chest. The P90 that was now coming up in a distinctly unfriendly manner.

“What’s happening? What’s wrong?” Rodney looked around wildly, his hand on his own weapon.

“I’ve got a bad feeling.”

He’d learned many things since first coming to Atlantis, foremost being that if Sheppard had a gut feeling it was wise not to doubt it. Still, Rodney did a full three-sixty and didn’t see anything.

“Sheppard?” he hissed.

“Run!” Sheppard shouted back. Rodney didn’t hesitate; he ran full tilt, slapping at his earpiece as he went to notify Teyla and Ronon that there was trouble. It wasn’t long at all before he realized he was running alone. He skidded almost comically to a stop and whipped around to head back to the ruins.

“Sheppard! What the hell are you-”

The explosion was big and hot and deafening, the shock wave tossing Rodney to the ground hard enough to bruise his tailbone. As soon as he was able he scrambled to his feet and ran, a feeling of dread building inside him. The air was full of rock dust and smoke, choking him, but he could see that the ruins had now been reduced to so much sand, blackened near the heart of the explosion.

“Sheppard! John!” Rodney screamed, but he wasn’t there.

Ronon ended up having to practically carry Rodney back through the Gate, and he was sedated almost as soon as he was through the event horizon. Lorne’s team was dispatched, and they conducted a full search of the area. The only things that turned up were Sheppard’s dog tags, random bits of bone, and some of his DNA. Carson speculated that he’d been standing right at ground zero to have even his skeleton so completely obliterated.

Kate Heightmeyer tried to guide them all through the five stages of grief, but Rodney remained stuck at the second one – anger. Even six months later it hadn’t dimmed, hadn’t dissipated. It was his only defense.

*o*o*o*

Rodney sat in the infirmary, forcing himself to endure Carson’s examination. It was standard for all Gate teams returning from offworld but he hated it. He’d developed an aversion to being touched and it was only Carson’s threats of sedation that kept him from running out. For his part, Carson tried to get through it as quickly as possible.

“You’re all clear, Rodney,” he said finally.

“No kidding,” Rodney snapped. He hopped down from the examining table and left without so much as a backwards glance.

It had been a routine visit with one of their trading partners, no real reason for Rodney to even go, except that sometimes he needed to get away from the city. Not that it much mattered, because there was just as much of John to miss in the field as there was in the halls of Atlantis.

AR-1 had been replaced. After they lost John, Teyla started spending more time with her people and less time in the city. Ronon, too, had starting making more trips offworld; sometimes he was gone for weeks, and no-one was really sure what he was doing out there on his own. They’d both tried to talk to Rodney, to break through the wall he’d constructed around himself, but he knew it was better this way; he needed the space between them, needed the emotional distance. If he hadn’t gotten so chummy with his team he’d never have felt the crippling loss when one of them wasn’t there anymore; he wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Dr. McKay, can you please come to the conference room? Elizabeth asked over the earpiece.

“Isn’t it a bit soon for my debrief?” he snapped. “I’d like to at least get cleaned up if you don’t mind.”

I do mind. I need to see you immediately.

Rodney growled but quickly changed direction and headed for the conference room. He hoped he wasn’t due another reaming about his treatment of the science staff. They really were a bunch of crybabies, the way they were always running to Elizabeth with every little thing. He was surprised to see Major Lorne sitting at the conference table. They’d never been the best of friends, more like pleasant acquaintances, but Rodney resented him for taking John’s job. Evan Lorne had many good qualities, but he was no John Sheppard.

“I don’t have time for this, whatever it is,” Rodney said as soon as he was through the door.

“Sit down, Rodney,” Elizabeth said. There was something not right about her, and Rodney studied her carefully as he took the chair closest to the door. Beneath her placid exterior she seemed to be almost humming like a bit of electric wire. Her eyes were brighter than he’d seen in a long time, not that he generally noticed that kind of thing.

“What? What is it?”

“There’s really no way to ease you into this, so I’ll just say it. Major Lorne’s team returned today from PRX-233 and they brought confirmation. Colonel Sheppard is alive.” She was smiling as she finished that announcement, but it quickly faltered under the power of Rodney’s frown.

“How?” He knew how he sounded, but he wasn’t sure what kind of reaction he was supposed to have to that. Was he surprised? Yes, very much so. But the anger, always so close to the surface, was trying to bubble right out of his skin. His quick mind went through several likely scenarios, including him faking his own death or someone else doing that and taking him against his will. Maybe he’d ascended and had only just come back to his body.

“The settlement we visited is having a kind of week-long celebration, something like a street fair,” Lorne explained, his tone almost apologetic. “We saw Colonel Sheppard in one of the tents. I presume he’s being held against his will; he looked…not well.”

“Did you extract him?” Rodney asked tersely. “No, never mind, it’s obvious you didn’t or else he’d be sitting here.”

“We didn’t even alert him to our presence. He’s wearing some sort of electronic collar and we couldn’t be sure what it might do to him if we tried to intervene.”

Elizabeth cleared her throat. “I’d like you to go with the rescue team, Rodney. You’re their best hope of figuring out that collar and removing it without causing any additional harm to Colonel Sheppard.”

Rodney knew it was wrong but he couldn’t help the gleeful feeling that rose up in him. Finally – finally! – he’d have someone to aim his rage at, someone who could pay for the way he’d been feeling for the last six months. Of course rescuing John would be good, too, but he was really hoping for some hand-to-hand combat.

“When do we leave?” he asked, ignoring the uneasy look that Elizabeth shared with Lorne.

*o*o*o*

Rodney and the rest of the team had been fully briefed on the situation. Major Lorne had left a couple Marines back on PRX-233 to keep an eye on John. Before he and the rest of his team had left, Lorne had done some surreptitious questioning to gather more information; it was smart, and it really burned Rodney to have to praise the man.

John had been captured by the Varden, only to be sold to a third party who had need of someone with the Ancient gene. It wasn’t clear what, precisely, they were using him for but Rodney suspected whoever had him also had some Ancient tech that had heretofore been useless to them. Ironic, considering how much he always bitched about being treated like a human light switch.

“Bring him back,” Elizabeth said, and it wasn’t clear if she was addressing the entire team, or maybe just Lorne. It didn’t matter. Rodney knew they’d bring John home, regardless of the shape he was in; in the two hours it had taken to get an extraction team put together and make a plan he’d thought of nothing else. Well, maybe that and a bit of revenge.

Chuck finished the dialing sequence and the Stargate came to life with a bright, liquid whoosh. Rodney didn’t wait; he was the first one through. There was a brief pulling, flying sensation, and then he was stepping out onto the planet and into a light rain shower. He brought the gun up immediately and scanned for hostile natives, but the coast was clear.
By the time the rest of the team joined him Rodney had his scanner out and was taking readings. All offworld teams now carried the enhanced scanners, which had been one of the first things Rodney had worked on after the explosion. In addition to reading life signs, now they also detected a full range of non-biologicals including weaponry and explosives.

Lorne took point and Rodney followed along behind. He felt itchy and uncomfortable in his own skin, and his mind was whirling. While he mentally thought through all possible configurations for a restraining collar, he also considered the possibility that the person they were going to rescue wasn’t really John Sheppard. He could very well be a Replicator, a look-alike, or perhaps even a Sheppard from an alternate universe.

“You know this could be a trap,” he said to Lorne, keeping his voice down. “We don’t know if he’s the real Sheppard, and even if he is, someone could be using him to get to me.”

“That’s why you’re here, Doc,” Lorne replied. “If he’s not who we think he is, you’ll know.”

Damn. Why did Lorne have to exhibit so much intelligence? It was easier to hate him when he acted like a stupid Marine. Rodney kept one hand firmly on his gun while the other swung the scanner around. He had a knife in his boot, another strapped to the inside of his arm, and one in his tac vest; he was ready for any eventuality and he hoped that whoever had the Sheppard look-alike wanted to tussle, because he was more than ready to throw down.

It wasn’t a very far walk to the town hosting the street fair. Like most of the settlements in the Pegasus galaxy, this one was had a middle-ages feel to it. Thatched room homes, cobblestone streets, and people wearing rough-hewn fabrics in earthy colors. The main thoroughfare was festooned with awnings and banners that fluttered in the light breeze. The rain didn’t seem to deter anyone as they went from tent to tent, examining wares or getting a bit of food. There were at least four vendors offering something hot and roasted, one vendor with fruit-laden tables and another with cheese and smoked meats.

Rodney didn’t give the food tents a second glance. He’d already caught sight of the men Lorne had left behind, even though they wore homespun cloaks to try and cover their military garb. They signaled to Lorne, who in turn signaled to the others. Three of the men dispersed to cover the perimeter while Lorne, Rodney and two others went to rendezvous with the Marines that had been standing watch.

“Elkins, report.”

“Sir. Colonel Sheppard is still in the same tent. He was brought out for approximately thirty-five minutes by a man with a tattoo on his face. The Colonel was brought to a person selling odds and ends, some of which looked Ancient in design.”

“Light switch duty,” Rodney muttered. Lorne gave him a look.

“The tattooed man purchased several pieces and then took Colonel Sheppard back to the tent.”

“Is he alone in there now?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Where is it?” Rodney asked. Elkins gestured toward a side road off the main street. There were several tents set up down there.

“It’s the blue one, Sir.”

Rodney turned to Lorne. “I’m going in. I’ll run the scan first before I mess with the collar. Try not to attract too much attention.”

Lorne nodded. “I’ll have my men guard both ends of the street; if you need us, signal and we’ll be there in seconds.”

With a sharp nod, Rodney headed for the blue tent. He did a quick scan from outside, determining a single human life sign emanating from within. The scanner also picked up a small stash of something weapon-like, guns or arrows, maybe. He pulled the knife out of his boot – it was one of Ronon’s wicked-looking blades, heavy in his hand – because he didn’t want to take the chance of firing the P90 in such close proximity.

Cautiously he pulled aside one of the cloth flaps that acted as a door and stepped in. The tent itself wasn’t very big, maybe a meter square, and lit by a hanging lantern at the apex of the roof. There were two cots, a trunk, a small table, and someone that looked very much like John Sheppard. Rodney’s breath caught in his throat, and his stomach clenched so tightly that for a moment he was worried he might vomit.

The person that might or might not be his missing military commander was sitting on a three legged stool at the table, sorting through a box of random Ancient tech, though some of it looked more like rusted engine parts. He was wearing a simple tunic and pants, both in a bland shade of tan, and there was a thick metal collar around his neck that had several blinking lights on it. Lorne had been right about one thing; Sheppard looked like hell. He was too thin, his hair too long, his face unshaven like it had been when they’d rescued him from the time dilation field.

The scanner made a noise, just a small bleep, but it immediately got John’s attention. His head came up and his eyes widened comically. He stared at Rodney, who stared right back.

“Don’t move,” he said, brandishing the knife. “I need to get a complete reading on you.”

John just nodded, and let Rodney get closer with the scanner. He was scanning as human, not Replicator, but there was no way to determine if he was from a different universe; Rodney mentally kicked himself for not thinking to include that.

Dr. McKay, sitrep.

“I’m fine. Now shut up and let me work.” Rodney tapped the radio with the hand holding the knife and nearly sliced his own head open.

“It’s really you,” John said. His voice was hoarse and rough, like he hadn’t used it in a while, and he was grinning. “I knew you’d find me!”

Rodney’s skin flushed with heat. He sounded just like Sheppard, and he had to admit the very real possibility that it was Sheppard, his Sheppard. Not that it mattered, because he firmly told himself he didn’t care. Caring was for the old Rodney.

“How does the collar work?” he snapped.

“Rodney, I-”

“The collar, Sheppard. How does it work?”

That took some of the light out of John’s eyes, and he seemed confused by Rodney’s behavior. “Brills. He has a remote.”

“Electric shock?”

John nodded.

“Amateur.” Rodney scanned the collar as well before he put the device aside and pulled out his small toolkit. With equipment of this kind a gentle touch and delicate instruments were called for, and luckily he had both. He circled around behind John and found the small access panel that would let him take a look at the guts of the thing, and disable it.

“I didn’t think it would take so long, waiting for my big rescue.” John’s tone was light, but Rodney could hear the heavy emotion beneath it. Had he given up on being found? Did he think he was never going to see Atlantis again? The anger rose up and Rodney lashed out at John, because he was the only one there.

“We thought you were dead.” He removed the final tiny screw from the access panel and pried it off. “The Varden did a great job of making you disappear; just enough left behind to make an ID, so don’t go thinking we’ve been scouring the universe looking for you. Finding you here was a fluke, that’s all.”

Rodney regretted the words as soon as he spoke them, but it was too late to take them back. John’s shoulders stiffened and Rodney could only guess what expression must be on his face. There was no reason to take his anger out on John, who had clearly been forced into servitude; surely he was feeling bad enough already at having been abandoned for six months, wearing a shock collar like someone’s dog.

The wiring inside the collar was pretty standard; nothing particularly elegant though it had clearly been jury rigged at some point in the past by someone with questionable electronics skills. Rodney snipped a few wires and the collar popped open with a metallic clank. Before Rodney could make a move towards it, John ripped it off and threw it across the tent.

“Jesus,” Rodney whispered. John’s neck was banded in electrical burns, all of them scarred, none of them fresh. Definitely not a willing captive, though there was no reason to assume he would’ve been; John had always displayed a remarkable lack of concern for his own health and well-being.

He tilted and turned his head, rubbing at his neck with one hand as the joints popped. Rodney turned away to repack his toolkit, and was startled when he came face to face with a large man who had blue tribal tattoos all over his face.

“Brills, I presume?”

After that things happened fast. John was on his feet in an instant, fear on his face even as he moved to intercede, but Rodney had already pulled his P90 and smashed Tattoo in the face with the butt of the gun. He didn’t even have the thought to call for backup – and how had this guy gotten through without being seen? Rodney’s whole head filled with pleasant white noise as he finally got the confrontation he’d been waiting so long for.

Brills clapped one hand to his face, covering his gushing nose, and swung his other hand towards the side of Rodney’s head; he ducked and swept the bigger man’s feet out from under him. Brills went down with a satisfying thud and grunted as the air went out of his lungs.

John was saying something, very loudly, but Rodney was barely aware of him at all. He straddled Brills and brought the butt of the gun down a second time; the crunch of bone came through loud and clear, and brought with it a wave of incredible satisfaction. Every new blow was a small bit of revenge. This was for treating John like an animal. This was for taking him away from Rodney, from Atlantis, from the only people who understood and loved him. This was for leaving Rodney bereft and alone and simmering in emotions he never wanted to experience.

By the time John grabbed hold of Rodney and hauled him off Brills the tattoos had been obliterated, as had much of the man’s face. Rodney looked down at the disgusting mass of blood, bone and shredded flesh and felt…nothing. Absolutely nothing. John kept an arm wrapped around Rodney’s chest as he plucked the earpiece off his ear and called for Lorne.

Rodney’s chest heaved with exertion but he made no effort to move. Now that Brills had been dealt with, he was already putting a plan into action to take care of the Varden; they needed to be punished for stealing John and selling him off like a used piece of furniture, and he already had several ideas how he could make that happen.

Lorne burst in with two Marines, coming up short when he took in the sight of Brill’s body and Rodney standing there with, he belatedly realized, with blood spattered all over him. The Marines exchanged a fleeting look that Rodney saw nonetheless, and figured he’d just confirmed the general opinion that Dr. McKay had lost his mind.

“You okay, Dr. McKay?” Lorne asked, using the voice he normally reserved for twitchy natives. The words were for Rodney but his eyes kept darting over to look at John.

“Fine. Where the hell were your Marines, Major? I thought you had both access points covered, but this asshole walked right in.” Rodney pulled away from John and dropped the P90 on the floor with a clunk. “Do you know what could’ve happened to Sheppard because you dropped the ball?”

“Rodney,” John said. “That’s enough.”

“I’ll be at the Gate,” Rodney said abruptly. He retrieved the knife he’d set down while he was working on the collar and stuffed it back in his boot. “I’ll call ahead and have Carson get ready for Colonel Sheppard.”

He strode out of the tent, leaving Lorne to deal with John.

*o*o*o*

Rodney was able to slip away back on Atlantis while everyone crowded around John. They hugged him and cried and patted him vigorously on the back, and Rodney wanted no part of it. He was feeling a little shaky and a lot exhausted, no doubt an adrenalin crash after his run-in with Brills; his mind shied away from thinking too much about what he’d done. It wasn’t that he felt remorse, exactly, but it wasn’t like him to act with that kind of violence and knowing that he could made him feel a little sick.

He ignored all of Carson’s requests to come to the infirmary to be checked out. No doubt Lorne or John had told all, but Rodney didn’t feel the need to be poked and prodded when he felt perfectly fine. All he needed was a little sleep, and time to assimilate the fact that John wasn’t dead at all, never had been.

Despite Rodney’s exhaustion, though, sleep wasn’t easily come by. He lay in bed for over an hour, tossing and turning, his mind whirring with images from the last few hours and simulation results for the personal shield and a hundred other things. He gave up on rest and got up, putting on his uniform and slinking through the halls to get to his lab. Only somehow he ended up in the infirmary, skulking around out of sight until he was sure the coast was clear.

Carson had kept John, as Rodney knew he would. He was asleep on one of the beds, dressed in blue scrubs and hooked to an IV, his face pinched and drawn. Rodney sidled closer, ready to duck out of sight at the first hint of a nurse, and took a long moment to look down at his friend even though it made his chest hurt. The lights had been dimmed but the scars around John’s neck stood out, still too shiny, pulling at the undamaged skin. Rodney felt a surge of savage satisfaction for the revenge he’d gotten on John’s behalf.

John shifted on the bed, a low moan escaping him as his brow furrowed even more. He was either in pain or dreaming of it, and without a second thought Rodney reached out and placed his hand on John’s forehead. He felt warm but not feverish, and he immediately turned into the touch, some of the tension bleeding out of his face as he huffed out a breath and seemed to settle back into a deeper sleep.

Rodney heard someone coming and made good his escape, though he wished he didn’t have to. He could handle John while he was asleep, but he had no idea what to do with him when he woke up. Surely there’d be questions, or accusations; he hadn’t forgotten what he’d said to John in the tent, how he’d purposefully hurt him with the knowledge that he’d been abandoned and forgotten. It was probably for the best. Rodney couldn’t afford to get any more invested, had to put an end to their friendship if he had any hope of taking back control of his life, his emotions.

“Goodbye, John,” he whispered as he left.

*o*o*o*

Life was complicated. It was messy, and unpredictable, and no amount of math or science or logic could be applied to it to make it nice and tidy. This was an immutable fact, but Rodney still seethed about it anyway. Carson had corralled him in his labs, doing his physical check-in there while Radek just shook his head and kept working. Heightmeyer tried contacting him several times but she was much easier to avoid. He’d e-mailed his report to Elizabeth to keep from having to talk to her and hear her lecture him yet again about his behavior.

Teyla had come back to see John, which Rodney only heard about because he was very skillfully avoiding everyone. He supposed it was only a matter of time before Ronon got word and cut his latest jaunt short. The whole team, back together again like nothing happened. Rodney wasn’t interested, and just because he was keeping track of John’s health and wellness remotely meant nothing, other than he was invested in making sure the military leader – which he would be, once Heightmeyer cleared him for active duty – of Atlantis was in top form.

It was all too easy to keep out of the way of people he didn’t want to see, thanks to judicious hacking of the security systems and his smaller, more compact life signs detector which was set to notify him when selected individuals were headed his way. He still had plenty of time to harass his science staff, and unless he was mistaken they were cowering even more than usual since his return from PRX-233; clearly one of the Marines had been telling the tale of Rodney’s rage explosion, which was fine with him if it motivated his staff.

John spent two days in the infirmary, and then was scheduled with Heightmeyer for daily sessions. Rodney presumed she was making sure he was fit for duty and not suffering too many ill effects from his servitude. The anger, which he thought he’d bled out successfully, hadn’t gone anywhere as it turned out. It still churned in his guts, making him snappish and prone to fits of frustration that usually ended with something getting smashed or damaged.

“That is it. Get out!” Radek shouted at him after the fourth day of scientists running for cover from whatever projectile Rodney had close at hand. “You are disruptive and I am tired of staff running to me with complaints.”

His hair stood up in agitated wisps and he whipped off his glasses, cleaning them with the edge of his shirt. Rodney glowered at him, but Radek was the only one who never showed any fear; the little Czech bastard could be fierce in his own right.

“If they weren’t so incompetent…”

“No. Out. Go see Dr. Heightmeyer or go to gym, but whatever your problem is fix it before you cause mutiny.” They glared at each other and Rodney was the first one to give in and turn away; he told himself it was just because he needed a break anyway. He grabbed his laptop and headed to his quarters. He’d get more work done there, without a bunch of incompetents whining and complaining about every little thing.

He got right back to his personal shield work, determined to get that finished so he could move on to the next thing, like blowing up the Varden’s Gate or dropping a bomb on them. Soon enough he was immersed in his equations and didn’t surface for almost four hours; when he did, he was triumphant.

“I’ve got it! Ha!” Rodney smacked his hand on the desk, grinning even as he straightened his spine and listened to it pop. He’d found a way to make the power source self-renewing, using a combination of the body’s own electromagnetic field and thermal energy. If the shield emitter was placed against the skin, instead of on an article of clothing, it could draw enough energy to constantly recharge itself. Now that he’d overcome the power source problem, it was just a matter of tweaking the device so that it came with a failsafe switch that would turn it off if the user became unconscious; it would be hard to help an injured teammate if they weren’t able to turn the field off.

Rodney saved his work and then stood, stretching even more and wincing at the pain in his lower back. He needed to order a more ergonomic desk chair for his quarters, and made a mental note to do just that before the next Daedalus supply run.

He thought about heading to the mess for some food – he had no idea what time it even was – but he was too tired. Instead he wolfed down a Power Bar as he got undressed and then crawled into bed. He was asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow.

*o*o*o*

Rodney walked into the tent, knife in one hand and scanner in the other. It was so dim inside that he couldn’t make out anything, except for the table John sat at, which was bathed in light from several large candles. The table was littered with dead shield emitters, at least thirty of them in a big heap. John sat looking down at them, the collar on his neck gleaming in the candlelight.

“I waited for you.”

“I’m here,” Rodney replied, hand tightening on the knife. Anyone could be hiding in the shadows, waiting to jump out at him.

“You never came.”

“I’m here.”

“It’s too late.” John looked up, looked right at him with a desolate expression that made Rodney catch his breath in dismay. “You waited too long.”

One shadow pulled away from the others and resolved itself into the shape of a man, a large, bald man with blue tattoos on his face. He put on proprietary hand on John’s shoulder and brandished a wand-like piece of metal in the other. Rodney made an abortive move to stop him, but the man pointed the wand at John and pressed a button. Immediately John’s back bowed as the collar flared to life, glowing blue and crackling with electricity.

“No! Stop!” Rodney shouted, to no avail. The big man’s grip kept John in the chair, writhing in agony. He bit his tongue, hard enough to send blood streaming from his mouth and down his chin. Rodney could smell his flesh burning. “Please! Please stop!”

He tried to get to John, tried to do something useful, but he was frozen in place. Finally the collar was deactivated, and John fell out of the chair and on to the floor, where he lay twitching and moaning, blood foaming at the corners of his mouth. Rodney fell to his knees, the only movement he could make, and tried to reach for John; he wasn’t close enough, no matter how far he stretched out his arm.

“I’m sorry!” Rodney cried; his vision blurring as tears fell. “I’m sorry! I’m…”

“Sorry!” Rodney shouted, jerking awake and nearly falling out of bed. His heart was hammering in his chest, so loud it sounded almost like…

“McKay!” John called through the door, which he’d been pounding on.

A quick glance at the clock had Rodney flailing out of bed and cursing as he thought the door open; he’d personally rigged it to keep Colonel Super Gene from just walking through whenever he wanted.

“Are you insane?” Rodney finally made it to his feet and yanked John through the door, which closed behind him. “You’ll wake everyone up!”

It was a token protest; when Rodney had chosen to change quarters, he moved up to a floor that was uninhabited. Which was something John probably knew, if he’d looked up Rodney’s new address.

“What are you doing here? It’s the middle of the night.” Rodney grabbed a t-shirt from the pile on the floor and shrugged it on; he didn’t like feeling so exposed in front of John.

“You’ve been avoiding me.” John wandered around the room, picking things up and putting them back down again. Sometime in the last few days he’d shaved off the beard. “I thought you’d moved into a bigger room.”

Rodney gestured to the balcony but didn’t follow him out. He watched John, who was still too thin, stand there looking out at the city. How many times had the two of them hung out together on balconies and piers? Rodney had always secretly pictured John like Batman, high atop a building so he could look down on Gotham City, surveying all that was his. Atlantis had been John’s since he first stepped out of the Gate and all the lights came on for him. He fit there somehow, in a way Rodney suspected he didn’t back on Earth; it wasn’t right, being on Atlantis without him.

“Nice view,” John said when he came back in. His color was back, and he didn’t look quite so haggard to Rodney’s keen eye, but he was still clearly exhausted.

Rodney just shrugged, and the action seemed to draw John’s attention to his chest. He looked down at himself and realized he’d forgotten to tuck his dog tags under his t-shirt; he almost never had them out for public view, and felt a little self-conscious about them now.

“When did the civilian staff start wearing these?” John asked. He edged closer and Rodney fought the urge to back away.

“Four months ago.”

“Can I?” John asked, reaching out.

Rodney wanted to say no, but he’d never been very good at denying John. He stood very still while John cupped the tags in his hand, looking at them one at a time. The top tag was red, and listed Rodney’s citrus allergy and hypoglycemia. Below that was his standard-issue – name, SGC ID number, and which science division he worked out of. The last tag on the chain was twisted and blackened, but John’s name was still clear enough to read. The companion tag had been sent home with John’s meager personal effects, presumably to his father.

“A lot changed while I was gone.” John released the tags and Rodney hastily tucked them away. “Carson says you’re working to make the offworld teams indestructible.”

“Too little, too late,” Rodney said, and the bitterness in his own voice took him by surprise. John looked at him sharply, but didn’t say anything. The silence spun out between them and it wasn’t at all comfortable, as it once had been. There were six months of regret and absence between them now, six months without movie nights or RC car races or dangerous missions or shared meals. Rodney felt each and every day of it like a weight across his shoulders; the burden of life without John.

“So,” John said hesitantly. “Are you…uh…you know. Okay?”

Rodney felt his skin flush, hot and achy. “Okay? Why the hell would I be okay? You were dead, Sheppard! We had a fucking memorial service and people cried over you!”

John winced. “Well, I wasn’t dead.”

“But you should have been!” Rodney snapped, hands clenched painfully at his sides. “A thousand times over you should’ve died since we came here, and every time you walk away, every time. But I didn’t believe it this time. I didn’t believe it and you…you suffered. Because of me.”

In his mind the dream echoed and he had to look away from John’s hurt expression and his scarred neck and his too-lean body. It was a hell of a time for personal revelations, but he suddenly realized that all the anger that had been twisting him up inside was aimed at himself. Not the Varden or Brills or Lorne; just himself.

“I gave up,” he said, his voice cracking. It was horrible, saying it out loud. “I gave up on you, and you never would’ve done that. Never have done that. Why would I do that? Why?

Rodney dropped down on his bed, head in his hands and elbows on his knees. It didn’t make any sense to him. John was his best friend, had been even more than that in Rodney’s secret imaginings, and he’d written him off so easily. No questions asked. What kind of monster did that make him?

The bed dipped as John sat beside him; Rodney didn’t dare look up, didn’t want to see the expression that must be on his face. Someone that embraced the philosophy of ‘no man left behind’ surely wouldn’t be able to make sense of what Rodney had done; hell, he couldn’t even make sense of it.

“I never had friends before,” he said, mumbling at the floor. “I never wanted them, never saw the point. I had my work, and that was all I needed. But here…here I was part of a team. And for some reason you decided you wanted to be my friend. I thought it was good, but then you were gone and…and it all…it was too hard. I can’t do that again.”

“Rodney, Teyla told me what happened.” John’s voice was hushed and there was an undercurrent of something in it that Rodney couldn’t identify. “If I’d been in your place, I probably would’ve believed I was dead too.”

“No you wouldn’t!” Rodney snapped. He got back to his feet, too agitated to sit still anymore. “All I could do was close the barn door after the horse got out. I amped up the scanners, insisted on weapons training for all civilians. I just figured out how to make the personal shield emitters work so that no-one has to get blown up or shot or fed off of anymore. I don’t know what else to do!”

He spun on his heel, and turned right into John, almost knocking the other man off his feet. John grabbed hold of his elbows, steadying both of them, and dipped his head down to press his lips against Rodney’s. There was nothing gentle or sweet about it; John was practically mauling him, his mouth hard and insistent.

As suddenly as he’d descended, John just as quickly pulled back. He was breathing heavily and he looked pained, his eyes swimming with tears. He tried to back up, step away, but Rodney had his hands fisted in the back of John’s shirt and he didn’t let go.

“John?”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” John dropped his head to Rodney’s shoulder, trembling under his hands. “I’m just…I’m so tired. I can’t sleep. And I tried to get home. I tried.”

Rodney’s chest was so tight he didn’t know how he was still breathing. He loosened his grip and started rubbing his hands up and down John’s back in a feeble attempt to soothe him. The guilt was eating him alive. John’s burns…of course they’d be from escape attempts; he’d never just sit and wait, not John. Not Colonel Heroic.

“John…”

“If I wasn’t so tired I’d be pissed at you, Rodney. You forgot all about me.” The words were muttered against his shoulder.

Rodney felt a little nauseous. He wanted to tell John that it wasn’t true, because it wasn’t. He hadn’t forgotten John, not for one second of one day. Every single thing he’d done for the betterment of Atlantis, for the safety of the offworld teams, had been for John. Every incompetent scientist fired, every trigger-happy Marine reported…all for him.

He pulled the dog tags out and John tipped his head back enough to look at them. “I didn’t. I couldn’t. This was the last piece of you I had, and I kept it close. I kept you close. I just…I just didn’t believe.”

John touched a finger to the dog tags. “I thought about you every day,” he whispered.

“Me, too.”

“I’m so tired.”

“Yeah.” Rodney pressed a kiss to John’s forehead, and moved him back towards the bed. “Come on. Let’s see if we can get some sleep.”

He pulled off John’s boots, which never seemed to be laced anyway, and pushed him down on the bed. Rodney joined him and they shuffled around until they found a position that John seemed comfortable with; Rodney spooned up behind him, holding him tightly.

“I can’t give you those six months back,” he said softly. “I can’t do that for either of us, and I’m so sorry. But…”

“But?” John prompted.

“Maybe we can start over. Do things different.” Rodney knew what he was asking, knew he didn’t deserve it. But John did. John deserved everything, and Rodney wanted to give it to him.

“You killed him,” John said.

“I did.”

“We’re gonna have to talk about it.”

“But not today.”

John nodded, his hair brushing against Rodney’s neck. “Not today.”

Rodney closed his eyes, awash in gratitude, and for the first time in a very long time, he was able to relax enough to fall into a deep dreamless sleep.