Like Running Through Water
chopchica beta'ed, cjandre preread and title suggested, and the glowy thing that's not a disco ball but could be? Totally chopchica's.
That Time, Back Then
After John escapes McKay's lab, using the process of stealthily waiting until McKay passed out from exhaustion, he gets an email requesting his presence in General O'Neill's office, twenty-two hours before estimated time of departure.
It's not a lab. John pretty much is good with anything at this point that's not a lab.
There, John is given a.) whiskey, b.) ten boxes of files, c.) a box of disks, and d.) a huge, amused smile.
"Whiskey first," O'Neil says as John flips open the first file, greeted with an image of something multi-tentacled that seems to be *playing chess* with a blonde woman in uniform.
He drinks the whiskey in a gulp and wishes for more.
O'Neil says, this all might seem kind of strange. These, he says, are some mission reports (file box) from the SGC that involve the Ancients. There are more being sent with the databases, but you strike me as a reading-in-bed type of guy.
These, he says, and this time the discs, carefully anonymous by a manufacturer that John's never heard of, are *my* files. Password is alcatraz01. You'll get it later.
John nods, because the alcohol's cushioned the shock of it all.
Another? O'Neill says, as smug as McKay could ever pull off.
John thinks talking about aliens deserves a second glass. He says yes.
"So, how's all the testing going?" O'Neil makes a little circle in the air with one finger, raising an eyebrow, like he completely understands that John is woken up at all hours by random personnel who are regularly terrorized by Dr. McKay into hunting him down like a dog and dragging him into a lab to *touch something*.
And that Dr. McKay--
"How does he find me?" The last time, John had gone hiking, just to see what would happen. Fifteen minutes in, when John had made the mistake of stopping to admire the scenery (snow, snow, more snow, look, more snow! John liked snow), two parka-clad bodies had come abruptly into view. John had watched them approach with a sense of inevitability, recognizing one as the pretty Asian lab tech he'd met the first day, the other a young, sour-faced Marine who'd looked at him with resigned determination.
"Major Sheppard!" the lab tech had said, stumbling in heavy boots she obviously wasn't used to wearing, looked exhausted and freezing and like she might have been crying recently, "Major Sheppard, Dr. McKay requests your presence immediately."
What he'd actually said to her was (Marine quoted), "If his ass isn't in that chair in thirty minutes, I will make you wish you were dead."
What he'd then told the Marine was, "Find him, or I will personally make sure you never, ever get laid again by anyone on this base."
John saw the rope swinging meaningfully from the Marine's belt. He'd gone back.
He'd also systematically checked his clothes, his shoes, and his equipment for tracking devices. Later, in the shower, he'd performed a quick body scan for new and unexplained scars.
O'Neil looks a little sheepish. "Yeah, that."
"Is he having me *watched*?"
O'Neil shifts, looking almost uncomfortable. "Well. McKay can be a little--"
O'Neil nods, like John just nailed the issue to his satisfaction. "Yeah, that too. McKay's our foremost expert on gate technology. This opportunity--"
"I get it." He's fondled more pieces of meaningless machinery than he can count; *cool*, because one, they *light up* and sometimes hum in his hand, or fly around the room, or once, released some kind of gas that had led to an unfortunate stay in isolation until they found out it was the equivalent of Ancient laughing gas. And two, every time--*every time*--McKay's teeth set together in a grim, displeased line, like he's terribly disgusted that *John* can make it all work, which really is a lot of fun and almost makes the entire experience worth it.
Besides being McKay's weird version of an on/off switch, he really hasn't had a lot to do here.
John nods and takes the third whiskey. He doesn't drink much, so he holds it carefully, while O'Neill watches him with curious eyes.
"Are you brain damaged?"
That's how John had woken up one horrific morning. Things he expected when he woke up.
1.) actual morning.
His life had never been that easy.
John realized he was holding a gun on a tired looking man in a lab coat, and he almost lowered it, before he recognized McKay.
"How did you--"
"Shut up." Without even blinking, McKay pushed the gun aside. John was too surprised to stop him. "I'm not here to listen to you babble. Are you crazy, or have you been in some kind of brain-traumatizing accident? We have doctors. They can *fix you*. Or at least, get you back to normal, though that look of blank incomprehension may *be* normal, I have no idea. I'm speaking English, have you forgotten your native tongue? How many fingers am I holding up?"
He managed that in one breath. John blinked. "What?"
McKay reached out and dragged John's blankets back, and John found himself at two o'clock in the morning waging a war for sheets. There was no way this could be normal. Also, he wasn't winning.
The sheets end up in a sad little pile at the foot of the bed. "Get up and tell Dr. Weir you are going. Now."
John stared. "You have got to be kidding me."
But McKay was already tossing him clothes from the closet and when had John lost control of the situation? Hell, when had he ever had control of it in the first place? "What are you doing?"
"Getting you dressed. Not literally, of course, unless the brain damage is actual, in which case, possibly. Don't worry, you don't have anything I haven't seen before."
The scary part was, John believed him. "I'm not going anywhere. It's the middle of the fucking *night*."
McKay hesitated, a boot in one hand, eyes a little glassy. "Huh. Yeah, so it is." John recognized the kind of exhaustion that came with that level of mania, and it occurred to him at that point, holding his gun at all was ridiculous. Putting it back on the bedside table, he watched McKay turn around, leaning into the wall, blue eyes glazed. "I'd probably care if I'd slept more. But I haven't been sleeping. Do you know why?"
John kept his mouth shut.
"I haven't been sleeping because I'm testing Ancient technology with the most incompetent and reluctant group of morons ever to inhabit the same space." He waved the boot around in a slow circle, then tossed it at the bed. John watched it slowly tumble to the floor like a slow-motion video. "The ones with the gene sit there and stare at it and sometimes, they can make it work, but mostly, they can't, they don't want to, they don't like it, they don't know it, they're afraid of it, they're afraid of themselves. Before you, I had Carson and he hated every second of it. But you--"
John swallowed. "There's got to be other people."
"You think we haven't *looked*? It's--Jesus. We've looked and looked, the SGC searched for *years*, and how the hell you weren't screened I'll never know, but you weren't. We thought, well, this was all we've have left from the Ancients. Evolution fucked us over. I was okay with that. I could live with that. And then you came.
"You came, and you sat down, and in five minutes, you'd told us more than we'd learned in years, and now you think you can walk the fuck *out*? I don't *think* so, Major."
The blue eyes sharpened. "I've waited my whole life for this. I waited for it before I knew what it was. This is everything. You work out any weird trauma you have on your own time, and you know, we have a great psychiatrist coming along, and you can go tell her all about bad touching or post-traumatic stress disorder or how you mutilated kittens in your misspent youth, and have all the issues you want, but you're going to have them *there*, because there is no way in hell that you're staying behind."
John opened his mouth, words hovering on the tip of his tongue--why should I care, what the *fuck* does this have to do with what I want, and who the hell are you to tell me what I have to do? He didn't though, because McKay was standing right there, exhausted and unshaven and the big hands were almost shaking, anger or just plain exhaustion John couldn't tell, and he could say it, but it'd be stupid, and John had never been stupid.
McKay had said, it was everything, and John understood that, the need and want that could drive you, that took you over and stole sleep and rationality, that meant more than anything and anyone else ever could, ever would. You didn't argue with it, reason with it, you could fight it, but in the end, you'd lose. Sometimes, you even lost yourself.
John swung his legs out of bed and leaned back, holding McKay's gaze. "Has it occured to you that I like it here? That I love what I do?"
McKay's eyes narrowed. "Flying in circles in the south pole? I can see the attraction. Or not at all, really."
John tilted his head, watching McKay push off the closet, already marshaling other arguments, or possibly, and John wouldn't even be surprised, getting ready to pop out a needle and *drug* John into submission. "Flying."
McKay stopped, and John watched the click, like a puzzle piece falling into place. Recognition and understanding and strangely, amusement.
"Major," McKay said, slowly, and he bent down, picking up the second boot, dropping it on the foot of bed, dropping down right beside it. McKay smelled like coffee and antiseptic and too much time in a lab, too close, and he closed a hand over John's wrist like a promise, squeezing hard enough to rub bone against bone. "We're going to *Atlantis*. Through a wormhole. That the Ancients created. You have no idea, do you? You want to fly? I'll get you a *spaceship*."
John studies O'Neill and takes the third shot. "Yeah, I do."
The fourth shot goes down easily, and by that time, John is actually considering this in light of a really strange hallucination brought about by South Pole insanity. It's possible. It's *reasonable*.
As reasonable as three hours of sleep a night and being woken up drooling on McKay's lab table by a prodding finger in his shoulder, telling him he can rest when he's dead, so get up and *touch this*. Touch this, touch that, think at it really, really hard, whatever the hell *that* meant, but it works, so John doesn't complain about the terms. No. No hallucination would have someone like McKay, relentlessly vivid, sharp as a hyperfocused lens, loud, taking up massive amounts of space and air and *feeling*. McKay's an interactive experience, like getting really high and then wandering around in the mall the day after Thanksgiving; it's almost impossible to believe he's a single person.
John smiles, focusing on O'Neill. "This heart to heart has been great, sir. I really feel like part of the team now."
O'Neill snorts softly. "Huh. It's been a while, hasn't it, Sheppard?"
It's deliberate shaft, hitting full center. John knows it, feels it hit, and doesn't give it away. "Yes, it has. Sir."
John's been alone a while. He's learned to like it.
"Don't be *stupid*."
John was tempted, just a little, to really hit McKay's buttons, just once, just press down *hard* and see what happened, just for the fun of it. But McKay was *easy*, and John had never been around someone who wanted so little. McKay wanted him *here*, wanted him conscious, wanted him to say yes, it works, or no, it doesn't. As far as vaguely-resembling interpersonal relationships went, this was probably the most comfortable he'd ever had.
People at a few removes were always easier to deal with, and McKay was a familiar stranger who didn't want anything that John couldn't offer. His only expectation, and he made it clear, was that John be in the lab when he wanted him and at the wormhole when they were ready to depart. Fail at either of these two, and McKay would find new and creative ways to destroy him. John believed that.
As far as McKay was concerned, John was a really nifty remote control for Ancient toys. It would have been offensive if John had tried to be anything else.
"Sometimes," McKay broke in, looking at John over something like a wrench, but with tiny movable teeth-looking things that seemed ominously close to chewing off his fingers, "I wonder if you have any independent thought whatsoever."
John bit down and tried not to be tempted. Do not tease the crazy scientist. It was his own fault, really, with the entire hiking thing. "No," he deadpanned with his most blank expression. "They broke me of that in basic training."
McKay nodded, like it made sense. "Figures. It's always the pretty ones." McKay looked a little thoughtful, expression softening toward gentle annoyance. Warm and fuzzy, McKay style. "Of course, there are exceptions."
Yes, John thought with a grin, biting down again and not mentioning Carter's name, though he wanted to, badly, just to see McKay flinch. Also, pretty. Hmm. "This going to take long?" Because six straight hours, and he might be be losing skin from his fingers from all the touching, rubbing, stroking, and other words that he'd once associated with sex and never, ever will again. There was a moment of absolute appalled horror where John wondered if he'd spend the rest of his life associating good touch with warm, humming metal that spoke in a whisper. He pulled away every time he felt it, and he didn't think McKay had noticed yet, but while McKay was relentlessly self-centered, he was also the single smartest person John had ever met. He'd notice, eventually.
I get why they were afraid of that, he would tell McKay. I get why they won't do this for you. Last night, fifteen straight hours locked in McKay's lab, cataloguing more objects, and John had dreamed in whispered voices that spoke in a language he almost understood, fingers feeling smooth warm metal that hummed when he touched, and he'd woken up hard and sweating and *wanting*, no idea what. If he thought about it seriously, he'd run out of here and never come back, no matter how many Marines and McKays came after him.
"I'm sorry, am I interrupting prime lounging time?" McKay's voice was habitually sharp, but the McKay equivalent of distracted, so John felt comfortable letting himself smile. "I know with that sheer lack of anything *else* to do--"
John waved it off. "Yes, I know, moron, no one is as important as I am, oh the pain of my life doing all the work and rewarded with nothing but ingratitude. Repetition times*three*, by the way. Fun."
For a second, John thought he saw McKay's mouth quirk, but then it was gone, hidden under an insane pile of papers before McKay emerged with, surprise, surprise, *another* Ancient device. He placed it on the lab table between them, fixing John with a look just shy of an order.
John blinked, because for a second, it was like seeing McKay for the first time. He hadn't shaved for two days, and he might have had a chat with a shower recently, but not a long one. Black smudges were vivid beneath the blue eyes, but the habitually tight mouth was almost relaxed. One finger was bandaged from a hangnail (not kidding), but there were old acid burns on his first two fingers and both palms, the fading scar of an electric burn on his forearm beneath his lab coat, almost invisible to the naked eye.
When John didn't move fast enough, McKay reached across the table and closed big fingers over his wrist, jerking his hand into position over the globe. It was almost like a challenge, and John didn't fight it.
Didn't flinch at the unexpected touch, and that surprised him. He thought it might have surprised McKay, too.
"Shut up and touch this." And McKay almost smiled.
John didn't like that it made him want to smile back.
O'Neill wants to say things that, technically, are out of line, even from a General to a Major. John can see them forming behind the sharp eyes, about how no man is an island and maybe something about being a team player, or possibly something less clichéd but extremely motivating. John just looks at him, because he's going through the Stargate in a few hours with a group of strangers to a distant galaxy, and really, there's nothing that can be said here that could possibly match that. One glance from a distance at Sumner was enough to tell him his time on Atlantis, outside of McKay's godforsaken lab, will not be fun.
And he's categorizing McKay's lab as fun, now. Dear God.
So he lets O'Neill keep looking, letting the alcohol soothe away the edges of discomfort, because he could honestly give less than a shit what this man thinks of him or what he has to say. Below that, though, is the vague uncertainty that maybe he *should*. That this moment, this office, this talk, is important, that he should be here and aware for it.
"I have this friend," O'Neill says, and his mouth quirks up on one side, eyes softening and growing distant. "Workaholic. Used to shut himself up with his books and his computer for days at a time between missions. I'd drag him out and make him see sunlight and buy him food that didn't come from the microwave and he'd be pissed for *hours*, because I'd interrupted when he'd been *this close* to figuring out the meaning of life. Or an obscure Ancient dialect." Jack looks thoughtful, taking a slow drink. "Depending on what day of the week it was."
John tries to look like he knows where this was going.
"He bitched and moaned, but he never stopped me, and he could have. He didn't." O'Neill smiles, but it isn't directed at John. "I've read your file."
Really, there's nothing like surreal alcohol-hazed conversation. It'd probably make far more sense if O'Neill was as drunk as John is.
"You're very good. A hell of a lot better than I expected." From reports, he doesn't say, but he doesn't need to. John waits. "And I'd expect a great deal from a man who can fly like you do."
John forces himself to nod, mouth tight. There's nothing new O'Neill can say that he hasn't heard before.
"What's strange is, what I read isn't anything like the man I met." O'Neill pauses, looking at his empty glass like it's a foreign object. "And the man I read about is the one I want to send to Atlantis, Sheppard."
That? Is new. "Sir?" The whisky might have been a bad idea--John isn't following this conversation at all.
"When you get there, it's going to be--not what you're used to." And damned if the man doesn't grin, leaning back in his chair. "You're military, Sheppard, but you're going to have to be more than that. We don't need more military on this mission."
John tries to figure out what to say to that. "Sir?"
O'Neill sighs, leaning forward to rub his forehead.
"This is why I don't do speeches." Reaching for the decanter, he pours another drink and stares at it for a few seconds, then up at John. "You've had days to learn what we spend years training men to understand. Dr. Weir wants you there because you can operate the technology, and privately, I think she likes your ass. I want you there because if things go wrong--and they will--I think you can handle it." O'Neill finishes the glass and pours another. "And when they don't go wrong? You'll know what to do then, too."
John blinks. Slowly. "I don't understand."
With an unexpected grin, O'Neill fills his glass. "Trust me, Major. When it happens, you will."
Six hours before departure, John sits alone, staring at the chair. Everything they'd wanted to take had been packed, but this, apparently, isn't going with them. He isn't sure why.
It's quiet, though, and no one comes in or out, excitement having reached that fever pitch that only groups can manage, until John couldn't stand it a second longer and had to get away, anywhere, everywhere--
(--though he didn't make the mistake of actually leaving the base; that way lies McKay's magical sense of John-getting-away and so not what he's looking for right now).
The chair looks at him, and he looks back. Just a freaky metal chair with some resemblance to what you'd find at the local dentist, but surprise! A stamp with Made in the Pegasus Galaxy in blue light that betrays itself at John's first touch. "You know, I was okay here. I liked it here. I was--" Happy here. He can't lie to himself that convincingly. "It was okay. I was okay."
Dr. Weir is nice enough and has made frightening amounts of effort to see that he's on board with the project (maybe she did check out his ass, but he couldn't be sure). Dr. Beckett was chatty during his physical, probably because he'd been replaced as McKay's lab rat. And on base, he was the face most of them didn't know, so of course, they knew *exactly who he was*, and John has spent too much time away to like that. He's the new guy with the gene that hadn't know about intergalactic travel, aliens, and, if O'Neill's discs were accurate, a few averted apocalypses.
A secret history of wars that John's never heard of, and he's learned it in days, from files, from film and discs, from Dr. Weir and Colonel O'Neill, and from the faces of those he's met. He doesn't, can't believe it.
Standing up, John walks to the chair, then runs a slow finger over the panel, bathing himself in blue light, the soft hum of something that feels living and isn't, that feels him and welcomes him like it's known him forever.
He can believe it now, though, in this room, with this touch.
Taking his hand away, the connection fades into background noise and finally silence. For a second, he misses it, and that scares him more than anything else has.
He can feel McKay before he could see him, hovering at the edge of his consciousness. McKay had supervised the packing of this room, yelling the entire time about damaged equipment and irreplaceable value and pretty much making everyone in this galaxy glad he was going to another one, far, far away. He makes John wish that he'd never weakened and said yes. He makes John wish he'd never joined the Air Force.
McKay is a presence that transcends sound, though, and John doesn't need to hear him to feel his silent observation. It should be creepier, but exposure does things like make McKay feel almost normal, and John leaves him to watch, circling the chair.
"It's getting loud out there," McKay says, and of all things, he sounds *uncomfortable*, like it might have occurred to him that he's intruding. That? Is weird. Enough for John to look at him, a bulky presence against the doorway, nothing but shadow backed by clean, cool metal. The room's empty now, hollowed out from the excitement and preparation, everything leeched away to the people in those other rooms, frantically triple-checking everything for the thousandth time and loving every second.
"What if I can't do what you think I can?"
McKay takes the space between them like he does everything else--forward, accepting no prisoners, and not really caring what's in his way, because at the end, he knows it will buckle, that nothing and no one matches his will. John's never met anyone like him.
"That's not the question." He stares at the chair, too, reaching out with one hand to touch the high metal back, then drawing away before contact. "I could hate you, you know."
John turns his head, just enough to catch the flow of expression--hiding nothing, never seeing the need to, not bothering because who the hell is worth the effort to hide from? The bitterness is deep, and so is the anger and excitement and a thousand other emotions, all curled up and categorized and accepted.
Something McKay wants that no one can give him. "If I could--"
McKay cuts off that bit of stupidity with a gesture, sharp and final. "Shut up. Sit down."
John blinks, then nodded jerkily. McKay never asks him for anything he can't give easily, and this is something that might not be easy, but he can give it. Circling around, John sits down, eyes closing at the connection, his mind ready for it this time, for the shock of recognition and the instinctive pull away that the chair fights and wins, almost too easily. Beneath him is all humming potential and above him is the entire world, and he hovers somewhere between.
Warm, hard hands cover his on the palmrests, and John's eyes jerk open, ground into the world so sharply it almost hurts.
But he has, John has, for hours and endless hours, this does this and that does *that* and hell if I know what *this* does, but damn it's tempting, sometimes, just to fuck with McKay after too many hours and not nearly enough sleep. John opens his mouth, then shut it tight, framing words to build a concept. "Like something I'd forgotten that I needed."
McKay nods once, sharply, eyes shadowed, mouth a jagged, unhappy line. "More."
John licks his lips. There aren't. Words. "Like waiting." God. "Like--" Closing a door. Opening a window. The smell of a storm in summer, the shock of a snowstorm from a clear sky. No. "Like everything's ready."
The pressure pushes his palms harder into the seat, and McKay is too close, almost straddling his lap. John can feel the gaze even better than he can see it, ruthless and uncompromising and focused. "More."
"Something to do. Wanting to do it, do anything. Years with nothing at all, no one who touched, who understood, then--" Here, then now, John isn't sure what he's saying anymore. "Then there were some, and not enough, and then there was *this*, when it--" When I--
McKay's eyes fix on his, demanding answers that John can't help but give. "Then there is now."
The pressure eases, enough for John to breathe between them, find a place that neither this chair or McKay can touch.
McKay's voice is low, rough. "That's how I know. The question is, do *you* know?"
John wants to say, no. It scares him, it pushes at him, it touches places in him that shouldn't be breached, it wants things he doesn't want to give. It twists and pulls and feels like a familiar stranger he's forgotten and shouldn't have. John wants to say no, but he'd be lying, and they both know it.
"You can. And you will." McKay's smile is bitter and angry and excited and proprietary, too. John wonders if between the two of them, this technology and this man, there will be anything left of him. "We're going to light up a world, Major."