He'd woken up dry-mouthed and sweating, hands cuffed to the headboard of an unfamiliar bed, the mattress beneath him thin and stiff.
For the first time in forever, he was cold, thin sheet rucked haphazardly around his hips, and his mind refused to focus, flickering between the soft sounds of the ocean he'd fallen asleep to the night before and the screams that woke him up, panting into thin, sterile air. Everything was too dark and too bright at the same time, moonlight spilling in long, rectangular bars onto the floor. Everything was thick, even his thoughts, dripping to plop at the bottom of his head in senseless images of small, cinderblock rooms and clean white light from halogen bulbs high above his head, and all he could think of was, I don't hear the ocean.
Thirty minutes later, he was fighting the restraints and screaming like the rest of them, wrapping his strangely thin hands around the metal of his bed and when they shot him up, it was almost a relief, almost a blessing, because it was bad enough to think they were wrong, must be wrong, but so much worse to know they were right.
On his chart, it says schizophrenia paranoia, and when he sees that, he wishes he didn't believe it.
"Okay, I need you to just believe me when I say I'm not crazy."
John nods, testing the ropes surreptitiously. The knots are solid, just enough give for easy blood circulation, not quite enough for any meaningful attempt to escape unless he wants to leave his thumbs and a lot of skin behind.
It's not exactly how he expected McMurdo to turn out, really.
"Right. You're not crazy." Because that's what you say to the crazy scientists that somehow sneak into military bases to tie you up in abandoned secret bases. Especially when they're armed.
Disturbingly well-armed at that--John eyes the P-90 with a jaundiced eye and works his wrist again.
"I'm not crazy, and you're going to rupture an artery doing that," the guy says, trying for still cool and achieving a kind of hyperactive non-motion that's pretty terrifying when you consider how close his finger comes to the trigger of the P-90.
Crazy people can kill you just as fast as the sane ones, and sometimes, they don't mean to.
"I'm just sitting here," John says, trying to project calm and understanding, but really, what the fuck?
"It's been a really long day," the guy says, leaning into the wall, hands moving like he's not quite sure what to do with them. Sweat glistens on the "I just--I mean, you have no idea. You go to sleep in your own bed and wake up and find out the world's so fucked, and what can you do about it?"
John nods slowly. The chair is distressingly sturdy, and the guy's smart even if he's crazy, John's ankles are secured to the legs.
The wide open room, echoingly silent except for the guy's huffed breaths, is beginning to creep him the shit out. . "Right. Okay. Why am I here?" A horribly plausible thought occurs to him. "You're not--not Jaffa are you?"
"What? No? Are you *crazy*?" Then the guy stops, frowning. "Right. There's a war, isn't there?" The pacing starts, hard stomps of surprisingly large feet on the cool metal floor of a base that, until John woke up fifteen minutes ago, he didn't even know existed. "Okay, look, you have to listen. Weir's God knows where and Zelenka's still on the project and frankly, he's kind of scared of me, not a surprise really, I forgot--never mind." Waving a hand, the guy comes back, wrapping his foot around a chair and coming closer. Not close enough for John to try any desperate maneuvers really--and that's kind of good, because John's knees both make it know that hard floors do not agree with them at all. "I'm McKay. Er. You don’t know me yet. Dr. Rodney McKay, SGC."
John slow blinks his complete acceptance and wishes to God he hadn't gone to bed last night at all.
"You know what the SGC is--wait. You're a *pilot*. You're telling me they still sent you to this hellhole in the middle of a *war*?" McKay's eyes widen almost comically. "My God. It's like the epic stupidity of the military never *ends*."
"I'm being called back," John says, then stops himself, because God, no sharing information with the crazy. "Okay, Dr. McKay. Tell me why you kidnapped me." Scientist he'd pegged at a look--SGC not so much, but they hired anyone who was crazy enough to want to be on the front lines of the war these days, and hell, this guy fit the bill. "Maybe we can work something out."
With an impatient gesture that brings the muzzle of the P-90 far too close to a clear shot for John's peace of mind, McKay stands up again. Turning on a heel, McKay paces to the wall, then back again. The jitteriness is getting worse.
"The last time I was here, this was filled with Ancient technology," McKay says slowly, stopping to turn in a circle, like he needs another look to convince him. "Everything was moved to Siberia, I think. Colorado is vaguely familiar except for the entire nuclear contamination going on. I think--" McKay stops, leaning into the wall suddenly. "Look, you won't believe me, I get that, so--we'll do this like the first time." And McKay slings the P-90 back over one shoulder with a familiarity that makes John frown, before pulling something from his pocket that looks creepily like a PDA with a major makeover. "It's not the control chair, but I think it'll get the point across."
Gently, Rodney sets it in John's lap, moving out of range before any of the aforementioned desperate moves can be considered, and really, it's not that desperate yet. Looking down, John stares at the flashing LCD screen blooming to life, a strange itch beginning to push into the back of his mind.
It's--familiar. John looks at up at McKay, staring at him from ten feet away, grim and restless and hopeful in a way that makes John's stomach twist. "Think about where you are in the universe, Colonel," he says, and Sheppard feels--something.
Shock, connection, familiarity--*homehomehomeiknowthis*, and when he looks up, the universe opens up above him. John watches fine white lines drawn in air, a pattern his mind focuses, forces into a place he's never seen before.
Then Rodney pulls the box away, like a snap of fingers, and the world goes dark. John blinks away the sudden, shocked loss.
"How are you dreaming these days, Sheppard?" Rodney says softly.
John licks his lips. "What was that?"
Rodney watches the glow die with a strangely wistful expression. "That was our future."
In the rec room, there's chalk and crayons, and he draws impossible, secret equations with letters that aren't in any human alphabet. It's a secure military hospital and he's crazy anyway, so no one cares when he shows them the power curves of naqada, the secret death throes of stars, the prototype design of a zat, the way a Stargate folds space and bends time in the blank space between the theoretical and the practical. He builds white, spiraling cities from sugar cubes and Elmer's glue, glittering in the sun, tiny puddlejumpers folded from origami paper, charts out the Pegasus Galaxy from memory with a stolen pencil on the painted concrete and white padding of his wall.
They still take his work, photographed from walls, whisked into boxes, secreted into blank-faced folders by blank faced orderlies, though where he doesn't know.
"We can't dial another galaxy, Rodney," Heightmeyer told him in the second session since he'd woken up. "Do you remember what happened to you?"
"How long have I been here?" He has jerky motor control, cuffed hands shaking against the cool metal of the chair. There are long scars that run across the tendons in his forearms and wrists, white and thick, scar tissue grown over a dozen times. Track marks line his arm from elbow to wrist in a diagonal line, the results, he supposes, of a patient who won't take his meds orally. Nerve damage, maybe, side-effects of anti-psychotics, probably, endless tics that make him feel like he's on a slow wooden roller coaster, twitches that make his words come out jerky and half-understandable. He thinks if he could tell the story right, they'd believe him.
It just goes to show that even geniuses can be stupid.
"Three years," she says calmly, fingers calm and relaxed on the cool surface of the desk, elegant, and she smells good, not like alcohol and pills and thrown food and variations of vomit from a hundred throats. "What do you remember?"
The first time since waking, he'd told her about Atlantis.
After, they'd held him down while she'd huddled in a corner of the office, cradling her broken wrist in one hand, and it wasn't his *fault*, the drugs made him twitch, made muscles move when he didn't mean them to, but she hadn't been listening and he's not really all that sorry. She *knew*, she had to, she'd woken up here like he did, with straight white walls and no smell of the sea, no soft light at the brush of a thought. No Wraith.
"There is no Atlantis," she says calmly, looking at him now with wide, clear, terrified eyes.
"You were my psychiatrist there, too. Though my only problems were minor. Insomnia, speed addiction, Wraith, inappropriate feelings for a fellow teammate. Wraith. Katie." He closes his eyes, opening them again to an empty room. "I'm not actually in therapy right now, am I?"
He had dinner but doesn't remember anything, but there's bits of something beneath the brutally short nails, green stains on his forearm that he doesn't recognize. He remembers--sleeping. Or waking up. A hand on his chest. And just barely, a taste, copper-iron, like scraping the tines of an old tin fork against his teeth.
Not crazy. *Fucking nuts*. "A magical floating city?"
McKay frowns. "You know, you weren't this much of an asshole when we met." The box is sitting on his chair, and John can't help looking at it, almost feeling it from his chair--which is ridiculous and impossible except for the fact that they're at war with *aliens*, and so right, that doesn't make McKay less crazy, but--
"Okay, let's say I buy this," he says, feeling a sick twist of guilt at the sudden hope that flashes across Rodney's face. "I *don't*, but okay, let's go with the idea it's possible. You're telling me there's no war and I have some gene that lets me light a city?"
No, even the Goa'uld doesn't sound this crazy.
"Simplified, but relatively accurate," McKay grumbles, staring at the floor like it was badmouthing his sister and he's plotting revenge. "Look, I know this is hard to grasp, what with you not being a genius, but relative time streams, all right? Someone, somewhere, fucked up royally and this one isn't *right*. And don't tell me you don't feel it, because you didn't act like you were having a mini-orgasm the first time you were in the chair and this time? So did."
John blinks. "McKay--"
"Look, I don't know why I remember. It's all--" McKay waves a hand, "It's vague, okay? But it's been getting worse nad worse and I can't figure out how to fix it alone, and if you don't feel how wrong this is, you're not half the pilot you're supposed to be."
John's eyes narrow. "I don't feel--"
"Then why are you taking sedatives? I know you. You think eating is too much dependence on a source outside yourself, so taking *drugs*? Not happening." McKay's frown sharpens. "You're not sleeping and neither am I and I bet money other people feel it too, but who the hell is going to admit they think they're going crazy?"
"You, for one."
McKay snorts. "Tha'ts what they said. And let me tell you, getting out of a military psychiatric asylum isn't as easy as it sounds."
He sees Ford at a distance, talking to Heightmeyer in the hall, pale and small in scrub bottoms, shuffling toward the rec room, while she shakes her head and sighs, turning to catch his glare down sixty feet of hall. She turns and runs away.
He realizes it all at once; she's not a psychiatrist. She's a *patient*.
The halls are wide, easy to catch patients when they make a break for it; Rodney knows because he tries and goes down in an bundle of uncontrollable muscles, chattering teeth, biting his lip hard enough to warrant a trip to the infirmary. Carson isn't there, no matter how many times he'd asked.
They said, calm down, Dr. McKay. We're trying to help you. We're trying to make you *better*.
They told him, it was the Stargate. Something a team brought back. Something the Goa'uld gave them. Samantha Carter builds gates out of clay five doors down, chapped fingers etching clumsy-shaped symbols into the ring, murmuring the addresses to a thousand planets and cutting them out of construction paper to hang from the ceiling. Jack O'Neill's locked in the top ward, windowless rooms and palm-locked doors, security three feet deep. Hammond visits him sometimes.
Third floor, there are other faces he almost knows. They make noise about moving him upstairs for security, more locked doors, more bright lights, windowless rooms and the yawning stretch of hallways that go nowhere. New medication, take him back a generation, the new stuff isn't working. Violence is new, they say above his head like he can't hear the words. It's not getting better, they say. No surprise, they say.
It surprises him, just a little.
They told him, the war began, and the Goa'uld are winning. There was no Atlantis. There's barely an earth, radiation choked, cloud thick sky, and so many had died. So many *would* die. They aren't winning. They won't win. Their best minds were destroyed that day, going down in suicide and insanity and homicide before the SGC could quarantine, move them here, lock them up, and mark time until the end.
They told him, Goa'uld poison, and it's so believable that he cries himself to sleep that night.
They keep him on the second floor after that. He's become quiet. He listens to his doctors. . He's a good patient.
Later, when he goes to the rec room, he realizes he can't remember what Atlantis looks like.
"The thing is, we're losing the war." McKay's on the chair again. John's beginning to suspect that the guy's running on more than just natural adrenaline. The jitters, the twitching fingers, the dark circles under his eyes--that's way more than sleep deprivation. John knows the feeling.
"We're not going to lose."
Rodney rolls his eyes. "Yes, we are. Trust me on this one, I've read the files on this--particular universe. Or one similar enough that it makes no difference. We *will* lose, the important people get out, and the rest of us are jaffa, Goa'uld hosts, or slaughtered. And none of those? Appeal to me in the slightest." McKay rubs a hand across his face. "They didn't listen. This is *wrong*. I can read the--the fucking *Ancients* didn't leave anything--"
The big hands fist, blue eyes flickering up, and John wonders how long he's been awake. "What are you on?"
"Risperidone," McKay says sharply, twisting out of the chair. "Up until seventy-two hours ago." McKay rubs one arm absently, and now John can see the spots of blood. "Crazy. That's just--I mean, people have *said* it, but they never meant it. They just hated me. Break under pressure my *ass*. I know how not to break. I fucking--" He stops again, eyes shutting tight. "And withdrawal, for the record? Is a bitch."
John nods sympathetically, but most of him is noticing that McKay's erratic movements are getting him closer to John.
"This body's just--I mean, lost weight, good thing you'd think? Nto so much." McKay turns sharply, going back to the wall. "I don't know who else. Carson's *dead*, so many…. Christ, I'm so glad this is all pretty theoretical or I'd be--I mean--" McKay shakes his head, spinning back to glare at John, like this entire weirdness is his fault. McKay handles that gun with way too much experience. Where would a scientist pick up that kind of knowledge, even an SGC one?
"If you don't know what's wrong, how can you fix it?" John says reasonably, and McKay comes closer. The blue eyes fix, glazed and angry and bloodshot, like someone running on nothing but pure will.
"I have no idea," McKay says, and John waits as he takes that last step. He's only got one shot, or there's a good chance he'll be staring at the business end of that gun--but he's seen the planes that don't come back--*jaffa, Goa'uld hosts, or slaughter*--and maybe this would be easier.
He's never taken the easier way, though, and he won't start now. Twisting, he feels the leg of the chair break, pain lancing up his instep, but he's got his mobility back and the chair is utter shit anyway. McKay goes down with a single squack of alarm, then John's knees are holding the P-90 clutched in one hand safely away and McKay's staring up at him in shock.
"This is--" McKay huffs, and God, what John wouldn't do to get his arms free. "Expected. I think. I feel like such shit, Colonel. You have no idea."
"Major," John says sharply. "You're going to let go of the gun or I'm going to start breaking your ribs. One way or another, you're letting it go. You choose."
"Big bad Sheppard," McKay says softly, eyes glazing. "You're so fucking normal until you turn that on, you know? Sometimes I think it's on purpose, but mostly, it's like you don't even see the difference. That you can be the guy that gets drunk with his subordinates and kill sixty men. It's so fucking *you*."
John shifts his weight, bearing down, but McKay's little smile makes him pause. "I've never--"
"You will. You did. You would. Tell me, did you get your ass kicked for disobeying orders--or did you scare your superiors, all the men that died so you could get those guys out?" Rodney coughs when John drops his weight. Jesus *Christ*. "You can do it in cold blood and have a drink after, I know, spare me. It's not the military that did that to you. It's what you are. And we needed it so badly, did you hate us for it?"
"Son of a *bitch*--"
"You won't kill me," McKay murmurs, smiling up at him like the drugged out idiot he is. "You don't sleep and you don't eat and you don't know what's wrong, but you feel it every second of every day. When I came to get you, you were so fucking out of it you let me walk you right out. And you wanted to know if we were going home. You've never lied to yourself before, so why the fuck are you doing it now? You *know*."
Rodney's hand lets go of the P-90. "So go right ahead, Colonel. Because it's going to eat at you, get worse, and worse, and maybe this time when you try to blow yourself up, you'll get it right. And you'll never know why dying felt better than living like this."
John's body shakes--reaction to the sedative and adrenaline rush, maybe, or anger that this asshole talking shit cut too close, or--something--but he pulls himself up on his knees. "Tell me why I should believe you."
McKay grins. He's totally fucking *wasted*. "Because if I'm wrong, then you have to live the rest of your life feeling torn into pieces, and you know you'll never be able to put them back together. Dying in a Goa'uld firefight will look good. Just like crawling sixty feet of sewer through rats with a pack of matches and a shot of speed seemed better than that cell. Like dying down there would have been better than living one. More. Second."
McKay's eyes blink slowly, breath short. "Because you trust me, and you have no idea why." McKay's out before he finishes the word.
"Okay, you'll accept tiny alien reptiles inhabiting people's *heads*," he says, voice thick with irony and overproduction of saliva. It's fucking *annoying*. "You accept wormholes. You'll even accept that a ZPM isn't a myth. But you won't accept the *concept* that maybe I'm right."
His new doctor isn't Heightmeyer either, though he sees her on Thursdays in the rec room. He's glad. She's seriously pissing him off, and she's under minimal security. She tells them whatever they want to hear. "It's not a matter of acceptance, Rodney." God, he hates how the man uses his name, not his title. He's crazy, but he's crazy with a hell of a lot of degrees behind his name. "It's a matter of what we know. Everyone in the gateroom was exposed to this pathogen."
"A pathogen that as yet, none of you can actually find."
It's a clear day, when his mind moves a little less slow, a little more clear, when he can almost remember how it feels to think.
"Three hundred people were infected before we could quarantine the base," the man says. Rodney's not bothered to learn his name. "We've run every conceivable test. If there was a time-stream change, don't you think more people would have felt it? Would feel it?"
He has a point, Rodney concedes. "Except for the fact we all share almost the same exact delusion, which really, doesn't that make anyone wonder just a little? If I'm wrong, then we're dying in a war we can't possibly win. If I'm right, we're--well. Not dying, anyway."
And that's when the doctor starts the spiel, tossing around words like brain damage and alien infection, how their planet had been quarantined and their allies deserted them for fear of contagion. How the pathogen had spread and they'd nuked the state of Colorado to stop it, and how it still moved through the population, slow and steady and painful, and no one knows how or why. That if the Goa'uld don't kill them, this will.
They call the pathogen Atlantis, which is so funny that Rodney's sedated before bed, because he just can't stop laughing.
Sheppard wasn't sent to die in space because they're pretty sure he's crazy.
Afghanistan was four long years ago, and he'd been released a year ago from the prison hospital. Other times, there would have been a dishonorable discharge due to mental illness. But they've lost too many people, and he can fake his way through the tests before release. He'd had two long years to learn what they wanted to hear.
He knows McKay's right. They're losing the war.
"Oww." McKay sits up from the sleeping bag John had rolled him onto, hand on his face. John curls the name around his tongue, letting it settle in his head, slotted into one of the empty spaces. The blue eyes open wide, shut again, then open. "I'm not dead. Or in custody."
"You're in my custody," Sheppard says, not moving from his sprawl across one of the chairs. It's too much energy to upgrade to a slump. "And I reserve the right to haul your ass in at any time." His eyes flicker to the box. "You want to tell me what that is?"
"Ancient interface," McKay says, sitting up gingerly. "Not much of one. It's--not easy these days to get hold of the technology." Rubbing his forehead, McKay slumps back on one hand. "I didn't expect--" He stops, frowning. "I feel better."
"You were asleep almost twenty four hours," John says shortly. "At least you grabbed my survival gear before you left so we won't *starve*."
McKay scowls. "Yeah, well, I know Antarctica. This place is relatively insulated--"
"Generator powered heating system," Sheppard says, bored. "But weirdly enough, I've never seen a generator like that Though I heard about it."
McKay's eyes light up; that little spark of crazy is a lot less creepy when he's not armed. "They left the naqada generators? My day just got better." He shifts, like he just might try to get to his feet. "Though not by much. Food?"
John stares at him for a second, then pushes himself up. "You are so lucky I think I'm crazy anyway, or your ass would be in McMurdo."
McKay's eyes flicker. "Trust me, Colonel. I wouldn't be."
Going to the packs he'd brought in, John takes out the power bars, wrinkling his nose as McKay grabs one from him like a starving man. Too thin, that specific kind that comes with junkies or the mentally compromised, where they forget food and sleep for too long. Not skeletal so much as underfed. McKay's body carries it badly--he's just too big to pull it off, looking half-built, like someone forgot to finish filling in the lines. The dark circled, hollow eyes fix on John abruptly, more alive than anything else in this place. Even John. "You eaten?"
John shakes his head, trying not to grin at McKay's scowl. "Not hungry."
"Yeah, well, that doesn't change the fact you need to eat." Pulling his knees under him, still chewing, McKay makes a good attempt at balance. "You look like a walking stick. Eat something. I can't afford for you to collapse now."
Like he said. Junkies and the mentally compromised. John slowly takes the second powerbar and unwraps it, dropping back into his chair. It tastes wrong, food has for a while, but he can live with that. "You have a plan? Or was the sum total to see if you could drive me as crazy as you are?"
McKay raises an eyebrow. "A little of this, a little of that, and you know, you could be nicer to the guy who is telling you that you're not actually insane, just in the wrong dimension."
McKay doesn't even crack a smile. John takes another bite. "Yes. That's comforting, thanks."
It's like McKay doesn't recognize sarcasm. Finishing the powerbar, he starts to stand up, then realizes he's on a sleeping bag. "Huh."
"Like I said, twenty-four hours." John's been all over the base, letting instinct guide him from unfamiliar room to unfamiliar room. There's nothing here he knows, but someone should tell his head that. It leads him back to McKay like a magnet. "And sleeping on solid concrete seemed like it'd be uncomfortable."
McKay nods, glancing down, then pushing himelf unsteadily to his feet. John jerks his head toward the canteens beside the packs, and McKay makes bee-line for them, grabbing one as he starts riffling through the contents. "How'd you get me out of McMurdo?"
McKay fumbles the canteen, setting it down before they can lose more precious water, turning to look at John with narrowed eyes. "You were kind of out of it--"
"You said I walked out with you," John says, and McKay frowns, fingers twisting in the edge of his jacket.
"I don't--remember a lot from--er. Earlier. Or much of anything after the shots wore off." The blue eyes flicker up. "McMurdo's not strategic, and I know all the usual codes anyway." McKay shrugs. "I told you to come and you did."
"I was in a military hospital for two years," John says, then bites his tongue hard. McKay's head jerks up and around, hands jittering on his knees before he flattens them on the floor. Even from here, John can see the involuntary clench and relaxation of muscles. "PTSD."
McKay nods. "Were they right?"
Yes. Maybe. He watched friends die with his hands locked on the controls, body stiff and mind frozen. Later, they'd told him he'd almost died. He doesn't remember anything from that day, or the days after. He killed people, he thinks. He remembers how he could smell the blood, hear the screams in his head even now. "I don't remember."
They stare at each other for a second.
"How bad is it?" McKay says slowly, licking his lips nervously, hands moving again. "Out there?"
"We're going to lose." John could tell him about the wasteland of Colorado and the mountain that's nothing but black dust, the bodies left to rot where they fell, the air force training facility that sends out green pilots to die slowly in space. People are disappearing every day. He wonders if McKay's right, if they're sending them through the gate. "I--don't know more. They just let me out." His mouth twists up in almost a smile. "They're running out of pilots."
A good day is when they let him have flatware with dinner and give him pie.
He doesn't like flatware. Akathisia set in at some point before he woke up, mock Parkinsons that takes away muscle control, steals thoughts like puffs of smoke. His hands are always shaking, and sometimes, he can't remember simple math.
Brain damage, he was told, from the pathogen. Side-effects from the second generation anti-psychotics, whispers that maybe thorazine would be more effective, but they tried that on Carter and she stopped talking.
He goes in her room one night. He might be crazy, but he's still fucking brilliant.
"Carter," he says, crawling onto her narrow bed, trying to force his fingers around her restraints, simple Velcro that's beyond him today. He gives up, brushing her face with the back of his hand. "Carter. Wake up."
The blue eyes open slowly, drowsy. She's a third floor patient, given to seizures and disobeying medical orders, fighting the orderlies in their clean-room suits, tearing holes in their protections, screaming until they bring her down. She's military. Thirty pounds overweight and shaking, she can still hurt them badly when she remembers how.
"Rodney." The cracked lips part in a smile. "I went home today."
It's too easy to get lost in the memories of this world. Living with two sets is impossible to balance. Rodney feels Atlantis slipping further and further away with every breath. "Home?"
Her head turns slowly on her pillow, eyes traveling from him to the door. "How?"
He shrugs, moving closer, needing her body heat. "Don't talk. It--you make it harder to think. I need to ask you something." His eyes flicker over the walls of the room, widening at the diagrams covering every spare space. He can feel her watching.
"I remember everything," she whispers. "I won't give it up."
"Like Heightmeyer," he murmurs against her skin. . God, she's warm, and he's been cold so long. "She tells them what they want to hear. She makes others do the same thing. I saw her." Ford's on the first floor now, with the other ones who stopped believing themselves.
Carter hisses something filthy between her teeth, but she looks more awake now. One thigh brushes against his as she shifts on the bed. "It's hard to think."
"I know. What--" he waves a hand at the wall then drops it back to the bed. He can't stand the betrayal of his body. "The diagrams--"
"Wormhole differentiation," she says, eyes flickering shut, opening clear and bright. "I know what they did. I just don't know how. They sent us--"
"Separate timeline." Please God. Please. Don't let this be the Goa'uld's perfect weapon. The only one they'd ever need.
"Meshed timeline," she murmurs, words sounding thicker. She's losing the fight for clarity. "They did--something."
"Who?" he whispers.
"And we did, too." Her eyes flicker closed and his eyes are drawn to the equations, the Stargate drawn with thick black lines, clumsy, a third grader could do a better job. Some of it's nonsense--maybe. Or he forgot. Standing up, he stumbles to the wall, dropping on the floor before he knocks himself out.
His fingers ache for a pencil. She left things half-finished, half-written, half-done, and he can see her mind in the empty spaces, the breathtaking leaps of intuition she made that even he can barely follow. Raising a finger, he draws in the missing parts. The liquid line of an arc. Here, origin point. It's almost right, almost close, almost what he needs to know. Ancient script runs through his head, glowing like John--John--
"Sheppard's not here," he says slowly. Blinking his eyes, he turns from the wall, crawling back to her, the thought vanishing as he pulls himself up against the side of her bed. Her head turns again, blue eyes cloudy. The most brilliant, most beautiful mind he's ever seen, trapped and clouded, destroyed by inches. Pushing himself up on his knees, he leans closer, breathing in the sour smell of unwashed body, night sweat. He tries to hold onto the thought. Ancient. "Sam, come on. Don't do this. I need you."
She sighs, breathing thickly through her mouth. "Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe we're all crazy."
Rodney gets his elbows on the bed, leaning over her, reaching clumsily for her face. "I don't accept that. You don't believe that."
"If it--" she takes a breath, tears squeezed from closed eyes. "Daniel hung himself in Jack's office. He said anything was better than this." The blue eyes flicker open, and Samantha Carter looks out. "He was right, Rodney. We don't even know how they did it. Organic damage--I saw the MRI's, there's *damage* to the long term memory centers, heightened activity--"
"Stop it." Organic damage. Christ. "We're not crazy. I've seen--I saw *Atlantis*. I've been on a hyperdrive ship that crosses galaxies. I watched a city light up with a thought. I can't--" he stops, gasping in a breath. "I believe *me*."
"What if--no one else *remembers*," she says, eyes huge and wide and angry. Rage burning through the drugs, and she fights the cuffs, staring up at him. "They don't remember."
"They will," he whispers, lowering his head to her shoulder. "I--" He had a question. Yes. "Carter," he whispers, her shirt rough against his cheek. "Carter, I need to remember. I don't--I can't--"
"You wanted to ask me something." And her voice is perfectly clear.
"Is the gate still in Colorado?"
Her lips brush his hair, her voice low and soft. "Yes."
He's been here too long already. He brushes his hand across her cheek gently, her eyes closing, lips parting in a soft smile. "I need to go."
"I'll distract them." Carter twinkles at him for a second, and God, he remembers how much he loved her. "Go. Give you thirty seconds."
Rodney's in his room when he hears the alarm go off, and closing his eyes, he dreams of water, singing him to sleep over the sounds of her screams.
It's always bright, even at night, the long hallways lit silver-blue, graceful arches and unexpected turns, beautiful and as alien as any planet the SGC has ever explored. Trailing a hand over the wall, he can feel the subtle hum of the city, an almost-sound of his artificial ATA gene reacting to like.
He feels it in his sleep, in an alien bed, on an alien world.
It's subtle and strange, and he can't quite get used to it, this place, this feeling, these *people*; before Atlantis, he'd never realized that his own kind could be more strange than other worlds.
He understands--he was on an SG team on Earth, he knows the way a group comes together, how it clicks, how challenge brings a closeness than nothing and no one else can quite touch, quite understand. It's just--
They aren't his, not really, not yet, not these people, not this place. And he wants them to be. He misses his team, his familiar SGC quarters, the unquestioning chain of command. He misses a world that he understands, a people he knows. Sometimes, late at night, he walks the balconies to stare at an alien ocean and try to find something familiar in it, something to remind him of home.
It's different from missions, from the SGC, the separation of life from the project. These people live it, breathe it, dream in the colors of Atlantis, seeped into the food, the air, the very floor beneath his feet. He doesn't feel it, can't, and he's not sure he ever will.
Pressing on the Atlantean equivalent of the doorbell, Lorne steps back and waits.
It's been hours since Dr. Weir took Colonel Sheppard off duty, worried eyes following Sheppard's jarring stride out of the briefing room. Hours since Lorne watched him in the gym, stripped down to a t-shirt and raw, bleeding nerves, blank faced, all sharp, lithe movement and viciously controlled rage, lashing out against inanimate targets the way he couldn't to the focus of his anger. Hours since the shower, where Sheppard melted into the wall, eyes closed, head down, water streaming over him like he thought he couldn't ever be clean again.
He knows. He knows what Sheppard's files say, what Caldwell so carefully didn't, what the SGC thought; he knows the dirty rumors and the cold facts and knows that the space between those is as close to the truth as he'll ever come. These months, he's been second in command to a man who is everything he's heard and nothing like any of it.
He really doesn't know him at all.
The door opens with a silent slide, and Sheppard stands there, shiny damp hair clinging to too-pale skin, rumpled t-shirt, track pants, and bare feet. The dark ringed hazel eyes narrow sharply, taking him in with a single flickering look. "Major."
"Sir." Sheppard's all too-still body and too-watchful eyes. Trying not to twitch, he holds up a bottle, tilting it invitingly. "Interested?"
For a second, Sheppard just looks, then he steps back, easy amusement put on like a coat, like his rank. "Come in."
It was hard, at first; Sheppard's nothing like Caldwell, nothing like O'Neill, nothing like Hammond. He plays poker with his subordinates and laughs at their jokes and drinks with them in the mess hall, bright and irreverant and completely unlike any officer Lorne had ever met. He doesn't check their reports and zones out during security briefs, but he never forgets a word spoken. He's the loner, the one that ignores the chain of command and common sense, that other officers respect and can never quite trust, that other men worship and then die for because he's never learned to separate the personal from the expedient, never quite understood that duty isn't a choice, but a way of life.
Sitting on the offered chair as Sheppard drops casually on the neatly-made bed, Lorne busies himself opening the bottle, pouring into two glasses John unearths from somewhere in the depths of the room. The room is as neat as any at an Earth military base. There's a book on the table, and Lorne cranes his neck subtly to read the title.
"It's War and Peace," Sheppard says calmly, and a slim hand reaches for the glass. "Can't sleep?" If there's sarcasm, Lorne can't quite hear it.
"I thought you could use a drink." Lorne lowers his eyes, flickering to the loose pants then away. "Sir."
When he looks back up, the Colonel is almost smiling. "At ease, Lorne. Don't tell me you were worried."
It was hard, at first. It was hard and now it's easy, because Sheppard's not like the others.
He's learning, Lorne thinks, finishing the glass, watching Sheppard watch him. "When my commander almost dies, it makes me a little antsy." He tries a smile, Sheppard's eyes flickering with something raw, too close to the skin, brushed painfully with Lorne's careful words. There are so many things he could say here that no officer can tell his commander, but he knows he doesn't need to.
McKay had almost killed him, killed them both, for the sake of ego, and that's something that Lorne had known about him for years, and now, Sheppard does, too. There are things he could say, that burn on the tip of his tongue--how could you not know, how could you not see, how could you know him for so long and not *get* that? He holds the words beneath his tongue and drowns them under liquor, burning down his throat in flickering heat.
How could you *trust* him, Lorne wants to say, but that's drowned in alcohol, too, and then Sheppard leans back on one arm, loose and quiet, eyes turned down. Thinking, always thinking, and Lorne was fooled for a long time by that quiet, but he's not anymore.
Lorne watches Sheppard refill his glass, taking it fast--he's seen Sheppard drink an entire unit under the table, heard Academy stories of the too-bright, too-cocky, too fucking brilliant kid who set the officers on their ear for four whirlwind years. Always knowing by instinct the line between disobedience and insubordination, knowing exactly how far he could go and no further. So utterly sure, always skirting the edges until he took a swan dive that was all about the personal over the expedient.
A *choice* that he made five thousand feet above the ground, deliberate and considered, doing it again on a planet in a solar system that no longer exists. Lorne can't forget that. "Elizabeth gave you the next two days off. I thought I'd check in."
Sheppard's eyebrow arches ironically. "That hot to be in charge? Go at it."
"Not really." And he can say that with honesty. "I'll brief you daily."
"Hourly." Sheppard finishes the drink and takes another. The dark eyes never soften, but the tense body loosens, relaxing under the buzz of alcohol. "Where'd you get this?"
Lorne grins. "Last Daedalus supply run."
Sheppard leans back on one arm, amused. "I don't remember this being in the manifest."
Lorne wrinkles his nose. "Strange how that happens."
Two thirds of a bottle later, Sheppard's as close to drunk off his ass as Lorne's ever seen anyone and still managing to stay upright. Sprawled on the left side of the bed, a deck of cards is spread out between them, and Lorne, leaning into the wall, tries to focus on his hand.
It's a good hand, but all his hands have been good hands, and he hasn't won yet. "You're counting cards."
"On a double deck?" Sheppard grins, lifting his head up on one arm, shaking his head. "Now how could I do that?"
Point. Lorne blinks to get his eyes into focus. "Call."
No real surprise, a natural straight. What the *fuck*?
"Your deal," Sheppard says lazily, tossing his cards, and Lorne thinks sadly of the brownies smuggled from the Daedalus he just lost. "Ante?"
Hmm. Straightening, Lorne watches Sheppard's slow stretch, down to bare feet, pointed toes, long lean muscle, like an exceedingly content cat. Head tilted, Lorne begins to shuffle. "You cleared me of my perishables. What's next?"
Sheppard grins. "Surprise me."
Lorne looks down at the deck. Surprise him. "Five card stud." Turning the cards over idly in his hand, he takes a breath. "No wilds."
Sheppard nods agreeably, hazel eyes slitting as he watches Lorne shuffle, and Lorne almost grins, flicking them between his fingers and palming the first king that flickers, sliding it to the bottom of the deck, then into the second position with a twist of fingers learned in more guard shifts than he can count. Sheppard's expression doesn't change, so Lorne does it again--and who knew getting extra night duty had its advantages?
John's all intense concentration when Lorne deals, expression giving nothing away. Lorne picks up his own, four kings looking back at him with serene confidence, watching Sheppard's forehead crease for a second, before the hazel eyes come up and fix on Lorne. "Laws of probability aside--"
Lorne tosses his cards down. "Call."
It's the first time that Lorne's ever seen Sheppard genuinely surprised. Tossing down his own hand--a deliberately terrible mix that makes Lorne grin--Sheppard picks up the deck, then looks at Lorne over the top, eyes wide. "You cheated."
"Not anymore than you do, Colonel," he says, taking the cards, fingers brushing cool, rough skin, running a callused thumb over the back of Sheppard's fingers.
He's close enough to see Sheppard's hitch of breath, almost invisible if you didn't know him, but Lorne does, and he takes the deck and their hands, stacking them neatly on the beside table. When he turns back around, Sheppard's watching him with an unreadable expression.
"Major--" Trying to create distance, but Lorne focuses on the thin strip of skin between the top of his track pants and the edge of his shirt, pale gold and smooth. He reaches out, barely thinking, running his fingers over it, and Sheppard's breath hitches softly. "Major--"
Lorne shifts closer, smelling the soap, clean skin, flattening his palm and pushing the shirt up. Impossibly smooth for a combat veteran, a commander. "You're a risk taker, Colonel," he says, and alcohol's good, great, because no way in hell he'd do anything like this otherwise. Sheppard's a risk taker. Lorne's not.
Sheppard doesn't move. Of all things, he looks *surprised*. "I--"
Lorne braces a hand on the bed beside Sheppard's head, rolling him onto his back with a palm to his stomach, straddling the lithe body, almost too easily. Sheppard's eyes widen, mouth opening to try again, when Lorne leans down and slides his tongue between parted lips.
A long second passes where Sheppard's still beneath him, and Lorne has a thousand years to wonder if he made a mistake--well, more of a mistake--to flash on words like dismissal and conduct unbecoming and Christ, Sheppard's *aim* in the field is really fucking incredible, does he really want to--
Slim fingered hands settle on his thighs, and Sheppard's tongue brushes his, and *God* yes, that, right there. Sheppard arches under him, shifting them both, and Lorne bites down at the brush of cock on cock, pushing himself up on his knees, other hand sliding into thick, damp hair, silky between his fingers.
Sheppard kisses like he fights--intense, focused, utterly committed, the hand on his thigh sliding up to cup him through his pants, fingers pressing just below, right where he needs the pressure. Arching up when Lorne gets a hand between them, working down the track pants just enough, closing his hand over Sheppard's cock, already hard, tip damp when his fingers brush against it, and Sheppard makes a sound that Lorne's never heard before, never wants to stop hearing. He tightens his grip, a quick pull before pulling back from that addictive mouth, looking down into glazed eyes the color of autumn leaves and swollen, reddened mouth. A gentle pull gets him a long expanse of throat, salty and clean, rough with stubble along the line of his jaw, smoother at the shoulder, and Lorne can't get enough of the taste of him, the easily, effortless movement of his body.
Sheppard drunk isn't like anyone else, either; strangely soft, sharp edges muted, careless and easy, touches like he's starving for it.
The problem with cross-department dating was that some things just weren't instinctive.
With another scientist, everything was pretty obvious. You locked your screensaver before you fucked, didn't discuss government contracts (of whichever government you happened to work for) and always remembered to wash your hands thoroughly (especially important when chemists were involved). Beds were optional, labs were obvious, and Rodney had long mastered the art of orgasms between computer simulations (which took better timing than the layman might really be aware of).
Relationships were *easy*, which might actually say more about Rodney's definition of relationship than the people themselves. Katie had been a little bit of a revelation in that department, but she'd also started ignoring him when he forgot her birthday, and his explanation, starting with high energy particle physics and ending with a complaint about Sheppard's handling of the puddlejumper at frankly dangerous speeds, had fallen on deaf ears.
She was a *scientist*. She was supposed to *understand*.
So, Katie had been a revelation. This--*this* was epiphany. And not the good kind.
So, circle around, here he was, in the back ass of *nowhere*, accompanied by a resentfully stoic Ronon and an amused as hell Teyla, Lorne playing team leader and looking disturbingly determined to do it in ways that would require Rodney to take epic revenge. Which would require *effort*, and *thinking* , and frankly, Rodney's hit his limit on the amount of thinking he really wants to do right now, considering, oh God, he's actually *doing this*.
Rodney flinches at Teyla's voice, smooth and solid and completely calm, like he hadn't seen her and Ronan laughing for *ten solid minutes* when they'd found out exactly why he wanted to go on this particular mission. Rodney unclenches his jaw. "I'm still thinking."
Lorne gives them a curious look, obviously aware that there are Things Going On Here That He Does Not Know, which is fine, because there's no way to explain this one.
It started when John took a fall off a cliff, something so prosaic he was angrier about that than the wrenched leg. Laid up in the infirmary, he discovered his inner Rodney and made life a living hell for anyone in fifty paces. Before The Accident, Rodney could count on one hand the number of times he'd seen John genuinely angry. Afterward, Rodney realized that exponents weren't going to be enough to cover the number involved.
A activity-less Lieutenant Colonel is a very cranky one.
An activity-less Lieutenant Colonel that you're sleeping with is a disaster in the making. And Rodney's been deprived of sex for two weeks, and who the hell *knew* that John was such a fucking *girl*?
Teyla nods agreeably, exchanging a look with Ronan that in a fairer world, would lead to death or at least a week without any salt. Rodney grits his teeth and forges on. He can *do this*.
A birthday present is serious relationship business, and damned if he's going to get it wrong.
Rodney's fingers have begun a slow tap, probably something moody in Bach. It's as predictable as the coming of dawn, and a hell of a lot more irritating. His nails are too short to make more that the lightest sound, but it's enough.
John wants *out*.
Across from him, the village elders spread their hands helplessly. "We have heard--things. The village was allowed to participate in the Council decision, due to the gravity of your request."
And you'd think it would take them less than six *endless* hours to decide that. "I think you should reconsider," Teyla says beside him, folding her hands on the table in front of her. Slouching further into the chair, John tries to find something to fix his attention on that isn't Rodney's restless fingers. "Atlantis has much to offer your people."
"The Genii once thought that, did they not?" the older woman says. John doesn't bother trying to remember her name. He'd marked her as hostile early on, tight mouth and watching them constantly.
"The Genii are liars and thieves," Teyla says shortly, but she flickers a glance at him. John nods, sighing. Genii. Of course. "They spread rumors to sow discontent, slow our progress against the Wraith. Your planet has suffered depredations, has it not?"
"We do well enough," the woman says harshly. Yeah, the Genii have definitely been here, and recently. "Your aid is not free."
Teyla's eyebrows arch. "Nothing is free, Elder. But we would value trade and friendship with the Arturians." Rodney's fingers pick up something with a faster beat. Cut time, maybe, and it just tells him so much, that he can identify that from the way Rodney moves his hands. "Our assistance would prove invaluable in securing your people's health and safety. Please reconsider. You are not a united people on this world. You share resources with many other villages. You need assistance."
John can almost feel Ronon's impatience from the door. This is not going well. It didn't go well in the briefing, it didn't go well at the Stargate, met with this delegation, and it's not getting any better.
Rodney's abrupt move to a fast march isn't helping. Shifting just a little, John turns his head enough to bring Rodney into view. The blue eyes flicker up from the scanner like he senses John's regard, pause, then glance down. The tapping stops.
It'll start again, any second, though, and John's nerves are shot enough.
"It is not that we are not--interested in relations with Atlantis," one of the men says sincerely, leaning toward Teyla. "But at this time, we wish to improve our understanding of your people before we proceed any further."
John feels Rodney goes still, and that's enough of a novelty for John to turn to look at him. The blue eyes are huge, body almost vibrating with barely checked tension. "McKay?"
Teyla's boot hits him under the table, but John doesn't care. Rodney's got that look that he's come to *love*, still everywhere, which means his mind is *on*. He wouldn't notice an explosion right under the chair right now. Teyla stills beside him as the Elders turn to look curiously at Rodney.
"Forty five klicks." Rodney doesn't even look up. "North, northwest, north. Fully charged." The blue eyes flare. "That's the kind of thing I like to see." When he looks at John, he frowns. "Can we go now? There's nothing else here."
Getting to his feet, John grabs Teyla's arm, pulling her from the table. "We're done." She resists for a second, then follows, the Elders getting to their feet. "I'm tired of this. Your list of amenable trading partners is getting shorter and so far, I'm not seeing a lot of cooperation." Urging her toward the door, John waits for Rodney to move out in front of him, still watching the scanner and almost tripping on the stairs. "Christ, McKay, be careful."
Rodney waves a hand behind him, pushing through curious villagers who've gathered around the town hall, probably already calculating power distribution levels. John keys his comm. "Lorne, Plan B. Ronon, the doors."
Behind him, he hears the Elders shouting for them to stop, but John's way too tired to deal with more of this shit. Six fucking *hours*. The slam of the doors cuts off their voices, and Ronon steps back as Lorne and his men appear. John jogs to reach Rodney before he wanders off too far. "Slow down, McKay. We'll get there."
Turning, he watches Lorne set the C-4, rubbing a sweaty hand across his face. The voices in the building begin to raise in desperation, fists slamming into the doors. The villagers' murmuring increases as Lorne steps back, looking at John.
"This is what we call a teaching example," John says, taking out his gun and clicking the safety off. "Blow it."
Fifteen minutes later, John wishes to God he'd called in sick. "I'm getting tired of it." His clothes smell like smoke and ash, not a pleasant combination with sweat.
Rodney follows what appears to be no path at all, eyes still on the scanner. "Yes, this tripping between prehistoric planets is fun for me. Look at me laughing. No, wait, I'm *not*."
John checks his sidearm absently, glancing back to see Teyla and Ronon some feet behind them. "I'm tired, I'm hot, and that was the most boring lack of negotiations we've had yet. And I'm counting the one with the Genii."
"Yes, yes," Rodney answers, waving a hand. "I'm sure this is all very, very tedious for you, Colonel, but--ooh. Almost full, definitely." Rodney's eyes flicker to their guide, stumbling along in front of them. "What were you using it for? Heating water?"
The man glances back, but his eyes never get farther than John's gun. "Shield. For. Our village."
"Not for the rest of the planet. Hmm. No wonder you weren't worried." Pushing a few buttons, Rodney sighs. "Twelve feet or so." The blue eyes flicker up, fixing. "How convenient and clichéd. Ancient cave." His eyes flicker to John in accusation.
It's been one of those days.
John sighs. "Teyla."
The almost soundless footsteps come on his right Keeping his eye on the villager, John nods toward the entrance. "Take our friend in here and check it out."
"We need that!" the man says suddenly, eyes wide. "We cannot--the Wraith will come--"
"Cull your people, burn your homes, we know," Rodney answers, looking up. "Get it out and bring it here. Now."
John smiles. "You get to keep your hands if you do." Teyla's fingers close over the man's arm, pulling him behind her. "And make it fast? I don't like being kept waiting."
Flicking the safety back on, John leans into a tree, staring up. "It's a nice shield."
"It's a nice ZPM. And someone helped them shield it." Rodney makes a derogatory sound. "Very stupid, very incompetent people."
John scratches behind his ear. "Any suspects?"
"Genii, from the look of this." Sighing, Rodney pockets the scanner. "Six hours. That's just--and they kept *talking*." Rubbing his forehead, Rodney starts patting himself down for a powerbar. "I need food. Real food."
"We'll be home before sunset. Theirs, anyway." Ronon runs a perimeter sweep with a few of the newer recruits, and John takes a second to watch. The Athosians are coming along nicely with Ronon riding their asses. "Think how happy you'll make Elizabeth."
Rodney scowls, jerking open a powerbar with a few rips, forebearing comment to dedicate himself to eating, pacing the small clearing. "Could you try and not shoot on sight for a while? We still need information and when this spreads…."
John tilts his head. "Lorne's taking care of it. Don't worry so much."
"As if." Taking another bite, Rodney makes a second circuit. "It's ten meters in. What are they doing? Praying before they get it?"
"If they're smart." John studies the yawning mouth. "The opening tilts downward at a pretty rough angle. Give them a few minutes."
Tossing the wrapper, Rodney's hands are unoccupied. Never good. "You know, I was thinking. When they were recruiting me for the project? They said, come to Atlantis. New discoveries. New worlds. New people. They said nothing about new ways to be bored out of your mind. Or my mind anyway." Rodney's eyes flicker up sharply. "I haven't proved yours has rational thought yet, much less the higher function necessary for boredom."
John smirks. "I thought you were here for the t-shirts." There's a flicker by the cave entrance. John takes the safety off the gun. "Heads up, McKay. Do your magic."
But Rodney's *way* ahead of him, snatching it from the man's arms, running possessive hands over the gold and red. Fumbling the scanner out, he mumbles to himself while the villager stares at the ZPM.
"Ninety-three percent," Rodney says, sounding a little drugged. Clutching it to his chest, he stands up. "The entire planet--"
Yes, Ancient technology here. John's been able to feel the resonance since they arrived.
"Lorne'll sweep it and bring back a report. You want me to carry that?" Just to fuck with Rodney's head.
"You have *got* to be kidding." Still holding it tightly, Rodney jerks his head at the man staring at them from beside Teyla. "We need him."
"I was kind of planning on the company, McKay." But Rodney's already way ahead of him, wandering out of the clearing. "Teyla, Ronon, wait for Lorne, then bring this guy back. I want to know who he talked to, how they contacted him and everything they said or did. And I want it yesterday. Got it?"
Teyla's slow nod is answer enough. Grinning, John turns to catch up to Rodney. "You are so easy."
"Am not!" John notices, however, that Rodney hasn't looked up once. Checking the path to the jumper, John figures it's safe enough. "Ninety three percent. That's the best we've found so far." Running his fingers affectionately over the casing, Rodney finally glances up.
"You have ten of these. Makes me wonder what you do with them when you're alone."
Rodney slow-blinks an answer that probably isn't polite. "More witty commentary. I'm riveted. Can we go home now, or is the bucolic life growing on you?"
John glances around the quiet glade, rolling his eyes. "If I never see another tree, it'll be way too soon. Let's get out of here."