Codes: McKay, Sheppard/McKay
Spoilers: Tao of Rodney
Summary: They woke up brand new.
Author Notes: amireal for pre-reading. Now if Lj will only let me *post*.
Rodney finally looks for him when he doesn't answer the radio; it's hours past dinner and he's still awake, sparking with impatient energy that demands release. He'd blame adolescent hormones, but then he'd have to admit that the doctor's got a point.
Going by his quarters, Rodney picks up his satchel where he squirreled away the chocolate and beer he stole from the messhall, pulling absently at the too-large sweatpants that threaten to slide down his hips with every step, ignoring boots that no longer fit. He checks the lifesign detector before he goes back in the hall; night shift's a little paranoid about them being out on their own.
He goes by the gateroom, studying the darkened gate, techs still swarming the platform, running test after test. Zelenka catches his eye briefly, a wry smile twitching the corner of his mouth. Rodney slips out the door before Zelenka can see him grin.
Atlantis hides him while he searches, closing warm and safe around him like an old, familiar blanket, leading him with brightened lights and warming floors.
He's never looked at the city before, not really, not like this; high ceilings glazed in bronze and copper; wide windows staining the floor with every color of the rainbow, leaving abstract shapes on his feet and knees as he wades through moonlight. He closes his eyes just to feel the city humming beneath his bare feet, following the thrum of the power conduits like a voice that guides him more surely than his eyes ever could. He's always known the city like his hand, the precise geometric shape of its corridors and rooms, the pattern of its growth from a lonely outpost in lifeless space that matured into gleaming modern towers and glass spirals made of air and light.
But he'd never felt Atlantis quite like this, ageless and ancient and new, this city that's older than his homeworld.
He can feel the transition from youth to age in the hum of energy, the changing shapes of windows and doors; Ancients went through architectural renaissances like every other culture, heavy stone replaced by wood, by metal and glass, by crystal; but the farther he goes, the older it feels. The walls are thicker, built by less skilled hands, bare of decoration, clean and straight and warmer, too, though Rodney can't quite explain why. The doorways are shaped in domed arches, teardrop-shaped spires, some cross of remembered Middle Eastern culture in the careful details on the frames. Before they were Ancients, they were people still searching, seeking something that it would be thousands of years before they found.
Pressing a palm to the wall, Rodney thinks he can feel how old it is, warm and thrumming in welcome. The lights rise briefly in greeting, a quick flash that leaves him squinting and a little breathless, pushing away with the tips of his fingers, delighted all anew with how quickly the city responds to him now. She answers in soft lights, dimming behind him, brighter before; floors warming for his step; a pull like a voice calling him home. Putting the detector away, Rodney lets the city guide him.
Into a transporter; down a flight of curved metal stairs, dull with dust that's older than his planet; herded gently from damaged areas where water or time left stains waist high on the walls, broken control panels blinking on and off in warning; down, until the sea is rising around him in dark green and endless black behind walls made of windows.
Sheppard's curled before them, staring out, bathed in moody Atlantean light. Rodney almost smirks. It figures.
They'd fallen asleep on a tiny planet on the far end of nowhere and had never woken up again.
When Rodney's asked, he says he remembers the planet. It was pastoral and boring and filled with more allergens than he could count. He says he remembers being bored. John and Teyla had been taken to the temple to argue the price of grain. He says he remembers being tired. Ronon took him to the temple to rest. He says he remembers the temple halls. Strangers led them to wide, cool beds with worried voices buzzing in his ears. He says he remembers falling asleep and waking on Atlantis to a whole new world. He says, I don't remember anything else.
He's lying. That's not what he remembers at all.
"What happened?" John had asked him the second day, eyes fixed on the observation window ten feet to their left.
"Sleeping." Rodney had lied so easily that John had believed him without a second thought. "Just sleeping."
John rolls over, one arm tucked beneath his head, staring at the ceiling in vague accusation. "Alone."
"Bored," Rodney offers, making himself comfortable cross-legged on the floor, surprised all anew how easy this is: no cramping muscles or straining knees. He's grinning again, knows it from John's deepening frown, mouth tightening in something so much like a pout that Rodney fights the urge to laugh.
The face is the same and subtly different; there are traces of softness along his jaw, cheekbones cutting through like knives beneath shadowed hazel eyes. The doctors aren't sure how old they are now; Rodney doesn't really care.
"I'm not surprised." John sighs, curling his other arm under his head, stretching unself-consciously. Rodney watches the slow ripple of muscle beneath his shirt, the long, lithe body beneath loose Air Force sweats. The t-shirt slides up his flat belly, pale gold, dusted in hair, and fights the urge to touch.
Rodney doesn't remember adolescence like this, but he thinks maybe he should have; everything bright and eager; dramatic and purposed; a little too emotional, like getting half-high and never coming down.
"There's not a lot I'm allowed to do, you know," Rodney answers, wondering if he's supposed to seem more annoyed than he really is. There's a gate that refuses to work, a city that glows at his touch, and John, spread out on the floor like a martyr to all the things he can't yet control.
"So stalking me sounded like fun?" John frowns, head turned away to stare at the ceiling, so ridiculously pretty that Rodney's chest hurts just looking at him. It's like flipping back in time; this was John before Atlantis, the Air Force, college.
"Well. Yes." Pushing the satchel toward John, Rodney stretches out on his belly beside him, aware of the easy stretch of his back when he shifts, the absence of pain. He'd forgotten how different it was at eighteen, at twenty, all liquid muscle and boneless sprawls; everything's so fucking easy. "Who else is there?"
John turns his head, giving him a dirty look, but doesn't try to answer; it's not like Rodney's not right. "Seriously. Go away."
Rodney remembers John in the training room with Teyla this afternoon, uncertain when she placed the sticks in his hands for the first time since they'd awakened. He'd been awkward and uncertain and unhappy, endearingly clumsy until he stopped being clumsy at all. His body was new, but it still remembered: knew every twist and curve, how to block and turn and duck. He was faster than they remembered, years of training augmented by the speed of a teenager, and Rodney remembers Teyla's wide, delighted smile when he pinned her before he backed away, sticks falling from shocked hands before he left the room
Typical John. Rodney wonders how anyone could have expected anything else.
"I'm not sulking."
Rodney reaches for the satchel, taking out the beer and shoving one into John's hand. "Here. It's more fun when you're underaged."
It really is, too.
It's quiet after that, Atlantis dimming the lights as they watch the water. Beer tastes different, more sour, more bitter; it's possible he's lost his tolerance, and suddenly, Rodney wants to know. Sitting up, he grins down at John, waving the bottle temptingly. "Wanna see if we can still drink?"
John's head tilts in thought before he pushes himself up, taking the bottle in resignation. "Sure."
This is what he remembers. It wasn't always a temple.
Rodney dropped the glowing lamp from numb fingers; he wondered how long he'd been standing there, watching. He wonders when it became so quiet.
"Do you wish to see him one last time?" the black-robed person asked as the hooded woman in the room finally sheathed her knife, hands folding into her sleeves as she came to the door. "It is permitted."
Rodney didn't know a body could hold that much blood; it was smeared on the floor in patterns that built words, Ancient, Please, Help us, Hear us, We kept our promise, Set us free. He smeared them with his boots, stumbling blindly through thick, iron scented air, slipping on—-no, can't look, don't look, don't--biology class in living, breathing color, they took him apart and when he knelt by John's head—
John was still breathing.
Rodney couldn't bear to touch, couldn't not, fighting nausea with horror and anger and then hate, taking John's head in his lap—
John was looking at him, bleary-eyed and paper-white. Rodney wondered if he even knew he was in pain.
"There is always a price when a favor is asked of the gods," the hooded woman said softly. "His sacrifice will bring them to save us, if he is worthy."
John murmured something as Rodney pulled off his own jacket, throwing it over the—the body, John's body, John's-- "He didn't agree to be your sacrifice," Rodney whispered, watching his fingers leave stains on John's face with every stroke; John smiled and closed his eyes.
"If he is worthy, he will understand."
John matches him through three drinks before they start to sway, floor tipping beneath them by the fourth, flat on their backs for the sixth, watching Atlantis string lights into constellations, maps of the places they've seen and they've been. John murmurs the names in his ear, Ancient slipping from his tongue like warm honey, Peravada, Oryi, Sated, worlds long dead or barely living--
"They're still arguing," John says from somewhere above him. Rodney rubs his cheek against John's stomach, letting his eyes fall shut.
"Caldwell's arguing, Elizabeth's just letting him talk." Rodney answers lazily, leaning into the fingers stroking through his hair. "Don't worry."
He doesn't. He hasn't. He won't, not yet, not when he doesn't need to.
"They'll make us go--back there," John says softly; earth will never be home again.
They: Caldwell, the SGC, a million scientists on a hundred worlds who crave the promise built into their genes, the possibilities they represent. Rodney thinks of the isolation room and twitches in memory of the needles and samples, blood and skin and hair, scrapes from his wrist and thigh and foot, waking to question after question after question, how, why, what did you do, show us where, show us what, how do you feel?
A thousand tests and a thousand results. Rodney buries his laugh in John's flesh.
Atlantis shifts at John's unconscious wish—don't let the gate work. Don't let the Daedalus leave. Not yet, and Rodney shows her how to grant it with a nudge and a touch. Three technicians jerk back from a sparking console; the Daedalus loses power again. Somewhere, Novak is yelling and Zelenka is frowning and Elizabeth is watching and maybe by now she just might guess.
"The gate's still down," Rodney mumbles into John's belly, breathing in the scent of detergent and clean sweat and soap. He can feel John's frown with his body.
"It's weird, the malfunctions," John says finally.
Rodney bites his tongue. "I can't believe I'm saying this--to you--but you think too much."
John snorts, reaching for the bottle, then giving up when it rolls out of his reach. "You're way too calm."
He might be. He could be, maybe, but the man who panicked over citrus and suicide missions and undercooked beef is someone that Rodney barely recognizes. Three nights ago he realized he knew how to build a ZPM; last night he ran miles and never broke a sweat. He peeled three oranges in the mess hall under the incredulous eyes of his friends, licking sweet-tart juice from his fingers.
John pushes him off so suddenly that Rodney almost bites his tongue, catching himself before his head touches the floor. John hip checks him onto his back, then the lithe body straddles him, long thighs folding on either side of his ribs. Rodney smirks up at the hazel eyes. "Not so drunk."
John tilts his head. "It's different." We're different, he doesn't say, and it's not just new flesh and new bone, not the strip away of time and age and wear; it's something that woke with them in the infirmary, something that slept for years, for all their lives, brightly restless, waiting.
Rodney reaches up, curving a hand around the back of John's neck, soft hair tickling the back of his hand. "Does it matter?"
John slow blinks a maybe, then lets Rodney pull him into a kiss, slow and deep and careful, like they're the teenagers they appear, like they're sitting under the bleachers or in a car or back behind the school. Rodney had never lived it, never wanted to, but John's body tells him stories he's long guessed; girls who loved his face, boys who loved his body, the people who never looked at him and saw anything but a--
"Possession," John whispers, pulling back. The pink lips are swollen and wet, parted in shock. "How did you--"
Rodney pulls him back in, licking open his mouth. "John. Don't think."
Rodney pressed a finger against John's pulse; a steady, maddening beat of life, life, life, when he shouldn't be alive at all. They were careful; they were practiced. Even now, it will take a long time for him to die. "We don't--we aren't--"
"He is in the hands of the gods," she said, implacable and faceless, hooded robe hiding everything but her voice. "With this we keep our promise, and the Ancestors will return to chase the Wraith--"
"That's bullshit!" John gasped softly, blood bubbling between his lips. Rodney wiped it away with a shaking hand. "They're never. Coming. Back. They Ascended—they left. They don't care."
The woman didn't answer, simply watched them in her blood-splattered robe. Rodney wondered if he could kill her. He wondered if he'd even need a weapon.
"We--we need to take him home." Military burial; no, cremation on Atlantis. No. Suspension; in a thousand years, maybe they could fix, Jesus, who could fix this--
"He cannot survive outside the temple," she said, and Rodney heard something new.
"You can't—you can't think you can keep him—he's going to die anyway."
The woman paused, one arm coming up. Beneath the folds of her robe, he thinks he can see her blood-stained hand. "Not if he's the one the gods desire."
I know you.
He does; Rodney knows what lives beneath this fragile skin, knows what hovers behind masked hazel eyes. He knows because he touched it, felt it, breathed it; people look for this all their lives, groping blindly after something so far beyond their small minds that they have no idea what they're searching for.
Rodney found it, found John, John found him; this is what you've been looking for Rodney tells him with his hands and his tongue, writes into John's skin with his fingernails, with his teeth. You know, even if you don't remember. You will. I promise.
They took Rodney to the tiny room where they'd keep him.
Rodney registered the stasis pod where John would dream for a thousand years where John would sleep away his own death. Rodney ran a shaking hand over the cylinder, mind pulling the pieces into a pattern.
"You're trying to make him Ascend," Rodney said slowly, staring at the display that they never could have understood. There was a body inside, long dead and rotting from the inside out. Rodney wondered how long it took for him to die. "To call the--call the gods?"
"Yes," she said. Rodney turned numbly to watch one of them carry John in, blood dripping like a trail of breadcrumbs behind him.
"That one was unworthy," she said carelessly, pressing the release. Two figures in black appeared, taking the shrunken body away. "He did not reach them."
From somewhere far away, he heard his voice, calm and reasoned. "Has it ever worked?"
Her hand paused as John was gently placed inside, the cover sliding slowly closed. Rodney watched John's face blank into peace; he looked terrifyingly young. "When the sacrifice is worthy, it will."
They make out on the floor for what feels like hours, Atlantis rumbling beneath Rodney's back and against his thighs, thrumming through him like his heartbeat; on a world a thousand light-years from home (Atlantis) he watched John fall asleep (slowly die) in a quiet temple for gods (Ancients) that never answer.
He'd never been afraid to go where John led; Rodney would follow him anywhere.
"How?" Elizabeth had asked when they woke, and Rodney had answered, I don't know.
"Rodney," John whispers against his skin, sucking a hickey into the side of his throat. Rodney thinks of tomorrow, the eyes that will see the shape of John's teeth in his skin, "Rodney," the way they'll look away and God, he wants that. Wants to be as young as he's become, stupid and reckless and careless, do everything that he missed the first time around and maybe do it twice, "I want--"
Me too, Rodney thinks, tilting his head back, threading his fingers through John's hair, breath catching when John's cock rubs slowly up his thigh. Grabbing for John's hips, Rodney arches beneath him, listening for the hiss of breath, teeth biting into his lip, "--want you," John whispers breathlessly, helplessly, grinding down against him. "Want you, Jesus, this is--"
Sparks dance behind his eyelids as John pants against his collarbone, hooking a leg around John's thigh, more, sliding his hands beneath John's shirt, stroking slick, silky skin, drawing his nails down to feel John shudder, gasping his name before Rodney swallows the word.
John comes with a shudder that shakes his body; Atlantis trembles with them, lights bright and hot above them, speaking in a language that Rodney knows now in his bones. John, Rodney murmurs, feeling John and Atlantis and the galaxy wide open around him--
Gods don't come back.
They left him alone after a while, kneeling beside John's pod (coffin), watching the readings. There was logic (bring the body near death), stasis (get him to the meditative state), wait for him to die (Ascend). It was here, written in flashing lights, in dials and buttons, in the language of a brilliant people that abandoned a galaxy to darkness and ritual and this--this--
"I think we could--do better," Rodney said slowly, pressing his hand against the pod, leaving his fingerprints in drying blood. "I need--I need--" His mind stuttered to a halt; this was what the Ancients left them. Not technology so far beyond them it could be magic; not a city that lights up for them, around them, with them; not gates and new worlds and science that explained the universe. They left them this. "I need tools."
Rodney lurched to his feet, stumbling into the door, smearing John's blood across the frame before he can jerk it open. "I can call them. I can make sure they hear you," Rodney yelled, words tumbling from between his lips before he knew what he was saying. He was almost frightened by how calm he sounded, how certain, but there was nothing that could ever scare him again.
The woman paused and turned to face him.
"The gods. You want him to reach them? I can make it happen."
She took a step toward him, pausing uncertainly. "How would you know how to reach the gods?"
Rodney felt his mouth stretch in an impossible smile. "I live in their city. I know what they want to hear."
John's a warm, comfortable weight across his chest; Rodney loops an arm around his waist with one trembling arm, burying his nose in John's hair, breathing in the scent of sex. It's new, like everything is, sharp and he wants to wrap himself up in it, breathe it all day.
"The city feels different," John whispers like a secret, nose pressed against Rodney's throat. "It feels--like it's mine." John lifts his head; the dark eyes are dilated to a thin ring of green around the endless black of space. "Ours."
John touches the floor with wondering fingers, eyes widening as Atlantis reaches for him, lighting for him, showing him the secrets she's hidden for ten millennium in her depths. Rodney's breath catches as John shudders, she's been waiting, all her life, all eternity, for the people who built her to use her. Engines hum at John's wondering touch, she's never been just a city, she's waking up for them, recognizing them, finally, finally finally….
"What happened to us?" John whispers. Rodney gently cups John's face, rolling him onto his back, pressing him into the floor, licking the question away with the tip of his tongue, hard again already; he forgot how his body could do that now. "Rodney," John breathes when Rodney licks slowly up his neck. "What happened?"
"I gave them their gods."
It wasn't hard; he'd done this before, touched the edge of eternity and came back before he knew what he would miss. He'd been close, so close that he could taste it, and then returned to Atlantis mundane and small, contained in fragile flesh and blood that shattered so easily under every strain.
He knew how to do this, knew it like he knew his own name.
"Where did you get this?" Rodney asked, the guts of four computers spread around his knees. He pointed at the pod. "Are there more?"
She nodded slowly. "Many."
Many. "I need another one," he said sharply. If he stopped to think, he'd never remember what to do, what he'd done before, what he has to do again. If he stopped to think, he might go crazy. "Get it, bring it up here, and get out."
She hesitated, then nodded, calling two acolytes with a wave of her hand. After they disappeared out the door, Rodney paused, leaning against John's pod, checking the steady readings that were still too high. "Just stay there," Rodney whispered, leaning his head against the cool metal. Sleeping. "Remember what you told me? I bet you're dreaming of football, aren't you?"
When they came back, staggering beneath the weight of the pod, Rodney checked it for viability, ignoring their hovering presence beside the door because he thought he might kill her if he saw her wearing John's blood one more second. "Almost there," he whispered to John, stretching out the receptors to the second pod. "Just wait. I'm coming. I'm right behind you."
"What do you remember?"
John blinks, eyes going distant as he pushes through uncertain memories, back through two weeks of confusion and fear, back to--
"We were in the temple," John says slowly. "Arguing about the price of grain."
Rodney had wandered through the village with his scanner, watching for readings that never came. There were Ancients here, he told Ronon bitterly. You'd think they'd have left something.
"They had this--thing on the table," John says, forehead creasing in thought. "It looked like a lamp. Teyla's contracts kept trying to blow off the table. I moved the lamp--"
Ronon had taken out his gun, hand on Rodney's arm; Rodney had looked up in annoyance when Ronon stepped in front of him, pointing it at ten black-robed people who told them that Colonel Sheppard--that Colonel Sheppard--
"The lamp lit up."
They'd gone with them, because they didn't have a choice, taken to the empty room where Teyla's body was stretched on the floor, blood soaking the stone from a throat slit ear to ear. A lamp lay an inch from her fingertips, dark and silent.
They had killed Ronon like that, too, but Rodney thinks that they paid with their lives before they took his. He's not sure; all he could hear was John screaming.
They led Rodney to John's cell, glowing lamp clutched between his hands, where he watched them torture his leader for absent gods who left a galaxy to superstition and ritual murder, half-understood science turned to mysticism and magic. Left this, left children on planets to commit suicide and hide ZPMs and pray for a savior that would never come to save them.
"Rodney," John whispers, reaching between them, touching the smooth skin of his stomach with frantic, searching fingers, eyes widening in horror. "I remember. They--"
Cut him open while Rodney watched, gutted him like a fish, like an animal, reading from a corrupted scroll that had been miscopied a thousand times into gibberish and nonsense, we must free the soul by destroying the body. Rodney reaches gently for John's seeking hand and pins it to the floor. Atlantis croons soothingly as John begins to shake. "They thought killing you would call the gods. The Ancients."
John licks his lips. "They thought--"
"It worked. I made sure of it."
There was a part of him that had been waiting for this since the day they brought him back.
"Almost there," Rodney told John, wondering how long he'd been working; his eyes burned, vision doubling, his hands shaking when he made the last connection, but he was done, so it didn't matter. Typing in the last commands, Rodney went to John's pod, looking down into John's still face. "Don't go without me. Keep dreaming of football. Or jumpers. Just--stay there, okay?" The readings were lower, but not quite enough; Rodney memorized the number and closed his eyes briefly. "I'm coming. Just wait."
He had pushed his pod beside John's, forever damaging something in his back that burned with every shift of his body. Brushing his fingers against the clear faceplate of John's pod, Rodney turned, climbing into the second one, surprised when the familiar feeling of suffocation didn't overcome him as the lid slid shut; there was nothing left to fear.
Rodney closed his eyes as it activated and reached for that still place that had been waiting for him all his life. "Almost there, John. Just give me one more minute."
"I heard you. You told me you were coming."
They were waiting for him, what was left of a civilization that reached the stars and never looked back at the universe they left in pieces for others to destroy.
"No," he said, thought, felt; the entire universe opened up, tempting him toward a forever knit in light and seductive knowledge that stretched to infinity.
They'd been here too long; Rodney remembered bleeding flesh and dying worlds and villages where the Wraith had passed, taking life and hope because the Ancients had forgotten what it meant to be alive.
He remembered kneeling in a tiny room on a mudball in the middle of nowhere where he cradled John's mutilated body because they forgot to pick up their toys before they left the galaxy to slowly die.
I have better idea.
"The thing is? Chaya never thought she could tell them no."
John was close, so close--Rodney thought in a thousand years, he might have done it on his own. Rodney felt John flare as bright as the supernova that began the universe, shock and horror and rage edging his final memories of what was done to him, memories of what had happened to Teyla before they dragged him away. What--
I'll show you.
It took a second of eternity to show him, a second longer for him to understand what Rodney had done, and one more to make a choice that wasn't a choice at all. He knew John.
Yes, John told him, staring steadily into a tiny room on a mudball in the middle of nowhere. Two acolytes and a hooded woman looked in wonder at the empty pods. Let's do it.
John convulses beneath him, eyes wide and unseeing as memory slams through him; there was a planet and now there's not: a solar system that vanished into something less than dust: a people wiped from history.
Teyla and Ronon woke up with them in the infirmary. John hadn't thought they'd be ready to remember quite yet; Rodney thinks they'll tell them soon why Atlantis now lights for their touch.
"You did it," John says in wonder, in fierce joy that Rodney can feel in every new bone; Rodney kisses him and thinks So what next? Wraith? Ori? Genii?
John says, yes. Yes. Yes.