John Sheppard had come to the conclusion that Dr. Rodney McKay liked being a mad scientist. Not mad in the sense that he yelled and screamed at anyone that didn’t do exactly what he asked…no, exactly what he demanded… exactly when he demanded it. Although he did do that, loudly and often. And more than one Seragon lab assistant had ended up being dragged away by security never to be seen again when he displeased the illustrious Dr. McKay. In fact, since his arrival almost two weeks prior, McKay had chased off over a dozen scientists. Barrett was the last to fall victim to the acidic insults and biting put-downs, the man going almost gratefully with the guards when they arrived, resulting in John being the only one he was willing to work with.
No, McKay was angry, no doubt about it. But the madness John saw was more along the lines of the maniacal gleam that came to his eyes when he worked on the bomb he was developing. A gleam Sheppard was pretty sure he practiced in the mirror at night. Or the way he would turn to John in the lab and ask, “So, what do you think?” in a voice that wavered between desperation and pride with the same conflicted tone regardless whether John agreed or disagreed. It left Sheppard feeling unbalanced, like he was straddling the fulcrum of a teetering seesaw, to see McKay both happy and disappointed no matter how he responded.
“Your calculations are wrong,” he would tell the physicist, whose smug grin would transmute instantly to an irritated frown.
Inevitably the papers would be snatched from his hand and McKay would demand, “You went over them twice?”
Not that he need to, but he had. “Yes, McKay, I went over them twice. And they were wrong both times. If you do it using these numbers, the bomb won’t take out half the control room, much less the hub of the city.”
And Rodney would give him a look like John had punched him in the gut, not once but twice. “Then I better rework them,” he would mumble and retreat to his desk with a hand scrubbing his face in frustration before settling into the recalculations with a near reluctance John just couldn’t understand.
Other times, when asked the same question, John would reply, “It looks good. You’ll make the schedule no problem.”
“And then we’ll blow the hell out of Atlantis, huh?” The inflection at the end filled with a hopefulness he couldn’t quite put a finger on.
John would curl his lips to match the grin on McKay’s face. “Those bastards won’t know what hit them.” But then his stomach would twist the same way Rodney’s expression did when he said the words he thought the man wanted to hear.
There was a small part, the self-preservation part, that told him not to anger the scientist. The man was obviously unstable in a way John had never seen before his time on Serage, prone to fits of outrage that could result in him sentencing John to death with a whim of his temper and flick of his hand. And John couldn’t help but wonder if this was how Rodney had always been but had never allowed himself to be back on Atlantis. But there was another part, a part buried deep in his subconscious, that told John he had nothing to fear and that Rodney McKay would be taken away to the oblivion of the Seragon judicial system himself before allowing them to take Sheppard.
He had known Rodney for years, walked through the stargate with him from Earth, fought Wraith and Genii and various others along the way side-by-side with the scientist. He knew that, and if he really, really concentrated, he could remember some of the details. But they had been clouded since the Seragon had opened his eyes to the evil Atlantis represented. It was hard, overcoming the brainwashing he had received from the Atlantean team, but the serum he received every day as part of his treatment helped. Unfortunately, it made his memories a little…fuzzy. But it was a side effect he was willing to accept.
He did remember when they had first come to Serage. How he and Rodney had fought against the restraints, how the serum had first been administered with him threatening and Rodney begging, and eventually everything had gone black before everything had become crystal clear. And then Teyla and Ronon had appeared, managing to take Rodney, limp from the stun blast and tossed over Ronon’s massive shoulder, back through the gate before he or the guards could stop them.
He remembered the guards on either side of him falling victims to Teyla’s P-90, then Teyla’s hand grasping at a wound to her abdomen from his own gun. The look of betrayal in her eyes as she staggered up and through the gate while Ronon took one more shot at him with his stunner before he, too, retreated back to Atlantis under the gunfire of the Seragon police force.
He remembered thinking that was the last he would ever see of his friends… his former friends. There were no friends in Serage. There were family units and coworkers and compatriots, but there was no hanging out watching movies or drinking a beer or playing golf. There was the Struggle. That’s what the Leadership called it. The Struggle against the Wraith, the Struggle against corruption, the Struggle against the oppressors that angered the Wraith and spread corruption throughout the galaxy. In other words, there was the Struggle against Atlantis, and with John’s intimate knowledge of the city, he was now one of their primary weapons against said enemy.
Then, when Rodney returned a week after being taken away, having escaped with enough C-4 and naquadah to build a bomb capable of taking out a large portion of Atlantis, they were well on their way to another. If all went well, they’d be ready to deploy their bomb in a few days.
“I’m going to need your help with the assembly starting tomorrow.”
At McKay’s words, John looked up from where he was going over the diagrams of the Atlantean systems he was studying. “Really? I thought you didn’t want me messing with the stuff.”
“Look around.” Arms waved at the lab, empty except for the two of them. “It’s not like I have much choice in the matter.”
“It’s your own fault, McKay. You’re the one who chased them all off.”
Rodney’s jaw flinched and the blue eyes flashed dangerously. “You really think I was too hard on those ignorant sycophants?”
It was times like these John had to wonder if McKay remembered even less of their old lives and their old friendship than he did. “I think,” he started cautiously, “they were just doing their jobs and you didn’t like the results.”
“Yeah, well maybe I’m just doing my job, Sheppard. Did you stop to consider that?” Before he could try to come up with a neutral answer, Rodney shoved a small container into his hand. “Here. Take two of these before you go to bed tonight.”
Holding the prescription bottle up and studying the large white pills inside, John asked curiously, “What are these?”
“Anti-radiation medication. I’ve been taking them the whole time I’ve been milling the naquadah. If you’re going to help me, then you need to be taking them, too.”
“Where’d you get them?”
“The Medical Fairy dropped them off. Where the hell do you think I got them? I brought them with me from Atlantis. It’s not like these morons have any clue about radiation sickness.” Eyes flicked in John’s direction as if judging his reaction to the statement, and for a sickening moment he feared Rodney might have been recruited by the Moral Guardians, the secret group whose job it was to test the faith of the people in the Leadership. When Sheppard frowned, Rodney continued quickly, “Which is why they’re so lucky that they can benefit from our knowledge. But they can’t do that if we’re dead from radiation poisoning.” He tapped the bottle. “Take two of these tonight and you’ll be just fine. They may make you feel a little sick, so take them right before you go to sleep.”
“And these’ll really help?” Because he didn’t recall having heard of pills for treating naquadah exposure.
But any wariness disappeared when McKay smiled at him. A real smile, genuine and angling sharply across his face. The first one he had seen since they had arrived on Serage. “They’re going to save our lives, Sheppard. Take the pills.”
That evening they received their injections, as usual. Rodney winced at the needles, as usual. Then they ate dinner in the Technology Facility dining hall, as usual. It was always harder after the injections; the memories became fuzzier. Occasionally, he would look across the table at the man eating with him and not even remember his name. At those times, Rodney would take in the confused stare, turn back to his meal, then say something incredibly inane, and the fog would clear again.
“You’re not invulnerable, Sheppard, eat your food.”
“You’ll do me absolutely no good in the lab if your manly hunger gets the best of you.”
Tonight he was discussing the recently departed Barrett. “So, he was asking about safeguards for the milled naquadah and I told him, you know, if people could just learn to keep their secret underground hatches locked, no one would be the wiser to their location.”
The stranger across from John was suddenly replaced by Rodney McKay dressed in a black field vest over short-sleeved blue shirt, peering curiously down into a Genii bunker, before settling back into the more mundanely gray-attired Dr. Rodney McKay, tyrannical weapons-builder for the Seragon.
Rubbing at his eyes to clear the vision, John asked, “So, tell me, McKay, why are you giving me the pills but you never gave them to anyone else?”
The fork stopped midair between his mouth and plate before Rodney pushed it home, promptly filling his mouth. “What? You would rather I gave them to Barrett instead? Because I can make arrangements for him to come back.” John could read the unspoken, “and for you to disappear” in the annoyed glare he was receiving.
“No, I’ll take them. Wouldn’t want you to go to any trouble tracking down your former lab assistant.”
“Face it, Colonel, you’re the best man for the job, else you would have been gone a long time ago.”
“What did you call me?”
It was a question asked in pure confusion, but McKay reddened, in anger or embarrassment, John couldn’t be sure. “Take the pills, I can’t afford the time to train a new assistant, not when we’re so close.” Grabbing his food tray, he stood abruptly. “I’ll see you in the morning, Sheppard.”
That night John took the pills as directed, not really sure why McKay had warned him about feeling sick because he felt fine. In fact, he felt happy, as happy as the three people sitting with him in the cafeteria on Atlantis.
“So,” John asked around a spoonful of Jell-O “did you ask out that new Marine, yet?”
Teyla blushed slightly, eyes down on her plate as she moved the vegetables around aimlessly. “No, I did not.” But he couldn’t miss the small curve of her lips when she popped the alien potato into her mouth.
“Teyla?” He stretched the name teasingly, and she finally raised her eyes to his with a grin.
“I did not ask him for a date because he asked me for one first.”
“Ha!” McKay exclaimed. “You owe me ten bucks.” Turning his attention to Ronon, he continued with a wave of his hand, “And you owe me… something… preferably not made out of leather.”
Ronon rolled his eyes. “I guess I’ll have to save the pants I was making you for your birth celebration then.”
Ignoring the exchange, Teyla’s eyes widened in amused outrage. “You had a bet on whether or not I would approach him?”
John shrugged, doing his best to appear ashamed of his actions, but the twitch of his lips gave him away. “Well, you’ve been watching him for weeks now.”
“I have not!”
“Yeah, you have,” Ronon countered plainly.
“It’s amazing really. How you can be so stealthy on missions but can’t hide the dreamy expression on your face when you pass him in the hall.”
“There is no expression, dreamy or otherwise, on my face when I see him, Rodney.” Teyla’s chastising tone did little to hide the glimmer in her eyes.
“Uh-huh. And what were those swooning sighs? Gas?”
McKay’s grin just spread, and Ronon joined in with the teasing. “She nearly ran into the wall yesterday looking back over her shoulder at him.”
“I did not!”
“If I hadn’t pulled her back at the last second, she would’ve had a black eye.”
Teyla’s mouth opened in outrage, but John spoke before she could. “You know, that lieutenant never would have asked you out if you’d had a shiner. Sounds like you owe Ronon one.”
“Preferably something not made out of leather,” Rodney added.
“Nah, she needs to save those for her date.” All three men snickered at John’s comment, and Teyla glared at her male teammates.
With a push back from the table, she wiped delicately at her mouth. “I do not need to sit here and listen to this humiliation.”
“Aww, come on,” John appeased. “We’re just having a little bit of fun. You don’t need to go running off on our account.”
“No, I do not. But I do have a date to prepare for.” She stood with a sly smile on her face and, to John’s horror, a spreading stain of blood across her stomach.
“Teyla?” The Athosian staggered back just out of his grasp when he himself stood and reached for her across the table. The amused expression on Teyla’s face was quickly replaced with one of shock as she grasped the wound with a trembling hand. “McKay, catch her!”
Her knees folded under her, Rodney just managing to keep her head from thudding into the elaborate tile floor with a sound similar to his own chair tipping over behind him. “Colonel?” she gasped as Sheppard squatted beside Ronon on the floor next to her. “John?”
“It’s okay,” he promised through his own panic, his hands coated in red as they pressed futilely against the injury. “You’re going to be okay. Carson will fix you right up.” Turning desperately to the Satedan beside him, he ordered, “Get Beckett, now!”
“Sheppard, it’s too late,” Rodney was telling him calmly from the opposite side of their fallen teammate.
“The hell it is! Get Carson!” He increased the pressure on her abdomen, ignoring the way her eyes had faded, her mouth had slackened, his hands had turned into a crimson mass almost indistinguishable from her bloodstained clothes. He had seen it before, seen a body that was lifeless and turning cold even as he continued to try. But he wouldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe it, not with Teyla. She was alive, she was joking and laughing and… and she wasn’t doing that anymore.
“Colonel, it won’t do any good. What’s done is done.” McKay tried to pry his hands away, but John refused to move them. “You can’t undo what you did.”
“What I did? But I didn’t… I would never…” But he knew that wasn’t the case. He had done it. He had pointed his gun and shot her with every intention of stopping her, with every intention of killing her, because they were taking McKay and the Seragons needed McKay if they had any hope of destroying Atlantis. The thought had the bile rising warm and bitter in his throat and his lunch threatening to return on him.
And when he sat straight up in bed, cold sweat prickling on his skin and a denial stinging his throat, it wasn’t the lunch of his dream he had eaten bathed in the warm, gold-tinted light of Atlantis that had him bolting from his bed. Instead, it was the dinner he had eaten with McKay in a sterile, unadorned dining facility that revolted violently from him in a similarly sterile and unadorned bathroom on Serage.
The splash of water on his face did little to stop the shaking, nor did climbing back in bed and pulling the covers up over his head, and trying to convince himself it was just a result of the pills Rodney had given him did the least to help him of all.
“You look like total shit.”
Well, if there was one thing you could say about Rodney, it was that he didn’t pull punches. And John knew he couldn’t deny the assessment of his current condition. But who could blame him given the night he had just experienced? A few hours sleep filled with strange dreams, followed by his trip to empty his stomach, topped off by lying in his small cube of dark room surrounded by memories saturated with way too much light and color and laughter. Things that should have made him happy but left an inexplicable ache deep inside him that even the dry heaves couldn’t account for.
And seeing McKay dressed in the totalitarian gray of his lab clothes, which were pretty much identical to the totalitarian gray of the lunch lady’s clothes, and the Administrator’s, and the janitor’s, and his for that matter, just made him feel even worse. There should have been blue, a blue that seemed to make the physicist’s eyes blaze a little brighter when he was angry, and red topped with a fall of brown curls, and dark matte black, and bright crisp white. There should have been rough textures of green home-weave and smooth, muddy leather and even the digitized patterns of camouflage that could blend in with the wilds of the Pegasus galaxy but stood out in stark contrast to the soft fall of yellow, orange, purple, and blue that poured over the arches and flooded the city in a waterfall of color.
“And evidently that’s what your brains were replaced with overnight, as well. I asked for the wire cutters, not a screwdriver.” The tool in question waggled irritably under his nose as McKay pointed out his mistake.
“It’s the drugs you gave me.” Long fingers scrubbed through a muddle of dark hair, and he shook his head to clear away the grogginess as well as the lingering images. “They… kept me awake last night.”
“Throwing up?” McKay was laying out the wiring for the bomb on the workbench, occasionally checking over the line diagrams they had worked out a few days prior. “It’s a side effect that passes in a couple of days.”
“Yeah,” Sheppard agreed, thinking to avoid the whole issue of the dream. “It was the puking that kept me up. Maybe I’ll stop by the medical clinic and see if they have something for the nausea.”
“No!” Rodney covered his outburst by retrieving the wire cutters himself. “I don’t know how the Seragon medications will interact with the anti-rad meds. Just, tough it out for a few days; it’ll pass. And if it doesn’t, we’ll be done with the bomb by then and you can stop taking them. Do you think you can grow a pair and muscle through it until then?”
Blue eyes fixed on him, and he nodded under their intensity. “Yeah, okay.” Seemingly satisfied, the physicist turned back to his work, but something was still eating at John. Rodney had called him “Colonel” at dinner last night, just like Teyla had in his dream when she was… Reaching out a hand to steady himself, he closed his eyes and tried not to think about the blood or that vacant stare or how natural that title had sounded when she or Rodney had said it. Tried not to think about how right it had sounded.
“Sheppard?” Hands were easing him into a chair before the floor gave way beneath him, and then the same hands were pushing his head down between his knees. “Christ, I thought the dosage was low enough to keep this from happening. Breathe, all right? Breathe and for God’s sake, don’t pass out.”
“Rodney?” His fingers shot up and clamped onto the forearm connected to the hand resting on his back. They were alone in the lab. They were alone and he had to ask. It was safe to ask; the part of him that trusted McKay with his life was telling him that. But in the end, it didn’t really matter, because he had to know. “Do you… do you remember Teyla?”
The small circles being rubbed between his shoulder blades stopped abruptly. “Yeah, I remember Teyla,” Rodney answered quietly.
“I shot her.”
The black spots before his eyes were merging together when Rodney confirmed simply, “You did.”
“Did she…? Is she…?” He shouldn’t have been that concerned with the answer. He shouldn’t have cared, because when you got right down to it, even if he hadn’t killed her, the bomb they were building probably would. Her and everyone else on Atlantis. But that was what they wanted, right?
The hand moved up and squeezed the nape of his neck. “She was fine when I left. Carson made sure of that.”
And whether it was relief or exhaustion or the pills that caused it, the result was the same. Sheppard slumped boneless into the scientist, who was trying his best to keep him in his seat. If he succeeded or failed, John didn’t know, because within a few seconds he was lost in darkness, his last thought being that McKay was going to be so totally pissed at him for passing out when the man had expressly told him not to do so.
“Colonel, just lie still, lad.” Carson’s face appeared above him, the only thing stationary as the ceiling tiles of Atlantis passed above him in a dizzying blur. A hand landed on his chest when he tried to sit once again. “You’re back on Atlantis now. We’re going to take good care of you.”
“Where… the others?” He had to get up; he had to find his team. The jumper had crashed; he remembered that much. It had gone dead as soon as they had exited through the wormhole on the planet, and given that the craft had all the aerodynamic prowess of a steamroller trying to achieve self-sustained flight, it had immediately plummeted to the ground. And beyond that, he knew nothing.
“They’re here. Teyla was able to call back for help,” Carson answered him as he walked beside the gurney John was on, but his attention was elsewhere, and John tried to lift his head to see what he was looking at so intently. The movement, combined with the motion of the gurney rolling down the hall, only made the world seem to tilt more.
“So, Teyla’s okay?” he managed to ask, closing his eyes in a futile attempt to slow the spinning.
“Aye. She has a dislocated shoulder but should be just fine.”
He waited for the physician to tell him about the others, but the Scot was ominously silent on the subject. “Ronon? McKay?”
“Here as well.”
And even through his disorientation, John knew there was something he wasn’t being told. “Carson?”
The gurney passed through the doors to the infirmary, and he was wheeled quickly through a curtained partition. “I’m leaving you in the more than capable hands of my staff, Colonel. I’ll be back in a moment.” Beckett moved away from his bedside, and before the nurse pulled the curtains closed, he caught a glimpse of Ronon lying unmoving on a gurney of his own as the medic changed out a blood-soaked bandage on his head. Teyla, her arm in a field sling, stood nearby watching the medical team as they worked.
When she saw John was awake, she slipped quietly into his curtained area and placed a hand on his shoulder, her face twisted in worry. “He will not respond,” she told him hoarsely.
“McKay?” The crease on Teyla’s forehead deepened at his inquiry, but she didn’t have to answer.
“Let’s prep him for surgery.” Turning his head in the direction of Carson’s voice coming through the curtain on his opposite side, John assumed he must be talking about McKay. An assumption that was quickly confirmed. “Rodney, can you hear me?”
“Can’t… can’t… breathe.” The voice was little more than a stuttering pant and as terrified as John suddenly found himself to be. Teyla squeezed his shoulder, and he realized he was gripping her wrist in return.
“Aye, lad, I know. One of your ribs has punctured your lung. But we’re going to fix that right now. All right?”
Sucking in a ragged breath of his own, John shook his head. How had this mission gone south so fast? This had to be a record for them, one he would have been more than happy to go without because here they were in the infirmary, Ronon unconscious, Rodney barely breathing, and he and Teyla little more than walked wounded at this point. Hell, he didn’t even think he could walk at this point.
“He’s here. All of your team is here,” Carson soothed. “Enough talking now.”
But telling Rodney to be quiet was like telling the sun not to rise. “Where…?”
“Here, McKay,” Sheppard called out, his head pounding at the sound of his own voice, and he had the sudden need to clear his throat. “Teyla, too.”
John hitched his head, indicating the Athosian should go to Rodney instead. Nodding with a small understanding smile, she moved to join the other shadows caring for the injured scientist John could just make out through the curtain. “He is being cared for and you must save your strength,” she coaxed.
“You… two… okay?” A part of John wished he could see McKay, but another part was almost thankful he couldn’t because having to watch him struggle for breath would be even worse than hearing it.
“We’re fine,” he called out, closing his eyes as if that could block out the sounds of the people working on Ronon, of the wheeze of Rodney’s voice. But he was the team leader, and as much as he might want to, he couldn’t just wish it would go away. They were his responsibility. “You know me; takes more than just a rough landing to slow me down.”
“Want… new… travel agent.”
John snorted thickly at the joke, colors exploding behind his eyelids at the action. “Take it up with AAA.” Yeah, with his eyes closed, he could just pretend things weren’t as bad as they were, even if he knew better. But when Rodney started gasping and Teyla started calling his name and Carson was barking orders at the surgical team to move him to the OR, he couldn’t pretend any more.
And when his eyes flew open, fully expecting to see the familiar sight of the Atlantis infirmary but seeing a completely different medical facility instead, he realized it had all been just another dream. Evidently the clean white sheets and antiseptic smells were common in hospitals the universe over. But he fully expected to hear a well-known Scottish brogue and open his eyes to the familiar sight of one of his teammates…because he had teammates, of that he was now sure. Instead, there was a woman with dark blond hair cut in the short angular style of the Seragon and the typical gray uniform with the simple black slash on the collar indicative of the Administrators.
Pushing himself up to a sitting position, Sheppard pushed back the slight wave of nausea that washed over him before looking around the room. “Where’s McKay?” Because Rodney was the last person he remembered seeing before he lost consciousness, and the physicist had been worried about what would happen if John passed out.
“John,” the woman smiled serenely, completely ignoring the question in a way that made the hairs bristle on his neck. “How are you feeling?”
“Better.” Better to be cautious in my answers, was what he was thinking. “Evidently I ate something last night that made me sicker than I thought.”
Once again his response was glossed over as the woman held up a small bag of the same white pills Rodney had given him the previous night. “What are these?”
Fighting the urge to lick his suddenly dry lips, John furrowed his brow in what he hoped appeared as disoriented thought. “Uhm, they look like the anti-radiation medication McKay brought back with him from Atlantis. To protect us during the bomb assembly.”
The confident expression on the woman’s face waved momentarily. “Us? Have you been taking them, as well?”
Recovering quickly from his own surprise, he shook his head. “No, Rodney didn’t think we needed them until we started the actual construction.”
“I see.” She stood and started toward the door.
“Wait. Where…?” Where did you get them was what he wanted to ask. But he had a feeling that was a little too dangerous. So instead he amended it to, “Where’s McKay working today, the lab or the prep room? I should probably go and help him, seeing as I’m feeling better now.”
“Rodney will not be working any more today.” Sheppard felt his stomach lurch at the news and her next question only made it worse. “Do you feel you could finish the assembly of the bomb on your own?”
“Oh, God, no.” He forced a somewhat goofy smile over the panic that had his heart pounding so loud he was surprised she couldn’t hear it. “I mean, I helped with the calculations, but McKay’s the real brains behind the whole thing. At this point I just tighten the screw he says to tighten, not much else.”
With a small tilt of her head, she bid him, “Good health to you, John,” before exiting the room without another word, without even an introduction, he realized.
It was almost two hours before he was finally released, and he forced himself to walk, not bolt at top speed, to his quarters. He had to hide the pills. It was obvious they hadn’t found his yet or they would have known he had been taking them, too. And even though he didn’t know exactly what they were doing to him, other than making him feel like utter crap and bringing back memories he hadn’t even known he had repressed, he knew he didn’t want them to stop. But they were nowhere to be found. He had left them sitting on the bedside table, and now they were gone. His room had obviously been searched as evidenced by a chair out of place, a drawer partially open, his toiletries rearranged from their normal position, but the drugs had just as obviously not been found. And that had to mean McKay had found them before the Administrators had. He would have come to John’s room first and taken the drugs because that would have been the first place the Administrators would search when he collapsed.
So, Rodney had taken the drugs. The question was, had they found them on the scientist or found his own stash or both? And more importantly, what were they going to do to him now that they had discovered the contraband? Leaving his quarters behind, John made his way to the lab, hoping against hope McKay would be there. Of course, he wasn’t. What was there was the shell of the bomb housing and a note written by the missing scientist.
Sheppard, don’t forget to complete the daily inspection of the casing. RMc
They had never done a daily inspection of anything related to the weapon, at least none John had known about. Ignoring the handmade warning sign leaning against the casing, the one with DO NOT TOUCH, THIS MEANS YOU! accompanied by a drawing of a hand reaching for a representation of the bomb crossed out by a large X and a doodle of McKay frowning sternly that actually looked a good deal like the man, John removed the top and peered inside. As he suspected, the hollow chamber was empty. But when he flipped up the small door on one of the wiring ports, four white pills tumbled out.
Palming the drugs quickly, he shoved them deep into his pants pocket. He searched the rest of the housing and, finding nothing else, went back to his room, where he sat cross-legged on his bed staring at the medication aligned neatly on the coverlet in front of him. Four pills. Two days. And then… back into the fog? Back into the absence of memories and acceptance of a sterile existence? Back into the plotting of the destruction of Atlantis?
Christ. How could he have even thought about doing that? How could he have even considered destroying that city, his city, his home, and everyone that had defined it that way for him? And worse yet, how could McKay have left it behind and come back to Serage to help him do it?
Of course, the only explanation was that Rodney was here to rescue him, or at least keep an eye on him until help came. And maybe he had just given him the drugs last night because rescue was imminent. John hoped, God, did he ever hope, that was the case. Because if they had found Rodney’s hoard and this was all that was left, that meant John would be the only one thinking clearly when the time came. It also meant there would be nothing to keep Rodney from finishing the bomb that could kill everyone they knew and cared about.
That was assuming Rodney was even still alive, and right then, that was a very big assumption that had John pulling his knees up to his chest and dropping his forehead down and remembering once again.
He opened the door to his quarters on Atlantis to see McKay standing with his hand upraised in preparation to knock. “Oh, hey.” The scientist dropped his hand awkwardly when he realized it was no longer necessary, locking it and its mate behind his back and rocking on his heels.
After stopping himself from walking out into the hall when the other man had appeared unexpectedly, Sheppard adjusted the gym bag he had slung over his shoulder. “Hey, yourself. What are you doing here?”
“I, uh, I thought we could, maybe, go hit a few golf balls or something.”
Eyebrows rose in surprise. “You want to go hit golf balls?”
“Yes.” That jutting jaw jutted a little further. “You don’t have to sound so stunned by the request.”
“Yeah, I do. You hate golf.”
“I don’t hate golf.”
John’s bland expression conveyed his disbelief in that statement. “You said, and I quote, ‘why would I want to waste my brilliance taking a club and whacking a tiny ball into the ocean? Go ask Ronon, he’s one step up the evolutionary ladder from carrying a club and whacking things anyway.’ End quote.”
Rodney gave him one of those frowns that admitted he had been painted into a corner, even if he refused to say it out loud. “That doesn’t mean I hate golf.”
“Uh-huh.” With a roll of his eyes, John pushed past the physicist and headed on toward the gym.
“Sheppard, wait.” Doing as he was bid, he glanced back over his shoulder at McKay. “Okay, look, I hate golf, but I… don’t… hate you. So, maybe if I golfed with you I might learn to like it.”
And then it dawned on John what this was all about. “Rodney, this wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that I went golfing with Rod last week, would it?”
At the name of his alternate-universe self, McKay blinked in false surprise. “Oh, you went golfing with him? I had no idea.”
Shaking his head, John started down the corridor again with Rodney matching him stride for stride. “You don’t have to do this. He wasn’t you, wasn’t anything like you, in fact. Aside from the way he treated everyone else’s lunch tray as if it were his own private buffet. But just because he liked to golf doesn’t mean I expect you to, as well.”
“Be that as it may, I still want to go play golf with you.”
Stopping and confronting the other man, John demanded, “Why? What do you think you have to prove?”
“Nothing. I don’t have anything to prove. It’s just… He… And then you two…” Arms floundered and fingers pointed, and finally Rodney hung his head with a defeated sigh. “He was only here for a couple of days and he acted more like a brother to my sister than I did the entire month that we spent together. And now the ZedPM’s gone and the only way back to Earth is the Daedalus until we get the gate bridge up and running and who the hell knows when I’ll have a chance to try to make up that wasted time to her. But you and the others, well, you’re here now.”
John knew a thing or two about regrets and wanting a second chance and never getting it. Not that he thought Rodney needed one with him, but the fact remained that Rodney thought he did. “Why didn’t you send your message to Jeannie before the Wraith siege?”
Blue eyes blinked rapidly, this time in genuine shock. “How do you know I never sent it?”
But Sheppard wasn’t the only one who could play that game. “Why didn’t you send one yourself?”
Yeah, John knew a few things about regrets, and it sounded like Rodney had a few of his own. Might as well not add one more to either list. “Fair enough.” Hefting the duffle once more, he told his friend, “I’ll meet you on the North Pier at seven tomorrow morning.”
“Seven?” McKay groaned from where he stood in the hall watching John continue on to the gym.
“Too late? Because six works for me, too.”
“No, no, seven’s good.”
And it ends up it was good. Even though Rodney came to the conclusion that, yes, he really did hate the game regardless how much he liked his golfing companion, John didn’t regret one minute of the time he had spent listening to McKay bitch about the ridiculousness of the game. He didn’t even regret it when Rodney threw his favorite wedge into the ocean, because a few months later he ended up with a new Ping club with a Post-It note saying, “Maybe this one will work right.”
But when John woke curled on his bed, the dark room indicating that the sun had set and McKay had never come by to let him know he was all right, he feared he would have a whole new set of regrets to contend with. He also feared what would happen if he seemed too worried about the other man and decided it would be best if he stuck to his normal routine. So, he went to receive his injection, amazed that the disorientation was held at bay this time, and then he went to the dining facility to eat, which was exactly where he found McKay.
Doing his best to hide his relief at the sight of the other man, he collected his meal and went to join him at the table. The comfort of seeing his friend alive, however, was soon dampened when Rodney barely even responded when John sat across from him. In fact, the man was hardly even coherent when Sheppard warily called his name. Glassy eyes regarded him without even enough lucidity to show confusion or curiosity or even irritability that he had been disturbed.
“Where you been, McKay?” John tried again, his jaw clenching angrily when he noticed the raw marks from the restraints they had strapped around Rodney’s wrist, which were already turning a dark purple. “We had work to do today.”
Rodney didn’t answer, simply turned his lack of attention back to the plate in front of him and stared at it in the same unrecognizing way he had John.
“Hey, come on, Rodney, if you don’t eat, your blood sugar will drop and then who’s going to be the reigning mad scientist around here?”
McKay’s face rose again, this time with a small crease of bewilderment on his forehead that encouraged John to continue. It also made him wonder how many injections those sons of bitches had forced on him and made up his mind about something he had been considering ever since he had seen the other man.
“I met a woman today. She came to visit me in the infirmary, which is more than I can say for you, you uncaring bastard. She was pretty and I didn’t even flirt with her. Guess I’m not as much of a Kirk as you like to think I am.”
Taking a bite of his own meal, John suddenly found it hard to swallow. Not because McKay didn’t respond, but because of the way he did. The eyes cleared, and for a moment he had a look of such profound relief, such desperate gratitude that John had to wonder if he had given Rodney that same look every night the physicist had done the same for him over the past couple of weeks. Clearing his throat, he tapped McKay’s plate with his fork. “Eat, you’ll feel better.”
Rodney didn’t speak for the entire meal, but he did eat and he did keep an eye on Sheppard, almost as if he were afraid John would disappear back into the murky grayness if he didn’t. John slowed his own eating to match pace with McKay, then walking with him to deposit their dishes as they made their way toward the residential section of the facility. When they reached Rodney’s door, he fished two of the precious pills from his pocket, pushing them into McKay’s hand.
“Here, take these. You’ll need them for working on the bomb tomorrow.” Fingers curled around them slowly, almost reluctantly, causing John to coax, “Take them. All right?” It was a big risk, a huge risk, but if it meant Rodney would actually act a little more like Rodney and less like a horror movie zombie that was likely to try to eat John’s brains at any moment, it would be worth it. And if they were both clear-headed tomorrow, maybe they could plan a way to get the hell out of there and back to Atlantis before they received their next injection and erased all the benefits the medication had afforded them.
Rodney didn’t answer him directly, just mumbled a goodnight, which was the only thing he had said since John had found him, and headed into his room. John had to take that as close to an affirmative as he was likely to get. Making his way back to his own room, he decided he needed to take his own pills. The ones he had taken the previous night had been enough to slow the effects of the serum but evidently not enough to stop them completely. There was a woman on Atlantis… Ellen? No, that wasn’t right. Eliza, Elsa, Elizabeth! Yes, Elizabeth. And a big guy… began with an R… damn, the name was right on the tip of his tongue. And a young black man with a quick smile and baby face that should have been there but wasn’t. But why?
Entering his own room, John quickly swallowed the last two pills, then collapsed on his bed and thought, at least on the good side, they wouldn’t be able to find any more drugs if they searched his room again. Then he went back to work on remembering the people, the places, the things that defined him. As he drifted off to sleep, he was still trying to put a name to a face, a story to a name, and reconstruct his life from the stories that were threatening to fade away.
“McKay, how are we doing here?” With another spray of suppressive fire, John ducked back down behind the crumbling wall as another volley of arrows came their way.
“How are we doing? I didn’t know I had been elected the spokesperson for our collective well-being, Major.” Sheppard glanced up to see an arrow lodge itself into the wall less than a foot from Rodney’s head as his teammate worked frantically to open the Ancient forcefield the locals had activated when they made their move to escape.
“Christ, McKay, get down!” He sat up and fired another round, Ford and Teyla doing the same.
“Don’t you think I would if I could?”
And that was when John realized Rodney had his arm jammed into the small opening in the wall almost up to his shoulder. Given the look of frustrated concentration on his face, that didn’t seem to be a good thing. “Rodney? What’s going on?”
“I can’t… the switch is just…” The scientist gritted his teeth with the exertion of trying to reach a little farther back. “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to reach it,” he finally admitted, although he didn’t give up trying.
Sheppard crawled over to where the other man was working. “Here, my arm’s longer, let me try.”
“I can’t do that,” Rodney groaned as he pushed his arm in the opening the tiniest bit more.
“Rodney, this is not the time to want to do things yourself. In case you haven’t noticed, there are people out there who don’t like the fact we want to leave and they are not above killing us to keep us from doing it.” As if to prove his point, another arrow hit the ground to the right of the two men.
“Sir,” Ford called, “I’m not sure how much longer we can hold them off. It looks like reinforcements just arrived.”
“Dammit, Rodney, move!” Sheppard tried to muscle his way in, which caused the scientist to yell at him frenetically.
“I can’t! Major, look up. Do you see those two turrets up there?” John did as directed and noticed the openings for the first time. “The weapons inside them adjusted and targeted on me as soon as I put my arm in here and this screen started asking for my authorization. It’s obviously a security device and if I… meaning me, myself, no one else… don’t disarm it by reaching that switch, it is going to kill me and possibly the rest of you. So I would really appreciate it if you would stop trying to speed that process along and concentrate on covering my ass until I do what it wants!”
“Right.” Racking his brain for any ideas, John finally came up with a long shot. If they couldn’t get Rodney out without killing him, maybe they could stop the things that were going to kill him. “Ford, you have any C-4 on you?”
“Always.” The Marine grinned over his shoulder.
“Then put it to use and blow these positions over here.”
“Yes, sir.” Sheppard shook his head at how excited his LT appeared to have the chance to blow something up.
“Keep stretching, McKay. I’ll be right back.”
The pat to the scientist’s shoulder was answered with a mumbled, “Just call me Mr. Fantastic.”
Crawling over to where Teyla continued to fire at the encroaching natives, John advised her, “We need to cover Ford while he works. Otherwise…” He left the bitter thought unspoken that both men would be royally screwed.
“I understand the severity of the situation, Major Sheppard,” the Athosian assured him even as she fired again.
Behind them, he could hear Ford giving his own reassurances. “Don’t worry, Dr. McKay, this sort of thing is my specialty.”
“Just do me a favor, Lieutenant, and try not to blow me up along with the weapons.”
“No problem, Doc. I once blew a door lock and the doorknob was still functional.”
“Well, if I was a door, I’d feel very confident in my personal safety right now.”
Risking a glance back over his shoulder, John saw Ford climb down from the one weapon and move to climb up to the other. And that was when the arrow stuck fast in the young man’s throat. The spray of blood streaked across Rodney’s face as the Marine staggered blindly for a few steps before folding to the ground.
“Son of a bitch!” His words had Teyla looking back over her own shoulder, her eyes widening in horror.
“Major,” McKay managed to croak out desperately, as if John miraculously had the answer for how to fix this. But he didn’t have a fucking clue.
Teyla had scrambled over to their fallen teammate, John right beside her when he heard it: a high-pitched whine that could only be the weapon powering up. “Rodney, get out of there!”
“I can’t.” This time he spoke the words softly with his eyes full of terror even if his voice wasn’t, knowing his arm was wedged tightly in the hole and there was no way out of this one.
Not that he would have had time even if he could have moved, because the weapons chose that moment to fire, engulfing McKay in a white-hot light before the man had a chance to say another word. Before Sheppard could even move toward the spot, before he could shake off the paralyzing fear of the realization of what was happening, before he could even force his voice to form the other man’s name, the weapon stopped and Rodney was just gone. But the sickeningly sweet smell of burning flesh lingered on.
“No!” Burying his face in his hands in his dark bedroom, John let out a guttural scream he hoped was muffled by the sheets he was gripping tightly, just as he hoped the crash of the lamp toppling to the ground as a casualty of the pillow he threw would also be overlooked. “No. It didn’t happen that way,” he rasped out loud, because the sound of his voice panting the words helped him to believe it. “It didn’t happen that way.”
It hadn’t. Ford had managed to plant the charges and destroy the weapons. Rodney had pulled his arm free and John had reached in and activated the switch that finally let them make that run for the gate. And the only injury anyone had suffered was a blister on McKay’s heel because he was wearing new boots he hadn’t worn in before the mission. The fact alone that John remembered the truth of the situation was almost as much of a blessing as the fact that McKay hadn’t actually died.
Rodney hadn’t died. John repeated it mentally again, closing his eyes and concentrating on evening out his breathing. Rodney hadn’t died. Ford hadn’t either, at least not then. And now? Well, there was a regret for another day, but it was at least a regret he remembered. Right now he needed to concentrate on getting him and Rodney out of there and home. Lying back down, John swallowed back the threatening nausea. McKay had promised the side effects would pass in a few days. And John had to wonder if the man was experiencing the same things he was… nausea, weird-ass dreams, and memories skewed but then clarified upon waking. God, he hoped so, because that would mean he took the drugs like John had told him to.
But the next morning, when he found two white pills waiting for him at his workspace and Rodney refusing to look at him when he glanced over to where the physicist was working diligently on the bomb that would destroy Atlantis, his heart sank and he realized he was probably in this on his own.Part 2