Summary: Tomorrow's another day for everybody except Rodney McKay.
Info: With huge thanks to Findo for outstanding alpha/beta work and cheering. This story is based loosely on the premise for the film "50 First Dates".
When Rodney opens his eyes, there's a book propped on his nightstand, along with his radio, his favourite laptop and a couple of coffee mugs. It's obviously been placed there for exactly this moment, because it says, "Read me as soon as you wake up", on it in writing he recognises as his own.
Which is odd.
Because he doesn't recall either having ever written that combination of words, or having propped the book there when he fell into bed last night.
He stares at it - a spiral bound notebook which has obviously been well used as it's dog-eared and battered - waiting to see if anything suddenly resolves itself and makes some sense.
It doesn't. He's disappointed but not surprised.
Scraping his hand across his chin and wiping the sleep from his eyes, he reaches over and picks up the book.
Rodney stretches and resigns himself to getting up. The sun is already creeping across the floor over yesterday's clothes, a couple of project proposals he's too disgusted by to acknowledge and the schematics he was working on when he fell asleep last night. He reminds himself that he should take the reconfigured life-signs detector today. He's been working on refining the definition of 'life-signs' for the small handhelds to bring them closer to the capabilities of the city's internal sensors, and their away mission to PP3-M27 will give him the perfect opportunity to try it out. He's quietly confident that the improvements will impress Elizabeth, and maybe even squeeze one of those rare, genuinely pleased smiles out of Sheppard.
They're due in the gateroom at 09.20, so Rodney needs to get a move on if he's going to get in the necessary three coffees before the mission. He showers, dresses and tucks his second favourite laptop under his arm, deciding to check his e-mails in the mess while he's eating breakfast.
Sheppard's there already, working his way through a bowl of something that's probably very good for his digestive tract, but looks like it's only recently vacated the same. Rodney grabs coffee, toast and power bars, tucking a couple of spares into his tac vest. He has to take apricot because the chocolate ones ran out last week and the Daedalus isn't due for another month.
Sheppard salutes him with his spoon and listens, sipping his coffee thoughtfully while Rodney explains his ideas for the life-signs detectors,
Rodney's disappointed that he doesn't get the smile, but he does get a quiet "Good job, Rodney," and a slap on the shoulder when John gets up to leave.
Rodney decides to call that a win and celebrates with another coffee.
The light wakes him, and Rodney has an uncomfortable few seconds thinking that he's overslept. But no, although the sun is streaming in through his window, making it seem much later, his watch still only has 08:02, and Rodney has time to wallow for a minute before getting up. He rolls over, but is brought up short by a book on his pillow. It's still open and there's a pen laid on the open page, as if he fell asleep writing last night, which he knows he didn't. He knows that because what he'd been doing was going over the schematics for the LSD modifications he wanted to try out on today's mission.
Pushing himself up onto his elbows, Rodney leans over cautiously to look at the open page and is surprised to find his own handwriting waiting for him.
You haven't gone insane. Yet. RM.
In the gateroom it's business as usual. Elizabeth is giving last minute instructions to Sheppard whose slouch is just this side of insubordinate, but very, very cool. Teyla is an oasis of serenity and poise, and Ronon looks bored and therefore dangerous. Rodney slots himself into his usual space between Sheppard and Teyla, checks the clip on his pistol and his pocket for his EpiPen, then quickly runs through the gate protocols on his datapad - not that he doesn't trust Chuck, but two minds are better than one, particularly if one of them is his.
It's a standard meet and greet today. Sheppard will smirk and flirt, while Teyla will broker the deal. Rodney's seen enough of these to know how it goes. The people of PP3-M27 apparently have a mining operation that can provide them with a raw naquadah ore - their smelting techniques being too primitive to be of any use to Atlantis.
There's a sense of anticipation as they climb the stairs to the jumper bay - Rodney likens it to a school field trip which gets him two blank stares and a quick grin from Sheppard.
They take their seats in the colonel's second favourite jumper (Lorne is offworld with his favourite.) Sheppard lowers them into the gateroom and the wormhole engages with a splash that Rodney still finds awe-inspiring after all this time. They're moving forward already as the event horizon stabilizes. Rodney teases Sheppard, telling him he's got a case of premature embarkation. He laughs aloud, but his eyes are dead ahead, guiding them safely through the gate.
Rodney's eyes stay on Sheppard as they are sucked three quarters of the way across Pegasus, from the cool, stain-filtered light of Atlantis to the bright, brassy sunlight of the mining planet.
Rodney recognises the scent first. Sharp antiseptic, that strange warm smell of powered electronics and the everywhere tang of the sea.
So, he's on Atlantis, which is good. But he's in the infirmary, which is bad.
He aches everywhere, and the tight drag of surgical tape when he moves tells him that he's hooked up to every single piece of Carson's precious, power-sucking equipment.
He doesn't remember what got him here, but he's had enough unexpected hospital visits to predict that this was a lemon related event. He can't recall having eaten anything unusual, but he can't swear to it either; he often loses bits of time during an attack, although he's never completely forgotten an entire one. And he usually has an instant reaction - but he remembers going to bed last night. This must have been a bad one though, because he really, really, feels like crap right now.
He wonders who found him and hopes it was Radek or Simpson rather than Sheppard, because he's seen pictures of what he looks like during anaphylaxis and he wouldn't have wanted the colonel to see him like that. It's never pretty.
Rodney hears the click of a timer, and the faint hiss of a dose of medication being delivered.
The sky is grey from horizon to horizon with light, high cloud, and a cold wind is whipping at the sea around Atlantis, lifting it into whitecaps that churn harmlessly against the city below him. From his spot on the balcony, Rodney can't see the minute droplets of spray that reach this high, but he can taste them on his lips.
He doesn't turn when he knows someone is behind him, just keeps his eyes on the relentless, futile wash of the waves.
"Hey, McKay." Ronon, whose voice always sounds like he hasn't uttered in months.
"Hey," Rodney replies, glad that this is likely to be a short conversation if Ronon's personality hasn't undergone a major shift in the last two years.
"Wanted to thank you for what you did." Ronon's arms come into Rodney's peripheral vision, braced against the railing.
"How is Teyla?"
"She's fine. Tough. She'll be back on her feet in a few days," Ronon says. He leans out, his hair partially obscuring his face as he contemplates the drop beneath them. "Must be weird," he says after a few minutes silence.
Rodney turns his head slightly to look at his friend.
"Waking up and expecting it to be a different day."
"It's... yeah," Rodney agrees.
Another silence lengthens between them, uncomplicated and unremarkable.
"It's not the same as having you out there, on the team," Ronon says finally, straightening up. "But I'm glad you were here. Could've been a problem otherwise."
Rodney's lips quirk at the massive understatement as Ronon touches his shoulder and leaves with as little ceremony as he came.
They set down a couple of kilometres from the largest mining settlement and they gear up. They have medicines, food and expertise to trade, and no reason to think that they won't be welcome, not that Sheppard relaxes - the colonel never relaxes. Rodney has gotten used to the various levels of Sheppard paranoia and is grateful for them, as they've saved his genius ass on more than one occasion.
The town - for want of a better word - is called Darsey, and they come upon it quite suddenly. Unlike most of the planets they visit, there seems to be little in the way of agriculture and there are no open fields or cart tracks, but woodland and pathways and then bam! Civilisation. It's a little like a cross between a shanty settlement and an old-West frontier town in that it's muddy, unplanned and pretty rough.
Rodney pretends not to notice when John shoots a glance at the others and they form a tighter bunch with Rodney very much in the middle.
It soon becomes apparent that everyone here is as twitchy as John is. Rodney doesn't know if that's down to their own presence there, or if that's a default state. There are women around, but few children, and Rodney wonders how itinerant or otherwise the inhabitants are.
Rodney hears Sheppard's voice just a second too late.
"What the hell is going on here? Stand down!"
But the chair has already left his hands and is ballistic, a randomly spinning mass with as much momentum as Rodney could have put behind it.
It impacts with the wall, severing it into three parts, one of which spins off on yet another trajectory, one that, unfortunately, coincides with Sheppard's head arriving in the doorway.
He catches the projectile plastic on his forehead and it causes him to stagger back a pace and bring up his arms.
Rodney stands, trembling with anger and terror, but aghast at what he's done. He can't think; he can't make any sense of his existence. The things they were telling him couldn't possibly be right, and yet they insisted. There are people he doesn't even know with access to his room and his things. The panic attack had been inevitable, but he's never done anything like this before. Not even when really provoked. But they lied to him, and when he got angry they threatened him - how was he supposed to react?
Sheppard straightens up and presses two fingers to the wound, which is welling a thin line of crimson already. He stares around at the carnage of Rodney's quarters, then looks at each of the people in the room in turn, including Rodney, who is close to a total breakdown by now.
"You're all dismissed," he says quietly, but with more authority than Rodney's ever heard from Sheppard before. The colonel's orders are usually given with a touch of a smirk or with a tone that implies that they're all dead unless he's obeyed. But this is colder, much colder.
Rodney sees the second Sheppard notices the hypodermic in the hand of the guy with the lab coat. His eyes narrow and he takes a step toward him.
"Aw, come on. What the fuck were you gonna do with that? Give it to me and get out."
Sheppard takes the capped needle out of the guy's hands and stops him with a glare.
"Later. In my office at 1400 hours. All of you."
And that appears to be the end of the conversation because they file out, stepping over the broken chair and the smashed laptop on the floor. The door slides shut behind them, which Sheppard must have done because Rodney didn't even think of it.
In the silence that follows, Rodney staggers, then sits heavily where he is, sliding down the wall and thumping onto the floor.
Sheppard takes off his sweatband and presses it to his temple, stopping the thin trickle of blood that's snaking down toward his jaw.
"I hurt you," Rodney blurts, then covers his mouth with his fingers, trapping the panic and chaos that's filling his mind.
"It's nothing," Sheppard replies quietly, demonstrating, by giving his wound one last swipe and stuffing his ruined sweatband into his pocket. "Are you okay?" He puts the hypodermic down on the newly cleared desk, very deliberately and where Rodney can see it. He picks up a couple of Rodney's diplomas from the floor, brushes off the slivers of glass and puts them next to the needle. Watching warily, he bends down slowly and sits beside Rodney on the floor, pieces of plastic and metal crunching beneath his boots as he settles.
Rodney watches him for a few minutes, but Sheppard seems content to let him do this in his own time. Sheppard's gaze remains placid as he takes in the carnage, and there's nothing judgemental about him.
"I don't... I don't understand," Rodney says finally and honestly, shocked into an admission he'd never normally make. But this is Sheppard. He might be deliberately irritating, too stupidly heroic to be allowed and utterly wasted in the military, but he's also, inadvertently, the most important person in Rodney's life and he won't lie to him.
"What happened? What did they tell you?" the colonel asks, his voice controlled and quiet.
"All the... all the calendars were wrong when I woke up. On my laptop and the central server. I thought something must have happened to the core and I went outside to get to the central processor, and there was a guard on my door. He said I wasn't allowed to go to the lab without one of the science team. He said I had to wait in my quarters... and I..." Rodney gulps in a breath and tries to still the internal tremble that's making it hard to speak. "So I looked it up from here... and... it's all wrong, Sheppard. It's all wrong. Something's happened, but no one will believe me. They say nothing's happened to Atlantis, that everything's fine, but it isn't. It's not. And... I... so these marines turn up with the medic and the guy with the hypo is telling me to calm down and..." Rodney's voice gives out on him and he chokes on a strangled sob.
Sheppard reaches out a hand and lays it on the back of Rodney's neck where it's grounding and real - the first thing that has been so far today.
"Buddy, I've got to tell you," he says quietly, "we've got to find a better way to do this." He starts up a firm stroke that sneaks up into Rodney's hair and feels really, really good - so good that the tears that have been threatening since he first woke up begin to fall, hot and fast.
"Do what?" Rodney mumbles.
And John tells him.
It seems that all the ore is sold through one broker called Druce, a sloth-faced man with big eyes and a slack mouth who despite appearances is as sharp as a tack. He holds court in one of the local drinking holes, his clean clothes and smooth hands marking him out as different from the few other patrons.
"What kind of quantities would you be looking for?" he asks with a guarded smile.
Rodney steps forward at John's nod. "That depends on how pure the ore is. We need to generate about eight kilos of naquadah in total for our current project, that's about... uh... how do you quantify weight here?"
The man simply blinks at him, so Rodney grabs his pack from the floor. "We need enough ore to make one of these bags about half full of metal."
"To begin with," Teyla prompts gently. "We also have an ongoing requirement for smaller amounts and for other metals that you mine here. May we sit and discuss terms with you?" She doesn't wait for Druce to respond, but gracefully seats herself at the table. Ronon does the same, but with less grace and more menace.
"Where am I?"
As first lines go, it isn't very original, but Rodney thinks it's valid. Because last night he fell asleep in his bed in Atlantis with the sound of waves and the smell of sea air coming in through the window, and now he's woken up, and there's no bed, no sea, no waves and no Atlantis. There are only bright fluorescent lights, a hospital cot and a bunch of people he doesn't recognise.
"You're at the SGC. Don't worry; you're safe," a dark haired woman tells him. She smiles, and if that's supposed to be reassuring, she's sadly mistaken.
"Where's Sheppard? Why am I here? What happened? Is Teyla here? Ronon? Are they okay? Is Atlantis safe?"
He's vaguely aware that the steady beep he woke up to is now a high-pitched staccato. Dark-haired doctor glances up at monitors above his head and fiddles with something out of his line of sight.
Rodney's together enough to know that he's being sedated, the slow uncurling of bunched time tells him as the cool stupor slides beneath his skin and into his veins.
"You're safe," she says again. "I'm Dr. Lam, and you're in the infirmary at the SGC. You've had an accident and it has affected your ability to process memories. We're not certain what the extent of the damage is or how permanent, but we are doing everything we can to repair it. Your friends are fine. Atlantis is fine. You don't need to worry."
Rodney thinks that's quite funny. Not worrying is about as easy as not breathing. It's his job to worry about them and keep them safe. What kind of security clearance does this woman have? Hasn't Dr. Whatnot heard about the kinds of shit they cope with on a day-to-day basis in the Pegasus galaxy? Hasn't she heard how often it's Rodney's turn to save the day?
"You rest now. I'll explain further when you wake up next. I have messages for you from your friends."
Rest sounds good. It's suddenly quite hard to remember to breathe after all, and it would be so easy to slip into the cushioned buffer of sleep again.
"Where's John?" he mumbles, but the lights have dimmed, even though he didn't tell them to. He'll have to find him later. He's probably flying. John loves flying.
"Where did you say you were from?"
"We didn't," Ronon grunts sourly but Teyla has a more diplomatic tongue.
"I am from Athos, but I am currently a refugee since our home world was culled."
She falls into her rehearsed speech full of reasons but little actual content. Rodney tunes her out when they start to discuss terms and samples and dates. He looks around for Sheppard, catching his eye as he stands to one side with both doors and the window in his line of sight.
John nods, but doesn't take part in the negotiations. Instead he makes a slow lap of the large room, looking at the rough and ready dˇcor and the tacked-up pictures on the wall, and ending up by the window, where he leans with one ear on the trading and one eye on the street.
The first sign that they're late to this party is Sheppard slowly straightening by the window. It just happens that Rodney is looking directly at him when he does it, so he's the first to see the way Sheppard's eyes narrow and the way he itches his nose to cover when he flicks off the safety on his P-90.
Rodney wakes with a jolt. Of course. He should have thought of that before. He doesn't need to reconfigure the system to specific parameters, what he needs to do is create a filter through which all the readings can be analyzed and then sorted, much more in line with the way the internal sensors work.
He fumbles on his nightstand for his radio, knocking things off. "Radek?"
The lights come up gradually in response to Rodney's command and he blinks sleepily as he waits for a response. There's something different about his room that he can't quite...
"Rodney?" Radek's voice is surprised and rough.
"Where are you? I've had an idea and I need you in the lab. I've been thinking about the differentiation protocols..." Rodney gets up and unexpectedly finds some pants on the back of his desk chair. With a mental shrug he pulls them on, too excited by his idea to stop and wonder where they came from. He glimpses the clock and feels a twinge of guilt when he sees it is 04.47, but he doesn't allow it to bleed into his voice, or Radek will be all over it like a rash. "... and if we can find a way to..."
"Rodney, stop. Rodney? Did you read the book?"
Rodney does stop, but not because of Radek's voice. The lights are fully up now and he's standing in a room that isn't his. Or it is his, but there are significant differences. For example, he doesn't own a copy of 'Neurophysiology', yet there is one on the floor by his bed, its spine broken and its pages flopped open obscenely. He also does not own a blue upholstered desk chair (his is grey with an orthopaedic back rest) or a black leather jacket, or a half-eaten bag of Cheetos that are lying on a sofa which he didn't have when he fell asleep last night.
Radek is talking in his ear, his voice agitated, but Rodney doesn't understand a word of it. He's just caught sight of himself in the mirror through the half-open bathroom door. His hair looks... he's thinner, and he...
"Oh God," he murmurs stupidly as his vision greys out at the edges.
"Rodney, this is John." Somehow the change of voice over the comm. catches his attention. "Look, buddy, I know you're confused but it's okay. I can explain everything. Just sit down, and wait for me. I'm on my way."
Rodney moves without conscious thought, through the door and into the tiny bathroom. He leans heavily against the sink, knocking a can of shave foam (of a brand he's never used) onto the floor. It clatters loudly and skitters across the tile. Rodney's hand goes to his hair first - it's long. He only had it cut two days ago, but now it's long enough that the stupid curl is coming back at the ends. He runs his fingers down his face and despite the stubble, he can see that he's lost weight; his cheekbones are more prominent than they've been in a good few years.
And that's where he's standing, his trembling hand against his cheek, staring at his reflection in the mirror when Sheppard appears behind him.
John (he called himself 'John' - since when did Rodney ever call him 'John'?) looks just the same. Tired. But just the same as last night when they played video golf before Rodney got caught up in his scanner problem. His eyes are serious, worried and they look directly into Rodney's in the mirror.
"It's okay, I promise," he says softly and Rodney has to force down the laugh that tries to escape him, because 'John' is obviously more delusional than Rodney is.
John's hand rests on his shoulder, a point of warmth on skin that Rodney had not realised was icy until now. Shock, he thinks, but the word won't connect to anything.
Since when did John touch him so easily? Since when did he enter Rodney's quarters without even knocking? And when did he start to use this gentle, calming voice on Rodney?
"There was an accident. You were injured. You're fine now, but you have anterograde amnesia."
When John pulls gently on his shoulder, Rodney lets himself be guided back to his bed. He sits, and John pulls up the inexplicably blue desk chair and sits opposite him.
"It means that you can't process short-term memories into long-term ones."
Rodney shakes his head. That should make sense, he knows, but it doesn't. John reaches out a hand and places it over the back of Rodney's where it rests on his thigh in a gesture so simple and so practiced that Rodney feels the prick of hysterical tears behind his eyes.
"Every night, when you go to sleep, your brain resets," John tells him.
Rodney stares at John's hand on his. John's hands are long-fingered. He has hair on the backs and on the fleshy bottom part of each digit. His nails are brutally short and blunt. Rodney's never noticed any of these things before.
"I'll fix you some coffee," John says, and Rodney quickly turns his palm up and grabs awkwardly at John's fingers.
"How many times have you told me this?" His voice sounds the same. For some reason he's ridiculously grateful for that.
John settles back into the chair and doesn't let go of Rodney's hand. He leans down and picks up a notebook from beneath the copy of 'Neurophysiology'. It looks battered, and there are bits of other paper sticking out of it. It's fat where things have been tucked inside - it looks like a scrapbook Rodney once had as a child to keep his press clippings in. John holds it out to him. "It's March 2nd 2008, Rodney. It's been thirteen months."
Rodney has a mad urge to rush to the window, and see what's wrong, but John is playing it cool, and Rodney's been on enough away teams to have learned the basics of a quiet, tactical withdrawal.
John catches his eye and his gaze slides to the door. Rodney can't help the little thrill of validation he gets when he knows that means he's supposed to cover their exit and that John trusts him to do that. Of course it's not as overpowering as the feeling of fear about what John's reacting to. Rodney unclips his pistol, careful to be quiet, and moves until he has the best view of the door, John and Druce, his heart hammering an all too familiar pattern against his ribs.
But John looks as friendly and confident as ever when he turns to the rest of his team and the trader who's about to sell them out. "Hey guys? Didn't we have an appointment with our Amish friends from P2P-449? We wouldn't want to be late."
Rodney's stomach does an unpleasant flip as he understands John's references. The Genii are here; John must have spotted someone he recognised outside. Teyla's head comes up slightly and Rodney can see Ronon's hand slide down beneath the table to loosen his gun in its holster. So they're all as ready as they can be.
Teyla and Ronon rise, and Druce looks surprised but wary.
"I am sorry. I had not realised it was so late in the day. Perhaps we can return to our conversation some other time," Teyla says with a guarded smile.
"Of course. I'd be glad to," the trader says returning Teyla's smile with something that looks tight and pained.
"It's okay, Rodney. Calm down or you're gonna hurt yourself."
That's Sheppard's voice. Rodney feels the relief flow through him like a dose of Carson's good drugs. Okay, so he can't move his arms, his legs or his head, but John's there and now he's still, he can feel a hand on his shoulder, a single point of contact that is like a trail of breadcrumbs, leading him home.
"Can't see," Rodney tries to say, but his throat is on fire, dry and raw.
"Just listen, buddy, you're safe, okay? You're safe. We got you back, we're on Atlantis and Carson's gonna fix you right up."
There's a touch on his lips that takes a second to register as being cold, then... ice chips. Blessed, precious liquid melting on his tongue.
"Colonel Sheppard, you shouldn't be out of bed, let alone in... Is he awake?"
That's Carson. You could hardly mistake his voice for anyone else's.
"He just woke up and was thrashing around. I was just about to call you," Sheppard says, sounding slightly defensive.
There are other hands on him now, Carson again, Rodney assumes, cool and assured, touching his face and his wrist. They touch his eyes and for a second he can see a light and thinks, 'thank god', but the colonel's hand remains on his shoulder and that's the one thing that feels real to Rodney when none of the rest of this does.
"Rodney, it's Carson. We've got you restrained to keep you from pulling out your stitches or doing more damage. You're perfectly safe, laddie. Just rest easy."
Carson begins giving orders to unseen minions, words and numbers that mean nothing to Rodney. "Happened?" he asks again.
Sheppard's voice is closer now, he must be leaning down so Rodney can hear him better over the noise of the nurses scurrying to obey orders. "We crashed on PP3-M27, remember? You hit your head and I broke my ankle? Ronon and Teyla held off the Genii until Lorne came through with another team and took us home."
Through the mist of dulled pain and confusion, Rodney snatches the planet designation out of the colonel's explanation. That's the planet they were due to visit today to negotiate for metal ore. That hasn't happened yet. And what was that about the Genii? It wasn't supposed to be a Genii planet; there'd been nothing to suggest that they even knew of its existence.
"You're gonna be fine, Rodney. You had me worried there for a while, but now you're awake..."
"Colonel, you shouldn't be putting any weight on that foot yet. Nurse Singh, please help the Colonel back to his own bed."
Sheppard squeezes Rodney's shoulder before he lets go, cutting him adrift on a tide of fear and disorientation. He tries to call for him to come back, but Carson doesn't listen, just injects something cold into the tube in his arm, and oblivion is the next best thing to having John there, so when it tugs at him, he follows it down into the quiet darkness.
"I think it'll be quicker this way," John says, leading the way to the rear of the building, now openly covering Druce.
Rodney waits for John's nod, then follows them to the back door. Ronon goes first, then Teyla then Rodney, and Rodney can feel Sheppard at his heels, walking fast and radiating tension. They're in a back alley, more squalid even than the main street. Ronon is moving ahead, eyes on the windows and roofs.
They actually make it to the edge of town before there are any signs of pursuit, and Rodney's not sure if that's luck, skill or part of the Genii plan. But suddenly there're voices and running feet behind them and...
"Split up, rendezvous at the jumper," John says calmly, then takes a hold of Rodney's sleeve and pulls him toward the tree line.
Rodney, being Rodney, doesn't start reading from the beginning. The notebook is thick and it piques his curiosity, so he leafs straight to the last entry. It's in his own handwriting, which leaves him with a feeling of disorientation so bad it's like vertigo.
It seems to be some kind of diary, and Rodney thinks the lights a little brighter so he can make out the words better. Quickly it becomes apparent that he's completely out of his depth, and even an intellect such as his own cannot fill in the gaps in this story.
Rodney flicks to the front of the book, and flattens it against his pillow. He turns the page and there's a photograph on high quality paper, matte not glossy, he notices. The image doesn't even really register with Rodney until he realises that the guy in the picture has the same slanted down mouth as the one that greets him in the mirror each morning. With a sickening lurch, he looks more closely at the beat-up face of the guy in the picture. He has an oxygen line snaking into his mouth, the area around his left eye is black and brown and swollen, and half his head is shaved, showing a thick, ugly scar, still fresh enough to have the sutures in.
It's him. In an infirmary bed. Bandaged, intubated and sedated or unconscious.
But he has no recollection of this ever having happened to him.
He forces his hands to be steady enough to turn the page, and he begins to read. Medical reports. A photo of a mangled jumper. Get well soon messages. More pictures of him, propped in bed, an informal one of him sitting up, playing chess with Sheppard who is in plaster. Images of PP3-M27, a planet they're supposed to be visiting for the first time today which Rodney only recognises from the designation labels on the photos.
He wonders if this is some kind of strange premonition - a dream foretelling what will happen if they go there. With a kind of horror, Rodney reaches up to his own head and reassuringly finds hair, but his fingers bump against a raised ridge of rough skin and he traces the same scar he can see in the image.
That's when he starts to shake.
Rodney tries to keep his eyes lowered as he walks from Dr. Keller's office to his room. He's afraid that he'll not recognise anyone - or worse, that he'll recognise them, but they won't be as he remembers them. His team... his old team are offworld today, so he hasn't had to deal with Ronon suddenly sporting a buzz cut or Teyla having put on weight, or any of the bizarre things his imagination has provided for his entertainment. And it's only been two years, so at least no one is going to suddenly be decrepit.
He passes a couple of people in science uniforms who call him by name and wish him a good morning. Rodney glances quickly at their faces and recognises Logan and Du Feu. He mumbles a response.
The next person he passes is a marine he doesn't know, and their wary gazes lock for a second before Rodney looks away, quickening his pace.
Everyone obviously knows about his condition - it's not as if something like that could be a secret in a place like Atlantis, and he wasn't exactly a low profile member of the team. And Rodney's never been the type to care about how he is perceived, so long as his genius is undisputed. But now he finds himself watching for reactions, looking for the tells that reveal whether he is tolerated or welcomed or someone to be cautious of or pitied. It's like he doesn't know who he is anymore, so he's looking for something, some clue in the way people see him.
Footsteps hurry toward him, and Rodney catches a glimpse of a blue shirt and wild hair.
"Rodney," Radek says, catching him by the arm when he tries to pass by.
Radek's got less hair and new glasses, but looks close enough to the Zelenka Rodney knows that it doesn't discomfort him. Something about the way the Czech's hand tightens on his bicep makes Rodney look up.
"Rodney, come quickly, we need your help. There's been a gate malfunction with a team in transit. Rodney... it's Colonel Sheppard's team."
If Rodney thought the track into town was rough, (which it was, as his ankles can attest) then this is practically mountaineering. They have to push through scrubby trees, thorny undergrowth and navigate the rocky outcrops that seem designed to catch Rodney in the shins. If he had enough breath, he'd bitch, but Sheppard is half dragging him along and looking very grim.
They hear the distinctive whine of Ronon's gun discharging off to their left, followed by the rattle of Teyla's P-90 and the responding energy weapon blasts.
John speeds up, keeping low as possible and Rodney stumbles with every third step. The first volley of shots hit the trees behind them, filling the damp air with the acrid smell of burning sap. John keeps moving, his head turning from side to side as he looks for the fastest route with the best cover.
Jeannie's eyes are red rimmed, but she smiles bravely when Rodney walks, somewhat uncertainly, into the living room. He makes a slow circuit, looking for differences from the last time he was here, but other than different toys on the floor and newspapers on the table, there are none.
"Where're Madison and..."
"I knew that," Rodney spits at her. He does know it, it just takes a little while. It always has. It's got nothing to do with what's happened to him.
"Of course. Sorry, I... He took Mads to school, he doesn't have a lecture until two on a Tuesday." She looks nervous, as if she has to watch every word she says around him now. Rodney wishes she'd stop it. There's nothing more upsetting than seeing yourself through another's eyes, and with every caustic remark she doesn't make and every fight she backs down from, Rodney realises how bad he's been.
He nods, closing his eyes against the pity Jeannie's covering so well. "So... what do I do every day? I mean, what did I do on the other days... since I've been here?"
"Well, it's only been three weeks, Mer. You haven't exactly had time to establish a rut yet." He looks up and she smiles again, although it's still a little watery. "What do you feel like doing?"
Rodney looks around at the messy, family-soaked room and feels more utterly out of place than he ever did in the Pegasus galaxy. "I can't stay here," he says suddenly.
"Mer, we've been over this. We want you to be here. I told you about how unhappy you were at the clinic, and the panic attacks you had at the SGC. This is your best option for..."
"Jeannie, I know that you're trying to do what's best for me, but... this isn't my home. Thanks to this," he taps his forehead, "there is only one place that will ever feel like home to me again."
It looks as if Jeannie is about to start the gentle arguing with him and Rodney is so tired, he doesn't think he's going to be able to compete. He cannot remember a single one of the lost days he's had since his accident, and yet they weigh on him. He resists the urge to run his hands through his hair, and sits down opposite his sister, leaning toward her in an effort to impress his words on her.
"Every morning I'm going to wake up and we're going to go through what we just did," he says softly, and Jeannie has the good sense to close her eyes. "You and... you and Caleb, you're going to want more children, right? A brother or sister for Madie? Or you'll want to go back to finish your thesis. Or get a job. You won't be able to do any of that if you have to spend two hours every morning dealing with my freak-out."
"You're my brother. It's not a chore to..."
"Jeannie... Jeannie, how many times have I scared Madison so far?" He can see that he's hit home when his sister's eyes flick away. "It's not fair on her. It's not fair on any of you. And it's never going to get any better."
"We'll think of something," Jeannie says softly and Rodney is so touched by her faithfulness that he has to swallow around the constriction in his throat.
"No, we won't. I won't stay here."
"Mer, you hate it at the hospital. Sometimes you spent entire days crying or in a rage...or silent."
"I'm not talking about the hospital," Rodney says quickly, unwilling to think about how bad it must have been for the past five months. "I'm talking about going home. I'm talking about Atlantis."
Rodney's trying to help, watching where the fire's coming from and passing it to John whenever he can. The shots are coming faster, the crackle of the energy denser now they're certain they've found a target. Rodney's sure they're getting closer because he can make out individual words from the shouted orders behind them.
They seem to run for much longer than it took to walk in, and Rodney is beginning to think that Sheppard's gotten turned around in the trees, and that they're lost. Then there are two clicks on the radio, and John is leading them into the clearing where the cloaked jumper lays waiting.
He tucks Rodney behind the inadequate cover of a tree trunk, pulling him down as he turns to face their attackers. He lays down a barrage of covering fire, then glances down at Rodney.
"... of course I'm not saying that. Obviously we want the best care for him, but I know how they work. Once he's out of here, his future is out of our control."
Rodney feels groggy and ... hung-over? His head aches and his throat is sore, and if he just stays quiet, maybe Sheppard and whoever it is will take their issues elsewhere and let Rodney sleep.
"John, I appreciate your concern, but Carson has assured me that we've done as much as we can here."
"That's true, Colonel. This facility was not intended for the treatment of major head traumas. It's basically a glorified field hospital. I don't have the expertise or the equipment necessary to diagnose his injuries. I've stabilised him, and he's off the critical list, but if he's going to get better, he's going to need a lot of help which I can't give him."
Sheppard and Elizabeth and Carson. Huh. Senior staff. Perhaps Rodney is supposed to be paying attention to this stuff. Please don't say he's fallen asleep in the conference room again.
"You have a medical centre built by Ancients, Carson..." Sheppard's voice has taken on a sharpness that Rodney knows well. It's the one he uses when he's been backed into a corner. He rarely gets angry in the way Rodney would define angry (shouting, biting sarcasm, plotting messy and humiliating revenge and throwing stuff around), and this hard voice is normally as close as he gets. He wonders what has gotten Sheppard this pissed even as he wonders idly why he can't move his arms.
"Aye, and we have no idea how half the bloody stuff even works yet," Carson says, then sighs. "Colonel, I want him back to his usual unlovable self as much as you do, and it's not beyond the realms of possibility. He still has a lot of swelling around the medial temporal lobe that only time is going to improve. When that happens we'll have a better idea of whether there's permanent damage, and what form that damage might take."
"Look, I just... they have no idea how critical he is to this mission, and how much we need him here..."
"I agree, but he stands a better chance of recovery back on Earth. If he has any hope of regaining his former health and becoming our Head of Science again, it's in the hands of specialists." That's Elizabeth. Rodney's pretty sure that Elizabeth's best 'let's all calm down and be reasonable' voice doesn't work on Sheppard.
"They have several options they're willing to try..." And now Carson is doing his soothing, bedside manner thing. That doesn't work either.
"Like what?" the colonel snaps off and Rodney doesn't need to see the exaggerated slouch, crossed arms and tight lips that go with that tone of voice to know they're all there. Sheppard's pissed as hell - he totally called it.
"Well, there's a specialist neurological trauma hospital in Chicago who have some experience of this type of injury. There's a chance that one of the SG teams will encounter a Goa'uld sarcophagus which I think would be worth trying despite the documented risks, and Colonel Carter and Vala Mal Doran have the ability to use a Goa'uld healing device, although neither of them have had overwhelmingly positive results in the past. But each of those is an option we don't have here, Colonel."
Rodney wonders what poor bastard they're discussing; he can't think of anyone who's been that badly injured recently.
Sheppard doesn't say anything for long enough that Rodney wonders if they've walked away. Then a weight lands on his knee that's warm enough for him to feel it through the blankets.
He's in bed still?
"And what happens if they can't fix him? What then?" Sheppard again, closer.
"Rodney's sister is his next of kin, and it will be up to her..."
"Atlantis is Rodney's life, Elizabeth. Nobody knows and loves this city better than him. If you take that away, then what does he have?"
Rodney's first thought is that Sheppard, although broadly correct, is still selling him short, and that he's not taking into account things like his cat. Or Radek, Teyla and Ronon. Or Carson. Or the thing he had with Katie. Or his love of video golf. Or chess. Or this strange, unexpected friendship that's developed between himself and Sheppard. And, yes, okay, all of those things, other than Fluffy, have come out of being on Atlantis, but still, Rodney would like some credit for having a life outside his work, no matter how tangentially related they might be.
His second thought is, 'oh, fuck'.
"Wh... for what?" Rodney yelps over the noise of weapons discharging.
"I'll cover you to the jumper." Part of the tree above their heads gets blown apart in a spectacular shower of splinters, but John doesn't even blink. "Teyla and Ronon are already in position, you establish a wormhole to Atlantis and tell them we're coming in. Be ready to take off as soon as we're all on board."
"Go." John stands up and lets fly with enough gunfire to make Rodney's teeth rattle in his jaw. He curses inventively and runs, keeping low and deactivating the cloak as he gets close. There are energy volleys whistling past his ears, close enough that he can feel the heat.
Transcript of interview between Dr. Kirstin Kegel and Dr. Rodney McKay. January 23rd, 2009.
KK - Good Afternoon, Dr. McKay. I'm Dr. Kirstin Kegel. I'm attached to the Stargate programme as a consultant psychologist. They've asked me to assess your progress and adaptation to Atlantis.
RM - Yes, so I heard. Hello.
KK - Please take a seat. We've met on three occasions since your accident for similar evaluations.
RM - Really? I'm terrible with names.
KK - (laughs) Very good, Doctor. So, you've been told that I'm recording this interview and that a copy will be forwarded to you. Is that all right?
RM - Yes. Fine.
KK - Thank you. So, how are you today?
RM - Fine. I understand that my appointment with you was actually scheduled for yesterday, but that I had a... uh... bad day. I apologise for that.
KK - No apology necessary. Who told you about that?
RM - John. Colonel Sheppard. Of course, he didn't put it that politely.
KK - (laughs) So even though your working relationship has changed, you still maintain a friendship with the colonel?
RM - Yes, of course.
KK - And how about with Teyla Emmagen and Ronon Dex? Do you still consider them friends?
RM - Yes. You'll have to ask someone else how often I see them, but I still consider them to be my friends.
KK - Do you miss working with your team?
RM - Well, no. As far as I'm concerned, we travelled offworld together only three days ago. I understand that in reality it's been almost two years since I was included on an away mission, but I don't miss it except in an abstract manner. Knowing they've been places without me, that sort of thing.
KK - You've found that hard.
RM - Today? No, not hard, just... strange.
KK - So how did you feel this morning when you were told about your condition?
RM - Just peachy, thanks.
KK - So, angry? Frightened? Surprised? What?
RM - Well, of course angry. Every day I have to get back up to speed on the work I was doing the day before - it's not like I can trust any of the cretins they've shipped here to do it. The pace at which I work has been seriously curtailed.
KK - But on a personal level, do you have feelings of resentment? Hostility? Despair?
RM - I don't know about the last twenty-two months, but not today.
KK - And how did you find out about your injury this morning?
RM - John wasn't offworld, so he came and sat with me.
KK - Does he often do that?
RM - How would I know?
KK - Do you think he finds that frustrating?
RM - You're asking the wrong guy. He was outside a minute ago - do you want me to go and get him?
KK - No, thank you. I was simply asking you to imagine how you would feel if your places were reversed, for example.
RM - I don't know.
KK - You've never considered the effect your injury has on your colleagues?
RM - I only have about eighteen hours a day to have my freak out, then get on with my work. It doesn't leave a lot of time for insightful thoughts about what a burden I've become.
KK - So it would be fair to say that other than the effect that it's had on your work, that you are reconciled to your condition?
RM - I suppose so.
KK - And you're not unduly concerned about your future or opportunities that you will perhaps find it hard to...
RM - Look, Dr...whatever. The point is, there's nothing we can do about it. I gather I was seen by Earth's finest and that every piece of alien tech we've encountered was inflicted upon me, but nothing helped. Now I agree that a weaker mind might have caved under such a cruel twist of fate, but thankfully I was never the introspective type. It's done. I still have my work, and my IQ is intact, and although I apparently have good days and bad days, the bottom line is that I am still a valuable, contributing member of this expedition.
KK - That was never in question, Dr, McKay. What I came here to assess was your emotional and social integration.
RM - Oh. Why?
KK - To assess your overall well-being. To ensure that you were emotionally stable. To make sure that this is the right place for you to be.
RM - How do you mean?
KK - To make sure you're happy here, Dr. McKay.
RM - Well of course I am. This is my home.
KK - But you must understand that this is going to become more difficult the longer you're here. Your friends will move on. New staff will take their places. Your injury has had no effect on your life expectancy, Dr. McKay; one day you will be an old man, surrounded by people you don't recognise.
RM - Well that's going to happen wherever I am.
KK - That is true, but a city isolated in another galaxy and also in a war zone is a difficult place to be alone. One day...
RM - One day is all I ever have, Doctor. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do.
Rodney doesn't look up when Sheppard slides his tray onto the table and slouches down into the chair opposite. It's not until they've both sampled today's offerings and found them unremarkable that Rodney finds some words to offer.
"It occurs to me that I don't actually know you anymore. You know everything about me, and I..."
"You know me just fine, Rodney," Sheppard says, cutting him off gently.
"No, seriously, anything could have happened to you and I'd have no idea at all," Rodney persists, finally looking up at Sheppard.
John just rolls his eyes and toys with his silverware.
"So, have you been promoted?"
"Defied massive odds and come back from certain death?" Rodney asks. "Again?"
"Couple times," John shrugs. "Once thanks to you."
"Huh, really?" Rodney says, surprised, but refuses to be sidetracked. He'll revisit it later. If he remembers. "Okay. Written a novel? Been on Oprah?"
"Beat me at chess?"
"More than 90% of the time."
"Liar. Have you given up the Air Force and gone back to finish that thesis? Got your doctorate?"
"Seeing anyone? Got married? Had kids? " Rodney ignores the panic that's building in his chest. He wants to stop. He doesn't really want to know - to hear about how Sheppard and everyone else is having a life and moving on just like Kegel was suggesting. Just like he'll never do.
"Have you? Are you?"
Sheppard meets his eyes, and Rodney can see some of his own despair reflected back at him. "No, Rodney, I haven't."
"But you could have done. And I would never know."
"I'd tell you," Sheppard insists immediately.
"You might not be here to tell me." Rodney realises that the mess hall has gone quiet around them; polite, nervous conversations starting up everywhere he looks. He stares back down to his tray, but none of it looks appealing anymore.
John picks up his coffee and takes a sip, ignoring the too-bright conversations that suddenly fill the room. He leans forward and braces his elbows on the table. "What did she say to you this time?" he asks softly.
Rodney doesn't reply. He drinks his cold coffee and shakes his head.
John sighs and wipes his face with his hand. "At least you're talking this time. Last time you shut yourself in Lab Four and stayed awake for forty-nine hours straight. We had to wait until you finally fell asleep before we could get the doors to unlock. You kept changing the encryption."
Rodney surprises himself with a snuff of laughter and Sheppard gives him a twist of his lips that passes for a wry smile.
"Look," John says, "I left "Dark Knight" in your room last week."
"Dark Knight? As in Batman...?"
"Yeah. S'cool." John grins, gets up and waits for Rodney to follow, lifting both their trays easily and bussing them as they leave.
Rodney wonders how Sheppard has this ability to distract him, to make him want to participate in pointless pursuits when there are much weightier issues to be pondered. He wonders how his life would have been if John had been a childhood friend, dragging him away from his books and homework with offers of adventure. He wonders if happiness would have been a good trade for brilliance. But he allows himself to be corralled out into the hallway, propelled along by the guileless enthusiasm and subtle teasing that Sheppard employs when he wants something.
"It's a great movie. You're gonna love it. Again."
Rodney punches John on the arm pretty hard, but John just grins once more and sets off toward the transporters.
Ronon joins Rodney as they throw themselves up the ramp. While Rodney slides into the pilot's seat and powers up, Ronon starts picking off Genii targets one by one and making enough noise to cover Teyla and John's retreat to the ship. Rodney can't engage the shield until the rest of the team is onboard and he growls impatiently as discharge after discharge hit the jumper.
Rodney raises the shield and is already off the ground before the hatch has closed, passing the controls off to John once they've cleared the trees and are climbing.
Rodney steps back from the whiteboard and wipes his hand thoughtfully across his chin, only realising too late that his fingers are covered in green marker. He absently licks his other hand and rubs at his skin.
He's been assigned his own lab to work in, away from the main labs. Now his work is purely theoretical in nature, he doesn't need to access the resources or endure the interruptions that working with Zelenka and Simpson inevitably entails. It seems like a good move, because he was able to come in here this morning and get up to speed on his progress from yesterday within twenty minutes.
Rodney is used to Radek appearing at his shoulder at inopportune moments, so he doesn't jump. The Czech elbows Rodney aside and gestures at the ungainly scrawl of an equation.
"Did you compensate for...?"
"No, because I have only learned about the first law of motion and how to balance an equation since I was brain damaged." Rodney bitches as he points to where he's factored in the inertia component. "And excuse me? Apparently I'm suicidal now, considering these are calculation for making the city fly?"
"Yes, yes - very good. Shut up now, please."
"Don't you have a science department to run?" Rodney asks exasperatedly, flourishing his pen and trying to wrest back his place of whiteboard supremacy.
Radek does a double take, forcing Rodney to conclude that he still has marker on his face. "How long have you been here?" Radek asks. "Why has the Colonel not been to collect you?"
"Collect me? What is this, physicist day-care?"
"Was wrong choice of word," Radek says, his eyes straying back to the board as he pushes his glasses further up his nose. He pulls a choc-chip powerbar from his pocket and hands it to Rodney without looking at him.
Rodney wrestles with refusing to accept the treat by virtue of it totally proving his point about the day-care thing, but now he's stopped writing, he does feel kind of swimmy, so he takes it.
He watches while Radek runs his fingers along the lines of calculations, knowing better than to touch them, muttering under his breath in Czech. He stops every now and again to point or tap his fingers against his lips.
Rodney finishes the bar in four large bites, chewing thoughtfully. "Why did you say Sheppard? Why not Teyla or Ronon?"
"It is usually Colonel Sheppard who ensures that you don't stay here and work too long."
"Don't know. Lost a bet? Shortest straw?"
When Rodney doesn't retaliate, Radek spares him another glance, then straightens up, watching him carefully.
Rodney wishes he was back inside his equations where everything balances and all problems have a logical solution. He feels exposed all the time, wondering what he's missed, how people perceive him and what they base that perception on - who he was or who he is now?
"Does it surprise you? He is your friend, Rodney," Radek offers after the silence has become awkward. "He fights for you constantly. I have never seen him so angry as when they sent you back to Earth."
Rodney knows about this; it was in his journal. He knows that he was miserable and that he begged to be allowed to return to Atlantis in some capacity. He didn't know that John had fought for his return though - the book had failed to mention that part.
"Do we spend a lot of time together, Sheppard and I?"
Radek looks back to the whiteboard, begins at the top line again. "Yes."
"Do I spend as much time with anyone else?"
"Does he seem...? Do you think he...? Is it because he feels guilty?"
"No, Rodney, I do not think so. But I am just Acting Head of Science. You should ask him."
Rodney dials ahead, once they're only two minutes out from the gate, and opens a channel to Atlantis, informing them that the planet has hostiles of the Genii variety, and that they'll be coming home a little earlier than scheduled.
Elizabeth's voice is concerned but calming, and as they sign off Rodney begins to relax enough to be pissed about the lack of the Naquadah ore and the state of his shins.
"How many times have I watched that?"
"Seven or eight. You know in some ways you're pretty lucky, being in the unique position on Atlantis of never running out of new things to watch." John smiles and tips his head back to the ceiling, stretching out muscles stiff from being scrunched up on Rodney's bed for so long.
"A small price to pay," Rodney murmurs, feeling relaxed and if not at peace, then as close as he's going to get. John is solid and real and kind of calming, and Rodney thinks that if he has to live his life a single day at a time, then it could be a lot worse than today has been - his morning freak-out notwithstanding.
He looks down at his hands, resting on his thighs and tries to find a trace of the eighteen months that he's lost, some physical representation of the experiences he's had that he has no memories of - some scar or dirt under his nails or a tan line, but there's nothing. Yet. He wonders how shocked he'll be when he wakes up one morning and he's ninety with age spots and wrinkles and ropey tendons all over the backs of his hands. Then he wonders how many times he's wondered that.
He must have sighed, because Sheppard is giving him a searching look and leaning into his shoulder. "Hey," he says. "You okay?"
"As I'll ever be, I guess." And that doesn't come out like he meant it to, but before he has time to explain, Sheppard is shaking his head a little and his eyes have gone narrow.
"You might not believe this, but it could have been worse, buddy. You had me going for a while there. I thought I was... it didn't look too good. Lorne says he still gets flashbacks of the things I threatened him with while he was on his way in to get us out of there. I think it took them four minutes. Seemed like days."
"Head wounds. They always look worse than they are," Rodney says, gesturing to forehead.
"Yeah," John says, watching Rodney closely, as if he's expecting him to say something profound, but Rodney has no idea what.
"Thanks," he hedges, "For today. For all your... you know... everything. Thanks. I... I appreciate it."
Rodney's disappointed when John seems to take this as some kind of cue to leave, and rolls off the bed with sickening athleticism. He pulls on his boots, not bothering with the laces. "No problem, buddy. Anytime."
"Tomorrow?" Rodney asks with a quirk of his lips when John looks up quickly.
"Yeah, of course. There's no mission posted, so provided there's no Wraith or Genii or nanites or replicators or..."
"You work too hard. You never have any time for me," Rodney bitches in false, whiny, girly voice.
John straightens up with a closed-mouth smile that tells Rodney that his attempt at a joke was way off. He hesitates, then opens the door. "See you tomorrow," he says with a nod and a quick wave.
"Fuck it," Rodney says softly and clicks the laptop shut.
That's when the port drive pod unexpectedly explodes.
Rodney opens his eyes to a room that's brighter than he'd expect, and immediately looks for his laptop, because it should have woken him by now, and if he's late into the gear up room, Sheppard will bitch and whine, and that will spoil the surprise he has for him with the new, improved life signs detectors. He can't believe he's overslept.
But his favourite laptop isn't where he left it on the nightstand and Rodney is instantly 100% awake, rolling to sit up.
John is sitting at Rodney's desk with his own laptop open, giving him a strange smile.
Rodney blinks at him. "Christ, Sheppard! I know I'm late but coming to get me from my room - that's really..."
"Mission's scrubbed. Just relax."
Rodney gathers the sheets around himself, and pulls them up to cover his nipples self-consciously. "What? Why? Because I'm ten minutes late?"
"Huh. What happened?"
John pulls a thermos out from somewhere and pours Rodney a very large coffee. He waits until Rodney's taken a sip before he says, "It's a long story, buddy."
John is turned toward Rodney, his face contorted, yelling at him to brace for impact, but Rodney has been fighting with the power distribution all the time John has been trying to slow their inevitable descent, and that means he's been hooked into the overhead diagnostics port - not something he can do while sitting down.
"Eleven or twelve."
"And on any of those occasions have I ever been disappointed?"
"Nope," John replies with a grin.
"Good - at least I'm consistent." Rodney leans back against his pillows and stretches his shoulders - he's stiff from where he's been hunched over the laptop screen. He glances across at John who has his arms folded and his head tipped back, eyes closed.
"You must be bored of this movie beyond belief," Rodney offers ruefully.
John cracks open an eye and aims it at Rodney. "No, it's a cool movie. I save it up for the rougher days 'cause I know how much you like it."
John seems to be able to say these things like they mean nothing. He's dropped them into conversation a few times - things that make Rodney's throat go tight and his breath catch. He had no idea that anyone cared about him enough to know what movie would make him happy or what words would calm him down or know that it was chocolate brownie day in the mess and get him there in time to get some (although John claims it's because he benefits from the sympathy element, and scores more goodies himself when he accompanies Rodney to the mess.)
"Thanks, John. You've been... great. Kind. To me. I appreciate it."
John smiles easily, stretches and rolls off the bed, disgustingly cat-like.
"No... I, uh... I didn't mean for you to go. Unless you have stuff to do, then..."
The look John gives him is not what Rodney was expecting. He looks like he's working something out, assessing something, and Rodney stills, wondering what that means.
"Sorry, I must... I guess I take up a lot of your spare time these days. Do you have a sort of rota for babysitting duty?"
John's face softens and his eyes slide away from Rodney's. "It's not like that," he says quietly.
"What is it like?"
John sits down on the end of Rodney's bed and leans back on his elbows. "Some days you work. It's as much as I can do to make you eat, let alone spend time outside the lab. Some days... bad days..."
"Worse than today?"
"Yeah, we've had worse, Rodney. Those days you just want to be alone or to talk to Keller - that's the doctor who came after Carson..."
Rodney nods and swallows down the wave of despair that crests again. So many changes. So many people lost.
"Days like today? Well, we always used to hang out before, so it's no big deal for me to spend some time with you, Rodney."
"Do I spend time with Teyla? Or Ronon? Radek? Elizabeth?"
"As often as I do with you?"
John's evading Rodney's eyes. "Does it matter? What are you saying, you'd rather have Ronon provide emotional support?"
Rodney smiles at the thought, but he knows a distraction when he hears one, and he wonders what it is that John is trying to distract him from.
"So it's usually you."
John rolls his eyes. "Yes, Rodney, it's more often me."
Rodney lifts his chin. "Why?"
"Oh, don't even," Rodney growls; he's always hated John's dumb act. "Why you? Did they ask you to? Did I ask you to?"
"So why do you get the short straw?"
"I told you. We're friends - it's not exactly a hardship. And besides..." John pauses and his face goes blank. He hadn't meant to say that.
"Besides what?" Rodney presses, scenting a piece of the puzzle he hasn't had before.
Rodney gives John a glare that's tired, a little pathetic and clearly says that he'll have forgotten by tomorrow anyway, so John might as well spill.
"Fine. You're calmer on the days I'm here, okay?" John sounds slightly pissy.
"So they tell me."
John flops back on the bed and covers his eyes with his crooked arm. "You've got me," he mutters.
"But that's not fair. You shouldn't have to look after me every day just because the others can't deal with my... because I'm difficult, and you're the best at..."
"Rodney," John groans from beneath his arm.
"No. No, John. That's not right. You have a life - or you would have if you weren't... I'll talk to Car... Keller. They have nurses trained to cope with PTSD and psychotic episodes based here. This can't be that different. I can... I can move my stuff down to one of the isolation...
"Rodney, do we have to do this again?"
"We've done this before?" Rodney's voice has gone high in disbelief.
"A couple times," John admits, obviously reluctant.
"So why are you still here? Why did I wake up in my room this morning?"
John lets his arm fall back to the bed and he rolls his head to look at him finally. "Because it's a really bad idea, Rodney."
"I'm not going to do this to your life. Mine is... this is my life now - it has to be like this. Yours doesn't."
"Jeez, you're making me sound like Mother Theresa here. It's not like that, I'm telling you."
But Rodney's already moving, pulling his duffel from under his bed. He can't believe Sheppard's let himself become this... this... whatever he is. Carer? Personal assistant? John is the military commander of Atlantis - he should be concentrating on keeping them all alive and beating the Wraith, not talking down some brain-damaged, washed-up physicist who already had personality disorders before his injury. He should be living. Having fun. Running. Making friends. Learning to play guitar. Finding someone to love. Settling down. He should be having a fucking life.
John's hands are not gentle when he takes the duffel from Rodney's trembling fingers and spins him around to face him, but his eyes are.
"It's not fair, John. I don't want your life wasted too." Rodney takes slow, shuddering breaths and tries to blink away the prickling in his eyes.
"You're an idiot," John says unevenly.
Rodney shakes his head and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. He can't look at the pity that he knows he'll see in John's expression.
But John bats his hands away and grabs his face, a palm held against each of Rodney's cheeks, forcing him to stillness.
"I won't... I can't..." Rodney whines, trying to muster some defiance.
"You're an idiot, and this is why," John says and kisses him, soft and slow and certain.
Rodney's on his feet when they impact, and although the inertial dampeners take some of the force, Rodney's been trying to reroute some of that power to the shield to preserve the hull integrity, and they fail long before the puddlejumper comes to a halt.
"How many times have we done this?"
"Why only a few?"
"Good Morning, Rodney," John says in a deeply irritating singsong lilt. "You've had a massive trauma to your head and you have no memory of the last two years of your life. Now, do you want to top today, or bottom?"
"I hate you."
"You've said that before."
" I really hate you."
"How many times have we done this?"
"So it's a new thing?"
"I bet if you just jumped me every morning, I'd get over my freak-out a lot quicker. That would give us more time to..."
John hits him with a pillow.
"So, is this... a thing? Or is this just a... thing?"
John sighs, then chuckles a little. He presses a quick kiss to Rodney's temple. "I'd say that this was definitely a thing, Rodney."
"Really?" He can't help the note of delight that creeps into his voice.
When the door chimes, Rodney already knows who it's going to be. He thinks the door open and doesn't even look up as John enters.
"Hey, McKay. Are you alright?"
Rodney holds out the journal without a word and John takes it gently. He puts down the muffins he's brought with him and looks quickly, searchingly at Rodney before he turns to the book.
Rodney watches while John reads, licking his top lip, and scraping the bottom one with his teeth. He sees as John realises where the entry is going and his shoulders stiffen. He sees as John reaches the paragraph he's been staring at for the last twenty minutes while the morning sun has been streaming through the window.
"You wrote that down?" John asks softly.
John runs a hand through his hair and gets his game face on. "Okay, I know you have questions, but..."
Rodney interrupts him - he has too many questions to wait for John's roundabout explanations. "Is that the first time it happened? I didn't have time to read the whole thing - just the accident, and some of the medical notes, then I skipped to the end and found... Is it? The first time?"
Rodney lifts his chin, and tries to force a little defiance into his eyes, expecting the truth to hurt. "Is it pity?"
"No, Rodney! Jeezus!" John says, drawing back into himself. He looks angry, his eyebrows drawing together and his lips tightening. "It's not pity and it's not opportunism, and it's not any of the fucking worst case scenarios you're cooking up in that head of yours."
"So what is it?"
"I don't know," he says, sagging a little, and Rodney can hear the honesty in his words - he sounds as baffled as Rodney's feeling.
"Do you..." This isn't a sentence Rodney has ever had to construct before, as far as he knows, but this injury, this change in his life, it's laid him bare. He has no time for deductions and clues and half-truths. He has no time for softly-softly or wait-and -see. "Do you even... care about me?"
John throws the book down roughly on the bed and takes a step closer, so Rodney's forced to tip his head to see him. "Of course I do. I'm not some fucking pervert who preys on..."
"Well I'm sorry if having my fucking memory wiped every night has made me a little insensitive," Rodney spits.
"Okay. Okay. Let's back this up a little bit here," John says, matching his actions to his words. He takes a deep breath. "Are you okay?" he asks again, concern etched into every line of his face, visible even underneath the irritation.
Rodney opens his mouth and is surprised to hear himself say, "No, not really."
In a second, John is right there beside him on the bed, his arm curling protectively around Rodney's shoulders, hauling him in. "Shit, shit. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I thought you were asleep when I left. You usually go out like a light afterward. I had no idea you'd write it in your journal."
Rodney wipes his eyes quickly with the heel of his hand and laughs shakily. "This so fucking sucks. I finally, finally get what I want, and I can't even fucking remember it."
John's arm tightens around his shoulders. "Tell me about it."
"That was amazing."
John rolls his head and gives Rodney a sleepy, smug smile. "Yeah."
"We should do that all the time."
John grunts an affirmative noise and closes his eyes again.
"Do we do that all the time?" Rodney asks suddenly.
"Well, why not?"
John relents and cracks open an eye. "Morning, Rodney. You have anterograde amnesia that seems to be permanent. Oh, and stop by my quarters later - we're carrying on a secret gay love affair that you don't know about, and I'm feeling horny."
"Oh! Yes, well, I can see that might not come up every day."
"But when we do, is it always that good?"
"Pretty much." John can't keep the pleased note out of his voice, and he smiles slowly.
"So what proportion of days are we talking here? Often? Rarely?"
"Express it as a percentage. What, 20%?"
John closes his eyes.
"25%? John? John? 30?"
"Don't fall asleep."
"'M not. I'm just thinking," Rodney says, and he hopes John appreciates the effort it's taking for him to form the words.
"Think with your eyes open," John says, yawns massively and rubs his toes against Rodney's calf under the blankets.
"Yeah... I will... I'll...that."
"You're the sappy bastard who wants us to watch the sun rise together," John reminds him softly and without recrimination.
John puts a hand on Rodney's chest and gives him a half-hearted shake, then leaves his hand there where it becomes heavier and heavier, and Rodney's last thought is that he should leave himself a note or something about remembering that John's his boyfriend, so they can get to the kissing and the sex part earlier tomorrow.
Rodney wakes up and thinks 'warm', which is a nice change. He's convinced that the Ancients had a physiology that was markedly different to their own if the city's idea of what constitutes a perfect ambient temperature is anything to go by.
He takes a deep breath, cherishing the last few seconds of lingering contentment, which is all that remains of what must have been a pretty nice dream, and then opens his eyes.
'John,' he thinks when he blinks sleepily into Sheppard's strange hazel gaze on the pillow next to him. John's eyes are wide and shocked, and Rodney wonders what could have happened to make him...
Rodney sits bolt upright. "What the fuck?" he yelps, disappointed when it comes out as a high-pitched bleating noise.
John licks his lips and sits up slowly. "Now, Rodney, just calm down, I can explain everything,"
Rodney thinks that's going to be unlikely, given that from what he can see (and he can see quite a lot), John is in his bed, completely naked, except for his tags.
"What happened? Did I...?" Rodney drags his eyes from Sheppard and makes a quick visual search of his room, cataloguing a number of small but significant anomalies - his chair, the frame of his diploma, his... sofa? Added to the fact that he seems to have acquired a boyfriend overnight, Rodney is thinking parallel dimensions or Replicator induced hallucination or visions courtesy of a sentient fog.
He scrambles out of bed and grabs John's sidearm which is carelessly sticking out of a pile of discarded clothing. He spins around, aims it at John and, with one eye on him, scans the floor for his own underwear.
"Hey, watch where you're pointing that thing!" John says, rubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand, and totally not giving due weight to the seriousness of Rodney having a gun trained on him.
Rodney finds his Marvin the Martian boxers and awkwardly steps into them while keeping the pistol raised. "Tell me what's going on, Colonel, and make it fast."
"I was trying to when you went all Die Hard on me," John says, idly scratching at his chest and looking slightly hurt.
Rodney lifts his chin a little. John's not acting unusually as far as Rodney can tell - other than the obvious. Rodney flicks the barrel of the pistol in a gesture that plainly means 'carry on,' which John just stares at blankly. Rodney rolls his eyes and says, "Explain."
"Do you want to sit down first? This might take some time."
"Okay." John draws up his knees and hooks his arms around them. "Rodney, you've had an accident. We encountered a Genii ambush on a trading mission three years ago now. The 'jumper was damaged and we crash-landed. Ronon and Teyla were unharmed, but I broke my ankle, and you received a head injury that means that you can't process short-term memories into long-term ones."
John's head is tilted and his eyes are soft with sympathy, but he makes no move to touch him. "I'm sorry, Rodney, but the damage appears to be permanent."
"That's... what... I don't..." The pistol feels slick in his hand, heavy and unwieldy.
"You think it's February 8th 2007, Earth Standard. You think we're scheduled on an offworld trading mission with the Darsey at 09.45 hours."
Rodney blinks and lowers the gun a couple of centimetres.
"We're not. And it's March 12th 2010. Check the laptop," John inclines his head at Rodney's desk.
Rodney does, the fingers of one hand flying over the keys, looking for signs that it's been tampered with.
"You were sick for a long time," John continues, quietly. "They sent you back to Earth for a few months, but you hated it. You asked every single day to come back here apparently, and once you'd got Jeannie on your side, they had no choice but to listen."
Rodney sits down slowly, and carefully puts the gun down on the desk where he can reach it.
"That's your journal there, beside you. You've been writing in it for the last year or so, and it has all the reports from the mission and you medical records. And you have a..." John's hand touches his hairline and describes a mark against the skin.
Rodney lifts his own fingers in imitation, and it only takes him a second to find the thickened traces of a scar, the skin around it numb.
He doesn't remember John getting up and coming to him, but after a while he recognises the pressure of warm hands on the back of his neck and the low wash of reassuring words.
"...promise you, but really, it's not so bad, Rodney, and it's a damn sight better than the alternatives. I'm sorry I scared you - I didn't mean to fall asleep. That was a first."
And there is so much going on in his head, so many variables and questions and gaps, but here is something he can cope with perhaps - a small piece of the un-illustrated puzzle his life has apparently become that he can fit somewhere.
"So, we're... what? Lovers?"
John's hands tighten on his shoulders but segue quickly into a gentle, kneading caress.
"Yeah, kind of."
"How do you mean, kind of?"
"Complicated how?" Rodney asks, turning the chair slightly so he can see John's face. Somewhere along the way John's found a t-shirt and boxers, so they don't have to have this conversation naked. Rodney's not sure if he's relieved or disappointed.
"Rodney," John says, his voice slightly exasperated, "No matter what I say or do, you forget every night. Some days you won't even talk to me. Some days you're so distressed you ask to be sedated. Some days you're convinced I'm an alien interrogator and you spend the day asking to speak to my leader." John pauses and smiles a little. "Every day is different, and every day I have to wait for you to give me a sign that I'd be... welcome."
"But, that's not... I've wanted..." Rodney huffs a sigh and rolls his eyes. "You being welcome - that would not be, uh, new. That doesn't change every night."
John smirks, looking pleased at Rodney's confession. "Maybe not, but what I'm saying is that quite often I'm not the most important thing on your mind," He comes around and sits on the bed again.
"So every day you wait for me to fall in love with you again?" Rodney asks, blinking.
"Or not. I strike out more often than I score," John says with a self-deprecating shrug.
"That's..." Rodney searches for the right word.
The trees come suddenly and sharply into focus. Sheppard lifts a hand from the console toward Rodney, reaching for him as they hit. There's a screaming metallic whine, the sharp scent of vegetation and ozone, a flash of heat, and the last thing Rodney sees are John's eyes full of desperation and regret. Seeing. Knowing. Understanding and not turning away.
Rodney reaches out an uncoordinated hand, finds his laptop and drags it onto the bed. He opens it and presses a random key to stop the infernal bleating noise that Radek programmed for him as an alarm.
He cracks open an eye and blinks at the message that flashes cheerily on the screen.
"Watch this when you wake up."
Curious, and still half asleep, he clicks on the icon and watches the file cue up. Some cheesy 80s anthem blares from the tiny, tinny speakers.
"Good Morning, Rodney!" Happy, bouncy letters skitter across the screen; it's almost as if someone had designed this to squeeze the maximum amount of irritation out of Rodney.
"A few things have happened while you've been sleeping."
Images begin to scroll across his laptop. News footage from the Stargate programme being declassified; a President of the United States (who Rodney doesn't recognise) being sworn in; the Canadian hockey team receiving their Olympic gold medals; Jeannie cradling a baby while Madison and Caleb beam at the camera; a photograph of himself, badly swollen and bruised, unconscious in a hospital bed; an image of a twisted, broken jumper; a shot of his team, John on crutches, Rodney in a wheelchair with Teyla pushing him; a video clip of John being decorated by the new President with General O'Neill looking on; another shot of Jeannie with another baby; a still of Rodney sitting on a sofa in what appears to be the Oval Office, his head turned toward the President and John standing behind them watching Rodney with something close to pride on his face; an obvious Photoshop manipulation of Rodney receiving a Nobel prize from the King of Sweden - and then the words, 'no, not really...yet'; a clip of him and John, both in tuxedos, with confetti in their hair, toasting each other while their friends applaud and laugh around them - and then the words, 'yes, really.'
The random images cease and resolve into a piece of video, a wide shot of John leaning on one of the balcony railings with the city stretched out behind him. Dressed in sweatshirt and jeans, the hair at his temples obviously greying, his cowlicks are being tugged by the breeze. His eyes slide away from the camera, obviously uncomfortable, and then Rodney hears his own muffled but unmistakable voice saying something indistinct, and John smiles at the camera and crosses his arms.
"Okay, I know it's a lot to take in, buddy, but when you're ready, come next door and say hi. Coffee's waiting for you."
Rodney closes the laptop and gets out of the bed that's much bigger than the one he went to sleep in, trying to control the trembling in his hands by concentrating on a single task at a time. He pulls on a t-shirt then sweats, and crosses his bedroom to a door that wasn't there last night, where the smell of coffee and the sound of the sea are coming from.
Rodney feels completely hollow, so lost he can barely breathe. The knowledge that this is who he is now fills his throat. He'll never mellow with age. He'll never learn to be a patient, sympathetic man. He's going to have years of experiences that he'll never be able to put to good use. He's going to have a million ideas and never get to implement them - a million theories he'll never test.
What does that make him? Who has he become without even knowing how? For a moment he wants a mirror - he wants to see some proof that he hasn't been lost somewhere in all those soundbites and events he's just seen. That he's still the same man with the same passions and flaws and ideals.
He steps into the doorway, and there is John, older, greyer, still slim and athletic, still strikingly handsome. He's wearing shorts and a t-shirt, bare feet propped up on a table. He's reading, the windows open to the balcony, letting in a warm breeze with the morning sunshine.
And then John looks up, throws his papers on the table and he smiles - one of those rare, genuine ones, and says, softly, "Hey."
And Rodney doesn't have to worry anymore, because he can see who he is now reflected in John's eyes.
A big, warm hand curls around his hip, slow and certain, while kisses land across his shoulders and the back of his neck, haphazard and soft. Rodney hums and pushes into the source of heat behind him.
"Shhh. Keep your eyes shut, okay?"
Rodney rolls toward the voice, only to be stilled by the solid bulk of another body and an arm across his chest, holding him tight.
"Rodney, shh! Trust me?"
And, John so, "Yeah. Yes."
Good dream. Really, really fucking good dream because John's hands drift over his skin with a knowledge he can't possibly have, scraping through the hair on his chest, finding that spot on his side beneath his ribs that makes him arch his back and shiver. Fingers slide lower, mapping the sleep-sweaty contours of his belly and hip, and...
Best dream ever. John's hand closes around his cock and it doesn't take much to coax him fully hard. John runs the backs of his fingers up Rodney's length, letting his nails scrape just a tiny bit, and cups his balls, tugging on them gently in a way that drives Rodney to incoherence.
"Good. Good. Oh, please," he murmurs, "John, please."
He lifts his hips, pushing unsubtly into John's hand, hoping for more friction.
John's fingers follow the curve of his ass, tracing a line along the sensitive skin of Rodney's crease all the way to his spine, then slowly back, dragging a fingertip.
"Fuck," Rodney whispers as John's finger catches at his hole and dips inside a little. "I need to... I should shower. I haven't done this in a long time."
John chuckles, and Rodney wants to see that, wonders if it looks the way it feels, little puffs of breath against his belly. But if he opens his eyes he's worried he'll wake up, and he's so close already, and John feels so good, circling his hole.
"You're good," John says reassuringly, placing biting little kisses on Rodney's hip. "You're fine."
"Okay, but go slow," Rodney gasps as John's hairy thighs touch the insides of his own and force them wider.
Rodney hears the pop of a bottle cap, and tenses for the cold touch of John's fingers, but it's not fingers, because John's hands are lifting his legs onto his shoulders and holding him spread open and it's the smooth, hard bluntness of John's cock that breaches him. And Rodney has a moment of panic because there's no condom and he's not nearly stretched enough to take him. But in that strange way that dreams have of ignoring minor details, John's cock slides inside him in three gentle thrusts as if he'd spent long minutes preparing him. Rodney's body is open to John, ready for him, and John doesn't stop until he's filled every inch of Rodney, and Rodney's body is thrumming with the rightness of their fit.
"Oh fuck! Fuck me!" Rodney whimpers, because it's his dream and if he wants to make a fool of himself and plead, he can. "Do it, John. Do it hard and fast. I need to come."
"You're a pushy bastard, McKay," John says, but Rodney can hear he's smiling. "You're lucky I love you enough to overlook that."
And Rodney thinks that's an odd thing for a dream-John to say, and wants to protest, but John twitches his hips back and then pushes in again quickly, and Rodney can't think at all anymore. John quickly finds a rhythm of short hard strokes that make Rodney grunt and moan. John knees closer and spreads Rodney even further, and something about his angle changes, because Rodney is suddenly sobbing his name on each thrust as the sweetest pressure builds swiftly to the point where he can't hold back. So when John takes his dick and rubs a rough thumb just under the head in exactly the right spot, he comes long and hard, shuddering his release and striping their skin with his seed.
"So good, John. God! You're so fucking good," Rodney moans, knowing he sounds like bad porn, but just really, really not with the caring at the moment.
John begins to pant, deep, wrenching gasps, but his pace never slackens. And Rodney knows that if this were real, he'd be sore all the following day after the pounding that John's giving him, but it still feels good in a fucked-out, endorphin-high kind of way, and Rodney encourages John with whispered words and clutching hands.
John doesn't shout out when he comes, which Rodney thinks is a shame, as he'd like to hear his name come from those pretty, smirking lips. But John does slump down onto Rodney a second later, covering him with sweaty, hairy, sticky weight, which shouldn't feel as nice as it does.
It takes a long moment for his heart rate to return to normal, and Rodney can't believe he's still asleep, because surely he's had his dramatic high point and is due to wake up with cold, wet shorts in his little cot. But no, because John withdraws and wipes them both cursorily with something cotton-like and covers them with a thick, heavy comforter.
Rodney begins to notice little things as he lies there, like the scent of wood smoke and a savoury cooking smell, like the sound of trees moving in a light wind. He knows that the room is not entirely dark because there's a reddish hue to the darkness behind his eyelids. And the sheets they're sleeping on are fresh and of a fine cotton weave.
"Can I open my eyes?" he asks after a while, not sure if John is already asleep, and slightly worried that when he does open them it will be his ninety-year-old fourth grade teacher rather than a hot, sated John Sheppard beside him on the pillow, because dreams have a really shitty way of doing that to him.
"Nope," John's voice replies, and Rodney feels feathery kisses pressed to his eyelids.
"Okay then. Where are we?"
John takes a beat longer to reply than he should, but his tone is level. "Canada."
"Yeah. Place near Whistler." John yawns hugely, warm breath gusting over Rodney's shoulder.
Rodney thinks again how weird and lucid this is as John tugs the comforter tighter around them and fits himself closer to Rodney's side. But it's warm and quiet, and Rodney's gently aching in all the right places, so he lets the rhythm of John's breathing lull him.
"Skiing vacation?" he mumbles, feeling himself slipping back into a deeper sleep.
"Kind of. Honeymoon. Go to sleep now, Rodney. I'll explain in the morning."
So Rodney does.