Things are never what they seem.
If nothing else, I’ve learned that over my years as the resident genius in the Pegasus Galaxy. Reality is only as accurate as the time at which you check it. It can change at any second. And even then, it’s almost never what it seems.
It’s like looking at an object as a reflection in a mirror. It’s reversed, it’s slightly warped, and sometimes objects are larger than they appear. But given all the distortions, they’re real. They are always real. Sometimes more real than you ever thought they could be. But sometimes even the realism isn’t exactly what it seems.
Supposed allies can become your enemy. Enemies can become your allies. And sometimes they go full circle and end up being your enemy again. And sometimes half of your enemies become friends and the other half stay enemies. And if that isn’t confusing enough, sometimes the ones you think are your enemy become your friends only to come to think they are your enemy then find out they really are your friends.
Christ, I need a Dramamine just to think about it.
What’s worse, I suck at reading people on a personal level, much less on a level where I have to determine if an entire culture is going to welcome us with open arms or loaded weapons. This is why I tend to just ignore the entire situation by ignoring the pleasantries involved. If I can name ten people on my staff, it’s because they’ve pissed me off and I’ve demanded they tell me their names so I can ship them back to Earth. And they know it, which is why I have to watch to see who is actually leaving Atlantis and make sure someone didn’t give me the name of one of their coworkers instead of their own. Sneaky bastards.
It’s also why I leave the meet and greet small talk when we’re off world to Teyla or Sheppard. Ronon and I just hang back… him looming menacingly, and me scanning the room for anything of interest. It’s rare that there ever is anything of interest, but you never know when you’ll get lucky. Hope springs eternal and then usually falls flat on its foolishly optimistic face. And that’s exactly what I did when we arrived on M4X-119, just hung back and let Sheppard take the lead. He is the leader of the team, after all.
The local Chieftain felt the need to take Sheppard aside to participate in a ceremony. There’s always a ceremony… bowing into the setting sun, toasting the fertility of the livestock, eating sacred potatoes, swapping knives, offering to buy each other’s womenfolk… you name it, we’ve done it. So, in the grand scheme of things, this one didn’t sound too bad. Remembrance and sharing, he’d called it. Evidently you couldn’t look forward to the future and the potential for access to the Ancient facility the tribe had settled upon until you properly reflected on your past.
Sure, why not? Sounded reasonable. Whatever. All I cared about was getting into the facility and checking it for anything we could use, any technology that the Ancients had been working on at one of their many outposts that were never mentioned in the City’s database. Besides, remembrance and sharing brought to mind images of lotus positions and incense and neither my knees nor my sinuses could handle that. So, I was more than willing to let Sheppard take one for the team and meditate for a few hours if that got us into the outpost. I mean, I had been the one that ate the twelve teacakes of harmony on the last planet, and all that had gotten us was a supply of a root vegetable that tasted a lot like dirty sweat socks.
But when Sheppard emerged from the sanctuary within a matter of minutes, pale faced and trying to control the shaking, I quickly decided that maybe it hadn’t been such a great idea.
“What the hell happened?”
Teyla had already moved to his side before the words were out of my mouth, a look of worry that matched mine on her face. And Ronon was fingering his gun as his eyes darted around the room to the various tribe members flanking Sheppard as they led him from the chamber.
“A device,” he told us hoarsely. “They had me touch a device.”
“What did it do?” I demanded, because a shudder passed through him that had him instinctively reaching a hand out to steady himself as his legs wobbled.
Teyla and I each took an arm, keeping him on his feet as he shook his head in an effort to clear it. “I remember… I saw my mom… before she left…” He let out a groan, hands instantly cradling his head as he dropped to his knees taking me and Teyla with him. “Oh, Christ, not again.”
Ronon’s gun was instantly pointed at the elder tribesmen, but they didn’t seem the least bit concerned. I honestly barely noticed because suddenly I wasn’t seeing them, or the antechamber with its decorative wall paintings, or my teammates. Instead, there was grass-covered hills, a pale blue sky with high, wispy clouds, a pile of red dirt off to the side of a grave, and a flag-draped casket sitting above the open hole. I was sitting under a canopy in a white, plastic, folding chair, a sheet of worn Astroturf below my feet… my very small feet. A minister was reading from a Bible that was blocked from view by the spray of flowers to the side of the casket, but I wasn’t really paying any attention to what he was saying. I looked over to my right to see a man that looked incredibly like Sheppard dressed in his Air Force blues, but it wasn’t him… at least not my Sheppard. The nose was different, the hair much neater, the jaw set in a way that suggested a smile was a rarity, and he stared straight ahead, never looking my way, hands folded tightly in his lap.
I turned my attention away from the man to stare out at the rows of tombstones spreading across the rolling landscape, zoning out the droning words, because whenever I looked at the coffin, I felt an ache in my stomach, in my chest, and… lost. So incredibly lost. Because, where would I stay when Dad was on deployment without my grandfather? Who would step in and give me a place to live for months at a time?
My attention came back to the canopy when a man started playing Taps on a trumpet and two other older men in uniform from the local VFW post started folding the flag. Slowly, methodically, they formed the large triangle, turning with a precision step that spoke of years of practice. My father stood then, hazel eyes flicking my way indicating I should do the same, and the men presented me with the flag, telling me it was in honor of my grandfather’s life of service to his country. The same as my father, the same, I knew, that it would be for me.
“Teyla? Sheppard? McKay!”
At the sound of Ronon’s voice, I gasped, the image vanished and I was back in the antechamber surrounded by leather-clad tribesmen. Ronon’s jaw flinched as his eyes darted back and forth between his three teammates on our knees on the floor and the men watching calmly.
“We are…” Teyla started, breathing as heavily as I was. “We are unharmed.” And I had to agree that that was the best I could say we were.
Sheppard still held his head in his hands, pulling in ragged breaths and shaking even more than I was. “What the fuck was that?” I demanded.
Teyla looked to me. “You… you saw it, as well?”
“Remembrance and sharing,” the Chief told us again. “The talisman has great powers. It allows those that touch the Rememberer to see those things that are most important in his life, good and bad.”
I instinctively let go of Sheppard’s arm, Teyla did the same, and the Colonel keeled forward onto his hands and knees. “Well, make it stop,” I ordered.
“It will stop when it is time,” the elder said simply.
“And when will that be?” Because there was no way I wanted to go through that experience again but there was no way Sheppard was walking out of here on his own given his current condition.
“When it is time.”
Well, that was absolutely no help at all. Sheppard let out another cry, pressing his head into the stone floor, and I pulled my hand that was going to his shoulder back at the last second. I looked helplessly to Teyla, who seemed to be battling with the same concerns I had.
Ronon still had the gun pointed at the men. “You better do something to make this stop.”
“Once it has started, it can only go to completion.” Looking between me and Teyla, the Chieftain nudged his chin toward Sheppard. “Sharing makes it easier on the Rememberer. It is considered an honor among our people to be chosen to see what defines another.”
“Goddammit,” I whined. Because, honestly, why couldn’t we just go to a planet and have the inhabitants lead us into the hidden facility with the great technology without having to do something horrifically dangerous and painful in the process?
Teyla seemed to be steeling her resolve and she reached out a hand toward Sheppard, who was muttering under his breath, lost in the vision.
“No!” I stopped her. “I’ll do it.”
“Rodney, you do not have to…”
I cut her off with a shake of my head. “Most of the memories will be from Earth. If you don’t understand the context, it might not work as well.” With a final grumble, I told her, “Might as well make this as easy as possible on all of us.”
She nodded in reluctant agreement and I flexed my hand in preparation of what I knew was coming. Then I reached out and gripped Sheppard’s arm tightly.
“You said it would be a year.” I felt the words leaving my throat… Sheppard’s throat… past a lump that was a combination of hurt and anger. The voice was young, sounded young, felt even younger.
Dad looked up from where he sat across the table, going over the list of instructions he was putting together for me. “What?”
“When you came back in April you said it would be a year before you left again but it’s only September.”
The accusation was ignored, as he turned back to the paperwork. “You’ll be staying with Aunt Linda through Christmas. After that…”
“It hasn’t even been six months,” I accused again, picking at the duct tape around the toe of my Chuck Taylor’s.
Continuing to make notations, my father didn’t even look up. “I am well aware of how the calendar works, John.”
“Mike Gregory’s dad came back the same time you did, but he’s not leaving again.”
“Captain Gregory doesn’t do the same thing I do.”
“Yeah,” I sulked. “He doesn’t desert his kid every few months.”
Dad looked up then, eyes narrowed and jaw flinching in a way that was more than familiar. “Are you done feeling sorry for yourself? Because if you aren’t, you are excused to go to your room.”
With a final glare, I stood, took my skateboard and headed out of the kitchen and up the stairs. I was fourteen years old. Only four more years and I wouldn’t have to deal with this crap anymore. Until then, screw him. If he didn’t want me, I sure the hell didn’t need him.
Teyla’s voice had me blinking up to where she stood above us. With a nod of my head, I indicated I was okay, even as I placed my other hand on Sheppard’s back and instantly had a flash of my teenage self flopping onto my bed and staring angrily up at the ceiling. No, not me, Sheppard, I thought as I pushed the image back to run in the recesses of my mind. I tried to focus on Teyla, doing my best to try to remember that these memories weren’t mine, that the hurt was actually Sheppard’s, and what I should be feeling was sympathy for my friend and not like I was the least important thing in the world to the person who was the only thing I had in the world.
“That son of bitch,” Sheppard murmured, pulling in a harsh breath, and I moved my hand subconsciously to the nape of his neck and squeezed, because that’s exactly what I wished someone would do for me. The action had him lifting his head rather dazedly from the floor to take in the rest of us. “McKay?” He started to pull away, but I just tightened my hold on his arm.
“Yeah,” I confirmed, before adding. “Don’t worry about it. I’m… It’s evidently my turn, okay?” I grumped. Although, technically, I had been the one to save myself from the ascension device a few weeks before. Then I added more gently, “We’ll get through this.” And I was saying it just as much for my benefit as his.
I wasn’t well adjusted by any means of the term. I had issues that made Sheppard look like a poster child for picture perfect mental health. Real or imaginary, they were there. So, in reality, I was probably the last person that should go through this exercise with him. I mean, seriously, I had enough of my own baggage to haul around, why would I want Sheppard’s to boot?
But I had my reasons for doing it. And after witnessing his asshole of a father demonstrating a supreme lack of familial love for his son, those reasons became even stronger. Loyalty, protection, affection. All the things he wanted but never got, they were something I could give. In my totally damaged and messed up way, I would give them, if only by being present and witness to what he’d been through.
He didn’t seem happy that I was doing it, but he at least seemed resigned to the fact as he sat back on his haunches and scrubbed at his face. Ronon had lowered his gun at some point and was looking at the two of us warily.
“You were both talking. Saying the same things.”
In alarm, I looked to Teyla for confirmation. “You both spoke of someone by the name Mike Gregory.”
Frowning, I stood, promising Sheppard I’d be right back, and took Teyla and Ronon aside. “You know he doesn’t like to talk about this sort of stuff. I mean, it’s bad enough that one of us has to see it, but for everyone, including strangers…” I glanced at the tribesman and shook my head with a grimace. “He’s not going to be very happy when this is all said and done.”
Teyla sighed in agreement. “Rodney is correct. We should allow you privacy so that we can best respect John’s.”
Ronon, however, didn’t like where the conversation was going. “I’m not leaving you two alone. You’re both completely out of it when he has one of those visions, completely vulnerable.”
He had a point, a very good point, and I turned to the men who still stood watching us solemnly. “Do you have some place we could go to ride this out?”
The Chief indicated a door to our right, and Ronon, Teyla and I went to check it out. The room was dimly lit by sunlight angling in from windows high up on the walls, and the floor was covered with rugs and large pillows similar to the Chief’s reception hall, except the space itself much smaller. The only way in or out was the door we had just entered.
“If we’re in here, you two can stand watch out there. Okay?”
Ronon didn’t seem exactly pleased, but it was better than nothing, so when he nodded minutely, I went to retrieve Sheppard. He was still sitting on his knees where I had left him, eyes closed, lips twitching in amusement. I brushed my fingers over his shoulder. An image of two boys instantly came to mind. They were putting up a wooden ramp while I watched with two others and toed my skateboard. It was spring, the temperature still a little cool, but the sun was warm and the air was heavy with the loamy smell of dirt and wild onions.
Pulling my hand away before I became too caught up in the vision, I called, “Colonel?” His eyes slid open, somewhere between this world and the one he was reliving in his head, but he seemed to at least be aware of me. “We need to move.”
He reached up to use my arm to pull himself to a stand, and I was suddenly soaring off the end of the ramp, felt the momentary sensation of freefall as I sailed out over empty air, and landed hard enough that I could feel the reverberations in my knees.
“We’re flying, Rodney,” he told me, a boyish smile spread across his adult face, as breezy as the spring winds that ruffled our flannel shirt in the vision. And I couldn’t help but return the grin, even as I fought to hold onto the reality of the situation, tried to move us toward the room while watching the reflection of a teenage John Sheppard’s life play out in my head. It was like trying to parallel park just using the mirrors, and I steered us across the antechamber with about as much finesse. But we made it, staggering slightly, and both of us laughing when one of the other boys fell from his board and we fell into the pillows of the room that suddenly felt like sun-warmed asphalt under my palms as I leaned into Sheppard to keep the contact going.
A chunky kid with curly brown hair dropped his board beside mine and sat. I couldn’t remember his name… there had been so many over the years… but he felt like a friend. At least as close a thing to a friend as I’d ever been allowed to have. “Joey’s dad is going to let him build a half-pike over spring break. That should be pretty rad.”
Spring break was three weeks away, and Dad was due back from his latest deployment next week. And that meant I’d be going back to Texas until he got his next orders and never get to see this awesome ramp the guys were planning. But I’d learned to adapt over the years, learned that it was easier to pretend that nothing was going to change until it was actually changing before my eyes. So, I snorted.
“I bet Joey breaks his arm the first time he uses it. He can barely stay on his board on flat ground.”
“Probably,” the chunky kid agreed, “but at least we’ll still be able to use it.”
“Yeah,” I agreed easily, “that’ll be cool.” Knowing full well I’d never lay eyes on that half-pike in my life.
Sheppard sighed beside me, shifted on his pillow and leaned in a little closer and I found myself doing the same.
“People talk about reliving their teen years like it was the best time of their lives,” I noted in amazement. "And I’m always left wondering if it’s selective memory, or repression due to a form of post traumatic stress disorder, or if I’m the only one that looks back and thinks, thank God I managed to claw my way into my twenties.”
“You’re not the only one,” he told me in a brief moment of clarity, throwing an arm across his eyes.
The visions returned soon enough, shifting quickly, brief snatches of other friends that had come and gone– a cute blond in a cheerleading outfit in a sleeping bag by a lake and me trying my best to get my first condom wrapper open before it wasn’t really necessary; college years fluttering by as faces came and went; a brunette in cut-off shorts smiling from the passenger side of car, the windows rolled down with the wind causing tendrils of her long hair to stick to cherry-flavored lips; then she was wearing a white dress; then walking out the door with her suitcases. There was the feel of a helicopter rising as I worked the controls, the desert passing by under me, then another desert, then the white of the ice. And with them all came the emotions. Nervous anticipation, amusement, wistfulness, love, betrayal, fear, resignation… loss. Everything seemed to end with a loss.
“Are you… you’re just seeing the same thing I am, right?” he asked reluctantly as the chill of Antarctica was replaced by the warmth of his body so close to mine.
“I wish,” I snorted, blinking the room back into view once again. “It’s more like I’m living it.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled in embarrassment.
“Hey, it could be worse,” I pointed out. “I could have touched it and you’d be experiencing my rather humiliating obsession with the Double Mint twins and me dressed as Batman using my mother’s underwear. Although my own first sexual experience had a remarkably similar outcome to yours, so that might have seemed somewhat familiar.”
He gave a half laugh before admitting, “I can… feel you there. Like you’re looking over my shoulder the entire time.”
“Hey, you can’t blame the fact that you only lasted a whopping three strokes on me. Teenage boys aren’t known for their longevity, especially their first time.” I bumped his shoulder when he grinned, then admitted, “I feel kind of like I’m invading your privacy. If there were any other way…”
He shook his head and told me awkwardly. “It actually kind of helps, like when we’re on a mission and I know you’ve got my back.”
It was my turn to be a little embarrassed by the compliment. “Oh. Well… good.”
He lay quietly for a few seconds and I could feel the room shifting, converging into another memory. “McKay, some of these aren’t going to be…”
“I figured as much.” I felt myself mentally bracing against the one coming because this one had the feel of a hot wind and the smell of aviation fuel and I thought this is going to be bad, bad, bad.
“Maybe you shouldn’t…”
But I grabbed his wrist when he tried to pull away. “I told you, we’ll get through this.” I could actually taste the grit on my lips as one of the Blackhawks rotated to life beside me and I just held tighter. “It helps, right?”
Because if helped, I could do it. It made it all worthwhile. Right? Oh, Christ, I didn’t want to do this. I’d seen hints of this already; I’d ended up shot as a result of this. And if it was that bad for Sheppard back then that it still ranked up there as one of his worst fears of failure, I couldn’t imagine what it was going to be to experience it first hand.
Then I had an idea. “Hey, Sheppard? Do you have any good memories of your dad?”
And for a minute the wind changed again, still hot and dry, still carrying the smell of jet fuel, but I was standing on a fairway instead. That was the plus side of growing up on Air Force bases… lots of them had golf courses, Nellis being no exception.
I lined up my shot, shifting my shoulders before pivoting my hips and swinging. Squinting into the Nevada sun, I watched as the ball flew through the air before it dropped and bounced to a stop on the edge of the green.
“You really got a hold of that one,” Dad said as he walked up behind me to follow my gaze, and I grinned at the appreciative tone. With a mock sigh, he shook his head, “I’m not sure I’ll be able to beat that.” My smile just spread at the compliment, a rarity in my adolescent life, as I watched my Dad place his ball on the tee.
The ball went soaring, but fell a good ten feet short of mine. “Damn desert wind,” he complained, hooking his arm around my shoulder. “Come on; let’s see if I can make it up on the green.”
But the grass under my feet changed to shifting sand, and as the weight against me increased, I realized the arm around my shoulder was no longer Dad’s. I was all but dragging Holland through the desert and he was hurt bad. Real bad. As bad as he looked on the outside, I could only imagine what was going on inside his body, and that… that’s what was going to kill him in the end.
My body ached. I hadn’t exactly had a picture perfect landing, that rarely happens when you’ve been shot down, and seeing as I’d had to huff it on foot to find Holland’s downed craft, I pretty much hurt all over. But I’d set out to find a friend and bring him back, and a little pain wasn’t going to stop me from completing my task.
A gust of wind had sand swirling and I stopped and closed my eyes until it died down. The sun was blazing down on us, burning my skin, and I was thirsty again. But we only had a couple of liters of water and I didn’t know how much further we were going to have to go before we ran into a friendly face, so I decided I could go a little longer before taking a water break. Holland’s weight slipped down and I hefted him back up, wrapping his arm a little tighter around my shoulder.
“Come on, Captain, you’re not pulling your fair share here.”
But there was no answer. Not a goddamn word.
“Holland, might I remind you that this is a rescue mission. If I wanted to go on a recovery mission, I would have waited until the orders came through.”
I started us moving again, staggering when the ground sank beneath my feet, soft sand tumbling into the deep impressions left by my footprints and distorting them beyond recognition. But Holland wasn’t leaving prints, unless you counted the sinuous trail of his boots being dragged across the desert.
I could have stopped. I could have laid the limp body out on the ground and checked for a pulse, but that would have just confirmed what I already knew, what I was trying to deny, what I refused to think about.
I took another step, then another. “You are going to owe me a goddamn six pack when we get back, you lazy son of a bitch.” Another step. One foot in front of the other. “Hell, a case.”
Holland just got heavier with each footfall. But, by God, I’d come to rescue his sorry ass, and that’s exactly what I was going to do. I might get court-martialed for disobeying a direct order, and they sure didn’t look too highly on pilots that lost their rides to enemy fire, especially when they were doing something they were told not to do, but I was going to save a man, I was going to save a friend, I was going to…
This wasn’t the way this was supposed to go down. You don’t go out to play the hero and fail. You don’t set out to save a life and have him die during the rescue. That’s not the way it happens. But I wasn’t living in some feel-good movie of the week. I doubted those guys in the movies felt their legs burn with each step, or their ribs they’d busted in the crash make every inhalation send stinging pain around to their back. And I sure as shit didn’t hear the stirring music playing as we made our way back across enemy lines and into the welcoming company of our compatriots. Our soundtrack was the sound of sand sliding and wind blowing and me babbling on to a man that wasn’t saying a fucking thing in return and sure the hell wasn’t going to buy me a beer when we got back to base.
Then I heard another sound. Voices. And they weren’t speaking English. There were two of them, by the looks of it their truck had broken down, hot steam rising out of the radiator. I took the first from a distance, the second diving behind his truck as I approached dragging Holland with me. When he jumped up, gun raised, I fired again. And for a split second, I saw me. The real me, Rodney McKay, dressed in my field gear, standing in a cool, green forest, yelling, “don’t shoot!” and then I was gone and the Taliban fighter was back, crumbling to his knees in red sand, and I moved Holland past him as fast as I could.
But I hesitated, looked back, and saw me, saw Rodney on the ground. And what the fuck had I just done? Teyla was with me, dropping with a hiss to the ground, a hand going to her injured leg.
“John, help me.” She was opening Rodney’s vest, my vest, and I could remember the feel of her doing it, the sharp pain of the bullet that had skimmed across my ribs and at the same time I could feel the confusion and panic in Sheppard at what he’d done. “John,” she called again.
“I didn’t mean to...” I could hear the words as I lay on the ground looking up at confusion at my best friend who had just shot me, feel them struggling across my numb lips as I stood staring down at my best friend lying bleeding on the ground. And the dichotomy of the situation made me dizzy from the internal vertigo. “I thought he was…” Fear. Guilt and fear and disbelief and fuck, fuck, fuck, what have I done?
“It does not matter,” Teyla insisted even as she took out a bandage from her vest, reaching up and pulling on my wrist to bring me to my knees and pressed my hands into the wound. “Now we must care for Rodney.”
“You shot me,” I gasped but the other me, the Sheppard me, was pressing a bandage into my side. My side, my hands, my voice accusing, my voice apologizing in confusion. It was getting to the point I couldn’t tell one from the other. I couldn’t tell if the nausea I felt was from the guilt, the pain, or the disorientation of being two people in one memory. But it was too much; it was just too damn much.
I pushed away from Sheppard, scrambling across the pillows on the floor of the room to put a little distance between us. Gulping air and fighting the urge to puke, I pulled my knees up and dropped my forehead onto them and fought to block that infinity sensation of seeing your mirrored reflection reflected back in a second mirror.
A few seconds later, I heard a hesitant, “Rodney? Are you okay?”
Sheppard’s hand landed on my back and I felt myself tumbling back into his memories. I was on the phone, explaining to my father about the rescue attempt… the failed rescue attempt and the pending disciplinary hearing.
“Dad? Did you hear what I said?”
Evidently he did, because I was answered with the distinct click of the line being disconnected when he hung up the phone. And then I was reading over the papers that would send me to Antarctica.
Antarctica. McKay was in Antarctica. I was in Antarctica. I jerked away from the touch, afraid that I’d be pulled back into a recollection that involved me. There were more, I knew there were more. How could there not be? But I wasn’t quiet ready for that experience again.
His hand fell away and I heard him sliding back to where we’d been sitting before. I risked a glance up and saw him sitting with his head hung, eyes closed, as he threaded long fingers through his hair.
“Just… just give me a minute,” I told him. “It was a little… fuck, I don’t even know the word for it.”
“Yeah, I get it,” he responded quietly, sinking back with a frustrated exhalation of breath. “I mean, I shot you. Reliving that can’t exactly be a picnic.”
“No, I don’t think you do get it. It wasn’t the getting shot part it was… you… and me. Feeling both…” I gave a slightly frenetic laugh. “It was just a little intense. You were so…” I had a flash again of the fear I’d felt coming off of him. A fear that he’d lost me. Not so much that I’d die, although that was there, too, but a fear that he’d lost me like he had so many others in his life, by them turning away and walking out. One way or another, they never seemed to stick around.
“God, I never blamed you, John.” When he raised a disbelieving eyebrow, I bobbled my head. “Okay, yes, I may have blamed you a little for shooting me, and I may have brought it up once or twice.” When the eyebrow shot up higher I relented, “Or maybe a few dozen times. But the point is, I never resented you; I never hated you the way you thought I was going to. I didn’t leave, did I?”
I realized I’d overstepped that invisible emotional comfort zone that surrounded him, because he started to pull back even more than I had. “You know, McKay, maybe you shouldn’t keep doing this. It may be too much for you to handle. It can’t last too much longer, right? So, I’ll just do the rest on my own.”
I felt like I’d been through the wringer, and it was tempting as hell to say, yeah, maybe you’re right. But Sheppard looked exhausted. He was still pale, and as much as he was trying, he couldn’t hide the shaking, and I was afraid if I threw in the towel, he would, too.
“The Chief said you should have someone do this with you, it’ll make it easier,” I countered.
He studied me for a second before proposing, “Maybe Teyla should do it, then. I think I can trust her…”
I cut him off with a shake of my head. “No. I can do this. I just needed to get my bearings. I wasn’t exactly expecting to do the whole split personality thing. Now that I know what to expect, it’ll be better.”
“Rodney, I’m not sure you want to see what’s coming…”
“Why?” I demanded in worry, because I had a feeling we were heading into the home stretch here. “Is it really that bad?”
“I just don’t want you to get the wrong idea is all. I don’t want to scare you off or freak you out…” He floundered for the right words. “We’ve got a good thing going here, right? And sometimes knowing too much… it changes things.”
Crawling back over to where he sat, I took his hand. “I didn’t leave then, I’m not leaving now.”
He looked down at our hands then raised his eyes to mine and I could see that they were already starting to glaze over. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” His hand tightened on mine and the room morphed into the Ancient outpost in Antarctica.
“Think about where we are in the solar system,” the obnoxious guy in orange was ordering as the large metal chair glowed blue beneath me. And who the hell did he think he was, anyway? I’d dealt with his know-it-all kind before. They were usually paper pushers, bureaucrats, the type that never wanted to get their hands dirty and thought that made them better than you because they’d figured out a way to avoid the real work. And in the end, they were usually just overcompensating for something they were lacking.
Fighting for control, I managed to mentally pull away from Sheppard enough to keep from melding his thoughts of ‘arrogant asshole’ with my own of ‘why the fuck do the moronic flyboys always get the ATA gene?’ But then I watched through two sets of eyes as the solar system appeared above us and the exact same feeling of amazement flowed through us both. Blue eyes met hazel for a split second, and something just seemed to slide into place for the two of us.
We walked through the gate within seconds of one another and it was hard to tell which of us was thinking, ‘holy crap, the city is responding to the gene’ and which was thinking ‘this is so totally cool!’
I saw our years on Atlantis. I felt the regret of pulling the trigger on Sumner, the fear that I’d fucked up big time with the super Wraith, the anger at the Genii for daring to try to take my City, the hate of Kolya for threatening my friends, the resolve to fly the Jumper with the bomb to the Wraith ship, the loss as to how to say goodbye and the decision to just go before McKay could talk me out of it. I felt it swirling in a panic all my own when I saw Sheppard bolt from the room, my knees weakened in relief when the Daedalus beamed me aboard, then they seemed to repeat the action when I heard Sheppard’s voice over the radio after the Hive disappeared from the screen.
I felt the loss of Ford, as his teammate, as his CO, as his friend. There was the disappointment with myself that I’d destroyed a solar system, that I hadn’t been able to keep McKay from doing it, that I’d let Sheppard down when he’d been the only one willing to give me a chance. I sat waiting in a cave for my team to come for me. When would they come for me? Paced frantically in my lab trying to find a way into the dilation field, saw him across that clearing and thought, ‘thank God, they came; thank God I wasn’t too late.’
I felt my stomach sink as Zelenka briefed us on McKay’s Jumper going down, felt myself sinking below the waves. There was my determination to get him back, alive; my determination to keep myself alive; and the experience of absolute relief when I heard Rodney’s voice, heard John’s voice, on the other side of the Jumper hatch. He was warm and dry, he was so cold and soaked to the bone, so I leaned a little closer, tightened my hold around his waist, and it never felt so good to see someone, to put my arm around someone in my entire life. I watched Rodney sleep in the infirmary, woke to see hazel eyes staring at me, swallowed and looked away, came up with an excuse to leave, before he saw what I was afraid for him to see.
I realized we’d been screwed over by the Wraith, knew they were heading for Earth and taking me and Ronon with them, knew they had Ronon and McKay and I’d be damned if I was losing anyone else… if I was losing Rodney.
I felt the Wraith suck the life from me as it’s hand landed on my chest, felt it suck the life from me even though it was on some unknown fucking planet, heard Sheppard screaming behind the gag, heard Rodney yelling at Kolya, thought the dead end in the warehouse was it and I’d never see John alive again, thought I’m dead now and I’ll never see McKay again. Found myself torn between the desire to throw my arms around Sheppard because he was alive and young and looked to be fine and the desire to yell at him because he was alive and young and looked to be fine while I’d been worrying myself sick about him.
Carson and I watched McKay board the transport for Area 51 while we stayed behind at the SGC. First Atlantis and now this. Sucked didn’t come close to describing the way it felt to give a final wave to Sheppard and Carson before boarding the plane. Loneliness, so much goddamn loneliness. But I couldn’t stop the grin whenever the phone rang and it was Rodney on the other end, I couldn’t stop the giddy anticipation when Sheppard suggested I should come to Colorado for dinner and hang out for a weekend, I couldn’t stop the overwhelming feeling of coming home when we finally retook the City.
I stood at the foot of Rodney’s infirmary bed… his goddamn deathbed and felt so fucking helpless. All I wanted to do was punch something, someone, that piece of shit ascension machine that had done this to him. There had to be something someone could do to stop this from happening. Because there was no way in hell this was happening. After everything we’d done… everything we hadn’t done… to lose him like this… Goddamn, I had to hold it together for McKay, because he was terrified, there was no denying it. I had to hold it together for Sheppard, because he was scared and vulnerable and barely holding it together himself and I hated that I was making him that way. And I was dying. I was dying and there would be no coming back, no ascension, no way to release my burdens and there was still so much I wanted to do, to say, but it wouldn’t be fair to do that, to tell John how I really felt. Too late, too fucking late. There had to be someway somebody could stop this. I couldn’t lose McKay, not like all the others because he wasn’t like the others, not by a long shot. There had to be someway I could fix this. I was an uber genius for God’s sake; I should be able to save my own ass at a moment like this. Rodney, you son of a bitch, don’t do this. Don’t leave me, too. I can fix this, I can fix this, I can… son of a bitch, why didn’t I think of that before?
Later that night, Rodney stopped by my room, rocked back on his heels, locked his hands behind his back, fought to maintain that arrogant control and I felt my lips curling into a smile that he was standing there trying his best to be a conceited prick.
“I wanted to thank you, Colonel, for all the help you gave me during the whole attempt at ascension, even though it didn’t do me any good in the end,” I told him, my heart racing, wondering if he’d invite me in or just leave me standing out in the hall. Too much time, we’d wasted too much time, especially when we had so little time in this life.
He smiled at me, mouth angling up on one side, blue eyes glimmering somewhere between anticipation and nervousness. And it just went to remind me how close I’d come to never seeing that look ever again. That would have been a crime, a goddamn crime, because every time I did see it I realized how unbelievably lucky I was to have ever met someone as incredible as McKay.
“Did you read my mind, Rodney? When we were working on your meditation, did you ever read my mind?”
“No, I didn’t want to pry. It kind of felt like eavesdropping or something if I did it without your permission.”
“You should have.” I felt Sheppard fist into my shirt, felt the fabric twist in my hand as I pulled Rodney into my room, felt my heart rate increase. “We might have done this a lot sooner.”
And then I was kissing him. John’s lips were on mine, Rodney’s shock turning to eager participation. My hand still trapped between our bodies, both of my hands cupping the dark stubble of his jaws. And it was that stereophonic sensation all over again; too much awareness overwhelming my senses, but at the same time I could never get enough of it.
The trace of my fingertips up under his shirt, the sensation running across my abdomen from his touch that sent a jolt along the length of my spine. The bite of his zipper along my knuckles, the brush of long fingers as he unzips my pants. I was tugging him toward the bed; I was following along trying not to remove my mouth from his. Clothes were dropping in our wake. His, mine, it was hard to tell the difference. And I was saying his name, or maybe he was saying mine.
“Oh, God, McKay…”
“John… holy... shit…”
Breath at my ear, words on my lips, the taste of skin on my tongue, the nip of teeth on my neck.
“Christ, that’s incredible…you’re incredible…ahhh…”
“I can’t… I’m going to… I need to…”
“Right there… oh, fuck, don’t stop… please…”
But there was no stopping even if I had wanted to. And I didn’t, God did I not ever want to stop doing that. Because I couldn’t tell who was who anymore. I couldn’t tell if the blue eyes I was looking into were mine or his but God I hoped they were his because no one had ever looked at me that way before. No one had ever made me feel that way before. No one else had made me feel so welcome and wanted and needed. I’d never known anyone like Rodney McKay in my life. Arrogant, annoying, aggressive, agitated, amazing… so amazing.
So goddamn amazing.
Blue eyes transmuted to hazel, John’s room returned to the stone walls of the sanctuary, and his bed was now a pile of pillows on the floor. But we were both panting heavily, hands caressing slowly across each other’s bodies, legs tingling and tangled together, his lips resting lightly against my own.
“Really?” My voices cracked but I didn’t care, not after what I’d seen, not after what I’d sensed from him. So, I simply asked again in disbelief. “Really?”
His answer was to close the small distance between us, kissing away any doubt I might have had about how he felt. I pulled him in tight against me, trying my best to crawl under his skin as the fading tremors passed between us.
Things are never what they seem.
Sometimes moronic flyboys become your best friend. Sometimes your best friend becomes your whole purpose for being. Sometimes you’re willing to lie to your friends, lie to your teammates, and do everything you can like make up bullshit excuses about the context of Earth memories in order to protect your secret. Because if the truth got out and the repercussions hit, your entire world would be flipped upside down.
It’s like looking at an object as a reflection in a mirror. Friends revert into lovers, perceptions of what to expect for your future get warped by the past, and sometimes emotions are larger than they appear… a hell of a lot larger. But they’re still real. Sometimes more real than you ever thought they could be Sometimes it’s so goddamn real you think your chest is going to explode from the truth of it.
But sometimes you’re afraid the realism isn’t exactly what it seems.
John pulled away from me enough to take a breath, his eyes searching my face in a kind of desperate dread of what he would see there. He’d been afraid for me to see how he really felt, afraid I’d bolt like all the others if he got too close. Well, I couldn’t really hold it against him; he was a moronic flyboy after all. Sure, he was a MENSA-ready moron, but even geniuses have their weaknesses. Besides, he was my moronic flyboy and that wasn’t ever going to change if I had any say in the matter.
“Me too,” I promised, watching the anxiety fade from his gaze. “It’s that way for me, too.”
And if you’re really lucky, sometimes the reality is even better than you ever hoped it would be.