Summary: [AU] The signal had started a year and a half ago, maddening, popping up in Chicago, D.C., Charlotte, New York City, Santa Fe, Montgomery, Santa Cruz, Seattle, a town in Kansas with a name like Desperation and a place in North Dakota called, from what Rodney could remember, Sweaty Groin.
(Some days it’s faith, some days it’s technology that’s more trouble than it’s worth.)
The day before his discharge back to the States, he goes to the field hospital near Kandahar. The doctors and staff ignore him, too busy to bother, and the guys not drugged out of their minds stare at him, and then at Mitch, who is mostly plaster and bandages where he isn't burned beyond recognition.
"Don't tire him out," the duty nurse says with a glower, and leaves in a cloud of disapproval and disinfectant. He makes a noise of agreement she doesn't hear and makes himself look at Mitch, and the obscenely bright, painkiller-hazy eye gazing back at him.
"Got married again?" Mitch asks. The words, like most of the rest of him, are cracked and broken, and the laugh he tried out sounded like it hurt.
"Not exactly," he said, and reached for Mitch's hand.
The signal had started a year and a half ago, maddening, popping up in Chicago, D.C., Charlotte, New York City, Santa Fe, Montgomery, Santa Cruz, Seattle, a town in Kansas with a name like Desperation and a place in North Dakota called, from what Rodney could remember, Sweaty Groin.
"Maybe it just doesn’t work," Sam had said, as though Rodney would let any insult to the Array go unchallenged. "It has a lot of data to filter through."
By the time they’d had a team on the ground in all the places the activation signal showed up, it had vanished. In St. Louis, Rodney had pressured O’Neill to beam a team down only two hundred yards from the signal’s location, but there’d been a gigantic car wreck nearby and total chaos, and in that chaos, the signal had vanished. By the time Rodney had figured out how to calibrate the Daedalus transporters to lock onto the energy signature, just after Sweaty Groin, the signal had gone silent and stayed silent. And anyway, O’Neill had pointed out that randomly beaming up pieces of Ancient technology, with or without people attached to them, was a bad idea.
Hence the implementation of what Rodney considers to be an even worse plan, once the signal had popped up again – and appeared to be staying put.
"Searing torment," Rodney says, in case the situation isn't clear enough. The car splash-bangs through a pothole and one tire hits and catches in a pothole within the pothole, and Rodney’s head, which had been resting on the window, cracks painfully against the glass. His teeth click together, snapping down on the yelp of surprise and, almost, his inner cheek.
"It’s nice to know your piloting skills extend to driving," he mumbles. An investigation of his mouth reveals no blood and no chipped-off tooth enamel, which is something – something on a list of laughable and pathetic brevity – to be happy about.
"Yeah, well." Lorne has the wheel in a death grip, and with every jolt and jounce the wheel fights him, twisting bad-temperedly in his hands. "You do realize that keeping the car on the road is the only thing keeping me from shooting you."
"You promised – "
"I promised General O’Neill to keep the Trust from shooting you."
That, Rodney thinks, is true. Jack O’Neill, the smirky old bastard, had accepted Lorne’s promise not to let the Trust do anything like shoot, drug, kidnap, brainwash, clone, duplicate, supplant, or any-of-the-above Rodney, or kidnap him, remove his brain, and implant it or transport his brainwaves into a human body to create a supergenius monster to carry out their evil designs. That any of this could actually happen had been accepted with a straight face and utter seriousness by O’Neill and the rest of Stargate Command present.
They hadn’t been so sanguine about O’Neill’s smirky "don’t make promises you can’t keep," when Lorne had promised Sam Carter he wouldn’t shoot or drug Rodney either. And Sam had been most unprofessionally gleeful when she’d broken the news: that O’Neill had selected Rodney and Lorne to go investigate the reappearance of that mysterious, maddening power signature on the ATSA.
"It’s your baby," Sam had said, when Rodney had gone to her about it, indignant and incoherent with disbelief, What, you can’t just have the Daedalus beam us there? "The Array is your project, Rodney; you should follow up on it."
So that, Rodney thinks bleakly, has led him to the cramped confines of a budget rental car and the back of beyond, and the endless march of muddy, nondescript landscape. The infinite road unrolls across it, a million miles from anywhere, with its vista of brown grass and brown grass and yet more brown grass solidifies Rodney’s conviction that whoever had written about the fruited plains had clearly not had this corner of Nebraska in mind.
"Are we there yet?" he asks weakly.
"You asked that ten minutes ago." Lorne glances down at the GPS, which probably doesn't have a clue where in the hell they are, either. He makes a hard right and gravel rattles like machine-gun rounds off the car’s undercarriage. A sign posted at the corner, made with the artistic skill of an exceptionally idiotic child wielding Magic Markers, announces THIS WAY 2 SHO. An arrow indicates the direction, northeast across a cow pasture.
"Searing torment," Rodney says, but quietly, just in case.
Lorne’s snort tells him he’d been heard anyway, but Lorne doesn't say anything else. Rodney returns to his contemplation of the infinite void of the Midwest. The glass vibrating under his temple makes thinking about work difficult, the ergonomically-incorrect chair makes sleep impossible, so there's nothing to do except try to numb himself to the torture somehow. From the window, his reflection gazes dully back at him, washed out in the noncommittal light of a Nebraska fall. It looks every second of four years of futility.
Rodney tries hard not to think about that, four years of trying to convince the SGC back into the Atlantis project and four years of being told to work on the wretched Array – no no no, not going there – four years of playing a game of galactic keep-away, I said we are not going to think about it, McKay. All he'd gotten out of four years of frustration had been a handful of mysterious signals, some odds-and-ends of Ancient tech that had been mistaken for holy relics and enshrined in churches, and Carson Beckett had finally, finally finished work on the ATA gene, and Rodney has that too, now.
On the whole though, when they could be in Atlantis if not for the stupidity of bureaucracy, actually finding useful things instead of Ancient kaleidoscopes... Rodney feels the heat of something that is either heartburn or fury.
"McKay." Lorne’s voice, quick and tense, and his hand on Rodney’s thigh, brings him snapping back.
"Christ." Rodney sits up. At least three vertebrae pop.
"These people would agree with that." Lorne slows the car and pulls it off to the precarious-looking edge of the drainage ditch that runs alongside the road. "You sure that Array thing is working right?"
"Positive," Rodney snaps, and he'd be a lot more irritated about Major Does Not Have Multiple Degrees and his remark if he weren't been too busy processing the chaos that somehow, improbably, sprouts out of the vast emptiness.
The road empties out into what had once been a pasture but is now, to Rodney’s expert eye, a gigantic mud hole paved with rusting cars and trucks jammed end-to-end. People as dilapidated as their vehicles shuffle through the mud, and some of them – a lot of them, in fact, are in wheelchairs or being carried, or have oxygen tanks attached to them. In the distance, a large white tent of the sort favored by crazy pre-TV evangelicals the world over, looms above the parking lot, and the worn, clammy-looking people all move as a body toward it, as though pulled by an invisible force, disfigured salmon swimming upstream to spawn.
Numbly, Rodney climbs out of the car and fumbles for his handheld to confirm, because surely, surely… The handheld pings triumphantly to announce its connection to the Array, and the bright blue dot of activated Ancient tech begins to blink.
"You’re sure," Lorne says, not even bothering to sugarcoat the possibility that Rodney might be wrong.
"Unless the Array is lying," Rodney hisses, and turns the handheld so Lorne can see they're standing right on top of the signal. "It’s coming from the tent."
"Okay then," Lorne says with a simple agreeableness that Rodney hadn’t suspected him of possessing – it certainly hadn’t once been in evidence on the road – and when he turns to walk toward the tent, Rodney sees the flash of Lorne’s gun underneath his jacket.
They join the stream of people on course for the tent. Rodney's never before seen people who make him look healthy; next to them, he glows with physical and spiritual well-being, absolutely fucking shone with it. One woman, her skin crazed with lines and marred by liver spots, limps along next to him, bent over, and in her eye a dead look despite how she fixes her gaze on that tent and so far as she's concerned, Rodney McKay does not exist. One man, the back of his neck lasered a deep red by the sun, hacks and wheezes and Rodney's pretty sure that's lung tissue the man wipes off on his jeans.
The closer they get, the more the crowd slows and the more Rodney’s handheld agitates. And what the hell Ancient tech would be doing out here Rodney has no idea, except it's being used right now, by an ATA cow for all he knows, or by a – he stumbles again, and Lorne’s hand on his arm catches him.
"Ori maybe?" he whispers, like the people crowding against him with their leprous, palsied bodies would have any idea what the Ori are. Or maybe the leprous, palsied bodies are disguises, or maybe they're Ori zombies, or spies for the Trust. And this would totally be the way an Ori would get their start, at a tent revival with the speaking of tongues.
"We’ll find out," Lorne replies, just as quietly. "Keep your head low, McKay."
Rodney keeps his head low all the way up to the tent, right up to the point where he can see the dirt permanently impressed into the canvas and the people crowded so close he can smell them, sweat and sickness. Lorne is pressed close too and Rodney’s claustrophobia claws at his throat. Bony elbows and shoulders jostle him into the tent, past a luridly blue bucket with TIPS printed on the side in more idiot-child handwriting. It's full of money, small denominations.
Inside the tent: worse, exponentially, a million times worse than the line, even though the ill and the dying and the healthy people with them have arranged themselves into rows. Even the light is dirty and sick, filtering down through the canvas, and no amount of scrubbing, Rodney decides, is going to get that off him. The force of the current behind them pushes him and Lorne to the side, so Rodney finds himself trapped against the doubtful support of the canvas siding, and with nowhere else to go, slithers closer and closer to the front. Another check of the handheld said Rodney may as well be making out with whoever's using the tech, and looking up, he sees, yeah, he might as well be, and come to think of it, he'd like to.
"Can you pinpoint the source?" Lorne’s whisper is mostly breath, smelling of coffee but still minty from toothpaste.
"Him," Rodney says, and, keeping his head down, nods at the stage.
He hits the sand, knees, hands, elbows, chest, face, a lungful of the stuff. Coughing it out only means he breathes it back in, then suffocation until he gets out a cloth and ties it around his face. Behind him, the dying helicopter quiets, the pace of the rotors slowing, the wind across his back not as fierce as before.
Right there, he's right there, eyes staring blankly and blood the only vivid thing in the desert: beige, tan, washed-out green, shocking crimson, brown where the blood drips and soaks into the sand.
With one hand, he fumbles for the pocket of his vest, for hope, with the other he searches for limp fingers. He finds a wrist instead, no drumbeat of pulse under it, and looks up through sand-sore eyes to see an empty face under its coating of red.
As he watches, the face shifts, changes, and isn't Holland anymore: it's a woman, worn to old age before her time, her cheekbones prominent and her eyes not like Holland’s at all, still desperately alive. He reaches out, left hand only, and touches the hollow curve of that cheek, and she smiles unsteadily at him.
My name is Lucy Casper, I am thirty-two. My husband divorced me when he found out, I have a daughter in kindergarten and a sister who still won’t speak to me. I have leukemia, and the doctors say I have four months, but my body is dying faster than that.
A flash of that, a heartbeat drawn out to the length of a conversation, like sitting down to coffee, knowledge of her running through his blood and the cancer twisting through it like poison, through nerves and bones and organs weakened by the radiation and drugs that haven't done anything. She shudders under his hand, and she sags, I miss my sister, I don’t want to die, and that moment comes, when something in his body and hers falls into alignment, or does something his words can't explain.
She steadies, catching herself, and now touching her is like touching purity.
"Thank you," Lucy murmurs, and places her hand – still pale but warmer now, steady – against his cheek.
She says something about the Lord blessing and keeping him, and he’s never been able to bring himself to respond to that beyond a half-hearted smile, so he does the same now, and watches her go and tries to ignore the chorus of Amens and the one – there's always one – who starts singing hymns. She disappears into the crowd, into embraces and out of his life, and he wipes his hand on his jeans.
Despite being sick and weak, the people around him are remarkably hard to shift, but unencumbered of politeness, Rodney manages it. Unlike Lorne, who winces at every shove and elbow, Rodney has no scruples when it came to figuring out a puzzle, and this… this is a year-and-a-half-long puzzle on the verge of being solved. He pushes the wheezing black lung sufferer out of his way, and with that sees the solution to eighteen months of frustration.
No altar or anything, but the man is taller than most, with a shock of dark hair that doesn't look like it belongs to a revivalist, and very un-Christian stubble and disreputable clothes, jeans and a worn blue shirt that might have had something written on it once. A young woman stands in front of him, short enough that Rodney can see his face, young- and old-looking both at once.
As he watches, the man lifts his hand to the woman’s face, and even the faint light coming down through the canvas – a light which is in no way holy, or miraculous, but dirty and dying with the afternoon – snags on the edges of a ring around the man’s third finger.
Then his hand is on her face, fingertips resting carefully against it. The woman sways and it is, it really is, something out of those crazy religious shows on the public access channels, with the huge woman next to him shrieking Hallelujah! and people breaking into song and praise, and the man – the faith healer, Rodney thinks with no small amount of incredulity – steadies the woman when her knees give out.
Silence falls, and the congregation, alert despite the fact that its members are all at death’s door, leans forward as one. Clearly they expect something, a sermon or maybe the manifestation of the Holy Ghost, Rodney has no idea.
"Him?" Lorne mutters. "The faith healer? You sure?"
"Unless it’s an Ancient oxygen tank, yes," Rodney mumbles, forgetting to keep his voice down, already thinking about what they have to do to wrest the device from the clutches of a fanatic. "What do we do? We can’t just…" Rodney can't even bring himself to say take him, even though they have the Daedalus on speed-dial. There'd be riots, hysterical reports about the Rapture, and worse, the use of highly-classified technology in front of the general public.
"We can talk to him," Lorne says. "After making sure."
"And how do you propose we do that, Major – "
Rodney wheels around from his furious address to the side of Lorne’s neck.
The faith healer stands there, disheveled and impatient and not really saintly at all. The congregation's gone quiet, and Rodney finds himself suddenly, uncomfortably, the focus of a rheumatic, yet intense, attention.
"Are you sick, or is this a tiff or what?" the faith healer asks.
"Sick," Rodney says immediately. Lorne possesses the sense to keep his mouth shut. "Severe hypertension, life-threatening allergies. I nearly died twice on the way here. I’m sure it’s only God’s mercy that’s kept me alive this long."
"Allergies," the faith healer says flatly. This close he still has that old-young look, grey in his beard and tanned unevenly, but his mouth moves as though he's trying to keep himself from smiling. "Really."
"Really." Rodney sees Lorne frowning at him and adjusts the sarcasm in his tone downward. "I mean, do you think allergies don’t count as severe bodily impairment? For all you know, I could walk out of here and drink from a water glass at that diner thirty miles back and keel over because that glass’s previous user had used the lemon slice."
"Lemons." The faith healer is laughing, the bastard, "Okay, then."
And like that he's stepping forward, and Rodney sees the ring in stark, sudden relief, the faintest tracery of what he knows, knows is Ancient script, and looking up he sees more golden traces in the faith healer’s eyes, which are mostly green and brown but with other fascinating colors. He braces himself for prayer, a healthy splash of holy water, but fingertips lie carefully against his face, abraded, capable, belonging to a person who’s spent his life doing things.
And, before Rodney can register it – flicker, flash, a warm forehead solid against his and those grounding fingers the only thing holding him still for a moment before something more shocking: a mouth, even warmer, soft and supple, rough at the edges, on his.
Whatever he is, he's being pulled out of himself, pulled out by those fingers and that mouth, and he struggles to keep himself, and reaching out comes back with memories of sand and dust and sticky heat pouring over one hand, fuck fuck fuck, don’t die, I came as fast as I could, why the hell aren’t you working? and that – that isn't him at all.
That knowledge comes in the second part of the heartbeat, the thud heavy and he's back in his body, Rodney McKay again, and he's falling.
My name is Rodney McKay, and I am thirty-nine years old. I have hypertension and allergies, which are not quite as severe as I led you to believe, and I suspect I also have an inflamed disc between my fourth and fifth vertebrae, as well as seasonal-affective disorder and restless leg syndrome. I have PhDs in astrophysics and mechanical engineering and a sister who won’t speak to me and I spend my life under a mountain, trying to get to another planet, and I'm freaking the hell right now, but this... it's kind of nice. Nice. Jesus.
Two years back stateside with the stupid ring in his pocket and a dishonorable discharge hanging over his head, and did he mention a stupid ring that let him heal people like a ring right out of a fairy tale? And out of all of that, too many hospitals and getting out of town before someone's miraculously reversed brain damage hit the newspapers, this was the weirdest thing that had ever happened to him, this man who’d appeared out of nowhere with hypertension and allergies.
No more hypertension and allergies, John thinks. McKay had fallen over like he’d taken a two-by-four between the eyes, and John had barely had time to register trying to get to another planet, much less work out the relative degree of insanity belonging to it, before people were thronging around, almost hysterical and demanding to know what had happened. He’d gotten rid of the congregation, explaining about needing time for prayer and meditation, which he did need, because the man had been thinking about other planets and thinking in a way that suggested he was sane. No delirium, no delusion, and that was just fucking crazy.
Whatever it is that lets him move seamlessly through different people, he still has it – in Afghanistan he’d gotten by with the natives on not much more than his smile and the bits of Farsi and Pashto he’d picked up around Kandahar – because they prayed for the unconscious McKay (something John was pretty sure McKay would not appreciate) and left quietly.
"Farmhouse." He and Lorne had half-shuffled McKay the short distance up to the farmhouse he’s been renting – squatting in, really, waiting for motorcycle parts – and ten minutes later McKay's stirring atop John’s sleeping bag, squinting warily up at the sun trickling through the shutters. Light falls on the thin streak of iris and its spectacular blue.
"Hell," McKay corrects. "I’m in hell." He collapses back and his eyes slip shut. "I have a pounding headache."
"Yeah, sorry about that… You hit your head on Old Bob’s crutch." The sound had been impressive, Thwack!, like in the classic Batman. He says this, and McKay moans.
"Can you sit up?" Lorne asks. He looks an awful lot like the boys from John’s much-hated private school, spit-and-polished and polite, and military down to the bone, way down past the Glock under his shirt and the smaller handgun strapped to his leg.
"Can I projectile vomit? Can we find out?" McKay asks grumpily. Lorne pauses, and McKay opens one eye to give him a truly venomous look. "Some help would be nice."
With a patience John's only seen less-obstinate pilots show to a commanding jackass, Lorne helps McKay sit up. What he thinks of the kiss – what, for that matter, John thinks of the kiss, and what McKay thinks – John has no idea.
"Ohhhh, that will linger," McKay whimpers. He presses the heel of one hand to his eye, as though the eyeball had been dislodged and he's pushing it back. John swallows. After a moment of internal struggle, McKay straightens and opens his eyes, and despite the bitching about excruciating pain, his eyes are clear and steady, and sharp with annoyance. "I don't suppose if you can heal chronic hypertension you can heal what could be either a concussion or a subdural hematoma."
"It's not a subdural hematoma," John says, but then remembers kissing Rodney – sharp, keen as McKay's mind is – and that had been the best-feeling thing in years, and nods. "But... just in case."
"Will there be kissing?" Lorne asks.
"Go call the SGC," McKay orders. "I’ll scream if he tries to kill me. I need to talk to him."
Lorne's face has something of a sarcastic reply in it, but like most other soldiers, he doesn't offer it. Instead, he gives John a look – "If he were... if he were one of those people, Major, we would already be dead by now, so go, go. Go!" with this accompanied by a one-two-three snapping of McKay's fingers – and leaves. The floor creaks underfoot and the door moans arthritically when Lorne opens it. McKay looks up and around, clearly expecting the ceiling to come down on his head, and John honestly can't blame him.
McKay mutters something about structural instability and dying in the back of beyond, and has to tear his gaze away from the far side of the now-defunct living room, where the wallpaper and plaster have begun to abandon the wall in chunks. That blue gaze is still astonishingly direct, honed to focus by a wide mouth now thinned in unhappiness and looking at him, John realizes anew that nothing in his life is ever simple.
"Let's take care of that," John says, before McKay can return to the bitching and before he can think anymore about what he's going to do. He slides out of his chair and kneels, and McKay's unhappiness vanishes into surprise.
We've done this already, John reminds him, and McKay nods.
He winces when John's fingers slide through his hair (soft, soft, tawny and a bit muddy from the tent floor) and finds the bump and cut on the back of his head. McKay's mouth opens on a soft gasp, warm and easy to kiss him again, and what had been a way to put McKay off-balance, another point of contact, becomes too good too fast, dizzying so he can only catch the faintest scraps of McKay's thoughts. And anyway, they move like lightning and are all unbelievable: spaceships, that mountain again, a laboratory full of mysterious things, a towering circular device that lights up with lights and blue water and takes people to other worlds.
He breaks it off, drugged and caught between what Rodney's mind had offered him , and the overwhelming fact of Rodney's mouth on his, only half-aware of the small flash of healing, skin stitching together and arteries knitted whole. All that's left for him to do is brush away dried blood with his fingertips. What sun is left filters through the broken window and falls on the pale curve of Rodney's neck, vulnerable above the high collar of his fleece.
"What’s your name?" McKay's hands rest on his thighs, although the fingers twitch as though in search of something to do, to touch. The hazy expression doesn't have much to do with the slight, now-healed concussion.
"John Sheppard," John says. McKay grunts something that, in his world, probably means nice to meet you. "And you're Rodney McKay."
"Did Lorne – " McKay – Rodney – starts, and stops. "No... No, you – Jesus." Despite the light his eyes widen. "Fucking hell, you read my mind. You read my mind when you healed me."
"This is... Shit. Fucking shit." Rodney's entire body goes tense, and he buries his head in his hands. "I knew... I saw what you, but I didn't... Oh, this is not good. So not good. So even worse than I'd thought, but I don't suppose it matters because you're going to have to come with us anyway."
Suspicion now, deep, cutting, always there, but you're going to have to come with us hones it to an edge. They'd stood out anyway, Lorne with his drill-team precision and McKay with movements too big for the tent and that crowd to contain them, too animated and vibrantly alive. He hadn't taken Lorne's gun, though maybe he should have; those hadn't been bodyguard movements back in the tent, when Lorne had bent over Rodney's fallen form and checked for a pulse and somehow made himself bigger to keep the crowd away.
"Go where?" he asks. "Under the mountain with you?"
"I... Yes, to start." McKay wavers to his feet, lifts his hand to rub at the bruise that's no longer there. John gets up too, hand half-extended in case Rodney wants to faint again, but Rodney moves out of touching range, and starts to pace. In some wonderment, John watches, listens to the creak-creak-creak of Rodney's strides – four up, four back, each turn punctuated by a gesture John can't decipher, and woven in with muttering he can't understand.
"Look, this is... We've been, well – " Rodney pauses and looks at him. "I can't tell you much, because to be honest I doubt you'd even be able to comprehend a tenth of it, and even if you could, that tenth is very, very highly classified." Another pause. "You’re not one of those crazy fundamentalists are you?" He gazes at John pleadingly, and that's unexpectedly affecting, how Rodney doesn't even hide that he needs something. "I mean, the kind that believe in a geocentric universe created no more than seven thousand years ago? Because some of the explanation you’re owed is very… heretical."
"No, and I'm not going anywhere with you," John says, and crosses his arms. It earns the expected reaction – an explosion of frustration from McKay, and shouting about how, believe me, if you only knew what was out there, and how big this is, which shades straight into tin-hat fantasies about people Rodney can't mention specifically being interested in John for several reasons.
"Your nifty ring is one of them." Rodney nods at John's hand.
John swallows and slips the ring off his finger. It's been quiet for a while now, no healing to be done. His magic ring, and he supposes he shouldn't criticize Rodney for thinking of things out of bad science fiction.
"So you're a faith healer." Rodney leans heavily on the words, so much sarcasm John had to shake his head. "At least you aren't trying to convert me... You managed to stay under everyone's radar for a long time." Rodney has his hands in his pockets now, but he still shifts from foot to foot. "Why'd you decide to start up the show?"
"I needed money," John says, and that's true. "I blew through my savings, and I didn't – well, I needed money. Busted bike."
"And playing Oral Roberts was to fund repairs to your Harley. Oh my god."
"Crowds are getting too big… they’ve been too big." John has to turn away from Rodney's sharp, knowing face, looks out the window to the abandoned, empty sanctuary. "I should get going." Past time, his TIPS bucket has been full for a day and that's more than enough to get him back on the road for a long time, lesson learned. "Look, I'll keep my mouth shut. Military, right?"
"It's not that simple," Rodney sighs. He steps closer; John can sense the warmth of his presence, oddly welcome despite the threat he represents. "Again, it's classified and I know you're not going to want to hear this, but I want – need – that ring. You have no idea what it is."
Neither had the crazy Afghani who'd given it to him, that night when John found himself trapped in that village with his own country's bombs exploding above his head. He'd picked out enough of the man's words to understand it was a gift, thanks, although for what John still has no idea. For still being alive and not in an American detention facility, maybe.
"Listen." Rodney takes a breath, as if for patience. "God did not bless that ring. In fact, God has nothing whatsoever to do with you possessing it, and it doesn’t give you the ability to heal puppies with the transcendent power of your faith."
"It doesn’t." Rodney has a small black device out now, and stabs impatiently at the keyboard. "In fact, once I establish a connection to the Array, I can show you – " He shakes the handheld once, grumbles something profane, and shakes it even harder. "It’s not even working, it was fine before, but it’s not – " His head snaps up, and that... that's horror, stark and pale, on Rodney's face.
"Lorne?" Rodney eels past John, a fast mover despite his shoulders and a body that suggests he spends most of his life sitting down. "Lorne!"
"McKay!" John hollers, reaching, but it's too late. Rodney barrels through the front door, and over his shoulder John sees four men with weapons, and another man lying on the ground. "Lorne!" Rodney shouts again, and John tries to catch him, gets one hand on Rodney’s shirt to haul him back –
The next thing he knows, he's in a room, not in the farmhouse, bare white walls and light from a row of fluorescents set into the ceiling. A metal door, windowless and formidable, gleams on the far wall. No handle on it. Stretching his neck, John peers up into the glare of the lights and sees no cameras, but he has the sense of watching eyes anyway.
He's tied up, of course, plastic zip-ties like he's a bag of lawn clippings, and the chair underneath him is, like the door, unyielding and metallic, too short so he has to stretch his legs out or fold them under.
"Hey!" he shouts, despite the racketing headache. They're watching, they know he's awake. "Room service! Front fucking desk!"
John hollers for a few more minutes; silence and an unopened door reward him. He considers yelling again, but before he can start up, the door swings open and a man walks in, as featureless as the room, a man with the pasty, dull face of every bureaucrat John's ever seen. He even has the suit, navy blue and anonymous with a plain tie, and brown hair cut short.
"Hello, Major Sheppard." The smile the man offers him is bland as oatmeal.
"You got a name?" The man only smiles and shakes his head – "Playing hard to get?" John asks – and reaches into a pocket. As he does, the cuff of his jacket rolls back and John sees a glint of silver, a heavy watch maybe, or something else. When the man withdraws his hand, he opens it to display the ring, gold and warm and familiar, a faint throb in the corner of John's mind.
"A marvelous device," the man says, rolling the ring between thumb and forefinger, stepping back, and John realizes he's been leaning forward, drawn to the ring and wanting it. "Do you know what the writing says? Madeor ego, mendem korposkir sano. Not a language you'd find in most high schools, Major Sheppard."
"It's a ring," John says past a dry throat. "Got it in Coney Island. Skee-Ball. Gave it to my girlfriend, she left it behind when she dumped me. Sad."
"You have no idea what it is." Rodney had said the exact same thing.
"Okay, Bob – you mind if I call you Bob? – Bob, what the hell is it?"
Another smile slithers across Bob's lips and vanishes. "You know what it is well enough, Major Sheppard, and you have known for at least the past year – probably before, I would say, but McKay is infuriatingly good at encryption and security measures and it took us a good six months to break into the Array."
"Array?" John blinks, and tries to project as much simple-minded backcountry stupidity as possible.
"The fewer questions you ask, the better it might be for you, although not by much." Bob rocks back on his heels, rolls the ring across the tops of his fingers. John really hates being tied up. "John Sheppard, dishonorable discharge for going against direct orders in an attempt to save a comrade who had been shot down. You have more to offer the world – far more – than your government knows, or would appreciate even if it did. Stay here. There’s no reason for you to be tied up like this."
"Any time you want to undo these?" John tugs at the zip-ties, doesn't hide the wince at the plastic scraping the inside of his wrist. "Fine by me." And okay, the guy has an American accent but clearly had expatriated himself a long time ago – maybe, judging from the inhuman calm, to one of those other planets Rodney had thought about. "Look, you have the ring." And clearly this guy was not about to let him go, but it never hurt to ask. "So why don't you drop me off back in town and we'll call it even."
"Unfortunately, many of these devices imprint on their users after they're activated, and the... the ring is one of these, and regrettably, we find you necessary for the time being." The man presses a button on the silvery device around his wrist. A moment later, a truly gigantic man appears, almost paralyzed under folds of muscle.
"You know," John reminds himself of what pain was like, of Bosnia, those two weeks in Nicaragua that had felt like eternity, hunching in the dark, cold desert with Holland dead next to him, "You know, I knew a bodybuilder named Steve. He took steroids… You know what those do."
"I'm afraid," Bob the bureaucrat says, as though John hadn’t spoken, "you look like the kind of man who will need convincing, Major Sheppard."
"I don't know," John says, eyeing Steve the bodybuilder and his Egyptian garb. "I can be pretty easy sometimes, but why don't we start with 'no way in hell' and go from there?"
"It would be," the woman says, all insidious slink and severe black skirt, "in your best interests to cooperate with us, Dr. McKay."
“See, I know that," Rodney says earnestly, "Believe me, I do, but it is… it’s only, well, I have a deep-seated aversion to working with people incapable of developing technology on their own. It has to do with my allergy to terminal idiocy."
They hadn’t let him see John since they’d been tossed in their cell that first time, and John had been unconscious, coltish arms and legs sprawled out – they’d literally tossed them in – and Rodney had gathered John close and tried to support his head because the floors were hard and cold and John could have had a spinal injury. And while John had been unconscious, he’d been warm too, and sort of comforting in a completely useless sort of way, lying there while Rodney insulted his hair and his parentage.
Then the Incredible Hulk had come and hauled John up by the scruff of his neck and taken him, despite Rodney’s heartfelt, imaginative threats. And then the woman had come, refusing to give her name, and Rodney had told her exactly what he’d thought of working for people stupid enough to abduct Sam Carter instead of him. Then there had been something involving needles and pain too white-hot to want to remember.
He comes around to another excruciating headache and fireworks behind his closed eyes, and his entire body writhes as though covered with ants. That images is so horrible he lurches upright and his eyes fly open so he can see the ants for himself, and pain makes the dark room an agony of brightness.
"Lie back," says a voice, raspy and quiet with only an edge of command about it. Rodney sinks back, supported by a pair of hands. Fingers slide out from underneath his head and leave it resting on a pillow of laughable thinness. "You okay?"
"No," Rodney says. "I am really, sincerely not okay."
"I know," and the words have a sorrow in them Rodney's wholly unaccustomed to hearing, and that means... he struggles for what that might mean. Dying? Oh god. He makes himself ask the question.
"You're not dying," the voice tells him impatiently, and that is – that's familiar. John. That's John, and now that Rodney thinks about it, John is the warm thing pressed up close against his side. "But you're going to feel like hell for a while."
"Are you... are you okay?" Rodney asks. God, his throat is dry.
"Just dandy," John says with maddening cheerfulness. "Nice people you hang out with."
Nice people. Rodney thinks about claustrophobia-inducing cells and the horror stories he's heard from people they'd gotten back. They'd taken Sam once, and once he and O'Neill had found her and gotten her out, she'd hugged him, too grateful and relieved to even make a joke about how he totally could have copped a feel and this was probably the first time in years he'd had a woman's breasts pressed against him like that.
"They do like hitting people," John says reflectively. Rodney focuses on his tone, and hears a tightness behind it. When he manages to overcome the heart-twisting terror of opening his eyes, he does, and blinks away the pain and the private laser show and sees, in the dimness, John's face, mostly in shadow but with darker patches.
"I've had worse," John says, and in any other circumstance, the Black Knight accent would have earned a rebuke for the utter sadness that was an American pretending to be British, or maybe an incendiary make-out session because Rodney likes Monty Python as quoted by hot, disheveled men. "You mind telling me about these guys?"
"The Trust," Rodney says miserably. "I’ve managed to avoid being kidnapped and brainwashed by them for the past several years, but I guess all good things must come to an end and all that."
"Do you mind explaining?" John shifts from one hip to sit more fully against the wall; the warmth of his body vanishes for a moment, and Rodney wants to protest, but then it returns, solid and reassuring already, and Rodney wonders if it's sort-of knowing a person's mind that makes being hurt, being in a cell, not as horrible, or if it's just having another person. Or if, maybe, it's John.
"Bad people… Just, you know," Rodney waves a hand, "really bad people. They like scavenging technology, sometimes to sell it to other people with nefarious purposes, sometimes just to keep it for their own. Really bad people, as I said. They're a lot of the reason I asked you to come with me."
"I figured that." John works his jaw and it cracks painfully. Rodney makes a quiet, sympathetic sound; in the shadows, he can see John turn to him, rueful smile there, like John doesn't smile often. "They like their work."
"You’re not more rattled about this." That memory comes back, sand under his knees and up his clothes and everywhere, an arm covered in camouflage. "You’re… you’re military. I don’t know what branch, though."
"Air Force." John's voice was tense, but not from the bruising. "You could -- you read my mind too... I know it works like that."
"Yeah. Most of it's, uh, most of it's gone now." Except for the blood and the rush of sorrow, and it seems wrong to know John like that. In the shadows, John's face is grateful, which only makes Rodney feel worse. "But I'm sure you... I'm sure you've got questions. And," he added, "since they've done that to your face, probably I should tell you what you want to know."
"How did you find me?" He still sits close, body slouched and deceptively casual with his knees drawn up and his forearms resting atop them.
"The Ancient Technology Sensor Array," Rodney tells him, and despite the cell and despite his imminent death or brainwash-induced enslavement to the Trust, can't keep back the pride. John grins, plainly hearing it, and that's okay, that's good, even though John frowns when the smile pulls at a bruise. "It's tuned to detect a very specific type of technology that was current on Earth ten million years ago – and no, don't ask me to explain, it's a tangent – and we're in... Well, it's a war, I guess. The technology is a big part of that. People are the other big part."
"People like me. Bob... the guy I, uh, talked to, mentioned that."
"And people they think can fix or find alien tech. My sister’s family lives in protective custody… The Trust tried to kill her and my niece because of me." Rodney carefully does not think of what Jeannie had said to him when he’d gone to see them on the safe planet.
You might as well meet Madison, Jeannie had said at last. She'd settled down into some version of a housewife on an alien world, and kept her physics to herself despite the weight of the SGC pressuring her to help them. You only took her away from her school and her friends, you can’t possibly do any worse.
He dares a glance at John, who's still bruised and half-covered with darkness, and who still has ridiculous hair, but who also doesn't look frightened at all.
"We can't stay here," John says. "Can they find us? Will they?" John leans heavily on the will, and Rodney knows he meant Will they find us in time?. He considers reminding John that both of them are a lot more valuable alive than dead, Rodney with his brains and John with his ATA gene, both important commodities and – this is especially true of intelligence – in short supply.
"Eventually," Rodney says at last, thinking of Sam and how they'd needed two weeks to find her.
"You trust me?" Despite the quick smile that accompanies the question, Rodney hears death and seriousness.
"Yeah," he says, not because he has to, but because he does.
"Okay." John draws a breath and lets it out. "They had me out for a little while to, you know, talk and get to know one another, but they made sure I was unconscious for a good part of the trip back and forth."
"I was... inside one of these places once," Rodney says, and that's another thing to not think about, having to go along with O'Neill, Teal'c and Jackson to get Sam out of prison. "There are guides, terminal access points, that sort of thing."
"Okay," John says again. "Here's what we'll do."
His plan, so far as Rodney can tell, is suicide: jumping the guard, who's certain to be heavily armed, and basically "running like idiots," only John makes it sound a lot more sophisticated and black-ops.
"Trust me," John repeats, the words emphasized by John looking at him with those funny green-brown-gold eyes, and Rodney has to nod. "Stay behind me, okay?"
"Right," Rodney mutters, and his reward is John's fingers on his wrist, warm and firm, for a moment that stretches on and on.
"If they..." If they try to take me, just... end it, he wants to say, because he'd seen what had happened to friends the Trust got a hold of, all twisted up and twisted wrong, and they'd wanted to do that to Jeannie, who was brilliant but also innocent of everything Rodney did, and that had been... He swallows; she might hate him, but at least she's safe. "Don't let them," he said, and pressed closer.
"They won't," and John's voice is absolute.
That, at least, is something to trust, and part of him believes that, believes it because when he sees John move again – when the door opens to reveal the Incredible Hulk on human growth hormone, dressed in the paralyzingly familiar Egyptian loincloth and jewelry, every nightmare from Rodney’s "Welcome to the Rest of the Galaxy" orientation – when he sees John move it's lethal poetry.
For himself, Rodney tries to move, but his legs lock up tight, along with his lungs and his brain. Or maybe John has stolen movement and swiftness from him because he's in under the Hulk’s guard, no chance in these tight quarters for him to swing that club of his. Despite what Rodney's sure has to be worse than bruises, John moves like liquid, in and down and he's a blur, and before Rodney knows it, the Hulk crumples to the floor.
John shakes out his hand, mouth tight with pain , but he doesn't pause, doesn't even look at the guard, just scoops up the weapon and examines it, brow furrowed like he's mind-reading again.
"Let’s go," John says after a moment. He trots down the hall, not looking back, and Numbly, Rodney follows, resisting the urge to glance over his shoulder for the storm troopers he's sure are coming. John slows and keeps him close, which is a relief, even though looking at him isn't really looking at John, not the man he's kissed, not the guy from the tent or the falling-down house, or the hurt, unconscious man drooling on Rodney’s leg.
"We’re going to have to do this together, okay?" John asks, so calm and reasonable Rodney's torn between freaking out and being calm. He chooses, to his own surprise, the latter. "There’s access points, junctions, you’ll probably have to override." John glances over at him, eyebrow ironically arched. "Think you’re up to that, or do you need to faint?"
"Oh, please," Rodney sniffs, because there's something maddening, challenging in that tone, that begs its owner to be proven wrong.
Rodney has them out of the first two corridors in record time, because, as he explains to John, the Trust are a bunch of capitalists, out for profit and stupid enough with it that they skimp on internal security, and their cryptography is for crap. Another door opens with a satisfying hiss at that pronouncement. "See?" he says, stepping through. "Morons."
"Bob said they only needed six months to hack into the Array," John says idly.
"I'm going to pretend you didn't say that."
"Major Sheppard! Doctor McKay." Footsteps, click-click of expensive leather on concrete, not the march of storm troopers, but Rodney's heart still tries to leap out of his throat and run away.
"Rodney," John herds Rodney behind him, like he's the damsel in distress, or like he should be scared of – Rodney cranes his head to see over John's shoulder – a little guy in a bad suit.
Bob, Rodney supposes, in his bad suit but carrying a zat – "Not good, not at all good," Rodney hisses to John, who doesn't even look back at him – and what Rodney can see of John's face promised pain.
"Major Sheppard," Bob says, "it would be a lot better for you if you – "
However fast he is, John's faster, like lightning and just as deadly: flowing neatly under the weapon that comes up too fast, and Rodney misses some of it because he's ducking to avoid being stunned or killed or evaporated, but he registers a confusion of dirty blue jeans and bureaucratic polyester, the Jaffa staff weapon a blur. Bob's voice spikes upward shrilly, in desperation or warning.
Crunch, it cuts off.
When Rodney looks again, Bob had crumpled to the floor, John not even bothering to catch him.
"Oh my god," Rodney whispers, and because he feels a deep, compelling need to state the obvious: "You killed him."
"Better him than us," John says with chilling finality. He picks up the zat and examines it. "This looks like a Nerf gun."
"It's worse than that." Rodney's never actually fired a zat himself, but he's seen it done, and explains the rules. John's face darkens. He stuffs the zat in the back of his jeans, which managed to be both clichéd and hot, mostly because it reveals the smooth, tan slope of John's lower back, and John is terrible and beautiful, bent over Bob's very dead body, searching him.
"What are you – "
"This." John pulls the ring from Bob's coat pocket. "They were probably on their way to get me again," he says, and he doesn't sound at all worried about that.
"I think – I need to freak out for a moment," Rodney says faintly. "In fact, I'm positive." And it isn't like he didn't know military people, and he'd seen O'Neill very calmly empty a P90 into the people at the compound where the Trust had stashed Sam. He'd even fired a P90 himself and had the wrist strain to prove it, but this... That had been John's hand on Bob's neck, the same hand he wears the ring on, that had touched Rodney's face and hadn't hurt at all.
Silently, Rodney watches John tuck the ring into his shirt pocket and step over the body.
"Let's go," John says, ignoring Rodney's need for a comprehensive psychotic break, and they're off again, corridors and corridors and Rodney deciphering on the fly – "This is a lot like the place I was at before, they're pretty consistent – again, because they're morons" – to lead them up to another sublevel, into a lift, through corridors that stay eerily silent.
"This place is a maze." John pushes Rodney into the shadows when footsteps sound too close. Another set pass nearby, approaching and fading, dopplering into the distance. "Probably why we're still alive."
"I, uh, first door, managed to override most of the security cameras. But I bet you anything the run of luck is going to run out. It always does." Rodney's heart rackets in terror against his chest, and why it hasn't pounded its way out, how the Trust hadn't heard them, even if the Trust couldn't see them for now. He finds the sequence of lights that indicated the tunnel to the exit – or, he supposed, the way to the torture chambers, but the old compound had been blue-and-white alternating lights.
The lights lead them to a door, hugely reinforced, the kind that Rodney prefers to have between himself and nuclear explosions.
"It’s on lockdown," Rodney mutters. "That’s the blast door; the only way to override it and get it open is from the control room; the codes are slaved to a particular workstation. Good thinking, if you’re only extremely moronic."
"Can you rig this? Make it explode?" John's hands describe a mushroom cloud.
"Is the Pope Catholic?" Rodney shoulders John out of the way, and doesn't miss John’s grin, the kind of grin anticipatory of destruction. "It's a pirated Asgard security system. Asgard are good about failsafes, the Trust, not so much because they look at it as wasted effort seeing as they are colossally idiotic in certain ways, so if you know how..." And he does, he really does, and despite it being his life, his and John's lives, it feels good to show off. He has the casing off in a heartbeat and the control crystals out and shoved in John's hands with instructions not to drop them. The power conduits are next, one finger to tease out and then crush the wire that leaches off excess power from the grid, then another order to Sheppard for the second crystal only – because, he explains, one crystal can't handle all that power going through it, and the Trust is going to dedicate all power to internal security first.
"Morons," Rodney adds, and slots the crystal back in. "We should probably get the hell out of here."
"Sounds good." John's hand on his, and his heart should not skip like that, tugging him into a jog and then a run.
Like cracking the whip, John yanks and Rodney takes three huge, flying steps and his momentum carries him around a corner. John shoves him up behind the wall, hard, and presses him close, cold concrete against Rodney's back and John's warm, firm body all along his front, chest and chest, hip and hip, John's breath pushing his ribs and belly against Rodney's.
"This is nice," John says to the frantic pulse galloping in Rodney's neck, the best heat of all, John's breath sliding silk and warm over his skin, and if it didn't mean death Rodney wouldn't mind staying here.
More heat comes when the door explodes weirdly anticlimactic with John far more incendiary and much closer. Heat, and possibly shrapnel, skims by Rodney’s left arm, flares and vanishes like the roar that accompanies the door blowing apart. Rodney’s eardrum threatens to buckle in protest, but it holds, and after the crescendo a few fragments of steel and plastics thud gently, quietly, to the floor and roll away.
"This is going to pull them, you know," Rodney says. "We’re good as dead."
"O ye…" John trails off in a smirk, and Rodney remembers about the bruises just in time, and how John can apparently kill with his pinky as well as heal with his ring finger, and doesn't punch him.
"Look, put on the ring. If we can get to the surface and get out of whatever interference field they’ve got set up, I can get us the rest of the way out." He has his subcutaneous transmitter, standard issue, and the prayer that Lorne is alive, that the Daedalus is watching and has someone at the helm smart enough to recognize the Ancient tech signature.
That is, he thinks, a lot to hope for on a day that already has too much faith in it for him.
"I’m a bit out of practice," John tells Rodney after another pair of foot soldiers hit the dirt. A bit out of practice, yeah, but it all comes back fast enough because black ops drilled killing into him deeper than into his bones. "Do you know how close we're getting?"
"One more level up, and there's a small access door," Rodney says after a heartbeat of looking at the schematics again. "We have to hurry."
"No, really? I thought that's what we were doing."
"I mean," Rodney grunts, "hurry faster."
"I can do that."
It's the closest he's come to a team, a co-pilot, since before the disaster with Holland, before Mitch and Dex got themselves blown out of the sky, jogging alongside a cranky, asthmatic team member who bitches and is fearless when he remembers his brain is more powerful than the sword. John watches as Rodney rigs a couple more explosions, these designed to travel along conduits and explode in random places.
"You can never be too careful, and I think at this point the Trust would rather just have us dead," Rodney says with an unexpected casualness. "Let's go."
They do go, up more anonymous stairs, guided by Rodney's familiarity with all things evil and megalomaniacal – "Science fiction does get some things right, and one of them is that evil overlords always have predictable floor plans" – and after five more men go down, Rodney stops looking at them.
At last they're up and out, almost, according to Rodney, and John makes himself go slow and easy, because this is the part where the good people die, right at the threshold of victory.
But they don't die. Rodney gets the door open without difficulty, with a remark about how he's so good he even manages to surprise himself, and beyond the door there's rolling prairie nothingness and freedom, and nowhere to hide.
"Keep your head down," John orders, and Rodney mutters I've heard that before. A hand on the back of Rodney's neck ensures obedience, even though it's impossible not to be seen, but they can maybe make it past firing range, dig in and lie low somewhere. He's hidden in broad daylight before, knows there are different ways to be stealthy.
"We're probably out of the bubble by now," Rodney shouts breathlessly, pounding alongside John like a locomotive. "The Daedalus just needs to get a lock – fuck, John!"
He knows it's a bullet, a pellet of fire driven into his shoulder blade. Nerves in slow-motion, he feels each centimeter of the bullet’s path, each separate shard of bone down to the shape, the separate jagged edges carving off muscle and vein. He sees Rodney as if Rodney's just grown ten feet, eyes distant but still wide in disbelief. The gun – the zat, Rodney calls it – falls from his hand and spins away, and the ground… Not asphalt but still hard, and god, his back is on fire.
"Shut up!" Rodney orders. "Shut up, shut up, just…" He moves out of John’s narrowing, darkening field of vision, comes back, and he has the lethal Nerf gun in shaking hands, he's firing it, wild and completely inexpert but he must have hit something because the other bullets stop peppering the ground around him.
The ground… He feels the spreading, wet warmth, and can only bother with a vague amazement that it's his own. Is there a doctor in the house? he thinks about asking, or making a crack about Rodney and his two completely useless PhDs.
"John, oh god oh god…" Rodney's back with him now, kneeling low and close, and reaching for John’s hand, closing comfortably around it. And that would be, John decides, a nice way to go, carried off on flights of Rodneys huffing irritably and making demands for John to give him the damn ring.
"Don’t make this harder than it is, Sheppard," Rodney growls, hunched over him, and he wants John’s ring, well, he's always wanted it and Rodney McKay's the sort of person who gets what he wants The ring slips off, the faint accent of its presence fading, fading like pretty much everything else: the ground, the cold fall air, the shouting, Rodney’s hand on his cheek, Rodney’s frightened eyes, the world.
Rodney's quarters are on the microscopic side, made smaller by the amount of stuff crammed into them: computers, techy odds-and-ends, books stuffed full of post-it notes, shirts in patterns of surpassing hideousness. It is, John concludes, very Rodney, close and cluttered, more welcoming than a first look would suggest.
Really welcoming, he amends some time later, with Rodney damp and satisfied under him, and the two of them twisted up together. He lets the silence ride, filled only by Rodney's breathing, and Rodney's fingers drifting in absent patterns across his skin.
"Lorne’s okay," Rodney says at last. "I talked… well, Jeannie talked at me for a while, but she mentioned that. The Daedalus picked him up the second the Trust stopped generating that null-tech field of theirs." He frowns, mouth slanting crankily downward. "I’m going to have to figure out how they did that."
"You will," John says, and Rodney will, because figuring things out is what Rodney does.
He's on the edge of something huge, unknown, like riding the fine line of sky and space and readying to drop into freefall, holding himself at the edge of the plunge because the adrenaline is too sharp and sweet to let go.
And speaking of space, the window of Rodney’s quarters opens up into an alien sky. The safe planet, Rodney had called it, an Ancient outpost they’d dug up two years ago. (Safe planet, Ancient, more words to add, along Asgard, Ori, Pegasus, the existence of actual space ships.) A cloak covers most of the residential areas, and part of the planet, as Jeannie Miller had explained in between attacks on her brother’s intelligence and John’s "encouragement of him," is actually out of phase with the rest of the universe.
"Don’t worry about understanding it," Rodney had told him, "no one outside of this room does." And Jeannie had been relieved enough to side with her brother and smirk at John in a way recognizably McKay. Here, now, they're under the cloak and the stars make unfamiliar patterns, and the sky isn't quite right, greenish-blue-black, brighter because of a second moon hidden behind the treetops.
"This... this is real," John says, to try it out. "I'm not crazy."
"Not with reference to this, at least," Rodney agrees. "In other areas, quite possibly you are." The glass reflects John's face back at him along with the scattering of stars, and Rodney's face too, strangely peaceful and excited both at once.
"It's pretty cool," John says, because it is, and Rodney's smile, bright and remarkable, is all agreement.
"You saved my life, you know." The bullet had been a through-and-through: through the back and through the top of the aorta. "With the ring. How’d you do that? Bob said it worked only for one person." Bob who was dead, and the kick of satisfaction at that thought is deep and fierce.
"It doesn't," Rodney says, with as blank a look as John's ever seen. He rolls to his side, then to his belly, his back a broad, pale sweep in the moonlight. John couldn’t help it, has to trace a finger down the eloquent bow of Rodney’s spine; in the dark room, on the edge of lecture, Rodney looks older, more serious – odd, considering the fine coat of sweat on him, how rumpled his hair.
Rodney twitches, shivers, but refuses to be diverted. "Sam ran the preliminary tests, and it's not one of the imprinting devices," he says impatiently. "Anyway, it wouldn't make sense: why build a healing device if only one person could use it? What if, as you so brilliantly demonstrated just now, the person who initialized it had been hurt?"
"Bob said – "
"Was Bob smarter than I am?" Rodney demands. "Did you read that in the Gospel According to Bob? No. Besides, Ancient devices read intent; it’s why the ring lets you read minds – the person has to believe you believe they’ll get better, that they won’t be hurt."
“So it is faith healing," John says, carefully calculated grin to punctuate it, and Rodney snorts.
"Oh, come on. Faith is for people who have no concept of the power of empiricism." Rodney huffs again, but not as emphatically as before, and the smile he offers John was almost conciliatory, shy, relieved. John’s heart does something improbable, and possibly requiring healing, at that. "And I’m not going to argue divinity with you, certainly not while both of us are naked and sticky." He pauses. "You know what the inscription means?"
"Something about healing." Madeor ego, mendem korposkir sano, he remembers Bob saying, and fumbles over the pronunciation. Rodney asks how the hell he remembered that. John shrugs. "Seemed important at the time."
"He left off one part," Rodney tells him. "Prime nil nokare is the rest. 'First, do no harm.' The device knew what Bob really wanted to do, and it wouldn't work for him. It worked for you because you really... oh my god, you really are depressingly altruistic and self-sacrificing under that stupid hair. You want people to be okay."
"Thanks, Rodney." Do no harm. Except, thinking of Bob and Steve, and the uncounted ones he’d left behind him, when harm needed doing.
"Don't mention it, Sir Galahad." Rodney leans closer, mouth thin and unhappy despite the sarcasm. "And don't... if it means taking another bullet, try very hard not to do that again."
"I'll try," John promises solemnly, and Rodney nods in a way that said John will be held to that, and pulls him down, and kisses him.