Disclaimer: If they were mine, they’d still be on the air.
Author's Notes: let_fate_decide asked for McShep angst and hurt/comfort...hope this fits the bill, and Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it!
Summary: John Sheppard landing in the infirmary was nothing new, but when he finds himself sidelined by mysterious injuries he can’t recall receiving it's a race against time to find the cause...and save his life.
John hopped up on the lab table where Rodney was working, so close that Rodney's pinkie brushed against his thigh as Rodney typed rapidly on his laptop. "You ready?"
"Ready?" Rodney scoffed. "Of course I'm not ready, I already told you this would take at least another two days for coding and simulations, and then – "
"To go to the meeting."
The typing stopped. "Oh. Yes. Which meeting is that again?"
John rolled his eyes. "Has Zelenka switched you to decaf or something? Because I radioed you not ten minutes ago."
"Forgive me for being awoken by my incompetent staff at oh dark thirty this morning to fix..." Rodney trailed off as he looked up at John for the first time. "Jesus, John, I thought you and Ronon were going to take it easy today."
John frowned, or meant to, but stopped as his facial muscles pulled and he hissed in pain. "We did," he insisted.
"Yeah, I can see that." Rodney reached up, touching John's cheek lightly.
John jerked backwards, grabbing Rodney's arm even as he brought his own hand up to probe gently at his now throbbing face.
"Did you go to the infirmary?"
"Didn't need to. We were just practicing disarming...prep for Ronon's class, remember?"
"And you disarmed your way into a split lip?"
"I don't have a –"
"You do, along with some pretty spectacular bruising that will turn all sorts of interesting colors, and if you're this out of it maybe a concussion, as well." Rodney crossed his arms over his chest, glaring. "Infirmary first," He ordered. "Then we'll see about this meeting of yours."
"It's not my meeting, it's for scheduling."
"It's calendar day already?" Rodney held up a hand, forestalling John's comment. "Infirmary. Let's go."
John slid off the table, falling into step beside Rodney as he launched into a rant covering his late night repair work and sliding seamlessly into a commentary on his own invaluable, incalculable genius. John grinned, even as he winced at the pain.
A minor problem off-world ended up rescheduling their scheduling meeting for the next day, a fact John found himself secretly grateful for since he spent the rest of the day feeling like he'd been hit by a truck. After Dr. Keller had fixed him up he'd insisted he felt fine, if a bit tired, but he was more than happy to let Lorne handle the military business while he retired to his quarters.
A long, hot shower helped ease the ache he felt all over, but not the concern he felt over the reason for his injuries. He and Ronon really had taken it easy, Rodney's protests notwithstanding, and the team hadn't been off-world in three days.
Standing in front of his mirror, brow furrowed, John couldn't help but wonder what he'd done. He had bruising on his right cheek and along his jaw line, a small gash in his lip on that same side, deep finger bruises on his upper arms that would come up purple by morning, a persistent ache in his chest from ribs that Keller assured him weren't broken, a large bruise spreading across his left thigh, and a sharp twinge of pain from his knee.
"Is it just me, or do you look even worse now?"
John looked up, catching sight of Rodney leaning in the doorway behind him. "Hey. Didn't hear you come in."
"Yes, well, I can see how you'd be fascinated by the sight of your body. I certainly am."
John laughed as Rodney waggled his eyebrows, hands sketching the air to indicate John's naked self.
"I brought dinner. Figured we could relax, maybe play some chess?"
"Play chess, or play chess?"
Rodney chuckled as he approached John, planting a soft kiss on his uninjured shoulder. "You're supposed to be taking it easy, John. You look like you've been brawling. And losing, badly."
"I wasn't. I don't...I'm not sure what I did. Teyla and I sparred two days ago, I did that thing with Ronon this morning, been running as usual. Last fight was...five days ago? When we got in the middle of that family dispute on Kalonis."
"You bruised your knuckles."
"Yeah." John raised his hand. "Almost gone now. It just doesn't make sense."
"It has to have been with Ronon. You just didn't notice it at the time."
"I guess." John turned towards Rodney, brushing a quick kiss against his lips. He didn't want to think about it anymore, especially not when he had the whole evening free – and so did Rodney. "So, dinner?"
The scheduling meeting – calendar day, as they called it – was established after one too many incidents involving time conflicts arose. Science teams needing military escorts hadn't checked that there were personnel on hand to escort them, military personnel scheduled explosives training when the civilians were conducting sensitive experiments, and, in one spectacular failure of communication, a team that no one realized was off-world was marooned there when the gate was taken off-line for a scheduled test.
Three months into the expedition, everyone realized that they needed to coordinate their needs and establish priorities with a little more care than a soccer mom with a minivan full of children.
Of course, this being the Pegasus galaxy and not the suburbs, the month-long schedule rarely stayed intact for more than a week: two weeks and five days was the all-time record. Its usefulness was more in figuring out where they were heading with their research, training, and off-world needs so that personnel, resources, building space, and gate travel could be coordinated both effectively and with efficiency.
The calendar day meeting usually lasted about two hours but had often gone longer, not breaking up until the crazy, color coordinated schedule showed no conflicts in any of the four areas and met with the approval of the senior staff.
Right now, Rodney and Lorne were squabbling over how many marines were needed to escort the social science team to M3X-462.
"Two teams is unnecessary – eight marines standing around is only going to make my people more paranoid."
"Well, your insistence on running another survey of P4C-784 means we can't have the training exercise we planned for that week, and Captain Reid's guys need more time off-world."
"I don't see how –"
"Guys," John said, cutting them off. "Why don't we change the – shit!"
John's hands flew up to cover his nose at the sudden, sharp pain. They came away covered in blood.
"Sir, you're –"
"Yeah. Got that." John tilted his head down and pinched his nose, looking up to see Dr. Keller already out of her chair. "It's just a bloody nose, Doc. I'll be fine."
He tried to ignore Rodney's look of skepticism and Woolsey's of frank concern.
"Let me see, Colonel." Keller gave him a quick once-over, shaking her head at something. "Considering your injuries the other day, I'd like to get a better look at this, make sure it's just a simple nose bleed. If you'll excuse us, Mr. Woolsey?"
"Of course, Dr. Keller," the man replied, waving them off.
John could already hear Rodney arguing with Lorne again by the time the conference room doors closed behind him.
Three days later John was feeling perfectly fine, as evidenced by Rodney's thorough examination of his fading bruises while he held him up against a wall in John's quarters. As Rodney's lips slid down John's jaw to the hollow of his throat, John shuddered, only half-swallowing his moan of pleasure.
"It's movie night."
"Mmm," Rodney replied, hands slipping down to bracket John's hips as he licked his way across John's collarbone.
"Ronon and Teyla will be here any minute," John protested half-heartedly.
Rodney paused, glanced at his watch, then captured John's mouth in a breath-stealing kiss. "We still have half an hour, wanna see what we can do with thirty whole minutes?"
John groaned, suddenly snapping out of his earlier laziness as he flipped them around so Rodney's back hit the wall while John slid to his knees. "Bet we could finish in ten, even have time to catch a shower."
Unzipping and pushing his pants down his hips, Rodney laughed. "You're on."
John bent to his task, licking a stripe up Rodney's rapidly filling erection before closing his mouth around the tip. He felt Rodney's hands in his hair and a soft intake of breath and he looked up, grinning, before he was struck by a sudden bout of dizziness that rocked him back on his heels.
John pressed the heel of his hand against his forehead until the dizziness passed. "I'm fine. Just felt dizzy for a sec."
"Are you sure? What if...?"
"Don't worry. I'm sshhhure I jus'...uh...I..."
John stopped, thrown off by the sudden buzzing in his ears.
"Wha'? Ro'ney, I..." John heard Rodney yelling, distantly, as the dizziness returned along with a sudden sweep of nausea that had him vomiting up his dinner along with the rest of his stomach contents. He tried to reach for Rodney but his body wouldn't cooperate, limbs reacting sluggishly as the world went bright and blurry.
He laid down, or thought he did, world spinning as he fought more nausea. He could feel Rodney's hands on him and a whole bunch of yelling before he was scooped up by a pair of sturdy arms that could only belong to Ronon. Now, he thought, would be a great time to pass out.
So he did.
"....awake by now?"
The low-voiced murmurs John had been hearing finally resolved themselves into Rodney and Dr. Keller. He thought Teyla might be there, too. After a false start, he managed, "'m awake."
"Colonel? Can you open your eyes for me?"
He turned his head towards Keller's voice, mindful of his headache, blinking a few times at the sudden brightness before the lights dimmed abruptly.
"Hey," he said.
"Do you know where you are?"
"Good. And I am?"
John cleared his throat. "Dr. Keller. And Rodney's here, and...Teyla?"
"I am here, John." Teyla shifted into view, laying a gentle hand on his arm. "We were greatly concerned for you."
Jennifer pursed her lips. "A grade 3 concussion. And you were out for quite a while. We've been waking you regularly, but this is the first time you've come up on your own."
"You threw up all over me," Rodney grumbled, and John turned to him, the scientist's eyes revealing fear rather than annoyance. "Twice."
"We were hoping you could tell us." Jennifer sighed. "Teyla and Ronon said you hadn't hit your head with them, and Lorne said your last class with the marines was instructional only, so unless you slipped in the shower...?"
John shrugged. "Don't think so."
"Alright then, I need to run some more tests now that you're awake. Okay?"
"Sure thing, Doc."
"Rodney, Teyla, you can come back in an hour or so, if our patient isn't already sleeping again by then."
"Yeah," Rodney said, shifting uncomfortably. "Good luck, Colonel."
I hope you're okay, his eyes said. You scared me.
John gave Rodney a quick smile, hoping to reassure him. "Later, guys."
By the next morning John was up and about, feeling mostly normal and tired of being cooped up in the infirmary with nothing to do. His headache had finally receded, though Dr. Keller had warned him that it might linger for several more days yet.
Mr. Woolsey and the good doctor, however, were extremely reluctant to release him even on restricted duty.
"But I feel fine," he replied through clenched teeth, wondering how many more times he'd have to say it, prove it, before they let him reconnect with his city, his people, and sleep in his own bed where he stood at least half a chance of getting a night of uninterrupted sleep. And Rodney.
"And yet obviously you're not."
John glared as Rodney, the traitor, tried out a glare of his own.
"There is no medical reason to keep me here any longer."
"And what happens the next time, Sheppard. Hmm? We find you bleeding to death in your office? You collapse in your room?"
"That's not going to happen." John turned to Dr. Keller, pleading, "you said I was doing much better, that I'm out of any danger."
"From this, Colonel," Woolsey put in. "But we still have no idea what's been causing these problems in the first place."
"Look, it may not be anything at all. A few bruises, a concussion...so I didn't notice I got hurt right away, what's the big deal?"
"The big deal, Sheppard," Rodney hissed, "is that you're spontaneously injuring yourself. A nosebleed or a split lip, fine, but that concussion was serious. If I hadn't been there when you collapsed you could be dead."
Jennifer held up her hands. "Both of you stop, okay? Yes, Rodney, until we know why or how Colonel Sheppard has been injured there's the possibility that it may happen again. And yes, Colonel, your body has healed and you should be fine for now."
Both men made to interrupt. "But! I'd like you to stay one more night for observation and, if everything continues to look good, I'll let you go tomorrow."
John sighed, crossing his arms over his chest. "You really think that's necessary?"
"Yes, I really do. If you haven't been in any physical altercations and you haven't been losing time – which, as I said earlier, I don't believe is the case – then your injuries are still coming from somewhere and we have no idea where that is."
John scrubbed a hand through his hair, staring at each of his three opponents in turn. They were right, he knew, he just hated the thought of any more time in the infirmary. "Fine. One more night."
"Thank you, Colonel."
Nothing had happened that night in the infirmary, and while no explanations were forthcoming Dr. Keller was forced to concede defeat – temporarily – and let John go. His team remained grounded the rest of the week, during which John did a lot of paperwork and his teammates hovered like mother hens.
After ten days with no injuries – mysterious or otherwise – no illnesses, and no further complications from his concussion, John finally snapped and stole a mission from Lorne's team. It was an easy mission, a check-in and gossip session with a well-established ally, and no one expected any trouble.
Murphy must have taken the day off, because even Rodney's faux pas over the dinner table resulted in nothing more serious than a moment of awkward laughter.
Not even Woolsey could argue with the fact that things seemed to be back to normal (Pegasus-normal, at any rate), so John and team were added back to the off-world roster with the admonishment that John report any other inexplicable injuries.
Three missions later John was staring at a small bruise on his right forearm, trying to recall whether he had noticed it this morning or whether he was thinking of the one on his calf, when Teyla elbowed him.
"That is, if you are in agreement, Colonel?"
John obviously had no idea what he was agreeing to, but Teyla's eyes said yes, yes, yes while also promising retribution by bantos rods, so he grinned his ‘charm the natives' grin and said, "Of course, Teyla, Leader Mayna."
The elder of the Numbari smiled, pleased, and turned to an advisor to make arrangements of some kind. John leaned in closer to Teyla. "You wanna tell me what I just said yes to?"
His only response was an elegantly raised eyebrow. He sighed and looked to his other side, "Guys?"
Ronon looked bored but Rodney's eyes gleamed in anticipation. "A tour of their house of learning, Colonel. I can't wait to see what they use to –"
"Leader Warrior Colonel Sheppard, if you and your companions are ready?"
Smiling at Numbari formality, John nodded and stood. "Absolutely, ma'am. Dr. McKay is quite eager to begin."
"I have found my own scholars to be rather incorrigible in that regard." Mayna's eyes twinkled as she grinned, then indicated a handsome young man who had just entered the room. "Scholar Rayan will escort you to Master Scholar Gillit; she is happy to offer her cooperation. Please, you are welcome to tour our facilities until the evening meal. Our Scholars will be pleased to speak with your Master Scholar Doctor McKay to further both his knowledge and our own."
"Thank you, Leader Mayna. Your generosity is appreciated."
"After your kind assistance immediately after your arrival, how could we act otherwise?"
John smiled and nodded, following Scholar Rayan and his team out of the meeting hall and into the sunshine even as he reflected that, often, the Pegasus natives had indeed acted otherwise.
"Daydreaming during negotiations, Colonel?" Teyla asked softly as they walked through the town.
"I wasn't..." John sighed. "Sorry. I got distracted."
Her brow furrowed as she glanced around quickly. "Anything important?"
"No, no, nothing like that. In fact, I've been thinking that when we begin negotiations we should –"
John jerked to a stop and screamed, bellowing as he was ripped apart, cry suddenly cut off with a gasp as the pain stole his breath and he collapsed to his knees. He saw Teyla's horrified face only for a moment before blood flooded his eyes and mouth and he choked, flailing, fire burning through his veins and overwhelming him, consuming him, killing him.
Teyla dropped to her knees beside John, uncurling the unconscious man from his position on the ground as Rodney ransacked his pack for the first aid kit and Ronon brought his weapon to bear against an unseen enemy.
Their escort stood there in shock, torn between fight or flight, until Rodney, waving hands already smeared with John's blood, so much blood, shouted for him to "get your damn healers already!"
He watched the scholar flee, vanishing quickly, and –
"Rodney, here," Teyla commanded, placing Rodney's hand atop a pressure bandage on John's forehead.
"He's soaked, his shirt is already soaked through with blood, where is it...?"
"Ronon, come. Held me turn him on his side."
Ronon and Teyla shifted John as Rodney cradled his head. John's shirt was whole, if soaked in the man's blood, but when Ronon cut it away they all gasped at the sight of the deep, vicious gouges left unmistakably by the claws of a large animal.
"Jesus fuck, what..."
"We must get him back to Atlantis, quickly. He has already lost much blood and is in shock."
"Yes, yes of course. Ronon?"
Ronon picked John up carefully, mindful of his injuries but unable to hold him without touching his raw and bleeding back. "Teyla, you run ahead, get the gate."
"Yes, make sure you tell Atlantis –"
"Of course, Rodney." Teyla touched his shoulder briefly, a small measure of reassurance, and ran.
Nine hours later, Dr. Keller left the surgery suite. Everyone's heads popped up at her entrance, desperate for information about John's condition.
Mr. Woolsey hesitated, then asked, "Is he...?"
Jennifer sighed, pulling off her surgical gown. "Dr. Mainard is finishing up and will take him to recovery. He...Colonel Sheppard lost a lot of blood, and his injuries were extensive. He coded twice on the table, beyond what you saw in the gateroom when we first got him. I know you saw his back, arms, and the head injury, but he was also bitten in the leg, requiring 47 stitches, and was gouged in the stomach. We...we had to repair part of his intestines before we could stitch him up. His situation is very delicate right now, but I have faith in my team and in the Colonel's stubbornness. He won't be leaving recovery for hours yet, and I don't expect him to wake for another day at least, so please, get some rest."
Rodney cleared his throat. "Once he's out of recovery and settled, can I..can we...sit with him?"
"He won't be awake."
"I know, I just..."
Jennifer smiled. "Of course, Rodney. One at a time, and not for too long, but I'm sure it would be good for you to see him."
"Were you able to determine anything about what attacked him, Dr. Keller?" Woolsey asked.
"A large cat of some kind would be my guess, perhaps like a mountain lion."
"If you'll excuse me..." Dr. Keller yawned. "Sorry. I'm going to get some sleep. I suggest the rest of you do the same."
After Jennifer left, the room was silent for several minutes before Lorne said, "Not to harp on it, but Dr. Keller's right. We won't do the Colonel any good by staying up the rest of the night. I'll send a team out to Numbari in the morning, inform them of what happened and make inquiries about the local wildlife."
"The Colonel did not leave our sight," Teyla stated. "I do not see how he could have been attacked."
"Was like it happened right then," Ronon added.
Rodney sighed heavily, crossing his arms. "Except all of his clothing was intact, and we were right there, within arms' reach!"
"It does not make sense."
"It's like before, isn't it?" Lorne asked. "Injuries from nowhere."
"Obviously," Rodney replied with disdain.
"Look," Woolsey said, mediating. "We've all been up for more than a day at this point, and I know that this has been difficult. I want everyone out of the infirmary for the rest of the night. We'll meet at 8:30 tomorrow morning in the conference room for the formal debriefings and to figure out what happens next. Go to bed. Major Lorne, I'd like that team ready to depart by 0800; I don't want to jeopardize the goodwill we've fostered with Leader Mayna by keeping the Numbari waiting for answers about our abrupt disappearance."
Teyla, Ronon, and Rodney stood, moving by unspoken agreement to the dining hall where they forced themselves to eat before reluctantly retiring to their rooms.
It was two days before John woke, groggy and muddled by painkillers. He lasted maybe five minutes at a time, sleeping for hours in between his brief flirtations with consciousness.
Rodney didn't spend nearly as much time by John's bedside as he wanted, but they were no closer to figuring out what had happened or, more importantly, how to prevent anything like it from happening again.
The Numbari had been shocked and horrified by what had happened to the Lanteans' leader warrior, but were able to offer no clues. Wild predators didn't roam anywhere near the Numbari towns, and tended more towards a bear-like creature and a massive, three-horned wild boar besides.
Rodney was in the main lab, overseeing the investigation into the Ancient database and coordinating the projects which couldn't be put off, when Ronon entered, carrying food and bouncing Torren on his hip.
He gratefully accepted the sandwiches, setting aside his work so that he could maintain at least the appearance of taking a break.
Rodney sighed. "Not even a little bit. How do you figure out something that comes from nowhere, has no discernable pattern, and leaves no trace?"
"Leaves Sheppard hurt."
His shoulders slumped. "Well, yes. That."
Ruffling Torren's hair – which got him a delighted giggle – he asked, "Teyla's turn?"
"Yup. He slept through my whole time. Figured you wouldn't eat if I didn't stop by."
"Yes, well, forgive me for being a little preoccupied with trying to save John's life."
"Can't help him if you run yourself down."
"Thank you, Dr. Dex. Any other comments from Jennifer you want to pass off as your own?"
Ronon shrugged. "Everyone wants to help."
Rodney put down his sandwich and looked Ronon in the eye. "I know you do, and as soon as I know what's going on, I promise, you can shoot anyone or anything that needs to be shot, but right now..." He shrugged. "I'm lost. Stuck. And I don't know that the answer can even be found in the database."
Radek wandered in, delivering a mug of coffee to Rodney as he sipped at his own. "Conduit repairs have been finished and power restored to section."
"Great, Radek. Thank you."
Radek turned to Ronon. "Is end of world. Beware."
"Anything useful to add to the conversation before you before I send you to mediate the great sociology-anthropology debate of P1R-798?"
Radek shuddered. "Evil man." He paused, thinking. "If someone is causing Colonel harm, it must be by some artificial means, a device of some sort."
"Well yes, we've said that, but one that works both here and off-world?"
Radek shrugged. "I'm sorry, Rodney, truly. Is baffling."
Ronon bounced Torren in his lap, walking his fingers up the toddler's belly to pinch his nose as Torren shrieked in delight. "It's like that movie."
"What movie?" Rodney asked around his coffee mug.
"With the child's toy, the doll. You stick it with a needle and Sheppard screams."
Rodney looked bewildered, then wrinkled his nose in distaste. "A voodoo doll? In what possible universe does that sound like..."
He trailed off.
"Rodney...?" Zelenka prompted.
Rodney held up a finger as he stared down at the table, eyes unfocused.
Rodney startled, staring at Ronon as his eyes grew huge. "In what...universe. In what universe! Oh my God, that's it, that's..."
Rodney turned and ran to his laptop, typing rapidly. "Zelenka! Get over here."
He pointed something out on the screen, then launched into a rapid-fire commentary complete with hand waving and finger snapping. Radek soon caught on, cursing in Czech before he leapt to complete Rodney's sentences and the two disappeared where Ronon couldn't follow.
"See that?" He asked Torren. "We'll have your Uncle John safe in no time."
Rodney looked around the conference table, smiling smugly as he stated, "It's a healing device."
"We think," Radek interjected.
"Yes, yes, but it's obviously correct, because – "
"I'm sorry," Mr. Woolsey said. "A healing device? Is it malfunctioning in some manner?"
"No, no, not at all."
"I'm afraid I don't follow."
"There is an Ancient device, either here in Atlantis or off-world, that is causing Sheppard's injuries. That much we had already guessed. And while we don't know exactly where it is yet, we do know where it isn't."
"And this will prove helpful to us?" Teyla asked.
"Yes, yes it will," Rodney said, pointing. "Because where it isn't is in this universe. You see, after the concussion and this latest incident, which proved conclusively that the Colonel wasn't suffering memory loss and that the injuries were indeed spontaneous, what troubled us most about the manner of Sheppard's injuries was that they were...specific."
Dr. Keller frowned. "How do you mean?"
"If there were some evil device meant to inflict pain or injury on your enemy, it would work more along the lines of Ronon's suggestion – like a voodoo doll or something where you input your desired result and bam! He's wounded. But Sheppard's bruising was very distinctive and individual: his jaw and cheek matched exactly with being punched, the bruising on his arms had clear fingerprint impressions. And this attack now, with the cat-lion-whatever we're calling it, was clearly a real attack, an actual event rather than some simulated result from a computer program. There were traces of animal saliva in the bite marks; where he was clawed fit exactly to the contours of his body and we can recreate almost exactly the course of events as they unfolded based on the results."
"It jumped him from behind," Ronon said. "He fell forward to the ground, it grabbed his leg, he fought back, maybe stunned it with the butt of his weapon, it swiped at him again as he twisted to protect his belly. We killed it."
Rodney pointed triumphantly at Ronon. "Exactly!"
"Excuse me, Dr. McKay," said Woolsey, "But how does this conjecture connect to an alternate universe? Or a healing device, for that matter."
"If we work from theory that this was real, then we must reconcile events as we perceived them with events as they happened to Colonel," Radek said.
"And," put in Rodney, "we had to look for motivation. If someone were out to kill Colonel Sheppard, there are certainly more efficient ways to go about it. And if the goal were to cause him pain, why the nosebleed? Why some bruises or a concussion?"
"So we thought, what if all of this did happen to Colonel Sheppard, just not to our Colonel Sheppard."
"Which brings us to the healing device. If the injuries really happened, and the goal wasn't to inflict them, then the goal must have been to take them away. So. You found this medical device which imprinted on Sheppard – no surprise there – and he gets beaten up off-world or spars a bit harder than usual with Ronon. You turn it on and hey, he's all better!
"No trace of injury. Dekuji bohu, you think."
"A sarcophagus takes time and causes psychological problems – not the best solution. A goa'uld healing device requires a host or former host and isn't the easiest thing to control – scrap that. The Ancient devices we've found here have been useful, but not anything like this. Fully healed in a matter of seconds. Of course they used it!"
"But they missed the fatal flaw," Radek pointed out.
"Yes, for whatever reason, they didn't look into how exactly this device performed its miracles. It wasn't actually healing Sheppard, it was just transferring his injuries to a Sheppard in another universe. To our Sheppard."
"And you believe that they are unaware of this...‘flaw,' as you call it?" Woolsey asked.
"An experiment like this, shifting energy between the universes to heal and harm, would never have been approved by the council. An unsanctioned project lacks documentation – I've narrowed our search by quite a bit, but I don't expect to find any information in the city database. I have to believe that they don't have any idea of what they're actually doing. For one thing, the Colonel would never allow it."
Teyla nodded. "I agree. Colonel Sheppard would not pass his own pain along to others, and certainly not to his other self."
"So what now, Doctor? Have you begun work on a solution?"
"Finding an identical device in our universe would be the quickest way to fix this. Unfortunately, we don't know where it is or if one even exists – though I have a team searching right now. On the plus side, we've had extensive experience working with alternate universes at this point, both here and at the SGC. Each distinct universe has a unique signature variation which we can trace."
"When the alternate Daedalus visited us last year, Rodney found those variations each time the ship shifted realities."
"If we can find the signature for the universe where the device is located, we can find a way to backtrack from us to them and send a message or even a person to convince them to stop using the device."
"How long will this take?"
"That depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is whether we recorded their signature variation any of the times our Sheppard was hurt. A few days at best, but it could be several weeks if we have to build a reality drive or similar device of our own."
Woolsey sat up even straighter and folded his hands. "Alright then, you have permission to pull any resources necessary and to complete all steps short of actually activating any devices or drives at this time. I'd like another report in two days. Good luck, gentlemen."
Rodney was gently stroking John's forearm, careful not touch anything that might hurt and wondering whether he'd be able to steal a kiss when John woke, eyes fluttering.
"Hey," he said, leaning in. "You're awake."
"Genius," John replied, lips twitching.
"Oh, very funny, Colonel. You're a riot." Rodney couldn't even try to keep the warmth out of his voice. "You thirsty?"
John nodded, closing his eyes and opening his mouth.
"You look like a baby bird," Rodney said fondly as he fed John several ice chips.
John made a small noise of agreement. "Okay?"
"We're all fine. You...you will be. Once you can stay awake for more than a few minutes at time, of course."
John agreed again.
"You scared me," Rodney whispered. "I don't know what you remember, but...God, John, I was terrified that we were going to lose you."
"I know, I know. It's just..."
Rodney looked in John's eyes, then down at his hand as he moved it an inch to curl a finger around Rodney's. Rodney squeezed back gently, then leaned in and pressed a soft kiss to John's forehead, his cheek, his lips.
John sighed, content, and slid back into sleep.
Rodney and Radek bickering over dinner turned into an impromptu meeting in the dining hall, complete with the team (plus Kanaan and Torren), Mr. Woolsey, Major Lorne, and fully half of the minions assigned the Colonel's project.
"If this variation proves difficult to isolate," Woolsey said, "Then –"
Rodney held up a finger and tapped his earpiece. "Yes, Dr. Keller?"
"Rodney...Rodney, get down here now."
"On my way." Rodney stood abruptly. "That was Keller. Something's happened to Sheppard."
He fled, his team on his heals and the others not far behind.
When he got to the infirmary all was quiet – no alarms, no shouting...and no Colonel Sheppard.
"What happened?" he demanded of the nurse standing near where Sheppard's bed used to be.
"He's in surgery, Doctor," she replied. "I was replacing his IV bag and recording his vitals when he startled and I saw blood on his gown. He was shot; his shoulder, through-and-through."
Rodney gaped, momentarily stunned. "And Keller?"
"She's operating now, she said to tell you everything looked good."
Ronon snorted and crossed his arms, both distressed and relieved. Teyla looked as stunned as Rodney had felt.
"How can he have been shot?" Woolsey inquired. "He's lying in an infirmary bed."
Rodney sighed, rubbing at his head as if to ward off the impending headache. "Our Sheppard is, but the other was fine. They healed him and he picked up and moved on to the next mission as if nothing had happened."
"And then got shot," Ronon put in.
"Yes, thank you for that inspiring reminder, Ronon. And then got shot."
Moving to the far side of the room, Rodney picked up the tablet and sensor equipment he had left there several days ago. "I'd rather not have done it this way, but it got us the readings we need. Give me 24 hours and we'll be ready." He paused. "Provided the other Sheppard doesn't try to kill himself again before then."
Rodney turned to leave, tapping his earpiece to call Radek and the others to lab.
"Rodney," Teyla ventured. He paused in the doorway. "I will let you know as soon as we have more information."
"Right. Thank you. I have to...I have to go do this, now."
"Rodney," she said again, approaching him and pulling him into an Athosian embrace. "He is strong, and so are you."
He leaned in a moment more, eyes closed, exhaling softly, then turned and walked away.
John came through the surgery well and was returned to his usual spot in the infirmary, looking much the same as he had before the latest life-threatening injury – which is to say, asleep.
Rodney and his team worked through the night and the next morning, mainlining coffee and periodically bursting into shouts of both joy and frustration. By late that afternoon, they were finished.
Despite their exhaustion, the presentation went well, Rodney and Radek both managing to explain what they had done and what they hoped to do with at least their usual level of coherency. The only decision that remained, aside from the actual ‘go ahead' order, was who would be sent to the alternate universe to inform the other Atlantis of just what, exactly, their miracle device had been doing.
Rodney's suggestion of himself had been immediately vetoed, and Teyla and Ronon's offers had also, somewhat more reluctantly, been declined. If this alternate universe had not met either of the Pegasus natives, or had not allied with them, they would almost certainly not be taken at their word.
"I'll do it," Major Lorne declared. "Even if I'm not there in that universe, they'll recognize me as a military officer, or hopefully from my time at SGC."
"And what if there's some problem with your return? What if we can't bring you back as planned?"
"Then you're the person I want on this end, Doc, trying to get me home. Look, I know Sheppard, I know you, I know this city and our protocols...I'm sure I can convince everyone that they need to stop using the device."
Woolsey cleared his throat. "We've been working under this assumption, that the alternate universe will be enough like us that they'll willingly turn off and destroy the device. What if they won't?"
Rodney shook his head. "Once the other me knows...once I know, I'll have to."
"Even if it means his Sheppard will die?"
"I have to believe that he's not going to want any other Sheppard to die, either – and not just die, the other me will know that means killing John Sheppard."
"It's still not his Sheppard," Radek said. "He's not you, Rodney, no matter how similar. Your motivations for using the device might not be his own. His overriding concern might be self-interest."
"So then keeping our Sheppard alive is no incentive. He might not care."
"But Sheppard would," Ronon said.
"He's right," added Rodney. "Like Teyla said before, this is John Sheppard. He would never allow this to happen, and the other McKay will know that, too."
"And even if all that fails," Lorne said, "which, I have to agree with the Doc, is highly unlikely, even then. I still have other options. In fact, I bet it wouldn't be that hard to destroy the device outright, even from the safety of our own universe."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that, Major. Dr. McKay, we'll do this in the morning. Get some sleep. Major – you as well. I'll prepare some information that may be useful for the other expedition: reports and warnings, a few worlds they should look at for alliances. If they seem trustworthy, and if they've already agreed unconditionally to destroy the device, I'm authorizing you to offer this information as a courtesy and a thank you. Good work, everyone. See you at 0900 tomorrow."
In the end, it was almost anticlimactic. Major Lorne vanished at 0914 and returned exactly 12 hours and three minutes later. The alternate expedition had been horrified by the consequences of their healing device and offered immediately to turn it off and disassemble or destroy it.
The expedition head – still Colonel Carter – had been grateful for the information and reciprocated gladly, along with the location, description, and schematics of the device so that they could identify their own, if it existed.
They never found it, which Rodney figured was just as well.
Unfortunately, there was no magic cure for John – just a long, slow recovery from an animal he'd never seen and a gunshot wound from a people on a planet he'd never been to.
But Rodney was there, to watch movies with when boredom struck; to argue with when the infirmary and the physical therapy left him irritable and aching; to laugh with over the latest crazy news from the Pegasus galaxy and to share gossip with, courtesy of the nurses and his frequent visitors; to talk softly with at night.
On the first day he was allowed to walk the halls – and could make it more than twenty feet – John invited Rodney along and took him to the nearest quiet balcony.
He smiled as Rodney gleefully recounted the happenings in the lab, stepping carefully into the other man's arms and resting his head on Rodney's shoulder as his words stuttered to a stop and Rodney's arms came up around him gently.
Rodney sighed, and John squeezed gently as he pressed a soft kiss to Rodney's neck. "Thank you," he said.
Rodney's arms tightened around him briefly. "Thank you," he insisted. "For holding on. I couldn't...without you, I..."
Rodney sighed, kissing the top of John's head, the only bit of him that he could reach. "I love you, you know that, right?"
John lifted his head, face lit by a brilliant smile as he kissed Rodney full on the mouth. "Me, too."
"It's your turn for the dashing heroics next, so..."
"I'll be there," John said. "Always."