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SGA Fic: Catalysis (4a/5)

Seriously, the size of this is just getting ridiculous.

Title: Catalysis (4a/5)
Author: Chandri MacLeod
Pairing: John/Rodney
Category: Angst, Hurt/Comfort
Spoilers: Through Spoils of War
Rating: R
Summary: After Rodney is held hostage on a trading mission, he starts to slowly fall apart. When he won't admit anything's wrong, he's sent back to Earth to recover, and it's up to John to pick up the pieces.
A/N: Another two-part-part. Please don't hurt me.

ETA - Direct links on LJ:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3a | Part 3b | Part 4a | Part 4b | Part 5a | Part 5b

Or: read in one piece on my website



“What I’m thinking, Colonel, is that they just couldn’t read it.” Hergaard is leaning over the sheaf of papers they found with the device, swiftly copying line by line into English as Bryce and Donaldson argue over the device itself. At the other end of the bench, they’re working fast, faster than John has ever seen Rodney’s people work. John knows why, and doesn’t interrupt except when he needs to. Usually he’s more than happy to understand the steps, usually Rodney doesn’t give him a choice, but right now he just wants it to work.

“They had this thing for how long, and they didn’t know how it works?” John thinks his voice sounds disbelieving, but he can certainly believe it. Ava seems to have very particular blinders, seeing only what it wants to see.

“It sounds like close to a year,” Hergaard says absently. “Kalsan told me they can’t really read Ancient, not real Ancient, and if this thing came with a database like most of our artefacts did, they’d only have been able to make out a few words. Just enough to know what it was, but not enough to make it functional.”

John tries not to fidget and mostly fails. Next to him, Teyla shifts in her seat, making no sound, but managing, anyway, to project something like calm down, you’re not helping, and he forces himself still without thinking.

“Can you get it working?” John asks instead.

“We’re almost there now,” Bryce tells him, twisting at something inside the device with a pair of pliers. “We just need to know how to initialize it.”

John looks at Hergaard, who waves a hand before he can say anything. “Almost there,” he says.

A hand grasps him firmly by the elbow, and John finds himself being lifted out of his seat, looks up to see Teyla’s raised eyebrows and expectant stare. “I’ll be outside,” he tells the three civilians, and lets Teyla all but drag him out into the alley behind the workshop.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” he complains once Teyla’s shut the door behind them, but he leans against the cool stone of the wall anyway, shutting his eyes for a second.

“I do not think they will think less of you right now,” Teyla says firmly, “and you are about to lose your composure, which will help no one.”

“Listen to her, Sheppard,” comes a voice from the other end of the alley, and John looks up to see Ronon approaching.

“What’s going on?”

Ronon shakes his head. “Nothing good,” he says. “Vaal’s not answering the radio anymore, but, uh…” Ronon does the only thing he does that qualifies as nervous fidgeting, threading fingers through his tight-twisted dreads, looking vaguely over John’s shoulder. His eyes drift back to look into John’s like he had to take a minute to steady himself. “There’ve been more shots,” he says. “Last two hours, once on the hour.”

“What?” John rockets up straight, pushing away from the wall, and then has to lean back, shutting his eyes. “Shit.”

“Sarna talked to him once a few hours ago,” Ronon says. “Wouldn’t say what he said, but that was the last contact. Sheppard…” He sounds almost hesitant, for Ronon at least. “We don’t even know if…”

John can hear the last words, and cuts Ronon off. “I’m not having this conversation,” he snaps. “Sarna may be willing to leave people in there, but I’m not.”

“Nah, of course not,” Ronon says, sounding almost hurt. “I just meant…”

“No one is suggesting we stop trying, John.” That’s Teyla, with her sharp/gentle voice cutting through John’s tension, which he wishes she wouldn’t, because if he’s angry he doesn’t think about being scared. “But we must be… prepared. For the worst.” Even Teyla’s voice cracks a little, and John tells himself he shouldn’t take that as a sign.

“Yeah,” agrees Ronon, shrugging.

John stares at them both, at Ronon watching him uncertainly, at Teyla’s open, brittle concern, and he has to shut his eyes for a moment or lose it altogether. “I’m sorry,” he says, as even as he can, and then: “It’s been ten hours.”

And it’s getting dark, and they haven’t slept, and they’re so far outside the realm of how things normally go bad on missions that he can’t even remember what it’s like to be captured by good old-fashioned mercenaries or shot at by religious fanatics. When did that get to be the good old days?

“We are all tired,” says Teyla, diplomatically, and before he knows what’s happening, she’s laying hands on his shoulders, resting her forehead on his, and he shuts his eyes, trying to draw some calm from her like he’s done in the past. But when she turns to do the same for Ronon, John just feels jittery again, buzzing like the city is.

“Colonel Sheppard?” Bryce is standing in the open door, beckoning them all inside. “We think we’re just about ready.”

It takes Donaldson five whole minutes to explain, and John has to have him repeat it.

“Why haven’t we ever come across this technology before?” he asks of both scientists. Donaldson shrugs.

“We know most of the protected planets in the Atlantis database were sites for either social or scientific experiment,” he says, looking at Bryce. “That interference pulse is something we’ve never seen before, and it’s pretty recent, relatively speaking.”

“How relative are we talking?” Ronon asks, leaning on the workbench in the centre of the room.

“On the order of ninety-nine hundred years,” Donaldson says. “Probably one of the last-ditch efforts after they abandoned Atlantis. We know several groups of Ancients stayed behind in this galaxy to work on weapons and defence.”

“So I’m asking again: how come we’ve never come across this technology before?” John knows he’s spoken sharper than he meant to, but can’t quite bring himself to care.

Bryce crosses her arms and stares thoughtfully at the device. “I’d guess that they abandoned the experiment, because it’s of limited effectiveness.”

“And by ‘limited,’” interjects Teyla, calmly, “what do you mean?”

John looks at her. She seems as cool as ever, but even he can see there’s a hint of impatience in her manner, some tension in the corners of her eyes. He’s seen that tension before, but not often outside of cullings.

Somehow the fact that Teyla’s frightened makes him feel calmer.

Bryce is touching different parts of the device, as if making sure it isn’t going to fall apart. “Well, Colonel,” she says, carefully, “we think it only works in contact with those being transported.”

John raises an eyebrow expectantly when she doesn’t continue. “Meaning…?”

“We think two, maybe four people,” Donaldson explains, looking quickly at Bryce, like he’s taking his courage in his hands. “And frankly, sir, we have no idea whether…” But a hard look from Bryce shuts him up.

“Speak up, doc,” John presses.

Bryce glares feelingly at Donaldson, who averts his eyes, before facing him again. “We weren’t able to figure out how to target the thing,” she admits, all in a rush. “If it has an automatic targeting system, it hasn’t offered it up.”

John turns to stare at the device, gleaming dully on the workbench. “So how does it…”

“Well, Doctor Bryce has an idea,” Donaldson says, grumpily.

Bryce sighs. John waves a hand impatiently. “Well?”

“We couldn’t test it and be certain,” she explains. “I have the gene, but apparently not strongly enough to use the device the way it was intended.”

She drops her hands to her sides, sensing his impatience. “We won’t know until we try.”

At the foot of the tower, there are only a few members of the Avan guard and a handful of civilians, under-Ministers and a couple of what look like techs. The streets are empty as night falls, and as John stands at the edge of the square beneath the power station, he realises that the city is holding its breath. And not just the city itself – though the buzzing of the field hasn’t lessened any – but the people, too. He’s already guessed that things are not as stable, politically, as Sarna made out at first, and he has to assume that the situation in the tower has made things worse.

He’s felt this before, towns about to burst, when he was stationed in Afghanistan; before the townspeople turned on the soldiers, on each other. Before people came to the point of realising that the awaited moment was at hand.

It never went well for the soldiers. They can’t wait any longer.

Lorne, standing at his side, inclines his head, asking without asking. “Sir?”

“Yeah,” says John. “How much longer until the lockdown terminates on its own?”

Lorne turns his head, takes in the cluster of Avans with their neat-pressed clothes, their sleek but primitive weapons – their infuriatingly relaxed postures, like this is a company picnic. In an undertone, as if he’s trying to mask his own emotions, Lorne tells him: “Two more hours, according to the Ministers.” He shifts from one foot to the other, an unconscious expression of unease. “Bringing us up on seventeen hours of lockdown. Their solar cycle’s kinda wacky.” Because Ava’s days are thirty-four hours long. Seventeen hours, co-incidentally, the same average length of a culling, even though Ava hasn’t seen one in centuries. John tries not to feel bitter. Not about that, anyway.

John must have been quiet for a while, because when Lorne speaks again, it’s with some uncertain strain. “Sir?”

“What?”

“They have to know by now… that they’re not getting out.”

John doesn’t look at him. He doesn’t want to see the grim expression he knows Lorne is wearing. “I think if we’re lucky, he killed the station techs first. He didn’t expect to end up locked inside.” He turns his head, now, to glance at Lorne, but doesn’t find the look of surprise at his callousness. Instead, Lorne is nodding, slowly.

“That’s what I figured. He hasn’t exactly been making demands.”

John’s glad he doesn’t have to justify it – because by now he’s beyond giving a damn about the Avan scientists on principle. They’re probably dead, and if they’re not, this is no longer a diplomatic situation. Sarna’s got no intention of negotiating, and Vaal’s not going to be taken alive. That’s all that matters – that, and that in two hours, anyone still alive… won’t be.

“We have to get inside.”

“Sir?”

John starts, because he hadn’t meant to speak aloud, but now he has to explain himself. “Bryce and Donaldson think they’ve got the transport device working. They’re just running a final test.”

He’s not sure what he expected from Lorne, but what he gets is instant attention. “When are we going in, sir?”

And John smiles, just for a second, because if there was anything he needed just then, it was the knowledge that his people would follow him just about anywhere. But this isn’t about Lorne or Cadman or Whitehall or the others. This is about his team.

And Rodney.

And anyway, there are practical considerations.

“I appreciate your enthusiasm, Major,” he says, and means it, “but you’re staying out here.”

Lorne protests: “But sir—”

John interrupts him. “The thing can probably only take two, three people, and from what I’m told, I’m going to have to concentrate pretty hard to even manage that much. It’s too much of a risk to leave none of our own people here on the outside.”

“Sir, I really think I ought to—”

“And somebody has to be out here to keep an eye on our remaining geeks,” John points out, watching Lorne carefully out of the corner of his eye. For a second the younger man is tense, eyes flicking up to the tower, and then down again. Finally he relaxes.

“Whatever you say, sir,” he murmurs.

Lorne spends a lot of time with the scientists, John knows; almost as much as he does. Anybody with the gene gets called upon now and then to play light switch, but John also knows that Lorne and Zelenka are pretty close, too. For a second he feels selfish, wanting to be the one to go in, but he has to go, has to be the one to run the thing, and it’s his call. For whatever reason, it’s his call.

“So you’ll be taking Ronon and Teyla?”

John nods. “Any minute now, if we’re lucky.”

Lorne gives him a sceptical look. “Something to say, Major?” John asks wearily.

Lorne shakes his head. “No, sir. Just wasn’t aware you and Lady Luck were on speaking terms.”

John sighs, does a final check on his weapons. “Yeah, well, let’s hope she’s in a good mood today, because we’re going to need it.”

They make their way back to the secluded workshop, where Bryce tells him the device is ready – “as it’s ever going to be,” she qualifies, nervously, and runs him through the procedure.

“So explain to me how I target this thing, again?” he asks, laying his hands on the indicated panels, tentatively reaching for the familiar pull of Lantean machines. It’s there, but it’s faint and elusive.

“It seems to be largely mental,” she tells him. “I suppose ordinarily you would focus on a place you’d been before. How well do you remember the control room?”

John shrugs, uneasily. “Ish?” he hazards.

She shakes her head. “It does scan its surroundings up to a good long range, but I think it will work better if you can form a solid emotional connection with the target, and the machine should fill in the details. I suppose it can be a person as easily as a place.”

And just like that, John knows he can do it.

“We’re not going to end up half inside a wall or anything, are we?” Ronon asks, standing a few feet away with his hands at his sides, like he doesn’t want to touch the thing. And damn Rodney for showing Ronon Star Trek, anyway. Real matter transport didn’t work that way, even John knew that, and when had his life become so strange that he knew that?

But Bryce assures him that they won’t. “That falls under ‘details,’” she explains, as Ronon and Teyla join him next to the device.

He has to make a last gesture. “You guys know you don’t have to do this, right?” he asks. Carter cleared it, broadly speaking, but even he knows it's a pretty desperate kind of plan. They only know vaguely what they're walking into, in terms of where the walls are, how many men, etc. The mental state of the rebels, though, or whether any of them are even still alive, and if they are, what kind of weapons… they're pretty much going in blind.

“We are sure,” Teyla tells him, looking down at her hands as she lays them on the device, next to his. He looks up at Ronon, who hesitantly does the same, then looks up with an almost bored expression.

“What, you think we’re going to let you do this on your own?”

He’s so grateful he can’t say it, simply can’t, so he doesn’t try. Everything’s down to this moment, their hands on the cool metal of the device, his focus on their target. Because from the second Bryce mentioned it he knew what his target was, the only tie strong enough to bring him whole into the room with it, and he’s only having second thoughts about putting the rest of his team in this situation.

But they’re ready, they’ve said so, and he can’t stop his hands shaking, because god, they don’t know what they’ll find.

They could all be dead.

But he can’t face that. So instead, he closes his eyes, and reaches, and the device answers, reaching back, pulling him into rapport with all the grace and poise of a rusted Chevy. John feels the connection stutter a little, but it’s there and strong, and waiting for him to do something, and he has to pause to steady himself, because the unerring buzz of the city is all twisted up with the gut-gnawing panic that’s been his constant companion for the past fifteen hours.

“Just so we’re clear,” he says, pitched low so only his team can hear, “if he’s… if our people are dead…”

Ronon answers with all the menace John can’t show, and Teyla’s voice is like a knife, clean and sharp.

“No mercy,” says Ronon, and Teyla says:

“We understand.”

That’s all it takes. The image of Rodney clear in his mind, John reaches, and then he pulls, and then the room bends and shifts around them, and they’re gone.

And then they’re there.

It’s disorienting for maybe a tenth of a second, and then the room untwists into sharp focus around them. Somehow they get turned around so they’re back to back, and it’s enough time for John to take in the room.

Three seconds. That’s when the shooting starts.

Later, he’s unable to say who shot first. There are voices, a confused tangle of them, and then noise, incredible noise. John finds himself falling into a crouch as at his back, Ronon and Teyla do the same. Something hisses past his shoulder and hurts, but only in passing, because before his nerves can deliver the message properly to his brain he’s wheeling and raising his gun, and a grubby man in scuffed armour is falling back, clutching at his throat. Twelve seconds, eleven shots – he’s not sure whose or how many of each – and there’s just them and two rebels, one of which is clearly Eron Vaal only because he’s better dressed…

…and has his hands on Rodney, a curved knife pressed to his carotid.

It’s a bone-jarring sight, an almost physical jolt of terror and rage as Rodney’s eyes meet his, amazed and terrified and pissed, but John forces himself to calmness so he can take it in. He rises to his feet. In the intervening three seconds Teyla has dispatched the last remaining rebel aside from Vaal, and is rising to her feet as well, with absurd grace and a look of murder. Twenty-seven seconds, Ronon is rounding with his gun on Vaal even as Vaal speaks, twisting Rodney’s arm, just a little, where it’s twisted behind his back. John knows that to have gotten to Rodney that fast, he had to have been nearby when they appeared, within arm’s reach even, and that’s when he sees the blood spotting Rodney’s collar, the white cast to his face, the bruises on his jaw. He looks only half-conscious, and he’s sagging a little in the lunatic’s grasp.

And Vaal is mad. John can see it in his eyes. Maybe he wasn’t yesterday, but today he’s out of options, and nothing can drive a man past his endurance faster.

It’s been thirty-one seconds, and it takes John only two more to make the decision, heart pounding in riotous percussion to the persistent horrible buzz of the air, raising his gun to point it into Vaal’s face.

Vaal locks eyes with him, bares his teeth, snarls: “I’ll kill him like the rest.”

John sees Ronon lower his own gun, sees Teyla moving up behind him, and shakes his head. Thirty-eight seconds.

“No, you won’t,” he says, and squeezes the trigger.

He’s leaping forward to catch Rodney as Vaal falls heavily backwards with a nasty gurgling sound, the knife clattering to the floor.

Rodney’s a dead weight with shock, soundless and letting John lower him to the floor. He sits against the control panel, eyes still screwed tight shut, as Ronon checks to make sure Vaal’s dead, then drags him to the wall and leaves him there with his men.

John crouches in front of Rodney, who is breathing slow and careful, mouth pressed thin, jaw clenched.

“Rodney?” he murmurs, touching, carefully, only so much as he has to. “Rodney. Are you okay?”

Rodney’s eyes fly open, and John starts at the bright blue irises, the dilated pupils, as Rodney stares at him like he can’t believe what he sees. John can sympathise. It’s taking all his control not to break down right there. But breakdowns are for later.

“You – John?” he asks, and his voice is high and hoarse. In an astonished whisper, he adds: “You came.”

Rodney’s clearly not really here right now, and John is grateful when Teyla kneels down at his side, and whispers: “We are here, Rodney.” She smiles, gently, when Rodney’s eyes flicker to her face. “You are safe.”

Rodney’s eyes fall shut again, and he leans back. “Christ,” he whispers, and then he gestures, frantically, like it’s all he can do. John knows the jelly-legged feeling of physical shock, so he just looks.

“Radek,” Rodney whispers. “Vaal – he –”

Ronon is crouching over Zelenka, looking grim but checking pulse, holding his wrist over the nose and mouth to check breathing. Behind him, Miko is huddled against the wall, possibly in the process of hyperventilating.

“Still alive, but he’s hurt pretty bad,” Ronon tells them, which John can tell already. There’s a lot of blood. Ronon turns his head to Miko and says, not unkindly: “Stop it.” And she does.

But Zelenka’s still bleeding and unconscious, and there’s still more than an hour before they can hope for help. John reaches for his radio.

Lorne sounds relieved. But the next one hundred and eleven minutes are the longest of John’s entire life.

***

Crawling into bed after they made their way home from the park in the dark, Rodney more or less slept for five days, coming out for meals and sometimes going for walks when John coaxed him out, but not doing much else. It was a change, but after their moment by the lake they hadn’t discussed Ava further, and John couldn’t decide whether this was progress or not.

At night John wasn’t sure Rodney even dreamed, but he made sure that when he fell asleep some part of him was touching the other man; a hand, a shoulder, something. It seemed to help, and John tried not to read too much into it, because Rodney seemed to sleep soundly again even if John, himself, was kept awake for hours at a time by things he couldn’t control and absolutely would not act upon.

The level of tension in the house had slacked off considerably, and after they’d come limping in on Saturday evening after Rodney’s flight into the night, John had expected something – he wasn’t sure what – from Jeannie, from Kaleb. But nothing happened. Madison was… well, five, but just like before she seemed to know something was wrong, and she was quieter than usual, giving John soft, bright little smiles when she saw him.

He was pathetically grateful to Jeannie, who on the second day with hardly a sound from Rodney had stopped him on the way to bed and hugged him, hard, and gone away to her own bed with a sound like a sniffle but not one single awkward question.

Early in the still-dark morning of the fifth day John woke up and there was nobody touching him.

It brought him to full consciousness with disorienting speed, and he opened his eyes to see that Rodney had rolled over in the bed, and was facing away from him. But he was still and breathing slowly, deeply, a quiet, almost comforting shape under the blankets.

Sleeping. Not shaking, hardly moving. The way Rodney used to sleep.

They’d left the curtains open and in the moonlight John could see the curve of Rodney’s cheek, his right ear, the flutter of eyelashes just barely visible. John couldn’t see his face, and in a flash of comprehension he thought that was good, because god, if seeing Rodney able to sleep peacefully without him hurt this much, then seeing Rodney’s face vulnerable and open like he knew it must be would probably kill him.

On the tail of that, even as the feeling made itself known, he was rolling out of bed, standing barefoot on the carpet, breathing hard. Cursing himself, silently, because what kind of person… what kind of friend was he? To have enjoyed it, that Rodney had been so torn up inside that he’d needed something – not someone – to hold on to at night, just so that he didn’t wake up screaming?

He pulled on a t-shirt and slipped out of the room with his heart pounding.

He downed two glasses of ice-cold water from the filter jug in the refrigerator, and refilled it as he tried to catch his breath, his teeth chattering. He’d more or less calmed down, the sweat drying on the back of his neck and the brittle sharp thing in his belly easing away, by the time he’d opened the fridge to put the jug away. When he shut the door, Kaleb was standing there, and John nearly jumped out of his skin.

He didn’t. But the noise he made was pretty undignified – somewhere between a cough and a hiccup. As if to make him feel better, Kaleb offered up an embarrassed smile. “Sorry,” he whispered, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

John reflexively pressed fingertips to the side of his neck, where the pulse was racing. “It’s fine,” he assured the other man, and then, in a slightly indignant tone, he asked: “what are you doing up?”

“Heard somebody moving around downstairs.” Kaleb shrugged, and for the first time John noticed the baseball bat in Kaleb’s right hand. “After what happened last year, can’t be too careful – I just wanted to make sure the security system was armed.” As casually as if he’d been carrying a book, Kaleb leaned it against the wall and reached for the handle of the fridge door, looking closely at John.

“Do you maybe want something stronger?” he asked, and a moment later John realised he wasn’t opening the fridge, but using the handle as leverage to reach for something on top of it. When he pulled down a bottle of something unquestionably alcoholic, John found himself nodding gratefully before he could even read the label.

He didn’t look at it until he took the first sip from the half-glass Kaleb poured him, and then he set the glass quickly down until the feeling had returned to his gums. Kaleb nodded sympathetically and turned the bottle around so John could read it. Drambuie. Right. That would explain why his tongue was still tingling.

“Thanks,” he said hoarsely, after a second – smaller – sip.

“You’re welcome,” Kaleb said peaceably, taking a sip from his own glass without even flinching.

Goddamn Canadians, John thought without much ire, but then again it had been a while since he’d drank anything older than three months. Athosian ale didn’t often get much of a chance to age.

Kaleb was still watching him calmly, so calmly that it made John suspicious. “So seriously, what were you really doing down here?” he asked.

Kaleb grinned. “Didn’t buy that, huh? Well, it’s partly true.” The grin faded a little, and he shrugged. “One of us has been checking every night, more or less. Jeannie was worried about sleepwalking.”

It took John a minute to make the connection. Kaleb shrugged. “Apparently he used to do it when he was a kid, and sometimes PTSD can bring up childhood stuff.”

John covered his surprise by taking another sip of his drink, while he studied Kaleb Miller. He’d always been careful around Rodney’s brother-in-law, because he was Rodney’s brother-in-law as much as anything else, but also because Kaleb didn’t give much away with his face. But over the last couple of weeks he’d kind of come to like the guy, little as he saw him. Respect him, at least, because anybody who could live with any McKay and not go stark raving mad deserved his respect. It gave them something in common, and John coughed again as the comparison made him flush. Instead, he looked up at Kaleb and asked:

“You?”

Still unreadable, Kaleb nodded. “I was in a car accident with my brother when I was finishing my graduate degree – right after I met Jeannie,” he said. “We were coming back from camping up on Golden Ears and we went off the road… I should say the road went out from under us. Subsided in the rain. It was the end of the season, so there wasn’t much traffic, and we were pretty far from the road. Nobody found us for more than a day.” He took another small, unflinching drink from his glass. “Jeannie was there a few months later when it finally caught up with me.”

John stared at him, thinking that now Kaleb’s studied calm made a lot more sense – the calm of someone who’d had to re-learn it from scratch. “Your brother?”

Kaleb shook his head. “Died on impact.” With that same thoughtful calm, like it was distant and couldn’t really touch him anymore.

John didn’t apologise; he hated when strangers apologised for things. Besides, he knew from experience that in the flash of a memory, being trapped with a dead body for hours could be much worse than losing anyone, whoever it was, even if the priority wasn’t lasting.

“You dealt with it.” It really wasn’t a question, and Kaleb didn’t take it as one.

“Therapy. Jeannie. A lot of help, just like everyone else does it. It never goes away completely.” He gave John a grim, one-sided smile. “I still don’t much like driving. But I gather you’ve been there.”

Yeah, John didn’t say, and looked down into his glass. “I didn’t know about the sleepwalking,” he said instead, “but it makes sense.”

“So he hasn’t been?” Curious, nothing else. The words childhood things seemed to hang between them.

“No.”

“Good,” Kaleb said, and meant it. A second later, he murmured, with new heat, “Jeannie doesn’t talk about her parents much, but sometimes I’m glad they were dead before we met.”

John felt like he’d been tricked into looking up, but when he did, Kaleb was glaring vaguely into the dark living room.

“Hm?”

When Kaleb looked back, he seemed confused. “I just really didn’t want to have the conversation with Jeannie about why I didn’t want Madison spending time with those particular grandparents. I’m not sure it would have gone well.”

John felt his jaw clench, and forced himself to relax. He didn’t say what he was thinking, what he’d thought more than once over the past two weeks about “those particular grandparents,” but Kaleb made it unnecessary by changing the subject.

“I told him it was his fault.” It was that same careful calm again, and John was almost relieved, because this time he could feel angry, if just a little, with better justification.

“I know.” He tried to put just the right shade of warning into the words, and was rewarded with a flush suffusing Kaleb’s face.

“He told you, huh?”

John shrugged. Rodney had told him, if not in so many words, while they’d waited at Jeannie’s deathbed under the mountain. Talked about how he’d screwed things up and it had been his fault like Kaleb had said, how Madison would never forgive him, because she was smart, she’d know. But John didn’t tell Kaleb that. He understood why Kaleb had said what he’d said, understood it down to his bones, and didn’t think the other man needed the burden of knowing he was at least part of the reason Rodney had tried to feed himself to a monster.

Kaleb sighed anyway. “I felt like shit over it.” Again, not an apology. “Especially when he… I mean, I expected him to deny it. You know? Jeannie does that, too. Nothing’s ever her fault.”

“Yeah, I’m familiar with the tactic,” agrees John, smiling despite himself.

“But he didn’t. He just… he just said ‘we’ll find her.’ Went so white I thought he was going to faint.” Kaleb ran one finger around the rim of his glass, drawing out a high, clear note. “Bastard couldn’t even let me take it out on him without making me feel guilty. I thought ‘god, that is so like him.’”

“You were surprised?”

“Hell, yes,” Kaleb said, and then turned thoughtful. “I guess I shouldn’t have been.”

John had found himself in this position a lot lately, with Jeannie a couple of times and at least once with Sam, reminding people who’d come to expect certain things of Rodney that Rodney was different, now. Now, in the middle of the night, it didn’t seem so important, and anyway, Kaleb already knew.

“I don’t know why it should have,” Kaleb continued. “Jeannie said he was different after she went to Atlantis the first time. Seemed kind of spooked by it, to be honest. But happy. But when guys with guns came storming into our house in the middle of the night… well.”

“Easy to forget?” John suggested, because it was, he supposed. Rodney did his best work under stress, but only if he could actually do something.

“Yeah. And it wasn’t like I got to know him that well the first time I met him, you know? Half an hour’s very uncomfortable dinner, and then fifteen minutes’ lecture on how I was a mistake and ruining Jeannie’s life and…” He shook his head, dismissively. “But that was years ago. I guess I should have known.”

John downed the rest of his glass, this time enjoying the burn as it slid down his throat. He shook his own head. “No, you shouldn’t have. How could you?”

“Hm.” It was a non-committal noise if John had ever heard one.

“A lot of people wouldn’t have given him another chance. You did.” John pointed out, because it was true. Kaleb stared down at his glass for what seemed like a long time, before finally looking up, wearing another of his one-sided smiles.

“Well, yeah,” he said, like it was obvious. “He’s family.”

***

The moment the lockdown cuts out - the very moment - Keller is one of the first up the tower, leading a handful of medics. They work with cool efficiency, the controlled urgency of triage everywhere. The Avan soldiers and doctors hang back, almost embarrassed. They know there’s nothing here for them to find, not of their own. It’s been too late for their people for most of a day.

John has the bad news from Keller in six and a half minutes; six dead Avan scientists and three of their own: Ager, Henriksson, Simpson. Rodney and Miko are alive and whole, though Miko is a sobbing mess, and Rodney won’t say anything, just stares around at them all like he can’t believe his eyes. It’s been fifteen hours since John left them there.

Zelenka is somewhere in between. Keller’s exact words, uttered through pinched lips, are: “Not as bad as it looks.” John takes her at her word, just knows that there’s a lot of blood, more than there should be.

As they rush the three survivors through the corridors to the infirmary, people are watching from open doorways, looking shocked like they do every time, even though this happens pretty often, the rush from the gate to help. John follows them all the way, doesn’t even stop to explain anything until Zelenka’s rushed into surgery and the two scientists are sedated, Miko because she’s still a mess, can’t stop crying, and Rodney because Keller has good instincts.

Then John has to go, has to explain, has to tell Carter they lost three people and they might lose another before the night’s out.

They don’t. From what John gets of the surgery, it goes off without a hitch, just a nick of the large intestine and a lot of blood. A lot of blood, John remembers, but Keller assures him, for the second time and with far less tension in her face, that it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Not physically, anyway.

The first three nights in the infirmary John’s there all the time, and after the second night, the staff stop trying to shoo him out. Only the new arrivals try anymore, anyway.

Rodney wakes up, the first time, slow and fuzzy, bleary-eyed but sharp and clear in an instant, like he’s clawing up out of his own grave. He sits up so fast he pulls the IV, setting off an alarm that brings Keller running, and then quietly scolding, as she calmly tapes it back in place. John sees the pinpoint look in Rodney’s eyes as he stares at the thin trickle of blood on the back of his hand, sees the strange, stiff way he holds himself after she leaves, sees how Rodney jumps when he speaks, and then tries to hide it, pulling up the blanket and fidgeting with the edge.

“How are you feeling?” It’s a stupid question, it’s an unbelievably stupid question. But he has to say something, and watching Rodney, every second makes his chest tighten a little more.

“I-- better,” Rodney says, looking away, mouth pressed thin. And then: “thanks…” and nothing else. Then it’s awkward, and it’s never been awkward, strange and amusing and sometimes infuriating but never awkward, because Rodney doesn’t censor himself or think before speaking, and those are necessary ingredients in awkward.

After that, the days feel stretched and strange, so that some days will drag on to infinity and others, John wakes up and realises two days have swept past like the wind. He sees Rodney every day while he’s still stuck in bed, but a solid week passes and they’ve hardly spoken. He’s hardly ever alone when he visits, usually running into Teyla or Ronon, sometimes Lorne, who sits between Rodney’s bed and Zelenka’s, reading a book. Sometimes Cadman’s there, annoying the crap out of Rodney with gossip.

John still makes a point of checking every day, anyway, and refuses to think about why he’s doing it.

Keller releases Rodney on the fourth day after Ava because she has no more excuse to keep him, and makes it clear that if she had her way he wouldn’t be up and about. But Rodney’s being an intense pain in the ass and he dresses and leaves without even gloating, only to come back two hours later with his laptop and settle in next to Zelenka’s bed. When he wakes up, two days after Rodney, Rodney mutters something like “glad you’re all right,” and runs away like something’s chasing him.

He proceeds to spend the next four days hiding in his quarters. He doesn’t always answer the door when John comes to see him, and when he does, he makes excuses. “I’m busy,” or “I’m tired,” or “don’t you have someone else to bother?” John has to accept that; he doesn’t have much choice. The team’s grounded and relieved for two weeks straight-up, standard procedure, and after Rodney’s cleared to go back to the lab he functions on a set circuit of quarters, lab, mess, quarters, repeat, an almost automatic routine.

Maybe at first, nobody realises the extent of it. Maybe because the only person who gets enough contact with Rodney is Zelenka, and it’s sixteen days after Ava before he’s released even for light duty – which means sitting in a wheelchair and complaining about things for four hours a day, at least as far as John can tell when he drops by to check in. Rodney sits at his workstation and doesn’t even participate in squabbles, letting Radek field them for the most part, which is odd, but not exactly alarming.

At first, nobody notices that Rodney’s jumpier than usual, because Rodney’s always jumpy, or that he’s a little more irritable than they’ve all come to expect – Rodney is usually both of those things, and they’re par for the course. In any case Rodney’s going to such lengths to avoid talking to people that it’s hard to get an accurate sampling.

It’s that Rodney’s so quiet that finally gets to John. It’s brought to John’s attention, the second day of Zelenka’s return to the lab, that Rodney hasn’t made any subordinates cry in the two weeks he’s been back. John receives this troubling information in an e-mail from Zelenka, the first sign of many that he’s not the only one worried. The second sign comes from Carter.

In the few months she’s been in the city, he’s actually come to like Carter. At first he was wary, even vaguely antagonistic, because she’s both practiced and skilled at verbally sparring with Rodney and both of them seem to get such enjoyment out of it. At first, that inspired something uncomfortably like jealousy, especially after spending almost four years listening to Rodney talk about how awesome Samantha Carter is. He’s over hating her now, and has decided that it was just tradition; new COs get a hard time. It’s nature, even if she’s only marginally the CO.

He catches her checking in on Rodney four times while he’s still in the infirmary and five times after that, discreetly hovering at the door of the lab or casually passing by Rodney’s quarters or, once, watching him from across the mess hall while she eats lunch with Lorne and Keller and a couple of scientists. If half of what John’s read about Sam Carter is true, she’s probably been doing it as much as he has and just not been caught. He probably only noticed because he’s been doing the same thing.

He says nothing about it until they actually collide between Rodney’s quarters and the transporter during the third week after the incident. They both try to temporize excuses, John having an easier time of it because at least his quarters are somewhere in the general vicinity, but finally she shuts her mouth, frowns, and turns back toward the transporter. “Come on, Sheppard,” she says, and it’s not an order, but she sounds tired so he goes anyway.

Back in her office, Carter looks almost as bad as Rodney, exhausted and pale. She’s nowhere near as diplomatic as Elizabeth was, and while the difference took some getting used to it’s something John can respect. “He’s not getting better,” she says, and she folds her hands together on the top of her desk. Carter doesn’t talk with her hands, though John always gets the strange feeling that she wants to and someone told her it was unseemly.

John studies her. She’s studying him back, with that careful, watchful way Carter has that can be kind of intense. It reminds him of Rodney (as everything seems to these days), who John always thought watched people (when he can be bothered to pay them any mind at all, which isn’t often) so carefully because he’s no good at reading them by instinct.

“He says he’s fine,” shrugs John, though it sounds just as stupid as it did when Rodney spat it at him, the last time they spoke. They haven’t talked much since Ava, and when they do Rodney usually ends up sniping at him. It’s like the first year, all over again.

Carter seems to disagree with this assessment, because her eyebrows draw together and she presses her lips thin. “Has he talked to you?”

John drops his eyes to his lap and fidgets with the edge of his wristband. “Not about that,” he admits. “Have people been complaining?”

“No.” She almost sounds as if she wishes they had. She pinches the bridge of her nose as if to stave off a headache. “Can I be honest with you?”

He shrugs again. “Any time.”

She sighs, still gently rubbing her forehead. “I know everybody’s still getting used to me, and I understand that - you don’t know me. And you’re all so close-knit. It can be kind of intimidating.”

There’s not much John can say to that. It’s true, and while they’re getting used to her, it’s going to take time.

“So I don’t blame you all for… the only way I can describe it is… ‘closing ranks’?”

John doesn’t grin, but it’s a battle. She looks positively downcast, at least as close as a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force is allowed to get. “I understand that,” she repeats. “I do. But Rodney… we aren’t exactly friends, but he used to be…”

“Kind of a jackass?” John drawls, wishing he didn’t find her discomfort so amusing, but it’s been a long three weeks.

“Well.” Yes, she doesn’t say, but there’s amused exasperation on her face, like this is familiar ground, and John sort of smiles despite himself. “I’m saying, I understand I’m nobody’s best friend yet, but I think I’m entitled to be worried about him. After all, I’ve known him longer than any of you.”

She doesn’t mean it as a challenge, so John does nothing at all about the spike of - definite, recognisable - jealousy that makes his spine stiffen for a second. It’s not like Rodney wasn’t telling everyone that for the first month she was here. It’s not like he didn’t name a whale after her. “It’s been a few years,” he says. “He’s changed a lot.”

“I know that,” she replies, and there’s a hint of a smile there. “But I’m still worried about him. And you know why.”

Of course he knows why. Everyone in the armed forces gets the Possible Fallout of Trauma talk and the SGC has its own special version complete with appendices on space vampires, sex pollen, and possession by parasitic brain snakes. He’s been there before, and he’s pretty sure she has. Hell, most of Atlantis has been there. It’s why they keep sending them new psychiatrists, though they haven’t had any new personnel in that department since Kate died, and nobody likes the acting head, not even John, who’s usually pretty good at sidestepping therapists he doesn’t like. He’s willing to bet it’s top of Carter’s list, though.

“I thought you talked to him,” John says. He knows she did, because Rodney complained about it, because it’s something Elizabeth used to do after really bad missions and debriefings that took place in the infirmary, and he’s not exactly sorry Carter decided to keep that habit when she took over. She’s actually, ironically, easier to talk to than Elizabeth was. Elizabeth always seemed like she was trying to make you feel comfortable, which only worked when it really worked, and the rest of the time just made you feel like you were supposed to be reading lines. Or writing them. I will not challenge the civilian authority or maybe I am not really all that funny.

Still, right at this moment John finds himself missing Elizabeth. She would have made Rodney talk about it whether he liked it or not.

I talked. He didn’t talk back much, which was the first sign,” she explains, frowning. “It was kind of spooky, actually. He hasn’t been condescending or rude in almost a month, and god that sounds like such a horrible thing to clue me in, but… ”

He waits politely for Carter to gather her thoughts.

“Doctor Spinnett says he just sits there,” she says, finally, looking helpless. “Look, I can’t let him go back out in the field like this. I just can’t. I think we both know where this is heading, but if he won’t deal with it, he’ll make mistakes… and when it does happen, it’ll just be worse.”

And the thing is, John does know where it’s heading. So he lets Carter ground them for another week.

It gets where it’s heading, or at least a little closer, four days after his talk with Carter, when there’s a small fire in the physics lab. It’s not serious, the kind of thing he doesn’t hear about until the daily report crosses his desk the next day; happens all the time, messing around with ten thousand year old machines without much frame of reference. But then Zelenka comes vibrating into John’s office, looking both furious and terrified as well as weary, checking over his shoulder and shutting the door behind him before John can even greet him.

“I came to tell you this,” he explains, fingers clenched on his knees where he sits in John’s uncomfortable spare chair, “because he will deny it, but you must know.”

“Know what, Radek?”

Radek squeezes his eyes shut, mutters something in Czech, and then opens them again, wide and earnest and genuinely worried. “He made a mistake, Colonel Sheppard,” he says, in a low, careful voice. “And I think he has been making them for days. He complains that he cannot concentrate, and then he sits in the corner and he does not shout, or berate, or pester us, and now…” he tangled the fingers of one hand in his hair, looking bereft. “I was afraid of what it eventually was - I finally check his calculations, thinking surely I must be wrong… but I am not wrong.”

John stares at him, trying not to look forbidding, but his hands are clenched on the edge of his desk and the knuckles are white. “You’re sure?”

Radek nods. “As sure as I may be. I would have run my results past another in the department but…” he shrugs, meaningfully. “It is enough of a betrayal that I have done what I have done, myself, without involving others who might be less…”

“I get it,” says John, and stands. “Thanks for bringing this to my attention.”

Radek stops him as he heads for the door, and when John turns back with an impatient sigh, the other man jumps, cringes, and John feels guilty. He’s about to apologise, for some reason, but the scientist just shakes his head, tiredly. “It is nothing,” he says. “It is… to be expected. But that is why I’m concerned. I know that he is afraid,” Radek pauses, and then carries on in a rush: “because it is how it comes, afterward, and we can all see it, but he will not listen. He is…”

Radek presses his lips together, frowning. “It is worse for him. And I can hardly imagine it, but he is always watching, always afraid, and he will not discuss it.” He looks pale. “He will not speak to me. Perhaps it was foolish to try.”

John considers, and then carefully pats Radek on the shoulder; this time he doesn’t jump. “Maybe foolish,” John admits, “but what else is there?”

Radek shrugs. “I must… I must return to work now. Rodney is… he is probably sulking in his quarters, and one of us must be working.”

“Thanks,” John says, again, and watches Radek get five steps down the hall before turning back.

“If you would… I think it would be better if Rodney did not know we have spoken of this,” he says. John notices for the first time that the other man isn’t wearing his new glasses, that this whole time he’s been clutching them in his left hand. It makes him look different, both older and thinner, and John feels the tension in his neck sharper than he did a moment ago.

Radek’s wearing distant pain in the lines of his face, and John remembers with a flash of discomfort the long line of stitches crossing under the other man’s ribs, nearly healed after nearly a month, but still healing. They can speed the mending of soft tissue, but trauma is still trauma, and Radek still moves carefully, like he doesn’t quite trust the integrity of his skin.

Somehow stitches always seem worse to John than the jagged tear of a wound, maybe because by the time it’s over, sewn up pale pink and tidy, it means you’ve brought the madness of the moment back into the orderly world with you. At least when you’re bleeding you can blame the lingering panic on the fact that you’re bleeding, that the world’s been temporarily knocked off its axis, that this is not how things are supposed to be. Instead, stitches are an uncomfortable reminder that the two moments are not so separate, after all.

That at any moment the fragile peace of ordinary life can be ripped open, contents spilling out, just like skin.

John shakes his head against the wave of nausea, jabs his thumb hard into the inside of his wrist until it passes. Rodney probably is sulking in his quarters. He won’t talk to anyone. He’s not making his staff miserable. This is coming across worse than they thought.

“My lips are sealed,” is all he says.

Right on Zelenka’s heels come the rest of his team, minus Rodney - Teyla and Ronon, appearing at his door, looking out of place against its sparseness. He never used to use his office, but they’ve been grounded for a month and at some point he has to pretend to do some real work. Teyla looks at ease, leaning casually against the doorframe, while Ronon, as ever, looks his personal blend of uneasy and challenging.

“Food?” asks Ronon, and John smiles his relief, fleeting but felt.

“Yeah,” he agrees, pushing away from his desk.

Teyla’s the one to ask, as they’re heading for the transporter, the corridor deserted. “Doctor Zelenka came to see you.”

John’s never known anyone but Teyla who can put so much meaning behind such innocuous words. Because under the question-that-isn’t-a-question are the words we are worried about Rodney and something dangerous happened today and we are worried about you, too, John. But aloud, she waits, watching him patiently.

“Yeah,” he admits eventually, trying to keep to Ronon’s longer stride in a way that Teyla manages effortlessly. “You heard about what happened in the lab?”

There’s an uncomfortable silence, the kind that makes the hair on the back of his neck prickle with irritation. “What?”

Ronon and Teyla share a look, the one John associates with moments where culturally, they don’t quite match up, but with a twist to the grim side.

“It’s all over the city,” Ronon tells him in a rumble, a tone that says he’s more than willing to visit some retribution on spreaders of gossip wherever he may find them. “That McKay screwed something up and just about burned down the lab.”

John’s defensive before he can catch himself: “It wasn’t that bad,” he protests. “It was…” he sighs. “It was just a fire. The kind they have all the time. But it was… I think it was his fault. And Zelenka says…”

This could feel odd, like betrayal of trust, like telling secrets, but it feels like a team moment, the kind that means they’ve got a claim on Rodney, too, just like John does. He can’t talk about it to anyone else, that’s for damn sure, and they’ve been together long enough that most of what’s said isn’t said aloud.

“Are you well, John?” Teyla asks, when he’s finished telling them what Zelenka said. He looks at her in some surprise, because it’s a non sequitur and it leaves him wrong-footed for a second.

“I - yeah,” he tells her. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

She shares another look with Ronon, this one of the ordinary Earthlings-are-weird variety, and he tries not to scowl with purely childish annoyance.

“You are,” Teyla says, delicately, “often rather short-sighted when it comes to your own well-being, John.”

You think everything is your fault.

And that’s true enough, but if there’s one thing he doesn’t want to think about right now, it’s how tied up he feels to Rodney’s peace of mind, how he wishes he weren’t. But it’s not like he’s obsessed or anything, except for the stalking. Okay, maybe he’s a little obsessed. But it’s his job, and hey, Rodney’s his friend. It’s what friends do, right? They obsess.

“I can’t do much about it,” he says, feeling vaguely petulant, but Ronon merely shrugs.

“Won’t be much longer.”

And John shuts his mouth again, sees the real, baffling sympathy in their eyes, and shakes his head. “No. I don’t think so.”

“You should be there,” says Ronon, almost gently.

For a second, it’s free of context again and John’s not sure what Ronon means, so he glances at the other man’s face - but it’s hard to read, except for the open sincerity, something expectant. No specifics. He gets the passing, lunatic idea that they’re watching him like he’s watching Rodney.

John’s not an idiot, though, even though he looks away again, watching his feet as he walks. It’s on both their faces: You should be there with Rodney, or you should be there when he breaks. It’s both embarrassing and flattering that they think he’s the best man for the job, because he wants to be, despite himself. We can see right through you.

“He won’t talk to me.” And John can’t stop the hitch in his voice, even if it’s gone quickly.

“Nor to us,” agrees Teyla. That makes John look up again, not in surprise, because of course they’d tried - they were better at this sort of thing than he was - but all he finds in Teyla’s face is gentle worry. “He seems to resent the intrusion.”

Ronon snorts. “Never was as smart as he thinks he is,” he says easily, as they reach the transporter and the doors whoosh open for them. Neither John nor Teyla answer, but there’s no question of the silent agreement between them as the doors close.

Not long now.

***

Go to Part 4b

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