Author: Chandri MacLeod
Category: Angst, Hurt/Comfort
Spoilers: Through Spoils of War
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: Funny story - this was originally meant to be a fairly brief fic, like 5,000 words. Hah! Unfortunately I appear to have developed an allergy to short fiction; this is the fourth time this has happened in two months. o.O But thank you all so much for your very excellent comments! Glad to see you're all enjoying reading this as much as I'm enjoying writing it. (Though it perhaps says something about me that I enjoy torturing characters in quite such extensive detail. ^.^)
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
After they lost Elizabeth, there had been a period of almost a month where Rodney thought he saw her everywhere he looked. Kate – before she died too, of course – had thought it had something to do with him blaming himself, which hadn’t exactly been high-end psychology, as he’d pointed out. Of course he blamed himself. It was his job to fix things, and he hadn’t.
He’d stopped seeing her, but after Ava it had been days before he realised that the only dreams he was remembering were ones about Elizabeth.
He’d been annoyed by that. It had seemed so incongruous. Of all the faces he could have seen, Elizabeth’s was the last on his mental list. He’d have expected Simpson’s, or Miko’s, or even Ager. But it was Elizabeth who was there again and again, half-lit in a dark room while Rodney sat in silence. She never said anything, just kept her hand on his arm and smiled at him.
He stopped having the dreams when they came to Earth – had given up on sleeping for more than an hour at a time, for that matter – but he didn’t stop thinking about them. Even began to miss them, because the things he saw when he did sleep were not nearly so pleasant. The Elizabeth dreams were weird, disturbing, sure, but they were relatively peaceful. They never made him wake up sweating and terrified.
It might just have been that Elizabeth was gone. He wondered when, in his mind, he’d started equating “most of us are alive” with “everything will be okay.” It wasn’t even all of them; somewhere in his head he’d compiled a list of all the people he considered necessary to the ongoing cohesion of his personal universe. First, always first, was John. Elizabeth; Teyla, Ronon; Radek, Carson. Jeannie, even when they were fighting. Madison. Sam.
When they’d lost Carson and then Elizabeth, so close together, things had been suddenly different. Not impossible, but different. The world had taken on a new edge of constant, low-level urgency. He could no longer delude himself that they were safe, even for a second. But there were things close enough to safe that he could still get up every day and do his work and sleep at night. Things like realising that he suddenly, despite his best efforts to the contrary, had friends, or something close. That some of them even occasionally seemed to like having him around for other than purely practical reasons.
He’d long been highly-thought-of by a lot of people, but despite a certain amount of self-admitted arrogance he was smart enough to realise that that applied to his talents, not his person. This new state of affairs had come as a surprise. Not that he’d ever say that kind of thing out loud. He’d spent too many years being the only person who took care of Rodney McKay to risk such a declaration.
He stayed at the table as supper was cleared up around him, with both hands curled possessively around a cup of Kaleb’s very, very good coffee. Little as he liked that his sister had married an English professor (not even a full professor yet), the man had excellent taste in coffee.
Rodney spent twenty minutes communing with his third cup of… well, he’d already forgotten what it was called. It was good, though. That was all that mattered. Rodney was absolutely certain it was fair trade and organic, despite tasting like the kind of coffee that usually had to be carried on foot up the South American coast by indentured orphans.
Kaleb seemed to look upon sharing his extremely rare coffee (“I practically had to have it smuggled in, but I have connections,” he’d confided) as some kind of peace offering. Rodney was still thinking about it.
He could hear Madison making what was sure to be a very cheerful mess in the kitchen, where she, Kaleb and John (at Madison’s insistence) were doing the dishes. He could hear a lot of splashing and girlish giggling and chose to believe that at least some of it was John’s.
Jeannie wiped down the table and started stripping off the tablecloth, which had suffered a significant Madison-related spill, and Rodney watched her out of the corner of his eye. He never would have made up with Jeannie again, either, if it hadn’t been for Atlantis. If it hadn’t been for John.
He didn’t notice that Jeannie had sat down next to him until she touched his arm. He didn’t jump, didn’t spill his coffee – which at that moment was his paramount concern – but he was sure she felt the tensing of muscles under her hand, because she removed the hand after only a second.
“Meredith, are you okay?” she asked, sounding a little shaken. He glanced at her face, and though he was ready for it he still hated the careful, worried look on her face. He was so sick of people looking worried about him he could just throw up.
Instead, he took a scalding gulp of coffee and didn’t even whimper when it burned his tongue. “I really wish everyone would stop asking me that,” he muttered.
Jeannie glanced up as a squeal from the kitchen signalled another minor flood, and sighed. “You’ve been acting weird, Mer. What am I supposed to say?”
“You could say nothing,” he suggested, without much hope. “You could just let me enjoy my vacation.”
“You haven’t been to see me for anything short of a life-threatening situation in three years – not that I don’t appreciate it,” she amended quickly, with a brief bright smile, “but the sudden desire to visit, on top of all the… well, Mer, you’re worrying me.”
He stared down into his cup, and said nothing, until she pressed: “Something happened, didn’t it? Something… worse,” in a quiet, careful voice.
“A lot of things have happened,” he muttered, and pushed the cup away from him.
Jeannie sighed; her tolerant, I-don’t-know-why-I-put-up-with-you sigh. “I know a lot of things happen to you out there that you can’t talk about, Mer, but some things I think I have a right to know about.”
She looked more annoyed than worried, now, but she reached carefully out and touched the scar on his forearm, the one he’d gotten courtesy of Kolya, and had that really been three years ago? She’d asked about with wide eyes the first time she came to Atlantis, and he’d told her firmly to stop asking about it.
He pulled his arm away with a hiss. “Oh, yes? And what makes you think that?”
Jeannie remained unmoved, watching him. “Aside from the fact that some of it got me kidnapped in the recent past, how about the fact that you’re my brother and I worry about you?”
“I can’t—” he began, staring at her in frank astonishment. He wanted to say something, felt he should, because when people said things like that you were supposed to say something back…
But then he was scowling again, down at the table, shaking his head. To his left, Jeannie sighed again, a real sigh, and she rubbed hard at the bridge of her nose for a second before fixing him again with a look Rodney could only qualify as resigned.
“Everything okay in here?”
John’s voice, above all careful, and Rodney looked up to see him standing in the door to the kitchen, drying his hands on a striped dishtowel.
Jeannie just sighed again and got up, moving past him and calling out to Madison: “Time for your bath, Mad.”
The ensuing argument was cover enough for John to follow Rodney out of the dining room, down the corridor, and most of the way up the stairs. “Rodney,” he said warningly, and Rodney stopped halfway up and whirled on him.
“What?” he demanded.
John’s eyebrows rose a little, and he did that thing with his mouth that meant Rodney was being particularly frustrating. John had almost as many ways of implying things with his eyebrows as he did of using Rodney’s name. “You gonna tell me what all that was about?”
“What what was about?” sneered Rodney, with such force that John swayed backwards. For a second it looked like he might fall, and with a sudden breathless vision of John concussed on the hall floor Rodney reached out and seized his arm to pull him back up.
But even as he touched him, John caught his balance with an easy hand on the banister. Rodney was breathing hard, and he couldn’t seem to let go. Couldn’t seem to make his fingers do what he was telling them, or his lungs, or his legs.
He didn’t even realise John was talking until he felt himself being guided to a seat on the middle step, and opened his eyes to see John crouching down in front of him. “Rodney?” he was saying, in a low, soft voice, “can you hear me?”
John had turned his arm in Rodney’s grip, so that he was gripping back, thumb rhythmically stroking the inside of Rodney’s wrist. His other hand was on Rodney’s knee. It felt cold.
“Of course I can hear you,” he whispered irritably, but his chest still felt tight.
“Rodney, you’re having a panic attack,” John explained calmly. “I need you to take slow, deep breaths…”
“I’m not having a—” Rodney protested, but John squeezed his arm, gave him a look like a challenge.
“Then do what I say, and prove me wrong,” he murmured, and Rodney did it out of pure spite. He was annoyed when it helped, when he could breathe again and John was tilting up one corner of his mouth in that not-quite-smile that was John’s version of I-told-you-so. “You okay?”
“I really, sincerely would like people to stop asking me that,” Rodney said weakly, and looked down at where he was still gripping John’s arm, John who had made no move to pull away.
“Yeah, well, it’s kind of why we came,” John pointed out, reasonably.
Rodney stared at John’s hand at his arm for several long seconds, the novelty of being touched warring against the instinct to be angry about being coddled. “I’m very tired,” he said eventually, and even he could hear the pleading note in his voice. But he was tired, too tired to feel embarrassed as John peered closely into his face, sighed, and let go.
Suddenly even bad dreams seemed like small trade-off for a little peace and quiet.
John went back downstairs for an hour, to give Rodney time to drop off – assuming he would. He helped Kaleb dry the dishes and put them away, and took the bright blue plastic recycling bin down the curb in front of the house.
Coming back inside, he met Jeannie at the foot of the stairs. She gave him a searching look, but just shook her head and left him with a “good night, John.”
Finally there was nothing for John to do but turn in, and so he did, slipping into the room silently, changing into shorts and a t-shirt, and sliding into the bed where Rodney was curled up on the far side of the mattress with his eyes shut, apparently asleep. John followed him after a minute or two.
He’d already suspected Rodney wasn’t sleeping - had been suspecting it before Keller pulled him aside to lay it out for him, the reasons Rodney had to stop, had to go away for a while. By the second night on Earth, he was sure, because it had taken John that long to adjust to the unfamiliar solar rotation – even if Earth never quite felt right anymore – and Rodney had still not slept through eight hours, not even five, not even two, not once.
They’d spent a night at Cheyenne Mountain when they’d arrived, because “accumulated leave” didn’t qualify them for a quick trip via Asgard beam and they’d had to wait for a commercial flight cross-country. They’d been assigned separate rooms, but John had heard the base personnel complaining that Rodney had been up at all hours pestering the night shift.
He’d been off-world with Rodney enough times to know that when Rodney slept, he slept like the dead. Even, heavy breathing, but the rest of him still, at peace, in sharpest contrast to Rodney while awake, when the only right words invoked motion and energy: Frenzy. Babble. Passion. Delight. Sometimes he had bad dreams, slept uneasily; everyone did. But it rarely manifested as anything more troubling than tiny whimpers, almost childlike, and Rodney always slept with a faint frown of concentration on his face, but he didn’t scream, didn’t thrash, didn’t shudder.
It was the trembling that woke John, Rodney’s shoulder pressed hard between his shoulder blades, his upper body curled desperately into the pillow, his mouth open and a steady stream of incomprehensible not-quite-words spilling out into the dark. He knew it was a nightmare in a second, not just a bad dream, but a nightmare. He could see the guttural horror written into the lines of Rodney’s face, and after a moment he imagined he could almost feel it, because the hair on his own neck rose and he shivered, even in the still summer heat of Jeannie’s guestroom.
Deciding to wake him, even with a gentle touch and a whisper of his name, was dangerous, but John was ready, hands already reaching as Rodney flailed at him with his eyes still screwed shut, because he knew it was coming. He knew the absurd strength terror could give a man, knew that Rodney would wake up breathing hard, fists clenched, ready to fight, as he did.
But John caught his wrists easily, held them for a few terrifying heartbeats as Rodney twitched, heaved, whimpered, and finally came awake gasping. In the dim light of the room, the blue eyes were startling and pale, just a ring of colour around pupils gone huge with panic.
John held on as tightly as he dared until Rodney blinked, blinked again, and then recognised him. He swallowed hard, Adam’s apple bobbing, and croaked: “John?”
“Right in one. That’s why you’re a genius,” John murmured, slowly letting go of Rodney’s wrists, sliding his hands up the forearms, stroking gently but firmly. Rodney’s fingers clutched, and closed around John’s arms. “Bad dream?”
For the space of a breath John saw Rodney about to recoil, about to get angry, but in the end he stared nakedly into John’s eyes for a second before bending his head into the space between them. John slid his hands up to Rodney’s shoulders, still stroking, grounding him. Nakedly. It was the only word that fit, sending blood flooding into his face, but he didn’t pull away.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Rodney said eventually, in a muffled voice.
John drew breath automatically to say that he should, that he’d have to, eventually, but the pressure of Rodney’s fingers around his arms, the heat of his body, stopped him, made him hesitate just long enough to make it too late to say it.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay.” He pressed a hand to the back of Rodney’s neck, damp with sweat. “Are you…”
The laughter startled him, but not for long. “I’m so tired,” Rodney told him, hoarsely.
“Go to sleep,” John told him, thumb moving slowly at the nape of Rodney’s neck. Rodney was a solid, radiating presence in his arms, and the moment of heated embarrassment had passed. Now he was growing drowsy on his own account, and under his hands he could feel Rodney’s pulse slowing, his breathing even out.
When Rodney spoke again, it was slurred, and John couldn’t see his face. “Thanks.”
“S’nothing,” John told the top of his head, “Do it for anyone.”
That got him the faintest vibration of laughter, but not the sound, and gradually he realised Rodney had dropped off. He firmly ignored the tingle of guilt at the back of his head, because it was true, John would have done it for anyone. Just maybe not with so little hesitation.
The Avans, as it turns out, are telepaths, or something close enough that Sarna’s aide can shut his eyes and tell her that most of the scientists are still alive. John grabs his arm and demands to know what “most” means, while wondering how they could spend three days on this planet and nobody told them about all the mind-reading.
“No Avan of any conscience would ever look without asking,” Sarna assures him, carefully prying his fingers from her aide’s collar. The aide slinks away, pale and sweaty.
“What about those guys?” John demands, stabbing his finger up at the tower, and even Sarna jumps. John doesn’t care, his head is buzzing and he’s angry and he wants to do something, because up there maybe Rodney and his team are getting murdered, and he doesn’t think he can handle that.
Sarna makes a show of smoothing her hair, and looks up at the top of the tower, the dark blemish of the explosion on the side where the control room must be open to the elements. “Eron Vaal is a terrorist, Major,” she tells him. “But as far as I know, none of his men have the capability. They would certainly never have been given new reading devices.”
“Reading devices?” John asks blankly.
“These,” she says, brushing the hair from the side of her neck to reveal something small and metallic blinking just behind her ear. “They allow our citizens to access the city’s computer systems, and exchange information via the network. It is not true telepathy, but we can establish the presence of a certain number of signals above, and connecting through their readers, we can establish the presence of nearly a dozen others.”
She lets the hair fall back into place, hiding the reader, and explains: “Vaal’s men have all been detained in the past for criminal offences. Their devices were removed. It is a punishment reserved for only our most dangerous criminals.”
She looks grave, enough that it gives John a bit of a chill. He can practically hear the words “we do not negotiate with terrorists” coming out of her mouth, even though she hasn’t said them yet. Vaal’s not just a terrorist, he can tell. In their eyes, he’s a monster, and nobody negotiates with monsters. You kill them, whatever the cost.
“Then how do you know anybody’s still alive up there?”
“Because all of our scientists have readers,” Sarna tells him. “My aide detected all except Technician Orsa Brenn, and passive readings tell us that there are still several others present who cannot be Vaal or his men.”
John grasps at the offered straw. “Can we use it to communicate with my people?”
But Sarna shakes her head. “I’m afraid not,” she says. “As I said, this is a passive method. We cannot force them to respond. But we will keep trying, while we execute contingency plans.”
Contingency plans, thinks John. It’s hardly ever a stable situation when people start throwing around words like “contingency,” and he recognises the dismissive way the Avans are talking about Vaal. The man is “dangerous,” he’s “a threat,” he “cannot not be reasoned with.” None of the above bodes well for getting their own people out safely, even if Sarna isn’t saying so yet. Better to be paranoid, John thinks.
Though he’s loathe to go out of sight of the tower, he leaves Teyla and Hergaard with Sarna, and he and Ronon tramp back to the gate to dial Atlantis.
“We have a situation,” he tells Chuck Beaton, putting enough urgency in his voice that the Canadian tech goes running for Carter.
Carter, to her credit, sounds cool as the ocean, but then she’s probably been in this situation a dozen times before. With a few notable (positively fluke-like) exceptions, SG-1 was not well-known for making a lot of friends. Elizabeth’s Avoiding Cross-Cultural Misunderstanding handbook, written hastily in the first year of the expedition, was been largely based on SG-1’s mission reports. It’s more a how-not-to guide than a how-to.
She’s a little less cool when he finishes outlining it. “I hate to ask this, but we’re sure McKay had nothing to do with the political uprising?”
Strangely, it calms him a little, focuses him, and John chuckles despite himself. “No, it looks like Rodney was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And still is,” he adds, because they’ve gotten off the point. Rodney has gotten a lot better at keeping his mouth shut, but he’s still Rodney.
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance the Daedelus is in spitting distance of Ava?” he asks, idly running inventory on his and Ronon’s personal ordinance as he talks.
Carter’s end of the line goes quiet for a minute, and he guesses she’s stepped away from the control room. “At the last check-in, they were still three days out at full burn, Colonel, and we’ve got nothing else in dock with beaming technology, which I assume was your next question. Do you think we’re there yet?”
“Don’t know for sure,” he admits, glad that he doesn’t have to explain his tentative plan. The tower isn’t shielded, as far as he can work out, just at the mercy of a complicated lockdown sequence. “But I’m getting a scorched earth vibe off of the government officials here, and I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
He practically hears her “what, you?” grin, and hears it fade, too. “That’s not encouraging,” she says. “And I guess this counts them out as regular trading partners. I don’t like the idea of allying ourselves with people who are willing to take this kind of loss just to deal with insurgents. Especially if the loss is our people.”
She says that with such feeling – our people – that he feels a momentary surge of something both fond and indignant. She’s new, but she’s trying, and this isn’t the time to needle her over territory.
“Well, like I said, it’s just a vibe, not a fact,” he hurries to say. “They might still be useful if we can work this out. I just think we should be careful.”
“I trust your vibes, Colonel,” she says, but adds: “so we’ll see. In the meantime…”
It’s a leading question, and he takes it. “I’d like Lorne to come through with a couple of engineers.” He looks at Ronon, who gives him a thoughtful shrug. “The Minister says there’s no way to bypass the lockdown, but from what I’ve seen these people take a lot of technology for granted without knowing how it works.”
“Ancient?” she asks, unable to disguise her eagerness.
“Rodney thought so,” he agrees. “Or a mix of old and new. Maybe our people can find a way through that lockdown, and if it comes down to rushing the power station, I’d rather not be blasting through barred doors.”
“Understandable,” she says, and there’s the sound of her talking over the citywide, calling for Lorne to form up with a team in the jumper bay. “ETA about ten minutes, Colonel,” she tells him.
He breathes the tiniest sigh of relief, and thanks her.
“You’re welcome. And good luck.”
Lorne arrives bang at the ten-minute mark, and they ride back to the city in the jumper. John lets Lorne fly, sitting in the co-pilot seat and trying not to fidget.
Not for the first time, he wonders how it’s always Rodney who gets himself into these situations. It can’t just be bad luck, because they’re all equally prone to that. It can’t just be Pegasus, because Pegasus and her twisted sense of humour do not play favourites.
That really only leaves Rodney, and though John would never actually say that it’s his fault (though it fairly often sort of is), it does seem to be tied up with Rodney, himself. Rodney, who is, above all, unique. Rodney, with that bizarre quality about him that makes most people hate him and some people like him even against their better judgement. John certainly saw it that way himself, at first, but it remains a fact that the people who care about Rodney, care deeply for him, to the point that he can become a liability sometimes, and John’s certainly no exception to that rule.
He’s a liability anyway, John reminds himself, and savours the self-recrimination over the stupidity of that for a few seconds before it dies away of its own accord. He’s been a liability for a long time, and sometimes John has no idea how he can have avoided noticing. But it seems, as do many things, to go right over Rodney’s brilliant head. For a genius, the guy can be pretty oblivious.
John leans back in his seat and tries to unobtrusively massage his temples. When that doesn’t work, he presses the heel of his right hand into his right eye. One thing’s for certain: he gets a lot more headaches these days than he did before he met Rodney McKay.
For two nights, Rodney actually slept mostly through the dark hours. John would have liked to think that had something to do with his presence, but suspected it had rather more to do with the pure exhaustion of not sleeping much for almost a month.
They didn’t discuss the nightmares, though John tried once or twice. All Rodney would say was: “It’s my problem, I’m dealing with it.”
It was a couple of days before it became clear that Rodney wasn’t dealing with anything at all. If anything he was tighter-strung than usual, which was something, and a couple of times John thought he saw him go almost stone-still.
That was unusual, too. Rodney was always in motion, talking or moving his hands or tapping his heel while he thought or ate; even when he was focused and holding still he always seemed to be moving, somehow. Jeannie wasn’t like that, she always seemed easy in herself, but even she seemed bothered by Rodney’s stillness; kept giving him odd looks whenever she thought he wouldn’t see, and then softening her own gestures around him.
It was as if, when not being spoken to, Rodney was going into some kind of sleep mode. He’d stare into space and hold very still, but not like he’d just come to a rest, more like he was frozen.
It was downright eerie, and the second time he was startled out of it John saw real alarm on his face before he covered it. It was Madison, that time, who shook him back into reality, tugging on his arm and saying: “Uncle Mer, can you take me to the park? Mummy says she’s busy.”
Rodney blinked and looked down at her as if surprised to see her, shook his head, and said, uncertainly: “I… I guess so…”
“Do you mind, Mer?” asked Jeannie, halfway into both the living room and her coat. “One of the other lecturers got sick at the last minute and I said I’d fill in. I wouldn’t ask, but…”
Rodney blinked right back into the moment, and stared at her. “Wait, lecture? What? What’s this about?”
Jeannie gave him an elaborate eye-roll. “I’ve been teaching first-year physics classes at Douglas College, Mer. I had to keep my hand in somewhere.”
“Physics – at Douglas of all – why didn’t you tell me about this?” he demanded, still looking confused.
“Lower-division colleges serve an important purpose, and I did tell you, Mer. Honestly, do you ever read my letters?” She moved past him into the foyer. Rodney followed, apparently unable to stop himself.
“I thought you’d given up all the ‘demanding subjective drain’ of academia to glory in the squishy warmth of motherhood or something?” Rodney said nastily, either unaware or uninterested that the product of said squishy warmth was standing not ten feet away. Madison didn’t seem to notice the implication.
John, safe behind his book, hid his enormous grin behind the pages. But he heard Jeannie sigh impatiently. “Mad’s starting school in September,” she pointed out. “Whereupon she’ll be out for most of the day and I can…” She paused, and when she continued there was an almost gentle note under the exasperation: “It was never going to be forever, Mer.”
Rodney sounded confused: “It… wasn’t?”
John actually had to bite the inside of his cheek again to keep from chuckling. Madison was standing in the middle of the living room with her hands on her hips, staring at her mother and her uncle with a vaguely perplexed look on her face, but she was definitely paying attention.
“No, it wasn’t. Which I tried to tell you at the time, but you weren’t really listening, were you? I don’t even— look,” she said, glancing at her watch, “I don’t have time for this right now. Can you take her or not? I was going to take her downtown to the Space Centre, and then to Deer Lake afterwards… I can’t think of anyone more qualified to debunk the student presenters at the Planetarium, but if you don’t want to, I need to know now so I can take her over to Frank and Theresa’s…”
“Frank and who?”
“Kaleb’s parents. Her grandparents? I’ll have just enough time to drop her off before I have to be at the college. Well?”
John wasn’t reading anymore, was watching Rodney’s profile as he shut his mouth, frowned mightily for a second, and finally nodded. “I can—I can take her,” he said, sounding like he couldn’t believe his own ears.
“Great!” exclaimed Jeannie, “the car keys are on the kitchen table,” and flew out of the house before Rodney could say another word.
Rodney stared after his sister for several long beats before Madison asked: “Are we going now, Uncle Mer?” Rodney looked down at her again with a frown creasing between his eyebrows. He looked so adrift that John got to his feet, folding back the page of his book, and crossed the living room in a few paces.
“How ‘bout we all go, hey Mad?”
Madison hugged his legs and ran to get her shoes, Rodney staring wide-eyed after her. Tentative, John reached out to touch his shoulder, and Rodney jerked away. “What?” he asked, blinking. “What?”
“You sure you don’t want to stay here?”
Rodney’s sudden glare was a strange relief. “I’m fine,” he snapped, and then: “Douglas College,” the words positively dripping with scorn. “Of all the places she could have edged her way back into academia…”
John raised an eyebrow. “Not a high-class institution?”
“Oh, please,” Rodney huffed. “It’s everything wrong with public post-secondary education. They don’t call it ‘Dougie Daycare’ for nothing.”
He went on muttering similar imprecations about the declining state of education and the questionable wisdom of pandering to the lowest common denominator as he found his shoes and put them on. John watched him for a minute, listening to Madison run back and forth upstairs, before finally going to find his own shoes, asking with carefully casual tones:
“Are you sure, Rodney? I mean, I can take her, if you don’t want to go.”
It was an easy out, and Rodney knew it – he fixed John with a piercing stare as he double-knotted his laces. Finally, he shook his head. “No,” he muttered, “you’d never find it on your own, and I know you, you’ll get distracted by the lasers and the pretty lights and forget that it’s supposed to be an educational experience.”
John smirked. He couldn’t help it. “Isn’t it a four-story sphere with a giant telescope on top?”
“Yes, well first, there are two of those in Vancouver, and second, you’re not approaching it from space, you’ll have to navigate on the ground like a mere mortal,” Rodney pointed out, and John frowned.
He’d actually forgotten that for a second. Roads. Funny how perspective could change.
It had nothing on the real thing, but the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre (and John had never heard such an uninspiring name) was a great way to spend an afternoon. For one thing it was air-conditioned, which was something met with appreciation after the last few days of temperatures in the humid hundreds (“It’s thirty-five degrees, John,” Rodney had sniped when he’d asked for a conversion. “Celsius is more efficient. Play along like you live in the twenty-first century with the rest of us.”). For another, there was a talking robot. Nobody had told him about the talking robot.
Rodney looked around smugly as they stood in line for tickets. “I’d bet that ninety percent of the astronomers here have no idea that their stunning new telescopes were designed with alien technology,” he whispered, and John just shrugged. Rodney had explained that the Space Centre had only had one telescope before the Stargate program, but had installed quite a few new ones in the last decade, the newest two enhanced with hybridized Asgard technology.
John just shrugged and said nothing, but privately thought somebody on their staff knew; somebody had to be there to edit the real alien ships out of the radio telemetry.
The show was obviously geared towards kids, but John leaned back in the reclining chair with Madison on his left and Rodney on his right (Madison had wanted to sit with “Uncle John”) and enjoyed it anyway, the feeling of total immersion in the projected night sky above them. The dome-shaped screen covered the ceiling and most of the walls, so it seemed as though the seats were floating in the black.
Madison made little “oohs” and “aahs” of delight as the Zeiss projector panned, shifted, and sped them through space. Rodney alternately stared with a hidden smile and muttered whenever something particularly inaccurate or over-simplified was explained by the robot (though as far as John could tell, the robot got it right more often than its human “partner” did).
Finally Madison’s seat placement made sense, because halfway through, as the audience was being taken on a tour around the event horizon of a black hole, Madison leaned over John with an annoyed look on her face.
“Do you mind?” she asked, her high piping voice doing an utterly uncanny likeness of Rodney’s you-are-such-a-moron tone, “some of us are trying to watch.”
Rodney looked silently betrayed as Madison settled back into her seat, and John had to stuff two knuckles into his mouth to keep from laughing aloud and ruining the show for everyone. It was the same face Rodney made when John told him not to blow up any more planets.
Madison pleaded for a ride on the simulator afterwards but was flatly refused – it was closed, lied Rodney. Secretly John knew that Rodney just didn’t want to ride on anything without inertial dampeners.
In the gift shop, Rodney bought Madison a two-layered globe showing the constellations, one that could rotate the night sky to show the change of the stars over a year.
John bought her a stuffed astronaut and a model kit of the International Space Station (not entirely accurate, but he doubted that the division of the Canadian Space Agency responsible for designing toys knew about Asgard beaming technology or zero-grav weapons platforms). Rodney paid with a credit card, but John got a dirty look from the cashier when he paid with an American hundred-dollar bill. He got back a handful of colourful Canadian bills that Rodney immediately snatched from his hand when John smirked and said they looked more like play money.
Madison insisted on throwing change into the fountain beneath the main entrance, and John stood with Rodney while she made eighteen wishes (all the coins Rodney had in his pocket, actually stolen from the change jar in Jeannie’s front hall).
Then she counted the number of telescopes at the Space Centre (eight) and the number of years until the time capsule buried in front of the fountain would be opened (too many to be interesting).
She declared the huge Haida crab sculpture in the fountain to be “weird-looking.” John didn’t feel up to explaining modern art to a five-year-old, but just to be contrary, Rodney pulled out John’s pilfered twenty-dollar bill and pointed out the other Bill Reid art on the flipside from Queen Elizabeth. “Don’t mind him,” Rodney told his niece with a condescending grin for John, “he’s just jealous because our money’s prettier.”
John did not remind Rodney of how had been complaining since they got back that hard currency was inefficient, unhygienic, and generally a pain in the ass. Instead he grinned back, because he knew a lot more about art than Rodney did but Rodney was going out of his way to be irritating, and John had long since realised that this was Rodney’s way of showing affection. Whether he knew it or not.
Deer Lake Park was much bigger than it had looked on the road map, grass and gardens and trees angling down from a cluster of theatres and studios near the main road. It was walking distance from the house, but they were already in the car and so they parked it in the lot beside the Shadbolt Centre, bought sandwiches from its tiny cafeteria, and walked down the grassy slope towards the water.
“Mummy said you played here when you were little, but you stopped ‘cause somebody pricked your Eggo,” said Madison as they passed an enormous outdoor amphitheatre on the northern shore.
“I think you mean ‘ego,’ Mad,” John corrected her without thinking, as Rodney stopped abruptly, looking down towards the stage and its majestic sloping roof with something like embarrassment.
Madison seemed to sense she’d said something wrong, because she tilted her head at Rodney and asked: “Did I hurt your feelings, Uncle Mer?”
Rodney rubbed a finger down the bridge of his nose once, twice, and then shook his head. “No,” he said evenly, “You didn’t hurt my feelings.”
“Oh,” said Madison, brightening. “Good.”
John let her get a little ahead, and leaned close to Rodney and asked: “You played here?” He didn’t mean to sound amazed, but it was amazing. He couldn’t help it. “Play what?”
Rodney blushed a deep shade of pink. “Um, yeah. I used to play piano when I was a kid. I wasn’t very good.”
John grinned, because not only did that fit just right with his mental vision of Rodney as a kid, the blush was kind of cute.
“You must have been pretty good, if you were playing in giant public amphitheatres,” John pointed out, still grinning, though he wasn’t sure exactly why.
Rodney shrugged, grimaced – his unhappy grimace, the one he wore when he accidentally let on that he had feelings. “It was my mother’s thing, really; she studied music, and it was this big deal that I was actually doing something she liked. She used to drag me all over the province playing in youth competitions. When it turned out I wasn’t good enough to play professionally, I dropped it.”
There was a note of carefully-hidden resentment in Rodney’s voice, in the slump of his shoulders, as they moved to catch up with Madison. “Your parents just let you… stop? Did you not like doing it?”
“No, it wasn’t…” Rodney trailed off, looking up at the cloudy bright sky as they walked. It wasn’t that, John saw in his face. He didn’t look at John as he went on: “My parents weren’t really all that fond of me. Mum was disappointed, but more that I wasn’t good enough than that I gave it up, so she didn’t push it or anything. I think they were both relieved when they didn’t have to drive me around anymore.”
He shrugged again, and John had a moment of dark, intense dislike for Rodney’s parents for no specific reason at all, though he had a good idea. John would never care to arm-wrestle anyone to prove superiority in parenting skills, but he did know from personal experience that if one of your kids could utter the phrase “they weren’t all that fond of me” and mean it, you were doing something wrong.
“How come you never mentioned it before? That you play piano, I mean.”
“Because I don’t, anymore,” Rodney answered, with a little more snap in his voice. “I don’t… I don’t talk about it, really. Or think about it. There isn’t any point. It was a waste of time I could have spent pursuing more practical things.”
“Right,” said John, trying to put just the right mix of scepticism and if-you-want-to-talk-about-it into the word, but Rodney didn’t bite. John began idly plotting all the ways he could hijack enough cargo allotment on the Daedelus to ship a piano across several galaxies. He suspected it would be tricky.
The playground was on the eastern shore of the lake, out of sight of the parking lot which was lost behind a screen of trees. Being the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, it was practically deserted. John stretched out on the warm grass while Rodney sat watching Madison clamber up the brightly-coloured equipment, his elbows resting on his knees.
John ate his sandwich, and glared at Rodney until he stopped picking at his and ate it. They didn’t talk much, and Rodney seemed to relax a little with no one pushing at him, leaned back on his elbows next to John and stared up at the sky, where there were clouds gathering grey-white above the trees.
John had started to doze off in the warm breeze and the sunshine when suddenly it happened – there was a squeal of abused metal, and then a thud, and then a high-pitched wail from the playground.
Rodney shot to his feet in a second, and was rushing towards the edge of the play area. John was close on his heels as Madison continued to cry, rocking theatrically back and forth, clutching her scraped and bleeding knee. Rodney stopped a few feet away, hands still outstretched, and John outpaced him, kneeling down to give Madison a quick once-over.
“No big deal,” he said soothingly, “just a scrape. Can you stand up?”
Sniffling and whimpering, Madison let him pull her up, and then hopped on one foot back to the grass. John looked up to ask Rodney to grab the first aid kit, but saw it the same second as Madison, who took one look at Rodney and stopped, tear-streaked face puzzled and scared.
Rodney, who was standing ghost-pale and ramrod-straight, his eyes huge and dilated, unmoving like he was glued to the spot.
And John stopped, too, because he knew that look, he’d seen it on the faces of dozens of soldiers, seen it in the mirror, and because Keller had told him to watch for it; part of trauma was remembering what you’d rather not, and Rodney had probably been fighting it for weeks. He watched as Rodney took them in, stumbled a few steps back and sat heavily on the grass, covering his eyes with his fists, pulled in on himself and shaking.
John had an agonizing three seconds of indecision, between Rodney and the weeping child, and decided to compromise. He put Madison on a nearby park bench, dropped a kiss in her hair and promised her ice cream if she could wait “just one second.” Then he went back to where Rodney was sitting, fingers interlaced behind his neck, staring blank and wide-eyed over the lake.
He crouched down on the grass, and reached out for Rodney but didn’t touch him. Even inches away from the skin he could feel the Rodney’s tremors in his own palms, as if it was being communicated by the vibrations of the air. “Rodney,” he said, low and quiet like the night on the stairs, “Rodney, look at me.”
Peripherally, he heard Madison’s whimpers die away, saw her watching them with still-teary fascination, not sure what was wrong, but aware that something was. John felt a rush of gratitude. Most children were too self-centred to care about other people being in need, but most children were not Rodney McKay’s flesh and blood, and Rodney was selfish but not self-centred. She was sitting still, biting her lip, as if trying not to distract him.
The kid was clearly a genius.
Rodney’s eyes were unfocused, but the pupils were back to normal, shrunk against the white glare of the afternoon sky. He was still pale, though, and clammy when John finally dared to reach out and touch him, framing Rodney’s face in his hands. Rodney’s eyes fell closed almost of their own accord, and he shivered, as if he couldn’t decide between leaning into the touch and recoiling.
“Tell me,” John said.
Rodney swallowed before answering, almost too quiet to hear: “They—Simpson.” Another swallow, convulsive, and then: “A lot of blood. And that… that noise.”
The shiver, this time, was mutual, because John remembered the sound as well as Rodney did: the keening, horrible thrum of Ava that had seemed determined to take him apart, piece by piece.
He could feel Rodney’s pulse gradually slowing under his fingertips. “I’m gonna…” he said, and Rodney opened his eyes just enough to nod, once, before John leaned forward to rest his forehead against Rodney’s.
He wondered if this were more for Rodney’s benefit or his own; knew that people had to be staring, the pair of young women and their toddlers on the far side of the playground, but he just didn’t fucking care. All that mattered was that within a few breaths, Rodney’s whole body stopped being a sharp, trembling line, and bowed forward into John’s hands like they were all that was holding him up.
After a while, he lifted his head and searched Rodney’s face. Madison was still huddled on the end of the park bench, chin in her hands, watching them anxiously. “Will you be okay for a minute?” he asked, nodding in Madison’s direction.
Rodney looked, went a little red. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Go.”
Jeannie was at least as paranoid as Rodney when it came to Madison, so John sat her down on the park bench at the edge of the playground and dug in the bag of “Madison supplies” for a band-aid. He misted antiseptic spray over the scraped knee and then blew on it, gently, mimicking the only tender thing he ever remembered his mother doing for him after he turned eleven. Madison’s wobbly lip gradually disappeared, and she stared in fascination at the still-oozing scrape as John neatly covered it with a band-aid.
When he was done, she inspected it solemnly and nodded her approval, then glanced over at where Rodney was sitting with his eyes closed. “Is Uncle Mer okay?” she asked, only a little tremulously, and John ruffled her hair. He wasn’t all that much better at showing affection than Rodney was, but kids were easy.
“He’ll be okay, kiddo.”
Madison, with the casual unconcern of a five-year-old once the moment has passed, went back to the swings, though John saw her shooting suspicious looks over her shoulder every now and then. John returned to where Rodney was sprawled in the grass.
The day had gone still by now, the clouds blotting out the blue of the sky and hanging low over their heads. “It’s going to rain,” Rodney said after they’d sat in silence for a while, close enough that their shoulders touched. He got up, walked a few steps away, hands in his pockets.
“You’ve got to talk about it, Rodney,” John said, watching Rodney’s back. And there it was – his shoulders coming up, the back muscles drawing together. “You’ve got to,” John persisted, quietly, but with a growing feeling of desperation. “There’s a process. If you don’t let it happen, make it happen, you just stay… where you are now,” he finished, feeling like he was reaching even though his hands were plucking at the grass.
The sun came out, disappeared, and brightened again, the park shifting rapidly between afternoon, evening, and full day in the space of a few minutes. Somehow he knew Rodney’s eyes were closed, even though he couldn’t see his face.
“I can’t even think about it,” came Rodney’s voice, somehow high and hoarse at the same time. “I can’t even think about it without wanting to… don’t you understand that?” His voice went softer and softer until John could barely hear him.
“Yeah,” John answered sharply, swallowing hard against the bloom of anxiety in his own throat, “I do.”
Rodney expelled a loud gust of air, almost close to his usual frustrated sigh, but not quite. John sat there, not sure whether to move or wait him out. Rodney stayed where he was, shoulders hunched, still looking at the sky, until the threatened storm began to prickle at the back of John’s neck.
“I don’t know if I can go back.”
He said it so quietly, and the day was so still, that the words took a moment to penetrate. A heartbeat later John was on his feet, grabbing Rodney by the shoulders and spinning him around, not caring if it might jolt him like the last hundred times.
“What?” he demanded. “Are you crazy?” Because it really was insane, even to suggest it, and it set something twisting in John’s chest even to hear him say it.
Rodney let out a sharp, choked laugh, didn’t meet his eyes, rubbed the back of his neck and looked miserable. “I don’t think I should,” he clarified, weakly, and John stared at him, because “can’t” and “shouldn’t” were different things and not both as final.
“Rodney,” he tried, but his voice came out faint, and instead he just pulled Rodney to him, ignoring how Rodney went stiff and uncertain for a moment before relaxing into it, his hands coming up to close around John’s arms. They stayed like that until the sun passed behind another cloud.
Suddenly there was a crack like the sky breaking, and Rodney jerked in John’s arms as it was followed by a flash of lightning. Then the world seeped swiftly to grey and it was raining; Rodney looked up, blinking against the water streaming down his face…
…and started laughing.
Madison shrieked with indignation in the sudden downpour and ran back to them. “Oh my god the sky is falling!” she pronounced, grinning, and John grinned back.
Madison took hold of Rodney’s hand as John gathered up their things, and then they were running up the hill toward the car. By the time they reached it, they were all soaked to the skin, hair and clothing both, Madison with the collar of her t-shirt pulled futilely over her head. They climbed into the car shivering and exhilarated.
Despite the rain (which in John’s experience ruled out frozen desserts), they stopped for ice cream at a Baskin Robbins near the house. John got a scoop of something blue and purple with the improbable name of “Hawaiian Sunrise,” (“I guarantee you, Madison, somewhere in the universe there is a planet with a purple sunrise. As a matter of fact…” “Rodney! Security clearance!”), and Rodney got an ice cream two scoops bigger than Madison’s child-sized portion.
“She’s a native, we’re used to rain,” Rodney argued; John nodded, smiling, remembering that just about the only thing Rodney had (almost) never complained about, off-world, was rain.
“And anyway,” Rodney finished, contentedly licking melted ice cream from his fingers with positively obscene enthusiasm, “you should never go back on a bribe with a five-year-old.”
Ava City is built on the foundations of something much older. It isn’t a flying city, like Atlantis, but it’s clearly Ancient, deeply intertwined with the Avans’ systems.
The buzzing that permeates the air wasn’t there until the lights went out, John remembers, and he stands beneath the tower of the power station for several minutes with his eyes closed, reaching out and trying to qualify the sensation with something familiar. Sometimes having the gene is less than convenient. From the moment of the explosion Ava City has been a constant dull throb at the back of his head, like a spoiled child wanting attention.
All he gets is wrongness, and that’s familiar enough, the feeling of something off-kilter, mis-calibrated. The kind of thing that back home, sets off alarms and brings Rodney’s technicians flying from their beds at all hours. But Ava’s not a fully-functioning Ancient city; it doesn’t have the efficient (and sometimes extremely touchy) backups, diagnostics, and fail-safes that Atlantis has.
Ava City is a hodgepodge of Ancient and the patch-job efforts of generations of Avans. All Sarna will tell him is that Ava hasn’t been culled in over two hundred years, and John starts to think she doesn’t really know why. Just that something left by the “Ancestors” has always protected them. John’s sure it’s a machine of some kind. They’ve seen dozens of them in the Pegasus Galaxy; playpens left behind by the Ancients to protect their experiments, their human wildlife refuges. Pity none of them ever came with instruction manuals.
It all leads him to one conclusion: the rebels did something to whatever it was that protects Ava, and now it’s not working right. He doesn’t know if it was on purpose or incidental - the latter, he guesses, given how much these people seem to know about their own defences. He experiences a flash of what Rodney must feel all the time, the frank bafflement that all these idiots aren’t already dead.
Grimly, he leaves Ronon to keep an eye on the assembly of bureaucrats at the Parliaments (Ronon’s remarkably good at understanding bureaucratic jaw-flapping when he wants to be), and goes looking on his own, with Teyla at his side.
Sarna didn’t say so, but John’s already worked out on his own that there aren’t many people with the ATA gene on Ava. The big tip-off was the control chair preserved in museum-piece splendour in the entrance hall of the Parliament building, dusty and untouched for centuries. The Parliament itself is rebuilt around an older structure, and the chair is probably dead, but he can follow the connections, knows enough about the schizophrenic wiring schematics of the Ancients to have a fair idea where weapons and defence systems would be in relation.
Teyla doesn’t say much as they walk, John mostly navigating by feel while the Avans ignore them with a new determination. It’s not until John pauses at the head of a wide main street, casting about for direction, that she presses her lips together and lays a gentle hand on his arm. “He will be all right,” she says, softly.
He barely looks at her, a quick glance at her face to see the suddenly-frustrating calm he knew he would see, the concern for him, and shakes his head as he continues to cast for direction. He’s feeling more keyed up the further they go from the city centre, more frustrated, more tired. It’s been almost six hours and he’s exhausted, he can’t imagine how the hostages are doing. If he’s honest with himself, he’s trying not to imagine anything.
He starts off in a new direction, and Teyla follows him, projecting patient expectation. He says: “Sometimes I wonder if we really are cursed.”
Teyla considers this. “We do seem to be experiencing a run of bad luck.”
She’s quiet for another few minutes, and he can just sense the studying look Teyla uses to gather in things about him he usually doesn’t notice until she mentions them, as they take a sharp turn. Suddenly they’re passing between buildings that lean crazily together like drunks rubbing elbows. “John,” she says, and he’s only half-listening, the pull growing stronger, along with the feeling of wrongness. “Rodney will be all right.”
“He’d better be,” John answers, and then stops, because they’ve found it. The alley has narrowed and flattened down to the stones of the old city, geometric shapes showing between the worn cobbles. And… there, one of them has been prised loose, just resting in its groove, and John can see a sliver of darkness, like a trap door.
A moment’s investigation with a flashlight suggests a network of tunnels, and even as Teyla is tapping her radio to tell Ronon that they know how the rebels got into the tower, that the rebels must have cut through some crucial conduit to reach it, John is swaying with nausea. He knows Teyla can’t hear it, can’t hear the dissonance of the malfunction, but from the dark space beneath the street, the heart of Ava City is screaming like a hive of angry bees.
Go to Part 3a