The Red Door
(or, A Postmodern Prometheus)

by Martha
cover art by Lenkti

Chapter 1

The Doorknobs of Atlantis

There was no moon over Atlantis, just a chaos of unfamiliar stars. They glittered through skylights and clerestories as Rodney hurried down the city's silent, broad avenues. The only other light came from the pale amber wainscoting and from steps whose risers shone blue when Rodney began to climb.

Even the ocean seemed hushed. The loudest sounds were the patter of Rodney's bare feet on ceramic and metal tile, and the occasional huff of his breath. He felt cold clear through to the marrow of his bones, but worse than the chill was his miserable certainty that he was already too late.

He kept going. Up a broad staircase, down a narrow passageway open to the wild riot of stars above, then inside once more where a roof of textured, colored glass turned the stars yellow. Late, late, late, and dear god, he had no idea how he could have let the time get away from him like this. Dread squeezed hard on his chest, and when at long last he came to the tower room and found it locked, it was simply too much. He pounded on the door with his closed fist, shouted in frustration, pushed his face against the opaque glass in a vain attempt to see inside, yanked at the ornate doorknob that reminded him of his grandmother's house in Montreal. She'd died when he was just a boy

Nothing. Turning around, he slid to the floor, angrily knocking the back of his head against the panels. He was out of ideas. He had no plan anymore, no purpose. No good to anyone. He might as well just sit here until Atlantis sank back into the sea.

And then he felt the faintest of vibrations rattling the locked door at his back, and he bolted to his feet. The doorknob was as cold as the ocean, and though it rattled against his hand the door didn't budge. But the glass was slowly clearing, enough for him to discern shadows on the other side. For the first time, Rodney tried to think what he had hoped to find in the tower room, and when he couldn't call anything to mind, an icy finger of dread touched his spine. Something was wrong here, something worse even than Rodney's being late and useless.

He backed away slowly. All right, so he didn't want to get into the tower room after all. Honestly, he wanted nothing to do with it. As the shadows behind the glass grew sharp-edged, Rodney turned away, ready to run, but at the last minute, something made him look back.

The glass in the door was as limpid as clear water, transparent as none of the windows in Atlantis ever were, and John was standing on the other side. His hands covered his eyes, and his cheeks were smudged with rust.

Rodney was so suddenly and helplessly terrified he couldn't breathe. He staggered back half a step, and John grew larger against the glass. He seemed to be shaking his head, his hands clenching into fists, still covering his eyes. He shook his head harder, his face disappearing in an inhuman blur of movement, and as the first droplets of red splatted against the glass, Rodney threw himself forward with a shriek, hitting the door hard. It stayed locked. He couldn't get in, and the glass had turned an opaque red.

Rodney woke himself up yelling, a final squawk still ringing in his ears as he opened his eyes and tried to figure out what was going on.

He wasn't in bed. He wasn't--he blinked and rubbed his eyes hard, then had to wait for the spots to clear so he could get a good look around himself--crap, he wasn't even in his quarters. He pushed himself clumsily to his feet, his back against the wall. His bad leg twinged and ached as he forced the muscle to straighten. As he leaned hard against the wall for balance, panting a little from the strain, he realized he was still looking around nervously for the door to the tower room and said, "don't be an idiot," out loud. The sound of his hoarse voice, so loud in the empty corridor, shocked him the rest of the way awake.

There was no tower room, of course, and John wasn't behind any non-existent red door. He'd been dreaming. Jesus, and sleepwalking, at that. Turning, he began to limp to the nearest transporter. This was just what he needed. If word got out that he'd started sleepwalking on top of everything else, he really would find himself packed up on the Daedalus. It wasn't like Carson hadn't been threatening.

Even Elizabeth was dropping sinister little hints. Three months back on Earth. Carson wasn't a physical therapist, after all. Six months, tops. Compared to a lifetime with a limp, with his left hand fingers curled to his palm, what was half a year away from Atlantis?

Elizabeth and Carson were friends. If they weren't pushing to keep him here, what chance would he have of ever getting back?

In his aggravation, he started plunging along far too fast, hiking his hip, stumping along hard, not bending his knee, and now he had to stop to catch his breath. He collapsed against the nearest wall, awkwardly working at cramping thigh muscles with his right hand. He wondered how near it was to dawn. What were the chances were that he'd walk right into a patrol when he came out of the transporter? He didn't have a watch or a radio with him. Of course not. He'd been in bed when his sleeping self had decided to go on walkabout.

It wasn't a patrol after all, but Sheppard propped against an ornamental door frame as though he'd been hanging out all night and really had no place better to be.

"McKay," he said casually, falling into step beside him.

Rodney let out a long breath and didn't stop or look to the side. Caught, he thought bleakly. Like a damn fish on a line. "Can I do something for you, Colonel?" he snapped.

He didn't have to turn his head to see the mock-thoughtful look on Sheppard's face, lower lip pushed out a little, brow furrowed. "No, I don't suppose so."

Which of course was the moment Rodney's left leg came down too hard, the over-taxed muscles seized and he stumbled into the wall. Or would have stumbled, except that Sheppard was right there, catching him with his arm around Rodney's waist, so easy he didn't miss a step. Rodney's instinct was to pull away, but it was simpler to just accept Sheppard's help. He bore Rodney's weight with an ease that would have been infuriating if Rodney hadn't needed the support so badly. Half way down the corridor, around the corner and finally to Rodney's quarters.

Rodney dropped onto his bed with a muttered curse. Sheppard let him go and asked, "Do you need me to get Beckett?"

"What?" Rodney stopped kneading his left thigh and fell back full length. "No. I'm fine."

Never one to take a hint, Sheppard parked himself next to Rodney on the bed. "Because it looks to me like that leg might be giving you some trouble."

"What are you doing out at this hour of the night?"

"Just about morning by now," John observed cheerfully. He laid the flat of both palms on Rodney's left thigh, said, "huh," at the knotted muscles, and began carefully to push at the aching hamstrings with the balls of his fingers as though massaging Rodney's leg was some sort of ordinary thing, not even worth comment. "Dr. Z. gave me a call when he couldn't raise you on the radio."

"So you're both spying on me now? Thank you so much. I'll be sure to tell Radek how much I appreciate this complete invasion of my -- would you knock it off?" He tried to sit up and swat Sheppard's hand away, but didn't make it on the first try, and gave up rather than continuing the humiliating effort. The initial seconds of Sheppard's careful massage made his tendons zing like overtaxed violin strings but then, magically, they began to relax, and with the sudden release of tension Rodney was abruptly so tired he couldn't keep his eyes open.

When he let them close he remembered the red door to the tower room, and he forced himself to stay awake long enough to ask, "Colonel? You are all right?"

"Me?" John laughed a little, his fingers continuing to dig into gradually loosening muscle.

"Don't tell Carson," Rodney mumbled. The bed felt as though it was very gently rocking beneath him. "I wasn't sleepwalking."

He woke up two and a half hours later. Sheppard was long gone, but the last words Rodney had said to him were as heavy as rocks in his mouth.

Hell. These days he really was his own worst enemy.

The morning didn't get better. He made it to physical therapy on time -- no point giving Carson any excuses -- and wouldn't you know it? The man wanted to work on hand mobility, which was always the worst. Actually, Rodney was so busy watching Carson's face for some sign John had ratted him out about the sleepwalking he was almost completely distracted from the essentially humiliating nature of Carson's little exercises. At least at first.

When it finally dawned on him that Carson had him transferring a little tower of stainless steel coffee mugs from one tray table to the next, and that Rodney was struggling to do it, the crush of hopelessness was harder to bear than ever. He was sweating as he fought to slide his fingers around the cool base of the uppermost mug.

"It may be easier if you relax a bit," Carson said. Rodney could have hit him. The more he tried to open his fingers, the more tightly they clenched.

"Calm," Carson breathed, evidently having some sort of death wish. "Calm. That's it."

Rodney managed to snag the next cup by the handle and transfer it to the opposite tray.

"Excellent!" Carson had to spoil the moment by praising him.

Rodney fumbled furiously for the next mug. His fingers were so tight his fingernails were digging into his palm. "Great," he snarled. "The next time Atlantis' salvation rests on a pile of coffee mugs, I'll be ready."

Carson rolled his eyes. "Aye, no doubt I should have you stacking control crystals if I wanted you to take this seriously."

And how dare Carson think he wasn't taking this seriously? The muscles in his left arm tightened until he felt the ache all the way up under his shoulder blade, and his arm started to shake like he had an ague.

"Easy," Carson said, "Hold up a moment. You're not going to do yourself any good tensed up like that."

Rodney's arm jerked sideways and the rest of the pyramid of mugs went crashing to the floor.

Carson allowed himself to sigh, but otherwise made a point of remaining very calm. "Right, then. It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to take a breather this morning."

"I'm not getting better," Rodney said dully. He bent down and scooped up the closest of the scattered mugs with his right hand; Carson chased down the ones that had rolled further away. He stopped what he was doing, though, to look up at Rodney with that.

"Is that the way it really seems to you?"

And oh, damn, how Rodney hated these conversational minefields. No matter what Carson or anyone else seemed to think, being steered into parotting back a desired response didn't make unpleasant truths one whit easier to hear, and for that matter, as far as Rodney had ever been able to tell, the Socratic method was primarily a time-wasting strategy for professors too lazy to have a lesson plan.

"Let me tell you just how much I don't feel like playing Twenty Questions over this," he grumbled. "Better yet, pretend I've already told you so we can just move along now."

Carson took a seat next to him and dumped the armload of stainless steel mugs. He said, "I'm just going to stretch your hand before you go," and grasped Rodney's useless left hand in both his own. His fingers dug gently into the palm below his pinky finger on one side, under his thumb on the other, and spread Rodney's palm outwards and open. "Do you remember the state you were in when the Colonel first brought you and Radek back from Silicis?"

Rodney grunted a little at the stretch across his palm and over the back of his hand. Knotted muscles spread and relaxed, but he resisted the intimacy of the touch. Carson didn't mean it as a gesture of friendship, Rodney reminded himself ruthlessly. He was simply treating a patient.

"You couldn't even walk," Carson continued inexorably. "Twenty-four hours after you came through the Stargate, you still couldn't bend your elbow without assistance or lift your arm more than fifteen degrees."

No, frankly Rodney couldn't remember the details of that inglorious return. Just a vague recollection of the long journey out of the mountains in Pompsukos' own coach. He'd thought he was probably dying. God, his head in Sheppard's lap for so much of the journey. He remembered that, as well as his bitter disappointment over the way it had all gone south so quickly. After such a promising beginning! Radek had been having a ball....

Dragged through the gate and rolled onto a stretcher. His amazement that he had survived long enough to make it back to Carson's infirmary after all. The odd silence that had fallen when, for the first time in hours Radek and Sheppard were no longer at his side.

"Your point?" he demanded irritably. Carson shook his head at him.

"You're making progress, Rodney. You just have to be willing to give it time."

"That's great. Are you and Elizabeth going to give it to me?"

Carson actually had the nerve to look puzzled. "Lad, if you can imagine there's anything Dr. Weir or I want more than for you to continue to get better--"

Rodney pulled his hand free impatiently. He couldn't listen to this. "And you'll ship me back to Earth if it doesn't happen on your timetable?"

"Ah," Carson said sadly. "I thought we'd worked this out. The truth is, I just don't know exactly what that bloody maniac's device did to you. I have every reason to hope you'll continue to improve, but in the event you don't, it only makes sense to make sure you have the best care available. And that's back on Earth."

Rodney knew better than to fall into this argument again, he did, but Carson was just so infuriatingly closed-minded about it. "You know the Ancients have a device that reroutes neural pathways."

"Aye, in white mice."

"You were perfectly willing to inject me with the Ancient gene based on your trials with mice," Rodney snapped back. "That was far more risky than --"

"Because there was no conventional treatment available. We're a hell of a long way from that point with you, now. I thought you understood that, Rodney."

Talking to him like he was a dull-witted four-year-old. "Excuse me, yes, I get that, but this is my life at stake here."

"We're not there yet," Carson said. "I won't risk paralyzing you before we exhaust safer treatments options. That's my considered medical opinion, and I will not apologize for it."

Rodney snorted in exasperation and stumbled to his feet. "I'm not worth it, you mean. Since everyone is getting along perfectly well without --"

"Ah, Rodney, you know so much better than that, lad."

Well maybe he did and maybe he didn't, but he wasn't going to hang around to hear any more of Carson's speeches. He stumped heavily out of the infirmary, only allowing himself a sigh of relief when Carson didn't follow.

Chapter 2

Lost Languages of the Pegasus Galaxy

After physical therapy, Rodney picked up a sandwich from the mess and was glad he didn't run into Sheppard along the way. He thought about going to the lab to see how Radek was coming on his submersible generator, but in the end he ate in his quarters while he read progress reports online. The sheer -- he didn't know the word he wanted -- inelegance, maybe, though ugliness fit his visceral reaction better -- of Radek's project still made him twitch, but of course, that had been his problem from the beginning.

The intrinsic beauty of a solution had stopped being a valid consideration after Arcturus.

Enough. He had no reason to interrupt Radek's work. Plenty else he could be doing if he didn't want to sit around brooding about how Atlantis seemed to be getting along perfectly well without his help these days.

He lay back on the bed and thought about last night's sleepwalking. So apparently John hadn't told anyone, or at least not yet, but Rodney ought to make sure it didn't happen again. A little motion detector of some sort by the door ought to work. Just something to wake him up before he could start wandering around Atlantis in the middle of the third watch. Carson's drugs were probably causing the sleepwalking in the first place. His dreams had been so strange since they'd gotten back from Silicis.

"Rodney, I am sure you're not asleep."

Actually, he wondered if he were half asleep, since hearing Radek's voice while he lay here thinking about Silicis brought back the appalling memory of Radek, white-faced and all but weeping in terror. Rodney had been so angry he felt as though he might actually choke on his rage. That anyone would dare lay hands on one of his scientists, on Radek Zelenka. It was an affront to the order of the universe. Almost as bad as the very existence of the Wraith themselves.

"Rodney McKay." Exasperated, now. "As a personal favor to a colleague. Would you please open the door before I have Colonel Sheppard blow it off its hinges?"

Rodney got up. "There's not a single door in the city with hinges," he said, thinking guiltily of his dream of the red door to the tower room. "And how did you know I wasn't sleeping?"

Radek hardly looked up, barreling into the room and taking a seat in the desk chair and beginning to tap on his own laptop on his knees. "Because for the last forty minutes you have been reading my reports on the submersible. Rodney, I need your help."

He would not allow himself to admit the way his heart leapt up. But he wondered if something showed on his face, the way Radek's eyes seemed to soften for an instant behind his glasses.

Rodney made himself scowl. "You should have called me in when you first got into trouble. No telling if even I can straighten up whatever disaster you've mired yourself in by now."

"Yes, yes, heaven knows nothing in Atlantis can go forward without an imprimatur from the Almighty McKay. Regardless of how often and publicly he washes his hands of a project." Radek swung his laptop around so Rodney could see.

A jpeg covered the screen, showing a fragment of writing in a language Rodney didn't know. "What is that?" he blurted, surprised not to recognize what Radek was showing him.

Radek nodded. "Ah. What is it, indeed? That is the problem in a nutshell."

Without thinking about it, Rodney tried to kneel next to the desk chair to bring his face closer to the monitor. The muscles in his thigh were stiff, though, and his balance was bad. He threw out his hand to steady himself, and Radek made an abortive gesture to help, but then chose to rescue his laptop instead when Rodney knocked his knee on the way down.

Rodney's ass hit the floor with a thud.

"Oof," Radek said sympathetically. "Are you all right?"

"I'm already crippled," Rodney muttered, stretching carefully to see if he really had hurt himself. "It's not like a fractured coccyx makes the situation all that much worse."

This time there was no mistaking the expression on Radek's face.

"I'll live," Rodney said grudgingly, and with an ease Rodney never would have bothered to envy before Silicis, Radek plopped down on the floor beside him, the laptop balanced on his crossed legs.

"Tell me, does that look like writing to you?"

"It's not Ancient. I don't know the language but that's definitely somebody's version of an alphabet. Why are you assaulting me with this instead of giving those whiners in Linguistics something -- wait a minute." Looking at the screen more carefully, Rodney realized the picture was of a bit of broken tile. "Where did this come from?"

Radek cursed softly, but with enthusiasm. "It was found in a debris pile we'd already cleared to recycle for the submersible. Thrope and Mowbray think it's language, too. Now Linguistics -- as well as Dawson and who knows who else by this point -- want to call a halt to everything until they can figure out what it says."

Oh.

Radek only wanted his help with politics.

"So pull out the tiles with writing on them and let them go to town," Rodney said, but he turned so Radek wouldn't see the disappointment on his face. "At least it'll keep them off the street."

"No. You are not listening to me," Radek said impatiently. "They want to stop everything. Use the engineers to rebuild everything the Wraith bombardment destroyed."

"Oh, now that's just crazy," Rodney said, outrage abruptly overriding disappointment. "Maybe if we had infinite time and resources, and I do stress the infinite--"

Radek talked over him. "Yes, yes, but Mowbray, Thrope, and Dawson all say their only chance for translation is seeing the tiles in their original context. Hence, rebuilding everything. Rodney, they have already gone to Elizabeth with this."

"What?" Rodney was honestly shocked. "Without talking to me first?"

"Dawson said she already knew you would side with me."

"Of course I would. That's not the point." Rodney tried to lever himself up with his right hand braced on Radek's chair, but his agitation made him clumsy. "Help me up."

Six hours later, matters were still at an impasse, but at least Rodney had had the satisfaction of having made perfectly clear his feelings about members of his own department going over his head. Teach anyone to think his recent injuries had slowed him down. And OK, he wasn't thrilled at the prospect of cannibalizing Atlantis either, but the initial damage was hardly their fault. They hadn't been the one to smash a dart into the city, had they? Besides, would Atlantis' building materials have been so essentially modular on an atomic level if the Ancients hadn't intended to provide for exactly this sort of recycling?

Radek's submerged cyclic heat engine was slated to provide more than 20 MW of electricity. A drop in the bucket where ZPMs were concerned, but as clean and efficient power in a galaxy where Wraith were as thick as flies and ZPMs notoriously weren't, every drop helped.

And last but certainly not least, Rodney thought, looking down at his paralyzed arm, there was him. The stress of the afternoon -- arguing with Elizabeth, yelling at those bozos in social sciences and strategizing with Radek -- had caused muscles to tighten involuntarily until his arm was wrenched up nearly as high as his chest.

Was everyone forgetting what had been sacrificed on Silicis to make Radek's project conceivable in the first place?

Right, maybe it was dirty pool to make sure everyone remembered Rodney had been crippled learning how malleable Ancient building materials were, but it was, after all, the way the mission had turned out. In a bloody awful hell of a mess.

He saw a flash of red out of the corner of his eye, and turned his head quickly. Nothing was there. The door to his quarters was shut. Still, he got to his feet and made his way across the room. His left leg alternately dragged and snapped forward -- clumsy, clumsy -- but he was just too tired to walk more carefully.

The door opened to an empty corridor.

Not quite empty. He thought he saw a quick heel dart around the corner. "Hey!" Rodney yelled, not expecting the stranger to stop. "Hey! What the hell are you doing?" He knew, with a sense of frustration so keen he beat his fist against the wall, that he could never catch up.

But then John Sheppard poked his head back around the corner, looked over his shoulder, then pointed his thumb to his chest in an unspoken, who, me?

"Um, I was walking to my quarters," Sheppard said at last and glanced behind himself again. "So, McKay." A hesitation that Rodney had no idea how to fill. "Everything all right?"

McKay stood there blinking at John from the door of his quarters, mouth half-open, breathing like he'd just run a marathon, an expression on his face as though the corridor behind John were filled with ravening Wraith. John was pretty certain it wasn't, but he looked over his shoulder one last time to be sure. When he turned back, McKay was disappearing back into his quarters.

OK, no.

John darted forward before the door closed. McKay didn't look back, but his shoulders flinched a little. "Thank you for intruding," he said, and it wasn't John's imagination. McKay's voice was shaking. "Are you leaving now? Goodbye."

"What's going on? Do you need me to call Beckett?"

McKay stopped by his desk chair but didn't turn around or sit down. "Oh, would you?" he said at last, just a moment before John called Carson anyway. McKay's voice got steadier as his volume rose. "Because it's not like I could manage to find the radio stuck here in my own ear in the event I were in need of medical attention." Tugging off the receiver he dropped it on the desk and finally turned around.

McKay looked --

He looked really tired, mostly, and his weak knee bent under him when he reached out to pull the chair closer. John reached him before he could fall and steadied his descent to the chair; McKay yanked his arm free from John's grasp, childishly. John smiled and sat down on the bed across from him.

"There, see? It's not in your ear anymore."

McKay glared.

"So, you had dinner yet? Or have you been too busy scarifying the social scientists on Zelenka's behalf all afternoon?"

"Don't even start," McKay said wearily. "I'm all for 'preserving the lost languages of the Pegasus Galaxy' --" he finally looked up and saw the expression on John's face. "What? Elizabeth insisted on bringing those clowns along, we're expending valuable resources to keep them warm and dry, fed and clothed--"

"Who?"

"Thrope and Mowbray!" McKay threw up his good hand with a look at John like he wasn't real sure why they were expending those resources on him right now either. "Obviously we have to give them something to do or they'd be interrupting forward progress all of the time, instead of just every now and then when Dawson gets them stirred up. They can pore over broken tiles all they want in the context of oh, I don't know, a graphic model without rebuilding half of Atlantis, nice as it would be for me to expend my and Radek's nearly infinite time and resources that way." Some of the color came back into McKay's cheeks as he ranted.

"So you want to grab some dinner?" John asked. "Mac and cheese is up."

McKay almost looked tempted. "Mmmm," John coaxed. "Creamy bland goodness in every bite."

McKay stumbled to his feet, but only so he sit on the bed next to John. "Bring me a plate?" He fell sideways across the bed, knees over the edge and feet still on the floor.

"Will you be awake when I get back?"

"Hm-mmm," McKay assured him unconvincingly, his eyes already closed, and sure enough, when John got back ten minutes later he had to let himself in because McKay, still in the same position, was dead to the world.

Well OK, sleep was good, too. McKay looked drawn and exhausted too damned much of the time these days. John hated to admit it, but he just wasn't bouncing back from Silicis. The Pegasus galaxy had been nipping at their heels since they arrived, and something had finally taken too big a bite. Carson even thought McKay should be considering a return on the Daedalus for more intensive physical therapy back on Earth.

The very idea was a slap of Antarctic cold across John's face.

Atlantis without McKay? Get real. Dr. Z. was a good man, but you couldn't play a West Coast offense with a substitute quarterback. And if John couldn't see that McKay might need to be back on Earth more than he needed to be here in Atlantis, well, maybe that made John one selfish son of a bitch.

He could live with that.

Chapter 3

Karloff Through The Stargate

John left McKay's dinner on the desk and lifted his legs around and onto the bed so he wouldn't wake up with a strained back. He was half-hoping McKay might wake up, but he only grumbled sharply in his sleep as John moved him, then snugged down against his pillow and slumbered on.

It was no wonder McKay was stressing out, sleepwalking and having nightmares. The poor guy was so terrified Carson and Elizabeth were going to team up on him to ship him home he had started avoiding meetings where he thought they would both be present. Magnificently childish, but John understood. It finally wasn't about what had happened in Pompsukos' castle, even if the place had looked like Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. Straight out of Universal Pictures, right down to the Silican versions of Van de Graf generators and Jacob's ladder displays.

Silicis had been recycling materials from the Ancient outposts scattered on their planet for generations, but harnessing high voltage electricity was still new and exciting technology for them. McKay managed not to sneer, mostly, when Pompsukos would try to steer the conversation from converting Ancient building materials to the fascinating new world of agitated electrons.

It didn't help that Pompsukos seemed to impute some kind of supernatural meaning to electromagnetic fields. Watching Dr. Zelenka of all people play diplomat and soothe over McKay's eye-rolling and exasperated huffs of impatience had been worth the price of admission.

But all that had been before a boring science and technology mission (they weren't even researching weapons) went straight to hell.

A storm had been raging through the mountains when John came back to the laboratory to find the door barred against him, and knew in a flash like the lighting jagged against the sky that he'd been utterly fucking wrong about Pompsukos. And now it was too late, with Ronon and Teyla staying in town near the Stargate tonight. They were probably checking in with Elizabeth even now to tell her everything was just fine.

John put his hands on the door and concentrated ferociously. The entire structure had been built from the remains of an Ancient outpost, and John pushed with all his might, bound and determined that something had to give.

Compared to Atlantis' pellucid responsiveness, this was like wading through sludge. John kept forcing his way forward, despite the jolt of pain between his temples and a vivid desire to wash his hands with really strong soap. Lightning flashed behind the windows, blood red through the stained glass, and thunder came rumbling up the mountain pass below, and just as his strength failed him and he slumped against the frame in frustrated, infuriated exhaustion, the massive doors finally sloughed apart, and John fell through them into the lab.

The first thing he saw was Dr. Zelenka, glasses gone, his mouth bloody. Though he was fighting hard, he was no match for the brace of Pompsukos' beefy manservants who had him by both arms. John was still staggering to his feet, but he already had his sidearm out.

"Let him go, or I'll hurt you very, very badly." This society hadn't developed projectile weapons, but they recognized them from trade through the Stargate. Or so John hoped. He intended to give the servants five seconds before he kneecapped them both.

They flung Zelenka towards him bodily. John caught awkwardly at Zelenka's shirt with his left hand, keeping his gun trained at the same time. Pompsukos' servants backed away cautiously, and Zelenka sagged to his knees. Something wet touched John's cheek. Rolling his eyes up briefly, he saw an opening in the roof two stories up, partially sheltered by a cupola above, a complicated pulley system and platform directly below. Rain was blowing in sideways.

"Rodney," Zelenka insisted from his knees, swatting weakly at John's hand where it was fisted in the front of his blue Henley. "I am not hurt. You've got to get Rodney down."

Get him down? Lighting flashed, blindingly brilliant. Zelenka shouted in Czech, and he was still shouting as the almost instantaneous clap of thunder drowned his voice.

John suddenly got it. "McKay's up there? On the platform?"

"Hurry!" Zelenka screamed. "The next strike will kill him!"

Jesus, they really were in a Frankenstein movie. "You," John gestured with his gun at the nearest servant, then at the tremendous iron hand crank mounted to the wall. "Get him down."

The man was obviously scared of John's gun, backing away with his hands open at his sides, but he shook his head all the same, eyes darting to the crank, then up towards the system of pulleys and the metal platform. He was more afraid of touching the metal chains in the storm than he was of the gun. As if to underscore the point, another flash of lightning turned everything Wraith blue. Zelenka cursed as he struggled to his feet. The strike had been so close John could taste ozone and feel the fillings in his teeth, and they officially did not have time to screw around with this anymore.

"Get out," John bellowed, even though Pompsukos' servants couldn't possibly hear him over the thunder. He thought his gestures with the gun would be sufficiently emphatic. John backed towards the crank as the servants broke and ran. He put both hands on the oversize handle and rattled it an inch or two forward, then back. There must be a locking mechanism. He ran his hands over the wheel searching for it, wondering if there were enough Ancient building material in the device to respond to a little push. By then Dr. Zelenka had reached his side. He spat a word at John that was swallowed by the constant roll of thunder.

Just as well, since John somehow doubted it had been an endearment. He shoved John's hands away from the wheel and shouted in his ear, "Do not use the gene! You'll melt the pulleys like you did the door."

Then came a heavy thunk that John felt more than he heard as Zelenka figured out how to release the lock. Rain was pouring in through the open roof, and the occasional stray hailstones bounced on the floor. Dr. Zelenka was struggling to turn the handle, and when John reached around him to put his back to the crank as well, the tremendous wheel finally began to turn. Chains clanked over the roar of the storm, and when John looked up he saw cables swaying overhead in the smoky red glow of the gaslights. The platform began to descend.

It was metal, encompassed by a kind of filigreed wire globe, and was still too far above for John to see Rodney. The next moment, Zelenka's feet slipped.

It was the only thing that saved them.

When Zelenka went down, John took his hands off the crank to haul him back up. He batted ineffectually at John as he got his feet under himself. "Never mind me! Rodney --" Which was the moment lightening struck the platform.

A ball of plasma enveloped the globe, sparking and hissing. Horrified, John reached for the crank, but now Dr Zelenka grabbed his wrists, forcibly preventing him from touching it. "Dammit --" John began, wrenching himself free. Zelenka slammed him back.

"We cannot help Rodney if we are dead."

The chain whipped overhead and snapped against the wall. Whatever Zelenka continued to shout was swallowed by the endless, rolling thunder.

John looked up in horror. The platform was surrounded in light so bright it left orange coronas on his vision. Plasma dripped from the edges of the platform like syrup, gobbets spilling down the chains to explode against the wall or in midair before falling as low as the crank. And through it all, the platform continued its slow descent, the chain slipping through the crank one link at a time.

McKay couldn't have survived. John's grief was a startling, hollow space in his chest. He could not imagine how everything could have gone so drastically, wretchedly wrong. Pompsukos had seemed a little crazy, sure, but no worse than McKay and Zelenka themselves, when you came right down to it.

If John saw Pompsukos again before they left this godforsaken planet, he intended to blow his head off without a second thought.

Then the platform was low enough for John to make out a bundled white figure within the wire cage, which was still sparking and hissing. Dr. Zelenka squinted upwards, cursed, and went back to frantically examining the crank and pulley system he dared not touch. The body on the platform twitched and jerked, but John ruthlessly stamped down any trace of hope. It was only electrical stimulation, not evidence of life, but when the platform finally clanked against the floor, John was at its side along with Dr. Zelenka.

Ghostly sparks still bled from link to link of the wire globe, obscuring the figure who lay within. Zelenka spread his hands over the cage, not quite touching it, and said urgently, "Now, Colonel. Please. Rodney needs you now."

John pushed with all his grief and rage, and the wire mesh melted like snow. Zelenka reached in immediately, and together they dragged McKay from the ruins of the unspeakable device, seconds before lightening struck again. Falling to the floor in a huddle, John squeezed his eyes shut, arms wrapped tight around McKay. He felt more than heard McKay whimper at the static charge in the air. The hairs on John's arms were standing on end from the proximity of the strike. Or maybe just from suddenly knowing McKay was still alive. Thunder peeled through his skull like church bells.

When he raised his head he saw the ragged remains of the metal globe burning with a sickly blue flame, sending a vaporous column of smoke spiraling up to the skylight. "He's alive," John told Zelenka as the two of them laid McKay out on the floor. McKay was wrapped in a white sheet, blindfolded with a strip of the same material. A rubber bit of some sort had been forced into his mouth. Blood was running from his nose and trickling from his left ear.

Dr. Zelenka nodded once, tightly, as John carefully pried the rubber from between McKay's clenched teeth, and Zelenka unwound the blindfold to reveal stunned blue eyes. Wide open. Focused on them.

"Rodney," Zelenka breathed. A quiet muttering in Czech, then, as he used the blindfold to blot at the blood still running from McKay's nostrils. McKay was drenched from the storm, the sheet he'd been wrapped in soaked through, and hailstones were still bouncing on the floor around them. "How would you like to get out of the rain?" Zelenka asked him, very gently, as he and John shifted McKay away from the opening in the roof high above.

John supported McKay's head in his hands. "If we take one of Pompsukos' wagons we can be at the Stargate in six hours, maybe less. I think that's a better bet than trying to bring Beckett this far inland." His voice was too calm, too loud. He hardly recognized himself. "You with us here, McKay? We get you some dry clothes, you think you'll be all right to travel?"

McKay stared up at him. John cupped the side of his face, slick with rain and blood. "Just hang in there. I've got you."

"The carriage is already prepared and waiting." Pompsukos stood on the threshold between the ruined doors, flanked by a sizable proportion of his household retinue.

John could have taken out plenty of them, but he continued to hold McKay's head in his hands instead of reaching for his gun. Pompsukos continued, "In return, I ask only that you keep me apprised of his condition. And naturally, you'll send word if Dr. McKay should encounter a Wraith."

John had never seen Dr. Zelenka so sick and pale with rage. He kept his eyes on John's face, obviously to prevent himself from even glancing in Pompsukos' direction as he gritted out, "Yes, of course."

He understood as clearly as John how badly Rodney needed that carriage.

Chapter 4

Dark Head on the Pillow

Rodney ran down the long gallery as hard as he could, the ZPM clutched in both arms. He couldn't spare the energy to look behind himself, and he prayed the footsteps he heard were nothing but echoes of his own feet.

Wraith were in the city, more were on the way, but Sheppard was waiting for him at the Control Chair, and this time he was really going to wait for Rodney, goddammit. All Rodney had to do was get there, and he was trying to hurry, but the ZPM was awkward in his hands, heavy and difficult to grasp, and his stride was so painfully clumsy . Any of the doors on both sides might hide Wraith, but he wouldn't think about that because he was running out of time here.

It wasn't his imagination, though, and it wasn't an echo when he heard the creak of hinges behind himself. Cursing, he slowed and spared a worried glance over his shoulder, just in time to see one of the doors on the right side of the gallery click shut.

Suddenly, he could scarcely breathe. His pulse thundered in his throat as he folded the ZPM close to his chest to be sure he didn't, dear god, drop it

"Sheppard?" he hissed. "Is there a reason you're skulking around like a Wraith?" His voice dropped to nothing. "Colonel? That is you, isn't it?"

The doors on either side of the one which had just closed were green and gold, warm blue and soft copper, but the central door was paneled in red, so dark Rodney could only see shadows of movement behind it. "Sheppard?" he whispered. He shuffled nearer, thinking unhappily that he would have to put down the ZPM to fumble with the ornate doorknob. What in the world was Sheppard doing here when he was supposed to be waiting at the Control Chair anyway? "Dammit, are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

One more miserable, uncertain step, and there was no way to put it off any longer. Awkward and off-balance, he managed to get to one knee and put down the ZPM.

He climbed heavily back to his feet, drew a shuddering breath, and reached out his hand. His fingers were trembling.

Something slammed hard against the door. Rodney jumped back with a squeak, then plunged forward again to wrap both hands around a doorknob that refused to turn. He yanked furiously, taking one hand off to beat frantically against the unyielding red glass. "Colonel! You've got to let me in. Sheppard!" Half-maddened with terror, he scooped up the ZPM. "John!"

He swung it two-handed at the red glass panel, and the ZPM shattered magnificently. On the opposite side of the unmarred panel, a black-looking liquid began to ooze down, thick as blood.

This time Rodney knew he'd been dreaming, and he was chanting, "No doorknobs, no doorknobs, there are no doorknobs in Atlantis," as he wrenched himself awake. He was still trembling like a leaf, though, and it was bleak comfort to find himself huddled on the floor of a long, curving balcony with no doors of any description nearby, with or without doorknobs.

He lay still for a bit to catch his breath. It was so near dawn the stars were gone from the sky, only the nearest planet in the Atlantis system glittering on the horizon like a jewel. The sea breeze dried the sweat on his face, and only when he began to feel a chill did he sit up. His left hand was clinched into a furious fist, so he used his right hand to uncurl his fingers one by one.

Then the bare breath of cold wind touching his sensitive palm was enough to make his laboriously-straightened fingers clench up like a fighter's all over again. With an exasperated sigh he planted his left knuckles on the floor, and hoisted himself to his feet. He felt like a damn orangutan, and his left thigh protested all the way up. Limping to the balustrade, he thought sourly that he really ought to be making faster progress with his physical therapy, all the walking he was doing in his sleep.

One glimpse over the balcony and he staggered back, heart thumping in his chest. He was hundreds of meters up, and the balustrade wasn't high enough to have stopped him if his sleep-self had been the slightest bit determined.

When he stopped shaking, he turned away and stumped off in search of the nearest transporter.

Radek had been minutes from away admitting defeat and calling Colonel Sheppard when Rodney finally turned up. Swearing to himself in mingled aggravation and relief, Radek half-jogged back the way he had came and managed to intercept Rodney in the corridor down from his own quarters.

"Maybe you need some help with your alarm?" Radek asked.

Rodney looked up blearily. It was clear his arm was troubling him, and his limp was heavier than usual. How many hours had he been wandering around Atlantis?

"What are you blithering about?"

"I think I can design a motion detector that you can't take apart in your sleep."

Rodney just stared at him, truly uncomprehending or just too tired to respond. Then with a shrug and a scowl, he continued shuffling down to his room. Radek kept pace. "You cannot continue like this, Rodney. For one thing, exploring Atlantis alone is ludicrously dangerous awake, much less in your sleep. Has this not occurred to you? Besides, even if you do not need rest, I do."

Rodney made a huffing noise as he let himself into his room. Radek slipped in with him and knelt to examine the failed motion detector propped by the door. Sure enough, Rodney had managed to half-disassemble it without waking up. "Something as elementary as affixing a simple alarm to the casing might be enough."

Rodney sat down heavily on the bed. He was barefoot in baggy sweats and a worn T-shirt, short hair mussed, eyes red.

Radek was reminded unhappily of his uncle Jiri. He'd been a brilliant physicist--he should have been one of the lights of his generation--but he had been politically active during the heady days of Prague Spring and lost his position at the university in the Soviet crackdown. During the decade that saw the unification of quantum field theory with statistical mechanics, a physicist who could do path integration in his head had been chopping stumps for the Slovak Forestry Service. He returned to Prague in the mid-eighties, but never again worked as a physicist.

Radek had painful memories of visiting Jiri Koudelka in his rabbit hutch apartment during those years. Dull-eyed, half-crippled from the series of strokes which eventually killed him, no interest at all anymore in the physics that should have been his world.

That was why scientists had no business standing in front of tanks. A rare mind should not be thrown away on a grand gesture.

That was exactly why Rodney should have had the good sense to let the Pompsukos strap someone else into his insane device.

"Rodney," Radek said softly, "Isn't it time to talk to Dr. Becket?"

"Talk about what?" Rodney didn't raise his head. "My sleepwalking? The nightmares? What would be the point? It's probably the drugs he's got me on that are causing them in the first place."

"Do you hear yourself?" Radek demanded. "What kind of a reason is that for not talking to your doctor? You're making no sense."

"Apologies for not being at the top of my form," Rodney snapped back. "Maybe that has something to do with the fact that it's the middle of the night and my own colleagues are stalking me."

"Yes, Rodney," Radek agreed calmly. "It's all an insanely clever criminal scheme Colonel Sheppard and I have cooked up between ourselves. Now that you know the sinister truth, would you for God's sake let someone help you?"

Rodney swung his legs onto the bed and stretched out uncomfortably, closing his eyes. "Between Carson's physical therapy during the day, and you and the Colonel following me around all night, I'm not sure how much more help I'll survive."

Well, if nothing else, the snarling bad temper was an encouraging sign. Jiri had been a weary, apathetic shell of a man.

"By the way," Radek asked as casually as he could, "Do you know where you were? I lost you for a couple of hours on the sensors. Colonel Sheppard might have had better luck tracking you on the life-signs detector."

Rodney muttered a sleepy curse. "No, I don't know where I was." He sounded three-quarters of the way asleep already. "That might have something to do with the fact that I was sleepwalking."

"I'd recommend getting the rest of your night's sleep in your own bed," Radek said gently, not pointing out that it was almost dawn. "Do you think you'll be up to attending the meeting we set up with Weir and Thrope and Mowbray this morning? It will be no problem to put it off if you need to."

"Are you crazy?" Rodney's eyes slit open. "Those maniacs will have Atlantis razed to ocean level if we turn our backs on them for a minute."

Radek smiled. "I think they want to rebuild Atlantis, not destroy it."

Rodney raised his right hand and waved it vaguely. His eyes were closed again. "Same difference. I was only electrocuted, not brain damaged."

Radek let himself quietly out of Rodney's quarters. Electrocuted, yes, or something worse.

Pompsukos had been talking about his insane lightening rod almost since Rodney and Radek had arrived at his laboratory. Radek had spent more time soothing over Rodney's increasingly impatient remarks about the unlikelihood of such a mechanism doing anything but crispy-frying the unfortunate test subject, than he had studying Pompsukos' notes on Ancient deconstruction.

Radek wished he could cut his tongue out now for every time he had apologized to Pompsukos for Rodney's scorn. Pompsukos was convinced that a combination of Ancient technology, and, God help them all, the magic of electricity, could make a human immune to Wraith attack. It had seemed worth humoring the man to continue picking his brains for a lifetime of insights into Ancient building technique.

It had never occurred to Radek that Pompsukos was crazy enough to actually try his device on human beings.

At least, not until the night a thunderstorm had come roaring up the pass, violent as summer storms in the White Carpathians. In retrospect, Pompsukos must have been just waiting for his opportunity. Colonel Sheppard was steered to the library to look at Pompsukos' blueprints for gliders, and as thunder broke over the mountains, and Rodney suggested they stop for dinner so the electrical activity didn't skew their test results, Radek had looked up to find two of Pompsukos' big servants at his side.

Everything from that point passed in a surreal blur: Pompsukos explaining that Radek was a perfect test subject because the Atlantis team would probably encounter the Wraith far sooner than anyone living on Silicis. Rodney screaming that Pompsukos was fucking insane, and Radek thinking even as the servants forced him onto the narrow metal shelf and began to remove his clothes, that even though Rodney was right, it wasn't a particularly useful line of argument right now.

Then that infuriating egomaniac had apparently lost all his not-inconsiderable brains all at once, and told Pompsukos to use him instead.

"Dr. Zelenka rarely leaves the laboratory," Rodney explained, sounding almost calm. "He's a bit of a coward, frankly. If you want a test subject who will actually confront the Wraith instead of cowering under a rock, it only makes sense to use the device on me." His voice wavered a little, but didn't break until the last word.

That was when Radek began fighting in earnest. He got a fist in his mouth for his troubles, then got dumped on his ass. No one stopped him from climbing to his feet again, and by that time Rodney was saying, "I can handle this myself," and stripping off his jacket and shirt. He hesitated for a moment, arms crossed self-consciously over his chest, then raised his eyes to look at Radek.

Radek begged with every fiber of his being. "Rodney, this is pointless. You know it will kill you. Pompsukos, your invention is junk. We have been humoring you so you would not throw us out of your laboratory, but Rodney and I both knew as soon as we got here that your Wraith-proofing machine was utter nonsense."

"Shut up, Radek," Rodney said lightly. "You see? A coward, and a jealous one at that." At Pompsukos' direction he dropped his trousers. "Underwear, too?" For the first time he hesitated. "What am I thinking? Why spare any possible humiliation?"

He turned his back and pulled his boxers down, hopping clumsily to step out of them. Radek saw the flush of embarrassment blooming down his back as Pompsukos wrapped him in a white sheet before leading him to the caged metal shelf.

By the time Radek arrived at John Sheppard's quarters, he was feeling quite sharply awful from the weight of his memories. He assumed the colonel would be up -- it was nearly dawn, after all -- but a sleepy voice beckoned him in and Radek found John still in bed, blankets pulled up to his shoulder and a shock of dark hair on the pillow. "How's Rodney?" he asked without sitting up

"Not so well, I am afraid. He took apart the motion detector in his sleep and spent a couple of hours wandering around Atlantis. I just now saw him back to bed."

John growled, "Dammit, that's not safe."

Radek indicated the detector in his hand. "I think I can modify this so it will wake him up before he gets out of his room, but I am worried more about about his health. He won't talk to Dr. Becket, and he is not fighting like the Rodney McKay I know."

"You and me both," John agreed unhappily. "Come here." He pulled Radek down onto the bed and began to fumble drowsily with his fly. He didn't seem to want help, so Radek let him work at it while he stroked the dark head in his lap. John's hair was slightly stiff between his fingers and luxuriantly full. A brief, whispered, "Aha," from John, and Radek felt his warm breath against his groin and the hollow of his hip.

He had good reasons for preferring American servicemen, Radek thought, bracing himself over John. Besides a laudable attention to personal hygiene, their girlfriends taught them to be perfect gentlemen in bed.

And everyone knew Americans gave great head.

It was a preference that would probably end up with Radek's getting his teeth knocked in one day, but not this morning. He bent his arm to curl down behind John, shoving the blankets down his back and pulling up his shirt. John smelled deliciously of sleep and mid-priced American cologne, and Radek felt a great, foolish swell of tenderness. Scooting forward, he laid his face against John's warm back. "Hey," John complained mildly, and yanked at Radek's hips so could nuzzle and suckle more closely, kneading at Radek's upper thigh with his free hand.

Slowly, the never-ending thunder in the Silican mountains became less violent, though it never faded altogether. Radek wondered if it grew more still for John as well.

Chapter 5

An Uneasy Spirit

"Good morning, Dr. McKay," Teyla slid into the seat across the table from him. "I trust you are well."

"Not particularly."

Instead of a proper breakfast, Teyla was holding a brimming mug of coffee cupped between her hands. Sheppard said Rodney was responsible for teaching her a caffeine habit, but Rodney knew she drank it with sweetener as well as the dairy of the week, when they had one, at any rate. This week Rodney presumed they didn't, because her cup was black, just a bit sludgy with sugar. Rodney certainly hadn't shown her how to adulterate coffee. That and all the other signs of creeping Americanization were clearly Sheppard's fault.

Teyla sipped her coffee syrup. "How are your Cheerios? The breakfast of champions is very appropriate."

Maybe he could arrange for Halling to kidnap her back to the mainland before the damage became irreversible. "That's Wheaties, and I don't know if they've used that advertising slogan since the last Olympics."

Teyla smiled as though he were a charming but slightly stupid child and said, "I have two messages for you. Dr. Zelenka has rescheduled your conference with the linguistics department for two o'clock this afternoon."

"God damn Radek," Rodney sputtered. "I told him I was fine."

"It was my understanding that Dr. Zelenka is the one who had a conflict."

"Yes, well, he would say that, wouldn't he?"

"My second message is from Dr. Beckett. He has canceled your physical therapy this morning so that you and I may work together on Athosian preparation for movement exercises. He suggested that you might be experiencing some frustrations with the course of your physical therapy at this point, and I asked him if Athosian traditions might be of benefit."

"Is there anyone you didn't discuss me with this morning?"

Teyla just smiled again, like Rodney were being the unreasonable one here. "When you have finished with breakfast we shall retire to the practice room. I think you will find the routines relaxing and non-stressful."

In the end, Rodney followed her with only token complaints. It wasn't like he had anything better to do. And if his feelings were a little hurt by Carson's shuffling him off on Teyla, he was privately rather touched by her willingness to to waste her morning on him. By no stretch of the imagination was this in her job description

Of course, there was the offhand possibility that Carson was actually right, and a change in routine might do him some good. He kept thinking that until Teyla put two Athosian fighting sticks in his hands, uncurling the fingers of his left hand for him so that he could grasp the handle of the second stick. The way she started with his thumb and then moved purposely to the forefinger made him think that Carson had been coaching her, but he couldn't decide whether he resented that or not, so he only said, "Wait a minute. We're going to be fighting? Have you had a good look at me lately? Even before Silicis this wasn't exactly my thing."

"We will not be fighting." Teyla stepped back with her own sticks held in both hands. "This is a preparation exercise taught to the very young--" Rodney rolled his eyes, and Teyla continued as if she didn't notice "--and practiced by experienced warriors in order to maintain their skills. You need only copy my movements."

"Oh, is that all?" Rodney muttered, not entirely under his breath.

Teyla bowed her head slightly and took two slow, formal steps backwards. "You are my reflection in a very still pond," she said, holding the sticks loose at her sides. Rodney's left arm was tensed from the stress of an unusual situation, and where Teyla's sticks hung parallel to her straight, long legs, Rodney's left stick had a distinct tilt. Twenty five degrees at least. Pretty damned cracked version of a reflection in still water.

As Teyla began to move, however, and Rodney struggled to mimic her gestures, he started to forget how absurd this entire project really was. Teyla's movements were very slow, and she held each position for long seconds before beginning an even more slow transition into the next, and really, Rodney could do this. Sort of. It was unlike any exercise program he'd tried before, so he was spared painful comparisons to the way he would have moved before Silicis.

In fact, watching Teyla so closely, feeling the strain of her beautiful gestures in his own muscles, he even half-imagined his own movements were just as graceful. Of course, he probably looked like a gallivanting clown across the floor from her, but Teyla didn't laugh at him, and the sunlight streaming into the room was so golden, there was no reason not to cling to the pretty fantasy. Just for a little while.

He was surprised when Teyla finally allowed the sticks to drop to her side. She bowed her head to him once more and said, "This concludes our practice for today."

"But we were just getting started."

Teyla reached out to take the fighting sticks from him. "I believe it is enough for our first session."

Trying to meet her half-way, Rodney found his muscles were trembling, and he accepted her help to the bench under the window. "That was really a workout for me, wasn't it? How long did we go? I think I lost track of the time."

Teyla smiled at him. "Long enough for an initial practice."

"I'm scheduled for physical therapy again this afternoon at four," Rodney began eagerly. "You're right. This is more fun than moving coffee cups with Carson. Should we meet here?"

"No," Teyla said gently. "I believe Dr. Beckett wishes you to return to your regular treatment this afternoon."

"Oh. Right. Of course." Rodney looked away. "I guess these ...alternative treatments are all very well when Carson needs a break from my smiling face, but, right, not like we should make a habit of this."

He tried to stand up but his legs were still shaky, and Teyla helped him find his seat again before he could fall. "I will talk to Dr. Beckett. I, too, would like to continue our practice."

"Oh," Rodney said, and he was suddenly more happy than he'd been in days. "Does Sheppard do this?"

This time Teyla's smile was very different. "He would be would be a much better fighter if he did."

Rodney grinned back at her. "So if I keep it up I'll be able to kick his ass?"

The sun through the colored glass windows was warm on his back and he turned to look out. The glow was surrounding, enveloping, and he found himself wondering why he had never noticed how beautiful the sunlight over Atlantis really was. He was too tired to move, but also utterly content. With his eyes half closed, he felt as though he was slowly moving into a warm, sunlit haze.

Teyla spoke to him, then repeated what she had said, sounding more insistent.

"Just let me rest a minute," Rodney said. He was aware that something strange seemed to be happening, but the sunlight was so easy and peaceful. He noticed a faint red glow on the horizon and wondered if it was sunset already. How the day had flown.

The red grew more intense, flooding his senses with crimson. Implacable as the waves lapping against Atlantis. And there in the distance Rodney could just make out Colonel Sheppard's restless silhouette, walking to and fro like an uneasy spirit. Back and forth he went. Back and forth.

He could hear Teyla having a one-sided conversation nearby. She seemed to be asking for medical assistance, and Rodney admitted to himself that it probably wasn't a bad idea. He felt firm hands on his shoulders, and then he was being eased over until he lay stretched on his back. His view of Sheppard pacing on the red horizon never changed.

"Rodney, can you hear me?"

Carson. Rodney wondered when he had arrived.

"Rodney, blink your eyes if you can hear me."

Okay. He could do that. He blinked twice. The darkness of his closed lids was more soothing than the sunset, so he left his eyes shut and allowed himself to sleep.

Chapter 6

This is Spinal Tap

John leaned against the door frame, waiting for McKay to notice him. A computer was open on McKay's lap, and his left hand lay palm-up on the sheets, an IV needle taped into place in his forearm. His right hand hovered listlessly over the keyboard, and he seemed to be staring without focus into the middle distance. John shifted to the other side of the door and McKay blinked, finally seeing him. "What are you skulking around for?"

"Skulking?" John ambled in and took a seat, propping his feet on the bed.

"Every time I turn around you're sneaking off into the shadows," Rodney growled. "I wish you'd lay off. It's annoying."

John shook his head slowly. "You know, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about."

"Oh, my god," McKay exclaimed in agitation. "Teyla said I was talking gibberish just before I collapsed in the practice room, too. Repeat back to me what you hear me saying. Call Carson. God damn that quack, he said I wasn't going to have any more symptoms for --"

John swung his legs off the bed and leaned forward quickly to lay a hopefully-quelling hand on McKay's shoulder. "No, stop. You're fine. You're making sense. As much as you ever do, anyway."

Rodney collapsed back against his pillows and pretended to focus on his laptop. "Something I can do for you, Colonel?"

"Well, yes," John said. "Carson seems to have convinced Teyla that she didn't kill you in practice this morning, but I thought I'd come hear it from you myself."

"Right here, as you can see," McKay said, but sitting so close to him, John could see how deep the lines were under his eyes and around his mouth. He was so pale his skin was nearly translucent under the infirmary lights, and the veins in his temple were blue as a bruise.

"Does Carson know what happened?"

"The MRI wasn't conclusive," McKay was concentrating really, really hard on the monitor of that laptop. "But apparently there are new areas of necrosis cell death in my hypothalamus. In light of that, he's scheduled me for a spinal tap in the morning."

John winced. "What fun."

"He suspects Pompsukos' lightening rod has triggered some kind of vascular disease."

"Well, hell," John said.

"Oh, thank you. I was hoping for a succinct analysis of the situation."

"They can treat you here in Atlantis, right?"

"There is no treatment, Colonel. Carson is talking about a progressive, degenerative condition. The most anyone can do is temporarily ameliorate some of the symptoms, but the end is quite, quite inevitable."

"Oh," John said, feeling someone had just punched him in the gut. "You know what? I'm going to go back to Silicis and blow Pompsukos' fucking head off his fucking shoulders.

"That's very useful," McKay still wouldn't look at him. "You will keep me informed of any more of your fantastically helpful ideas, won't you?"

"Come on, McKay," John slumped back in his chair and let his hands dangle loose and empty between his knees. "Tell me what I can do here. How can I help?"

"Well, looking at me like I'm already dead is making me feel great. At least Teyla brought me Jell-O." McKay had finally stopped staring at his monitor, but his eyes were a smeared, angry blue.

"Fine." John stood up. "You want Jell-O?"

"No."

"I'll stop in tomorrow."

McKay didn't answer, and John turned on his heel and walked out. Once he was outside the infirmary, though, he stopped and leaned his head against the wall. He had to stop himself from trying to put his fist right through it. The diagnosis made him feel woozy with fury, and he was disgusted with himself for allowing McKay to bait him. Usually he got McKay so much better than that.

Right now he felt as useless as he had during that nightmare trip out of the Silican mountains. The memory of hours rocking and swaying in the dark across mountain roads, the weight of McKay's head in his lap with no idea if he would survive the journey, made John turn around and walk quietly back to the door. He just needed to see McKay alive. Even viciously foul-tempered, with a crap prognosis and lousy prospects for getting better.

McKay was still pretending to work. His right hand was quiet and he wasn't actually focusing on the monitor, though he wouldn't raise his eyes enough to see John on the threshold. The side of his mouth was drawn down in a frown so hopelessly weary that John's hands clenched into fists at his sides.

Still. Alive, alive.

Two hours out from Pompsukos' ancestral home, the coachman had stopped at an inn for new horses. The storm was still raging, and the discussion about switching teams had been taking way too damned long. John had been on the verge of stomping out into the courtyard to take matters into his own hands, when the discussion abruptly ended, and a new team was led out of the stables. No doubt Pompsukos' money had finally made the difference.

John eased McKay's head to the side before he got up, feeling once more for the pulse in his throat.

"Where are you going?" Zelenka had demanded, soft-voiced and hoarse.

"Just want to tell our driver not to waste so damned much time haggling at the next stop."

Zelenka nodded and shuffled to the other side of the carriage to accept the weight of McKay's body across the cushioned seats. He held McKay's head cradled in his hands.

Outside the carriage, rain was still coming down in sheets, but the thunder seemed more distant. The coachman was overseeing the work of a stable boy, who was maneuvering the half-ton beasts into position between the shafts of the carriage. He paid no attention to John until John grabbed him by the shoulder and swung him around.

"Hey!" John yelled into his face. The lights from the inn threw long yellow streaks across the puddles standing in the yard. "I can promise you your master cares a whole hell of a lot more about his experiment surviving to get to the Stargate than he does the contents of his purse."

The coachman shook himself free irritably. "We'll be on our way soon enough," he grumbled, unimpressed. John really would have liked to slug the man, but realistically, that wouldn't speed their progress. He climbed back into the coach.

"I think he may be waking up." Zelenka said.

"Oh, thank God." John knelt on the floor and stroked McKay's head where it still rested on Zelenka's lap. Maybe it would be better for him to sleep the rest of the way back to the Stargate, but McKay's unconscious body was too damned much like the weight of a corpse for John's peace of mind. "How's it going, buddy? You with us here?"

McKay's head lolled, and he mumbled in a voice hardly above a whisper, "The principles of physics, as far as I can see..." he trailed off into a fit of coughing. John helped Zelenka turn his head and support his shoulders.

"Rodney!" Zelenka asked urgently. "How are you feeling? Can you take some water?"

"They don't -- they don't speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom."

Zelenka made a sharp sound, but John couldn't tell if he were laughing or crying. "No, Rodney," he answered gently, petting his face. "They do not."

"Radek?"

"Colonel Sheppard and I are both here, yes."

"We're on our way to the Stargate," John put in. "Just a little bit longer now."

"The problem--" McKay insisted, flailing weakly. John helped Zelenka catch his arms and pin McKay's shoulders to the seat. "The problem is that we're just so big."

With that, the carriage finally lurched into motion once more. McKay's head rolled on Zelenka's thighs, and then he was silent. "I think he is sleeping," Zelenka said, but John noticed he felt for the neck pulse once again.

"Good," John said, as much as he wished McKay would stay awake with them. "Let me know when he gets too heavy for you. We'll change positions."

"Yes, I will."

"What was he saying back there?" John asked after a long period of jostling and bouncing along unpaved roads, rain sleeting across the roof of the carriage like the distant thunder. From time to time, lightening showed the ragged outline of the mountain ranges in the far distance.

Again one of those snuffling gasps from Dr. Zelenka that could have been laughter or tears. "He was quoting from Feynman's seminal 1959 lecture on nanotechnology."

McKay stirred again an hour later, while John and Zelenka were shifting position. "Radek?" His voice was weaker, barely audible over the rain and the rattle of the wheels.

"It's me," John said, brushing his knuckles over McKay's jaw. "Dr. Zelenka's here too. We're on the way home."

"Colonel," McKay whispered. "I can't move my fingers."

John ran his hand down McKay arm. He was wrapped in the dry white blanket one of Pompsukos' servants had produced while they were getting ready to go. "Well, fortunately there's no reason for you to be moving your fingers right now," he answered, keeping his voice light. "Carson will take care of everything when we get home."

McKay huffed out one of his patented besieged-by-idiots sighs. "Probably indicates cranial hemorrhaging." His voice was so badly slurred John had to think for a minute before he could figure out what McKay was saying to him. "I should be in ICU getting PET scans to map blood flow in the brain. Be on oxygen at the very least and have someone monitoring my blood pressure--"

"Hey, hey," John interrupted, laying his fingers over McKay's lips to quiet the increasingly frantic spill of words.

McKay was only still for a moment. "My paper on practical applications for the Ancient multi-universe paradigm." He flinched and shifted against John's legs "Radek?"

"Yes, Rodney. It is possible I have heard you mention it once or twice." His voice was very gentle.

"Make sure it gets published once they lift security, won't you? You can even have co-author credit."

"I am already deserving of such credit, as you well know," Radek said with mock sternness. "You had best survive to ensure I do not list my name first."

"You bastard," McKay moaned.

It was John's last smile for a very long time. Zelenka talked about McKay's paper for hours in his hoarse, cracked voice, pausing from time to time to claim brilliant insights for himself and teasingly impute all manner of remaining difficulties to McKay. John asked lots of deliberately idiotic questions to keep him going. Sometimes McKay stirred restlessly against John, but it happened less and less frequently as the hours wore on.

The storm was over by the time they reached the next inn, and a faint sliver of dawn touched the worn edges of distant ranges. When Zelenka stepped outside to stretch his legs McKay woke up. He blinked wearily in the pallid light from the open carriage door. His left eyelid didn't open as quickly as his right. "Almost home," John told him, and laid the backs of his fingers against McKay's temple.

"Colonel--" he began. He slurred like a drunkard and broke off at the sound of his own voice.

"What is it? Do you need anything?"

With an obvious effort, McKay began again. He spaced his words with deliberation, but they still emerged a mumbled, mangled gibberish. That Pompsukos might have taken McKay's voice was almost too much for John to bear.

"I see it," McKay finally managed. "So clearly," he said in a voice that was anything but.

"What's clear?" John asked, and when McKay tried to answer it came out as a wordless moan. "Hey, easy," John pleaded as McKay's back arched against the seat. "No gymnastics. We're almost home."

"Atlantis!" McKay got out, nearly shouting in frustration as he collapsed again. "Oh, John. We got it so wrong." Or at least John thought that's what he might have said. He looked up and saw Zelenka watching in miserable silence at the open carriage door.

Ronon and Teyla met the carriage as it rumbled through town. Their faces were dark with anger, but they didn't ask more questions. They had already arranged for payment of the gate toll, and Ronon helped John maneuver McKay's dead weight out of the carriage as gently as possible.

And just like that, their wild Gothic ride was over. Carson was waiting for them in the gateroom with a small army of specialists and technicians. It was 1500 hours in Atlantis, and in the bright afternoon sunlight, Dr. Zelenka's face was frozen with long-postponed shock. When Weir ordered Zelenka to the infirmary he turned and followed McKay's stretcher without a word. The blood from his split lip had long since dried, and his black eye was coming up a real shiner.

There was still no news about McKay by the time John was kicked out of the infirmary himself, so he went in search of Zelenka. He wasn't in his quarters or in the main physics lab, which was solemn and quiet. No one asked about McKay. From their faces, they already knew. John was having trouble with the sunshine streaming in the stained glass windows. In his head, it was still the middle of a dark and stormy night.

Simpson thought Zelenka might be in the paleomagnetics lab. John wondered what the hell he was doing there, until he found him and realized it had the simple advantage of being empty.

"Dr. Zelenka?"

He was sitting quite still, still no glasses, the computer in front of him not even turned on.

"Dr. Zelenka. Weir wants to go ahead and hold a preliminary briefing if you feel up to it."

"If I feel up to it? Do you know what that son of a bitch did?" Zelenka didn't turn his head. "Pompsukos was going to put me in his unholy device, but Rodney insisted that they use him instead." He pounded both fists on the lab table. "That stupid son of a bitch. That stupid, stubborn, arrogant son of a bitch." He smacked his fists down again, then again.

At this rate he was going to end up with fingers too bruised for work. Maybe even a couple of broken fingers.

"Stop it." John pulled him away. "Dr. Zelenka. Radek." For a moment Dr. Zelenka fought blindly, and John put his arms around him to contain him. "This isn't helping McKay."

Something finally got through, because Zelenka stopped fighting. He stood still, shoulders heaving with the force of his emotion. "This does not help Rodney, either," he said, and put his hand on John's angry hard-on. John jerked away, but Zelenka followed. "You can break my teeth later if you need to reassert your heterosexuality, Colonel. Right now-- I need-- I cannot think. My head is about to explode like poor Rodney's, that son of a bitch."

And Christ, this was a stupid thing to do, but John knew damn well Elizabeth wasn't going to let him go back through the gate with Ronon and a squad of Marines. He wrapped his fists in the shoulders of Zelenka's shirt and backed him up to the lab table until he could grind against him. Angry, so helpless and so angry. As he crammed himself against him, Zelenka whimpered and clutched at John and stopped speaking English altogether.

It finally pierced John's red haze that Zelenka wouldn't stop him in this state, not even if John were hurting him, and the one thing John had had enough of today was pain. He dropped to his knees so he couldn't use his weight against Zelenka, fumbling at his own fly with one hand while Zelenka undid his own. John didn't know if it was possible for a dick to taste like grief and frustration, but if it were, Zelenka's did. John sucked hard, forcing his jaw open too wide so he would feel it later. The sound of thunder in the Silican mountains didn't fade, but Dr. Zelenka's short, soft cries were a distraction, good enough. He didn't hope for more.

Chapter 7

Eliminating the Impossible

Rodney awoke to Niels stomping unhappily back and forth across his stomach, pausing to mmrp in very specific complaint at every pass.

"What's the matter with you, you goofy cat?" Rodney complained, though not very severely. "And where have you been keeping yourself, fella? I've missed you." He scooped him up on the next pass and scritched him behind the ears. Niels purred, a grumbling sound like a paper bag being crumpled, and submitted to the caress for a moment or two before twisting free and leaping off the bed.

"Hey," Rodney protested, "where are you going?" He scooted off the bed in time to see the tip of Niels' tail disappearing out the door. "Niels! Stupid cat."

Rodney padded after him. The corridor was dark, save for a dull reddish glow streaking the floor. Did the photosensitive floorboards serve some purpose, or were they just pretty? Honestly, the Ancient sense of aesthetics was so inexplicable Rodney sometimes thought they would have done better to leave the linguists and anthropologists at home and sprung for a really good art historian. Anyone who could untangle the Ancients' understanding of interior design from their science and technology would be worth his or her weight in MREs.

Assuming, you know, that there was anything to be untangled in the first place.

But that was really too depressing to think about at this hour of the night.

With a cat's love of paths and straight lines, Niels was following one of the amber floor lights. Rodney hurried after him. Down one corridor and across another, and then up a winding staircase that meandered up the inside wall of an open tower. The flickering amber path shone from stair to stair. Niels ran effortlessly, ears up, tail arched over his back. Rodney watched his own feet with more care, but he wasn't tired and he felt a sharp, hot, glitter of excitement when the staircase finally arched straight out into space.

Niels leaped to follow without hesitation and Rodney did too, space and gravity bending around him. He'd always known there were sections of the city built according to non-Euclidean architecture, hadn't he? At any rate, he felt he had been looking for a very long time, and here it was at last, spread before him. The path looped and doubled back on itself and Rodney was in a glorious forest of the mind.

Narrow white towers like thickets of beech trees rose all around him, swaying slightly in the salt-tinged breeze. The ocean moved in blue-green swells above his left shoulder, and the least strange thing of all was that Niels had effortlessly and quite without comment transformed himself into John Sheppard.

In fact, now that Rodney tried to remember, it seemed he'd been following Sheppard all along.

A loop in the path like the hot wheels tracks that had fascinated Rodney as a very young child finally took Sheppard out of his sight.

Rodney hurried to catch up. The beech tree towers grew taller and darker, branches springing from every angle and heavy leaves like control crystals clattering in the wind. The trunks were as broad around as sequoias now, and dark with articulations that proved, on closer examination, to bear an uncanny resemblance to Ancient schematics. Rodney had the unsettling sense that he could understand them if he would only stay and examine them long enough, but he was following Sheppard and couldn't tarry.

The path became more narrow and shifted in color from amber to milky-white. There were windows and doors set into the trunks of the trees, bright, swift flashes of light and sound. And then, as the path took him around a tower as broad around as a fortress, he heard unmistakable clunk of a chevron locking, and found his way blocked by a broad red door with an ornate brass and crystal door knob.

John was on the other side.

The gateroom was too busy for this hour of the night. Only Dr. Zelenka, busy over the sensor controls, looked no different. His beard shadow, rumpled shirt and scruffy hair would have been just as much in character for him at fifteen hundred hours as they were here at oh-three hundred. Standing near him, Carson looked half asleep and very angry, while the Marines on duty pretended not to be watching the drama, and the third shift technicians stared blatantly.

John squared his shoulders and made his way to Zelenka's station, trying to act like he wasn't dragging his feet. "Carson," he tried with a rueful smile.

Carson Beckett wasn't buying it. "Colonel," he returned coolly.

Okay, moving right along. "Have you narrowed in on him yet?" John asked Zelenka. "Once you have a general area of the city I can use the life signs detector to find him."

Zelenka pushed his glasses up his nose and said sadly, "I'm afraid it's not going to be that simple. I have not been able to find Rodney."

"What? No. He must be wandering around in the living quarters, and you're just not differentiating him from everyone else."

Dr. Zelenka looked at him with frank exasperation. "It may surprise you to learn that we keep reasonably accurate records of the number of people in this expedition, Colonel Sheppard. And according to Atlantis' sensors, right now we are one man short."

"Any chance McKay could be deliberately shielding his life signs?"

"In his sleep?" Dr. Zelenka demanded incredulously.

"Have you expanded the search parameters to check the ocean around Atlantis?" John asked next with a sickening sense of déjà vu.

Dr. Zelenka nodded impatiently. "It is just like before. Last night I thought I couldn't find Rodney because I wasn't using the full Atlantian sensors to look for him. But this - - as far as Atlantis can tell us, Rodney is nowhere within a hundred kilometers of here."

"That's just not possible."

A sad ghost of a smile appeared on Dr. Zelenka's face. "And once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable - -"

Carson couldn't stand it anymore. "At this point you don't even have an improbable hypothesis," he burst out.

John spread his hands. "The last two times we know about he showed up outside his quarters between oh-five hundred and oh-six hundred hours. There's no reason to think this will be any different."

"So that's your solution, is it? Allow a gravely ill man to wander around the city in his sleep and simply trust to God or the Ancients that he'll find his way home again before morning? Are you both out of your minds?"

Possibly, John thought. "Of course not. We're going to look for him, but McKay will kill us if he finds out we decided to mount a full scale search."

"You have! You've gone bloody daft! We're talking about Rodney McKay. It's the middle of the night and he's lost. Of course he would want us to call out the Marines! For that matter, if either of you had bothered to mention Rodney's somnambulism, I would have had someone watching him, and he would never have walked out of the infirmary on his own in the first place."

John took Carson's upper arm and pulled him aside, lowering his voice. "All right, in retrospect, maybe keeping it quiet wasn't all that bright, but Rodney asked. Besides, as far as I know this has only been going on for a week or so, and Dr. Zelenka and I have been -- you know. Looking out for him."

Carson shook his head, but some of the anger bled away. "I know you boys feel responsible for Silicis, but you've got to see--"

"No," John interrupted.

"I do not," Zelenka said.

"It was that bastard nutcase Pompsukos and his Frankenstein's lab." John finished.

"Rodney's sleepwalking may well have been a warning sign of the organic mental disorders which culminated in yesterday morning's ischemic attack in the practice room," Carson laid out pitilessly. "I'm the man's doctor. If Rodney doesn't trust me with an accurate account of his symptoms, then he needs to have someone else seeing him. Dr. Biro would be glad to take over as his primary care physician. She finds his current condition fascinating." John winced at that. "Or I could probably twist Dr. Lethea's arm. He's a brilliant diagnostician."

"It is not a lack of trust," Zelenka tried to assert.

"Rodney is my friend, too." Beckett didn't bother to disguise his hurt. "He deserves and will receive the best possible care. The doctor he chooses to receive it from is entirely up to him, but I cannot and will not abandon him."

"Right," John said at last. "Dr. Z., you'll let me know how we can narrow the search. I'll be assembling the teams. We'll find him."

Chapter 8

Funny

In the end, McKay came stumbling out one of the transporters on the outskirts of their living quarters a little before daybreak.

Pretty much just like Sheppard had predicted.

Ronon radioed in the news, then moved to intercept McKay's single-minded path. "Need a hand back to the infirmary?"

Frankly, the man was looking rough.

McKay took two more shuffling steps before he glanced up with bleared, red eyes. Ronon wasn't sure McKay even recognized him at first. "Why the hell --" His voice came out a breathless croak. He broke off and tried again. "Why the hell would I want to go to the infirmary?"

"Mainly, 'cause that's where you came from." Ronon indicated the IV needle and the length of tube still taped to his forearm. McKay looked at it like he didn't know what it was. His limping gait slowed to a stop as he fingered the white tape, then poked gingerly at the needle.

"Ow," he complained. Then he looked up, and for a moment he wasn't Rodney McKay at all, just a man who was lost and way out of his depth. "I must have forgotten," he said slowly. "Stupid. How could I do something so stupid?"

"You've been wandering around Atlantis in your sleep. Easy to get confused."

"Right. Right, of course it would be." He scrubbed at his eyes with his good hand. "Carson hasn't noticed I'm gone, has he?"

"Afraid so."

"Aw, crap. He'll kill me."

"Nah." Ronon took McKay's arm, shifting his weight to encourage McKay to lean on him as they walked. "Beckett already tore Sheppard a new one when he found out you were gone. You, he'll be glad to see."

McKay managed the next few laborious steps in silence. Then, "Really? The Colonel caught it from Carson?"

"Zelenka did too."

"You see it?"

"Heard about it from the Marines in the gateroom."

McKay smothered a sound suspiciously like a snicker and allowed Ronon to support more of his weight. "We're close to the lab. I need to stop there first."

"You sure?" The last thing Ronon wanted was to get into it with McKay right now, but he was pretty sure Colonel Sheppard and Dr. Beckett hadn't anticipated detours on the way to the infirmary.

"They'll have a pot of coffee on. Carson won't let me have any."

"Then maybe that's not such a good idea."

"Carson also told me I'm dying," McKay snapped. "How much difference is a damn cup of coffee going to make?"

Put like that, probably not very fucking much. "OK." He allowed McKay to steer them towards his lab. "Beckett really thinks what that bastard did to you on Silicis is gonna kill you?"

McKay looked up at him. "You and Sheppard," he said at last, which didn't really answer the question

When they were close enough to the lab for Ronon to smell coffee in the corridor, McKay finally added, "Carson's got an entire panoply of diagnostics lined up for me tomorrow morning -- oh. It's this morning by now. Great. Anyway. once he analyzes his results, he thinks he'll be able to lay out the whole dying process for me step by excruciating step. I can hardly wait."

Ronon knew what dying in a hospital was like. It was better than being sucked dry by the Wraith, but not by a whole hell of a lot. "Sheppard should have killed Pompsukos when he had the chance."

McKay snorted. "Yes, because that would help the situation in oh, so many ways."

"It'd make me feel better," Ronon said bluntly. "Sheppard, too. Zelenka, I don't know. He's like you. Funny."

"Funny?" There was an entire, indignant tirade behind that single word that McKay didn't seem to have the energy to voice. Ronon shifted his arm behind McKay's back and under his shoulders to support his flagging steps.

"Some of your priorities I get all right. But other stuff?" Ronon felt a faint smile at the corner of his mouth. "You might as well be from another galaxy."

McKay snorted. "The only thing alarming here is that Sheppard seems so at home to you. Somehow not very surprising, though."

The lab was busy for this time of the morning, and every head turned at McKay's and Ronon's entrance. Ronon helped him to the closest chair. It was occupied, but the scientist sitting there, who was hawk-nosed and balding at the crown of his head, hit a few buttons on his keyboard and got up for him. "Why, good morning, Rodney," he said, mingled exasperation and affection in his voice. "Is it too much to hope you're here to explain why we were rousted from our beds at four in the morning to re-calibrate the entire sensor array -- allegedly to look for you?"

McKay sat down heavily, not bothering to hide a groan of relief. "Coffee," he demanded with an imperious wave of his right hand. "What are you nattering on about, Sayers? I didn't tell anyone to do any work on the internal sensors. Besides, oh, I don't know, simply keeping them operational so that we don't end up with a platoon of Genii encamped on the West Pier or the like."

Zelenka appeared with a mug of coffee and set it on the desk carefully within McKay's reach. "I heard you had finally turned up." He slid his glasses off his nose and rubbed at his eyes as McKay fell upon his coffee like a man dying of thirst. "I was under the impression, however, that you were on your way to the infirmary, not coming in to work this morning."

McKay lowered his cup. "I'm getting there. What are you doing to the sensors? Turn my back on you clowns for one minute, and the next thing I know, you're dismantling critical systems."

Being in his own element certainly seemed to do wonders for the man's spirits. Ronon wondered if Beckett had considered setting up a bed for McKay down here among his scientists.

"There is a malfunction," Zelenka said. "The sensors could not find you this morning while you were strolling about Atlantis in your sleep."

McKay flinched. Then he tried to cover, unconvincingly, by gulping his coffee. "Why was anyone looking?" he finally asked in a much quieter voice.

Zelenka got one of those funny expressions on his face. "It seems a medical tech was inconsiderate enough to inform Dr. Beckett you were gone."

"Oh. Right. " McKay agreed, rotating his index finger in Ronon's general direction. "I guess I heard about that." Seeming suddenly uncomfortable as the center of attention, he spun the lab chair around and started punching buttons on the keyboard. Ronon wondered if he had finally become aware of his white scrubs and bare feet.

Sayers started forward with a half-formed mutter of protest at the appropriation of his computer. It died unspoken at a look from Zelenka.

"Doesn't make sense that I wouldn't have been visible," McKay was saying. "I was in a pretty isolated part of the city when I woke up. My life signs should have been a red flag. Must be an issue with calibration."

"Yes, that was my initial thought, too," Zelenka said, leaning over his shoulder to indicate something on the screen. "But we have found no anomalies sufficient to --"

"Then you're stupidly not looking in the right place," McKay snapped.

"Oh, of course." Zelenka crossed his arms over his chest. "I await your insights."

Ronon took the opportunity to radio the Colonel.

"Where the hell are you? Have I mentioned Carson's not getting happier the longer McKay's out of the infirmary?"

"He wanted to stop at the lab. It's taking longer than I thought."

"What a surprise." Sheppard took deep breath. "Let me talk to Carson, and then I'll come down there. McKay seem all right?"

"I guess."

"Where were you when you woke up?" Zelenka was asking. "It is conceivable the low energy levels at which we operate could be responsible for blind spots."

"No, it's not conceivable. We programmed redundancies to avoid that very --"

"Which is why it would be helpful to know where you were. Something more specific than 'remote,' if you don't mind."

"Yes, yes," McKay raised one shoulder as though Zelenka were a fly buzzing around his ear. "Even though this is clearly an issue with calibration and not --"

"Rodney," Zelenka interrupted, "do you even know where you were?"

"Don't you think I --" He fell silent, and when he resumed his voice was so low Zelenka had to duck his head to hear him. "I was on a balcony, and from there I made my way to a transporter. But now that I'm trying to figure out where, the view I saw over the balustrade doesn't make any sense." Ronon heard the tremor in McKay's voice. McKay obviously did too, because he clamped his jaws shut with an almost audible snap.

"Atlantis is a very large place, and you were just waking up," Zelenka said briskly, but he laid his hand on McKay's shoulder. "It is not surprising that even you would be momentarily confused."

McKay scowled furiously, but he didn't argue with that assessment. His head dropped as he took a deep, shaky breath. Zelenka caught Ronon's eye for an instant and then told McKay, "Let us finish the tedious business of manual re-calibration here, and I will update you on our progress after you have finished with Dr. Beckett."

Ronon turned aside and radioed Sheppard again. "Might help to have a stretcher meet us at the lab."

"I figured as much," the Colonel answered immediately. "Already on the way."

"Like Carson will ever let me out of his clutches again," McKay complained, but he had obviously exhausted his small store of energy, propping himself up with both forearms heavy on the lab table.

"Then Mr. Dex here and I will engineer a prison break. Come, Rodney. It is a very bad idea for us to have the sensors down for so long."

"My god, you're right," McKay snarled, but his voice was tremulously weak. "You know people even say there are Wraith in this galaxy?" He turned the lab chair away from the desk and stood, but his knees buckled at the first step. Zelenka was near enough to keep him from falling until Ronon could take his weight and lower him to the floor.

McKay's eyes were open but unfocused, and the fingers on his left hand were twitching in time with his pulse. "It's obviously a calibration issue," he insisted in a hoarse whisper. "Don't waste your time looking for nonexistent blind spots. And would you get me more coffee?"

John Sheppard was there when Carson returned. He was slouched in the chair at Rodney's bedside, one ankle on the opposite knee, punching data into a PDA. He looked up with a wry kind of grin at Carson's approach.

"McKay's still sawing logs. He woke up for a few minutes when Dr. Z. was here, but that's been a couple of hours now."

Carson shook his head but didn't comment. He had no doubt Elizabeth would support him if he banned John and Radek from the infirmary altogether, and he certainly had cause.

He wouldn't do it, of course. He was Rodney's caregiver -- at least for the time being -- not his gaoler. As he set the tray table he was carrying down at the foot of Rodney's bed, he took the opportunity to take a good look at Sheppard, too. Beyond the artfully rueful smile, his eyes were dark. There were blue circles of exhaustion under them and deep lines engraved in his cheeks. "When's the last time you got any sleep, Colonel? "

He shrugged, still smiling. "I probably got more than you did last night."

"Don't try me on this, John." Carson said gently. "I won't hesitate to take you off duty if you're no longer fit."

Sheppard's back straightened. "I'm just fine."

"You're not fine. You and Radek are running yourselves into the ground for Rodney. It's affecting your judgment. I'm telling you this as a friend. You can't do him any good in this state."

"You know, both of you would be doing poor Rodney more good if you would go have this discussion somewhere else," came a sleepy grumble from the bed.

"McKay." The transformation was instantaneous, John's tight smile broadening into genuine pleasure, his dark eyes suddenly bright. "Thought you were going to sleep the whole day away. Do you want to sit up?"

"Not particularly," came the irritable response, but John knew him better than that. Moving carefully, his movements economical and gentle, he shifted Rodney in the bed, then raised the head and held a cup of water for him, which Rodney sipped.

"Don't you have real work to do?" he asked in a hoarse voice

"Just getting to it," John said happily. "I think Carson was about to kick me out anyway. Hey! Look what he brought you to play with."

Rodney glanced up. Even bleary-eyed from sleep, he looked supremely skeptical. Then he saw the tray Carson had brought in. The expression on his face froze, and Carson realized he was all but holding his breath.

"You're kidding," Rodney said at last.

"Nope. Radek pulled them together. You'll have to give them back, but Carson thought for now they'd be less aggravating than upside-down coffee cups." John picked up the tray and moved it within reach. Almost despite himself, Rodney reached for one of the flawed control crystals.

"Use your other hand," John chided, catching Rodney's right hand and holding it. Rodney grumbled, but after a moment he obediently reached with his left. His hand trembled and his fingers wouldn't obey him, but after a silent, steady struggle, he succeeded in scooting a long blue crystal to the edge of the tray and off into his lap.

"There you go." John grinned broadly at him. "You totally could have been re-calibrating sensors all morning." He laid his hand on Rodney's shoulder for a moment. "Listen to Carson and do your exercises. I'll drop by this evening."

Rodney shrugged his shoulder free, muttering, but his eyes followed John all the way out the door.

"How are you feeling?" Carson asked.

Rodney looked at him in clear exasperation. "How do you think? Tired, hungry, bored. And let's not forget completely traumatized from your battery of invasive procedures this morning."

"How could you be traumatized? You were practically asleep through everything, even the lumbar puncture."

"I wasn't asleep. Just very . . . relaxed."

"Ah, my mistake then."

"And what's with the broken crystals?" Rodney scowled. "Haven't I earned a pass on occupational therapy yet?" Even as he complained, though, Carson noticed his hand kept moving over the crystals, shifting them on the tray with a soft, musical rattle.

"I'm afraid as long as you're a patient of mine, I won't let you just lie around like a useless minger."

"And you think I should aspire towards being a useful one?" Rodney snorted. "In other words, I have no say in anything anymore."

"That's not true." Carson took the chair the Colonel had vacated. "In fact, there's one decision we probably need to talk about now, and that's whether you're even to remain a patient of mine."

Silence. Rodney stopped shifting crystals. Carson waited for him. Eventually Rodney said flatly "So that's it. You're shipping me back to Earth."

"What?" Carson said. "No, I'm afraid the time is past for that. I anticipate this morning's tests will tell us more, but right now, I am afraid the Daedalus doesn't have the medical facilities to take care of you during the journey."

"Oh. Huh." Rodney went back to shifting crystals slowly with his left hand "And I suppose I'm not important enough to rate a step through the Stargate, am I? Terrible waste of power just to send a dying man home." The sound Rodney made then was probably supposed to be a laugh, but it came out pinched and unutterably miserable.

"You know damn well just how important you are to this mission," Carson replied with a touch of asperity. "The problem is the possibility that gate travel is hard on the body's astrocytes. It's only one researcher's theory, but his evidence is not unreasonable."

"Although of course there's been no peer review of his work because there's no such thing in the SGC. If there's one thing responsible for more failed missions in this lunatic program--"

"The issue is not your security clearance, but the fact that I'm not willing to risk further compromising neurogenesis in that thick skull of yours by sending you through the Stargate."

Rodney harrumphed, but it was only a temporary derailment. "All right, fine. You're still not making any sense. Why won't you be treating me anymore? Are you the one going back to Earth or what?"

"You've not shared the truth about your symptoms with me."

"I don't know what you're --"

"And that's your right, lad. You're under no obligation to tell me a darned thing if you don't want, but I cannot make informed decisions about your treatment without your cooperation."

"What is this, a threat? That's low, Carson, even for you."

Carson knew Rodney didn't mean it -- or was pretty sure, at least -- but the words stung. He made certain he was in control his of own temper before he answered. "I simply cannot treat you under these circumstances. In fact, I'm a positive danger to you. We're both charting unknown waters here, and if you want me at your side as your friend rather than as your doctor, we'll go it that way instead. In the meantime, there's not a physician here who wouldn't move heaven and earth for you. Whoever you want."

Rodney's head came up sharply, and he looked away.

"Rodney, whoever you can trust."

Chapter 9

Atlantis Never Locks Her Doors

Zelenka showed up while Rodney was contentedly eating his breakfast. Prepackaged, sliced ham with painted-on grilling strips, re-heated white toast with margarine and apple jelly in little plastic packages. They'd even broken out the powdered eggs for him. Radek set a mug of coffee on his tray, and Rodney snatched it up. Lukewarm but drinkable.

"You are welcome," Radek observed.

"Figured out what's wrong with the internal sensors yet?" Rodney asked through a mouthful of toast. "You know, until we get this problem pinned down, we have zero assurance there's not a similar issue with the long range sensors. We could have Wraith hive ships breathing down our necks before we even --"

"Possible, but unlikely. The shared systems are --"

"Minimal, yes, but they do exist. I take it you still don't know what's wrong."

"We are attempting to pinpoint your location yesterday morning by determining where you were when you transported back to the living quarters."

Rodney was actually impressed. "And then I suppose you'll move on to extracting previously-dialed gate addresses from DHDs in your spare time."

Radek scowled at him.

"So?" Rodney forked up a mouthful of eggs. Chewed. Swallowed. "How's it going?

Radek slumped in his chair. "It is something of a challenge to deduce previous destinations from a transporter."

"It's also a massive waste of time. I've already told you it's not a problem with the way we ration power consumption. You want to be checking calibration instead."

"We've been through that with the fine-tooth comb, Rodney. There is nothing else to check."

"Fine, fine." Rodney waved his fork in the air. "It's your department now, however you want to run things, no matter how wasteful and inefficient."

Radek muttered in Czech. "Nice try, but there is no way I am taking on your science team while you sit propped up in bed and other people bring you breakfast and coffee. I was actually coming by to find out if Dr. Beckett plans to release you today, or if we need to schedule the next meeting with Dr. Weir and linguists here in the infirmary."

Well, that was a sticky subject. Carson Beckett, not those bozos in linguistics. "Don't tell me Elizabeth is actually listening to Thrope and Mowbray. I thought we had nipped all that idiocy in the bud."

"They have apparently approached Dr. Weir with a new proposal. Or at least a new variation on the old one. They are arguing that the same techniques we learned from Pompsukos for modular deconstruction of Ancient materials could also be used for reconstruction. It is quite a cunning argument, especially for linguists. I suspect someone from botany or xenobiology is helping them."

"Dammit, that's not bad." Rodney let his fork drop as he considered the implications. "Theoretically, it would use even less power than applying the debris to new construction, given Ancient materials' molecular predisposition for mimesis."

"Yes, I believe Drs. Thrope and Mowbray make a similar argument."

"Interesting as the point may be, however, some reconstructed minarets don't provide nearly as much power as a cyclic heat engine. Oh, wait. Pretty towers don't supply one single watt, do they? Give me twenty-four hours to think about it. You can play the 'poor Rodney's still in the infirmary' card with Elizabeth, she'll listen to that. I don't know when I'll be getting out of here, but I'll let you know if we need to schedule the meeting at my bedside. Might help our case."

"You are a truly ruthless opponent," Radek said with a small smile.

Carson showed up after lunch carrying a pair of shoes. Rodney viewed him with suspicion. "What's that?"

Carson sat down beside him. "They're your shoes, Rodney."

"I can see that."

"Put them on. It's a lovely afternoon for a stroll."

"So I'm just supposed to drop all my work for you?" In point of fact, Rodney had been drowsing over Dr. Sayers' notes on sensor re-calibration for the better part of an hour, but that still didn't mean he was available at Carson's whim.

"I have a proposition for you," Carson said cheerfully. "If you and I walk up the stairwell outside the infirmary, make it all the way to the balcony above the mess hall and come back, you can sleep in your own quarters tonight."

"Really?" Rodney took the shoes and socks and started to put them on. "I thought I'd be stuck here for the duration."

Carson rolled his eyes, which Rodney thought was really pretty much uncalled for. "Like any of us could stand having you as a permanent resident. As long as you can show me that you're reasonably mobile, and you keep your comm with you, there's no reason you shouldn't be fine on your own."

Rodney watched him, slightly askance, as he tied his shoes. This might well be just another sneaky attempt to get him to participate in physical therapy, but on the other hand, not even the luxury of hospital food could make up for the chance to get back to his own room.

Carson had to help him stand up. "This doesn't count, does it?" Rodney worried. "I'm just a little stiff from being in bed for the last twenty-four hours."

Carson only smiled at him, the bastard. The first steps were the hardest, his left thigh muscles jerking erratically and refusing to cooperate, but by the time they were out of the infirmary, his leg was beginning to relax, and he mounted the first stairs with something almost like enthusiasm. "Be easy," Carson cautioned, but he was still smiling. "It's a marathon, not a sprint."

By the time Rodney reached the balcony, even his tensed left arm had begun to relax and was hanging straight at his side. Unfortunately, he knew that was also a sign of incipient exhaustion. That maddeningly narrow time between coaxing uncooperative muscles to work and the necessity of going back to bed to sleep for another twelve hours or so. He leaned against the railing as thought he were interested in enjoying the view and hoped Carson wouldn't call him on it. "That's where we're going to sink Radek's generator," he said. "Out there, a little past the pier."

"Aye," Carson agreed. "If the linguistics department lets you get away with it.

Rodney sent a sharp look at Beckett. "Do you know who's feeding them intel? All of a sudden they're giving Elizabeth disturbingly cogent reasons why we should be using scrap material to rebuild Atlantis instead of a generator."

Carson had the nerve to actually laugh at him. "Intel? Rodney, they're not the enemy. Isn't that how science works? Dialog between opposing viewpoints?"

"Yes, with other scientists," Rodney muttered. He turned away from the ocean view. He was afraid to stand still too long or his muscles would begin to stiffen. "Speaking of dialog." He drew himself up. "Carson, you wouldn't even talk to me about this before. But surely even you can see that things have changed now."

At least Carson didn't pretend not to know what Rodney was talking about. "That's a matter that you need to discuss with your doctor, lad."

"Oh, for the love of--" Rodney threw up his right arm up in exasperation and so much energy he had to lean back against the banister to avoid falling.

Carson reached for him. "Steady there."

"You want to hear me say that I trust you? Well, surprise, I don't. Not anyone in your profession, and you've known that as long as you've known me. What I need now isn't blind faith in anyone, but a doctor willing to help me use the Ancients' neurogenesis device."

Carson closed his eyes. "Rodney, you have months ahead of you, maybe years."

"Or maybe I have weeks. The rate of cellular necrosis seems to be escalating. You told me that yourself. You want to be considered a scientist? You can't deny the evidence just because you don't like it."

"Don't you dare lecture to me." Carson's voice was deadly quiet. "You haven't earned the right."

"And what will being nice get me? A deck chair here on the balcony for my sunset days? If you won't do this, Carson, I'll find one of your people who will. Dr. Biro seems to have an open, inquiring mind for a doctor. "

But as quickly as it had come, Carson's anger seemed to melt away. He shook his head at Rodney sadly. "Tell me one thing," he said. "Why were you so adamant I not know about your sleepwalking?"

"Why does it matter now?"

"If my patient is unwilling to share his symptoms with me -- despite all his bleating about evidence -- it would at least help me to know why."

Suddenly Rodney felt a little stupid. He looked away. "I just thought -- I suppose it's at least conceivable that I wasn't -- Maybe I wasn't thinking as clearly as I might have been. Which isn't all that surprising. Brain injury here, remember?"

Carson just waited. Rodney braced himself harder against the balcony, locking his knees. "I thought if you knew, you and Elizabeth would send me home."

"Aw, Christ." Carson held out his hand. "Take my arm, you daft bugger, before you end up on your face."

When he got back to the infirmary, Carson let him collapse into bed, exhausted but triumphant. Made it. It didn't change the fact that this was all a pointless exercise -- why work so hard to regain motor skills he would inevitably be losing again in the coming months?

Or weeks.

Or frankly, days.

But if it meant Carson was letting him out of here, he'd play along. Better still, he was finally listening to Rodney's arguments for using the Ancients' neurogenesis device. The only ridiculous thing was that Carson had to be convinced he was dying before he would move ahead with it.

Just for a moment, though, Rodney allowed himself to think very clearly about what could go wrong, and just exactly how bad that would be.

Really, really bad. Carson had a point -- it would be entirely comparable to the creeping decrepitude he was looking forward to now. Just a whole lot quicker.

So he would make sure nothing went wrong. There was a fair amount of information on the device in the data banks. He'd continue working with the translation and the original text -- what they had so far read more like love sonnets than medical research. Why were the linguists on this expedition all such goddamned flakes?

But first, he really needed a nap.

He closed his eyes and slept dreamlessly for nearly five hours, awakening well after dinner, which had been left cooling on a bedside tray. He snarled at that, but when the nurse offered to have it reheated for him, he dropped his fork and held on. Meatloaf, lima beans and mashed potatoes, all lovingly deposited in individual portions on a segmented plastic plate before it ever left Earth -- warm might be nice, but he'd be damned if he let it out of his sight.

"Where's Carson?" he demanded, spearing the last bean. "He said I could go home tonight."

"Gone for the evening -- " The nurse said, holding up his hands when McKay started to protest. "He left instructions in case you woke up and wanted to go back to your quarters tonight."

"Of course I want to get out of here -- do I look like a complete masochist to you?"

He busied himself putting on his shoes, gathering up his computer and tablet, not listening as the nurse put together an impressive collection of medications. He'd get his instructions directly from Carson tomorrow. Not that he didn't trust Carson's nurses - - but frankly, he didn't particularly trust Carson's nurses. Apparently he was getting a Marine escort to his door, which was fine -- she could carry his stuff -- and a watch on his door tonight to catch him before he took off sleepwalking. That gave him pause, but decided after a moment of reflection that it beat wandering around Atlantis in his sleep. At least until Zelenka could rig a reliable alarm system.

In his room at last, he pulled off the white hospital scrubs and washed. Getting into the tub (partially recessed into the floor and the wall, with jury-rigged Earth plumbing fixtures for the shower) was an ordeal in his current state, but he managed just fine, thank you. He got the last of the adhesive from the IV off with alcohol, and then soaped up again. He could still smell the infirmary on himself. That was a scent he usually associated with environs that were refreshingly, antiseptically clean, but tonight he just wanted it off.

He put on a T-shirt and boxers, and stretched out in bed. Exhausted, and utterly wide awake. Another five minutes, and he turned on the light again and pulled on a pair of jeans. He'd let Radek know he was out of the infirmary. Maybe they could brainstorm for the next meeting with Dr. Weir and those lunatics Thrope and Mowbray.

As soon as he was out the front door, one of Sheppard's Marines hailed him from down the corridor and asked if he were all right.

"I'm obviously awake! See the clothes and shoes? Compos mentis, thanks all the same." He was afraid the Marine might be under orders to dog his steps anyway, but to his relief he was allowed to go on his own. It wasn't until he was around the corner that he realized he hadn't put on his comm. Dammit. He almost turned around, but having gotten past the Marine once without picking up a permanent escort, he wasn't eager to press his luck.

Radek's door was locked. It wasn't that late, so he was probably in the lab, but Rodney was already pretty tired. Before he put the effort into walking all that distance, he simply overrode the lock to check. Good thing, because Radek was curled up in bed, not in the lab at all. His face was tucked into Sheppard's lap, though, and that was so bizarre Rodney stopped dead in the middle of the room.

His first, muddled, thought was that Sheppard must be helping Radek with a headache. Probably another lingering symptom of Pompsukos' notable conflation of house guest with lab rat.

"Shouldn't you get Beckett?"

Sheppard's eyes flew open, and Radek sat straight up in bed like he'd been shot. John Sheppard's penis was sticking out of his pants, and it was turgid against his belly, shiny and dark red. Radek's lips were shiny and wet, too, at least until he wiped them with the back of his hand.

"Jesus, Rodney," Sheppard snapped, and it was sort of good to hear, because he hadn't yelled at Rodney since Silicis.

Radek said, more mildly, "My door was locked for a reason."

"What was it?" Rodney asked stupidly, wondering if he were sleepwalking after all. Sheppard was busy fastening his pants, but he looked up, seeming a little alarmed at the question.

"Oh." Rodney's universe very belatedly shifted into focus. "You were. Oh." As his legs folded up beneath him, he groped back for Radek's desk chair.

He missed.

Chapter 10

Cobblestone Walk

Oh, hell, John thought, leaping up as though he could possibly catch McKay before he fell. It was hopeless, even though Radek jumped too, and he certainly knew every bitter truth about the acceleration of falling bodies. Rodney hit the floor and slipped backwards, his head smacking the desk with a resounding crack. His bad arm flew out at the same time, striking the lightweight chair. John at least caught that before it could fall over, too.

McKay's first surprised squawk faded into a litany of grumbles and curses. Radek knelt by his head. "Are you all right?"

"Do I look all right?" McKay moaned pathetically. "And just for the record, I am officially sick and tired of landing on the floor."

"Yeah, I don't blame you," John agreed. Reassured as he was by McKay's volubility, he still felt vaguely sick to his stomach, as though he'd been unforgivably careless with something precious.

"Ow, dammit. Don't touch me. My neck's probably broken. This must be the secret to Pompsukos' Wraith-proofing device. They simply won't see me on the ground at their feet."

Radek shook his head. "Do you need Carson?"

"Of course I need Carson. Wait, don't call him," he interrupted himself as Radek stood to pick up the comm on the bedside table. "This was supposed to be my first night out of the infirmary. Sorry, no, but I am not ending up back there already." He struggled to sit up, scowling furiously.

John put his arm around McKay's shoulders to help, and once he was propped against the desk, he felt the back of McKay' head for the bump. "Just rest here for a minute. If you feel strong enough to get back to your room, I'll walk you there."

McKay nodded, not happily. He looked more pissed off than hurt, though his weaker leg was shaking with a slight, convulsive shudder. John let his hand rest on the ankle, and the trembling stopped. "Better?"

"Maybe a little," McKay agreed grudgingly, but now it was his lower lip that was trembling. John couldn't stand this. He really couldn't. He released McKay with a quick pat and stood up, turning his back on him.

Radek sat down heavily on the bed. "Fortunately, this is in no way embarrassing or painfully awkward," he said with a miserable smile.

At least it surprised McKay into an exasperated huff. "This must be recent," he grumbled. "Nobody's gossiping about you. I would have heard."

"Rodney, the only gossip you hear is what I tell you." Radek said.

"Now you know he's been giving you the edited version." John sat down next to Radek and tried really hard to smile.

McKay looked up at John like he was a lunatic. "Well, thank god for that. Do you think I wanted to know the Pegasus Galaxy's number one Lothario can't keep his hands off my science staff either?"

"Hey," John protested.

"Seriously, Radek. How long have you two been an item? Are you an item, or is this a buddy-screw kind of arrangement? That's what it's called, right? I never got how that worked." McKay sounded rather wistful. "Is there a signal or something? Because in all honesty, sometimes I'm maybe not as quick as I could be at picking up non-verbal cues."

"You, Rodney?" Zelenka murmured. "I never would have guessed."

"No, it's true. Especially when I'm working, and when am I ever not around this place? Oh, well. Not so much recently I guess." Rodney looked down at his left arm, hiked up hard against his chest.

"Do you feel strong enough to go back to your room?" John interrupted. There was just no way he could see this conversation getting any less awful.

"Here is the sort of non-verbal cue you might watch for," Zelenka announced out of the blue, apparently having lost his mind. He put his hand on John's leg, and the weight of his palm burned like fire under McKay's startled gaze. "The way this man has his eyes on you, always. All of the time! No matter what happens, he is watching you. "

To John's momentary relief, Radek lifted his hand from his thigh, but only, it turned out, so he could cup the back of John's neck and tug him forward. John resisted, but Radek was stubborn, and John was not going to get into a knock-down in front of McKay. He finally allowed Radek to draw his head forward and kiss him.

"Kiss me back, you fool," Radek said after a moment, not quietly. "Show Rodney how you would kiss him if it were he in your arms."

"He can hear you," John protested frantically.

"That is the point," Radek said. "Look at him."

John turned his head. Rodney's eyes were huge with astonishment. And eagerness.

And such hunger.

His own heart suddenly beating like a drum, John put his hands on Radek's face and leaned in. The tip of Radek's nose touched his cheek. John felt his exhalation, and then their lips were pressed together, warm and soft. Tentative, the heat of Radek's kiss as intense as Rodney's gaze.

They had seldom done this before, taking any time in the midst of frantic, easy couplings. John found himself having to position Radek's head to continue the kiss. The pressure of Radek's small hands on his shoulders surprised him. He bit gently at Radek's jaw, feeling beard stubble under his teeth, and he wrapped his arms around Radek's back to pull him closer.

"Anyway, I just stopped by to let you know I'd been released from Beckett's tender care for the moment," Rodney announced in a faint, strained voice. "We can meet with Thrope and Mowbray tomorrow."

John sat up abruptly, feeling a little dizzy. Rodney had managed to get himself to his feet and was leaning hard against the desk.

"Stay with John and me," Radek said, his own expression uncharacteristically soft. "This is a clear verbal cue, Rodney. No interpretation required."

"Beckett said you were working on an alarm to keep me from sleepwalking," Rodney wouldn't look at either of them. "I'll see you in the lab tomorrow. You can bring it down then."

John was still saying, "McKay--" as Rodney stomped his way solidly to the door and let himself out.

"Rodney! Dammit." John stood and half-ran after him, stopping on the threshold for an instant to look back. Radek motioned him on with a shake of his head.

Rodney hadn't gotten far, though he was moving pretty well, considering his fall.

"Let me help," John said, offering his arm.

"I've got it."

"I know you do. Let me help anyway." He moved closer, elbow to Rodney's, and after a moment Rodney wrapped the fingers of his right hand around John's bicep.

His limp was heavier than usual. "This feels like you should be escorting me to the groom's side of the aisle," he said sourly, even as he clung to John's arm.

"Are you sure you don't need to go to the infirmary?"

"Yes, because I'm so likely to stoically repress pain and injury."

"OK." A short distance in silence, except for the slap of Rodney's left foot when he didn't lift his toe high enough. Then John tried, "Radek and I, you know, we both --"

"Carson has agreed to let me try the Ancients' neurogenesis device."

"Wait, what? The last I heard, we weren't even certain that's what it did."

"It works on Carson's lobotomized little white mice," Rodney made a grimace of distaste. "And it's consistent with what we've pieced together so far out of the Ancient database."

"And that's good enough for him to start experimenting on you?"

"I thought you'd be glad," Rodney snapped. "At this point, it's about the only hope I've got."

"Don't be an asshole. I just meant our record with Ancient medical devices isn't exactly stellar."

Msgt. Boma was patrolling the hall outside McKay's quarters, and he was manifestly relieved to see them turn the corner just then, saluting Sheppard and telling McKay, "I'll be here till 0400 when Corporal Carriger relieves me. Let us know, doctor, anything you need."

"Is it you or Carson who put the fear of god into him?" Rodney asked, not exactly under his breath. He tugged himself free from John's support. "Good night, Colonel."

He let the door shut while John was still wondering how to invite himself in.

Rodney liked this part of Atlantis. There was no view of the sea, but he could smell it, cool and salty wisps blowing along the cobblestone streets. The sun was straight overhead, bright but chill. The walls on either side crowded him, broken by crumbling limestone colonnades that spun up into the sky, open transepts, and solid stone piers marching along the street to form long galleries you could follow from one side of Atlantis to the other.

The shadows on the street were a checkerboard, black, white, black, and they hid the uneven paving stones. Rodney caught his toe trying to move too fast, but Zelenka was at his side and helped him as he stumbled.

"I have to find John," Rodney explained hurriedly. "He may have come this way."

"Yes. I will help." Radek slipped his arm down to take Rodney's hand, and it was so comforting his limp began to ease, and he found himself walking more steadily. The sun warmed the streets. Radek was chattering about fuel consumption issues and the long-range sensors, when suddenly his hand was wrenched away.

Rodney spun angrily. Laura Cadman was standing beside him, all her blonde hair tied up tightly at the back of her head. "What have you done with Zelenka? I need him!"

"Wake up Rodney," she said nonsensically, (and really, that shouldn't have been a surprise -- when had she ever made sense?) "Dr. Zelenka isn't here."

The sturdy stone piers were no longer no behind her, just the articulated, rectangular columns in the corridor outside his own quarters. Rodney stumbled back and Cadman braced him against the wall. "Come on, wake up. You're sleepwalking again."

Rodney looked down at himself, barefoot in his boxer shorts, and crossed his arms oven his naked chest. Cadman rolled her eyes.

"Been there, done that."

"You have most certainly not," Rodney asserted stoutly, though he allowed her to guide him back to his room. "What time is it?"

"About 0400. I caught you going hell for leather for the transporter. We'd never have found you if you'd made it."

"I don't remember that." Rodney stumbled to the bed and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders. "And would you please get out of my room?"

"Believe me, going," Laura said. "And you don't remember because you were asleep, idiot. Pretty creepy. Shuffling along like a zombie."

"What are you even doing here?" Rodney demanded so he wouldn't have to admit it really was pretty damned creepy.

She shrugged. "The Colonel asked me if I'd mind taking a watch. You going to be OK now?"

"Just fine," Rodney grumbled, waiting until she had let herself out of the room before stretching out. His head dropped back, and as soon as his eyes closed the dream came back, he and Radek tripping hand in hand through an Atlantis that looked like a Romanesque cathedral.

Utterly idiotic. At least Laura had intercepted him before he could get himself lost again.

The only thing was -- well, this was dumb -- but he was actually a little disappointed not to have found Sheppard before Laura woke him up. Maybe with Radek's help, he could have figured out a way through the red door.

But that didn't bear thinking about. There was no red door, and brooding about it would probably lead to sleepwalking again before dawn. Or even worse, land him back in the infirmary.

So he didn't censor the dream memory of Radek's cool, dry palm against his own as it became the real memory of Sheppard and Radek making out on Radek's bed. It had been almost laughable, the Colonel trying politely to extricate himself, obviously mortified by the entire situation. As if Rodney had suddenly wandered into a screwball comedy of seriously dubious taste. It really had been funny.

Right up to the point when it became the sexiest thing Rodney had ever seen in his life.

Sheppard had opened his eyes and looked at Rodney over Zelenka's shoulder. Really looked at him, and then while Rodney tried to remember how to breathe, he had pulled Radek in and begun kissing him with such tenderness. Not at all the way Rodney had imagined men would be together. When Sheppard put his arms around him, prickly, cranky Radek Zelenka just melted up against him. Rodney squirmed under the covers, reliving that hot, sweet flush.

Then Laura came back into the room. Rodney's eyes flew open and he sat up straight in bed. "Do you mind?" he complained, loud with embarrassment. "I'm in bed!" His voice sounded hoarse in the pre-dawn quiet. The lights of Atlantis reflected on the surface of the ocean and off the cloud cover above, bathing his room in a murky rose glow. The shadows at the door were impenetrable.

"Cadman!" he snapped, even though he knew by now that he was alone. He turned on the lights anyway.

The stark brightness didn't make him feel any better. He remained sitting up for a moment more -- he was so certain he had heard Laura -- and when he finally lay down again he left the light on and put the pillow over his eyes. His heart was still beating too fast.

He tried to lose himself in a favorite fantasy. A nice safe one, where Rodney used data from the practical application of wormhole physics to resolve M Theory's falsibility problem to an enraptured Richard Feynman and Edward Witten. He couldn't control his thoughts, though. Feynman started sketching a Mayan calendar over Rodney's layout of the Stargate, and Zelenka and Sheppard were sitting on the front row of the auditorium, distracting him by holding hands.

And Rodney still had the sense someone was in his room. He shoved the pillow away, blinking in the harsh light. Of course there was no one there. He turned off the wall lighting in sheer defiance, shut his eyes, and rolled onto his side. But as he lay there he began to imagine the room was somehow changing around him. Since that was even more ridiculous than thinking Laura was in the room, he squeezed his eyes more tightly shut and refused to look. The tension drew his arm up, so he planted his fist on the bed and wished it were easier to pull the blanket over his shoulder. Right now the only way to accomplish that engineering feat was to roll onto his back, pull up the covers with his strong right arm, and then roll back onto his side. Too much work.

Besides, he didn't want to draw attention to himself by flopping around on the bed. He refused to think about just how nonsensical that objection was. Logic like that, he might as well be patrolling empty corridors with Laura Cadman, because it wasn't like he was good for anything else.

He pulled his knees up and lay huddled in as tight a knot as he could manage. He felt doomed, utterly alone and miserable. Waking up in the middle of the dream had been a terrible mistake, hadn't it? Didn't everyone say you weren't supposed to awaken a sleepwalker?

Radek had even invited him to share his and John's bed, and now he was never going to have the chance to find out what that could have been like. A fat tear squeezed out from under his right eyelid, cold on his temple as it rolled down to the pillow.

His room was so terribly small, and so unbearably crowded. Rodney could hear the voices and feel the press of the walls, but he refused to look until the red light on the other side of his closed eyes had been wiped white by the rising sun.

He found out at lunch that he'd slept right through the departmental meeting with Thrope and Mowbray

Chapter 11

The Garden Room

John had been concerned about the use of the Ancients' neurogenesis device since McKay had brought it up. This meeting wasn't making him feel any better.

"Not to state the absolutely obvious, but I'm not a doctor."

McKay had been sitting hunched and defensive on the other side of the table like he was afraid somebody was going to try and snatch his last power bar, but at that, he relaxed enough to roll his eyes at John. "Didn't Carson tell you? We're sending you back to Earth to go to medical school first. We should be ready to begin the first treatment four or five years down the road."

"Rodney," Weir said mildly.

"As far as we can tell, the Ancients themselves didn't have a profession we would identify as 'medicine,' Beckett said. "Far less individuals who trained or practiced as physicians. To the extent studies focused on damage to or disease of the body, they seem to have been a subset of architecture."

"Well, that's weird," John said.

"Or at any rate, rather radically different from the way we tend to order the disciplines."

"It does make translation an interesting challenge," Weir said carefully.

"Who are you kidding?" McKay interrupted. "Translation's a big, fat, hairy son of a bitch. Is it any wonder linguists are all such freaks?"

"Present company ... " John prompted gently.

"Present company what? Elizabeth's not a linguist. Not on the order of a nutcase like Jackson or even Thrope and Mowbray, and thank god for that. We'd all have been Wraith food a year ago."

"Thank you, Rodney. I think," Weir said with one eyebrow raised.

Rodney put down his coffee cup to wave his right hand in a you're-welcome gesture. His left hand lay uselessly upon the table, clenched fingers twitching in a sad, muted echo of the right hand.

John made himself look away. "So exactly what would I be doing? In my not-a-doctor-because-the-Ancients-didn't-have-any sort of way."

"You'll accompany Rodney in the garden room --" Beckett started

"The what?"

"Best we could do with the translation," Dr. Zelenka put in. "That seems to have been what the Ancients called the neurogenesis chamber."

"I'll be monitoring your vitals remotely, since it won't be possible within the room, and you'll assist Rodney with some very simple physical therapy exercises."

"Again, see, this sounds to me like something a doctor would be more qualified for."

"The actual exercises appear to be far less significant than your possession of the Ancient gene," Beckett said.

"Meanwhile the garden room will be bombarded with high energy particles which appear to stimulate neurogenesis. They have certain decidedly peculiar properties, but apparently none that pose a health risk." Zelenka explained.

"Not even radiation?" John asked.

"Minimal," McKay snapped. "Roughly equivalent to coming into contact with the event horizon of a wormhole."

"With which it happens to share some interesting characteristics," Zelenka put in.

"So no need to worry, Colonel, the hair is safe," McKay growled. He really was in a charming humor.

"I'm actually concerned about you, McKay. As I understand your medical condition right now, there's not a whole lot of margin for error."

"My current medical condition is the reason we need to spend a lot less time in meetings like this and a lot more time just getting on with the treatment. Look, the session may cause hallucinations, so I need someone in the garden room with me to keep me on track. Your strong ATA gene makes you the most promising candidate, but if you don't want to do it, it would be a courtesy to let me know now so Carson and I can make other arrangements."

"Of course I'm going to help, Rodney." John kept his voice at a low drawl, but it was an effort. "Just checking out the risks."

"And that being such a first for you," Rodney muttered, "can you blame me for being surprised?"

"Risk assessment is the reason we're all here," Weir said sternly, and once the meeting was dismissed John collared Zelenka before he could escape back to the lab. McKay had already gone, stomping and swearing the whole way.

"You never said what you think about the treatment," John pressed him. The first session was scheduled for 0800 hours tomorrow. "Is this actually going to work?"

Zelenka slid his glasses off his nose and rubbed his tired red eyes. "You are asking the wrong person, Colonel. I am looking at the possibility that Rodney will not die because of what he did to save my life. Obviously, I have no clinical distance whatsoever and cannot begin to offer an unbiased opinion."

"But you must have some --"

"I do not believe it will harm Rodney--or you. That I have checked as carefully as I know how to do, with Rodney himself looking over my shoulder the entire time. But the actual results? There is no one now working on the project who can tell you that. We all see the possibility of Rodney returned to us in all his furious, egotistical glory, and we cannot help but hope."

"All right. I know you wouldn't let McKay do anything to hurt himself."

It was wrong thing to say. Radek's face crumpled, and he hurriedly replaced his glasses, as though he could hide behind them. "How's your alarm working?" John asked to change the subject. "I guess it stopped the sleepwalking."

"He is no longer sleepwalking at all, but I do not believe the alarm has anything to do with it. In the lab these last few days Rodney has been -- very tired. Very irascible, even for him. I threatened to go to Dr. Beckett to have his work hours reduced, and Rodney finally confessed that his nightmares had been making it hard for him to sleep."

John winced. It wasn't a surprise that Rodney would be having bad dreams, but he just hadn't known.

"Dr. Beckett has him taking sleeping pills now. Rodney says he sleeps the night through. No nightmares, no sleepwalking. The daytime drowsiness is a side effect of the medication." Radek took a deep breath, looking horribly guilty. "I confirmed what Rodney told me with Dr. Beckett."

"Well. That's --" It wasn't good and John couldn't say that it was. It had been necessary, though. "Going to Carson was the right thing. We both know Rodney suffers a little from tunnel vision when he gets obsessed."

Radek gave him a watery smile. "Dr. Beckett thinks the increased irritability is just Rodney being Rodney."

Hard to argue with that. "Stop by tonight?"

Radek still looked unhappy. "Have you talked to Rodney?"

"Not about-- No. I haven't."

"Nor have I. Stubborn bastard."

John thought Radek was going to turn him down, but then then he finally shrugged a bit and nodded. "Still. I suspect you and I could use a sleep aid this evening, too."

The Ancient confusion of architecture with medicine maybe wasn't all that strange, now that John got his first good look at the garden room. He remembered having seen it during their early exploration of the city, but frankly, then it had been a single, incomprehensible wonder in a city full of them. Knowing now that this structure was a medical device was awe-inspiring. And maybe a little alarming. John turned in a slow circle, looking upwards. Blue-green tinted sunlight streamed in past the deeply corrugated ribbing that lined the walls far beyond the limits of his vision.

"More than 400 meters tall," Zelenka said. He was helping Dr. Beckett double-check the monitoring equipment.

"Like someone hollowed out the Empire State Building," John said. The space was vast enough to have its own atmosphere. He was pretty sure those were wisps of cloud far, far overhead, and there was a constant, brisk wind blowing, a bit colder than the ambient temperature. Beckett had brought in a pair of chairs and a table in addition to his equipment. It all looked laughably small and insignificant.

McKay was fidgeting and getting in Zelenka's way, so John sat down across from him and picked up one of the stainless steel mugs. "No control crystals?"

McKay turned his head as though just seeing John for the first time. "Less possibility of unforeseen interactions with coffee cups," he returned shortly, but he seemed simply distracted, not nearly as bad-humored as he'd been yesterday.

Zelenka shot John a grateful look over McKay's shoulder, so John said, "Show me your exercises again. I want to be sure I know what we're doing here."

"What we're doing? You're just going to be sitting there. And maybe retrieving the mugs when I knock the whole stack over, which usually happens at least once during Carson's sadistic little sessions."

"Oh, aye, you're sadly bullied," Beckett agreed absently. "Watch, now, this lead may be a mite cold."

McKay barely complained as Beckett untied the top of his tunic and positioned monitors over his heart and at the base of his throat. "I know it's chilly, but I need for you to slip off your jacket for a moment, too."

"It's not the high energy particles that'll do me in, but exposure," McKay grumbled mildly, but he did as Beckett asked, laboriously tugging his coat off his shoulders so Beckett could position the additional leads on his back and below his ribs.

McKay's face looked sallow in the blue light, and John thought he'd probably been losing weight. He helped Rodney pull his coat back over his shoulders, careful of the trailing monitor leads. "Well, then," Beckett said, "Are we ready to give it a go?"

Rodney turned his head and glanced at John, wide-eyed for an instant before looking away again. "Hopefully before I die of old age here."

Zelenka was the only one who tried to smile at that. "We'll give you a two-minute warning," he said. "Rodney has the panic button if anything goes wrong from your end."

McKay rolled his eyes but tapped on the tablet on the table.

And then it was just him and McKay, alone in that cavernous, windy space. Rodney was sitting very straight at the other end of the table, turning one of the coffee cups in his good hand and not meeting John's eyes.

John thought afterwards there was something different about the breeze. It seemed to get warmer, prickling against his face like a fine mist, and Rodney said irritably, "I have no idea why Carson couldn't be here. It's a sad state of affairs when he's turning over physical therapy duty to Air Force Colonels."

They were in the infirmary, Rodney in bed with the sheets pushed down to his waist. The tray table over his lap was piled with stainless steel mugs.

John grinned at him. "I know this is highly skilled labor. Just stack the damn coffee cups."

"Oh, very nice bedside manner," Rodney griped, but he plucked the top cup off the pyramid and moved it to the other side of the table. He looked up at John, then, actually returning the grin. "Maybe not such highly skilled labor after all," he announced, sounding pleased and surprised. "I don't remember it being this easy before."

Corporal Brandstetter, one of Carson's orderlies, put her head around the privacy screen and asked what time McKay wanted dinner. Rodney paused in moving the upside-down mugs one by one across the tray to demand a menu.

"You'll get what we're serving at seventeen hundred hours," Brandstetter announced, and left them.

"There you go," John said. "Making new friends all the time."

Rodney made a face, but continued doggedly stacking coffee cups. When the pyramid was complete he slouched back against the pillows at his back and came very close to smiling again. "Not bad?" he asked as if he were afraid of the answer.

"Not bad at all," John agreed.

The wind picked up again, bitingly this time, and John blinked hard. Blue sunlight streamed through tinted glass windows hundreds of meters overhead, and Rodney was staring at him from across the table. The coffee mugs were scattered in every direction, a couple still rolling on the floor at their feet.

"Huh," John said. "I don't think that's what I was expecting."

Rodney looked down at his hands as Carson and Zelenka hurried in across the cavernous floor.

"Are you crazy?" McKay asked as soon as they were within range. "We can't stop now."

"We agreed three minutes was safe for the initial session, Rodney," Beckett said. "Your vitals look fine, but I want to check you out here before we head back to the infirmary."

"I'm sure I'm fine," Rodney insisted. "I feel fine." He tried to stand up, but his left leg gave out under him, and he stumbled hard. Zelenka was closest and kept him from falling.

So, John thought, illogically disappointed, not an instant cure after all. No one had said it would be. But Rodney was looking at his left hand. He flexed his elbow slowly and evidently with some pain, but he was starting to smile. He straightened his fingers, then curled his hand back into a fist, one finger at a time. His grin threatened to split his face.

John said, "Wait. You couldn't do that five minutes ago." Rodney shook his head, fanning his fingers open and shut once again.

And then again.

He looked at Beckett and Zelenka, seemed to be on the verge of saying something and then burst into tears.

Chapter 12

The Masonic Handshake

Beckett wound up keeping McKay most of the rest of that day. John stuck his head in a couple of hours after he'd been released with his own clean bill of health and found McKay sacked out on a semi-public examination table.

"Is he okay?" John asked, keeping his voice down.

"Oh, aye," Beckett said, much less quietly. "Just exhausted. Apparently re-growing neurons takes it out of a body."

"Have you had a chance to examine his MRI yet?"

"That's a matter for me to discuss with Rodney first," Beckett said sternly, but he was smiling as he said it. John left the infirmary with a light heart.

When he came back in the middle of the afternoon, McKay was having blood drawn. Not only was he whining about it, he was also drumming his left fingers as obnoxiously as possible on every available surface. John was not terribly surprised no one had the heart -- or inclination -- to complain.

"Oh thank god, Colonel," he said when he saw John. "Tell me you're here to rescue me from the clutches of these sadists."

"It looks cruel and unusual all right," John said. "Pretty fancy finger-work, though."

Rodney beamed. "You and Elizabeth need to talk to Carson for me. He wants to wait forty-eight hours before using the garden room again. I'm ready to go now." He twiddled his fingers proudly in front of his face before he went back to drumming them on his bed rack. A half-eaten lunch of a grilled cheese sandwich and steamed almost-cabbage sat forgotten on the bedside table.

"Mm, sorry. Dr. Zelenka's booked solid tomorrow. Looks like you'll have to follow your doctor's advice after all."

"Zelenka's busy? What kind of nonsense is that?"

"Right, usually he just sits around watching the grass grow, but tomorrow he's overseeing that test reconstruction."

"Oh good grief, I forgot all about that. You know, this idiocy from Thrope and Mowbray and Dawson never would have gone so far if I hadn't been stuck spending all this time in the infirmary these last few weeks."

The tech finished filling the third vial of blood and bandaged McKay's arm, ignoring his growled, "And has it occurred to any of you ghouls that it would be a lot less stressful on the patient to draw the blood you need all at once instead of coming back to stick another needle in me every fifteen minutes?"

"Oh, come on Rodney," John coaxed. "Aren't you the least bit interested in finding out whether we can rebuild Atlantis by shooting juice through some broken tiles?"

McKay sighed heavily. "As usual, your ability to reduce a highly complex and technical process to a single, painfully over-simplified whiz bang effect leaves me speechless. And really kind of tired."

And he did look tired. John reached forward and adjusted the pillows behind his head. McKay settled back with a satisfied groan. "Besides, I'm far more interested in figuring out a way to generate more of that 'juice' you're so eagerly throwing around than I am finding things to do with it. We've got plenty of those already. Including fixing me." McKay went back to drumming his fingers on his tray table in a satisfied sort of way.

"What's up next for the garden room?" John asked. "You know, once Dr. Beckett clears you, and Zelenka finds some free time. Jogging around Atlantis with me and Ronon? I could visualize that."

McKay snorted. "Must be a sign of how sick I've been that even that doesn't sound bad to me. No, Carson's belatedly all concerned because we started with the hand instead of the shoulder, which he says is the way healing would progress naturally."

"Shoulder. OK, sounds good to me." John shrugged elaborately just to get Rodney to scowl at him. "You know, I think I've figured out what's bugging you about all of this. Remember how mad you used to get at Carson right after -- well, you know, right after this all happened -- when he would tell you to visualize squeezing the stress ball before you were able to make a fist? Turns out he was right all along."

"Oh, of course he was. All he was missing was the part where I got bombarded with a few billion high energy particles with properties about which we can only make wild speculations. Maybe I would have had more confidence in his 'imagine you're all better' nonsense if he'd mentioned those in the first place." Rodney's eyes drifted shut.

John stood up quietly, intending to make his exit, but Rodney's eyes popped open again. "Carson says he'll let me go tonight if there aren't any complications," he said, looking hopeful.

"I'll stop by after dinner," John agreed, and Rodney closed his eyes again, satisfied this time, and snuggled down into the pillows.

But Rodney had already gone by the time John stopped by looking for him that evening. Feeling a spasm of guilt, John half-jogged towards quarters and caught up with him being escorted by Msgt. Boma, who had also been dragooned into carrying his computer.

Rodney was so openly, unabashedly glad to see him, he didn't even bother to make sarcastic remarks about missed appointments. John took the computer and sent the sergeant on his way. "So, Beckett let you out?"

"Still that keen grasp of the obvious," Rodney said cheerfully. His left foot was dragging, and he carried his left arm tight across his stomach, but he was opening and closing his left fist at happy, random intervals. "Colonel, do you --"

McKay slowed to a stop and looked entirely uncharacteristically uncertain about something.

"No, I won't talk to Carson about moving up the next session in the garden room," John said. "Sorry, but I think I agree with him. You ended up sleeping all day. Give yourself time to rest. That place isn't going anywhere."

McKay looked at him like he was crazy. "I was actually wondering if you wanted. Well. If maybe we could stop and see if Radek's in?"

They were right outside his door. John felt a grin on his face and butterflies in his stomach. Without giving McKay (or himself) time to think about it, John raised his hand and knocked.

"This is all right, isn't it?" McKay worried. "You never did tell me if there was a signal."

If they hadn't been standing in a public corridor John probably would have kissed him to shut him up. "We're not Masons, Rodney. There is no secret handshake." John thought for a moment. "Or if there is, no one ever told me about it."

The door opened. Radek was just out of the shower, bare-chested in gray sweats, a towel around his neck and wet hair pushed back. "John," he said, not quite smiling. "Rodney. How are you feeling?"

Rodney demonstrated his amazing clenching and unclenching fist. "Is this all right?" he burst out then. "Because we could come back. Or I could come back not at all. That would be all right. I would be fine with that, if you wanted."

"No. I think that I would not be fine with that," Radek said carefully, and stepped away from the door. John nudged McKay in, not altogether subtly, and when the door shut behind them, Radek leaned in without further ado and dropped a feather-light kiss on the side of Rodney's mouth. "I would offer you a drink, but that would be a bad idea, given what you have told me of your medication schedule. I could brew a cup of tea if you liked."

Rodney shook his head mutely, looking scared and stubborn. "C'mon, sit down," John urged, suddenly wondering if this was all a really bad idea. But Rodney sat down on the bed so abruptly it was like someone had cut his strings.

"You should probably know," he announced, chin jutting out, "I haven't ever. With a guy."

"And I have never made love with Rodney McKay before," Zelenka said calmly, as though that made them even. And hell, maybe it did, for all John knew. "Tonight, we celebrate the success of the garden room, yes?" Zelenka continued, and he finally smiled for real, his face looking naked without his glasses, wet hair pushed back off his forehead. He sat down next to Rodney. "So it is in your hands. Both of them." He pulled the towel off his shoulders and dropped it aside, then bent down to kiss the knuckles of Rodney's left hand. "Whatever you would like. Even if it is just to bitch and moan about the reconstruction trial tomorrow."

Rodney was still Rodney. "I still don't believe we're going ahead with this! Yes it's theoretically fascinating, but it's a matter of priorities here, and unfortunately, reconstructing a fallen minaret or two does nothing to--"

Radek shot an exasperated look at John, who abruptly realized he was still just standing there holding McKay's computer. He hurriedly set it down and sat down behind Rodney.

"I apologize," Radek ended the tirade by putting his hand around the nape of Rodney's neck and leaning in to kiss his mouth. "I was mistaken. Talking about the trial is not an option after all. Choose something else."

"Oh," Rodney said faintly. "Um. Would more kissing be all right?"

John wrapped his arms around Rodney from behind and pressed his lips to the side of his neck. Rodney made a gasping little hiccup and pushed back against against him. "And touching?" Rodney asked more boldly, but John could feel him trembling.

Radek's expression was very gentle. "Kissing," he murmured. "Touching. I cannot speak for John, but for me, I believe that would be all right."

John spread his hands across Rodney's chest, trying to still his shivers. "OK by me," he managed in a rough voice, lips moving just beneath Rodney's ear.

"Oh, god," Rodney groaned. He stretched forward to capture Radek's mouth, nibbling hungrily on his lower lip before diving right in. He put his hand on Radek's face, stroking his cheek, his forehead, the line of his jaw. Radek's eyes closed, and John felt an ache in his chest like pain. Christ, this was dangerous. So reckless and so dangerous.

But Rodney was right here in his arms. He wasn't going to die. John laid his head between Rodney's broad shoulders and felt the pounding of his heart against his face. Listening to Rodney's gulps and soft, panting breaths, and Radek's murmurs of reassurance, he thought maybe nothing in the Pegasus Galaxy could be better than this. When he raised his head, he kissed Radek's fingers where they curled behind Rodney's neck under the line of his short hair.

At that, Radek raised his head and kissed John over Rodney's shoulder, his lips wet from Rodney's mouth. Rodney whimpered greedily between them. John scooted sideways until his back was against the wall, and with a little maneuvering, Radek managed to ease Rodney down until he lay with his head in John's lap. Radek curled down beside him and pushed Rodney's shirt up to expose his belly, so white and vulnerable John's own stomach clenched at the sight. He stroked Rodney's hair and then cradled his head in both hands. Rodney swallowed hard and opened his eyes to stare up at John, an indecipherable expression on his face as Radek kissed and petted his stomach.

Or no, not so indecipherable after all, John thought as he bent double to touch his lips to Rodney's forehead. That wide, crooked mouth was pulled into a scowl of fierce concentration, and his eyes closed again as John helped Radek pull Rodney's shirt higher to bare his chest. His pink nipples rose into hard little points when John brushed the balls of his fingers over them, and Rodney's back arched up until Radek settled him again.

His eyes opened once more when Radek began to unfasten his pants. "I don't --" Rodney said, suddenly tense, as though trying to curl into himself. "I mean, I haven't, since Silicis. I don't know if I can."

Radek murmured something something in Czech that sounded like fond exasperation. He laid his head on Rodney's belly, and John couldn't see what he was doing then, but Rodney slowly relaxed once more. John touched his face, tracing the outline of his lips, and Rodney's eyes fluttered open, stunningly blue, and looked straight up at John. Rodney clumsily patted at Radek's still-damp hair with his left hand, but with his right, he reached up and took John's fingers in a tight grip and held on hard.

After a long, sweetly lazy interval, Rodney choked out a very surprised-sounding, "Oh, god," and his fingers tightened around John's almost to the point of pain. John realized with his own sense of surprise that the thunder over the Silican range had finally faded into silence.

He totally did not mean to sleep, but when Rodney opened his eyes again he found himself tucked along the edge of the bed against the wall. The bed wasn't wide enough for three grown men. It was hardly wide enough for two. They were managing all the same. Sheppard was pressed up against Rodney, shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh. Radek was sprawled on top, head buried against Sheppard's shoulder, hips rolling comfortably. Both men were panting.

Wonderingly, Rodney reached out his fingers and touched Radek's naked flank. He'd lost his sweats sometime while Rodney had been drifting, and his skin was white in the light from the desk lamp, sheened with sweat. When Rodney touched him, Radek turned his head and smiled. In the dim light all Rodney could make out was the twinkle in his eyes and and the twist of his lips.

Sheppard rolled his head towards Rodney. His shirt was gone, but his pants were only shoved down to his knees. "Hey, sleepyhead," he whispered affectionately, breaking off with a gasp when Radek's back arched and his hips came down again. Rodney inched forward, turning carefully on his side so he could kiss John's mouth. John kissed him back eagerly, until he grunted suddenly, and Rodney realized John was coming, his body shuddering up against Radek.

"That was me," Rodney said, astonished and not a little proud. "That was because of me."

Radek groaned and dropped his head in the middle of John's chest. "Why am I not surprised," he muttered, his voice coming in gasps. "In the bedroom as in the laboratory, so ready to assume credit for the hard work of others."

"Rodney's not afraid of a little hard work," John panted, and managed to shift Radek until he lay part way between John and Rodney. Greatly daring, Rodney reached over Radek's hip and found him hard and slick, and it was as easy as jacking off in bed at the end of the day, trying to slow his brain down long enough to get some sleep.

Except they really were crowded here, and his thoughts weren't racing now -- they were as slow as cold honey, golden, thick and sweet. Radek made the most astonishing sounds, sharp groans and half-frantic hisses. Rodney thought he could happily lie here forever, except for the way his wrist started to ache after a time. But then Radek tensed back against him and muttered something in Czech. It came out a desperate half whisper, so hungry that Rodney felt the tingle all the way to the tips of his toes. He tightened his hand as Radek came against his fingers in a warm spatter.

John had turned his head and was kissing Radek's mouth. Sloppy, noisy kisses as Radek tried to catch his breath around them. Rodney petted Radek's belly, which was still heaving with exertion, wet and soon becoming sticky under his palm. "That was amazing," he heard himself saying. He suspected this would probably be a good time to shut up, but he felt full to bursting and just couldn't make himself. "Can we do this again sometime? Would that be OK? I just don't know how this works."

John gasped weakly with laughter. "You'll have to ask Dr. Zelenka, here. I don't know how this works either. "

Radek's head was buried in the pillow. He answered John, but his voice was so effectively muffled Rodney couldn't even tell the language. After a time John got up and retrieved something from Radek's bathroom. Rodney felt Radek rolling away from him and opened his eyes dazedly, realizing he was on the verge of falling asleep again. He watched as John bent over Radek, cleaning him as he lay sprawled on the bed, looking just as loose-limbed as Rodney felt. Then Radek got up, and John walked on his knees across the bed. "Still with us?" he asked, and Rodney nodded drowsily.

"Good," John whispered, and leaned over to kiss him before wiping his belly and thighs. Rodney thought he still needed a shower, but he was utterly relaxed and calm. "We should let Radek have his bed back. He's got a big day with the linguists tomorrow. Think you can make it?"

"I'm awake," Rodney said loudly, as though an affirmative statement were all that was needed. Nevertheless, he took Sheppard's arm to sit up and didn't scorn Radek's help getting dressed. John walked him back to his quarters and even though Rodney thought he could have made it on his own, he happily clung to Sheppard the whole way.

John looked calm and collected, of course, and generally just as innocent as the day was long. By comparison, Rodney thought probably anyone they encountered could take one look at him and know what he'd been doing.

"Calm down," John said as they reached his room. "Nobody cares. They're all more concerned about their own secrets than they are any of ours."

"You mean everyone's been doing this but me?" John had the effrontery to simply laugh at that, and he let himself into Rodney's room behind him without asking permission. "You all right? Need help with anything?"

"Is that some kind of double entendre?" Rodney asked, more than half-hopefully, even though he was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open.

"No," John said. He set Rodney's computer down on his desk and stepped very close, placing one hand flat against Rodney's collarbone and curling the other around the back of his neck. "Just asking if you need anything." He brushed his lips against Rodney's. "The alarm's set up? Any pills Carson wants you to take?"

"Radek's sleepwalking alarm comes on automatically," Rodney answered, trembling. "I'll take my medicine when you leave."

John dropped back on his heels, which was disappointing, but the smile he gave Rodney made his heart turn over. "Guess that's my cue to go, then. Sleep tight."

He stuck his head back around the door before leaving. "Rodney. I'm really glad about the garden room."

Rodney could only nod his head, his throat tight. He shuffled to his bed and sat down heavily. He looked at his left hand. The whole day was starting to feel utterly unreal, but his fingers still fanned open and shut, open and shut. He pulled open the neck of his shirt and dropped his head to sniff. He still smelled like sex, too.

Amazing. Everything, amazing.

He felt so good he was more than half-tempted to forgo Carson's nasty little sleeping pills tonight. They were worse than being drunk, plunging him into a besotted, dreamless sleep. In the morning he was thick-headed and stupid, groping his way through a pea soup daze. He'd be useless in a real emergency.

Rodney snorted. He was useless now, though for the first time there was hope, and what he could remember of the red door dreams was worse then the side effects from the medication.

Rodney swallowed his sleeping pill with water and turned out the light.

Chapter 13

Bag End

For his second session in the garden room, the only thing Rodney did differently was to wear an extra T-shirt. It got annoyingly cold in there.

John had brought his own chair and was sitting on it backwards, keeping up a stream of not-very-interesting patter about yesterday's reconstruction trial while Carson attached monitors to Rodney's body under his double layer of T-shirts. Zelenka was going over the controls for the hundredth or the thousandth time, though it wasn't like any of them had more than the vaguest notions what the garden room actually did. Rodney thought he should probably double-check his work, but he couldn't force himself to move.

Carson had predicted he would build up a tolerance to the sleeping pills, but it sure as hell hadn't happened yet. Rodney had spent most of yesterday napping in his quarters, and today he felt sodden-brained and hopelessly fumble-fingered. His tongue was so thick in his mouth he hardly trusted himself to speak, and keeping gracefully quiet was not one of his talents. He sat on the gurney and glowered, silently daring anyone to speak to him.

Carson was the bravest. "If you want to turn around and stretch out, I'll show the Colonel your range of motion exercise for your shoulder."

"I'm sure he's already seen it," Rodney snarled back. "That's probably good enough even for Sheppard. It's not exactly rocket science."

But Carson just looked concerned, which, Rodney thought irritably, he certainly could have predicted if he'd been thinking straight. "Are you sure you're up to this today, lad? There's no need to rush, especially if you're a touch under the weather."

"I'm fine," Rodney said quickly, because waiting on this? No. Not an option. "Never felt better." He rolled carefully on his hip and stretched out full length on his stomach.

"He's just a little cranky because the reconstruction trial went so well yesterday," Sheppard said in an easy drawl. He came to stand next to Rodney. "I think I remember this one. You let your arm hang down off the gurney like this, right?

Gentle hands touched Rodney's forearm, then his shoulder, helping him straighten his tight left arm. Furiously clinched muscles stretched unwillingly. "I don't hear Radek dancing and singing over the trial," Rodney groused. "He can just about kiss the cyclic heat engine goodbye if the test data pans out." Still, it was hard to muster the requisite aggravation with Sheppard's strong fingers massaging his upper arm.

"Yes, Atlantis may lose some megawatts that would have run quite a few laptops for quite some time." Zelenka sounded annoying unperturbed at the prospect. "But it may actually be possible to repair all of the damage from the Wraith attacks, not to mention flooding from the storm. Even the damage sustained during the rising. It is not a prospect to throw away lightly. I have completed my checks, Dr. Beckett, if you're ready."

"What you want to do, John, is help Rodney swing his arm forward and back. Gently, without forcing anything." He positioned John's hands around Rodney's arm. "Don't let him use his neck muscles. Ideally, that stretch will tell this room what we want to repair today." Then Carson actually looked around the tremendous space as if the garden room itself were a slightly dimwitted nurse's aide. "We'll go three minutes, just like last time."

"Oh, you can't be serious!" Rodney interrupted. "We already talked about this."

"Aye, we did," Carson agreed maddeningly. "And we said in view of your physical exhaustion after the last time, it made no sense to push."

"There you go," Sheppard put in, as if anyone had asked his opinion.

Zelenka said, "The panic button is there by Rodney's right arm." And being more obliging than he actually felt, Rodney drummed his fingers beside the laptop to demonstrate for Sheppard. "Two minute warning like last time?" Zelenka continued.

"Works for me." Sheppard was in a fine mood this morning. Rodney simply rolled his eyes, which everyone seemed to take as his assent. Carson and Radek's footsteps were flat, empty slaps as they walked away, no echo at all in the vast space.

"You comfortable?" Sheppard asked.

"Like it matters, the three minutes Carson is allowing me here."

Sheppard was undeterred. "Is Carson right? Is it really the exercise you do that triggers the garden room?"

"Oh, like we have the faintest idea," Rodney snorted. "We've got relatively clean translations of the conditions that called for sessions in the garden room, and one rather startlingly plain description of recovery. Elizabeth thinks it may have been a child's composition exercise. But what's actually going on? Take your pick of down-the-rabbit-hole hypotheses. Oh, and in case you were wondering, our hallucinations in here don't clarify anything. Essential part of the treatment? Wonky side effect because we're not really Ancients? No idea."

"How can it have been an hallucination when we both saw the same thing?"

Before Rodney could even begin on that one, he felt the warm, slightly damp puff of air like someone was blowing in his face. He had time to think that couldn't have been the two minutes Radek had promised, and if something as basic as turning the mechanism on wasn't under their control, then what was?-- when the unforgiving little flat mattress on the gurney became the marginally more forgiving mattress in Radek's quarters.

"My bed next time," Rodney said promptly, as he turned his head on Radek's pillow. "My back can't take this."

"Fine, your bed next time," Sheppard agreed, bending over him to drop a single perfect kiss halfway down his spine. "Let's work on that shoulder while we're here, though.

"You crazy romantic," Rodney grumbled, but he did as Sheppard asked, allowing him to straighten his left arm, then gently set it swaying straight as a pendulum. "Is Radek around?" Rodney finally thought to ask lazily. "Is he going to mind that we're using his room?"

"No. I don't know. Probably not," Sheppard said. "Want to get some dinner?"

Definitely. Rodney rolled to his side and sat up. "How's the shoulder?" Sheppard pestered. Rodney straightened his elbow and then began to lift his arm. At shoulder-height, he burst into a helpless grin. "Pretty smooth," Sheppard approved. "Tell you what. Tonight, the Jell-o's on me."

"Don't strain yourself," Rodney groused in reply, but he couldn't stop smiling. Leaving Radek's quarters, they started across a field of wildflowers. Panicles of indigo petals bobbed at waist-height. After a few steps, Sheppard slowed to a stop, frowning. "What?" Rodney demanded.

"I don't know." Sheppard reached out and stroked one of the blossoms. "Does anything seem different to you?"

"Different how? And watch it, you're liable to get a bee sting fondling the flowers like that."

Sheppard drew his hand back. "I don't know."

"Then let's get to the mess hall before Ronon takes the last of the dinner rolls. Someone needs to warn that galoot about that walks like a man about excessive carbohydrates."

They crossed a log footbridge over a brook, and from there the meadow began to rise and fall in a series of low, rolling hills. It was late afternoon, sun slanting thick and golden through the tall grasses. A wooden door was set into the lee of one hillside. Inside candles were burning, and the glow shone through the round glass window. Rodney felt a moment of concern when he realized he didn't know if the door would open for him, but the handle turned easily under his hand.

He and Sheppard both had to duck under the rounded lintel. Inside, the dirt walls were smooth and dry. The floor was covered with thick rugs that were soft under the soles of Rodney's shoes. "Snug as a hobbit hole," Rodney approved. "I don't think I ever noticed that about Atlantis before."

Sheppard's face was golden in the candlelight. He smiled at Rodney before leading the way deeper under the hillside.

After a while the cloth rugs became straw, and then bare dirt. There were no more pictures on the walls, and fewer and fewer of the little round windows punched deep into the earth with grass-level views of the setting sun. Candles flickered on wall sconces at ever-increasing intervals. The only break in the smooth earthen walls were the occasional doors. Less than five feet tall, heavily barred as though to keep something in. Or possibly out. Either way, the prospect disturbed Rodney. He surreptitiously laid his palm against the panels of the next one they passed. Just for a moment, but it was long enough to imagine he felt a low shudder vibrating the wood.

"Which was the moment, of course, that Sheppard looked over his shoulder. "Everything all right?"

"Of course it is." Rodney snatched his hand away. "Why wouldn't it be?"

"I don't know," Sheppard said thoughtfully, though he had the same half-puzzled expression on his face as he'd had outside among the flowers. "It's just something."

"Let me know when you can be a little more obscure," Rodney snapped back, his own nerves making him short tempered.

The tunnel took a sharp bend, and suddenly they came upon Radek Zelenka. He was sitting on the dirt floor in front of one of the little wooden doors, and he was surrounded by instruments. One of the iron hinges had been partially disassembled. Where the metal sank into the earth, Rodney could see the blue glitter of half-buried control crystals. Zelenka barely acknowledged Rodney's and Sheppard's approach.

"What are you doing?" Rodney asked.

Zelenka didn't look up. "Attempting to secure the door. What does it look like? Now, please, no more talking unless you can assist."

"Of course I can assist!" Rodney was already getting to his knees, sudden panic beating a cold tattoo behind his forehead. "Why didn't you ask for my help to begin with?"

Sheppard was following the next bend in the tunnel. "Hey," he called back suddenly. "Here's a door that's already open."

Rodney lurched clumsily to his feet as Radek muttered without looking up from his work, "The red door is why."

"What did you say?" Rodney screamed down at Zelenka, but he couldn't wait for an answer. He ran after Sheppard, finding him with his hand on the frame of a heavy wooden door with frayed leather hinges.

The panels were painted bright red.

"Get away from there!" Rodney shrieked, just as his weak leg folded under him and Carson said, "Easy, lad. we're just going to start an IV here, see if we can't get your blood pressure down on the way to the infirmary."

"What went wrong?" John was demanding angrily. "Is McKay all right?"

"Just a stick now," Carson said calmly. Rodney felt the needle in his arm. "Colonel, I need you to step back and allow me to attend to my patient."

"What's happening?" McKay asked muzzily. He tried to turn his head to see Sheppard.

"Nothing's happening." Carson lied, apparently without shame. "Your heart rate and blood pressure are a tad elevated."

"No, the Colonel," Rodney demanded in weak frustration. "Is Sheppard all right?"

A warm hand came down on his shoulder. "I'm here, Rodney. I'm OK," Sheppard said gently, but his voice changed almost at once. "And what the hell happened to your three minutes, Carson?"

"It was three minutes." Radek was the one who answered. "No longer."

"That's not possible," Sheppard said, voicing Rodney's thoughts. "That had to have been an hour or more."

"No, it was not," Radek contradicted him politely, then cried out, "John!"

"Careful," Carson said, still impossibly calm. "Watch his head."

This time Rodney finally managed to get his arms under himself so he could turn to see what was going on. Zelenka and Beckett were lowering Sheppard to the floor. Sheppard was still conscious and complaining but his voice was very faint. "I'm fine. Just a little dizzy. Oh, shit, my head."

"Since you're so fine, just take it easy for a moment and put your head down," Carson urged, and Sheppard unhappily lay back on the floor with his head resting on Zelenka's wadded up jacket.

A moment later, the backup medical team had reached them and Rodney lost his view of Sheppard behind the orderly press of people. He tried to sit up, but strong hands restrained him. The door was still here, red seeping through the windows of the garden room, so he fought until his strength gave out. Radek bent over him, red-eyed with concern, and said, "Dr. Beckett is going to help you, Rodney, you and John both, but you must calm down." Rodney had no choice, so turned his face away and did his best to swallow the tears of frustration.

When he woke and found himself in the infirmary, he was so disappointed he wanted to weep again, but he wiped his eyes roughly and demanded, "Where's Carson?"

Corporal Brandstetter checked the readouts on the instrumentation beside Rodney's bed before answering, apparently just to torture him. "I'll tell Dr. Beckett you're awake."

"And that I want to see him!" Rodney added loudly. "Is Colonel Sheppard all right?"

"He was discharged several hours ago."

Well, thank god for small mercies Rodney thought. Or actually, pretty fucking huge mercies. When he'd seen Sheppard standing by the red door, he'd thought --

Well, he'd thought things he didn't want to dwell on anymore

He strained around to check his readouts, since Brandstetter hadn't bothered to share. Nothing too scary. Maybe Carson would let him out today, too.

He fidgeted, looking to see if anyone had been thoughtful enough to leave his laptop within reach. Nothing but a plastic cup of water from which the ice had long since melted. Goddamn Radek, anyway. You'd think he'd know Rodney would need his computer when he woke up.

Radek had been there, Rodney suddenly remembered. He'd been in the garden room's little fantasy land, and he'd known about the red door. Rodney could hardly breathe, his chest was so tight. When Carson finally showed up, bright-eyed as a man without a care in the world, Rodney wanted to shake him.

"Well, then, how are we feeling?"

"I need to see Heightmeyer. Right away."

"Rodney? What's the matter?"

Rodney huffed impatiently. Sometimes the stress of being surrounded by well-meaning idiots was more than flesh and blood could bear. He had to restrain himself from pitching the cup of water at Carson in sheer frustration. "It's my own damn nightmares," he said, trying to speak very slowly and clearly for the sake of morons. "That's what went wrong in the garden room today."

"What do you mean?"

Christ.

"I mean Sheppard and I both ended up in the middle of the recurring nightmare I've been having since I got back from Silicis. Well, not that long. But since the sleepwalking started. The garden room plucked my own private horror show out of my head and made it real. I've got to get Heightmeyer to scrub my brains before either one of us can risk using the garden room again."

"All right, settle down. No one is proposing to toss you and John back in there any time soon. It's clear in retrospect that forty-eight hours wasn't nearly enough time to allow your bodies to recover from the initial exposure. The stress caused what I hope was simple vasvagal syncope in John's case --"

"Oh, fine. I faint, he has a syncope. How is that fair?"

"--while you experienced elevated heart rate and blood pressure. I'm sure Kate will be glad to see you, Rodney, but I suspect your nightmare was caused by the physical effects of the garden room, not the other way around."

"Is the Colonel all right? He is, isn't he? You probably need to have a word with Corporal Brandstetter. Trying to get a straight answer out of that woman isn't a job for the weak and infirm. No doubt why she's assigned to the infirmary."

"John's fine."

"And Radek?" A sudden, cold worry pierced Rodney. "Why isn't he here? Did something happen to him?"

"What would have happened to Dr. Zelenka?" Then Carson nodded sagely. "Ah, I see. He was in your nightmare too, wasn't he? No, he's fine. Dreams are just dreams, Rodney, whether you're in your bed or the Ancients' garden room."

Chapter 14

Atlantis' Rinse Cycle

Rodney realized how much worse it was all about to get when Kate Heightmeyer told him he had a meeting scheduled with Carson and Elizabeth first, and afterwards, she would be very happy to talk to him.

Crap.

He fortified himself with extra coffee, and though he didn't quite trust his left hand to carry the brimming mug, he enjoyed a private moment of triumph as he pulled the chair out for himself before setting his coffee down. Then he looked up and saw Carson smiling indulgently. So, not so private after all. Rodney scowled back at him and took the bull by the horns. "I'm strong enough to send back to Earth, now, aren't I?"

Elizabeth and Carson exchanged a look Rodney couldn't read, then both started to talk at the same time. Elizabeth broke off, and waved at Carson to continue. With an apologetic shrug of the shoulders, he said, "I don't think there would be any problems with a return trip on the Daedalus now if you want to go. The most recent MRIs indicate the areas of necrosis have stabilized, even retreated to a not-insignificant degree. I suppose I hadn't realized you were waiting for the opportunity to go home."

Rodney suddenly felt exhilarated and furious. "Well yes, of course I want to walk away from the most important work of my life, as well as my only chance for a complete recovery! What else have I been waiting for?"

"Rodney," Elizabeth chided gently.

"Let me just get this straight. You're not about to ship me off? Then what is this all about? Christ, do you people know you nearly gave me a heart attack?"

"I'm sorry," Elizabeth leaned forward and patted Rodney's hand, which did very little to comfort him. "Actually this is about the garden room."

"Yes?" Rodney said suspiciously, with a sharp glance at Carson. "It must be really bad news if you had to haul Elizabeth in for backup."

"I understand your progress has been extraordinary so far," she continued, unperturbed.

Rodney couldn't help it. He thrummed the fingers of his left hand on the tabletop in a little victory march. Elizabeth smiled, but Carson took up the story. "And now that you've recovered so much range of motion in your shoulder, your gait should improve fairly rapidly as well. We've talked, you know, about the way your left arm compromised your ability to walk almost as much as the direct neural damage."

Rodney got it then. He just didn't believe it yet. "I'm going to make even faster progress in the garden room."

"That's what Elizabeth and I want to talk to you about. We think it might be safer not to use the garden room again."

"Stop now? You're serious." Rodney didn't trust himself to speak, but didn't let that stop him. "You hold out the possibility of a complete cure, and then you take it away because I've been having bad dreams? No. No, you can't be serious."

"Rodney, you're healing now. There may be no need for the garden room, and given the risks, and how little we understand--"

"The risk that the neurons in my hypothalamus haven't called off their death march? That it starts again a few years down the road, say, when I'm not in Atlantis anymore? That makes no sense. We have access to an effective treatment now. Have you talked to Colonel Sheppard about this? To Dr. Zelenka?"

Elizabeth and Carson exchanged a glance. Rodney was quickly deciding he really hated those knowing looks.

"No," Elizabeth said. "We wanted to speak to you first. They're both very -- protective since Silicis. It's possible they're not capable of entirely objective reasoning where you're concerned."

"So you think they would allow me to hurt myself in the garden room? How does that make any sense whatsoever? They want me to get better. I want me to get better." Rodney shook his head mulishly. "Are you telling me you won't allow me to use the garden room again?" Rodney was already marshaling all the reasons they had no right to bar him from treatment, but Carson held out his hand.

"I don't believe either of us have that authority. Forgive me, Elizabeth. I don't mean to speak for you."

"It's all right," she agreed quietly.

Carson continued, "I just wanted you to consider another possibility, and to keep in mind that you're exposing John to the same high energy particles. Rodney, you know the colonel won't say no to you."

"I don't know any such thing," Rodney grumbled. "Seems to me he says no all the time." But the truth was, he completely understood Carson, and he couldn't quite meet his eyes. "The problem last time was my own bad dreams. Dr. Heightmeyer's going to help me wash and drip-dry my brains, and I'll be ready to give it another go."

"Will you agree we won't proceed further until Kate is comfortable with the prospect?" Carson asked, not sounding happy.

Rodney was fairly confident of his ability to steamroller Heightmeyer in a pinch. "Sounds reasonable. Now Elizabeth--" Rodney sat up straighter and finished off his coffee. "Just so this little meeting won't be a complete waste of time: consider this your official notice of my final decision on the Thrope and Mowbray project.

She shook her head as though to clear it. "Your final decision?"

"This is strictly a matter of energy generation and consumption, or are you going to argue that doesn't fall under my purview?"

"No, I don't mean to imply that in the least."

"Good. I'm glad to hear it. I've scheduled a meeting this afternoon, where I'll explain to all and sundry that as tempting as the prospect of restoring Atlantis may be -- and I'd like to have the luxury to do that as much as anyone -- as long as we're barely hanging on by our fingernails here, generating energy has to take precedence over expending it."

Elizabeth's shoulders slumped a bit, which annoyed Rodney more than it should have. "It's not like we're destroying anything! If we find a ZPM tomorrow, we'll haul the cyclic heat generator out of the ocean and use the pieces to rebuild the broken towers. Well of course, Radek's generator isn't actually built yet, but once it is. Anyway, I suspect Thrope and Mowbray will come whining to you immediately after my meeting, so I thought a heads up was the least I could do."

"Thank you," Elizabeth said formally, but for some reason she still looked a little shell-shocked.

Although there was no question Rodney was one hundred percent right, he still went to look up Sheppard before his appointment with Heightmeyer. He found him in the mostly-empty mid-morning mess, nursing a cup of coffee and noodling with the duty roster. He glanced up at Rodney's approach. "Hey there, McKay." Rodney instantly gave into the temptation to preen, swinging his left arm to demonstrate how well his shoulder worked now. Sheppard grinned. "Any reason you're not down in the lab this morning making Dr. Z.'s life miserable?"

Rodney sat down across the table. "Carson and Elizabeth called me in for a meeting."

Sheppard clucked in sympathy. Most of his attention was still on his laptop.

"Anyway, I was wondering if you -- how's your head?"

"Good as far as I know. Any reason it wouldn't be? Oh, you mean the headache I got after the garden room. Is that what Beckett and Weir cornered you over? I'm fine. It was gone before Beckett even let me out of the infirmary yesterday."

Rodney nodded. "Good. I was a little concerned. Well, no, actually I wasn't, not until this morning."

"Rodney, I'm touched."

"--because you wouldn't -- the thing is, they both implied -- actually they didn't imply, they flat out said you would be willing to go on with the garden room treatments even if they were dangerous. To you, I mean. Just as long as the room was helping me."

John shook his head. "I should go have a talk with Elizabeth. McKay, don't worry about it. Honestly. Does that sound like something I would do?"

"Let's see. Reckless disregard for your own safety?" Sudden realization struck hard. "Oh my god, they're right. It is exactly the sort of thing you would do."

"All right, stop. Not one step further with this. I don't want to end up with my brains dribbling out my ears any more than you do. Are you forgetting we're in there together?"

"No, right, of course. Of course. That's not the point. Well it is but--"

Sheppard reached across the table and grasped Rodney's wrist. "I mean it. Knock it off."

Rodney nodded too fast and tried not to say anything.

"There," Sheppard pushed his mug across the table. "Have some coffee. Take a deep breath. Not at the same time."

Rodney scowled, but not very seriously. He drank the cold coffee and took a few deep breaths. Neither helped.

"This is about your bad dreams, right? Because Rodney, it's no surprise you've had some after Silicis. Hell, I've had one or two doozies since then. I know it's no fun that they showed up in the garden room, but the truth is, the only scary thing I saw in there was you starting to freak out."

"Sorry about that," Rodney grumbled, annoyed.

"But come on, it's not your dreams that gave me a mother of a headache. That was just going back to the garden room too fast. Though you know, it probably was your dream that made your heart rate jump up enough to scare Carson the way it did. "

Rodney hadn't thought about it in that light. "So you didn't see -- Did you notice what color the door was?"

"When we were both tripping through the Shire? You mean the door Dr Z. was working on?"

"After that one. Around the corner."

Sheppard frowned, thinking. "There was another door?"

"There were doors all along that tunnel!"

"Yeah, I know. Calm down. I remember them, but I don't remember what color they were. Just door-colored, I guess."

Rodney sat back. "You really didn't notice," he finally said, as much to himself as to Sheppard.

"You obviously did. What color was it?"

It was on the tip of Rodney's tongue to tell him -- because how could anybody have missed that blazingly red, RED door?--but Sheppard hadn't even noticed. Weren't pilots supposed to have good eyes ? The clear implication was, even when they were sharing the same dream, it was still all in Rodney's head. He pushed himself away from the table. "You know something? You're right."

"Really?" Sheppard drawled, one eyebrow climbing towards his hair. "You sure you want to go on the record with that?"

Rodney didn't bother to respond to that crack. "I'm late for an appointment with Heightmeyer. I'll just have her wash out all the clutter still rattling around from Pompsukos' entertaining stint as Dr. Frankenstein, and the next time we use the garden room it'll be fine."

"Right," John said slowly, "because psychiatry is so similar to your basic coin operated laundry."

"What?"

"I don't think you can just feed your quarters into the machine and choose the delicate cycle. "

Rodney was on his feet, ready to get moving "So it's not like a laundromat?"

"I just mean there's no hurry. You don't need to push your recovery now, right? We've got time."

"That's what Carson thinks," Rodney agreed without enthusiasm.

"Hey, Radek said he might stop by after dinner tonight. He expects the labs to be a zoo after your meeting this afternoon. You should come by if you like. Work on relaxing."

"Wait a minute." Rodney was already walking away, but once he'd processed what John had said he turned on his heel. "Wait a minute. Is this like a Masonic handshake?"

John just grinned at him

Chapter 15

Johnny B. Goode

Radek was right, per usual. McKay's decision to put the kebosh on Thrope and Mowbry's reconstruction proposal hit Sciences like a bombshell. For the next several days, every time every John ventured into the mess hall he found himself surrounded by really loud, really angry conversations about power consumption and the expedition's responsibility to the legacy of the Ancients. He mostly tried to keep his head down, and made a cheerfully cowardly point of staying far, far away from the linguists and anthropologists.

Zelenka was looking drawn and skittish most of the time, as though he expected one of the losing parties to take a swing at him for having designed the heat generator in the first place. John honestly didn't expect violence, but maybe it didn't hurt to make sure the Marine patrols were just that much more conspicuous for the next week or two.

McKay, on the other hand, was in fine form. There was nothing like being in the middle of a fight to put the roses back in his cheeks. Catching a glimpse of him powering down a corridor with a computer proudly tucked under his left arm, flanked by a furiously argumentative Simpson and Kavanaugh, John thought they really should have gotten McKay back into the labs before now.

He was off his sleeping pills, and he said the nightmares and sleepwalking had ended. With a bulldoggish determination to give credit where credit was due that John found kind of cute, Rodney said that he was religiously practicing Kate Heightmeyer's abdominal breathing exercises to lower his stress. John was impressed -- Heightmeyer must have been very careful to avoid any mention of ego or the subconscious when she taught Rodney the technique. Due to an unfortunate late-night conversation about the final episode of MASH, John had learned more than he'd ever wanted or needed to know about McKay's opinion of the Freudian model of consciousness.

Come to think of it, that was the same night McKay had ruined Back to the Future for John, too. Seeing that he wasn't getting anywhere complaining about the idiocy of the time-traveling DeLorean, Rodney had abruptly changed tactics. "All right, fine. Obviously you can ignore blatant scientific nonsense in the middle of an alleged science fiction movie. Can even you forgive Zemeckis for having a little white kid from the suburbs invent rock guitar?"

"That didn't happen," John protested, before thinking about it. "Oh yeah, it kind of did, didn't it?"

"Mmm," McKay confirmed with that smug grin that always sort of made John want to pop him one. Well, these days it actually made him want to kiss that smugness off his face. He'd never had a lover like Rodney. Brash, impatient, and not infrequently a little rude, but so intent, while still being cautious as a cat on a wet kitchen floor. As though it was a dream from which he might awake at any minute. Sharing him with Radek made it all seem a little unreal to John, too. He didn't have a way to think about a relationship like this. No models fit; there were no plans, no understandings or expectations.

The night before last, McKay had gone down on John for the first time, being so serious and careful he might have been repairing a puddlejumper. Radek had knelt behind McKay, caressing his head and kissing his neck, and afterwards McKay had been so pleased with himself that Radek could only roll his eyes and John had collapsed flat on his back, still trembling from his orgasm, and laughed until he cried. He stopped worrying what this was or what would happen to them. It was enough that McKay was happy, even if John suspected that it had as much to do with the glorious knock-down, drag-out with half the science department as it did with the fact that he was getting some.

McKay was walking more easily, even in advance of further treatments in the garden room. He'd thrown himself into physical therapy with a fervor that clearly surprised Beckett, and he was meeting Teyla after lunch most afternoons they weren't off-world to work on those Athosian preparation for movement exercises.

John was even thinking it wouldn't be much longer before McKay could rejoin the team on missions, and the thought was like champagne, the way it bubbled so pale and cheerful through through his mind. By the time McKay was finally cleared for another session in the garden room, John was almost as impatient as Rodney.

This time Beckett insisted on as many monitors on John as McKay had. That was all right, and even seemed to quell some of McKay's standard complaints, although he still groused with energy at Beckett's time limit for the garden room - ninety seconds this time. Beckett looked pointedly at John, however, and Rodney fell silent with a mostly-unrepentant glare. John was always on the lookout for ways to get one over on McKay, but he decided he didn't like being used as the tool himself.

"Don't worry," he said cheerfully, swatting the back of Rodney's shoulder. "After everything goes all right this time, I bet Carson will go hog wild and let us try for a big 120 seconds next time."

"Ow," Rodney complained. "And at this rate I'll be using the garden room to repair the ravages of old age before we finish fixing all Pompsukos' damage."

He wasn't any happier about the minimal therapy Beckett had scheduled for this go-round either, a single, simple balance exercise. John kind of agreed with Rodney on that. Wouldn't it make more sense to do something more energetic? Jogging or maybe stair stepping? But this had all been thrashed out ahead of time, of course, and there was no point in arguing about it now. So he sat back and let Rodney grumble about the cruelty of the universe in general and Scottish doctors in particular, and dutifully practiced with McKay when Carson gestured him forward. Not that he had a whole lot to do. Basically, Rodney stood on his left leg as long as he could, and grabbed John's shoulders for balance. It did sort of seem a waste of resources.

The morning was cold on Atlantis, a mist clinging at ground level to muffle the lower windows in the garden room. Higher up, the fog dissipated until the blue green glass sparkled like gemstones as far above them as John could see. It was the first time there had been no wispy clouds drifting within the garden room, its strange gabled roof blurred only by distance. It occurred to him to wonder what he would see if he were to fly a puddlejumper near enough to peek through those sky-high windows. He had the funny notion that it might not look anything like the view from the inside.

Zelenka finished checking his instruments to his satisfaction -- or perhaps just got tired of Rodney pointing out over and over again that none of them really knew what they were doing here -- and gave the two minute warning. Rodney stood up, looking a little nervous, braced himself against the chair and shook out his leg as though he intended to start sprinting around the room.

"You all right, McKay?"

"Fine." The chin came out. "Teyla's been helping me with balance."

"Great. This is all old hat to you, then."

"The thing is, I hadn't actually realized I had a problem until then. Everything's been getting better and easier, and it wasn't until she showed me I couldn't even stand on one leg that I realized what a long way I had to go before."

"Before?"

McKay crossed his arms over his chest. "Go ahead and laugh, but I thought it wouldn't be too much longer before I could go through the gate with the team again."

John whapped Rodney on the shoulder again, gently this time. "I'm looking forward to getting you back, too."

"Really?" Rodney looked surprised and terribly pleased. And just a touch suspicious, as though he wouldn't put it past John to suddenly produce a can of snakes.

"Of course really," John snorted. "Don't be an idiot."

"Well, right. Who wouldn't be eager to have me back on his team?"

"That's better. Now let's see some hot balancing action." Rodney scowled, but took a deep breath obediently enough and lifted his left knee. John held out his forearm in case Rodney needed it, but his balance was steady. "Good job," he said, honestly pleased.

"It's not that exciting," Rodney grumbled. "The left side is still the kicker. Or isn't, actually. That's the whole problem." He brought his left leg down in preparation for standing on it, and reached out to grasp John's forearms with both hands. Beyond the overhanging eaves of Atlantis' wide front porch, John could see storm clouds massing past the line of houses on the next hill.

"Probably going to rain," he said, trying to distract Rodney from his angry concentration. The exercise was good, but surely he needed to relax a little, too.

"Goddammit, "Rodney muttered, but he slowly removed his hands from John's forearm. "I hate these spring thunderstorms. We'll have to unplug every computer in the house."

"What was the point in investing in all those surge protectors?" John asked, mostly in the hope of winding Rodney up so he wouldn't notice he was balancing on his left leg as cool as a flamingo.

"Fine, leave your computer plugged in if you want to be a jackass about it. Not that it'll do you any good, since if you think for one minute that I'm going to leave you networked - Hey." Rodney had finally noticed. "Look at this."

"I know," John grinned. "Pretty slick."

Rodney stood on his right foot again, then his left. His smile spread from ear to ear just as lightning flashed across a sky that had suddenly turned purple with thunderheads. Every rafter under the eaves cast a sudden, stark black shadow.

"Oh good grief," Rodney complained. He walked to the end of the porch, bracing himself against one of the sandstone columns to watch the roiling sky. "Do you know how long this is supposed to last?"

"Sorry. Haven't listened to a weather report today."

"What do you guess I'll be kissing an entire day of work goodbye?" He stumped back to the front door and let himself in. John followed.

The low pitched roof, broad eaves and all the exposed woodwork meant Atlantis' living room was a little dim even on the sunniest days. With the storm moving in, it was positively gloomy. Though the lamps had all been turned on, the amber glow through mica shades did little to brighten the dusk. Rodney grumbled about finding some flashlights before the power went out, and started unplugging the stack of CPUs arranged on inglenooks on either side of the stone fireplace.

"Aren't there a couple under the sink?" John asked.

"Unless somebody moved them," Rodney said direly. John grinned and went to look, stopping to unplug a laptop that had been left powering up in the breakfast nook. Rain was pouring off the roof in sheets, and thunder was a low, constant grumble in the distance. Kind of like Rodney, John thought, still grinning.

"Found one!" he called to Rodney. "I'll light a couple of candles, too. Do you know if Radek's around? We should probably make sure everything is unplugged in his office."

Lighting flashed very close as John walked back through the dining room, making the blue and white tiles glow for a moment. Thunder crashed an instant later, drowning out whatever Rodney was saying. The power flickered but didn't go out altogether, and now John could hear Rodney. Constant, cheerfully voluble cursing. He found him in the office on the other side of the living room, struggling to pull one of the double-hung windows closed. The dark oak seemed to swallow up the meager lighting in the room. John put the flashlight down and stepped up to help. They yanked the sash down together with a crash. The pulley and weight rattled ominously behind the walls.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," Rodney said irritably. "Go make sure Radek's computer is turned off and unplugged. Is that the only flashlight you could find?" He managed to make it very clear everything from the storm to the paucity of flashlights were all John's fault.

"How many do you need?" John asked without any expectation of an answer beyond the one he got.

"Well, in case you wanted one." Rodney picked it up.

"Uh huh. On my way to check Dr. Z.'s stuff."

"Hurry."

"Right, hurrying," John muttered under his breath. He was halfway up the stairs when the power blinked twice and then stayed out.

"Oh, goddammit," Rodney complained from behind him in the dark house. "What did I tell you?"

John put his hand on the wall to steady himself and made his way carefully to the top of the stairs in the dark. The second story of Atlantis was half the size of the first, two bedrooms on either side of the house, a small attic under the eaves and an even smaller closet on the other side. Now that he stood hesitating at the top of the stairs, though, John found it inexplicably difficult to orient himself. The door to the attic was only a dozen steps ahead. He ought to be able to simply reach out his left hand and touch the door of the bedroom Radek had been using as an office for more than two years now. Atlantis was as familiar as the back of his hand.

Except it wasn't anymore, and he couldn't figure out what was wrong. He had a ghost memory of blue flowers that made no sense at all, and finally, disgusted with himself, he felt for Zelenka's door, found the knob, and pushed it decisively open.

The smell told him at once that he'd gotten the room wrong after all. Wet and musty, the scent of old clothes, books and papers stored under the rafters for a generation (maybe for ten thousand years). Gray light filtered through the dormer window at the far end. He could just make out the outlines of crates and sea chests, hat boxes and old furniture. A narrow aisle crawled between the clutter to the window, in front of which sat a single rocking chair. It was ridiculous, but John had a sudden, deeply unpleasant idea about what might have sat up here rocking in the dark for so many years.

"Sheppard!" Rodney's voice rang up from the depths of the house.

"Coming," John muttered, unwilling to shout in response. He turned away from the attic just as lightning struck again. The white flash was blinding. He was still blinking away the spots from in front of his eyes as the answering roll of thunder burst across his eardrums. Further away this time. The storm was moving off.

Then he realized he was still looking at the rocking chair in front of the attic window and felt a scream trying to crawl up his throat. He had turned away from the attic, he was absolutely certain. He shuffled forward a single, reluctant step as the pale light from Rodney's flashlight stabbed up the stairwell. "Colonel! What are you doing?"

Worst of all, he could just see the outlines of a rain-colored figure shuffling down the hall between the attic and himself. He reached out cautiously, his eyes open so wide they felt like glass marbles in his sockets. He thought the only thing that kept him from shrieking out loud was his certainty that if he did, it would give poor Rodney a coronary.

And then he realized what he was seeing, and the choked-off scream turned into mostly-hysterical burble of laughter. "Colonel?" Rodney called again, more urgently. "John!"

Whoa, John thought, trying to stop laughing. He must sound pretty bad. Rodney didn't even call him John in bed. Maybe they should work on that. "It's all right," he called back, his voice still sounding a little squeaky. "I'm looking at the mirror on the closet door. Surprised me in the dark."

The storm had to be moving away, because the reflection of the attic window was no longer uniformly gray, but streaked with the red of sunset. Rodney was still yelling something, his flashlight spilling angry jerks of light around the upstairs hall as he pounded up the stairs. John reached out to touch the mirror, but to his surprise, it felt nothing like glass.

The information from the monitors was unequivocal, but Carson wasn't ready to believe it, even running across the vast expanse of the garden room with Zelenka frantic at his side. Rodney was sprawled awkwardly across the ground, and Sheppard might well be hidden by the clutter of scattered equipment.

The truth became inescapable as they drew nearer. Zelenka was muttering furiously in Czech as Carson dropped to his knees beside Rodney. He'd taken the precaution this time of having an IV port already in place, and it was a damn good thing because the way his hands were shaking, he would hardly have trusted himself to find the vein now. Zelenka was bent over the tangle of leads that had been monitoring Sheppard's vitals. His radio lay a short distance away

Of the colonel himself, there was no sign at all.

Chapter 16

The Red Door

It was entirely obvious to Radek that McKay wasn't paying attention. At least, not any more than the bare minimum necessary to pretend he was present and accounted for, and to ensure that Beckett wouldn't bundle him back off to the infirmary.

He was quite coolly awful to Dr. Heightmeyer, saying, "We knew the activation of the garden room had a powerful psychological component." He didn't even raise his voice. "But I still chose to believe that breathing from my diaphragm would be sufficient to overcome the trauma of surviving electrocution by a madman."

Heightmeyer only thinned her lips.

He was no worse to Radek.

"If Dr. Zelenka had pinpointed the blind spot in the sensor array when we first became aware of it a month ago, no doubt we would be able to find the Colonel now, but I assumed he was continuing to track the problem in his capacity as acting head of Sciences, and consumed, I'm sorry to say, by my own health issues I failed to follow up personally."

It wouldn't have fooled John. The little act didn't fool Radek, either, but Dr. Weir, if she noticed, seemed disinclined to call McKay on it.

Radek let it go as well, at least for now. Their working theory was that the garden room was a transportation device, and the Colonel was still alive, just lost somewhere in the city. Rodney had been unconscious for more than twenty minutes afterwards, and was still white-faced and too shaky to complain about the insufficiency of Carson's hovering. Supposing the colonel to be in the same state, if he had been dropped off far from a standard transporter, he would be looking at a very long walk back.

So if Rodney wasn't paying attention during this meeting to determine the most efficient way to mount a foot search of the entire city for an incommunicado, presumably wounded Colonel Sheppard, then it had to be because he had another idea, too nebulous yet to reduce to words.

That, at least, was Radek's sincere hope. It made no sense that the colonel wasn't showing up on the sensors, and the other possibilities were almost too awful to contemplate. John might be dead, disintegrated by that ominous final energy spike. That same spike might have so scrambled Rodney's brains he couldn't think straight any more.

The meeting was as brief as possible, of course. The dissection of what, precisely, had gone so atrociously wrong would wait until John, God willing, was back safe and sound. Major Lorne was first out the door, his search teams already being assembled. Radek hesitated, wondering -- hoping, in fact -- that Rodney would accompany him back the the lab. Right now he had no new ideas about the failure of the sensors and no immediate plans beyond another (surely fruitless) re-calibration exercise. Despite McKay's criticism, Radek had been investigating the sensors' inability to find McKay while he was sleepwalking during his spare and not-so-spare time ever since. He still had nothing of any use.

But after standing with barely-concealed impatience to listen to some quiet words from Elizabeth, Rodney snapped, "Of course I don't blame myself for this! Wallowing in sackcloth and ashes doesn't find the colonel any faster, does it?" and stomped away in the direction of his quarters.

More than eight hours passed before Radek saw McKay again. He showed up in the lab as quiet as a ghost. Radek saw the reflection in his monitor before he turned around and realized he was at his shoulder. "Rodney! How are you feeling?"

"I need an update on your progress."

"They are coordinating the search teams from the Control Room."

"Yes, and that's where I would have gone if I had any interest in the progress of the goon squads flat-footing it around Atlantis. Come with me."

"Rodney, I cannot just walk away from--"

"Oh, so you do have some progress to report? Pray tell me, why isn't Colonel Sheppard showing up on your scans?"

"We are working on several hypotheses now," Radek began, but he stopped himself almost immediately. "The truth is, I still do not know."

"Clearly." Rodney turned and walked out the door, obviously expecting Radek to follow. Stopping only long enough to pick up his computer, he did.

"Where are we going?"

Rodney didn't answer until they reached the transporter. "My quarters."

"Why?"

"I'm going to sleep. You're going to watch me."

"Why on earth -- Rodney." The truth was a hard wrench. "Rodney, you think that you can sleepwalk your way to John's side?" He stopped dead in his tracks. "I am sorry. We do not have time for this."

Rodney whirled around. "Don't you dare --"

"Colonel Sheppard does not have time for this."

"You're fucking right he doesn't! You can send me back to earth afterwards, kick me out of the Stargate program, lock me up in Dr. Jackson's padded room, I don't care, but right now you and I are going to find John if I have to drag you kicking and screaming every step of the way!"

Radek hesitated another moment, but now it was simply to grieve for John and Rodney both.

Then he followed Rodney into his quarters.

Rodney immediately flopped down on his unmade bed. "You'll need to stay close to me when I start moving," he announced. "If I make it to the transporter ahead of you this will all be for nothing. I've never been able to get through the red door by myself. Not that I wouldn't manage it eventually, I'm sure, but now that Sheppard is actually there we don't have time to waste."

"Of course," Radek murmured, taking a seat at Rodney's desk chair.

Rodney's head turned on the pillow, and he eyed Radek shrewdly. "Pompsukos thought his Wraith-proofing device would strip electrons from Ancient building materials and bond them to the subject, making him, for reasons that remain more than a little obscure, safe from Wraith attack."

"Yes, I remember." All too well, in fact. He could still see Rodney wrapped in a white sheet, blood on his face, sparks leaping across the filigreed metal cage around him. "Pompsukos was also insane."

"Granted. But I think he wasn't entirely wrong."

"Mmm-hmm," Radek could not hide his skepticism, even when he was here only because he could not abandon so dear a friend. "So you really are the human cathode?"

Rodney bent his left arm. "Maybe not coated with amazing Wraith-repelling metal -- which is too bad because it would be kind of cool--but there's no question my brain was affected, specifically the raphe nuclei. The neurotransmitters travel from there along the medial forebrain bundle to activate the hypothalamus. Exactly where Carson's MRIs showed the greatest amount of cellular necrosis."

"Sadly, there is no question Pompsukos' device caused brain damage," Radek agreed unhappily.

Rodney snorted in disgust. "The point being, that's not all it did."

"You believe passing an electrical current through Ancient building material close to you somehow changed certain neurotransmitters?"

"Yes, exactly. It's too bad I'm no witchdoctor or I'd have a better explanation for this. Or possibly not. Along with all the damage, mucking with my neurotransmitters also made me sensitive to Ancient structures. It turns out there's a damn good reason the Ancients classed architecture and medicine together. To the Ancients, they were the same thing. Their buildings, their bodies -- there's no meaningful distinction here. And Radek, the Ancients transcended their physical bodies."

Radek rose to his feet, excitement prickling along his scalp like another electrical current. "My God! Atlantis ascended, too!"

"English, Radek, if you don't mind." Having made his point, Rodney rolled onto his back again and laced his fingers together over his stomach. "The healing in the garden room takes place in that ascended, non-corporeal Atlantis. I've seen it in my dreams. It's where John is now. And that's where we're going to go find him."

Radek fell back into his chair. "Rodney, it would explain why you and John disappeared from the sensors. But the whole idea... This is insane."

"Fitting, coming from a brain damaged man, isn't it?" Rodney said bitterly. "If you think you can do more good re-calibrating the sensors for the thousandth time, then by all means, go. I'll get Sheppard out by myself."

Radek stood up. Rodney's eyes closed in resignation, only to pop open again when Radek sat down on the end of the bed. "Move over."

"What? Why?"

The man would never change. Radek pushed at his shoulder until Rodney grudgingly scooted over enough for Radek to stretch out beside him. "Because I am going with you."

"You know the worst thing about all this?" Rodney said some time later, clearly on the very cusp of sleep.

"What would that be, Rodney?"

"Thrope and Mowbray were right all along. We have to repair Atlantis. I think the damage to the physical form is causing problems with the ascended manifestation as well. God, linguists make me nuts." With that, he turned his head and kissed Radek's mouth, and promptly fell asleep.

For the first few hours, Radek lay easily awake at McKay's side, torn between wanting to believe every word he said and fighting with an engineer's heart that told him people ascended, not buildings, certainly not entire cities.

Except, aside from the Ancients themselves (and if the rumors were to be believed, the occasional linguist) people didn't actually have ascendant forms either. Not in Radek's personal experience.

The hours passed. Rodney snored. Around 0200 Radek gingerly got back out of bed and checked the status of the ongoing re-calibration project. He opened his laptop and picked up his own work again, at least as much as he could accomplish from a remote work station. Which was actually quite a lot. Radek spared a few moments to be ashamed of himself for having wasted hours resting in Rodney's bed when John was still lost. Then he got back to work.

By 0400 Radek was seriously considering going back to the lab to see if tweaking the sensors' search algorithms again would make any difference and hesitating because one, he knew it would not, and two, he had promised Rodney he would wait. Then Rodney rolled over again. That in itself meant nothing. Radek had learned this night that Rodney was a very restless sleeper. But then he sat up straight in bed. His eyes were open, and he was methodically freeing himself from the tangled bedclothes.

"Rodney," Radek called softly. "Are you awake?"

No answer. Radek's heart began thumping in his chest. He caught up as Rodney exited his quarters at a fast clip. "I will just take your hand," Radek breathed, and carefully wrapped his fingers around Rodney's right palm. He dreaded awakening him, but the possibility of losing him amongst Atlantis' endless predawn corridors was just as bad.

Apparently he need not have worried. Rodney's much larger hand immediately closed over Radek's. "Hurry," he muttered, tugging.

"Yes, yes, I am right here. Rodney, are you awake?"

"You're not making any sense, Jeannie. We've got to hurry."

OK, not altogether awake, then.

Rodney kept a tight grip on Radek's hand as he pulled him into the transporter. Radek watched carefully, but Rodney simply chose a destination near the control room, as if this were an ordinary day, and they were on their way to grab a cup of coffee or two from the mess before going to bedevil Elizabeth about the latest unreasonable security strictures.

A brief moment of disorientation, and when the doors opened they were one corridor over from the mess, a flight up from the medical lab. Radek could hardly contain his disappointment although, honestly, what else could he have expected?

"Rodney. Stop. Wake up." Rodney kept pulling on his hand, but Radek dug in his heels. Finally he turned. Rodney's eyes looked very bright and alert for a somnambulist.

"For chrissakes, don't tell me you're going to get cold feet now."

"You are awake. "

Rodney rolled his eyes. "As awake as you are, which frankly doesn't seem to be saying very much right now."

"Where are you going?"

"We already talked about this. Do you have short term memory issues I should know about?"

Radek squeezed his eyes shut. He needed sleep, and since that wasn't going to happen for a long time, he needed food and coffee, and he also needed the patience of the saints. "I see," he said slowly. He took off his glasses, cleaned them on the tail of his shirt and looked around himself. "So this is Atlantis Ascendant." He knew he was being an asshole, but Jesus. Even he, Radek Zelenka, finally had his limits.

McKay turned. Radek braced himself for sarcasm or rage, but Rodney simply looked a little confused. Radek had a moment to wonder if he were truly awake after all before Rodney asked in a very mild voice, "Where do you think you are?"

"We are further away from the mess than needed if you wanted coffee before going to the Control Room, but close enough to Carson's office for a piece of shortbread, assuming, of course, that he has not yet become tired of your shameless mooching. Where do you think we are?"

McKay grabbed the shoulder of Radek's shirt and dragged him down the the hall without another word. Columns of water bubbled against the walls, seeming to glow through the murk. The very shadows had a breathless quality of darkness. He felt a cold prickle at the nape of his neck and tried to pull away from Rodney. He was willing to humor him in much, but he was slowly becoming convinced that something was very wrong here. "Rodney--"

McKay yanked him around the next bend in the winding corridor and kept going. He was bigger and stronger than Radek and seemed entirely willing to use those advantages against him. Radek had wrapped both hands in the neck of his own shirt, simply trying at this point to keep McKay from inadvertently choking him. Or perhaps not entirely inadvertently. As Radek's feet skidded on the smooth tile, he had the horrible idea that the brain damage might be more serious than anyone had believed.

"Rodney, please," he gasped. "Where are we going?"

The enclosed corridor suddenly spilled out into a vast, arcaded plaza. Stars sparkled with mad extravagance across the overarching sky. Radek stumbled forward, not realizing at first that Rodney had released him. He felt as astonished and overwhelmed as he had taking his first steps into Atlantis through the Stargate.

Except, this was not Atlantis. He had never seen this place before, and he did not know those stars.

Fifteen or twenty steps before him, a curving balustrade lined the entire plaza. Zelenka could not see beyond it, but he wondered, trembling, if he walked forward those few steps, if he would look down upon an ocean as unfamiliar as the stars above.

He could not do it. Not to save his own life. Possibly not even to save Rodney's.

Rodney, who'd had a vision of Atlantis in the nightmare carriage ride back from Silicis. Radek had come back from stretching his aching legs in time to see Rodney writhing in despair on the padded carriage seats, using all the energy he had left to tell them they had gotten Atlantis utterly wrong.

And so they had. They had missed -- almost everything. Maybe they would still have time to make matters right (to make Atlantis right), but first things first.

"Rodney," he said, "We must take John away from this place."

McKay didn't even spare the breath for a told-you-so, ducking under a dark arch. Radek followed, finding himself in the corridor that led to the ground level of the Control Room.

Except the entrance was blocked by a door that would have looked more at home in his Uncle Jiri's Prague apartment than it did here in Atlantis. Cheap brass doorknob and hinges, hollow wood paneling. Someone had done a recent and very sloppy job of painting it. The paint was still tacky to the touch.

"Well, go ahead," Rodney made hurry-up gestures with both hands. "Always before John has been on the other side."

This was Rodney's red door. Radek had been expecting something far more imposing. This barrier looked so quick and inadequate, it made his flesh crawl. As little as he wanted to touch it again, he dropped his hand and tried the knob. It rattled a bit. "Locked," Radek said. "From the other side."

"Oh, god, of course it is." McKay looked like his legs were about to give out and propped himself hard against the wall.

"But all is hardly lost," Radek asserted as stoutly as he could, and retrieved his screwdriver instead of going to Rodney's aid. Right now, he suspected getting through the door would do more for McKay than empty reassurance.

"We've got to hurry." Rodney sounded more than half-frantic. "I've seen John die on the other side of that door.

"That will not happen tonight," Radek snapped, just as he finished unscrewing the door knob. The knob and the plate both hit the floor with a clatter, but when Radek pushed, nothing happened. It must be dead-bolted from the other side.

At that, Rodney's legs really did give out. He slid down the wall to land in a heap. "It's that fucking gene of his," Rodney moaned. "Clever enough to trap him here, too dumb to show him the way out again. "

And we are not doing any better, Radek thought, but he attacked the hinges with energy.

"That's not going to help either," McKay snarled weakly. "It's not actually a goddammed wooden door."

The uppermost hinges fell, leaving ugly holes torn through half-rotten wood. Radek dropped to his knees to remove second set. "Then tell me what it is, Rodney, so that we can figure a way through it, because right now--"

The second set of hinges dropped, Radek jumped to his feet and put his shoulder to the door. Nothing. Nothing. He might as well have been trying to push over the Stargate. He beat on the door with both hands. "Colonel Sheppard! John!"

"You're wasting your energy!" Rodney screamed, as close to despair as Radek had ever heard him. "You're wasting your breath."

"And what would you have me do?" Radek screamed back at him. "You've been here many more times than I! If you do not know what this door truly is, how do you expect --"

And then Radek had a thought. His legs gave out like Rodney's had, and he slid down until he was sitting, too. "What did you say about this place? That the damage to the physical Atlantis --"

Rodney shook his head. "I think it must be like moral failings in an Ancient. Ascension doesn't make them better. Just transmutes their flaws into a different form. The physical damage to Atlantis shows up here in a different form, too. It's why the garden room didn't work the way it should've, why my visits here have all been nightmares -- oh."

Radek got it at the same moment. He sat up very straight, then pushed himself to his knees to look at the door behind him. "My God. This door is all the physical damage we have inflicted upon Atlantis since our arrival."

"How do you expect anyone to understand you if you don't speak English?" Rodney snapped unreasonably. "And how the hell can we fix everything fast enough to get the Colonel out? Hey, do you understand me?" He wasn't talking to Radek anymore. "We're working on it but it's gonna take a little time! I'm sorry about the flood damage and the wind damage, but you were built to be so utterly fucking dependent on shield protection, it's no wonder we're stretched a little thin these days! And by the way, the Wraith bombardment? Darts crashing into the city? Totally not our fault!"

"Rodney. Rodney." Radek had to resist his first impulse, which was to clamp his hand over Rodney's big mouth, and instead touched his shoulder very gently. The element of surprise worked. Rodney's mouth snapped shut and he turned his head to look at Zelenka in mute astonishment. "Do you remember the first weeks of our arrival, when we all assumed we would come across a ZPM, oh, just any day for sure--"

Rodney stared at him, clearly uncomprehending, but Radek left his hand on his shoulder, and Rodney didn't interrupt. "And we were all too excited to simply go to bed at a reasonable hour so we sat up all night going through the coffee supplies like there was no tomorrow and talking about what we would do when power and basic survival were no longer such pressing concerns and you still hadn't managed to figure out what my name was, you bastard."

"Those observatory satellites we found in storage," Rodney said suddenly. "We never have been able to risk a launch. We'd be able to see to the end of the universe if they were in orbit."

"The substrata of the east pier," Radek said. "So much was lost before the city rose. We still can't explore that region, and I am convinced our understanding of the secondary power systems will remain bitterly incomplete until we can examine them."

"The collapsed tower way the hell over in C-7."

"I do not remember that," Radek said. "Where the computer damage continually frustrates our ability to work around the Ancients' concept of database?"

"Wrong side of the city. I mean the building with all the manufacturing schematics."

"You think they were schematics," Radek amended sternly, and with his hand on Rodney's shoulder they argued companionably about the priority of repair work as though they could truly give fire to something that had waited alone in the dark for a very, very long time. At length, a dim, reddish sun rose slowly into view through the skylight overhead. Rodney flinched at the color, but didn't stop talking until the red door suddenly swung open half a crooked meter on its non-existent hinges.

"John!" Radek was on his feet at once, Rodney only a moment later, and together they pulled Sheppard through the uneven gap, Radek thinking it was a very good thing John was such a skinny son of a bitch. He folded into a bundle of dark rags at their feet, Rodney at once getting to his knees to support John's head.

"We'll have you in Carson's hands in just a minute here," he assured John, talking without taking a breath, "-- and you could certainly do worse, even I have to admit. You're going to be all right. The transporter always worked before. It'll get us back this time, too."

John took a deep breath, as though he'd been waiting to do that for a very long time. Radek thought he was about to say something, but his eyes drifted shut again before he could speak. Rodney bent over deeply to kiss John's pale forehead. When he sat up again, his eyes were swimming with unshed tears and he glared defiantly at Radek, who only shook his head. He put his finger over Rodney's lips and felt the tremor.

"Please, Rodney. If you know the way home, I believe we are ready to go."

End.

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January 2007