Challenge: 010 "Reversed"
Pairing: John Sheppard/Rodney McKay
Rating: PG for the story, light R for the art (nudity)
Length: about 4,000 words
Thanks: To siriaeve for story audiencing and dogeared for story beta
Teaser: John. The name seems solid if not familiar, a passable identity – nothing about it makes him cringe, at least, and he's been called other things (he thinks) these past few days that weren't so benign.
"I found him."
The words roll and echo around the almost-empty cell, chased by a crackle of static and the shuffle of heavy boots.
John. The name seems solid if not familiar, a passable identity – nothing about it makes him cringe, at least, and he's been called other things (he thinks) these past few days that weren't so benign.
Is that his name?
He cracks open his eyes a fraction, winces at the light that makes his brain shock, recoil. There's a man crouched five feet away, watching, waiting, and there ought to be fear crashing hard through aching lungs and weakened limbs by now, but nothing comes. Strange, after everything. "Who're – " His throat is raw and he grimaces, shivering, naked against the rough, stone floor.
"Rodney. I'm . . . you're – "
John watches him, blinks to clear his vision and frowns at the weariness and anger that flash across the other's man's face. He knows anger – he might not remember much about how he got here but he remembers rage, can feel the slide of a needle and the burn of drugs that curled through his system on the sharp edge of taunts and snarls. It's enough to get him moving – enough to have him push his hands against the floor, drag his body backwards with his eyes on Rodney, waiting for him to strike.
Rodney just swallows, nods when John's back hits the wall. "I'm going to open my bag," he says, and there's a significant care to the way he's speaking that's damn confusing. "I have a blanket, I have . . ." He eases a backpack from his shoulders and sets it down, lets it rest a second before he tugs on the zippers. The blanket he pulls out is drab and green, and he shakes it out, shows John both sides before he tosses it toward him. "You're cold."
John doesn't move.
Rodney lets out a long unsteady breath, but doesn't break eye contact. "I'm not here to hurt you," he offers. "I think others must've – I think you've . . . considering what we found with the . . ." He waves a hand, but stills it when John flinches. "I'm not one of them."
John has no reason to believe him. He remembers too little to transform the shadows in his head into living figures, compare them to the man crouched across the room. He remembers words, voices raised in spite, but nothing more concrete – clothes, eye color, scars, hands. Yet something – an instinct no different from the bolt of self-preservation that backed him up against this wall – tells him this man's different. It's baffling and comforting all at once, the certainty in his gut when his memory is merely fog, but it gives him leeway enough to reach for the blanket, to pull it quickly toward him and cover his body. It isn't his nakedness that bothers him but simply that – as Rodney said – he's cold.
Rodney half-smiles, one corner of his tilted mouth twitching before he rummages in his bag again. "When did you last eat?" he asks, and his voice is deceptively light.
"Don't remember," John replies.
"Right." Rodney rips open colored foil and shows him the contents – John doesn't recognize what he sees. "Powerbar," Rodney says, and bites off a corner with sharp, white teeth. He chews and swallows before he tosses the remainder over to John. "It's safe. Not particularly tasty, I'll grant you, but I'd imagine anything will taste good after . . ." He lifts his chin. "Eat it slowly. Which I know is asking you to undo the habits of a lifetime, but you'll only vomit if you don't."
John extends a hand out from under the blanket, picks up the powerbar. Habits of a lifetime. "You know me." He sniffs the powerbar and nibbles one edge.
"Did you imagine I called you John because I've been looking for a pet inmate to adopt and name?" Rodney asks, words clipped, and John doesn't need memory to understand there's worry in that voice.
Rodney snorts. "Yes. I know you. You're my – " He closes his eyes and sighs. "Team member. We're team members, with Teyla and Ronon."
John tries out the names in his mind – they trigger nothing. "Team."
"We'll explain it all soon enough. And maybe once you're home, all of – " He waves his hand again, a larger sweep this time, as if to encompass not only the cell but whatever might have happened within it. " – this will fade and you'll . . . "
"Exactly." Rodney pulls a flask out of his backpack, unscrews the cap and takes a drink before he closes it fast and tosses it toward John. "Water. Sip."
The water's warm and tastes vaguely stale, but it's glorious, covering his tongue, sliding down his throat, and John gulps, can't help himself; he's craved this without knowing he was thirsty.
"Sip! I said sip!" Rodney snaps.
John pulls the canteen away from his mouth, gasping, and wipes his lips on the back of his hand. "It's good."
"I'm sure it is, but – "
John drinks again, greedy swallows, something desperate clawing up from inside him, urging him to take what he can before it's gone. He can feel the water running clean into his stomach; feel the press of it against muscles that have gone unused.
And when he bends over, retching, water rushing back into his mouth, bitter with bile, he doesn't regret it; isn't surprised when Rodney throws aside caution and kneels beside him; thinks – without knowing why – it's natural to grasp Rodney's hand, to throw up on the blanket and the floor, to hold on to this needed stranger with knuckles turned white, to close his eyes and let Rodney touch his face, whisper, "god, John, what did they do to you?"
When he wakes again he's in a new room he doesn't recognize, pale green walls a jigsaw of angled struts, stained glass windows scattering filtered light across the floor. He wants to bolt, to scope the exits, but his body won't respond to his command. Drugs, he thinks with the little clarity he has, and he won't do this again – twists his head and spots the tubes snaking to the back of his hand, reaches for them, grunts when he loosens one and feels the sharp, bright sting of torn skin cut through the chemicals clouding his mind.
"What are you . . . John!"
Hands more capable than his close around his wrists, hold them down. His vision is swimming, but if he focuses hard enough he can make out Rodney's face. "Drugs," he says, and he hopes he sounds sufficiently betrayed.
"To help you," Rodney answers earnestly. "To clean out whatever the hell it was they shot into your system. To hydrate you? Or would you rather turn into a desiccated corpse?"
Rodney's hard to figure out – his fingers are a little unsteady even while his hold's implacable, and his words are sharp, but his tone of voice is anything but. John lets his head fall back against the pillows. "No more drugs," he says, not entirely sure why he's giving in, why he isn't fighting. He's drugged, he's weak, but he knows (somehow) he could win if he pitted his body against Rodney's – not punches, maybe (the idea seems wrong) but if it came to sweeping a foot behind Rodney's ankle, shoving him to send him sprawling across the floor, he could do that much, could get away. He doesn't. He closes his eyes.
Rodney breathes out slowly beside him. "Fine. Fine, you can go cold turkey, and you can claw up the walls if that's what you want. I suppose I can imagine why you'd . . ." He huffs. "But the IV line for fluids is staying, so just shut the hell up and deal with it."
John opens his eyes and scowls. "Whatever."
"Oh, good, junior high insults are coming back to you, that's exactly what I hoped you'd recover first." He lets go of John's hands and sticks his own under his armpits, scuffs one shoe against the floor.
John watches Rodney clench and release his jaw. "Grumpy," he observes eventually, and that earns him a sharp look.
"I should call a nurse," Rodney offers in an unhelpful non-sequitur. "Get someone to clean up your hand."
"So help me, I will . . ."
"You're big on threats," John observes dryly.
Rodney blinks and snorts a breath of laughter. "True," he says, reaching for the laptop he'd set down on an uncomfortable-looking chair. "I'm threats, you're follow-through."
John flinches, and knows Rodney sees it.
"It's your job," Rodney sighs, sitting down. "To boldly go where scientists have, happily, mostly, not gone before, except when we have, when I have, because god knows Zelenka does his level best to stay on base and I'm hardly going to trust Bentley with the possibility of discovering Ancient artifacts that could be moderately, perhaps significantly useful in our attempt to run this place at full power for more than half a second, so I go, you take me, Ronon and Teyla generally prevent me from being shot too often, and I'm a lot better with a gun now than I was four years ago, so don't even think of remembering how bad a shot I was then before you remember the good stuff."
"Wow," John says, begrudgingly impressed. "You can talk."
"Yes, well, among my many talents. Ice chip?"
"Sure," John agrees, and if he feels a vague sense of belonging when Rodney's fingers skim his lips, brush against his chin, it's probably just his brain kicking in to welcome water in whatever form his body can accept.
Rodney proves hard to get rid of. There are thirty, forty minutes where John's brain feels clear before pain begins to build, and it's not enough time to figure out why Rodney's taken root in a chair that's obviously killing his back. A headache throbs dully at the base of John's skull, and Rodney just keeps tap-tap-tapping on his laptop. Even the doc – her name . . . Killer? No, Keller – can't get Rodney to budge. "You should sleep."
Rodney looks up from his computer to stare at her, dazed and incredulous. "Hi, have we met?"
"You've been two days in here, and however many before that . . . "
"Five," Rodney offers stiffly. "And I slept then."
"In the co-pilot's chair? Sure, for what, ten, fifteen minutes at a time?"
"Yes," Rodney says witheringly. "Because I've single-handedly worked out how to circumvent the body's need for sleep. Hello, genius? Survivor of more graduate school programs than you made it through – I'm capable of doing quite well on an hour, two on occasion . . ."
Keller folds her arms. "You're going to end up in my infirmary – "
"I'm in your infirmary now," Rodney points out churlishly.
" – using up valuable bed space and unable to come visit Colonel Sheppard," she finishes, chin tilted in challenge.
Rodney scowls and shifts in his chair. "I'm not leaving."
"You kinda look like shit," John offers helpfully, trying to speak quietly so as not to encourage the steady drumbeat of discomfort pummeling the back of his brain to get any louder.
Rodney turns toward him, eyes narrowed. "And you look like you just got done sparring with Agoth the Tall on PX7-989 after insulting his mother and getting smacked in the head by a gritya laying eggs mid-flight. You don't even remember who I am, so how you manage to think you have a vote here . . ."
"Fine, Mer," John drawls.
Rodney freezes. "You called me Mer."
"Why did you call me Mer?"
"Because it's . . . your name," John says, confused.
John wrinkles his nose. "Not really. It was just – there." He frowns. "Your name's Mer?"
"Only when you're trying to annoy me or you're my sister," Rodney says in a rush. "I mean – not that you're my sister, that doesn't make sense, but my sister calls me that to annoy me too, and you sort of picked up on it, like smallpox, but with fewer boils. . ." He crosses the room, hovers at the side of John's bed. "I'm not making any sense. Just so you know."
Rodney scrubs a hand over his face. "Anything else coming back?"
John shakes his head. "No."
Rodney pats his arm ineffectually. "That's okay. I mean – we can handle random. You can, right? Handle random? Will that make you freak out? It's hard to figure out what makes you freak out, since normally it's just – you know. Leaving someone behind. But this isn't – well. Unless we count your memory as someone. Which it is, in a metaphoric sense, I'm sure the anthropologists have books about that, the shrinks too, but, well, is this disconcerting? This has to be disconcerting, right?"
But John's barely listening, absorbed instead by the flash of pain in his temple, the glimpse of a ship – Hive his brain supplies – growing larger through the windshield of the craft he's flying and then the pain hits, white-hot down his spine, and he's grabbing Rodney's hand again, words burning out to dust as his body cramps and bucks.
John's not cognizant of the length of his withdrawal – time passes as a chill, an urgent sweating, cramps and trembling and a tumble of memories that rise through his gut with a sharp, vicious twist. He can't be sure where he is, who he's with, who's dead or alive, and he swears he feels himself aging, hurtling toward death with a knife in his chest and a pale face above him. He steadies only for Rodney's hands, hears Rodney's voice across some great distance – "we got you, it's over. It's over, John, you're not there now."
When he surfaces, it's night, and Rodney's fast asleep, face down on a cot that's been dragged into the room. There's an ache in John's bones that makes him wince as he shifts on sweat-dampened sheets, but he lies as quietly as he can, greedily gathering up silence to press into the noisy recesses of his mind. He's studying the art of the ceiling shadows when the door to his room slides open, and though he turns his head he makes no other noise until he frowns and murmurs "I know your face," receives a smile in return.
"I am Teyla," says the woman who crosses to sit beside him.
He feels as though he should apologize. "I don't remember that," he says.
"No matter," she answers. "How do you feel?"
John hitches one shoulder, not knowing how else to respond. He searches for words. "Wrung out." He looks around the room, at anything but Teyla. "Weird."
"I mean – I'm just . . ." He throws her a quick look, hoping she'll give him an out, but her expression's serene, even patient. "I don't . . . know why I'm so comfortable just letting things happen," he offers haltingly.
John shakes his head. "Everything." Teyla arches an eyebrow, and somehow he knows he's being prodded to keep talking. "Why I'm lying here, why I'm talking to you – it doesn't make sense. I shouldn't . . ."
Teyla smiles warmly. "Trust?"
John shifts in bed. "Maybe." He chews on his bottom lip. "You can't trust something you don't remember."
Teyla stands and leans in, rests her forehead against his, and something clicks inside him, floods his body with drowsy warmth. "You remember enough."
He huffs a breath of air at that, trying to cover his confusion. "Sure."
She pulls away and tilts her head. "I do not mean to suggest this situation is acceptable," she says gently. "I would like you to be whole. Complicated and stubborn as you choose." She smiles just a little. "But I have seen you scared, and right now you are not. I have watched you think tactically, plan rescues, escapes – and no such plan is presently on your mind."
John grimaces, feeling exposed. "Oh, yeah?"
"Yes." She covers his hand with her own. "You know enough to trust you are home now. It gives you, and us, a measure of peace."
John looks right and left, squirms awkwardly. "Are you always like this?"
She laughs softly. "I believe so."
"And I like you?"
She grins. "Very much."
He nods, unsteadied by her words. "So I'm . . . pretty tired." It's a lame excuse and he knows it.
"I will sit with you."
"You don't have to – "
Teyla settles back into the chair that, before now, only Rodney's seemed to use. "We have all been here at some point. To support Rodney as well as to watch over you."
"Sleep now." Teyla rolls her shoulders and pulls her feet up beneath her. "We will keep watch."
With little other choice, John closes his eyes again, and doesn't have time to register how quickly he falls asleep.
"No." John perches on the edge of his infirmary bed, not quite meeting Keller's eye.
Keller raises one eyebrow. "You need the exercise."
"Yeah, and I can go on my own." John feels something stubborn and determined lurking just beneath his words – he can taste it, kin to fear but a whole lot more useful. "It's a walk down a damn corridor. What could happen?"
"Stroke, seizure, collapse . . ."
John huffs and rolls his eyes. "Oh, c'mon . . ."
"You're not getting out of this room without someone with you, and Collins – "
"I don't trust Collins," John says, gritting his teeth.
That gets Keller's attention. "Why not?" she asks smoothly, reaching to twitch the corner of his blanket straight.
"How the hell do I know?" John asks, frustrated. "Man without a memory, remember?"
"Except when it comes to who you like and dislike," she says archly.
John tilts his head. "You think I'm faking?"
"That's not what I said . . ."
"No, really, because if that's what you're getting at – "
The door from the main ward slides open and Rodney ambles through, nose buried in a cup of coffee, tablet in his hand. He pauses when he realizes he's being stared at, swallows noisily. "Um – did I . . . interrupt?"
"Him," John says, pointing a finger and jerking his head so Keller gets the message. "I'll go with him."
"With me where?" Rodney asks.
Keller scrubs a hand over her face and throws a pleading look in Rodney's direction. "He needs exercise," she offers. "I suggested Collins to go with him and – "
"Collins?" Rodney repeats, frowning. "I thought we shipped him back? We were supposed to ship him back considering he's a two-bit moron with the intellectual capacity of road kill and a bedside manner he picked up from studying the Spanish Inquisition."
Keller tilts her head. "I hardly think – "
"He's a butcher! Refused me more pain medication after the accident on – "
"MP9-652," John says suddenly.
There's a moment of silence, as all eyes turn toward John. Rodney nods, the movement a little uneasy, a half-beat too late for the rhythm John thinks he was aiming for. "Right. The planet with the – "
And John stands. "Rockslide." His breath starts to come more quickly as he points a finger at Rodney's right leg. "Two fractures, gash about – " He gestures. " – this big."
"I lost – "
"A lot of blood," John nods. "And a tablet. And a sample of . . ." He shakes his head, wincing. "Naquadah? Raw form naquadah and Ronon got knocked out, it was just me and Teyla and . . ." He feels a cold rush of recognition. "Team – we . . . we work as a team," he says, and watches Rodney wet his lips.
"Yeah," Rodney says quietly.
"I think – " John turns to pace toward the windows, agitation a furious itching beneath his skin. He glances at Keller. "You're not the first doc, are you? We lost . . ." The name's just beyond his reach, cold and flint-sharp, a damp memory of rolling green hills and Rodney's unwavering silence. "Carson." The name escapes on a breath. "Carson. God – we lost Carson in the explosion and – "
Keller takes a step toward him, hand outstretched as if to make sure he won't startle. "I think you should sit down. Just for a moment, let me – "
"And Elizabeth. She – wore red?" John asks, turning toward Rodney, confused and frustrated by the imperfect fit of each piece of his broken past. "She yelled." He frowns. "Sometimes?"
"Only when we drove her to distraction," Rodney offers, voice soft.
"Gentlemen," Keller interrupts, voice firm. "We need to – "
"She's gone." And Keller falls silent as John rubs his forehead with fingers that feel clumsy and sore. "Why did I let her . . ."
"Hey." Rodney comes a couple of steps closer. "You had to get us out of there, and she ordered you . . ."
"Because I'm so great at listening to orders," John mutters, bitterly.
"Sometimes, yes," Rodney shoots back, uncowed. "And you owed her that. It was her choice."
"Her choice to just – "
"Hers," Rodney repeats, sounding almost angry.
John leans against the wall, memories tumbling back, one over the next, jagged and mismatched, enough to make him grimace. He lets his eyes close, clenches his teeth, tries to resist the force of it all, rushing from the crown of his head to the empty palms of his hands. "Rodney."
"Yes, yes, never could do anything by halves could you," Rodney says, and he's right there, fingers hooking beneath John's elbow. "Bed, you're pale as . . . something very pale, and you should – "
But John feels something shift and burn, fumbles with shaking hands and pulls Rodney's face to his own, rests their foreheads together. "I remember." Rodney's trembling, John realizes, a whisper-fine shimmer beneath his hands.
"Remember?" Rodney asks, and the tone of his voice is a laughable attempt at nonchalance.
"Collins wouldn't give you drugs," John mumbles awkwardly, as if that explains everything, and he's nothing to offer when Rodney's breath stills – nothing but a clumsy, apologetic, newly desperate kiss. When it breaks he can't pull away. "I – "
"Bed," Rodney says firmly, brushing his nose to the skin in front of John's ear.
"Rodney – "
"Bed," Rodney says again, and there's resolution in his voice, enough caustic kindness to make John give in a fraction. He lets himself be manhandled, closes his eyes as he settles against the sheets, pretends not to listen as Keller pulls Rodney toward the door and confers with him in urgent tones.
"She mad?" John asks once she leaves.
"No," Rodney says, settling back into the spine-breaking chair by John's bed, tablet resting on his lap. "She just wanted me to understand how completely I would set back your neurological recovery if I tried to give you a blow job right now."
John opens his eyes in a hurry, narrows them when he sees Rodney grinning. "Asshole."
"Hey, you're the one who forgot who I was."
"Only I didn't," John says, frowning, picking at his blanket.
"Didn't?" Rodney asks.
"I – uh . . ." John glances at the ceiling. "I mean – I knew. Even when I – didn't. And – "
Rodney's staring at him through narrowed eyes as if translating John's meaning is causing him physical pain.
"You're . . . I –," John says in a rush. "Right? When I didn't know – I still . . . you, y'know?"
And John can see when Rodney gets it, color creeping from the neck of his t-shirt all the way to his ears, shifts in his chair and clears his throat. "I thought perhaps you – "
Rodney nods once. "Well. Okay. I, uh – you should sleep now, and I – " He rubs the end of his nose. "I'll be here."
John feels himself smile, stunned and grateful. "Yeah," he murmurs, reaching out with one hand, the pale skin of his palm turned upward. "Me too," he yawns as Rodney's fingers slide between his.