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Summary: Carson has discovered his own version of Pandora’s Box. (Response to Atlantica/Jumperbay's "Lean on Me" challenge; prompt found at the bottom of the story, as it contains story spoilers)

Spoilers: Major ones for "Epiphany", other minor ones up to that point. Slight spoilers for details we learn in "Outcast", as well as tiny ones for things concerning Rodney’s past.

Beta: Gayle, Gayle, the wonderful Gayle who I haven’t sent into coma with my everlasting love for commas, and who poked, prodded, and helped me refine the story to what it is today. You are the bomb, milady.

Author's Notes: Once upon a time, someone made a challenge over at Atlantica and later Jumperbay (links contain story spoilers, fyi). I thought, "Okay, it's usually done kind of cheesy, but why not give it a shot?" So I wrote about five pages, then realized that I should probably ask the folks over at the fanfic_med YahooGroup how everything is done. Then the story got rewritten, and man, if it didn't keep giving me the fits, so I rewrote it again... and yea, it was good. I also have to thank Water Soter for the title, as well as for not killing me because of my title angst.

Author's Note Part Deux: This is AU. Very very AU. I do hope to revisit this later in at least one sequel, possibly a series. However, if anyone does feel inspired, in my mind this is an Open Universe -- so my sandbox is your sandbox. (Jes' sayin'.)




"Ow! Watch it! Did you learn your bedside manner out in the pastures too?"

 

Carson tsked lightly at his temperamental patient, but refused to rise to the bait. Instead, he tapped the syringe he was using softly, watching it fill with red.

 

"Developed a taste for blood in addition to mutton, I see," Rodney muttered testily.

 

Carson raised a brow, withdrawing the needle and applying a cotton swab a little firmer than necessary to the punctured area. Rodney did not try to contain his yowl; in fact, the physician wondered if he had added an extra decibel or two for dramatic effect.

 

"Don't be such a baby, Rodney." Carson shook his head as he withdrew a band-aid. "This is standard procedure."

 

"If it's so standard, why isn't someone draining you of your life blood? You were off world too!"

 

"Geez, Rodney, being a little dramatic, aren't you?" Sheppard asked from one bed over where a nurse was performing his physical. "Ouch! Doc, does she have to take so much?"

 

"Baby," McKay mouthed at the soldier.

 

Sheppard replied to the oh-so-stinging remark by making a face at the scientist.

 

Carson shook his head at them, but decided to answer Sheppard's question instead of chastising them. Most of the time it made his job easier if they distracted each other with their antics. "Well, Colonel, I want to make sure everything is back to normal after you being stuck in that time dilation field for so long."

 

"Hey, the Ancients built it, they've got fail safes."

 

"So soon he forgets that it was designed as a one way trip." Rodney rolled his eyes, oblivious to the dark look that flitted across the Colonel's face. Carson caught it however and applied the band-aid to McKay's arm, perhaps a bit harder than necessary.

 

Rodney yelped and made another sheep joke, but Carson caught Sheppard cracking a smile. Good.

 

"As I was saying, Colonel, your body has been through a lot these—lately." Carson had almost said "these past few hours", but caught himself. He was still trying to adjust to the fact it had been six months in the time dilation field for Sheppard, not the few hours the rescue had taken. "I just want to be sure."

 

Whether or not Sheppard had been 'healed' completely after each of his encounters with the beast didn't matter, because he was still Carson's patient. He wasn't going to give the man a clear bill of health until he was absolutely sure that was really the case. Carson had also caught the brooding expression that crossed his friend's face several times since his 'rescue' and was a trifle concerned about John's mental state.

 

Rodney raised his eyebrows in an expression that reflected both incredulity and annoyance. "Oh, that's real mature, Colonel."

 

—well, more concerned than usual.

 

The doctor glanced over to see Sheppard quickly hiding his hands behind his back. He let out a dramatic sigh. "Am I going to have to separate you two?"

 

He heard both an affirmative and negative response to his question, and pinned Sheppard with a stare. "Now, Colonel, stop picking on Rodney. You know he can't help but squeal like a wee bairn."

 

"Hey!"

"Sorry, Doc, I'll stop." Sheppard grinned and leaned back on his elbows, not looking the least bit repentant.

 

McKay's brow twitched. "Carson, are you done poking holes in me?"

 

"Sorry, Rodney, just a few more tests. You would already be done by now, like Ronon, Teyla, and Elizabeth if I hadn't had to come find you."

 

"I had data—!"

 

"Yeah, c'mon, Rodney, that wasn't very nice."

 

"Colonel, need I remind you who controls when you get to leave?"

 

"I'm sorry, but I'm bored!" Sheppard whined.

 

"Maybe you could learn to converse with the other patients civilly, instead of harassing them."

 

"Or he could just leer at the nurses," Rodney snorted as Sheppard's gaze wandered.

 

"Just looking," John replied innocently.

 

Carson shook his head again. "Just try and not break anything while I'm gone, children."

 

"You know, he was talking to you," Carson heard Rodney say as he walked away towards the lab that was adjacent to the infirmary. The nurse tending to Sheppard handed over his sample and glanced back towards the infirmary, her eyes lingering on the pilot. Beckett tried to hide a smile but the nurse caught it and flushed.

 

"I think Colonel Sheppard might need an extra pillow," she stammered and excused herself.

 

Carson chuckled quietly as he set the computer to analyze the two samples. He was lucky that most of his staff was immune to the charms of one John Sheppard, otherwise he had a feeling he would come in to find the pilot with all the blankets and pillows that could possibly fit onto one cot. That, and the Sheppard charm usually led to "jail breaks" as McKay referred to them.

 

A beep from the computer indicated it had finished with the analysis. Carson started to tap in the command for it to cross-reference the blood sample, when a loud squawk cut through his thoughts.

 

"What do you think you're doing? Get back to your own bed!" There was a muffled racket. "Car-son!"

 

Carson exhaled a quick breath, and pushed himself away from the machine. He poked his head out to spy Sheppard sitting on his own cot with his hands folded neatly in his lap, staring innocently at the ceiling. From his cot, Rodney was fuming. His pointed finger was shaking as he tried to summon words from beyond his irritation.

 

"What?" Carson asked tiredly.

 

"He's looking at me!"

 

Carson just stared.

 

"But he—I know how it sounds, but I'm telling you he was looking and... never mind."

 

With an aggrieved sigh, Carson shot both of them a look. "This is not behaving."

 

"It's him!" Rodney insisted.

 

"I'm going back to the other room now. Whatever you two knocked over, it better be cleaned up by the time I get back with your test results."

 

With that, he withdrew back into an area of relative sanity. Without looking at the screen, he quickly finished executing the command for it to cross-reference the sample to the one in the system. As it continued processing, he busied himself with looking over the rest of the mission's personnel. There was no real reason that the time dilation machine would have any ill effects but it never hurt to be overly cautious, especially when it came to Sheppard's team. Thankfully everything had checked out so far.

 

Another soft beep signaled the end of the analysis. He turned back to the computer and scanned through the results, frowning at them. That was odd; Sheppard wasn't supposed to be on antihistamines—

 

Carson nearly smacked himself in the forehead when he realized he had juggled McKay and Sheppard's samples up when he had keyed in the results. Bloody distracting children, the lot of them. He rubbed a hand across his eyes as he retyped in the correct command for the correct person, and then let the machine do its work. A short time later, he had the proper results confirming that both samples were clean.

 

He just had to perform the physical part of the examination. Sheppard had taken a pretty good hit from "the beast" and Carson wanted to double check, just in case the colonel was pulling his usual stoic soldier act. The man could be bleeding from two different places, have a broken arm, and obviously seeing double yet Sheppard would claim to be fine in order to not spend any time in the infirmary. It was those times Carson was able to tell the man was lying; when the problem was not visible, the doctor needed every edge he could get to stop any foolishness from the chief military officer of Atlantis.

 

He grabbed the computer printouts as he made his way back to the infirmary, just in time to catch the tail end of his two patients' conversation.

 

"I'll have you know that my tongue is sharper than any sword!" McKay huffed from his perch on his cot.

 

"First you better stop waving it around like a feather duster."

 

"Oh yeah, well you fight like a—"

 

Carson cleared his throat, and both Sheppard and McKay turned to look at him. In unison, they pointed at each other. "He started it!"

 

Carson massaged his forehead, feeling tension starting to creep in.

 

"Now look what you did," Sheppard tossed to McKay, "you gave Beckett a headache."

 

"Me? You were the one who started it by saying—"

 

"Enough!" Carson finally snapped, spearing both men with a menacing glare. "If you can't speak to each other without arguing like a pair of bloody six-year-olds then don't speak at all!"

 

"But I—" Rodney started, the protest ending in a yelp when Carson turned his irritated gaze on him. "Never mind!"

 

Sheppard wisely decided to stay quiet, sinking even lower into his suspiciously large mountain of pillows. Carson took in a deep breath before finally turning to Rodney, who was now fidgeting nervously on his cot.

 

"Rodney," he stated the name calmly.

 

McKay looked up nervously. "Yes?"

 

"Your results came back clear. You may go."

 

Rodney stared at him for a few seconds, then nodded quickly and beat a hasty retreat for the door. Right before he disappeared into the hallway however, he made a silent gesture of shearing scissors to Sheppard. Beckett frowned and Rodney, realizing that he had been caught, disappeared without another word. The physician turned to his remaining patient, who was staring at the ceiling in an attempt to look angelic.

 

"I know it's been a much longer 'day' for you, Colonel, than it has for me."

"That's one way of putting it," John remarked dryly, "seeing how mine lasted six months."

 

"My concern exactly," Beckett replied. "Your body has aged six months and from what I've gathered, been injured repeatedly. I want to make sure that everything has healed properly and that your last encounter with that 'Beast' didn't leave any damage."

 

"Poke and prod away," Sheppard sighed.

 

Carson eyed him as he continued the exam, not liking the look in John Sheppard's eye. That same dark look had appeared when Rodney had made his "one-way trip" comment. Finally, to break the silence and hopefully derail whatever thoughts were going through the soldier's mind, he decided to strike up conversation again.

 

"You know if you grew that out," Carson indicated Sheppard's beard, "you could play Santa for the Athosian children at Christmas time."

 

"Wouldn't I have to dye it white for that?"

 

"With Rodney and his propensity for winding up in the infirmary, I'm sure both of us will gain a few white hairs before the year is up."

 

"Don't remind me," John shook his head. "I'm still ready to kill him over that whole enzyme business."

 

"Aye, that wasn't pleasant."

 

"Besides," Sheppard quickly turned the conversation back to its original track, "Ronon wants to do it."

 

"Now, why would he want to do that?"

 

"He may have lost a bet with Teyla. I may have also said something about ol' Saint Nick being a warrior of the highest caliber back on Earth."

 

"I really hope you never try to teach a course on Earth culture while we're out here."

 

Sheppard smiled, but it was forced. Without McKay there to distract him or a crisis to avert, the reality of what had happened was starting to set in. Carson himself had no idea what it would feel like to lose six months of your life in one day, or the feeling of abandonment he had mentioned. He did know that this was something that should not fester and should not be pondered over any length of time.

 

"Colonel, I know that the last thing you want to do right now is talk—"

 

"You're right," he cut the doctor off impatiently. "All I want right now is a shower, a shave, and my bed."

 

"John," Carson tried again, a little more firm, but not unkind, "you've been through an ordeal. One that none of us will be able to fully understand."

 

"Carson, look—"

 

"Let me finish, will you?" He gave his patient a cross look, and continued. "I know something is bothering you. Rather fierce if I may say so, because usually I can't tell what you're thinking."

 

"I'm not sure if I should take that as a compliment."

 

"I don't care how you take it. What I do care about is that dangerous look I've seen in your eye, something I certainly don't want to have to mention to anyone else, if you understand what I'm saying."

 

Sheppard exhaled slowly and looked at the ceiling. "What do you want, Carson?"

 

"I want you to talk to me, seriously, for a moment. Either as a doctor or a friend, whatever you need. What I don't want is for you to walk out of this infirmary and brood alone in the dark."

 

"I don't brood."

 

"Manly pout, then?"

 

John flexed his jaw, remaining silent for a short period.

 

When he finally spoke, it was soft and fairly guarded. "I started to wonder if 'leave no man behind' didn't apply to me."

 

Carson pursed his lips, wanting to say something, but couldn't think of an appropriate response.

 

"I started to wonder, no, more than wonder... six months, and I got nothing but what they tossed at me those first few days, which was probably just seconds to them."

 

With an angry shove, John was on his feet, pacing. "For six months, I had to live with Ancient hippies who were literally afraid of their own shadow. No one backed me up, not there, or here."

 

Carson nodded. "And then we showed up."

 

"Yes, and suddenly, it changes again, and more than that, my reality, all of that, was an afternoon for you."

 

"Would it help you if we said it was a very tense afternoon?"

 

"Not really."

 

"Well, would it help you to know, that while not getting lost in an Ancient Time Vortex, I had a very rough period, where I lost my way for a while, a long while?"

 

John stopped pacing and looked at Carson, intrigued.

 

"It's not a time of my life I like to remember or even think about. I do understand, though, that feeling of lost time."

 

"What about the whole abandonment issue?"

 

"Aye, I was in a very dark place."

 

They were both quiet for a moment before Sheppard spoke up, softly. "How did you keep from going back?"

 

"Honestly?"

 

"Yeah?"

 

"I distracted myself with a particularly engrossing book any time I started thinking about anything that would lead me back down that road."

 

"Distraction, huh?"

 

"Maybe you could finally finish up War and Peace and start on a new novel," Carson suggested lightly.

 

"I've got a much better idea," Sheppard said, the hint of mischievous glee entering his eye.

 

"Well, provided it keeps you with a clear head and out of my infirmary, I have no problem with it."

 

"And about mentioning things to other people?"

 

"Things?" Carson echoed innocently.

 

A more relaxed, natural smirk settled on Sheppard's features. "Thanks."

 

Carson busied himself with looking at his charts. "With a little rest over the next few days, I don't see any reason not to clear you for active duty – provided you actually do what I tell you and rest."

 

"Do I look like Rodney?"

 

"Colonel, please."

 

John smiled.

 

"You're worse!"

 

He had the grace to look offended.

 

"Now off with you! If my tests show anything I'll hunt you down, otherwise just take it easy."

 

"And shave."

 

"Yes, and shave. Now go, before I change my mind."

 

John chose that moment to make a quick exit and Carson returned to his office. He dropped the printouts on his desk in an exhausted fashion. At least he would have a few days to recuperate from a Team Sheppard post-mission exam.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Several days had passed since they had rescued Sheppard from the time dilation field, and Atlantis's chief military officer began to return to normal. In order to brighten his mood, he turned to his favorite extracurricular activity: trying to make McKay turn ten shades of red. Unfortunately, the colonel's hobby was rather distracting, especially when Carson was trying to get a little extra work done. All of Carson's carefully kept filing system seemed to explode when John Sheppard came to his infirmary for anything other than a routine post-mission exam. Evidenced in particular by the file full of unsorted papers that he had brought with him to breakfast so he could restore some semblance of order to his desk.

 

He leafed through another page, scanning a line about a possible salve that could be made from a plant from planet PX7—

 

"Hey, that's not fair! If I can't bring my notes to breakfast, why can he?" Rodney whined.

 

Carson dutifully ignored him, eyes scanning the rest of the page.

 

"That's because he has the courtesy to keep them in a tiny little folder, instead of strewing them all over the table."

 

Beckett turned the rest of the conversation out, focusing on Dr. Parrish's report on the possible benefits of the plant. He looked up to ask Teyla if she or the Athosians had run into this particular species, only to notice that both she and Ronon were no longer at the table. They must have already left to prepare for the mission that day. He quickly returned his attention back to the sheet of paper, determined not to be distracted by the loud monologue droning on across the table. He jotted a quick note down on the page to ask her about it later before turning to the next one.

 

It appeared to be a printout from a few days ago. Usually he kept these with his patients' records, so it was more than a little out of place.

 

"Hey Carson, did you hear me?"

 

Rodney's annoyed tone pulled Carson away from his reading material. He gazed at the scientist in a bored manner, sounding anything but contrite. "I'm sorry, Rodney, what did you say?"

 

"Colonel Sheppard," Rodney indicated the man to his side, who merely glanced up from munching on an apple at the mention of his name, "and I were hoping you would settle an argument for us."

 

"You were?" Carson looked to Sheppard for confirmation.

 

The colonel shrugged and took a noisy bite. McKay fixed the soldier with a sour look. "Didn't your mother ever teach you to chew with your mouth closed? Honestly."

 

"Sorry," Sheppard responded with a mouth full of apple. He bit off a large chunk and leaned into McKay's ears as he smacked it around. "Better?"

 

"Someone should put you in a zoo!" Rodney shoved him away roughly, looking back at Carson. "Well?"

 

"'Well' what?" The Scot asked.

 

"Weren't you listening?" Rodney asked disbelieving.

 

"Not really, I was thinking—"

 

"Great! Just great," Rodney muttered shaking his head. "A matter of urgent importance and your head is off in the clouds, probably composing odes to your long lost sheep—"

 

"Why don't you just tell me again?" Carson said, with far more patience than he thought he possessed at the moment.

 

"If you can't bother to listen the first time around, I'm not going to repeat it," Rodney crossed his arms petulantly. "No one ever listens to me."

 

Sheppard poked Rodney with his apple-juice soaked hand. "You could just admit I'm right and we can end this."

 

McKay eyed the hand with distaste, searching his jacket for stains. "You have got to be the most disgusting person in this entire city. I just washed this!"

 

Sheppard grinned as he looked over at Carson. "Penny for your thoughts, Doc."

 

"My thoughts cost a bit more than that," he shot back. "I don't get paid enough."

 

"If anyone here needs a raise, it's me," Rodney snorted as he scarfed down a piece of bacon. "I mean sure, free room and board, and a research budget that's basically unlimited. No worries about having the funding yanked in the middle of a project—but still, with what I have to put up with?"

 

Sheppard exchanged an amused glance with Carson as Rodney launched into a long diatribe about the various problems with the science personnel.

 

"But seriously, you think I wouldn't have to put up with perpetual whining what with Kavanagh transferring back to the SGC, but no—" Rodney continued to ramble, and Carson could feel his eyes glazing over. In an attempt to put off a rant-induced coma, Carson turned his attention back to the page he'd left off on, scanning the top of it for the patient's name, only to discover it belonged to the loudmouth sitting across from him. He scanned the page further, trying to figure out why one of Rodney's test results would have been lying on his desk, rather than with the rest of his labs.

 

One section of the readout grabbed his attention, and Carson had to scan it again to make sure he hadn't been reading it wrong. Frown deepening, he carefully pored over the rest of the document. It was dated a few days ago—when he had accidentally mixed up Rodney and Sheppard's samples in the machine. He glanced up, seeing that Rodney was currently detailing the failings of his newest lab assistant. He rubbed a hand over his eyes, hoping that perhaps he still just had a little sleep in his eyes.

 

But the line of text stating a "25% match" was still there, mocking him.

 

"Hey!" Rodney's indignant cry made him snap back to attention.

 

However, the scientist wasn't looking at him. McKay was trying to incinerate Sheppard with an evil stare as the pilot proudly munched on a piece of bacon.

 

"That's mine!"

 

The military commander finished the piece with a resounding smack, hand immediately reaching for another piece. Rodney growled and grabbed the other end of the bacon strip, starting an impromptu round of tug-of-war. Carson watched the poor slaughtered pig as it was fought over by the two men.

 

"Bloody children," Carson muttered at their antics. "You do realize people are staring?"

 

"It's my breakfast! If he wants bacon he should go wait in line like everyone else!"

 

"But it's all the way over there!" Sheppard whined, giving the piece a good tug. "Besides, I'm saving you from the calories."

 

Finally, the bacon could take no more and broke in half. Its silent screams of pain echoed throughout the mess, or perhaps just in Carson's mind. Rodney stared sadly as John plopped his half in his mouth before quickly eating his in case the colonel got any more ideas.

 

"You two are worse than a pair of four-year-olds," Carson shook his head. He turned his attention to his coffee mug and tried not to give much thought to what had to be some anomalous error spat out by a computer.

 

"Just jealous," Rodney muttered around a mouthful of bacon.

 

John, despite having the same, if possibly worse, table manners winced dramatically. "And you call me uncouth."

 

"You both need to go back to finishing school," Carson said dryly. "Rodney, if you don't stop showing me your breakfast, I'm going to have to prescribe a special diet."

 

Rodney swallowed the abused breakfast meat. "You're not the boss of me!"

 

"Mature, Rodney, very mature." Sheppard shook his head lightly, as if his had been the epitome of adult behavior during breakfast. "As fun as this has been, we have to cut this short. We've got a previous engagement with a wormhole to attend to."

 

"I'm not going anywhere without a proper breakfast," McKay harrumphed as he shoved the last piece of bacon in his mouth.

 

Rolling his eyes, John grabbed the scientist by the collar of his jacket and heaved him up. "Let's go, Oinkus. We're going to be late."

 

"Watch the name calling!" Rodney jerked away from the hold, straightening his jacket. "Why do you have to be so pushy?"

 

Carson couldn't help but watch as they left, bickering like two long-lost siblings. Any traces of amusement melted away, as his eyes drifted down to the folder, the mystery inside calling to him. Obviously he wasn't going to get any work done until he proved to himself that he was imagining what he thought he had just seen.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

By the time Sheppard's team had returned that afternoon, Carson had wasted a full day on his mystery. He'd started by comparing the most recent samples on hand, and slowly progressed backwards in time. Every single test came up with the same baffling "25% match".

 

The arrival of the team in the infirmary for their post-mission exam was heralded by an indignant cry.

 

"That's not fair!"

 

"Come on, McKay, haven't you ever heard of finders keepers?"

 

"But I found it!"

 

"Only because you tripped."

 

"Tripped? You pushed me!"

 

"Meaning it was my action that led to the finding, so therefore, it's mine."

 

Carson tucked the folder under his arm as he watched the team approach. Ronon looked like he was ready to knock his teammates' heads together while Teyla made a point of staring ahead blankly as if she couldn't hear what was going on.

 

"Teyla!"

 

She tried feigning deafness.

 

"Yeah, Teyla can solve this!"

 

The Athosian woman looked at Carson pleadingly, and Beckett felt himself forced to intervene. "Now, now, what are you going on about?"

 

"The Colonel stole—"

 

"You see I found—"

 

Carson motioned for Teyla to take the exam room at the far end of the infirmary, and she quickly made her exit before being drawn into what appeared to be a very pointless argument.

 

Damsel in distress saved, he cut them off. "Never mind, I don't want to know."

 

"But he—"

 

"Colonel, you take that room," Carson none too gently shoved the commander in the direction he had indicated, "and Rodney, you're over there!"

 

"This isn't over!" Rodney called out as he disappeared behind one of the curtains.

 

Rodney's only answer was a triumphant "Ha!" echoing from Sheppard's exam room.

 

"Thank you," Ronon muttered.

 

"No thanks necessary," Carson led Ronon to the first exam room. "It was my pleasure."

 

"They're worse than usual this week," Ronon muttered as he sat down on the cot. The Satedan held out his arm as Carson put a blood pressure cuff around it.

 

"Aye," Carson agreed quietly, letting his gaze wander to where their curtained off areas would be. His brooding was interrupted by a loud squawk.

 

"Carson told you to stay on your side!"

 

The Scot hung his head as a loud crash sounded from the other end of the infirmary. He took in several deep breaths, trying to compose himself.

 

"Damn it, McKay! That's not fair!"

 

As he lifted his head, he could see Ronon watching him with barely veiled amusement.

 

"Oh, what do you find so funny?"

 

"They're your problem now."

 

"You're not done yet," he pointed to the bed as the Satedan began to rise. "I'll send a nurse in to finish up. Meanwhile, I have to--"

 

"--give it back! It's mine!"

 

"--save my infirmary," Carson finished.

 

Beckett quickly retreated as a hearty chuckle escaped from Ronon. He entered the exam room Rodney had been exiled to, finding the scientist trapped in a headlock by Atlantis's military commander. Both stilled suddenly upon his entrance like deer in the headlights of an oncoming car. Sheppard let go of Rodney and the scientist smoothed his hair as he squared his shoulders back looking put out.

 

Carson pointed a finger at both of them and opened his mouth to say something. McKay and Sheppard looked at each other, and seemed to come to some sort of silent agreement. Rodney shrank onto his cot without a word, while the colonel quietly slinked out of the room.

 

"I—"

 

He turned to see Sheppard dutifully take his place in his own exam room.

 

"What—?" Carson turned back to Rodney, who stared up at him innocently.

 

"What?" Rodney echoed, his tone as innocent as sin.

 

"One more time!" Carson sputtered, pointing an accusing finger in Rodney's direction.

 

"I don't know what you're talking about," the scientist insisted.

 

Carson left the exam room with an aggravated sigh, and poked his head into the John's area. Sheppard was lounging on his cot, and somehow had already managed to acquire two extra pillows.

 

"What's up, Doc?" He greeted casually.

 

"Other than overused Bugs Bunny catch phrases?" Carson returned, voice laced with an edge of menace.

 

"Aw, c'mon. Where's your sense of humor?"

 

"It's gone, along with the EKG machine you felt compelled to destroy."

 

John sunk into his pillows further. "Don't worry. McKay will fix it."

 

"Hey!" The protest came distantly from the other section of the infirmary.

 

"After all, it sacrificed itself breaking his fall."

 

"Colonel," Beckett started warningly.

 

"Yes?" Sheppard mirrored Rodney's innocent look from earlier.

 

The twin expression stopped Carson cold. He tried to get out a proper reprimand, but the pilot just raised his eyebrows further. The mystery he'd been trying to puzzle out all morning came rushing back. Carson tried to force out some sort of righteous frazzled doctor anger, but the most he could sputter out was a flustered "Behave yourself!" before he quickly retreated from the room.

 

Curious, Sheppard poked his head outside of his curtained off area. He could see Rodney watching the retreating Scot with confusion as well.

 

"That was strange."

 

"Tell me about it," Rodney shot back. "You're still standing."

 

"Not for long," Sheppard muttered as he caught sight of two nurses, both who were immune to his charms, coming their way.

 

"Not the harpies!" The scientist cried softly.

 

"Uh oh, I think they heard you," Sheppard volleyed back. "You better run."

 

"Me? You were the one who scared Carson away, making him send in reinforcements!"

 

"He never would have come over if you hadn't made so much noise!"

 

"I—"

 

The nurses cleared their throats, staring at their patients with thinly-veiled annoyance.

 

"Nice knowing you, McKay," John muttered as he was ushered into his exam room.

 

"Save me!" The scientist squeaked as he disappeared behind his own set of curtains.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

"Do I look paler? I must look paler. That nurse took more blood than usual," Rodney complained as he rubbed his arm where the blood had been drawn for their post-mission exam. "Do you think she's just abusing her station? Maybe we should draft a letter."

 

"I think the 'Hello Kitty' band-aid she stuck you with is revenge enough," Sheppard replied as they emerged from their respective exam rooms. "It looks like Ronon and Teyla already cleared out."

 

"That's because they didn't have the nurses who graduated from the Medical School of Sadism!"

 

Said nurse cast a dark look in Rodney's direction. Sheppard lightly smacked the scientist on the back of his head. "Manners, Rodney." He lowered his voice to a mutter. "They can still hear you."

 

Rodney paled some at that and quickened their retreat from Beckett's domain. Sheppard paused at the exit, looking across to the CMO's office. The Scot looked deep in thought, staring blankly at a computer screen.

 

"Colonel!"

 

Rodney's annoyed call brought him back to the present. "Right, debriefing."

 

"That we would have plenty of time to get to had we not been detained by unnecessary extra medical tests. Wait a second—extra tests—"

 

"We're late. You can have a hypochondriac fit later," Sheppard propelled the scientist forward by force. Rodney was probably exaggerating again, and if he wasn't, well, Carson would never withhold anything that pertained to his patients' health. There was nothing to worry about as far as John was concerned.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

A knock on the 'door' leading out of his office pulled his attention from the computer screen. He looked up to see Nurse Henry hesitating in the archway.

 

"We're all done here for the day, Doctor."

 

Carson blinked, briefly returning his attention back to the screen to check on the time. He was surprised to see that the afternoon had already passed and it was well into the evening.

 

"Oh, look at the time," he remarked softly.

 

She smiled at her boss. "You've been staring at that computer for hours. May I ask what's got you so fascinated?"

 

Carson's fingers danced across the ALT and TAB keys casually, bringing up another program on the desktop. He gave her the smile that would usually melt his mother's resolve. "Just a pet project of mine."

 

"Oh," she gave the screen a quick glance, but only saw a half-written word document. "Well I hope it works out."

 

He hesitated for a moment, before answering. "Yes. Me too."

 

Sensing that perhaps her boss didn't want to talk at the moment, she decided to extract herself from the awkward conversation. "I put the extra samples where you requested."

 

"Thank you, dear."

 

Nurse Henry started to withdraw, before tossing Carson a cautious look. "Don't work yourself too hard."

 

He gave her another one of his smiles, partly to reassure her, and also grateful for the concern. "I'm just wrapping up for the night. No need to worry."

 

She didn't seem convinced, but left him to his 'pet project'. When he was alone again, he switched back to the latest analysis he had been staring at. He was starting to think that the number twenty-five was mocking him. No matter how many samples he compared or how many diagnostics he ran on the system, the percentage never changed.

 

He scrubbed a hand across his face as the numbers blurred together.

 

That could only mean one thing. It wasn't a mistake on his or the equipment's part. He had been really hoping for one of those options, because the alternative was more than a little unsettling. He was going to have to dig deeper to figure out what the number really meant, which is where things started to get tricky.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

"Wrong, wrong, and wrong again!"

 

"Rodney—" Radek Zelenka started, but was cut off before he could even start.

 

"Now I know that you seem to think you're an expert on this subject—"

 

"Think? I know much more than you for certain!"

 

"Ha!" Rodney spun around, walking backwards so he could gloat directly to the other scientist's face. "Then why is it that your last batch yielded a five percent weaker potency?"

 

"Because someone led Colonel Sheppard right to our backup site. You know the man can't keep from touching things."

 

"Not my fault, for the last time."

 

Several people were forced to dodge around McKay since he was paying absolutely no mind to his surroundings. One of the Marines muttered something unsavory as his precarious load of cleaning supplies was nearly toppled. The man was in a particularly unforgiving mood, perhaps because of his latrine duties.

 

"Yeah, well same to you!" He volleyed to the Marine, turning his attention back to Radek, still completely oblivious to oncoming traffic. "Where were we?"

 

"You were trying to tell me I make substandard vodka."

 

"Well you did last time."

 

"I did not—oh, Rodney, you should probably be watching where you're going."

 

"Why? I can walk and mock at the same tiii—"

 

He collided with the bulk of another individual, going down in a tangle of limbs. A flurry of curses and flying papers accompanied their fall.

 

Radek grimaced and rubbed a hand across his forehead. "Hloupý blbec..."

 

Rodney struggled on top of his human-landing pad like an upturned tortoise trying to right itself. "Why don't watch where you're going—oh, Carson."

 

The Scot rubbed his cheek that had just been jabbed by McKay's elbow. "Hi."

 

"You should watch where you're going."

 

"I was, I was just looking down to read—" Carson's eyes widened and he ungraciously shoved Rodney off of him and started gathering the papers that were now lining the floor.

 

"Nice to see you too," Rodney muttered as he picked himself off the floor. "Speaking of, where have you been the past few days?"

 

"Busy." He hurriedly stuffed the papers back into the folder, doing his best to avoid the other man's gaze. Lying was never one his strong points, so he'd been dodging the subjects of his scrutiny to the best of his ability.

 

Rodney glanced at the folder the physician was doing a spectacularly abysmal job of trying to hide. "Are you avoiding me?"

 

"Now why would I avoid you?" Carson made a point of looking himself over for any injuries obtained by the fall. "That's just silly."

 

Rodney's eyes strayed to the folder that was now tucked under Beckett's arm. "Carson—"

 

"Oh, look at the time. Late for that meeting with Dr. Biro!" Carson awkwardly patted Rodney on the arm before taking off down the hall as fast as he could without it being considered a run.

 

"I said I'd fix the EKG machine!" Rodney called after the retreating form, but the Scot didn't slow his pace any. Rodney let out a sigh before he turned back to Radek, who shook his head in an exaggerated motion of pity. Rodney bristled. "What are you looking at?"

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

"Hey, Doc," John greeted as he dropped into a seat opposite Beckett.

 

Carson looked up, almost startled by the pilot's presence. "Oh, Colonel. Hello."

 

"Hope you don't mind me joining you." John began to organize his tray and settle into a long, well-deserved lunch break. As he unwrapped the silverware he looked up to see that Carson had started to gather together the papers he had laid out in front of him. "What's that?"

 

"This? Oh, nothing. My desk's just out of order," Carson answered, a little too quickly.

 

"Here, let me help." John began to reach for a piece of paper, but it was quickly snatched away.

 

"No, no, that's all right. I've got it all now."

 

"O-kay." That was more than a little weird. "You feeling all right?"

 

"Hrm? Oh, yes, just busy. Have the annual checkups for the Athosians coming up. Need to get everything in order."

 

The Scot grabbed the rest of the papers, quickly stuffing them into the folder which was over an inch thick. Carson gave a quick farewell before grabbing his tray and folder, leaving John alone at the table.

 

He stared after the retreating form in confusion. "Is it my breath?"

 

"Yes," Rodney answered absently, like he had only caught John's last question. The scientist set his tray on the table with one hand, balancing a bottle of water and several pudding packs with the other.

 

"Thanks," Sheppard answered sourly, but pulled his tray back so Rodney had more room to spread out his junk. "Leave any pudding for the rest of us?"

 

"There's plenty of that foul pistachio flavor left, if that's what you're asking."

 

John wrinkled his nose in disgust. "No thanks."

 

When Rodney picked up his now-fully balanced tray a moment later, John frowned. "You're not eating here?"

 

Rodney spared him a glance. "Seriously, Colonel, what would a breath mint hurt?"

 

"Hey!"

 

McKay gave him a half-assed jaunty wave from his grip on the tray, already on his way out. John surreptitiously blew a breath into a cupped hand and sniffed. When nothing particularly foul assaulted his nostrils, he shrugged and resumed eating.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

With a sigh, Carson settled back into his office. It was getting harder to come up with excuses to find a way to escape the subjects of his investigation. He wanted to just come clean and tell them of his suspicions but that wouldn't be very fair. Neither was dodging them, granted, but it was the lesser of two evils at this point. Nothing in the medical records could explain the match he kept getting, nor could what little he had been able to glean from their personnel files.

 

He rubbed his temples in earnest as the printouts splayed across his desk mocked him.

 

He could try and see if he could get access to records of a more personal nature, but that seemed to cross a line between relatively harmless investigation and invasion of privacy.

 

He could stop right now, and do his best to bury his suspicions of what the analysis meant. He wasn't sure if that was particularly fair to either Rodney or John, but sharing inconclusive evidence could be much more harmful.

 

With a growl, he grabbed the two latest samples and decided to run one more test. The definition of insanity was trying the same thing over and over expecting different results – but if he could get one different result, then he could dismiss the matter entirely.

 

Besides, Sheppard's team wasn't due back from their mission for several hours, and by then Carson could have figured it out.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

"Do I smell?"

 

Sheppard gave the team scientist an odd look at the unusual question. There were times when Rodney became self-depreciating. It was rare and usually involved a catastrophe of mass proportions, more often than not something resembling a supernova. The scientist's personal hygiene, though, was never a subject that had arisen before.

 

"What?" Sheppard asked as he slowed to match Rodney's sedate pace.

 

The mission was a follow-up to the planet they had made first contact with last week. It was an agricultural planet with no technology to speak of, but there were a few herbs the botany department was interested in as well as some grains the Athosians wanted to try out in their next crop.

 

Teyla glanced back at the two Earthlings and their relaxed manner, shaking her head at the line of conversation. To say that Colonel Sheppard was going out of his way to pick on McKay was putting it mildly. Ever since their return from the disastrous mission with the time dilation field it seemed like the colonel made it his personal mission to harass the scientist night and day. Rather than calling Sheppard on his behavior, McKay seemed to rise to the taunting, which puzzled her.

 

Lagging even further behind the bickering duo was the fourth member of their team, who seemed to be trying to keep his distance from the elder two members of their team. His patience with their antics as of late was wearing thin. She thought she could hear him mutter something under his breath as she returned her attention to the path before her. She had expected someone from the village to greet them upon their arrival, as their return had been discussed during the last mission. However they were in the middle of a harvest, so perhaps they were too short-handed to offer a greeting at this time.

 

"I mean," Rodney continued, oblivious to the opening he was giving his tormentor, or the eye rolling of the massive Satedan behind him, "do I smell? Is there something offensive about me?"

 

Rodney started to raise an arm as if he really wanted Sheppard to confirm the question, but the pilot quickly shoved it down. He was so not going there. "You mean other than your sparkling personality?"

 

"I should have seen that one coming," Rodney muttered, before continuing. "I mean, what's wrong with me?"

 

"Do you really want me to answer that?" Sheppard smirked.

 

"I'm actually being serious here! I cannot for the life of me think what I could've done to piss him off to the point where he would so blatantly avoid me!"

 

Sheppard frowned. It sounded like maybe Rodney was trying to strike up a serious conversation. He could hold his snarky comments for a few minutes anyway, although he was sorely tempted to run down the list of McKay's 'offensive qualities'. At least the amusing ones anyway. It was fun to make the scientist's face blow out like a puffer fish, but Rodney with hurt feelings was a little uncomfortable, and nowhere near as fun as irritated Rodney. "Who's avoiding you?"

 

"Carson!"

 

"Carson?"

 

"Is there an echo in here? Yes Carson!"

 

"He's been avoiding you?"

 

"Do I have to repeat everything for you? Next time I'll just slowly enunciate—"

 

"Can it Snarks-a-lot," Sheppard glanced at Teyla's hunched shoulders and the way she was looking around. He frowned, and his hand unconsciously drifted towards the P-90 that had been hanging loosely on its strap. "I'm just asking because he's been dodging me too."

 

"Really?" McKay frowned, seemingly oblivious to the tension creeping up in his teammates' postures.

 

"Now who has to repeat himself?"

 

"It's just odd that he would avoid one of us without reason, much less both of us."

 

"Maybe he's still mad about that EKG machine."

 

"Be serious for a moment, Colonel—" Rodney frowned, his gaze straying back to Ronon and seeing that the Satedan's hand was brushing against his gun. He darted his gaze around the surrounding brush, voice dropping. "What's going on?"

 

"Don't know," Sheppard muttered back. "Let's group closer to Teyla."

 

John turned back to signal to Ronon for him to join the rest of the team. A hard shove to his back sent him sprawling to the ground at the same time the loud retort of something resembling gunfire echoed throughout the small path. The returning spit of P-90 fire joined in by the whine of Ronon's gun firing off almost drowned out the painful moan that joined him on the ground. Quickly he looked up to see Rodney gripping his thigh, red rapidly spreading across the gray material.

 

John cursed softly and covered Rodney's body with his as he pulled the measly first aid supplies stashed in his vest. From the location of the wound he couldn't risk a tourniquet, meaning they had to get him back to the gate quickly.

 

"Not so tight," Rodney murmured between gasps of breath.

 

"Shut up," John returned as he tied the quick bandage, wishing he could ignore the way it was rapidly changing colors. "What the hell were you thinking?"

 

"What are you talking about?" Sweat had already starting to bead on the other man's forehead.

 

"Nothing."

 

John made sure that the wrapping was secured before roughly grabbing Rodney's arm and slinging it over his shoulder. With a groan he heaved both of them off the ground. In the midst of all of this Ronon had disappeared into the brush where the fire had been concentrated and Teyla had taken up guard at their side, gun at the ready for the next sign of ambush.

 

Ronon stormed out of the foliage, eyes wild with rage. "There were five of them."

 

"Genii?"

 

Ronon furrowed his brow, having to think back to their time with Ford's bandits to place the name, but shook his head. "Olesian."

 

"Torrell," Sheppard growled as the hand around his shoulder fisted into his jacket and the man he was supporting tried to stifle a whimper of pain.

 

"He wasn't there," Ronon tossed a look at the forest surrounding them. "Two managed to get away, probably going to warn the others."

 

"I really don't feel like waiting for the cavalry of ungrateful prisoners to return," Sheppard jerked his head in the direction they had come. "Let's get out of here."

 

Teyla pursed her lips, having to suppress her worry for the kindhearted villagers they had met only days before. Dr. McKay was injured, and from the quietness of the normally loud man, as well as the heavy way he leant on the colonel, she feared for his wellbeing more.

 

"Guess Carson's going to have to stop avoiding us," Rodney whispered quietly, his voice laced with pain.

 

"Way to force the issue, Rodney," Sheppard murmured back, eyes sweeping the jungle as the foursome began the arduous trek back to the gate.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

An unscheduled arrival of a gate team never boded well – even more so when it was Sheppard's team returning early. Carson's mystery was forgotten as he was presented with one of his best friends bleeding profusely and twitching in pain. He didn't even have time to put away the incriminating file on his desk as Rodney was whisked to surgery.

 

It was later, after Rodney had been settled into the recovery room, that Carson had been able to think again.

 

He dropped into a vacant chair near his friend's cot, opposite to the rest of the team. Ronon was stretched out across two chairs, using one as an ottoman to rest his feet. The Satedan's eyes were closed as if he were in slumber, but from the way he twitched when Carson sat down he could have just been feigning sleep. Teyla had set herself up near the head of the bed and was using one of her arms as a pillow. Her free had had snaked up at some point and was lightly resting over Rodney's hand. The scene was bittersweet, and all-too familiar.

 

"Hey," a soft voice greeted, tired beyond exhaustion.

 

Carson raised his eyes up to see the final member of the foursome. Rather than his usual haphazard perch on his teammate's cot, John had segregated himself from the group. One hip rested against the wall and his hands were jammed in his pockets as if he were trying to convince himself he was at ease. Something about the rigid pose told Carson that John had probably been standing that way for a while.

 

"We have to stop meeting like this." Carson forced a smile.

 

In the darkness of the dimmed infirmary he couldn't see the emotions play across Sheppard's face, but did spy the silhouetted shoulders tensing. "We really do."

 

The statement hung in the air, heavy and entirely too true. Carson pursed his lips, watching as John's shadowed figure shifted on the wall but did not come any closer to the bed.

 

"Are you all right?"

 

A derisive snort, a little too like Rodney's for Carson's comfort, came from John. "I'm fine. I didn't get shot."

 

Even for the situation, he had put too much of an angry, almost self-loathing emphasis on the word 'I'. Carson had been too busy with trying to stop the bleeding to ask for specifics on how everything happened. He decided to play it safe. "He's going to be fine."

 

"He should already be fine," John's voice had dropped low. "I'm going to kill him."

 

"That'd be rather counterproductive to the healing process, Colonel."

 

"It all happened pretty fast, but I'm pretty damn sure I felt someone push me to the ground." The statement was almost growled.

 

Oh. Well, that explained it.

 

If the subject of their conversation had been awake at the moment, Carson was fairly sure he would be crying hypocrite about now. He wasn't Rodney, though, and didn't think that baiting Sheppard would help much. Sometimes the scientist being unconscious was better for this type of thing.

 

"Maybe you should sit down," Carson suggested softly.

 

John bristled and remained standing. "I don't want to sit."

 

"And I don't want another of you stuck here. You're exhausted, now sit."

 

After a moment, the silhouette shuffled forward, grabbing the fourth, final chair and plopped down in an extravagant display of his reluctance. John crossed his arms before giving Carson a reproachful look. "I hope your being here means you're going to stop dodging us."

 

Carson sat up a little further from his slouch. "I don't know what you mean."

 

"Oh, you do." John fixed him with a stare, and Carson couldn't help but fidget under the intensity. "I just can't figure out why."

 

"I've been busy."

 

"Bullshit."

 

It was apparent that Sheppard's anger at the ambush was still simmering underneath the surface and Carson realized that he had just set himself up as an easy target. He sucked in a quick breath, wondering what he should say, if anything.

 

"But I've got a feeling it has something to do with that damn folder you've been carting around everywhere."

 

Carson pursed his lips. "This really isn't the time or place for this conversation."

 

"What are you hiding?"

 

Carson opened his mouth, but quickly shut it when a raspy voice from the bed interrupted their conversation. "Can't you two let a man die in peace?"

 

John shot Carson a look, clearly signifying that the argument wasn't finished. Carson ignored him and instead went to his patient's side, checking on Rodney's vitals. The bustling woke the other two slumbering teammates. There were too many extra witnesses for them to finish anything at the moment.

 

The talk would have to wait until Carson could get both of them alone. Hopefully by that time he would figure out what exactly he was going to say.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

"For the last time, I swear I tripped." Rodney was sitting up on the cot he'd been stuck on for what seemed forever. "I'm sorry it dealt a blow to that massive hero complex. But if you don't stop the macho pout, I swear to you I will jump in front of a bullet!"

 

"You're being dramatic." John resisted the urge to cross his arms, mostly because it would only lend credence to Rodney's claim that he was pouting. Which he was not.

 

"Me being dramatic? I'm the one who was shot and you've been moping around here for days."

 

"I'm not moping," John huffed, then quickly added, "or pouting."

 

"Well, then you're definitely brooding."

 

"When did you say you were getting sprung again?"

 

"Tomorrow, and you're changing the subject."

 

"Because the subject is annoying."

 

"And apparently true," Rodney pointed out as he reached for the crutches next to his cot, only to have them slapped away. "You know, I'm pretty sure you have other things to do than mope around the infirmary. You're not even sick!"

 

"I'm bored."

 

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Transparent is what you are."

 

"Don't know what you're talking about."

 

"Maybe I'll just have Carson kick you out."

 

"Oh, so he's talking to you?"

 

"Well, I haven't been sending him death looks and trying to ambush him in corners for interrogations."

 

"He's hiding something from us."

 

"Oh, you get a cookie for figuring that out! Of course he's hiding something. The man can't lie worth a crap."

 

"Coming from you."

 

"Shut up. And I just so happen to be lulling him into a false sense of security. You catch more flies with honey, or so I hear."

 

"How's that working out for you?"

 

"Again, shut up."

 

"All right, so obviously the good cop-bad cop routine isn't working. We're going to need to try something different."

 

"Different how?" Rodney frowned. "We say pretty please?"

 

"No," John tapped his chin in contemplation, "we don't ask him."

 

"Great idea. That will break him." Rodney rolled his eyes and once again reached for the crutches. Without breaking his contemplative look, John slapped his hand away again. "Knock it off! I've got work to do!"

 

"Nah, you're drafted."

 

"Drafted?" Rodney sputtered. "For what?"

 

"Helping me."

 

"I think you're striking GQ poses just fine on your own. Thank you very much."

 

A corner of John's mouth quirked up into a half-smile. "What do you say?"

 

"About what? You've been staring at the ceiling this whole time!"

 

The half-smile spread into a full-out grin.

 

"Oh no, I don't like that look. It usually involves me doing something very embarrassing."

 

John bobbed his eyebrows.

 

"Seriously. No."

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

"I hate you!" Rodney hissed as Sheppard casually ambled away. "This is a very bad idea!"

 

Sheppard just hushed him and motioned for him to commence.

 

"I'm doing this under protest," Rodney mumbled, annoyed.

 

He was ignored by his partner-in-crime, who was doing his best to blend into the background of the infirmary. With an aggrieved sigh he levered himself up with his crutches. He needed hazard pay just for Sheppard's crazy ideas. Rodney began to hobble in the last general direction he'd seen Carson.

 

Spying one of the harpies heading in his direction, Rodney quickly ducked behind a privacy curtain in order to avoid getting caught. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Sheppard stop too. He craned his neck around so he could shoot the pilot a look that illustrated his feelings on this stupid plan. All he got in return was a grin and a thumbs up.

 

Of all the—

 

The nurse moved on, and he picked up his hobbling pace, finally spotting Carson checking the inventory of supplies. Tucked under his arm was a folder, Carson's newest appendage, stuffed almost two inches thick. He took a deep breath and thought of all the work he was missing. He exhaled deeply before hobbling into the Scot's line of sight.

 

"What do you think you're doing?"

 

Rodney looked up, doing his best to feign surprise. When he realized the folly in relying on his acting abilities, he started reciting the periodic table in his head.

 

As Carson stormed over, Rodney stopped himself at Argon. "Oh, hello Carson."

 

"Don't you hello me." Carson pointed a crooked finger in the direction of his bed. "What did I tell you about trying to find that laptop?"

 

"I'm not looking for my laptop," Rodney said innocently, because he wasn't. He was thinking of ways to hide Sheppard's body after this stupid plan of his went to hell.

 

"I see you've been practicing your poker face, very good," the Scot commented sourly. "Now get back to bed."

 

By this point, Sheppard had managed to circle around behind Beckett. Despite the fact that he was skulking around the infirmary like a spiky-haired ninja, he had managed not to attract any undue attention. Hell, he was even decked out in all black.

 

"But I needed to," Rodney licked his lips, trying to think of something, "uh, pee."

 

"The bathroom's the other way."

 

"Oh, that explains it not being over here."

 

Carson was not fooled one bit. "Rodney, don't make me tell you again."

 

Behind the doctor, Sheppard motioned for Rodney to go into the next step of their plan.

 

"This sucks," Rodney muttered.

 

"What was that?"

 

And despite the great urge to take his crutch and lob it off at the miming Air Force officer, Rodney did like any good Canadian would and took one for the team.

 

"Fine," he sniffed, "obviously your powers of deduction are too shrewd. But mark my words, Carson Beckett, I will find my laptop!"

 

And with that he swiftly turned around, swinging his bandaged leg out to where it delicately bumped into a nearby cot. He yelped loudly, dropping one of his crutches.

 

"Damn it, Rodney," Carson slammed the folder down onto an adjacent cot and came to the physicist's aid, "this is why I don't want you wandering around here."

 

"Ohhh," Rodney groaned loudly and fell back onto the cot, dramatically clutching his leg. "Ow!"

 

"Daft bugger," Carson muttered and knelt down, gently taking the injured leg. "You better not have broken the stitches."

 

Rodney moaned again, louder, clenching his eyes shut.

 

"Well, it doesn't seem like you started any bleeding—"

 

Rodney cracked open an eye in time to see Sheppard snatch up the abandoned folder. "Oh, the pain!"

 

Sheppard leafed through the folder casually, which elicited a real, strangled moan from the physicist.

 

This only served to fuel Carson's concern. "Maybe I should take a closer look."

 

"No!" Rodney shouted in panic. "It's, it's—"

 

Carson reached for the bandage, starting to slowly unwind it. "I think I should be the judge of that."

 

Rodney groaned as Sheppard flipped a page. Unless Carson was writing the Great Scottish Novel, there was nothing fascinating enough for him to have to keep up this charade. There was a reason he hadn't joined the drama club in high school.

 

"What the heck is this?"

 

Carson whipped around to see Sheppard leafing through the file.

 

"Oh, now you decide to give yourself away!"

 

Carson slowly turned back to Rodney, eyes narrowed dangerously. "Are you meaning to tell me you just faked getting hurt?"

 

All of the sudden, Rodney was reminded of how Sheppard's plans usually ended. "I, um..."

 

Rodney quickly grabbed one of his crutches and smacked it against the floor, trapping part of Beckett's lab coat beneath it. "Run, Colonel! I've got him pinned!"

 

Carson took a firm hold of the crutch and lifted it, pulling his lab coat free.

 

"Oh," Rodney commented softly, and then began to make erratic motions at the oblivious pilot. "Go, go, go!"

 

Carson's eyes widened as he turned back, recognizing what John was leafing through. "Hey!"

 

John looked up from his reading in time to see a very irate Scottish physician bearing down on him. He slapped the folder shut and dodged behind another cot.

 

"Give that back!" Carson lunged for the folder.

 

John leapt up onto the cot, landing on his stomach with a wince. "Okay, didn't think that one through."

 

"Give it here!" The Scot was trying to reach out over Sheppard's shoulder to grab the file back.

 

"Rodney, go long!" Sheppard threw the folder like a frisbee. It spun across the short distance and landed on the edge of the mattress, spewing papers across the cot and McKay's lap in the process.

 

Rodney looked down at the folder, and then looked back at Sheppard with an irritated expression. "'Go long'? Are you serious?"

 

Sheppard, still trapped under Beckett's mass on the cot, just squirmed uncomfortably.

 

"What am I? A quarterback?"

 

"Wide receiver."

 

"Either way, I'm on crutches!" Rodney waved said item in the air to emphasize his point. "Exactly what do you expect me to do? Dive forward and make a last minute save?"

 

"Touchdown?" John tried feebly.

 

Rodney swept the stray papers from his lap and snatched the folder from its resting place, all the while grumbling about the stupidity of American sports. He leafed through a few pages of his own medical history, bypassing the ones on Sheppard because there were just some things he was sure he didn't want to know. As he came upon the next stack of papers, each one almost identical to the next, he felt himself slowing down.

 

"What the hell?"

 

He was unaware of the silence that had descended upon his soft statement. Snatches of text stood out from the majority of the gibberish on the page. The labels of subject "McKay, R." and "Sheppard, J" might as well have been written in bright yellow text and underlined several times. Below their names (and a bunch of information that he really didn't bother to look at) was the result of the analysis: a twenty-five percent DNA match.

 

"What in the hell, Carson?" The piece of paper crumpled under the pressure of his hand balling into a fist as he displayed the offensive item.

 

John looked between his two friends, watching as Carson's face crumple into an expression that could only be described as guilt while Rodney's was quickly giving way to righteous indignation. "What is it?"

 

Rodney snorted an angry breath and shook the paper in the air. "Why were you comparing our DNA?"

 

John went still and slowly turned to look at the Scot. "Carson?"

 

These days invariably whenever John thought of someone looking at his DNA, he could only think of his slow transformation into a bug. He exhaled a shaky breath, subconsciously running a hand through his hair. "I'm not relapsing am I?"

 

"Huh?" Carson snapped out of his guilty reverie to see John's rising agitation. "No, no, Colonel, it's not about the retrovirus—"

 

"Way to make it about you, Sheppard!" Rodney jeered, still holding up the piece of paper like a prize kill. "My name's on here too!"

 

He ignored Rodney as the tension drained from him. It wasn't about the retrovirus. It was just about—

 

"Did you just say he was comparing our DNA?"

 

"Welcome to the conversation, Captain Oblivious!" Rodney chunked the paper at him. Being only partially crumpled it only flew forward about a foot before lazily drifting to the ground. "What's more is there's a match!"

 

"What?" John quickly scrambled to pick up the paper, unfurling it so he could read the information for himself. Sadly, it seemed Rodney wasn't joking. "I don't understand."

 

"Your Frankenstein DNA experiments are turning me into him!" Rodney cried, using his crutch to punctuate his statement.

 

John cursed and grabbed his calf, turning to glare at the scientist. "Watch it!"

 

"Rodney," Carson said softly, "I'm afraid that's not what it's saying."

 

"Stupid ATA retrovirus," Rodney muttered to himself. "Knew it was too good to be true. Before you know it my hair is going start standing on end and I'm going to begin hitting on anything above a B-cup."

 

"I'm still here you know," John remarked sourly, rubbing his calf.

 

"It doesn't work like that," Carson ignored the panicked ranting. He had to address this topic, now. He just hated that he had been forced into it before either John or Rodney was properly prepared for it. "I've been trying to track down samples from since we came here in order to be certain."

 

"Certain of what?" John asked, starting to connect some of the dots in his mind, even though they really didn't make much sense.

 

"That the results I was getting weren't anomalous or from the manipulation of your DNA since we've come to this galaxy."

 

"Why?" John pressed.

 

"It was an accident the first time." Carson sighed, moving past John to pull a privacy curtain around them. The area of the infirmary they were in was relatively deserted, but this wasn't a conversation that should be happening in the open. "I didn't even realize I had cross-referenced your samples against each other until a few days later."

 

"You didn't—" Rodney's voice pitched higher. "Malpractice!"

 

"Knock it off!" John shot the scientist a deadly serious glare. "It explains the extra tests."

 

Carson shrugged, almost guiltily. "Look, I know it wasn't exactly honest—"

 

"Exactly," Rodney snorted softly under his breath, returning Sheppard's warning look with one of his own.

 

"I didn't want to bring it to you until I was sure I knew what the DNA was telling me." Carson didn't look at either of them, and instead bent down to pick up the papers that had fallen during the impromptu round of folder-frisbee. "I triple checked all of the machines, but they all came up normal. All of the samples were clean. I even did a Y-chromosome analysis—"

 

"Oh, no, no, no, no!" Rodney muttered to himself as he tightly gripped the crutch he had used to smack Sheppard.

 

John had learned enough about various paternity suits through snippets of conversations from his father to recognize the term. "Please tell me you're joking."

 

Still kneeling, Carson pursed his lips. "I'm afraid I'm not."

 

"I'm dreaming this, just dreaming this." Rodney's litany had dropped to a soft murmur.

 

"A twenty-five percent match usually means—"

 

"Don't say it!" Rodney snapped.

 

Carson looked up, giving him a tight smile. "You know, uncles and nephews share twenty-five percent, as do grandparents."

 

"If he's my grandfather, I'm killing myself now."

 

"Hey!" John had the grace to look a little offended by that. "No need to get nasty."

 

"How do I know that at some point you don't stumble across a time machine and decide to sow some wild oats in ye olden Canada?"

 

John just shook his head and turned back to Carson, almost hopeful. "What about cousins?"

 

The Scot shook his head. "Twelve and a half; unless you happen to be double cousins?"

 

"Dad was an only child," John sighed.

 

"I'm not listening to this," Rodney announced before he began to loudly recite the periodic table.

 

Carson stared at the Canadian with no small amount of concern.

 

"Don't worry, he's paying attention." John smiled wanly.

 

"How can you tell?"

 

"Experience."

 

"Scandium, Titanium, Vandium—"

 

"Guess that leaves one option." John directed the statement at Carson.

 

He slowly stood, papers clutched in hand. "From what the DNA is telling me, yes."

 

"Well, I always wanted a little brother."

 

The barb elicited the desired response. "Hey!"


"Told you," John muttered to Carson, who just shook his head.

 

"I am not the 'little' brother!"

 

"You're two years younger than me," Sheppard pointed out. "Although maybe in girth—"

 

"Shut up." Rodney waved his crutch threateningly. "And I'd like to point out that I don't have the ATA gene naturally, much less freakily so like Colonel Bedhair here."


"Rodney, we've never determined if it's a patrilineal trait," Carson reminded.

 

"It still smacks of favoritism!"

 

John snorted. "Because that's a serious consideration during—"

 

"Don't finish that sentence!" The crutch crept higher in the air to back up the threat.

 

John ignored his imminent bludgeoning and turned back to Carson. "So. You said Y-chromosome... so that means my father--?"

 

"Who said it had to be your Dad?" Rodney bristled.

 

"I don't see a mild-mannered Canadian knocking up a woman like my mother and merrily humming 'O Canada' on his way home."

 

"That's because it was your mom humming it!"

 

"We've seriously descended to 'Your Mom' jokes?"

 

"Well, why can't it be my father? Why do you always assume the Sheppard genes have to dominate the globe?"

 

"Because my father owns a gun?" A whole collection of them actually.

 

"Hey! My dad can beat up your dad! Okay, maybe not, but still--!"

 

John waited for the rest of the statement, but Rodney just gestured to the empty air.

 

"What?"

 

"The hair." He pointed feebly to the various tufts of hair defying gravity. "Is it a Sheppard thing?"

 

John thought of his father's short cropped, always business-appropriate hair cut. "No, it's not."

 

He sighed with relief. "Well, at least I don't have to worry about mine becoming like... that."

 

John's gaze drifted to Rodney's thinning hair line. "I seriously don't think that was ever going to be a concern for you anyway."

 

Rodney lifted his lip into a sneer. "At least I don't look like an overwatered chia pet!"

 

"Better a chia pet than an overgrazed pasture."

 

"That was just lame," Rodney sniffed. "So lame, it proves that you can't possibly be my brother."

 

"You're right," John grinned devilishly, "I could always be your grandfather."

 

Rodney's face scrunched up in disgust. "That's almost worse than the thought of your father Kirking my mother."

 

"Better watch it: you're part-Kirk now."

 

"No, I'm not! Because this does not happen in real life. People do not go on top-secret missions to other galaxies where they encounter vampiric alien life and find their long lost hitherto unknown half-brother. It's ridiculous!"

 

"Well when you put it like that, yes, Rodney. It is." John rolled his eyes.

 

"Oh yeah, well it can get worse—"

 

"How? Either way I'm already related to you!"

 

"Oh, hardee har har!" Rodney snapped back before pinching his cheek. "Ow!"

 

Carson, who had been silent up to this point, spoke up. "What are you doing?"

 

"Pinching myself so I can wake up!"

 

"You're not dreaming," the Scot gently reminded him.

 

"Then this is the worst episode of Punk'd, ever!"

 

"I'm starting to feel a little insulted," John muttered to himself.

 

"You can't seriously want to be related to me?" Rodney snapped, starting to swing his legs out over the cot until he was physically halted by Carson's intervening hand.

 

"Rodney, calm down—"

 

"Why? Why should I calm down when you told me that someone who was a perfect stranger up until about two years ago—" John, almost imperceptibly, winced at that, "is supposedly my half-brother?"

 

Carson muttered something about his patient hyperventilating, and immediately started searching for an oxygen mask. John, seeing the rapid breathing, snapped into team leader mode.

 

"McKay!"

 

Rodney turned to look at him with wide eyes.

 

"Calm down, right now." The whole 'stern soldier' thing didn't work half the time, but it was all he could think of off the top of his head. John didn't want any of this, and he wasn't about to have McKay collapse from a nervous fit because he thought he might be related to John. Which was just strange and a little insulting to hear, even if it was only voiced in his own mind.

 

To his surprise, Rodney's quick gasps began to slow and deepen. Carson stopped his frantic search as the panic attack eased. He let out the breath he'd been unconsciously holding and cautiously approached behind John.

 

"Perhaps this is a conversation that should be continued at another time—"

 

"No," Rodney let out a shuddering breath, "I'm good."

 

"Are you sure—?"

 

John nodded in one succinct movement. "Trust me. I'm not going to sleep well as things hang right now."

 

The scientist bobbed his head, indicating his agreement with the statement.

 

"All right," Carson eyed them both, hating himself for the conflicting emotions he could see playing across both of their faces, "but I'm not very comfortable at this point..."

 

Sheppard grabbed his elbow and guided him closer to the cot, all the while smiling like he was attending a state fair. "I think this is something that won't wait until morning. Don't you think so, Rodney?"

"Yeah," McKay said distractedly, almost as if he were snapping back to the conversation.

 

Carson looked between both of them, seeing the hardened determination on John's face and the frail uncertainty on Rodney's. He wanted to smack both of them upside the head, the Hippocratic Oath be damned, and sedate them into next week. It would certainly make his life easier... although nothing about this was easy.

 

He heaved a heavy sigh. "Okay, honestly, all I have is the DNA profile. What we decide to do with it beyond that is up to both of you."

 

John took a few steps away from his friends in order to compose himself. "Okay, according to your tests, somehow he and I are related, right?"

 

"Yes," Carson answered, almost reluctantly.

 

"Well the only way that would have happened," Rodney began, "is if one of each of our parents cheated on each other—"

 

The explanation cut off as his eyes widened in sudden understanding.

 

"Well, I was a bit young at the time, so you'll forgive me for not noticing—" John started, oblivious to the shocked silence from the cot.

 

 A thousand ugly images assaulted Rodney, reminding him of what he had spent years trying to push down to the recesses of his mind. The raised voices, the harsh words, and the sentiments that they never thought he had heard. Out of nowhere, Rodney heard his own voice, echoing something he had told Samantha Carter several years ago.

 

"I had a not-so-comfortable childhood. My parents hated each other, blamed me."

 

It wasn't as if his father had ever said anything directly. Hell, the man was a saint compared to Rodney's mother. But only a deaf person could have missed the way his name seemed to crop up in just about every argument.  He had always attributed it to him being so much trouble growing up.

 

He was too. His father had nearly had a coronary when the CIA had shown up at his front door wanting to talk to twelve-year-old Rodney. Foreign government agencies aside, he had disassembled almost every piece of electronic equipment in the house. Just about drove the poor man through the roof.

"McKay?" Sheppard leaned forward, having noticed the silence coming from the cot.

 

McKay felt all the color drain from his face. When particularly pissed off about whatever his genius son had done, Rodney's father liked to use the phrase "your son" with his mother. Just the usual shifting of responsibility to the other parent; it wasn't actually supposed to mean something.

 

"Rodney?" It was Carson's turn to be concerned.

 

Always, 'your son took apart my television during the commercial break', 'look what your son did', and of course 'your son has been building atomic bombs in the basement again'. All of those long buried moments came rushing back. Each one gave more credence to Carson's cracked half-sibling theory, and a disturbing new insight into his own past.

 

"Rodney," Sheppard insisted harder, lowering his head so he was eye-level with the scientist.

 

Rodney snapped back to the present, staring at Sheppard with wide eyes. "I..."

 

Sheppard watched him patiently, waiting for the rest of the statement.

 

"I need air—" Rodney shoved past Sheppard, using his crutches as a lifeline.

 

Sheppard and Carson exchanged quick concerned looks.

 

"Rodney, you really shouldn't be—"

 

"If you don't want me to walk, give me a damn chair!" The scientist snapped as he wobbled, trying to get his balance. John reached over to steady him, only to have his hand frantically slapped away. "Just let me get out of here right now!"

 

"Your leg—"

 

"Carson!" The name came out strangled.

 

Carson eyed his patient. True, he had intended to release him from the infirmary in the next day or so, but it was too early for him to be hobbling across half of Atlantis on crutches. "Take a chair."

 

Rodney fidgeted, casting a nervous glance beyond the pulled curtain.

 

"I think I saw one near your real cot." The Scot really didn't like the wild look in his patient's eyes. He could drug him until the panic abated, but that would only delay the problem. "Just be careful. You're still healing."

 

Rodney didn't need to hear anymore than that, and possibly fearing forced sedation, fled the impromptu isolated section faster than he should've been able to. The fading staccato of crutches hitting the floor signaled his exit.

 

Sheppard started after him, but Carson caught the pilot by the arm.

 

"I wouldn't."

 

"Carson! He's—"

 

"John," Carson's firm tone caused the Air Force man to look at him, "he needs some space. He just had a big shock."

 

"Yeah, well I think I got the same shock."

 

"No offense, but you just gained a brother." Sheppard sucked in a quick breath at that. "Rodney may have just lost a father."

 

For John, the tiny curtained area had become far too small, far too quick. Actually, the almost deserted infirmary seemed a bit too crowded at the moment. "You know, I think I might like some air too."

 

Carson frowned at him and Sheppard smiled feebly.

 

"Far away from Rodney," he assured the physician.

 

"Not too far," Carson said softly, eyes straying to the direction Rodney had left. "Maybe I should trail after him?"

 

"I'll get him." John's gaze followed the same path. "Just give him enough time to cool off."

"I'll be here if you need anything."

 

Carson moved to give Sheppard a reassuring squeeze to the shoulder and tried not to let it hurt too much when his hand was shrugged off.

 

"Thanks... I'll bring him back soon," John said absently.

 

"Aye," Carson agreed.

 

The colonel turned to him to say something, but then seemed to think better of it, and shook his head. With a quick muttered goodbye, he too was gone.

 

Alone in the infirmary, Carson sighed, picking up the discarded folder and stuffed the papers he had gathered in it. Guilt gnawed at him. Two of his friends were now hurting because he couldn't contain his curiosity. He looked down at the folder, his own Pandora's Box. Once opened, it could never be closed.

 

Quickly he took the offensive item to his office, and shredded it, over and over, until nothing on the pages was close to legible.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The chair would have just slowed Rodney down, and he hadn't even looked at it as he hobbled out of the infirmary as if on fire.

 

A soft snitch of the rubber tips of the crutches connecting with the Ancient flooring echoed around him. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough noise to drive away the jumble of thoughts and realizations crashing down on him.

 

He huffed as he increased his pace, barely missing a passing marine, who gave the determined and hobbling figure a curious look. He ignored the stare, trying very hard to focus on the way his shirt jammed into his armpit with each shuffling step he took.

 

Snitch. Snitch. Snitch.

 

It had happened when he was five.

 

Rodney had been sitting in the living room, disassembling an old toaster, trying to explain to his father the mechanisms behind the coils heating up. Bouncing Jeannie on one knee, his father had just nodded patiently and asked innocent questions, as if he had never comprehended what made his toast so crispy and brown every morning.

 

Rodney lost himself staring at the bundles of wire below the stripped protective covering, not noticing that his father's questions had ceased. When Rodney finally pulled his fascination away long enough to ask why copper was used as opposed to the far more conductive silver, he could see his father staring at him with an expression he had not seen before up to that point in his life.

 

Later he would see it reflected on professors' and colleagues' faces when he corrected their wildly inaccurate equations. Disdain. Anger. Shock... and sudden comprehension.

 

The answers to his questions became short, terse, before the toaster was finally taken from him and Rodney was left to watch a happy gurgling baby sister. Angry shouts from the next room drove him to pull out the confiscated coils so he could try and explain their significance to the wide-eyed toddler next to him.

 

The cause of the incident had always eluded Rodney.

 

The constant pressure of his quick steps had begun to chafe at his underarms. Unconsciously his fingers tightened on the crutch supporting his weight.

 

Now, though, Rodney understood.

 

That was the day his father realized the son he was raising wasn't actually his.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

It was like some giant cosmic joke. John was forty years old and in another galaxy, and his father was still finding ways to interfere with his life.

 

Oh, John, a brochure for Harvard came in the mail. I've got a friend in the admissions office, so you won't have to worry too much about that essay. By the way, John, I've got a general who owes me a favor. He assures me that the Air Force can just conveniently lose your enlistment papers. While we're not on the subject, I might have forgotten to mention cheating on your mother while I was setting up our Canadian headquarters way back when. Oh, and there's just the slight possibility that loudmouth you insist on taking with you everywhere might be your illegitimate half-brother. But it's your life, son, and if you think it's best...

 

It just went to show that Patrick Sheppard's hold on him was insidious and as far reaching as the Pegasus Galaxy.

 

Without realizing it, John had found himself at the gym. He watched as a marine tried to charge Ronon, only to be clotheslined when the Satedan sidestepped the maneuver. The large man flipped his dreadlocks out of his face and tipped his chin in a greeting.

 

"You up next?"

 

Without hesitation, John shucked off his jacket and took up a spot on the mat. "God, yes."

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The red scrubs of the infirmary escapee were attracting too much attention, so Rodney had to swing by his quarters for something a little less conspicuous. Changing out of his pants proved too difficult as his leg was starting to stiffen up. So he settled on changing out his shirt and grabbed a spare jacket.

 

If he had been less harried, and not under the influence of at least one painkiller, he might have realized that green, red, and gray wasn't exactly the most flattering combination of colors. And even if he wasn't, none of Rodney's many PhDs were in fashion.

 

He briefly considered just laying down on his bed and staying there until the Harpy Squad came looking for him. The room was far too small, though, and the bits of his past on his wall kept bringing back more memories. Rodney didn't have a single picture of his family, but it didn't mean that every time he looked at his diploma from Northwestern he wouldn't remember Jeannie's excited phone call telling him she had applied at his alma mater.

 

So he resumed his quest to find wide open spaces, not caring that he looked like a dying Christmas tree.

 

However the relative freedom of an endless hallway or the dull ache in his leg could not stop him from thinking things or asking himself a million rhetorical questions. Like why his father hadn't left his mother earlier. Why he had waited for Jeannie to graduate high school before filing for divorce. Why he had been the supportive parent for Rodney, when he hadn't actually been a parent to him at all. He couldn't fathom raising a child who he knew, or at least strongly suspected, was a physical reminder of his significant other's infidelity. There was no logic in it.

 

The grips on his crutches were growing damp with sweat as his ambling took him further away from the city center. He was also starting to seriously consider tottering back to his quarters to down several Tylenol from his medicine cabinet.

 

Of course, he could have been adopted. Maybe he had been left on a doorstep by the Kirk of Days Gone By and was taken in by the quasi-kindly Canadian couple. It was just a coincidence he shared a striking resemblance to his mother, who Jeannie was also taking a lot after. At least she had the last time he had seen her.

 

Then another disturbing thought occurred to him.

 

Did this make him half-American?

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Blood was thicker than water.

 

John was never one for sentiments, especially that one.

 

He picked himself off the floor, feeling his abdomen protest at the movement. Of course Ronon would catch him with the same maneuver he had with the marine. "Nice one."

 

"You're distracted."

 

"Am not." John had seen far too much blood in his lifetime, and there were times it flowed just like water.

 

John feinted to the left, trying to dart behind his sparring opponent. Ronon seemed to anticipate this move and blocked him with a quickly extended leg. John went down in a tangle of limbs, and turned to glare at the Satedan.

 

"Distracted," Ronon confirmed.

 

"I'm just getting warmed up," John grumbled, getting to his feet.

 

Ronon was watching him, to the casual observer looking almost bored with the proceedings. The ever so slightly peaked brow told John that he was being studied closely. The pilot slowly circled his opponent, narrowing his gaze as he tried to focus on any physical cues from Ronon for his next move.

 

There were two problems with that. The first being that Ronon never gave anything away in a fight. John found himself on the mat again, staring at the ceiling. The second problem was that Ronon was right. He was distracted. By blood, DNA, and everything he didn't want to think about.

 

A hand appeared, offering to help him up. John grabbed it without hesitation, letting Ronon haul him to his feet.

 

He rolled his shoulders. "Best two out of three?"

 

Ronon shrugged. "If you insist."

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Rodney wasn't going to eat apple pie and hot dogs.

 

Well, okay, he was, because they were delicious, but he drew the line at doing it out of some misplaced sense of nationalism for a country he hadn't been born to. He had never understood the whole concept of showing patriotism via food consumption. He certainly didn't feel the maple leaf on his shoulder glow a bright proud red when he ate pancakes and maple syrup.

 

Dad had really liked those pancakes.

 

Damn it, no!

 

He had come out to this balcony to distance himself from his daddy issues, not wallow in them. And he might have not chosen said balcony for its view, rather that it was closer than his quarters, and the dull ache in his leg had become more of a slow throb. He probably should have gone back to the infirmary, but that would involve talking to Carson, who was entirely responsible for said issues.

 

Of course, there was always the possibility that he had it backwards and his dad had been the one to cheat on his mother, making Sheppard part-McKay.

 

But then they could also perfect travel at some point in the future. John Sheppard would then journey to the past in order seduce his poor Grammy. He shuddered at that thought. All that he knew is that he certainly wouldn't be risking a temporal paradox unlike some Shatner-esque people he knew.

 

And perhaps that was a teensy bit unfair, but he had a hard time caring at the moment.

 

He had managed to drive away every person with any sort of family tie to him. Jeannie had held on the longest, but in the end he had ruined that relationship too. The tiny group of people he had grown close to here on Atlantis were a surrogate family, but they had never been obligated to care about him. He was starting to wonder maybe if it was that familial obligation that was tripping him up. If someone had to care because they were expected to, perhaps it injected a little bit of falsehood into all the sentiments expressed between those individuals. And that eventually built up to the point where it all fell apart.

 

He and Sheppard had enough lingering issues from Doranda. They certainly didn't need any imagined obligations adding to the strain of a still-repairing friendship.

 

He bowed his head into the breeze that wafted over the side. "This really sucks."

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

John caught the bottle of water that was tossed to him and drank greedily. He was parched, exhausted, and bruised. The raging torrent of emotions had quieted to a dull ache, but he hadn't been able to beat them down completely. Now he only felt the urge to short sheet his father's bed rather than take an actual swing at the man.

 

"Feel better?" Ronon rumbled behind his own bottle.

 

"Some," John admitted reluctantly, eyeing the mat that had been occupied by the next set of sparring partners.

 

"Want to go again?"

 

"I say yes, but my body says no," John cracked a smile.

 

"Need to talk?"

 

John just looked at him, and Ronon gave him half-smirk in return.

 

"Right. Forgot who I was talking to."

 

John snorted, setting the water down in favor of grabbing one of the clean towels. "You don't exactly strike me as the sharing type either, big guy."

 

Ronon mirrored his actions as he toweled off the sweat covering him. "I'm not. Teyla's just persistent."

 

"She is at that." The words muffled a little as he rubbed his face dry. He paused long enough to ask the next question. "What do you guys talk about?"

 

"Athos. Sateda." Ronon shrugged and picked up the bottle. "The past."

 

John wrinkled his nose. It struck almost too close to home, but there was no way Ronon could know what was really going through his head. "Not my favorite subject, I'll give you that."

 

"Mine either." He paused, mid-sip as he gave his team leader a searching look. "Ignoring it doesn't change it though."

 

It sure made thinking a lot more bearable. "Your words or Teyla's?"

 

"Mine."

 

"Huh." John raised an eyebrow at that. "Got a little bit of philosopher in you?"

 

"A little," Ronon grinned, his bared teeth almost resembling a lion.

 

John draped the towel across his shoulders as he sat heavily on a bench. "What does your philosophy say about change?"

 

"Depends on what's changing."

 

Everything.

 

"Anything in particular?" Ronon asked a little too innocently.

 

"Nothing," John waved a hand quickly. His hand stilled mid-air, as he realized how Rodney-like the action had been. He dropped the hand to grab the bottle of water again, and cleared his throat. "Absolutely nothing."

 

"I don't know." Ronon twisted away so he could grab a second bottle of water. Like knives, he had an endless supply. "You've finally left the infirmary. That's different."

 

"I haven't been there that much."

 

His teammate shrugged noncommittally. "More than usual."

 

"Lies." Okay, half-truth. He had been there, but only to try and figure out what Carson was hiding. Part of him wished he had left well enough alone. The other part...

 

"All right, maybe a little," John amended.

 

Ronon studied him for a moment. "You want to try to pick up Torrell's trail again?"

 

John tried not to look startled by the train of thought. He hadn't thought about that – well, since he had played folder-frisbee with Rodney. He might've been tempted by the offer earlier this morning, but vengeance had taken a back burner. Especially since he had new priorities. "The trail's even colder now than it was the first time."

 

Ronon grunted, as if John had just insulted his tracking skills. "Another round, then?"

 

"No," John laughed dryly, "I'm done."

 

"Target practice?"

 

"My need for violence has passed," John assured him, leaning back into the wall and closing his eyes. Whether he liked it or not he had to think about his next move with Rodney. He couldn't stay in the gym forever getting the stuffing kicked out of him. Eventually Ronon would get bored; and McKay deserved more than that.

 

"He's going to be fine," Ronon rumbled.

 

John cracked an eye open. "Who?"

 

"McKay."

 

He wasn't so sure about that, judging by how quickly Rodney had managed to disappear from the infirmary. "Of course he is."

 

There was also a chance he was still hobbling across half the city trying to outrun the same thing that was haunting John. He let his head fall back against the wall, banging against it lightly. Maybe he just needed a few more bruises to get his head back in order.

 

Because shit, Rodney was his—

 

"What's the problem then?"

 

He shot Ronon a look, partly for interrupting his train of thought, and partly because he was far too astute for being ignorant of the situation. "You're like a dog with a bone."

 

His answer as an annoyed grunt.

 

"The problem is... complicated." Like the fact that John really sucked at the whole family thing. He had a whole clan of Sheppards who could attest to that. After the day was over, he wondered if Rodney would join their ranks.

 

"Massively complicated," John added unnecessarily.

 

"You avoiding it?"

 

"More like delaying."

 

He had just needed to clear his head before seeking Rodney out. It wouldn't do for Patrick Sheppard to be a dark specter hovering over their inevitable conversation. Had it been anyone else but Rodney, John might have been tempted to keep 'delaying' the issue with Ronon.

 

Although if he delayed much longer, he had a feeling that Carson was going to send someone searching for the injured man. He was sure that he would have heard from Beckett if McKay had returned to the infirmary. Meaning he was still wandering around on that leg. With a sigh John levered himself up.

 

His body felt like one giant bruise. Next time he needed to think, he'd just take his clubs down to the south pier. "Thanks... I think."

 

"Anytime." Ronon settled back to watch the next match.

 

John bid him a farewell and limped out of the gym. As much as he hated the whole emotional entanglement aspect of this whole situation, part of John felt as if this was the natural course of action. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, giving the whole big brother thing another shot.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

John finally found him on a balcony away from the city's center, huddled in a mismatched jacket and staring blankly at the horizon. Sheppard paused at the door frame, not sure if he was welcome. Giving McKay a once over, John didn't like what he saw. The scientist's pallor was almost gray in the waning light and he was sitting awkwardly in order to stretch out his injured leg. He pulled the jacket around himself tighter as a light sea breeze wafted over the balcony.

 

"Are you just going to stand there all night?" Rodney mumbled from his roost.

 

"I was trying to give you space."

 

"It works better without you hovering in doorways."

 

"I can go." John said and started to pull away. He wouldn't go very far—just enough to call Beckett.

 

"You can stay—I think I've sorted through most of it."

 

Needing no further invitation John joined the other man on the floor of the balcony, resting his back against the wall. The sun was just sinking beyond the horizon as dusk started to settle over the landscape. Far below, waves crashed against one of the piers, barely heard over Rodney's jacket rustling softly in the wind.

 

"You stink," Rodney muttered after about a minute of silence.

 

"I thought you said you had worked through—"

 

"No, I mean you smell," Rodney gave him a sideways look, "worse than week old road kill."

 

"I dress to impress." John nudged Rodney's scrub-clad knee with his own. "Unlike some people I know."

 

"At least I don't smell like dead animals."

 

"Yeah, well at least I don't look like a depressed Christmas tree."

 

Rodney's gaze drifted to his hastily put together ensemble. "It's not that bad."

 

"My retinas beg to differ."

 

"So does my nose, but I'm not rubbing it in."

 

"Yes, you are."

 

"No, I'm not—okay, maybe I am. But seriously, you couldn't take a shower before sitting like two inches away from me?"

 

"I would have had time but someone didn't take a wheelchair like they were told to."

 

"You're not my mother..." Rodney winced. It was still too soon for that type of comeback to be funny.

 

In the spirit of their newfound brotherhood, John decided to rescue him from the uncomfortable moment. "Takes a little getting used to, doesn't it?"

 

Rodney nodded mutely and turned his gaze back to the horizon and John did the same, letting the balcony once again lapse into silence.

 

Well, this was awkward.

 

The silenced seeped away at the relaxed air established by their normal banter. Rodney made no move to strike conversation back up, gaze firmly fixed away from John. If he waited for the other man to start again, it was likely that they would be here all night. Considering that Rodney's pasty complexion had absolutely nothing to do with the amount of time he spent in the sun, expediency was probably a good idea.

 

Meaning it was up to John to lead the conversation.

 

Not exactly his strong point. After a few clumsy and thankfully silent failed starts, he decided to start vague and work his way from there.

 

"I've been thinking."

 

"It hurt?"

 

The molding on the architecture poked at one of the fresh, Ronon-acquired bruises. "You have no idea."

 

Rodney cracked a smile at that.

 

John decided to get back on topic, because it wasn't getting any easier to talk sitting out here than it had been with Ronon in the gym. "We're not our parents and we already don't follow in their footsteps."

 

Rodney didn't respond, forcing John to continue with his clumsy monologue. "Why let decisions they made more than thirty years ago determine what we do?"

 

"Oh, thank God," Rodney breathed.

 

Some of the weight that had been sitting on John's shoulders fell away at the relief in Rodney's voice. It seemed like they were on the same page so far. "Yeah?"

 

"Yeah," the scientist let out a shaky laugh, "you see I've been terrified of having to face this."

 

"I know. Me too."

 

"I'm just glad we're in agreement here." Rodney forged ahead before John could reply. "I mean, if we don't do anything it's not like anyone would know. Other than Carson and his questionable DNA tests, which I still would like a second opinion on, but that goes against the whole not doing anything. Anyway, it's not something we have to share."

 

The beginnings of something started gnawing deep in his gut, but Sheppard ignored it. "Well, it's not like making a public announcement would help things here."

 

"It's better this way," Rodney continued, either not hearing or choosing to not acknowledge the caution in John's tone. "I mean really, what would it change, pretending to be brothers? I'm not one for overly-maudlin sentiments, you know that. But we've just gotten through that Doranda mess. Despite your gravity-defying hair and fondness for death wishes, I like being your friend."

 

At the last statement Rodney finally looked up, giving John an intense, honest, and very raw look.

 

He wanted to say something in kind, but couldn't seem to wrap his tongue around any of the sappy responses that would be appropriate. So, he went with what was comfortable: humor. "Well, I'm not such a bad guy."

 

"No, on a good day you're almost tolerable," Rodney mustered a ghost of his usual cocky grin. "I'm... I'm just glad we're going to let this go."

 

Rodney was just winding up, effectively cutting John off from getting any word in edgewise. Or perhaps that was the idea.

 

"This would just be one more thing I'd have to fit into my life. I mean, I've already got the whole unappreciated genius thing going on. Then there's the overworked supervisor part. People can't do a damn thing without me holding their hands. Zelenka's like a lost puppy, I swear."

It seemed between the cool sea air and the emotions he was expounding, Rodney was growing paler by the minute.

 

"Then there's the other half that's waiting for me to freak out or relapse into the whole enzyme addiction. Which is stupid, because I'm far more likely to destroy another solar system—"

 

John stopped the self-depreciating rant with a curt, "McKay!"

 

Tired blue eyes focused on him, and the words stopped spilling over. John could feel the gnawing in his stomach turn into a cold, dead void inside him even as he plastered an easy smile on his face – and told Rodney exactly what he needed to hear.

 

"Don't worry about it."

 

A good portion of anxiety poured out of the other man at those words. Despite the ache deep in his gut, that was only partially due to his workout with Ronon, John knew he had made the right decision.

 

"You look like shit, by the way."

 

"You're a real cheerleader, you know that, Colonel?"

 

"It's my job." John rested a hand on Rodney's shoulder, ignoring the annoyed look tossed his way. "I think you've used up your free time."

 

"I'm fine here, thanks."

 

"Yes, that's why you're turning a lovely shade of blue. Really clashes with the whole Christmas theme you've got going."

 

"No one asked your opinion, Lieutenant Colonel Fashionista."

 

"I wonder what Carson would think of it."

 

"Snitch."

 

"One day, you'll thank me." Using his grip on Rodney's shirt, John managed to get them both to a standing position.

 

"Gestapo."

 

"You know, some people might show some appreciation for all of this effort."

 

"They're not being manhandled."

 

A hiss escaped the scientist as he settled too much weight on his bad leg. Immediately John's hand started snaking towards his earpiece.

 

"I'm... I'm fine."

 

"You sound fine."

 

A tiny, niggling voice in the back of John's mind insisted that there was something else he could say or do. He quickly squashed it down as he half-dragged Rodney back towards the infirmary.

He was looking out for the welfare of his family, which was more important than any paltry unmentionable sentiments.

 

As their journey progressed, Rodney began to lean onto John heavier. He pretended not to notice how the scientist's grip tightened with each step, and instead wondered aloud if tinsel would go with Rodney's ensemble.

 

Because in the end, that was what a real brother did.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

"He'll be all right," Carson said quietly as Rodney lost the battle with sleep, slipping into a light slumber. "Looks like he just overexerted himself."

 

"Big surprise there," John muttered, arms crossed.

 

"You two work things out?"

 

John didn't look at Carson, just stared intently at the dozing figure on the bed. "Yeah, we did."

 

Carson had been afraid that their friendship might suffer because of his findings, especially when they didn't reappear after a long while. He had been about to send out a search party for his wayward patient when Sheppard had finally brought Rodney back, each sniping at the other like usual. The bickering was so normal it was actually a relief. Carson secretly hoped that it might even be a sign of a forming kinship between the two.

 

"That's good," Carson smiled, but it died away as tension radiated from the man standing next to him. "John?"

 

"We," the word was almost spat, "have decided to let it drop."

 

"What do you mean?"

 

"I mean we," there was less hesitation on the word this time, "don't need any DNA tests to tell us how to act."

 

Carson shook his head slightly. "That's not—"

 

"Just make sure those papers are destroyed." John's pursed his lips into a thin line. "He—we don't want this coming up again."

 

"John..."

 

"Carson," he cut the other man off, "it's fine."

 

With John Sheppard one had to listen for more than what he just said, because the man was the master of talking around a matter. And the implication behind that statement didn't sit well with the Scot at all.

 

"No," he snapped back, "it is not bloody 'fine' or even remotely fair to you. You daft, self-sacrificing—"

 

"Last week you told me to finish War and Peace."

 

Carson blinked, stopped mid-lecture by the abrupt change in subject. "What?"

 

"After the time dilation field," John's voice had quieted, "you told me to distract myself with a good book."

 

"You've lost me."

 

"I don't read when I need a distraction."

 

Carson shook his head, not following the logic.

 

"To keep from going back—" One of John's hands gestured helplessly, trying to illustrate what he couldn't put into words. "I... I don't read, okay?"

 

It clicked then. What John was saying, or not saying in this case, as well as the reason for the absurd amount of childish antics over the past week. "Oh."

 

"Tolstoy's dead." John flexed his jaw. "He's not going anywhere."

 

"Neither is he," Carson motioned to the bed.

 

"The decision on what to do is ours," and at that John made sure to differentiate that he was only including Rodney, not Carson, in that 'ours'. "Right?"

 

"Yes," Carson agreed, reluctantly, "it is."

 

"Then it's a closed subject." John gave the Scot a long, hard look. "Never to be opened again."

 

"But—"

 

"Closed," John insisted.

 

Carson sighed and held up his hands in surrender. "Aye, it's closed."

 

Rodney muttered something incoherent in his sleep as he shifted restlessly on the cot. Sheppard chewed the inside of his lip as he watched, looking as if he was having some sort of internal debate. Carson let him be and instead busied himself with checking a nearby chart. After a few moments he stole a glance back in John's direction. The pilot started towards the bed but stopped after a few steps. A soft, resigned sigh emanated from him as he ran a hand through his hair.

 

Carson pursed his lips. The hand remained tangled in the pilot's hair as he looked at the sleeping scientist with a troubled expression.

 

Despite the vehement insistence on the whole matter being resolved, Carson wasn't so sure. From John's nervous actions and Carson's own experience growing up in a large family, it seemed that the line between friendship and kinship was often blurry at best.

 

Sensing his gaze, John looked up at Carson. He quickly dropped his eyes back to the charts, feeling the aggravated stare bore into his back.

 

From firsthand experience, Carson also knew that "closed subjects" often had a way of reopening themselves... and usually at the most inopportune time.

The End
(for now)

Thicker Than Water