"Wit's End"

by Grey Lupous

 

Summary: Everyone has their breaking point -- including one Dr. Rodney McKay.

Spoilers: None really, although in my mind it takes place late Season 3, pre-"Sunday". Some small ones could have creeped in, but they're probably general.


Author's Notes: This was my... second attempt at writing a humor story for this year's SGA Genficathon (see "Into the Woods" for how I finally managed it), for the prompt "slavery, captivity, or hostages". Somewhere in the wee hours of the morning struggling to wake up I thought, "Hey! Time loops are always funny!" And they are--except when I write them, then they get dark. So yes, this guy is darker than my normal stuff, although I don't think it requires any warnings beyond that, as everything is more or less put back into place by the end of the story.

Beta: Gayle, Gayle, the wonderful Gayle, who sayed up late with me Sunday and Monday night as I furiously typed out those final scenes.

Special Thanks: This was a team effort, I swear! Water Soter, for hand holding and demanding to see each scene after its completion, and for hand holding above and beyond the call of duty. My buddy, Muzz, for letting me use up his cell phone minutes as I worked through the particulars, for helping me come up with the villain's name, and of course, the disturbing image of John Sheppard in a high school cheerleader's outfit. And a big thanks to X-Parrot for writing "Games of Chance", which had a hand in the inspiration of this monstrosity.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A bead of sweat trickled its way down Rodney's neck even as the gun dug further between his shoulder blades. Out of the corner of his eye he could see his teammates bristle as they received a similar treatment from their captors.

Ronon practically trembled with rage, the blood trickling from the cut near his temple only adding to his feral image. Teyla's position was stiff, but he could see anger radiating from her small form as she eyed the pacing figure. Sheppard's jaw clenched tighter as the figure halted his pacing and knelt in front of Rodney.

Rodney stiffened, the movement causing the thug to push the barrel of the primitive gun further into his spine. He forced himself to look at the man in front of him, and still wasn't sure if he should be spitting fire like his teammates or sobbing with laughter.

"You will tell me how to operate this machine." The ridiculously overdressed villager waved his hand at the console in the center of the platform. "Or else."

"Or else what?" Rodney rolled his eyes. "You'll kill me with your melodramatic gestures?"

The hand flailed helplessly in outrage at the lack of fear he was instilling in his victim. "I am not melodramatic!"

"You just finished a monologue worthy of a James Bond villain, complete with ridiculous plans for galactic conquest!"

"Rodney," Sheppard's sotto voice cautioned.

"Like I can take anyone wearing a fur cape seriously!"

"Hey!" The villain clutched at said cape.

"It's like thirty degrees Celsius out here. Why the hell are you wearing fur?"

"It's the only material that befits my royal status—"

"Royal?" Rodney barked a laugh. "Are you king of the clichés now?"

His adversary's face morphed into one of disgust and he snapped his fingers as he stood. The gun digging into Rodney's back disappeared, but before relief could overtake him a strong pair of hands dragged him to his feet.

"Ow! Watch it!"

Out of the corner of his eye he could see Sheppard lunge forward, only to be clubbed over the head for his efforts.

Rodney's cry of "Hey!" was almost drowned out by Ronon's deep-throated growl and Teyla's angry protest.

With a melodramatic flick of the wrist from his employer, Sheppard's guard raised the butt of his shotgun for another blow.

"Stop it!" Rodney shouted, twisting in the grip dragging him away from his team. "I'll—I'll do it... just stop."

He honestly had no idea what he was supposed to do, but as he watched Sheppard's form slump forward, he realized that he would at least have to pretend. Ronon was being held at bay by two thugs now, although he suspected it was Teyla's hand on his forearm that was staying his action rather than the double-guard.

"Excellent." Steepled fingers tapped together as the villain stopped in front of the large console sitting in the center of the ruins.

Rodney shrugged the hands off him as he stumbled forward, catching himself on the machine. An angry growl emanated from behind him, and Rodney just hoped that Ronon could reign in his temper long enough for the scientist to figure a way out of this situation. He grabbed the tablet that had been left on top of the station, frowning at the display.

"That's not right," he muttered softly and scrolled through the various graphs detailing the power usage.

Rodney had only brought the system online, giving it just enough power so he could run a few tests to figure out its function within the ruins. According to the program interface, it had been brought to full operations, which concerned him, but not nearly as much as the flashing error message. The translation software kept giving him garbled results, which was also wrong. It was like someone had just started randomly pressing buttons.

The uncomfortable feeling of fur brushing against his arm told Rodney that the leader of their merry band of kidnappers had come up next to him. "Do not mutter."

"I'm not muttering." Rodney speared him with a look, because some habits die hard. "What the hell did you do?"

"Do?" The other man sputtered. "I was trying to make it work!"

"Well, congratulations, it didn't work!"

The tablet was wrenched from his hands as the stranger frowned at the alien display. "I don't understand."

"Well, maybe you would if your brain wasn't the size of peanut!"

Pain exploded in the side of his head almost the same time that Rodney found himself reeling and blindly grabbing for something to break his fall. The sound of scuffling forced him to open his eyes. Ronon and Teyla were in the process of beating the thugs holding them to a bloody pulp, and Sheppard, who apparently had been faking the severity of his injury, was currently wrestling with his own guard for control of the local, primitive version of a rifle.

A fisted grip tugged at his shoulder, and indicated the cracked display of the tablet. "Fix it!"

His head pounded as he stared at the figures beneath the cracked, blood-stained plastic. A quick, shaky touch to his temple came away sticky and wet and rewarded him with a hot jolt of pain at the site of injury. That certainly explained the angry pounding – but he wasn't sure if it was responsible for what he was seeing on the damaged screen.

Underneath the fractured display, a graph illustrated an energy level rising to a dramatic spike. "Oh, that's really not good."

The other man shook him roughly, and Rodney fumbled for control on the console. Something depressed under his groping hand, and a sick feeling settled in his stomach. "Oh, crap."

Energy crackled around the console, racing up his arms and down his spine. He barely heard the dim, alarmed cry of his name before the entire world disappeared in a flash of white. He was enveloped by something impossibly hot and cold, and the world faded back in.

Rodney stood next to the console, tablet clutched in his hands. He tried to blink away the disorientation – should have been blinking away dark spots from the flash of light – but his vision was clear. In fact, his head was free of the pounding and when he reached up a hand to his temple, smooth, unbroken skin met his touch.

"Maybe you're just out of practice."

Rodney looked up from the tablet display that was looping crazily to see a bright, mischievous grin from Sheppard.

Past a suddenly dry throat, Rodney just stared. "What?"

"I just said, maybe you're out of practice."

Rodney shook his head. "This is... this isn't right."

The grin dimmed slightly as Sheppard seemed to recognize his genuine confusion. "Hey, you all right?"

Rodney's eyes drifted to the tablet in his hands, the energy on the graph having leveled out, but garbled figures still cycling through on one corner of the screen. He looked around wildly, seeing Teyla standing at the edge of the ruins while Ronon prowled the perimeter impatiently. It was just them, all alone. He turned back to stare at Sheppard in confusion.

"What just happened?"

Sheppard frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I mean where the hell are they?"

"Who's they?"

"Who... the Dr. Evil reject who just ambushed us!"

The frown deepened and Rodney found a hand resting lightly on his shoulder as the pilot squinted, leaning uncomfortably close into Rodney's face, as if he was trying to figure out something. "Did you hit your head?"

"No I—" Rodney trailed off, "actually, I did."

"Your pupils aren't dilated."

Rodney's eyes drifted down to the hand still resting casually on his shoulder, freezing as he spied Sheppard's watch. "What the hell?"

A soft, almost aggrieved sigh met his complaint. "What now?"

"Your watch is off."

"No, it's not."

Rodney shrugged off the hand, dropping the tablet roughly on the console as he brought his own watch to bear, finding the same time. "Oh crap."

"You're starting to worry me."

"Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap," Rodney chanted, grabbing the tablet so he could check the time on bottom, right-hand side of the computer screen.

"Rodney..."

"Impossible, this has to be impossible."

"Hey, McKay," the hand returned to his shoulder and Rodney was forced to look Sheppard in the eye, "mind letting me in on the big secret?"

"This is going to sound a little crazy, but I think..."

"What?"

"I think," Rodney gulped, "I just got sent back in time."

"All right, that's it." The hand gripping his shoulder steered him over to the steps. "You need to sit while we pack up."

"No, I'm serious, I—"

"Teyla," Sheppard caught her eye, "go get Ronon and gather our gear. We need to get McKay back to Atlantis."

She flashed him a concerned glance and Rodney tried to rise, but was pushed firmly back to a sitting position. "You don't understand—"

Sheppard gave her an imploring look, and she silently withdrew.

"I'm fine!" Rodney insisted, but the hand holding him down didn't budge.

"You just admitted you hit your head."

"Well, technically that hasn't happened yet."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes, really!"

"Because you were sent back in time?"

"Don't patronize me!" Rodney pulled his shoulder free from the grasp and shoved himself back to his feet. "That stupid excuse for a megalomaniac bashed me over the head with the tablet."

"And why would this mystery man do that?"

"Because I insulted him."

"Well, it's what you do."

"Gee, thanks," Rodney sneered, making his way back towards the console in the center of the platform. "I think I accidentally pressed something when we were scrabbling for control."

"Think?"

"Well I could have had a minor concussion from being beaten with my own computer."

"But now you don't have one."

"Exactly, because it hasn't happened yet."

"And when is our mystery villain going to show up to heap all of this abuse on you?"

"Oh," Rodney consulted his watch, eyes widening, "right about now."

"Are you serious?" Sheppard's voice dropped to a low note as he raised his gun and glanced around the clearing.

"Oh, yes," Rodney tittered and tapped his earpiece. "Uh, Ronon. You may want to be on the lookout for some brutish thugs wielding shotguns."

Silence met his request. Sheppard's eyes narrowed as he tapped his own earpiece. "Ronon, Teyla, come back."

He exchanged a wary look with Rodney as their hails remained unanswered. "I don't like this."

"That's what you said last time."

"Then I'm sure like last time, you'll stay here while I go to check this out."

"No, don't!"

But he was already gone, P-90 hefted high. Indecision warred within Rodney before he set the tablet down and raced after Sheppard. Last time he had actually listened, and all that had gotten him was a shotgun buried between his shoulders as his teammates were forced to surrender their fight. He was not going to play hostage scientist this round.

"Wait up!" He called to the retreating form, making it as far as the edge of the platform before a beefy hand closed around the back of his tac-vest and yanked him back.

He gulped. "I don't suppose that's you, Ronon."

The distinct uncomfortable sensation of an arm pressing into his windpipe confirmed that, no, it was not Ronon.

"Damn it, Rodney I told you to—" Sheppard's annoyed rant died off as he snapped his P-90 up. "Let him go."

"Put your gun down."

The tip of the P-90 didn't waver. "Aren't you supposed to see this coming, time traveler?"

"Oh, shut up!" Rodney gasped past the pressure around his throat.

He could see Sheppard's hands gripping the P-90 tighter as his eyes narrowed. "I'm not going to warn you again."

The arm tightened its grip, and Rodney's vision swam as he tried to desperately suck in air. He clawed at the arm around his throat, but he couldn't seem to get a good grip. Darkness started to edge in at the corners of his vision before the pressure was released. He didn't realize he was stumbling until two hands latched onto his shoulders, keeping him from falling.

"A little warning next time might help." Sheppard's fingers dug into his uniform, bringing him back to reality.

"I gave you warning," Rodney gulped in precious lungfuls of air, "you just thought I was crazy."

"No," Sheppard's grip steadied him as they were marched back to the platform. "I thought you had a head injury."

"I did, well, I didn't. Not yet."

"You can see why I might be a little confused."

"Stuff it!"

They were shoved onto their knees again, and the all-too familiar pressure of a shotgun barrel dug into his back.

"Déjà vu," Rodney muttered.

"I suppose this also happened last time," Sheppard grumbled as he found himself on the wrong end of his own gun.

"Close enough."

The grating crackle made Rodney cringe as their badly dressed foe ambled onto the platform. "Well, well, well. We meet again."

"Who—oh, it's you." Sheppard's face fell as he recognized the crazed villager from earlier in the day. Well, earlier earlier, before the whole kidnapping and time travel thing, when the man had been a little too eager to get Rodney alone "for a chat". After Ronon had scared the little man off, they had been assured by their guide that he was mostly harmless; the spoiled, slightly off-kilter son of the wealthiest man in town. The guide had failed to mention that wealth could also buy a band of muscled henchmen.

"Yes, it is I—"

"Please don't get him started again," Rodney sighed heavily. "He spent five minutes last time boring us to death with plans for galactic domination."

"Domination?" Sheppard eyed the skinny, fur-draped man before him. "Really?"

"I plan to harness the power of this machine—"

"Become unstoppable, yes, we've heard it all before!"

"I haven't," Sheppard shrugged.

"Well, I have, and once was enough!" Rodney snapped.

"I'm having a hard time believing we've been captured by this guy twice now."

"Well, um," Rodney looked away guiltily, "you weren't quite captured per se last time."

"Oh?"

"You had the upper-hand, er, before I got taken hostage."

"Good job avoiding that this time around."

"I swear that guy wasn't there before!"

"Are you sure your non-head injury didn't just confuse you?"

"You know what? I'm not speaking to you."

"Is that supposed to upset me?"

Rodney just stared ahead blankly.

"McKay?"

"What part of not speaking don't you understand, Colonel?"

"The part where you just spoke to me."

"I didn—oh, never mind!" Rodney started to rise but the barrel dug further into his back. "Okay, you know what? That's kind of annoying."

"I just can't see why they tried to bludgeon you last round." Sheppard rolled his eyes.

Their fur-decked foe clapped his hands together, effectively gaining their attention. "Are you done yet?"

"Oh, is it time for the empty high-handed threats now?"

"Hey, McKay, try not to antagonize the men with guns."

"Oh, like you're any help," Rodney sneered. "Look, Liberachi—"

"Lupin," he corrected, annoyed.

"Whatever. We've been through this whole schtick, and like I told you last time, before you broke the machine, it doesn't work like that."

"I do not break things, Dr. Macaw!"

"McKay!"

Lupin shrugged, ambling back over to the console and the tablet.

"Hey, you mind not touching that. I only say that because last time—ow!"

The thwap to the back of his head hadn't actually been hard enough to cause any real injury, but Rodney received the message clear enough and stopped talking. Sheppard had tensed up, but at least this time around had enough sense to not get himself clobbered. Perhaps he was just waiting for Ronon and Teyla to make a move, and Rodney didn't have the heart to tell him that help probably wasn't coming, if previous experience was anything to go by.

"You," Lupin snapped his fingers at Rodney as he studied the tablet, "explain this to me."

"I don't think so." Rodney lifted his chin indignantly. "Last time I tried that you decided to break it over my skull."

"Rodney," Sheppard's voice had taken that cautioning tone again, and he was struck again with a sense of déjà vu. He shook it off, because, well, that warning happened about once a mission.

"Fine," he relented, and the pressure at the base of his spine eased some. "However, he's not going to like what I have to say."

"And that is?"

"This machine doesn't 'grant powers' like he thinks, it was designed as part of this observatory."

"And what is it supposed to do?" Lupin had paced back in front of them.

"Uh, I hadn't figured that part out yet." Rodney shrugged helplessly. "You have really awful timing."

Lupin's brow twitched. "Perhaps it is you who has the bad timing, Dr. Matté."

"What am I? French? It's McKay!"

He heard Sheppard curse softly, and turned from his verbal sparring match to see Teyla and Ronon being marched from the woods lining the ruins, hands on their heads.

"As you can see, I have all of your friends." A manicured finger tapped Rodney's forehead, and he had to suppress the rising urge to bite it. "Now if you would just stop being so stubborn, we might avoid some of this unpleasantness."

Rodney pressed his lips into a thin line. The last thing he wanted was for his team to get hurt because he hadn't been paying attention. Again.

"Okay, okay. Just let them go."

"After you make the machine work."

He shot Sheppard a desperate look, knowing the man's penchant for heroics. "Don't do anything stupid."

He was hauled to his feet in an all-too familiar fashion. This time he didn't protest, and out of the corner of his eye saw Ronon and Teyla roughly shoved to their knees next to Sheppard. Biting his lip, he tried to ignore the rising panic as he took the tablet that Lupin held out to him.

"Fix it."

Rodney studied the display, the figures still cycling through crazy loops. "That's strange."

"What?"

"Last time it looked like it was building to an overload," he scowled briefly at the other man, but left off the accusation. "It's like it's stuck."

"Stuck how?"

"I don't know, you just gave me the damn thing!" He stole a glance back at his teammates to see that they were all tense, prepared for action. Remembering what happened last time he quieted his voice. "I mean, I need more time."

Lupin impatiently smoothed the fur on the collar of his cape. "I have all the time in the world."

Rodney grit his teeth together and focused back on the tablet, hoping for some sort of answer to pop out at him. Minutes ticked by and his frustration grew, as he couldn't seem to get it to respond to him.

"Damn it!"

"You're stalling."

"I am not stalling!" Rodney snapped. "The stupid thing is broken!"

"Perhaps you just need some motivation," Lupin said, stepping forward to take one of the pilfered P-90s from one of his guards.

Rodney's eyes widened. "No, no, I'll make it work!"

"You've already promised me that."

He hefted the P-90 to bear, taking aim at Sheppard. Rodney's shouted "No!" was drowned out by the world whiting out again.

"Maybe you're just out of practice."

The world faded back on Sheppard's grin, and Rodney's grip on the tablet went lax.

"Not again," he groaned.

"Don't worry; it happens to the best of us."

"No, no, no!" Rodney cursed, bringing his watch to bear. "That's just not even funny."

"O-kay." The grin faltered at Rodney's agitation. "I take it back."

"Not you!" Rodney snapped, then paused. "Although, yes, you too."

"You all right?"

"I'm fine!" Rodney snatched the tablet up. "And no, I didn't hit my head."

"How did you—"

"Been there, done this. Third time around, try to keep up."

"What are you talking about?"

"Do you remember reading about SG-1's mission to P4X-639."

"Um, vaguely?"

"It had a device on it that kept looping the same six hours over and over again."

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Behold," Rodney waved a hand at the console, "apparently the Pegasus Galaxy variant. Except instead of six hours we get a whole seventeen minutes."

"That's a little arbitrary."

"Yes, well, so is life."

"Are you sure you didn't hit your head?"

"Yes I am, and no, don't send Teyla and Ronon to pack our things. We're about to have company."

"Company?"

"Remember the little fruit from this morning?"

Sheppard grimaced. "Unfortunately."

"Well, he's about to spring an ambush on us. And it's going to end badly for us—especially if you go gallivanting off in the woods."

"I don't really think—"

Rodney smacked the call button on his radio. "Ronon, Teyla, this is McKay. Fall back to the ruins."

"McKay?" Ronon's returning call was caught somewhere between surprise and amusement. "Isn't Sheppard the one to give those orders?"

"Yes, well he's a little slow on the uptake right now. Ambush imminent, let's circle the wagons, shall we?"

"What is he talking about?" It was apparent that the question was directed as Sheppard.

"Do what he says." Sheppard eyed the scientist warily. "Come on back."

Rodney's shoulders relaxed somewhat. "Thank you."

"I hope you know that you sound a bit..."

"Crazy? Yes, you said that last time."

"I was still thinking along the lines of a head injury."

"Oh, yeah," he hummed softly, "that's right."

"What?"

"You didn't think crazy last time. Thanks for that."

"You're welcome?"

Rodney tapped at the tablet several times, but it was still unresponsive. He sighed heavily and placed it back on the console. "This is so not good."

"What is not good?" Teyla stepped up on the platform, looking between the two.

"This thing is locked up."

"Have you tried control, alt, delete?" Sheppard asked, only half joking.

"Yes, because the Ancients used Windows hotkeys!"

Sheppard shrugged, tilting his head in greeting to Ronon. "Okay, we're all here. Now what?"

Rodney blinked and stared at them. "I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"I was too busy being held hostage to figure out strategies."

"Do you at least know when they're supposed to make their move?"

Rodney checked his watch. "Soon."

"This isn't exactly an ideal place to hold off an ambush."

"Next time loop we're caught in I'll make sure it meets your military standards!"

Sheppard sighed heavily. "Fine, you keep working on that machine. We'll see if we can't provide some cover."

Rodney pursed his lips. "Okay, um... okay."

Sheppard gave him a wary look and signaled for Teyla and Ronon to try and take cover behind some of the crumbled walls.

Without (much) further complaint, Rodney crawled under the console, determined to find a way to manually shut off power to the machine. It was dark, cramped, but he could still trace the wiring to the panel he had pried loose to bridge his computer with the machine. Energy crackled at the bridged connection, and he stilled his hand.

"Crap."

"You okay down there?" Sheppard's voice drifted to him.

"Yeah," Rodney breathed, eyeing the sparking wires, "just ran into a tiny little problem."

"How tiny?"

"Electrocution tiny," Rodney stared at the sizzling wires, trying to remember if he had brought any insulted gloves with him. Something tugged at his pant leg. "What?"

The tug insisted harder. With an annoyed huff he slid back out to face Sheppard. "What?"

"They're here."

Rodney swallowed. "Oh, right."

Sheppard's lips were pressed into a thin line. "Don't come out until I give you an all-clear."

"And if you don't?" Fear gripped him, remembering what Lupin had been about to do on the last loop.

That earned him a trademark smirk. "Ye of little faith."

"Just—"

"We'll be fine. You do your fixing thing."

Rodney nodded and disappeared back under the console. Sparks continued to fly from the panel, and his mind ran the gamut of options on how he could fix it without becoming a human Christmas tree. The sputter of P-90 fire echoed, sending his heart to his throat. He started to move back out, but a quick kick to his shin sent him further into protection of the console.

He huddled in the corner, arcing his body away from the angry, sparking panel until the gunfire disappeared in a blaze of white.

"Maybe you're just out of practice."

Rodney groaned and wilted to the ground.

*          *          *          *          *

"Maybe you're—"

"We're stuck in a time loop."

"—out of... what?"

"SG-1. Mission report to P4X-639."

Sheppard blinked. "Um, what?"

"Hold on," Rodney held up a hand as he tapped his radio, "Ronon, Teyla, please join us in the ruins."

"Why—?"

"Ambush. And no, I do not have a head injury."

"But I—"

"We have five minutes, I timed it last loop. Come on now, chop chop."

"Do I—"

"No, you do not get a say in this."

"I really—"

"Feel out of the loop, well yes, that's the point. I'm the only one in the loop. Er, out of the loop. Never mind."

"You're—"

"Not making much sense. And before you ask, yes, I know everything you're going to say."

Sheppard's mouth snapped shut. "That's really disconcerting."

"It's not my fault you're so predictable."

Rodney let out an indignant squawk as Sheppard flicked his forehead.

"Didn't see that coming, did you?"

"Oh, just wait until the next loop you smug—"

*          *          *          *          *

"Can we shut it down manually?"

"I wish."

"What's wrong?"

"I forgot to bring my Black Lightning suit, did you remember yours?"

"Gloves?"

"Nope."

*          *          *          *          *

"Okay, when during our conversation could I have possibly hit my head?"

*          *          *          *          *

"Sheppard, no! I already told you there's a live wire!"

"Well if we've had this conversation as many times as you claim, then what does it hurt?"

"Have you ever been electrocuted you dumb jock?" Rodney seized a hold of his friend's tac-vest. "Damn it, stop!"

*          *          *          *          *

"Maybe we could—"

"We tried that last time," Rodney snapped. "And your hair wound up looking even more surprised than it does right now!"

Sheppard laid a protective hand over his unruly tangles. "Don't mess with the hair, McKay."

*          *          *          *          *

Items flew from the backpack as he dug in further. "Damn it, damn it!"

"I thought you said you already checked for gloves, Rodney."

"I did, I'm just hoping I missed them."

"Maybe I could—"

"Don't even think about putting your hand down there, Sparky."

*          *          *          *          *

Fire raced up and down Rodney's spine as his hand spasmodically closed into a fist over the wire. He barely noticed being forcibly pulled out from under the console or the distinct aroma of burned flesh as the world faded out in another brilliant flash.

*          *          *          *          *

"How about—"

"No," Rodney cut him off. "I've tried, you've tried. We've both become human Christmas trees. Not fun."

"Rodney, how many times have we gone through this?"

"Twenty-six."

Sheppard's lips pursed together. "Are you—?"

"Losing it? Oh god yes!"

*          *          *          *          *

"How many—"

"Thirty two!"

"Are you going to—"

"My mental health is just fine for the duration of this unfortunate adventure, trust me, Colonel!" Rodney growled, using the screwdriver he brought along with him on missions to pop off two of the front panels to serve as insulators.

"You sure?"

"It's going to take a lot more than repeating a few sentences ad nauseum to break me. I'm insulted that you even think it."

"Hey, just have to make sure."

"I'm fine."

"All right."

"I am!"

"Whatever you say."

*          *          *          *          *

"What are you doing?"

"I'm taking a nap! What does it look like I'm doing?"

"But you—"

"All I'm asking for is one loop full of uninterrupted rest, is that too much to ask?"

"...loop?"

*          *          *          *          *

"Trust me, Colonel, when I do finally snap – in the far flung future after one of those idiots known as my staff sets the city's self-destruct for the googolnth time – I assure you, it's not going to be a pretty sight."

"Okay, I get it. You're fine for now." Sheppard held up his hands in surrender. "Self-destruct, huh?"

"Do you think we just have drills for fun?"

"That explains why you're eye is always twitching at lunch."

Rodney paused as he was hacking away at the console. "Why are you grinning?"

"Sorry," he sounded anything but, "I can just see it now: fire, explosions, and the entire science staff fleeing in terror as you go into nuclear meltdown."

"Oh, hardee har har! Something tells me you'll play some pivotal role in this hypothetical mental breakdown – you'll probably be holding the bucket's of pig's blood."

"So if I'm John Travolta in this retelling, I guess that makes you Sissy Spacek."

"...I hate you."

"Hey, you were the one that made the Stephen King reference."

"Maybe after we get out of this I'll just go find a copy of It for next team movie night. We'll see who's laughing then."

"That's just low."

"Need I remind you who decided the team just had to watch When Whales Attack? I had nightmares for weeks!"

"You have a very bizarre love/hate relationship with whales, you know that?"

*          *          *          *          *

"Maybe you're just out of practice."

Rodney's teeth ground together as he glared at the man in front of him. "I swear to God, you say that to me one more time—"

*          *          *          *          *

Sheppard flexed his jaw as he stared incredulously as a seething McKay massaged his knuckles.

"What the hell was that for?"

"I warned you!"

*          *          *          *          *

Rodney had gotten to the point of trapping the sparking wire between the two thick pieces of plastic paneling cannibalized from the machine when the tug came again at his leg. He ignored it, focusing his attention on trying to get safe access to the panel.

The tug came again, harder, more insistent.

"Not now."

Nails dug into his leg painfully. He swore and lost his grip on the wire, pressing himself back against the opposite side of the console to avoid being caught in its electricity. With a snarl he climbed out, ready to give Sheppard the lecture again on interrupting geniuses when working with dangerously high voltages. Of course technically he hadn't given the lecture this time around, but that didn't mean he wasn't tired of repeating himself.

Instead he was faced with the toothy grin of Lupin. He licked suddenly dry lips, craning his neck back to see his teammates under duress. He spun back to look at the sinister smile. "What the—?"

"Gotcha."

"I don't understand." He shook his head, not liking the way Teyla listed to the ground, barely able to hold herself up.

"Now, Doctor Manatee, are you going to help me or do things need get drastic?"

*          *          *          *          *

"Maybe you're—"

"How the hell did he do that?"

"...what?"

"He's never gotten by you guys before."

"Who?"

"Luperachi!"

Sheppard just shook his head, still confused. "What are you talking about?"

"Oh, right." Rodney waved a dismissive hand. "Time loop. P4X-639. Alphabet soup, I know, you can't be expected to remember the name of every single planet insignia, although it would be nice if you would just one time. No, I did not hit my head. No, I did not sneak any marijuana-like substances from the botany labs. Yes, I'm quite sure it can cause permanent impotency, so don't even try it."

"...huh?"

"Oh, right, we haven't gotten to the point where you start sticking your fingers in Ancient light sockets."

"You've lost me."

"...do you really want to make me repeat that?"

"Maybe we ought to take you to see Beckett."

"Can't. Gate's too far away, and yes, we've already tried. Every single one of us, including me. That was a waste of an hour's worth of loops."

"What the hell is looping?"

"The worst seventeen minutes of my entire life! Over and over again, with only slight variations on the theme of kidnapping, electrocution, and my personal favorite: bludgeoning!"

"Rodney are you—?"

"No, I am not okay. I'm forever doomed to repeat the same one thousand and twenty seconds over and over again until I finally snap and you three are left to the mercy of Chuckles the Psychotic Clown for the rest of eternity!"

Sheppard blinked. "You..."

"I can't figure it out!" He pointed at the bane of his existence, better known as 'the machine'. "We've been doing this for hours and hours, we could've been doing it for days, I just don't know anymore!"

"McKay, calm down!"

"No, I will not calm down, because any moment now that stupid bastard is going to sweep in here grinning like the village idiot he is, hold you three at gunpoint and I'm going to stare at this damn tablet like the moron that I am—"

Two strong hands gripped his shoulders, giving him a light shake. "Stop it."

"I can't do it," he shook his head, "I've tried, there is no way!"

"Rodney, look at me." His nervous words stopped spilling over as he was more or less forced to look his team leader in the eye. "Whatever the hell is going on, you will figure it out."

"And why do you say that?"

And there was that damnable confident smirk, always dredged up to laugh in the face of danger. "Because it's what you do."

"Not this time."

"You'll do it."

"How do you know?"

"Because I trust you."

Rodney swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat. "Why'd you have to go and bring that into this?"

The cocky edge of the smirk melted into an almost-genuine smile and the hands gripping his shoulders gave a brief, he supposed comforting, squeeze. "Because it's what I do."

"Isn't this sweet?"

Sheppard whirled around to see the furry psycho, escorted by two of his gun-toting minions. Immediately he positioned himself between Rodney and the approaching enemy, hands already reaching for the P-90 hanging around his neck.

"I wouldn't," Lupin smirked. "There's another of my men behind you with a gun pointed at Doctor Mackenzie's back."

Sheppard frowned, mouthing "Mackenzie?" silently.

"He means me." Rodney just sighed defeated.

Sheppard cocked his head to the side, but very reluctantly dropped his P-90 to the floor.

"And the other one."

Grudgingly the sidearm joined the other gun on the ground.

"And the knife tucked in your boot."

Sheppard's frown deepened as he discarded that one as well.

"And the other one hidden in your vest."

"What the hell?" Sheppard whispered to Rodney.

He just shrugged, not really knowing what to say.

When Sheppard had discarded all of his weapons, they were finally escorted back into their familiar position a few feet in front of the console. As they were shoved to their knees, Rodney exhaled a shaky breath. "And it begins... again."

"Hey, I'm here."

"For the next twelve minutes before we start this dance all over again."

"Hey."

Rodney turned tired eyes to Sheppard, surprised to see a fierce determination blazing in the other man's gaze. "Don't you dare give up on me."

Rodney's smile in return was shaky. "If you could only remember that you said that."

*          *          *          *          *

"Maybe you're just out of practice."

Rodney smiled sadly, watching the figures on the tablet spin through their now-familiar chaos. "Yeah."

"Yeah?" He didn't have to look up to see Sheppard frowning at him; he could hear it in his voice. "You never agree with me. What's wrong?"

"Doesn't matter." Rodney just gazed at the tablet, unseeing. "You won't remember it in sixteen minutes anyway."

*          *          *          *          *

"Have you ever thought about taking up gardening?" Rodney asked with an aggrieved sigh as the shotgun wavered in his face. "It's so much more peaceful."

"I'm losing my patience, Mackaby."

"For the last time, it's McKay, you freakish spy fiction reject!"

"You know, Rodney, he kind of reminds me of you."

"Don't even go there, Colonel."

*          *          *          *          *

"I thought you said he wasn't going to sneak in the back way."

"What can I say? I'm having an 'off' loop."

One of the more minor annoyances of repeating the same seventeen minutes over and over again was the fresh burst of pain every single time his knees met the cracked floor of the platform. It was only minor because in a few minutes he'd be standing back in his usual spot, and the skinned knees would be healed, or rather, they wouldn't have been abused yet.

But it was a ghost-like memory of the pain. The physical reminders of each loop disappeared with each flash of light, but the memories followed him each time. It was a wonder he hadn't completely lost it yet.

"I grow weary of this."

"You're telling me," Rodney mumbled half-heartedly.

"To hear you speak this morning, it sounded as if nothing escaped your mental prowess."

"Well, obviously that's wrong because somehow you manage to keep getting the drop on us, which is just wrong on so many levels. I'm embarrassed on behalf of every one of us."

"I also grow weary of your insults."

"Then maybe you should just do something about it this time around." He exhaled an angry breath as he glared at the man in front of him. "Or maybe you're just as full of shit as you are of hot air."

He could see his teammates start at the unexpected venom behind his words. Rodney was normally acerbic, sarcastic, and irritable; the unbridled anger was new for them. Although if they remembered the last a hundred and forty or however the hell many iterations they were on now, they would be just as bone-weary tired as he was.

Lupin's lip lifted into a sneer, grabbing one of the pistols from the large stockpile of Earth and Satedan weapons. Rodney didn't even blink as the barrel dug painfully into his forehead. He had no idea what would happen if he did die in one of these loops. It had never progressed that far, even with their many rounds as human bug zappers.

"Go on," he breathed, closing his eyes as he heard the sharp intakes of breath next to him. "What the hell is it going to change?"

"No!"

The rustling of cloth told him that at least one, maybe all of his teammates were now struggling with their captors.

"I just don't care anymore." He shook his head sadly. "I'm so goddamn tired."

"Rodney!"

"Maybe this will be the one thing that finally stops it."

"Stop it!" Sheppard's voice was a growl. "Open your goddamn eyes and look at me, McKay."

Wearily he opened his eyes to meet Sheppard's angry, almost stricken gaze.

"I told you not to give up."

"Yes, but—" Rodney's eyes widened. "You... you didn't say that this time around... did you?"

"I did," he reminded gently.

"I can't believe I forgot," Rodney muttered. "That's not good."

"Come on, Rodney, just hang in there. You're going to figure this out."

"And I don't care." Lupin snarled, finger tightening on the trigger. "I just want that machine to work."

"Then how is killing him going to help?" Sheppard was practically vibrating with suppressed rage.

"You're right," Lupin let the pistol drop to his side, "it won't."

Three sets of shoulders slumped in relief.

"He needs a different kind of motivation."

"What—"

Before Sheppard could finish his sentence Lupin had raised the gun and fired a single shot. Rodney's mouth open and closed silently, unable to get a coherent noise out as he was splattered with the backsplash of blood as the pilot was thrown onto his back. Teyla's horrified gasp was drowned out by Ronon's inhuman roar.

The world descended into chaos as Ronon literally tore into the men restraining them. He thought Teyla might have joined in the fray, but Rodney really couldn't tell as his world had narrowed on one thing.

"Sheppard?"

The unseeing gaze didn't blink, just stared up blankly at the sky. He tentatively reached out to try and prod the still figure, not sure if it was his imagination that the body was already colder.

He gently shook the other man's shoulder, the unresponsive body lightly jostling with the movement.

"John?" His plaintive question was lost in the haze of violence surrounding him, the once lively hazel eyes unable to meet his gaze.

He withdrew his hand, his movements sluggish as if he were trapped in slow motion. He blinked, knowing he should be doing something, but he couldn't focus. Reality was just a few steps out of reach. Absently he reached up to wipe the gore away from his face, and paused as his fingers found something hard and sharp.

He pulled his strangely shaking hand away, rolling the object in his fingers. As he brought it to eye level, and he could make out a bit of white beneath the blood, and suddenly recognized exactly what it was. Bile rose in his throat and he fell forward on his hands as the world around him went white.

A breakfast eaten eons ago came up as his stomach emptied itself of his contents. Even though he was no longer covered with someone else's blood he could still smell the metallic scent as if it was trying to smother him, the warmth of life still leeching away from his palms.

He was dry heaving at this point, unable to comprehend the voice muttering in his ear. Something, someone had their arms wrapped around him and was guiding him... somewhere. A shudder ran through his body as the voice finally cut its way through the haze surrounding him, and he realized that the hand trying to anchor him to reality was that of a dead man.

"Oh god," he muttered, pressing his palms into his eyes. "Oh god."

"Rodney, what's wrong?"

"I... I can't do this anymore."

"Do what?" The hand that rested on his shoulder was too warm, too reassuring, too real.

He wrenched the shoulder away and wrapped his arms around his still roiling stomach. John wasn't dead, because technically that hadn't happened yet. Yet it had. Everything had happened but hadn't, and the implications of that were boggling even for his mind.

"You're as white as a ghost."

"No," the laugh that escaped was shaky, "I'm not the ghost..."

If he could only just breathe for longer than seventeen freaking minutes he might be able to figure this out. He might be able to stop this slow spiral into insanity. More than anything, he wanted to shrug off the hand that had somehow found its way back to his shoulder and get its owner far, far away from him and the homicidal maniac that was sure to waltz in at any moment.

"I'm losing my mind," he said softly.

"Why?"

"You never remember..." Rodney gulped and looked up into the concerned, very alive gaze of his friend. "...maybe it's better that you don't."

"I don't understand."

"Neither do I." He looked back to the face of his watch, seeing seconds tick down until the nightmare started again. "That's the problem."

The hand on his shoulder tightened its grip, and part of Rodney felt guilty for leaning into the reassurance it offered.

*          *          *          *          *

"I'm beginning to think you can't do this, Dr. Macaroon."

He shut his eyes as anger, disgust, and rage welled up within him. Rodney didn't bother correcting Lupin; he hadn't for the past three loops. "Join the club."

"You're leaving me very little choice."

Rodney's eyes snapped open, gut sinking as Lupin headed towards the weapon pile.

"No, no, no! Give me more time!"

"All I've given you is time. You have given me nothing in return."

"I'd love to give you the whole freaking universe if I could only move on with the rest of my afternoon! But that's impossible."

"I think you're holding back on me."

"Why the hell would I hold back on you? I never get anything out of it."

"Maybe I'll shoot the woman."

"Leave her alone." Ronon surged forward, earning the butt of a rifle to the back of his head for his efforts.

More struggling from his three teammates seemed to only agitate the guards further, and Lupin was already starting to raise his gun.

"Stop it, just stop it!"

"Then maybe this time I'll just shoot you." The gun snapped up to point at Rodney.

Rodney had enough time to see each individual expression of horror freeze on his team's face. He lingered on John, trying to reflect the kamikaze idiot savant smirk he'd become so familiar with. For some reason that didn't offer the comfort he hoped. The deafening clap of thunder preceded the brief angry bite in his skull.

Darkness enveloped him before it bloomed white, and as if he'd just broken water he started to breathe again – except he had never stopped. The darkness had been momentary, crushing, and John was still grinning, white teeth flashing in the sun as he laughed at his own private joke. Without a doubt Rodney knew that he had just died because he was in hell. A never-ending, mind-numbing repeating hell of seventeen minutes.

"Rodney." Apparently John had observed his silence, once again. Give the man a cookie; he could notice the obvious except a forever looping madness. "McKay, you're shaking."

"Sorry," there was not a titter of laughter to his voice, of that he was sure, "it's just... it's just funny."

"Not really," the tone had taken on that familiar, infuriating 'don't upset the crazy man' quality, "it wasn't even a good joke."

"Oh, no, that joke sucks every single time around. I can't even remember why you told it in the first place."

"Then what are you laughing about?"

"Because I just died," there was most definitely a hysterical note to his giggle this time, "and it kind of sucked."

"What?"

"Never let it be said Lupin... Lupin... what the hell is his last name?"

"Wait... are you talking about that rich brat that Ronon had to chase off this morning? Councilor Thyme's son?"

"Thyme? His name is Lupin Thyme?" Rodney let out a harsh bark of laughter. "That's classic!"

"That's not very funny."

"Oh, if only you knew! The idiot savant slash appropriately named inept supervillain! Never let it be said that he can't find a variation on a good theme."

"You're talking crazy, McKay."

"So I'm crazy now?" Rodney swallowed heavily. "I guess it's about time."

"You're not making any sense. Jesus, just sit down."

"Oh, why sit? He'll just come in here and shoot me again, or Teyla, or Ronon, or maybe he'll go for an old favorite and kill you again. That was a barrel full of laughs."

"Sit."

He was led to the edge of the platform where he was forced once again to try and gather his rapidly fleeing wits.

"Talk to me."

"Time loop, seventeen minutes." That was all the explanation he had energy for at this point. "You know SG-1 had a whole six hours before they had to go through everything again? Some people have all the luck."

"Was that the mission to 94X-639?"

"Yes," Rodney's hands gripped the edge of the stone platform tightly. "I'm surprised you remember."

"Why's that?"

"Because you never do." His fingers stopped scrabbling into the surface as he realized what he just said. "How did you remember?"

"I do read the old mission reports."

"Then I've been yelling at you for the past million and half loops for no reason?"

John shrugged. "Maybe I wasn't paying attention."

"Like you ever are."

"That's not very fair."

"I find myself less charitable after dying painfully."

John actually winced at that, although Rodney really couldn't figure out why he would at this point. "Listen..."

"Is this another pep talk?"

"Another? How many have you gotten?"

"Lost count of that too."

John's eyes hardened and he stared out in the distance. "Fine, no pep talk. Obviously they're not working well."

"Oh, they work... right up until time resets itself and you're staring at me like I've just lost my frigging mind."

"I'm sorry."

"Not your fault," Rodney mumbled. "You just don't remember."

"I can't help but feel like I'm letting you down."

"You've just been struck with a very peculiar brand of Alzheimer's... it happens to the best of us."

"Oh, look at that, a joke."

"This is one big galactic joke. I might as well laugh, I've got nothing left."

"You've got us."

"No offense, but none of you have been very helpful for the past few loops."

"Obviously not, because apparently you died last time."

"I don't see why you're getting so upset about that. It's not like you remember it happening."

"But you do!" John's fist was clenching and unclenching at his side.

"Technically it hasn't happened at all. Technically you haven't been electrocuted, bludgeoned, or shot in the head."

"How many times has he done this to you?" John's voice had gone deathly quiet.

"Does it even matter?"

"Hell, yes it matters."

"But it hasn't happened."

"It's happened to you, and I may not know what's going to happen in the next seventeen minutes—"

"Eleven," Rodney tapped his watch.

John grabbed the hand and shoved it down. "—but I can tell you're going to lose it soon."

"And what if I do?"

"What'll happen to us?"

"You'll... you'll figure something out."

"No. We won't."

"You're not a real good cheerleader."

"I don't need to be. You're Rodney McKay, PhD, PhD, and pain in my ass, and you better start acting like him again."

"Or what?"

"Or I'll spend seventeen minutes for the rest of eternity kicking your ass for giving up on us."

"Charming."

John snapped his head up to see that Lupin was escorting Ronon and Teyla, at gunpoint, from the woods. It was a delightful new iteration on the same tired old theme. The nerve in John's jaw twitched and his grip on Rodney's bicep tightened.

"We've always got your back," John whispered harshly. "Don't forget that."

"But—"

"Whether I remember this conversation or not, you are still part of this team, meaning you are not alone here."

"These heartwarming bonding sessions are starting to get trite."

"Funny, but I don't remember having one in front of you this morning." John glared at the man holding his teammates hostage.

Rodney's head snapped up. "What do you mean?"

"Ask him." John's voice hardened, fingers twitching in the direction of the sidearm strapped to his thigh. "Of course, he'd have to stop hiding behind his hostages long enough to answer any questions."

Lupin eyed him distastefully. "You know, Sheppard, you're even more uppity than usual this time around."

"This time?" All of the odd pieces from the previous loops clicked into place for Rodney, and only John's grip on his arm kept him from leaping from the platform. His voice shook with outrage as he met his tormenter's surprised gaze. "What do you mean this time?"

*          *          *          *          *

"Maybe you're just out of practice."

"That little fink!"

"Huh?"

Rodney threw the tablet aside, shoulders quaking. "He remembers!"

"Whoa, what just happened here?"

"That means he's been doing this on purpose."

Rodney's fist clenched involuntarily as the ugly memories began to play back. The shifting events, Lupin's growing agitation, his focus on threatening John after witnessing Rodney's first meltdown. The phantom coppery scent of blood assaulted him, threatening to drag him under. It was only the painful bite of his fingernails digging into the flesh of his palm that brought him back to the matter at hand.

The bastard remembered – and had been playing Rodney from the start of this nightmare.

"I'm going to kill him!"

"Who?"

Rodney didn't bother answering, just strode from the ruins in the general direction that two-timing, cold-blooded, murdering, fashion disaster excuse for a supervillain always seemed to come from. He heard the confused shout of his name, but kept moving forward. He dodged around an incoming Teyla and shot Ronon an angry glare as the Satedan tried to step in his way. All three of them were dogging his steps, but he could hardly care.

"Rodney, what the hell is the matter—"

He wrenched his shoulder away from the hand trying to pull him to a stop. He didn't have to wander far as it appeared the fruity little man was coming to meet him in the middle.

"Ah, Doctor Marquis—"

And Rodney tackled him flat to the ground, his fingers digging into the fleshy part of Lupin's neck as a red haze descended across his field of vision. "You no-good, goddamn, cowardly—"

Two strong hands wrapped around him, trying to lift him away. He held onto the other man's throat for all he was worth.

"Lying, conniving son of a—"

"McKay!"

A second and third set of hands entered the mix, forcing him to release his victim. All he could see was the red tinting the edges of his vision and the man still gasping for breath in front of him.

"Damn it, Rodney! What the hell is wrong with you?"

All three of his teammates had a hold of him, forming a barrier between him and the person responsible for his personal hell.

Rodney's voice shook with anger. "You remember."

"I don't know—"

"Liar!" Rodney lunged forward, but Ronon's firm grip on the back of his vest kept him from getting very far. "You said Sheppard was more uppity 'this time'."

"Did I?"

"You did," Rodney snarled, ignoring the confused, startled looks of his teammates. "It's how you kept getting the jump on us... you remembered whenever I changed our strategy!"

"You think you're so smart Marady..."

"What the hell is wrong with you? Why would you willingly repeat this madness?"

"Genius is often mistaken for madness!"

"No, that's stupidity you circus freak!"

Two sets of hands fell away and he heard the audible click of weapons being drawn. The sound of the weapons only sent another hot spike of anger through Rodney and the hold on his vest had to tighten to keep him from launching himself at Lupin a second time.

"I intend to finish what I started."

"You started a time loop, you dumb ass!"

"What's he talking about?" Ronon muttered over his shoulder.

John merely shook his head and kept his aim on the surrounding bandits.

"It is merely a riddle... one you will solve for me."

"You know I might be able to do that for you if you'd stop shooting people long enough to let me finish!"

"And there-in lies the problem. It must be my hand that tames this force of nature, makes it bend to my will, conquers it for—"

"It's a freaking hiccup in the space-time continuum, there's nothing natural about it!"

"So you admit you can solve the riddle?"

"Are you even listening to me? Are you deaf along with being color blind?"

"You will unlock the mystery of the ruins for me. Then I will have the power—"

"I'm not helping you do a damn thing you sadistic, murdering bastard!"

"Wait, wait," John glanced over long enough to give his teammate a long look, "who said anything about murder?"

Rodney didn't answer, just continued to seethe quietly. Around them triggers cocked, and this time Ronon anticipated the start forward and preemptively tugged Rodney back.

"All right, guys, I don't really understand what's going on here," at that he gave a meaningful look to Rodney who was currently beyond hearing, "but I think we're going to leave now."

Lupin wrinkled his nose in distaste but motioned for his minions to lower their weapons. "I'll grant you a reprieve for this round, Dr. Monet. Perhaps a little time to think will change your mind about cooperation."

"You better just stop while you're ahead!"

"Rodney, we're leaving." John took over McKay wrangling duty as Ronon and Teyla provided cover for their retreat.

"Is that a threat, Martinique?" Lupin shouted over the growing distance.

"It's a promise!" The scientist snarled.

"Knock it off," John muttered into his ear, still forcibly dragging him away from the confrontation.

"If it is a war you want..." Lupin's voice was fading with the distance, but the threat behind the statement was clear.

"Bring it on!"

"Okay, that's enough!" John gave Rodney a good shake. "You mind clueing the rest of us in before you start declaring war on neighboring planets?"

"Not the planet, just him." Rodney attempted to shake off the hands holding his vest, but John's grip was too tight.

"You'll have to forgive my ignorance, but not a lot of that made sense, other than the fact that you just tried to strangle the son of the most influential person in town."

"He had it coming!"

"Because of this morning?"

"Because—because of... never mind."

"Oh no, you don't get to fly off the handle and dismiss it with a 'never mind'. How did you know he was out there? And what's all this talk of time loops, riddles, and machines?" The death grip on his vest loosened, but did not let go completely.

Rodney just sighed heavily, rolling his eyes heavenward. "What the hell does it matter, we've only got what? Twelve minutes before this starts all over again?"

"What are you talking about?" John prompted again, tone growing sterner.

"SG-1, mission to P4X-639, you've read the damn report!"

The steps dogging him slowed as John seemed to try and place the reference along with the altercation he had just witnessed. "Are you saying we're stuck in a time loop?"

"Yes! Very good!"

"How long?"

"How long is it? Or how long have we been stuck in it?"

"Both."

"Seventeen minutes," Rodney tried to pull himself free again, but the grip on his vest remained firm, "and I lost count a long time ago."

"How do you lose count?"

It was alarmingly easy to stop worrying about paltry things like that when covered with someone else's blood. "That's not important."

The fingers steering him by the shoulder dug in further. "Does it have anything to do with him shooting—murdering people?"

Rodney tried to pull himself free with a sudden burst of energy with little success.

"Rodney!"

The scientist remained quiet.

John sent a meaningful look to both Ronon and Teyla. They returned with equally annoyed, concerned glances at their unusually silent teammate. John gave a quick jerk of his head, and they, reluctantly, fanned out to provide cover and a little bit of privacy to the conversation.

"You fly off the handle at people all the time – but that's the first time I've seen you try to choke someone." John's voice dropped a level, even though Teyla and Ronon were keeping their distance. "What the hell did he do to you?"

Rodney continued to glare ahead.

"I can't help you if you don't talk to me."

"Talking doesn't help," Rodney ground out, "we've already established that."

"Have we now?"

"Yes, I'll save you five minutes. It goes something like this: 'Oh, I can't do this.' 'Yes, you can.' 'You've said that already.' 'Don't give up.' Happy? I'm not giving up!"

"Then what exactly are you doing?"

"Getting even," Rodney growled as he finally pulled free, lengthening his strides in order to escape the conversation.

Not one to be dissuaded so easily, John jogged to catch back up. "So that's it. You're just going to shut me out?"

"I've got only a few minutes before this loop is up." Rodney didn't slow down as he reached the platform, instead reached for his pack so he could start making repairs. "I'm not going to waste them recounting all of Lupin's sadistic, manipulative jokes so you have the benefit of being pissed off with me."

"You don't have to. From everything I heard, I'm starting to connect the dots on my own," John maneuvered himself in front of the console, blocking Rodney's access, "and I'm not liking the picture I'm getting."

"It's a time loop," Rodney shoved the other man out of the way with his shoulder, "you'll get over it."

"I'll get over it?" As he ducked beneath the console, Rodney missed the flash of anger in John's eyes. "I'll get over it?"

Rodney just hummed his general agreement.

John sat down on his haunches so he could peer at the reluctant participant of the discussion. "That's where you're wrong. Don't think for one moment I'm going to let him—"

Rodney paused in stripping away the decorative paneling. "You do realize that you're not going to remember any of this in a few minutes, don't you?"

John's mouth snapped shut as dark look clouded over his face. Rodney exhaled an annoyed breath and resumed his progress on stripping away the plastic paneling. He didn't have time to chat. If he could at least isolate that live wire and get a look at the circuitry, he would know what he was dealing with on the next reset.

"Which one of us was it?"

Rodney paused in his tinkering at the question. "Excuse me?"

"Which one of us did that bastard kill to send you into a rage?"

"I already told you, I'm not talking about this."

Rodney had been trying for casual, but it came out terse and angry even to his ears. Maybe it was the way he tightened his grip on the screwdriver or the way he was studiously avoiding looking anywhere but at his fellow dead man. Whatever it was, he knew the moment that John sucked in a quick breath that he wasn't going to avoid the rest of this conversation.

"It was me?"

Rodney attacked the paneling with renewed fervor, trying his damndest to pretend that the hard, Ancient plastic was Lupin's face.

A hand closed around his ankle, startling Rodney enough to drop the screwdriver he was using to pry the paneling loose. For a moment, he knew with absolute certainty that the conversation he had just been trying not to have had taken place in his head, and that touch to his ankle signaled Lupin had once again gotten the upper hand. Instead of the malicious grin of a madman, Rodney only found a grim-faced Air Force colonel staring back at him.

With a curse, he heaved himself onto an elbow so he could properly burn John Sheppard with his fiery gaze.

"Don't do that," he spat. "That's just like... you have no idea... he would..."

The fact that Rodney couldn't form a coherent sentence on why startling geniuses at work quite possibly was the most horrifying part about that. John seemed to come to the same conclusion and pulled his hand away as if it had been burned.

"God, Rodney..."

Rodney screwed his eyes shut, unable to take any pity or understanding at this point. He needed just one thing. "Let me work. Please."

The request was met with silence.

Rodney cautiously opened his eyes to see John lost in thought. Had it been earlier – before all of this had started – Rodney might have said something about John burning out his only neuron. That cut too close to home right now, the image of a neat bullet hole in John's forehead still too fresh. He shoved it away, desperately needing something else to concentrate on before he was dragged back down into the horror of that memory.

He received it at that very moment as John's gaze snapped to focus on his. He recognized the look immediately; it contained an unhealthy amount of stubborn determination and was tempered with a deadly dose of protective fury. It usually heralded an act of supreme suicidal stupidity that only John Sheppard was capable of. Part of Rodney wanted to peek around to see if there were any grenades the pilot was considering throwing himself on, but on the receiving end of the look he found it impossible to break away.

"I'll let you work," the soft tone contrasted with the Medusa stare, "but you have to promise me something."

Because Rodney really didn't have enough to deal with right now. So why not saddle him with one more responsibility. "What?"

"You have to explain things to me each reset, don't you?"

"Yes." If the answer was a little too terse, John didn't mention it.

"Okay, when you're done with that, remind me... about a guy named Danvers."

Of all the—he had enough things of his own to remember!

"Why do I need to remind you about Denver?" Rodney patted himself on the back for the amount of patience he was able to put into that question.

"Danvers," John stressed, deadly serious. "Danvers."

The strength of the gaze flickered, and for a moment Rodney caught a flash of concern so smothering he wasn't sure if he should whack the other man or... well he wasn't going to hug him. Maybe shake his hand or something. Still, the insistence on bringing up strangers named after Colorado cities seemed a little suspect. "Why?"

"He's..." John broke the gaze then, staring deliberately past Rodney's shoulder, "look, it'll tell me everything I need to know."

The timing was too neat, that kamikaze determination too set, and that explanation entirely too vague.

"So, I'm just supposed to tell you about Denver—"

"Danvers, it has to be Danvers."

"—and that's going to magically explain what?"

"We've only got a few minutes, right?"

"Yes."

"Then I'll tell you tonight, after you get us out of this mess."

"Would you like some fries with your ridiculous expectations?"

"Rodney," John's voice had dropped, the hardened look softening even though he was still staring carefully past the scientist's shoulder, "do you trust me?"

He found himself nodding unconsciously before he could even stop himself. Damn him, damn him. With an angry burst of energy, Rodney grabbed the almost forgotten screwdriver and began to attack the panel with renewed fury. "That's a stupid question, and you know it."

The touch to his leg was lighter, less demanding, and it was all Rodney could do to keep from chunking the screwdriver at John.

"You said you were going to let me work!"

"You haven't promised yet."

"Fine," Rodney snarled, "I'll tell you about Danvers."

"Each time."

"Yes, yes, every seventeen minutes until both you and I are hearing the name in our sleep! Happy?"

"Ecstatic," John's voice was flat. "Go on, work. How much time do you have left?"

"Less than five minutes, no thanks to you, Chatty Cathy!"

Barely checking the urge to kick John, because apparently once he parked himself somewhere it was like trying to move a mule, Rodney returned to dismantling the thing responsible for this hell. The thick plastic that made up the aesthetic covering would act as an insulator, allowing him to trap the live wire so he could get a look at circuitry. But as fast as he worked, his internal clock was already counting down the seconds until he would have to start over. Until the 'truce' period ended and Lupin came at him again.

He would never escape this, never finish; there was no reasoning with someone like Lupin. What would he do on the next loop? Same old strategy, whatever it was, to work through his team's defenses? Or now that his element of surprise was gone maybe he would try something different and unexpected. Of course, that took having a few brain cells to rub together in the first place.

"You stopped," John commented lightly.

"Thinking," he muttered, forgetting for a moment that talking was a waste of time. "It should be easier to outsmart the galaxy's most inept supervillain."

"Maybe he's not so inept after all."

"Did you see the cape?" Rodney snorted. "Tripped on it the first loop when he was gloating about his plans. That monologue had everything but the 'No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die'."

Rodney caught a glimpse of a smile from the other man, his view partially blocked by the console.

John appeared to be staring at his watch, tapping it in time with the second hand. "Thirty seconds left."

"Well, this chat has been fun."

"I promise more variety on the next round."

"Oh, really?"

"Yeah," John's finger came to rest as his lips quirked into a dangerous smile, "really."

"And why's that?"

"Because there's no way in hell I'm going to 'get over it'."

Rodney's sputter of protest was lost in a flash of blinding light.

*          *          *          *          *

"Maybe you're just out of—"

"For the love of god, do not finish that sentence!"

"...eh?"

Rodney pointed an angry finger at the man in front of him. "For your information, there's nothing you can do—and why the hell am I bringing this up? Your blank stare tells me that, as expected, you have no idea what you just said to me."

John stared at him like he had sprouted an extra head. "I'm... sorry?"

"Don't apologize if you can't remember your own idiotic statements."

"You've lost me," John shook his head. "I thought we were talking about—"

"Look, it really doesn't matter, and I've already wasted a good fifteen seconds that could have been spent doing something more useful."

"But—"

"No, no, you get to listen to me. We are stuck in the Groundhog's Day from Hell. We have seventeen fun-filled minutes of mind-numbing repetitiveness in which I have to fix that machine," Rodney pointed to the mild-mannered console standing next to him, "before Loopy Lupin from what you remember as 'this morning' decides to storm this marvelous fortress and start shooting up the place."

"What I remember as this morning?"

"For all I know a week has passed in the real world, making this the longest day of my life. So if you didn't get the Groundhog's Day reference, we're stuck in a time loop – an absurdly short one at that!"

"That's a little hard to swallow in thirty seconds or less."

"Well, I don't have the time and I'm sick of repeating myself." Rodney set the tablet aside and grabbed his bag, his hand going through the practiced motion of finding the screwdriver. "And I'm supposed to remind you about Denver, whatever that means."

"Denver?" John wrinkled his nose. "What the hell does Denver have to do with anything?"

"Maybe it was Derry—Danvers maybe?"

John went rigid, eyes widening in shock as the name registered. "Danvers? How the hell do you know—"

"You told me to bring it up, in your typical cryptic manner."

"I told you?"

"You were pretty damn insistent about it," Rodney paused, not liking the look on his friend's face. "Why? What does it mean?"

And like that the walls went back up, and John's tight smile was the only indication of any negative emotion associated with the name. "So, you mentioned something about a time loop?"

Rodney blinked, "Um, yes."

"And an ambush." John's expression darkened for a moment, but then it was gone. He tapped his radio, glancing at Rodney briefly with an unreadable expression. "Ronon, Teyla, we need to regroup. We've got trouble coming."

"You believe me?"

"You look surprised," John commented lightly, although the levity seemed forced.

"It's just that usually you accuse me of having a concussion – or being on drugs."

"Should I?"

"No... it's kind of nice."

"Then you get to working on that machine." John flicked a glance in Ronon and Teyla's direction as they joined them on the platform. "We don't have a lot of time, right?"

"Right," Rodney muttered, dropping to the ground. "Sheppard?"

"Yeah?"

"Who's Danvers?"

He froze, the mask slipping for just a moment before he caught himself. "Someone I don't like thinking about."

"Way to be cryptic," Rodney grumbled, but disappeared under the console. Even though his curiosity was piqued, he didn't have the time it would take to get Sheppard to open up about the name. He probably still wouldn't have enough even if he had all of the time the universe had to offer.

"You mentioned trouble?" He heard Ronon rumble, but focused his attention on popping off the panels near the front.

At the back corner, he could see the live wire still dancing with electricity. When they got back to Atlantis, the first order of business was making sure that every offworld team never left the city without a pair of insulated gloves. He didn't care if they were just taking a quick stroll through the agrarian fields of M83-810, they were going to have a pair to put on in case the ground sprouted dozens of sentient, sparking, uninsulated wires.

"Rodney," John stated, his strident tone indicating it wasn't the first time he'd called the name.

"A little busy down here!" He snapped, slamming the pieces of paneling to the ground. How many times did he have to tell the man about—oh, right, he hadn't mentioned it yet. "It's not like I'm trying to save us all from being trapped in this hell for eternity or anything."

The shifting of light and a stretching, spiky-haired shadow indicated that John was trying to peer under the console. "We need to know what Lupin's going to do."

"He usually tries to sneak up and catch one of you off-guard – but that was before I knew that he knew what we did each time."

"Come again?"

"I have thirteen minutes," Rodney moved aside so that the sparking wire could be seen from John's vantage point, "to get past that and figure out why this thing isn't shutting down. I cannot be the intergalactic repair man and military strategist against an army of thugs run by the village idiot!"

"Look—"

"I just need you to hold him off," he tried for patience, although it might have come out closer to condescending, "long enough to be able to figure this out. Preferably without any of you getting killed."

"All right." The figure moved away, letting the afternoon light back in. "Just hang in there, okay?"

"I'm trying," Rodney muttered, turning back to the panel.

He took in a deep, steadying breath, before clamping the two pieces of paneling around the wire. Wire successfully trapped, he carefully pulled it away so he could get a closer look at the circuitry behind it. Even in the dim lighting, he could see that one of the crystals was blackened and dull.

He reached in, being careful to avoid touching anything conductive in case the whole circuit was hot, and pulled out the bad crystal. The panel gave a brief blue glow, before another surge of electricity sparked from it.

Tucking the bad crystal into his palm, he set down the trapped wire and pulled himself out into the light for a better look. John was still guarding the front of the console, and merely grunted as he moved to the side to make room for Rodney. At first sight, the platform seemed deserted. It took him several moments to finally spot Ronon and Teyla melting behind the other two corners, weapons drawn and ready.

He furrowed his brow at John, who pointed towards the woods and none too gently tried to push Rodney back under the machine. He bristled at having to hide, but carefully slithered back under in a way so he could still poke his head out easily in order to have some light to work with.

John gave him an irritated look, but Rodney ignored him and simply held the crystal up to the sunlight, trying to mentally catalogue it.

"Doctor Mêlée!" The call came across the distance, strident and full of fury. "Show yourself!"

Rodney almost dropped the crystal in shock. He closed his eyes as he took a deep breath, grip tightening on the object in his hands. When he felt in control enough he opened his eyes, seeing John watching him intently, mouth set in a grim line.

Rodney started to open his mouth, but John made a shushing motion. Reluctantly, he fell silent.

"We both know you are in there!"

It went against Rodney's very nature to be quiet, especially when it was that man and his grating, insane demands.

"I hope you've decided to come to your senses and just help me!"

Rodney started to respond, but John beat him to it.

"McKay's a little busy right now, Lupin. Come back next loop!"

"Hey!" Rodney whispered harshly. "I thought we were being quiet!"

"No, you're being quiet. He's baiting you."

"And you're an expert on him all of the sudden?"

"Nope, just keeping him busy." John quirked an eyebrow. "Isn't that what you need?"

"Well, yes, but—"

"Ten minutes, McKay."

"I know that!"

"Then why are you arguing with me?"

"Because you started it!"

"I did not!"

"I was not speaking with you, Sheppard!" Lupin's voice cut back in, closer this time. "This is between me and Dr. Mackarel!"

"We've all got our own disappointments in life, Lupey," John raised his voice again, but gave Rodney a hard stare. "Yours will just have to be dealing with me."

Rodney started to peer around the corner the console, but a hard smack to his shoulder from John had him ducking his head back.

"That hurt."

"A bullet to the brain would hurt more."

"Oh, trust me, I know!"

John's expression tightened. "You do?"

"Look, that's not important right now—"

"The hell it isn't."

"I'm fine now!"

A dark look settled over John's face. "We're talking about this later."

"If you remember," Rodney snorted. "Which you probably won't."

"Oh, I will if you fix the machine," John growled. "You do your job and I'll do mine."

"Fine!" Rodney growled, shifting and turning so that his back was to John.

It was bad enough he had the responsibility of the team hanging over his head, dealing with his team leader's issues was not Rodney's problem. He forced his attention back to the crystal, and tried to drown out Lupin's angry shouting with his own thoughts. If he didn't focus, then this would never end – and Rodney needed it to end almost more than anything.

The crystal was a little thicker than his index finger and would have been a light, clear blue had it not been scorched. It was almost identical to the ones found in the DHDs, part of the systems responsible for regulating the power of it and the Stargate.

Damn it.

The unregulated power output most likely was overriding the signal from the tablet, which would explain the unresponsive interface. Sadly, Rodney needed that to work since he had yet to find a switch labeled "OFF" in Ancient.

He massaged his forehead with one hand, trying to knead the answer out of his muddled thoughts. The clock was ticking, John and Lupin were still shouting, and Rodney couldn't replace the damaged crystal with what he had on hand. He could feel despair creeping up, and he was sorely tempted to give in as the shouts gave way to gunfire.

He was smarter than this. He was Rodney McKay, the most brilliant man in two galaxies, and he had fixed things with fewer resources and a lot more riding on his shoulders.

Okay, he couldn't replace the crystal, couldn't fix it and use it to restore the machine's function to normal. That was fine. He didn't want to use the stupid thing, he just wanted to shut it down. Or blow it up. He was sure Sheppard had a little C-4 on him. That would be rather satisfying—

—not to mention a bad idea. It was drawing massive amounts of power. Power that had nowhere to go.

Nowhere but back to itself.

"That's it," he muttered to himself as he eyed the sparking panel. "That's it!"

"What's it?" John practically shouted as he ducked back behind the console.

"I may have figured it out!" Rodney crowed excitedly, pulling himself out from under the machine.

"About time." John grinned. "So what are you waiting for?"

"I just need a few things from my bag."

"Your bag?" John's eyes tracked across the open area to where the backpack lay, discarded and forgotten in Rodney's earlier haste. "Crap."

"My thoughts exactly," Rodney let out a shuttered breath, not believing what he was about to do. "Cover me."

"No," the pilot shook his head emphatically, "no way in hell."

"I need that pack, Sheppard."

"Then you cover me."

It was only a few feet. Chances were John could make it there and back safely in no time. Certainly faster than Rodney could. Really, it was just logical to let him take the risk.

But in the back of his mind, Rodney could still hear the single report of a gun, the sickening thud of flesh meeting the ground, and his own heart pounding in his ears. He couldn't... no... he wasn't going through that again.

"All right," Rodney nodded tightly, "just give me a second to get ready."

John unclipped the P-90 from his vest, preparing for the run. "Take your time."

He grabbed a hold of the other man's vest in a gesture of camaraderie. "Just so you know, I think this is a really stupid idea."

John smiled tightly. "I know."

"Good."

Using his grip on John, Rodney launched himself forward, the momentum shoving the pilot to the ground. The gunfire was almost deafening, and it had to be his imagination when he felt something whiz by his ear. He couldn't see where Ronon and Teyla were anymore, he had to hope they were okay if he was right about being able to fix things before this loop was up.

"McKay!" Oh, John sounded pissed. If Rodney's plan worked he was never going to hear the end of this.

This referring to what Rodney was sure was the absolute stupidest act in the history of stupid, heroic feats of bravery. He dove for the pack on the ground, feeling training from his self-defense lessons take in as he rolled with it to the edge of the platform. Well, part one completed. Now he just had to get back to the machine.

He flashed John a shaky grin. Take that Lieutenant Colonel Action Hero.

John wasn't grinning, though. In fact, he was shouting something.

"What?" He shouted back, really wishing the guns would stop for a few seconds so they could have a decent conversation.

"He said," the hairs on the back of Rodney's neck raised as the cool metal of the barrel of a shotgun met the nape of his neck, "behind you."

"Not again." Rodney tightened his arms around the pack, practically hugging it to his chest. "Why can't you just leave me alone?"

"Because," Lupin growled, "this machine is my destiny. Now get up and turn around."

"We both know it won't matter," Rodney said, but struggled up to his feet, turning to face his nemesis with the bag still pressed to his chest. "Nothing either of us does matters. You could shoot me every single time, but I'll still come back."

"I know," Lupin raised the gun to bear, "but that doesn't make it any less satisfying."

If the report of the nine millimeter was loud, the shotgun's was deafening. However Lupin's aim must have deteriorated, because instead of an explosion of pain across his chest, it just clipped his shoulder and sent him spiraling to the ground.

Geez, that didn't even hurt.

"Your aim sucks," Rodney snapped, angrily shoving at the heavy weight of the pack. "You didn't come close—"

The taunt died on his lips as the pack groaned at his touch, and Rodney's hand came away covered in red. In fact, the pack was remarkably human-shaped, and managed to roll away on its own accord, revealing itself to actually be human.

A human with a chest and torso full of buckshot, tac-vest practically shredded by the close proximity of the blast that he had been shoved out of.

"No," he murmured, crawling up to his friend's side, "no!"

This wasn't supposed to happen. God damn, stupid flyboys and their hero complexes. He had figured it out. They were going to get out of this—he reached John's shoulder and shook him harshly.

The action managed to elicit a strangled groan. "Ow."

"You stupid..." Rodney's voice shook. "Suicidal... stupid..."

"You already said stupid," he whispered painfully.

"I can repeat myself!" Rodney cried angrily. "I've been repeating myself forever!"

"Sorry," John coughed, his entire body shuddering with the action. "This kind of hurts."

"News flash, you were just shot!"

"Jealous?" Only John Sheppard could be in agony and stay flippant at the exact same time.

"No, I'm not—oh, god, there's blood everywhere."

"Sorry 'bout that."

"Stop apologizing!"

The movement of the chest beneath his hand grew more erratic, breaths more stuttered. This couldn't be happening. Not again. Not again.

"Again?" There was a hand, tightly gripping his forearm. "Rodney?"

His throat closed up as he looked down to see John staring back at him – expression stoic, trying to hide the pain that Rodney could literally feel under his hands as the pilot's breathing grew more labored.

"Rodney." Fingernails dug into his arm, hard enough to be painful. "Next time—make sure you remind me."

He wanted to ask, "About what?", but couldn't get the words past the lump in his throat. In a few minutes this wouldn't matter, because technically Rodney wouldn't need to make a mad dash across the platform, Lupin wouldn't be waiting for him, and no kamikaze pilots would take the blast meant for him. None of this would matter because it wouldn't have happened.

"You remind me," John's voice was as hard as nails digging into Rodney's arms, "about Danvers."

The strength went out then, John's grip on Rodney going lax. The chest beneath his hand depressed one final time before he stilled completely. Everything around him was silent. There were no roars of denial from Ronon, no gasps from Teyla, quite possibly because they were dead too.

Rodney had clutched to a rope since this slow descent into hell started. It had begun to fray with each successive loop, until he was left with one single, strong thread – a thread that tethered him to reality despite everything pushing him closer to the edge. He was dangling now, could see the pit yawning before him, an inky maw beckoning, waiting for him to lose his grip.

"Damn," Lupin pushed the dead body with his toe, "not as satisfying the second time around."

The thread snapped.

*          *          *          *          *

"Maybe you're just out of practice."

Rodney chunked the tablet at John, not caring about the surprise or shock on the other man's face. John barely caught the flying computer before it beamed him in the forehead. Whatever. In one thousand and ten seconds, the tablet would return to Rodney's hands, no worse for wear.

"Jesus, Rodney!"

"Damn you!" he snarled, diving for his pack.

"I didn't mean it like that—"

Items flew over his shoulder as he tore through the contents, searching for what he needed. His hand closed around the gum Teyla always wanted on overnight trips (but always forgot pack herself) and he set that aside. He flung an MRE behind him as he rummaged for the screwdriver.

The MRE collided with something solid. "Watch it!"

Oh, there it was. He set that aside too, needing just one more thing.

"Look, I'm sorry."

When the hand landed on his shoulder, a furious tremor rolled through Rodney. "Don't touch me!"

The hand disappeared, and Rodney snorted angrily. Where the hell was that life signs detector? He knew he packed it, he always packed it. It didn't matter that he couldn't remember anything before this 'afternoon'; he knew that device always came offworld.

"What's wrong with you?"

There. There! It was just hidden underneath the camcorder. Why the hell did he bring a camcorder and not rubber gloves? Stupid, stupid, stupid. He pulled out the small Ancient device, eyeing it critically.

Yes, it would do.

And then he proceeded to dismantle the ten thousand year old device with reckless abandon and screwdriver in hand. He ignored the protests and demands for explanation, wishing he could work faster. Maybe he could if his hands would stop shaking.

It would be okay, though, because time really didn't matter. It would just repeat itself. Every seventeen minutes on the dot.

He stripped off the final protective covering on the life signs detector, pulling out several of the crystal slats that made up the machine's circuitry.

Pain didn't matter. Injuries couldn't hurt if they never happened in the first place.

Next was his radio. He forced his hands to still as he carefully detached the wires from the transistors. They came off easily and he took the ends and twisted them together until the entire thing was about the length he'd need.

People didn't matter. They just died.

Finally, he turned to the machine, using the screwdriver to hack off the panels he would need to get at the scorched crystal.

And most of all, death didn't matter – because it wasn't permanent.

"What the hell, Rodney?" John breathed.

And maybe he had been muttering the whole time, but that didn't matter either. Nothing he or anyone else did meant a damn thing, because in seventeen minutes it wouldn't have happened. That probably meant he shouldn't even be doing this, but what the hell? He had nothing to lose by trying.

Two hands gripped the front of his vest, giving him a hard shake. "Snap out of it!"

"Leave me alone!" He tried to wrench himself free. "I don't have time for you!"

"I thought you just said that time 'doesn't matter'," John growled back.

"Let me go!"

"Not until you stop raving like a lunatic and tell me what the hell is going on in that head of yours."

Of course he was a lunatic. Of course he was crazy. He couldn't not be at this point. "Do you know how many times I have told you?"

"Told me what?"

"About time loops, about P4X-639, about murdering psychopaths, about ambushes, and about that goddamn machine!"

"I don't understand."

"You never do." Rodney managed to pull himself free, grabbing the crystals, the wires, the screwdriver and the panels. "And I'm finally past the point of caring about that!"

"Rodney—"

"Figure it out yourself, Mr. Could-Have-Been-Mensa!" He disappeared under the console, taking his arsenal with him. "You and this Danvers person can just go to hell!"

"Danvers?"

"Yes, Danvers." Rodney sneered as he trapped the sparking wire, moving it aside so he could grab the bad crystal. "Whoever he is, apparently he's important enough to be your dying request!"

A hand landed on his ankle, and Rodney lashed out, hearing John yelp as he found his mark. Good. He needed to just go away, because Rodney had very important work to do.

"I am not going away!"

Rodney also really needed to stop muttering. It certainly wasn't helping things.

"I can wait out here just as long as you can."

"I doubt that!" He shifted awkwardly, movement restricted by the lack of space under the console, and grabbed the supplies he had gathered from the bag. "I give you about ten minutes and you'll be making that same damn comment about me being out of practice."

He picked at the wires from one end until he had several threads, and proceeded to carefully wrap them around the metal shaft of the screwdriver.

"Just calm down—"

"I ask you, what do I need practice on?" He grabbed a piece of gum, not bothering to stop his rant as he savagely smacked it around in his mouth. "Was that even funny the first time you said it?"

"Rodney—"

He spat out the gum, now a sticky wad and tore it in half. He took one piece and sandwiched it between the two crystals from the life signs detector; the other he stuck on the tip of one finger. "Don't you Rodney me. I've heard my name so much since this damn time loop started it's lost all meaning."

"Time loop?" John swore. "Wait... P4X-639?"

"You're slower than Lupin!" Rodney cursed, having to manually fray the tiny copper threads on the free end of the wire. When that was complete, he carefully pressed them on top of the crystal sandwich and used the remaining gum wad to adhere it to the surface.

"Lupin?" John squawked. "What in the hell—?"

And taking care to not electrocute himself, because it would be really inconvenient to have to wait for the tingling to stop to try again, Rodney jammed the tethered screwdriver in the place of the burnt crystal.

John had finally taken the hint and fallen silent, which suited Rodney just fine. He watched as the console glowed blue when it made a connection with the patch job and admired his handiwork. Hopefully, it would be able to stabilize the power flow long enough for him to make the necessary programming tweaks with the tablet.

He wriggled back out from under the console, triumphant. All he needed now was—

Lupin.

Rodney stared dumbly as Lupin shoved the barrel of John's pilfered nine millimeter into the colonel's temple. Another of his goons had a shotgun buried between John's shoulder, and further beyond that Teyla and Ronon were in similar peril. And that wasn't right, because he hadn't heard the gunfire that should have led up to the team's capture.

Or maybe he had, but he'd tuned it out. It was becoming alarmingly easy to will himself to not hear things. You heard it once, you heard it a hundred and fifty times. If he were being completely honest with himself, the only thing he was certain of was what he had been doing a few moments ago and the ever present countdown ticking in the back of his mind.

"I think you understand my terms, Dr. McGoo. Do you think you'll agree to help me fix my machine?" Lupin cocked the trigger of the gun.

Make that two things he was certain of.

Because without a doubt Rodney knew that if he didn't agree, then the silent movie of a chest stilling under his hands and hazel eyes clouding over in a permanent expression of shock would find itself playing out in vivid color and surround sound—

–because of that, Rodney could only nod mutely.

"I can't hear you."

"Yes," he found his voice, "I'll help you fix your machine."

"Good." He lowered the pistol and ambled over to Rodney's side. "No tricks."

"Just leave them alone."

"I'm making the demands here."

"Yes, of course."

John's face tightened in fury at the resigned tone, but Rodney ignored him. As long as he didn't do anything obtuse like jump in front of a shotgun again, he just didn't care.

"Now, show me what I need to do."

Rodney started to reach for the tablet, but at the angry glower stopped himself and merely indicated it. "You'll need to use that to turn it on."

Lupin picked up the tablet and eyed the screen curiously. "And now?"

Rodney began to talk him through the sequence to access the subroutines that regulated the power output, eyes glued to the tablet's display. In the back of his mind, the clock was still ticking, edging closer to the reset point as Lupin navigated through the interface program at a gratingly slow pace.

"And then—what are you doing?"

"I think I can figure it out from here," Lupin said haughtily. "Now if I just—"

Instead of reaching for the command line to disperse the excess energy build-up like Rodney had instructed, Lupin's finger hovered over the command line that would cause the machine to draw up even more power. With the already unstable system, if Lupin pressed that...

"No!" Rodney lunged for the tablet, trying to shove Lupin's hand away as he reached for the proper command.

The other man snarled, trying to yank the tablet back. "You lied to me!"

"You idiot, you're about to—"

Their hands tangled for control in a bizarre thumb war as they both tried to slap each other's fingers away from the display. It was an epic battle of wit versus dimwit – thumb versus forefinger – winner-take-all.

"Just shoot them! Shoot all of them!" Lupin shouted over his shoulder.

"No!"

Gunfire erupted from behind him, but Rodney was too busy trying to prevent a catastrophic overload by stupidity to see what was going on. His heart leapt to his throat as chaos engulfed the platform. He couldn't make out one sound from the other, and there was no way to tell what was happening to his team.

With one deft, painful twist to his wrist, Rodney managed to jam his index finger on one part of the screen. Unfortunately at the same moment Lupin's thumb smashed on the opposite end, which instructed the system to perform both functions at once.

Energy crackled in the air as white arcs of electricity leapt from one part of the console to the next. It was going to overload, Rodney realized, instantly releasing his hold on the tablet. Lupin cried out in horror as the key to "his rise to power" began to spark and hiss.

"You've ruined it!"

That was also the moment that Rodney realized that Lupin had discarded John's nine millimeter a few feet from the console. Lupin followed his gaze, coming to the same conclusion. They both made a dive for the gun as a bright, burning energy engulfed the console and lit up the sky with an overpowering white light.

Same old song, two-hundred and thirty-second verse, just the same as the very first. That same damn light, the same platform, and the same silence that haunted him from the end of one loop to beginning of the next. The worst part was that it was true, it was honest to god true that nothing Rodney did mattered. He was truly stuck forever. He could do everything right and he would wind up just where he started, and all of the effort in the world meant absolutely nothing.

"McKay."

The object in his hands weighed too much to be the tablet, and he couldn't comfortably hold that in a two-fisted grip like he could a gun. He must have blinked, mind shut out the first five minutes. John wasn't staring back at him anymore, but Lupin with wide fearful eyes fixated on the gun barrel pressing into his forehead. The countdown in the back of his mind contradicted the fast forward. According to it he had sixteen minutes left. And Rodney didn't remember this variation on the theme. So maybe it was his imagination, which to his great horror as a scientist had become more and more vivid these past seventeen minutes.

Or was it one now, since technically he had sixteen to go?

That was a conundrum for sure. Maybe he'd bring it up to John at the start of the next loop. He always enjoyed a good math riddle – that is he did when he wasn't too busy leaping into oncoming traffic and gunfire meant for other people.

"Rodney."

He could still hear the echo of three successive blasts, which really wasn't right because those generally happened around minute fifteen or sixteen. And he was only at a hundred and nineteen seconds. So he quite possibly was imagining those too.

The gun in his hand felt heavy enough to actually be real, and the panicked breathing of the person responsible for it all was quite convincing. Maybe Rodney's internal clock was off, and that was what was wrong with the situation.

Or perhaps it was the fact that the smooth metal of the trigger felt pretty reassuring, or that he could finally give Lupin a taste of his own medicine. That sounded nice. He promised he'd get even, didn't he?

"You did it. It's over."

It was never over. Never finished. That was the problem with infinity, you never got to the end – you could only reach for something just out of your grasp. If he pulled the trigger it wouldn't mean a thing, because in only eight hundred and forty seconds it would start again. In a world with no consequences Rodney could go eye for an eye, and never have to deal with the guilt.

"Give me the gun, Rodney. Please."

And if John could just shut up for a few minutes, that would be spectacular. Because with eight hundred and twenty nine seconds left he wasn't dead yet, but probably eyeing that proverbial mine field as if it might be a fun stroll through the park.

"I'm not suicidal, McKay." There was that familiar hand, trying to drag him back to the surface as he drowned in the abyss. "Just give me the damn gun."

It would be nice if the words were real, the hand not imagined, and the voice to be speaking the truth. But it couldn't, because there were still eight hundred and thirteen seconds left on the clock.

"I swear I'm not lying to you."

And he was still muttering everything, wasn't he?

"Rodney," John said his name again, tone as patient as the seventeen minute day was long, "do you trust me?"

And that was a stupid question. Stupid because there was only one answer, stupid because it didn't need to be asked, stupid because they both knew that. And it scared Rodney to death that somehow something so stupid, so unintelligent and utterly ridiculous had such a hold on him.

He couldn't stop himself from nodding, because the action was as ingrained into him as breathing, and that was wrong. Logic dictated that he think everything through. Logic dictated that he analyze all of his options before taking any action. But he wasn't sure if logic had any place in a world where there was only a thousand and twenty seconds, where dead men rose from the grave with a laugh and a grin, and where everything that happened didn't happen.

So logically, there was only one thing to do.

He loosened his hold on the pistol and let the phantom hand pull it from his grasp.

And it was probably still his imagination when he heard John growl to the still kneeling Lupin, "You come near him or any one of us again – I promise you that I'll finish what he started."

It was kind of nice in theory. But in seven hundred and fifty three seconds it probably wouldn't matter anyway.

"Come on, Rodney, let's go home."

And John wouldn't lie to him, but Rodney had a hard time believing the words anyway.

*          *          *          *          *

The salty tang of the ocean breeze and solitude of the balcony was a welcome change from the oppressive sterility of the infirmary and Carson's smothering. Rodney wasn't quite sure when he'd acquired a Scottish gentleman as his mother, and while some days the concern was a welcome change from the amused grins that accompanied his usual string of complaints, today wasn't one of those.

Part of him knew that his silence was unnerving but Rodney couldn't trust himself to speak, not until he stopped tensing up every sixteen minutes and fifty nine seconds. Nineteen turns of the looping clock by his count, and he was still waiting for a bright flash of light to indicate for him to start his song and dance again.

It was just wrong on so many levels that technically the nightmare could be over, everyone could be safe, and that Rodney wasn't able to move on. Not for lack of want or trying – because he really wanted to be able to lay down and sleep like Carson had told him without hearing the endless rattle of gunfire. He wanted to be able to close his eyes and meditate like Teyla offered and not see his hands covered in blood. He wanted to be able to escape by any method possible. Hell, he had even asked Ronon to teach him how to wield a sword.

It would figure that the one time that Rodney wanted to have the thoughts beaten out him Ronon would offer him a pilfered pudding cup instead. Not that Rodney passed up the pudding, he wasn't that far gone, but it was the principle of the matter. Pudding only lasted so many spoonfuls before he was left with an empty plastic cup and a mind wandering down an uncomfortably distressing road.

Unable to speak for fear of what might come out, unable to eat because he had already gorged himself, and unable to stop himself from remembering, Rodney sought solitude. If he couldn't find peace, he could at least suffer with as few people watching as possible.

And he wasn't sure what it said when Ronon and Teyla helped cover his exit without him needing to ask. Carson had to release him since technically Rodney was perfectly healthy, because technically only seventeen minutes passed in which the most physical action he had seen was a thumb war and a scramble for a pistol.

John had disappeared as soon his own physical was complete, for whatever reason Rodney didn't know, and a large part of him really didn't care. That made him almost sick to his stomach, but he had seen enough of the man – inside and out – to last at least a few hours. He had no need for that steadying presence on Atlantis to remind him second after second of exactly how far he had fallen.

Speak of the devil and he's sure to appear.

The door leading out to the balcony swished open quietly before another body settled in next to him. Rodney didn't look up from the dark water rolling in front of them, too busy listening for the crash of each wave against the dock below.

"So," John said quietly, "I just did the math."

"Of course you did."

"Counting from when we missed our check-in, to the time it took for the gate to realign itself with the rest of the system and let us re-establish contact—"

"I'm perfectly capable of remembering that much, Sheppard."

"—forty three hours and twenty-one minutes," John blew out a breath, "making it about a hundred and fifty three loops of seventeen minutes."

"Your math astounds me, because obviously I'm too far gone to do those calculations on my own."

"Rodney," John shifted, leaning more of his weight onto the railing, "I think that's about a hundred and thirty six more than I could handle before having a psychotic episode."

"Nice to know what we're calling it."

"That's not what I'm saying and you know it."

"Then why did you pick seventeen loops to be your magical breaking point?"

"Because after about five nonstop hours—"

"Four point eight!"

"—of someone taking you guys hostage over and over, I'm pretty sure I'd have pulled that trigger."

"Maybe that was what I should've done in the first place."

"No!" Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney could see John spearing him with a fierce look. "That's not you."

"Two days—it went on for almost two straight days. If it had been you, we wouldn't have even made it to twelve hours!"

"If it had been me, there's a good chance that we'd still be on that planet."

"I don't need you to patronize me—"

"Damn it Rodney, I might be a member of Mensa in an alternate universe, but I'm not you. I wouldn't have been able to fix that machine no matter how long we spent on that twisted merry-go-round."

"I find that very hard to believe."

"Exactly who do you think I am?"

Rodney continued to stare at the waves, not sure how to answer that, and pretty sure he didn't want to try since in seventeen minutes any words wouldn't magically be forgotten. He tightened his grip on the balcony, because part of him thought that might be a bad thing.

However the question had been a challenge and Rodney didn't let those go unanswered.

"I don't think you're someone who would have lost it in less than two days."

"A lot can happen in two days, Rodney."

He breathed in sharply, because that was too true. A person could experience all of their worst fears in a forty-three hour period, and it would follow them wherever they tried to hide after the fact.

"Don't take this the wrong way – but after two-straight days of being 'out of practice', I'm a little sick of you."

"I wouldn't say you're the greatest company right now, either."

"Hence my desire to be alone. Something more clever people were able to pick up on."

"I gave you a few hours," John said lightly.

"Which doesn't add up, just like your math."

"I had a few things to take care of." John glared at the waves. "And don't think I didn't catch you trying to change the subject."

"Things?"

John chewed his lip. "Had to iron out a few details with Elizabeth."

Rodney stiffened.

"Like how the whole team should take a few days before Heightmeyer starts beating down our doors."

"The whole team?"

"Well, we were taken hostage a hundred plus times. It's kind of stressful."

"You don't remember any of that!"

John shrugged. "So?"

"So—so you three are perfectly sane!"

"Just like you."

"I think I'll leave the psychoanalysis to the professionals."

"I can go get her right now if that's what you want."

"God, no!"

"That's what I thought."

Irritation flashed through him and he twisted, still clinging tightly to the balcony, to face his friend. "Just where do you get off?"

"Dirty question, Rodney," John grinned.

"Asshole," he spat. "You have no right to waltz in here, when I need to be alone, and tell me what I think or feel!"

"I'm not doing that."

"The hell you are!"

"Exactly what have I forced you to think or feel against your will?"

And it all came crashing back then, the stench of electrified flesh, hands sticky with blood, of control being taken from him with a simple question of trust. "I don't think I want to answer that right now."

"Fair enough." John's elbow shifted, lightly bumping against Rodney's locked arm.

He wanted to pull away, but that would have required letting go long enough to find another point of solitude. So he put up with the friendly-not-quite-contact with extreme reluctance.

But he didn't have to be happy about it. "And you owe me an explanation."

"Oh?"

"Yes," Rodney ground out, "it's now nighttime on Atlantis, and we're not fighting for our lives."

"I'm listening."

"I want to know who Danvers is," and Rodney didn't feel guilty at the startled inhalation of breath, because turnabout was fair play, "and why he's so important."

"My dying request, right?"

Rodney stilled. "I didn't—"

"You said a lot of things, probably without realizing it."

He closed his eyes, a million different feelings washing over him, disgust, anger, and not a small amount of fear over what had been overheard and how it would be interpreted. "I didn't mean—"

"No," John breathed, "it's okay."

"But you don't like to think about him—"

"Just like you don't want to think about what that bastard put you through," John growled.

"You don't remember—"

"I know enough," John's voice was low, "to have to come out here to keep myself from dialing up that planet and finishing the job."

"So, you're not just out here to keep me from taking a swan dive?"

"It's not all about you, Rodney."

"So then who's Danvers?"

John pursed his lips, eyeing the waves below for a long stretch.

"You don't have to—"

"Technically there were two Danvers," he said quietly, careful to not break his staring contest with the ocean, "back when I was in Afghanistan."

"Two?"

"Brothers; one a Ranger, the other a Marine." John paused. "The squadron of marines were caught in an ambush – not many made it out."

Rodney didn't say anything, just waited.

"The surviving brother took it pretty hard," John's lazy perch on the balcony had shifted until he was mirroring Rodney's tight grasp on the railing, "if you know what I mean."

Rodney's chest felt a little too tight and he barely managed a soft, "I've got an idea."

"I had the misfortune of being in the same hangar when he snapped." The nerve in John's jaw twitched as he clenched his teeth together, as lost in the past as Rodney had been before the colonel's timely arrival.

"Do I want to know what happened?"

The smile was forced, tight. "He had a gun on my co-pilot."

Rodney had been around the military long enough to know that they didn't take that sort of threat lightly – and it didn't take much of an imagination to fill in the gaps. He eyed the waves lapping angrily at the dock below. "Everything you needed to know."

"What?"

"That's what you told me – bringing up Danvers would tell you everything you needed to know."

John's shoulders hunched up, his grip on the railing not going lax at the conclusion of the tight-lipped confession.

"You used me," Rodney's voice had gone quiet, "to send yourself a message that I was going to lose it?"

"Rodney—"

"About someone you had to shoot to protect a teammate? Are you trying to tell me that—"

"No!" The vehemence behind the statement startled both of them. "Never."

Rodney squirmed, uncomfortable, "Then..."

John sighed heavily, sinking his weight against the railing. "I don't remember the original conversation, you know that."

Rodney took that moment to shift ever so slightly to the right, away from the tension radiating off the man next to him. The weight of the confession hung in the air heavily. Rodney was pretty sure he was going to regret what he was about to say next, but perhaps John equally deserved an explanation for why he would willingly drag up these memories in the first place.

"You told me you wouldn't get over it."

John flicked a curious look in his direction. "Get over what?"

"Oh, you know..." Despite the hammering in his chest, Rodney tried to act nonchalant as he waved a hand at the water, "Lupin's whole 'let's break McKay' thing."

The nerve in John's jaw twitched again.

"Although it would probably be 'let's break Mandalay' or some other bizarre way of mangling my last name." Rodney laughed harshly. "He really sucked with names."

John didn't chuckle. He didn't agree or really do much of anything other than remain absolutely silent.

"I said you'd get over it, you know, seeing as you wouldn't remember." And because John still wasn't saying anything, Rodney kept going. "Maybe you wanted to tell yourself about the ambush or you were sick of being left out of the loop or you just wanted to prove me wrong or something—"

"That very first bit," John said tightly, "that would do it I think."

"The ambush?"

"Sure Rodney." He rolled his eyes, as if McKay had just suggested that he could divide by zero. "The ambush. Because you know how much I hate being snuck up on."

"You do! You hate it just about as much as—as..."

John raised an eyebrow.

"You didn't mean the ambush."

"No," John turned back to the sea, "I didn't."

Rodney nodded mutely, fighting to swallow the lump that had worked its way back into this throat. His attention wandered back to the ocean as well, but the waves were still unable to soothe the tension chasing him. He shifted restlessly, reluctantly loosening his death grip on the railing so he could find a more comfortable position for the long term.

"You can go, you know." He glanced over to where John was still staring off into the distance. "I'm going to be a while."

"I can wait."

"Seriously, it's not like I'm going to get any sleep. I could be out here all night; you're just wasting your time."

"Nah, I'm good."

He huffed out an annoyed breath at the stubbornness. "You don't have anywhere else you'd like to be right now?"

"Nope." As if it were a natural effort, John settled into the space Rodney had tried to create, close enough so that their elbows lightly bumped against each other. "I don't think I do."

"Fine," he let his gaze drift upwards, tracing out the various constellations found on all of the Gates in the galaxy, "but it's your loss."

"No, Rodney, it most definitely is not."

And for the first time in more than a hundred and seventy-two increments of seventeen, a genuine, pure smile escaped Rodney. It came unbidden just like the quiet presence at his side. Unbidden, but not unwelcome.

End

Wit's End