Actions

Work Header

A Matter of Death and Life

Work Text:

If John had been entertaining any illusions that his life would become less eventful once Atlantis was located within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge rather than on a distant planet in the Pegasus galaxy, he lost them the day they almost blew up San Francisco.

He ran out of the transporter, his feet pounding so hard against the hallway floor that he could feel each impact jolting through his shins and into his knees. "McKay! How long have we got?"

"Eight, no, crap, more like six minutes," Rodney's voice answered over the radio link. He was managing the situation from the main science lab, while John had gone to find out what was happening on the ground. The ground, in this case, was a small chamber in one of the remoter sections of the city which the scientists had named the Charging Room. It looked more like a bank vault than a laboratory, with a huge door at least several feet thick, and walls made from naquadah. John had wondered, when they'd found it, why a laboratory needed so much heavy-duty protection. Now he had his answer.

"That's not long enough to evacuate Atlantis," John said. He felt weirdly calm. He always did in these kinds of life-or-death situations.

"No, and it's definitely not long enough to evacuate the seven million people who live in the Bay Area," Rodney said.

John skidded to a halt outside the Charging Room door. He was alone; the science team who'd been working there had been pulled out for their own safety. Well, that would be the official line in the report, assuming that any of them lived to write a report. What had actually happened was that Rodney had told them to get as far away as possible before either (a) they fucked things up even more than they already had or (b) he killed them for fucking things up as much as they already had.

"How big an explosion are we talking about?"

"The most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated had a yield of about 50 megatons. This would be something in the order of several thousand times more powerful. But that's just an estimate based on our models of what happens when a ZPM becomes unstable. No one's actually blown one up to test how accurate the models are, and I'm really hoping this isn't the day we find out."

In the background, John heard Zelenka say something, and McKay broke off to answer him. John could only make out fragments of their exchange, but he caught the words 'take too long' and something that might have been 'wouldn't work anyway'.

He went into the Charging Room. It was an octagonal shape, and empty except for a central column which was topped by a cradle. There was a ZPM sitting in the cradle. Over the last five years, they'd amassed quite a collection of depleted ZPMs, found by various 'Gate teams in the ruins of abandoned Ancient outposts, or traded for with people whose level of technology was low enough that they had no use for them. Rodney kept one in his office and used it as a bookend. They were useless by themselves, but that made them ideal for carrying out experiments which would have been impossible or too dangerous with a charged ZPM.

This one wasn't dead anymore. Far from it.

It was glowing so brightly that John had to raise his arm to shield his eyes from the light. It was hot in the chamber, too: he could feel the raw heat beating against his skin. He must be getting a tan just standing there.

"Look, you have to understand what's happening," Rodney said, like mass destruction was an Olympic event and he'd been given the job of commentating on it. "The chamber is designed to re-charge depleted ZPMs by creating a stable wormhole link to the nearest star and siphoning off energy. The wormhole should have collapsed once the ZPM was fully recharged, but it hasn't. It's locked open, and it's pumping more energy into the ZPM than it can contain. Basically, that thing's hooked up to the sun, and unless we can figure out how to unhook it, it's going to overload in—" there was a tiny pause, "—four minutes."

"I guess I can't shoot it?" John asked hopefully, lifting his gun.

"No, you can't shoot it, not unless you want to cause a chain reaction that will—That's not helpful, shut up." McKay said something his comm didn't pick up. Then, more clearly: "Not you, Sheppard—well, actually, yes, you, if you're going to keep making suggestions like that one."

No shooting things, then. John looked around the room. Most of the ZPM-charging device's controls seemed to be built into its walls. John had nothing approaching McKay's understanding of how the technology worked, but he'd found the ATA gene often gave him an intuitive feel for how to make things in the city do what he wanted them to. He started searching the walls for anything that looked like a point of interface, and quickly located a flat panel which was about the size and shape of his hand. He touched it, and tried to tune into it with his mind, searching for the weird little mental click that he felt with the jumpers.

"Sheppard, is that you?"

"Is that me what?"

"I'm trying to locate the shutdown protocol for the ZPM charger, and suddenly Ancient code is lighting up all over the place."

"Hold on a second," John said.

"No, I can't hold on a second," Rodney snapped back, "given that we only have approximately two hundred of them left."

"I've found something," John said. "The shutdown commands, I think."

There was the briefest of pauses, and then Rodney said, "I see it. Okay, I'm on it, Zelenka's on it, we're all on it, we've got three minutes, we can do this—"

The ZPM glowed even more brightly. John closed his eyes against the glare and tried to angle his body away from it. He could feel the back of his neck burning. He frowned, trying to make sense of what he was getting from the interface. "McKay—"

"Be quiet, I'm trying to concentrate, here."

"Rodney," John said, "this whole room's lined with naquadah. So is the door. If I close it, will it contain the blast?"

"No," Rodney said. "I mean—yes, it probably will, theoretically there's no upper limit to the amount of energy naquadah can absorb, but no, you're not doing that. I've still got ninety seconds to stop this."

"Seven million people," John reminded him.

"Well, the odds are that some of them will survive," Rodney said, in a distant tone that John figured meant he wasn't really thinking about what he was saying, devoting only one or two percent of that enormous brain of his to the conversation. The rest of it was working on solving the problem. And normally that would have been enough to reassure John that everything was going to be just fine, but—seven million people. Jesus.

"I'm closing the door," he said.

The squawk of outrage which came over his radio nearly deafened him. "What? No! Sheppard, you can't do that! We're working on the live code. You can't change anything. If you do, we might not be able to initiate the shutdown sequence."

"One life against Atlantis and most of the population of San Francisco seems like a pretty good trade off to me," John said.

"Not when it's your life!" Rodney yelled.

Something tightened in John's chest. He swallowed once and then made himself say in his slowest drawl, "Why, McKay, I didn't know you cared."

"You bastard," Rodney said. There was something in his tone that John had never heard before, a cold fury he hadn't known was in McKay's emotional repertoire. "Listen to me: do not do this."

John opened his eyes, and immediately squeezed them shut again—it was too bright to keep them open for more than a couple of seconds. The air was so hot that every breath scalded his lungs, making it increasingly hard to talk. "Can't take the chance," he said, his voice a dry rasp.

"No," Rodney said over the radio. "Sheppard, no."

"Too late," John whispered.

He found the controls of the door and mentally ordered it to close. It responded sluggishly—the whole damn system wasn't working right, which probably explained how this had happened in the first place—but, after a second, the heavy vault door started to slide shut.

Rodney said, "John—"

"S'okay," John said. It occurred to him that if he had any last words, now would be a good moment to get them out there. There were things he could say to Rodney—things he wanted to say—but the words died in his throat. Instead he croaked, "Hey, McKay. Whaddya think... the next life... is like?"

Rodney didn't answer, and for a moment John wondered if he'd managed to piss him off so much that he was going to spend the last brief seconds of John's life refusing to talk to him. Then Rodney said, "Listen, I've isolated the shutdown commands, Simpson's deploying the patch now, it's going to be okay, you're going to be okay, Jesus, you're not going to die, do you hear me, John, you're not going to—"

Then there was light and heat and noise, and John knew nothing more.


***


He woke up in the infirmary. Which was surprising all by itself. He hadn't been expecting to wake up at all.

He blinked a couple of times, letting his eyes get used to the low light in the room they'd put him in. He wasn't alone. Teyla was sitting in a chair next to him, while Ronon had taken up a sentry position at the foot of the bed, and Rodney was standing just inside the door. That was... a little bit worrying, actually. His team had long made a habit of visiting each other in the infirmary, but they didn't keep vigils unless something was seriously wrong. The last time John had woken up with this many people around him, he'd been trying to hang on to what remained of his mind and in the last stages of turning into a bug.

"Hey," he said cautiously.

"John." Teyla smiled at him, the warmth of it lighting up her face. She didn't look especially tense or worried, and immediately he relaxed a little. "It is good to have you back with us."

"It's good to be back," he told her. "What happened?"

"That's a really good question," Rodney said in a clipped voice. He didn't move from his position at the door, and the light was too dim for John to make out his expression. "What appears to have happened is that you were standing ten feet away from a ZPM when it exploded. But that can't have happened, because if it had, you'd be dead. And you're not. Dead."

"No," John said. "I'm not." He thought for a second. "I'm kind of hungry, though."

"I'll get food," Ronon offered.

Teyla looked up. "Tell Dr. Keller he is awake."

Ronon nodded and ambled toward the door, pausing only to clap John warmly on the shoulder. He grinned. "You're harder to kill than a tergen."

John looked to Teyla for help on that. "A tergen?"

"It is a type of beetle," she clarified. "A little like your cockroaches."

"Well, thanks," John said. "I think." He shut his eyes and took a second to figure out how he was feeling. The answer turned out to be, surprisingly good. His face and the backs of his hands felt hot and raw and his right knee hurt, although that was an old injury that had been bothering him more than usual lately anyway. He had a headache. Other than that, he felt fine. "So, I guess the plan worked, huh?"

"I'm sorry, what plan are you talking about?" Rodney asked. He didn't move any closer to the bed as he spoke, but he was silhouetted in the light from the doorway, and it was easy for John to read his body language: he was standing rigid, arms folded across his chest, shoulders set. Yeah, John thought wearily, McKay was really pissed at him. Great. "If you mean the plan to manually initiate the shutdown protocols using a software patch, then no, that plan didn't work, because you ruined it by resetting the protocols before I could isolate them."

"You told me Simpson was uploading the patch."

"She did," Rodney said tightly, "but she was about five seconds too late—which was, not coincidentally, exactly the amount of time we wasted re-isolating the shutdown protocols after you closed the door. Something which I specifically told you not to do."

"Hey," John said, "could we backtrack a little? I had to choose between a plan that would definitely work, and one that might work but was gonna make Bay Area real estate dirt cheap for the next thousand years or so if it didn't. I went for the safest option."

"I would have figured it out," Rodney shot back, his voice rising. "I did figure it out! But you didn't give me time—"

John interrupted him, "Because there wasn't any time! I made a risk assessment and selected the strategy with the best chance of success—"

"What, and the strategy with the best chance of success just happened to be the one that involved you heroically sacrificing yourself, again?"

John stared at him. "What the hell is that supposed to mean? Are you accusing me of having some kind of death wish?"

McKay opened his mouth to reply, but before he could say anything, Teyla turned a look on him that made him shut it again. She was the only person John knew who could silence McKay with a look; John really wished she'd let him in on her secret. "This has not been an easy day for any of us," she said. "Everyone is alive and safe. Let us remember that, first of all."

"She gets my vote," John said, nodding in Teyla's direction as much as he could while lying down. "And, anyway," he went on, hoping to placate Rodney with praise, "you came through for me. The ZPM didn't go boom."

But Rodney, for once, didn't leap at the opportunity to bask in the glow of his own brilliance. If anything, he looked more unhappy. "That's the thing," he said, "as far as I can tell, it did. There was a massive power spike inside the chamber right after you closed the door— just what you'd expect from a miniature supernova. Except it barely lasted for a fraction of a picosecond. The only instruments on the whole planet sensitive enough to record it were, by a stunning coincidence, the ones we have right here. Which leaves us with two really very fascinating and interrelated questions: one, where did all that energy go and, two, why aren't you dead?"

John's head hurt, and he was tired, and he suddenly didn't have the patience for a lengthy lecture from Rodney about why he should be dead. He wasn't, and that was good enough for him. "You're the genius in residence," he said, hoping to end the conversation. "I'm sure you'll figure it out."

"That's right," Rodney said, "I will." He glared at John, as if he'd forgotten he was supposed to be happy that John was alive and was now mostly annoyed that he wasn't, in fact, dead. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go and vent my very righteous anger at an entire team of highly qualified people who should have known better." He turned and stalked out.

When he was gone, John let his head drop back on to the pillow. The headache he'd noticed when he first woke up had gotten a couple of notches worse. "You know," he commented, "I think he would actually have been happier if I'd died."

"You know he would not have been," Teyla said, her voice sharp with reprimand. "Nor would any of us."

"Sorry," John said, and winced guiltily. "Look, it's just not that big a deal. We had a crisis and I took a chance and it all worked out and I'm fine and everything's fine. None of that is exactly new for us. I don't know what McKay's getting so worked up about."

"Have you considered that part of the reason he is upset is precisely because this is not the first time something like this has happened?" Teyla asked. Gently, she added, "You take a lot of risks."

John gave her his best, wounded, 'not you too' look. "Necessary ones," he protested.

"And sometimes, perhaps, unnecessary ones?" The slight rise in her tone at the end of the sentence was just enough to turn it into a question.

"Seven million people," John pointed out. "The numbers are on my side in this one. And, hey, I'm still here. I'm really tough to get rid of."

Teyla's eyes glinted mischievously. "Yes. Rather like a tergen beetle, in fact."

John was still trying to think of a good comeback to that when Ronon returned, bringing Keller and a tray of food with him. By the time John had eaten and Keller had confirmed that he'd escaped certain death with nothing worse to show for it than sunburn and a slightly elevated risk of melanoma, any lingering irritation John had been feeling toward McKay had faded. As he settled down to go to sleep, the only thing still annoying him was his aching head—but at least, he reflected as he started to doze off, he was still alive to feel it.


***


It turned out that there was a silver lining to almost (accidentally) destroying the twelfth biggest city in the US: the IOA, which had been dragging its collective heels over making a decision about what to do with Atlantis, abruptly decided that it would be best for everyone if the city returned to Pegasus, as soon as possible.

"It's like they don't trust us or something," John deadpanned when Woolsey delivered the news at the first senior staff briefing after the almost-exploding ZPM incident.

"No, they just don't trust you not to keep finding new ways to die, and they want you to do it as far away from here as possible," Rodney said. There was still some snippiness in his tone—something about John's latest brush with death seemed to have gotten under his skin in a way that none of the previous ones had—but it was a lot less pointed than it had been, and the effect was undercut by the huge grin on his face.

The mood was clearly infectious, because all around the table people were sitting up straighter, smiling, and looking like they'd just been given the best news possible, instead of finding out they were about to be sent back to Earth's single remotest outpost, immeasurably distant from all the luxuries of consumer society they'd been free to enjoy for the past several months. John felt the same way. Atlantis wasn't just another posting; it was the only posting he could imagine wanting. And while it had been fun to be back on Earth for a while, it wasn't where he belonged anymore. It wasn't—

"Home," Teyla said quietly, from her seat next to John. "It will be good to go home."

Home, John thought, and felt something inside him crystallizing around the word. They were going home. The feeling blindsided him; it had crept up on him without him even noticing, but there it was, as undeniable as it was strong.

Woolsey's eyes were shining, too, although in his case, it was probably in gleeful anticipation of the vast amounts of administration and organization which would doubtless need to be undertaken before the city's departure. "I know we've all been enjoying some well-deserved down time, but things are about to get a lot busier. The first thing I want from all of you are detailed departure plans for your areas of responsibility. I'll schedule individual meetings to review those within the next few days. Now, since there's a lot to do, I'll draw this to a close so you can get started. Dr Keller, a word, if you wouldn't mind," Woolsey added, calling Keller back as she got up to leave. She nodded and sat down again; John saw the quick smile she gave Rodney as everyone else filtered out of the conference room.

"What do you think that's about?" Rodney asked as John fell into step next to him.

"I don't think Woolsey's hitting on your girlfriend, McKay."

"Of course he isn't, that's ridiculous, he wouldn't do that," Rodney said crossly. Then he looked worried. "He wouldn't do that, would he?"

John gave him a reassuring clap on his arm. "He's not her type, buddy. She goes for genius Canadian scientists."

"That's right, she does," Rodney said, looking smug. Then he glanced sideways at John, smiling. "We're finally going back."

John nodded. "Looks like it."

"You know," Rodney mused, "if you'd told me five years ago that I'd be ecstatic about being sent somewhere literally several million light years away from a supply of good coffee and a WiFi connection, I'd have called you insane."

"It's weird where life takes you," John agreed, which was about as close as he liked to get to philosophical discussion. Still, it was a relief to be talking to Rodney without the odd edge John had noticed in their interaction since his exploding-ZPM near-death experience. It wasn't that he wasn't used to an undercurrent of tension in his friendship with Rodney, but if there was going to be tension then, as far as John was concerned, it all belonged on his side, where at least he knew its cause and could make sure it didn't get out of hand. Every so often the rational part of his brain tried to insist that refusing to give up a crush that could never come to anything was a criminal waste of time, but the irrational part of John's brain generally just stuck its fingers in its ears and hummed loudly when the subject came up.

The truth was that this thing he had for Rodney had survived everything two galaxies had thrown at it so far, including five years of spending almost all day every day together, the destruction of most of a solar system (uninhabited, fortunately), and a wealth of evidence that McKay preferred his sexual partners to be female and blonde. John had finally come to accept that it wasn't going to wear off any time soon. Lately he'd been starting to suspect that it wasn't going to wear off ever. And if that turned out to be the case... well, he'd take what he could get, and if what he could get was hanging out drinking beer together and pretending to enjoy terrible SciFi movies when what he actually enjoyed was listening to Rodney rant about them, punctuated by semi-regular interruptions for crises and saving each other's lives, then that was a trade-off John had decided he was willing to make. Some days he didn't even regret it.

Today, he was determined not to regret anything. McKay's weird bad mood of the last week had lifted at last, and they were finally taking Atlantis back where it belonged. "We should do something to celebrate," John said as they went into the transporter. "Head into San Francisco tonight, hit the bars."

"Hey, that's a great idea," Rodney said, touching the map for their destination. "Okay, if you speak to Ronon and Teyla, I'll check with Jennifer and Carson. Ronon will want to bring Amelia, I guess. I don't know if Kanaan will want to come along, but if he does, they'll have to organize a sitter for Torren—"

Rodney stopped.

He didn't just stop talking; he stopped completely, mouth open, one hand paused, mid-gesticulation. It was as if someone had hit a button on a real-life remote and freeze-framed him.

"McKay?" John said. There was no reaction. He waved a hand in front of Rodney's face. "Rodney?" Still nothing. John turned his radio on to the frequency reserved for medical emergencies. "This is Sheppard. I'm with McKay in the transporter in section B-16 and something's wrong. It's like he's paralyzed." The swift response he expected didn't come, and a second later John realized his radio wasn't working. He couldn't hear the faint hiss of an open channel. In fact, he couldn't hear anything at all. He pulled on the hand-hold which manually released the transporter doors, and wasn't really surprised when they stayed closed. He suppressed the urge to sigh. It had been a whole eight days since their last crisis; he should have known something like this was due. He looked back at McKay, who hadn't so much as blinked. "Hang in there, buddy," John told him. "I'll figure this out."

"He can't hear you," a voice behind him said.

John spun around, and found himself face to face with—

"Ford?"

Aiden Ford gave him a friendly nod. "It's good to see you again, Major. Wait, you made Colonel, didn't you?"

"Lieutenant Colonel," John answered automatically, still reeling because, Jesus Christ, Ford?

And it was Ford, there was no question about it—in fact, the man in front of him was more like Ford than Ford had been, at the end. The last time John had seen Aiden Ford, he'd been hooked on the Wraith enzyme which had corrupted his body and his mind and turned him into a twisted parody of the smart, enthusiastic young man who'd literally jumped through the 'gate to get to Atlantis. This Aiden Ford was fully human again, and if he lacked the vitality John remembered his Lieutenant possessing, he was still unmistakably the same man. The man whose last known location had been on a Wraith hive ship right before it exploded.

"Don't take this the wrong way," John said, "but aren't you dead?"

"Yes," Ford said.

"Okay," John said slowly. "I'm glad we're both clear on that." He glanced at McKay, who was still frozen in place.

"He's fine," Ford said. "He can't hear or see any of this. You and I are talking in space, not time."

John frowned. "I thought they were the same thing?"

Ford shrugged. "We have a different perspective over on our side."

"Your side being... the afterlife."

Ford nodded.

The transporter was small, and three bodies made it crowded, especially since Rodney had frozen with both arms raised, so he was taking up more room than he needed to. John took a step back, dodging Rodney's left arm, and leaned against the wall. "I'm kind of having a problem with this."

"Yeah, we thought you would," Ford said, "so I have a message for you. It's from Captain Scott Holland. You remember him, right?"

John stared at him, throat tight. "Yes."

"He said to tell you that you owe him two and a half beers, and you'll know what the half is for."

John swallowed. "He said... he said I'd saved his life twice already, and that was gonna be the third time, so he'd buy me three beers when we got back. He said that even if he didn't make it, he'd owe me half a beer for trying." He closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them, Ford was still there. "It was just the two of us, in the middle of the desert. No one knows that."

Ford said, "Scott's a good guy. Me and him hang out sometimes." Then his expression became grave. "You've got a problem."

"Yes, I do," John agreed. "You're dead and I'm talking to you."

"That's not the problem," Ford said. "It's more that you're not dead, too."

"That's not really a problem for me."

"You were meant to die when the ZPM blew up," Ford said. "You're not supposed to be here anymore." He waved a hand on the word here, taking in not just the cramped interior of the transporter but everything beyond it, too.

"I already had this argument with McKay," John said. "It doesn't matter what should have happened. All that matters is what did."

"And what happened was that the ZPM exploded," Ford said. "McKay told you that, too. Do you think it's more likely that the universe is wrong, or you are?"

John closed his eyes tightly for a second and pinched the bridge of his nose between his finger and thumb. When he looked again, Ford was still there. "This is crazy."

"It's no crazier than Stargates and ten thousand year old flying alien cities," Ford said.

John couldn't exactly argue with him about that. "Fine. Maybe I should have died. But I didn't. That makes it no different to any of the other near-misses I've had over the years."

But Ford was shaking his head. "Your life is like a piece of string. It's cut to a certain length, and the end is the end. Your appendix nearly burst when you were fifteen, but it wasn't your time. When you crashed over enemy territory in Afghanistan, it wasn't your time. When you flew a nuke into a Wraith hive ship, that wasn't your time either. Ten days ago was your time, just like my time came on that Wraith hive ship."

"I'm sorry," John said. "If I could have changed things—"

"The point is, you couldn't have," Ford interrupted, in a tone which was firm but not accusing. He did look different, John realized suddenly: older, somehow. Or maybe ageless. "Trust me, you get another perspective on things from this side. Death is not the end. The truest part of who you are remains. It's not the same, but it's not bad. It's just a different way of being."

"Sounds like Ascension without the perks."

"It's time to go, John."

John took a breath. He could feel the air flowing into his chest, filling his lungs. It felt good; real. "No."

"I know you're not scared of dying," Ford said.

"No," John agreed. "I'm also not dead. If there's been some kind of cosmic mistake, that's not my problem. I got a get-out-of-jail-free card, and I'm using it."

Ford's expression hardened. "You can't defy the laws of the universe."

"Watch me," John said.

"—Although Woolsey might do it, Torren seems to like him. I hope that doesn't mean the kid's going to grow up to be a lawyer, because that would be a tragedy. Sheppard?"

John blinked. Ford was gone and McKay, animated again, was looking at him in puzzlement.

"Uh, yeah," he said slowly.

Rodney's expression deepened into a frown. "Are you okay? You're looking a little zoned out."

"Did you see him?"

"See who?"

"Ford," John said. "He was right there."

"Ford—?" Rodney stopped. His gaze flicked to the corner of the transporter and then back to John. "Okay, if this is your particular brand of humor manifesting itself in a way which is bizarre even for you, then I have to tell you, so very not funny—"

"I saw him," John insisted, and then grimaced as a bolt of pain shot through his skull. He pressed his fingers into his eye sockets, in case it helped. It didn't. When he took them away and opened his eyes, the transporter was suddenly filled with dense, dark fog. He couldn't see McKay, and that filled him with a sudden sense of dread, even though John knew he couldn't be more than an arm's length away. "Rodney?"

Suddenly, he felt a hand lock around his arm, strong and sure, anchoring him to reality. He blinked, and found his vision was clear again. Rodney had moved around so he was standing in front of John, and the look on his face was textbook McKay worry, brow furrowed, mouth turned down.

"Sheppard, what's wrong?" Rodney asked. He hadn't taken his hand off John's arm; in fact, his focus on John was so total that he almost seemed to have forgotten it was still there.

I should be dead, John thought. That's what's wrong.

"I don't know," he said.


***


Keller wasn't in the infirmary—John guessed she hadn't managed to escape Woolsey's clutches yet—but Carson was there, tinkering with one of his pet projects. Since Beckett wasn't officially on the medical staff anymore, it had been a while since John had dealt with him in a professional capacity. It felt just like old times to be lying under one of the Ancient scanners while Carson frowned and Rodney paced up and down behind him, his disparaging remarks about the entire discipline of medicine growing more and more pointed as it became evident that none of the many tests John was being subjected to were revealing anything wrong with him.

"How's your vision now?" Beckett asked. He'd allowed John to sit up, and was now shining a light into each of his eyes in turn.

"Fine," John said. "Whatever it was only lasted a couple of seconds."

Rodney folded his arms across his chest and scowled. "Because of course temporary blindness is nothing to worry about."

"And your head?" Beckett asked, ignoring Rodney.

"Still hurts," John admitted. He tried to remember the last time he hadn't had a headache. He'd been taking Tylenol and forcing himself to ignore the constant ache behind his eyes for at least a couple of days. No, even longer than that. Now that he thought about it, he realized that his head had been bothering him ever since he'd woken up after the ZPM incident. "Actually, the headache's not new. I've had it for a while."

"Tell him about the other thing," Rodney prompted. When John didn't immediately say anything, Rodney turned to Carson and said, "He saw—"

"Nothing," John interrupted, glaring at Rodney.

Carson looked between them. "You know," he said to John, "it's going to be hard for me to help you if you won't tell me your symptoms."

John hesitated, then let out a breath. "I had... a hallucination."

"Visual, aural, or both?"

"Both," John said. And then, because Carson clearly expected more detail, he elaborated, "It felt like time stopped." Rodney opened his mouth as if he intended to add to that, and John scowled at him until he got the message and closed it again.

The door opened and Keller walked in, looking preoccupied. "Hey," she said when she saw Rodney. "Have you got a minute? I need to talk to you..." She trailed off, registering John and Carson's presence. "Uh-oh. What's up?"

John shrugged. "I was worried you didn't have enough to do," he said, doing his best to sound unconcerned.

"Not while you're around," Keller said lightly, but her pensive look only became more serious when Carson started to brief her. There was something deeply unsettling about being discussed like a medical case study, even if John knew that the motivation of the people doing the discussing was his continued wellbeing. He was glad when Keller and Beckett went to pore over the images from his brain scan together, leaving him alone with Rodney and well out of earshot of both of them.

"You should tell them about seeing Ford," Rodney said in a low voice.

"No," John said. "They don't need to know about that."

"What, are you worried they won't believe you? Carson is a clone of himself and Jennifer once partially mutated into an alien spaceship. These are not people with high credulity thresholds."

John didn't answer for a second. Weird stuff wasn't unprecedented in his experience. In fact, it was the most precedented thing he had going on. But he was used to a certain variety of weird in his life: aliens, Replicators, time travel, parallel universes. Being told he should be dead by someone who already was—that was a brand new kind of strange.

Rodney was looking hard at him, his expression not unlike the one he wore when focusing on some malfunctioning or mysterious piece of technology. "Seriously, Sheppard, what's going on here?"

The thing was, once McKay locked on to a puzzle, he didn't let go until he had an answer. John sighed inwardly. "I should be dead. You said so yourself. The ZPM should have exploded—the ZPM did explode, according to the sensors. I should have died in that room."

"Well, yes, you should have, but as you pointed out so robustly at the time, you didn't, so I don't see..." Rodney stopped, and John could see him starting to get it. "Are you having some kind of existential crisis?"

"No!" John said quickly, although he wasn't as certain about that as he should have been.

"You know what this is?" Rodney said. "It's five years of near misses catching up with you. I always wondered how you managed to avoid PTSD all this time, and now I see you didn't: you were just saving it all up for a special occasion."

"I do not have post traumatic stress disorder!" John hissed at him.

"Right, you're seeing dead people and talking about how you should be dead because you're feeling relaxed and content."

John started to point out that a PTSD diagnosis would be the first thing that would take him off the Atlantis mission for good—something which he was sure Rodney, for all his genius intellect, hadn't considered—but he was cut off by Keller and Beckett coming back to join them.

"Your scans are all clear so far," Carson said, "but we're a wee bit concerned about your symptoms."

Keller nodded her agreement. "Normally, Colonel, this is the point where I'd ask you if you'd encountered anything unusual offworld recently."

"I haven't been offworld since we came back."

"You've been to California," Rodney said. "Next best thing."

Carson frowned. "That's not helpful, Rodney."

"Neither is you insisting you can't find anything wrong with him!" Rodney exclaimed. "He almost blacked out in the transporter, and he's seeing... things," he finished awkwardly, with a sideways glance at John.

"Not all the tests we ran give instantaneous results," Keller said. "It's going to take a few hours to get a full picture. If there's anything to find, we'll find it."

"But—"

"Rodney," Keller said, in a tone which was less medical professional and more irritated girlfriend. Rodney must have gotten the message loud and clear, because he shut up pretty quickly.

"So are you going to keep me here in the meantime?" John asked. "Because I feel fine now, and I had plans for this evening."

"Hot date?" Keller asked, raising an eyebrow.

"More of a group thing," John said.

Beckett blushed. "Oh, my."

"Not like that," Rodney said, rolling his eyes. "We were talking about getting everyone together and going into San Francisco tonight."

"And we still are," John insisted.

Keller hesitated. "I don't know. I'd feel more comfortable keeping you under observation for at least tonight."

"If you come with us, you can observe me all you want," John pointed out.

"If anything happens—"

"Which it won't, because I'm fine."

Rodney, standing behind Keller and Beckett, rolled his eyes and pointedly mouthed post-traumatic stress disorder at John. John ignored him. Keller raised her hands, then let them drop in capitulation. "All right. But if you have any other symptoms at all, I want you to tell either me or Dr. Beckett immediately. Understood?"

"Sure, doc." John hopped off the bed. "See you later. Coming, McKay?"

Rodney made to follow him, but drew up when Keller put her hand on his arm as he walked past. "Rodney..." she started, then glanced at John and Carson, and seemed to change her mind. "Later."

"What was that about?" John asked Rodney as they left the infirmary.

"Beats me," Rodney said. "Probably nothing important."


***


In the end, there were six people including John in the jumper that made the short hop across the Bay to San Francisco. Kanaan had decided to stay behind to look after Torren (John wasn't much surprised, as he'd gotten the impression from Teyla that Kanaan found Earth overwhelming) and Amelia Banks had a prior invitation to a girls' night out organized by Cadman. John figured the less he knew about that, the better.

"Nobody forget where we parked," he said as they walked away from the cloaked jumper. That earned him a broad grin from Rodney, who shared John's love of Star Trek IV, and tolerant looks from Teyla and Ronon, who didn't.

They ate dinner at the first place they found where everyone saw at least one thing on the menu they liked. Rodney had wanted to book somewhere expensive that boasted rave reviews and a couple of Michelin stars, but John had vetoed that idea on the grounds that he'd endured enough formal banquets on planets in the Pegasus galaxy not to want to repeat the experience on Earth and pay several hundred dollars each for the privilege.

He wondered, as they took their seats, if they would struggle to find things to talk about when almost everything to do with Atlantis was off-limits in a public space. Atlantis, after all, was the only thing they had in common—and, looking around the table at Rodney and Ronon, Teyla, Jennifer and Carson, John was struck by what a mixed bunch they must appear to any outside observer. But the conversation seemed to flow without any effort, and John couldn't remember the last time he'd enjoyed a purely social gathering so much. He found himself thinking about the unique confluence of chance and events which had brought all these people into his life, and him into theirs. He remembered Ronon, mistrustful and desperate after seven years running from the Wraith. Teyla, informing him with fierce pride that her people did not trade with strangers. And, of course, Rodney, there at the start of all of it, wearing a bright orange fleece and asking John to think about where he was in the universe.

Right here, John thought. I'm right here. And for a second it didn't seem to matter whether here was Atlantis, Pegasus, or San Francisco, Earth, as long as he was with these people.

By the time the waiting staff were getting ready to close up, there was no one else left in the restaurant, but nobody wanted to call it a night. The server who took John's credit card recommended a jazz club a short cab ride away. Jazz wasn't John's thing, but when they got there, he had to concede it was a good suggestion. The club was located near the top of one of San Francisco's many hills, and had an open-air terrace with a superb view of the Bay. Inside, the walls were covered with sepia-tinged photos of the acts who'd played there over the decades. A trio consisting of two men and a smoky-voiced woman were on the low stage at the far end of the bar. There were several empty tables at the quieter end of the bar, and they easily found one large enough to accommodate everyone.

"First round's on me," John said when they were all settled. "What's everyone having?"

Rodney and Ronon, unsurprisingly, both wanted beers, with an extra request from Rodney for Molson Export or, failing that, anything else Canadian. Carson put the drinks menu down without even opening it. "I dinnae even need to look," he announced, in an accent noticeably stronger than usual. He'd had several glasses of wine with dinner; John suspected that was more than Carson had drunk at once in years. "The best Scottish malt they have. A double, neat."

"One whisky, coming up."

Teyla, meanwhile, appeared fascinated by the drinks menu. "Tell me, what is a 'cocktail'?"

"A cocktail is an invention of wonder and genius," Keller told her. She'd been drinking wine with the meal as well; her cheeks were pink and she was giggling a lot more than usual. "Two margaritas over here, please, Col—John. No, wait, a margarita and a mojito, so Teyla can try both."

John left them and made his way over to the bar. He placed the order, adding a mineral water for himself—one of the conditions Keller had set before she allowed him out for the night had been that he didn't drink and, anyway, he had to fly them home. On stage, the jazz trio's singer was leaning close to her microphone, singing a silky, low-voiced version of Like Someone In Love.

"Sometimes the things I do astound me, mostly whenever you're around me..."

"They sound good tonight," a voice next to John remarked as the barman made up his order.

John looked round. The guy next to him was about his own age, maybe a little younger; he was showing a touch of gray around the temples, but it suited him. He was wearing clothes which managed to look simultaneously very casual and very expensive in the way that only native Californians seemed to be able to pull off successfully, and wore a small earring—platinum, tasteful—in one ear. He had the kind of tan that came from spending a lot of time outdoors.

"I guess," John said. "I'm not really into jazz. I prefer Johnny Cash."

"You have the Folsom Prison album?"

"Sure."

"My dad was at that concert," the guy said.

John looked at him. "I hope he got to leave when it was over."

The guy laughed. "Actually, he worked for the record company. But you'd be amazed how many people jump to the wrong conclusions when I tell that story. Over the years, I figured out I can tell a lot about people from their reactions." The bartender poured Carson's whisky and set it next to the two beers already on the counter. He started to mix the cocktails. The guy went on, "For example, the things I can tell about you are that you don't make snap judgments, and you're not easily thrown. I'm Greg, by the way."

"John."

"So, John, how come you're in a jazz club, if you don't like jazz?"

"I'm just here with friends." John nodded over in the direction of the table where the rest of the Atlantis group were sitting. "We've been in San Francisco for a couple of months, and we're leaving soon."

"You've been here for months, and I'm meeting you just when you're going," Greg said. "I guess that's my bad luck."

He smiled; it made small wrinkles form at the corners of his eyes. John found himself smiling back. Then he felt the expression freeze on his face as the conversation clicked sharply into focus. Greg was flirting with him.

His first instinct was to politely excuse himself, turn around and walk away. It was a pretty good strategy, and it had served him well, kept him out of trouble and in the job he loved, for a long time. There was a mantra that went with it, one he'd repeated over and over in his head down the years: Other people get to do this, you don't.

Other people: Teyla and Kanaan, Ronon and Amelia. Rodney and Jennifer. It hit John suddenly and viscerally that he had nearly died less than two weeks earlier, and a hundred more times in the five years before that. Remarkably, improbably, he was still here, still alive, never mind what his hallucinating subconscious had to say about it. He was alive and he was standing in a bar in San Francisco, out of uniform, and a good looking guy was flirting with him.

He said, "I'm leaving soon, but I'm here tonight."

He heard someone behind him clear their throat noisily and, when he looked round, saw McKay. "Ronon and I are wondering if we're ever going to get our beers," Rodney said, all the while regarding Greg with a vaguely hostile expression that John found both familiar and strangely out of place. Then he realized it was the same look Rodney got when they were on offworld missions, and McKay was trying to decide whether the locals were trustworthy or not. It was kind of nice to think that Rodney was looking out for him, John thought, but it wasn't exactly optimal timing.

The two beers were sitting on the counter, along with the other drinks. "There they are, take them," John said.

Rodney lifted the beers, but didn't move. "Are you coming back?"

Now feeling mildly irritated, John said, "In a while. I'm just... talking."

"Okay," Rodney said, sounding like that wasn't okay at all. "Well, when you've finished your conversation, you know where we are." He hovered for another couple of seconds and then, just when things started to feel awkward, finally turned and went back to the others.

"Your friend's a little possessive," Greg observed.

"Yeah," John agreed, "but I don't belong to him."


***


Greg was an architect whose real passion was sailing, which explained his weather tan. He had his own consultancy, but wanted to sell up in a couple of years and retire while he was young enough to achieve his ambition of circumnavigating the globe in his yacht, the Free Spirit.

John said he travelled a lot, and that for the past five years he'd been working in very remote places.

"How remote?" Greg asked.

"No TV, no newspapers, no cell phones," John said. "No Starbucks, no Wal-Mart, no Coca-Cola. No light pollution," he added, pointing up at the sky, where the stars were only just visible through the haze of the city's lights.

Somehow, they'd ended up on the garden terrace, outside at the rear of the bar. Some of the tables were set with tablecloths and cutlery, but the last of the diners had finished hours earlier and the night was cool enough that not many people were venturing outside. Right now, John and Greg were the only ones on the terrace.

"Sounds like my idea of heaven," Greg said. "Okay, wait for it."

"What am I waiting for?"

"You'll see." Greg cast a sideways glance at John. "So, are you allowed to tell me where you've been working?"

He seemed like a smart guy. John was pretty sure Greg had worked out early in the conversation that John was only telling him select details about what he did for a living.

"Far away," he said. "Very far away." And then, because he could, he moved a little closer to Greg, so that their shoulders touched. It sent a little shock through him; he felt reckless.

"Here we go," Greg said.

The view from the terrace took in a wide stretch of the city and part of the Bay. If Atlantis hadn't been concealed by its forcefield, John figured he would have been able to see it, floating out there in the dark.

Then he saw the fog, rolling in like a slow wave over the water, silvery under the moonlight. It wasn't a gentle mist gradually forming; it looked like a solid thing, a wall of water vapor invading the land.

"Amazing, isn't it?" Greg said. "I've lived here most of my life, and it still gives me shivers, every time."

"It's something," John agreed. It was impressive, but there was something unsettling about watching the world being inexorably devoured by the advancing mass of uniform grayness.

The mist crept forward, engulfing the city street by street, and block by block. "When I was a kid," Greg said, "I used to love to go outside when a fog rolled in. I liked the way it made everything look different and strange. When I was out in it, it felt like impossible things could happen."

"Sometimes they do," John said.

Greg tilted his head up a little, in a clear invitation. John leaned in, and kissed him.

He felt his heart accelerate, exhilaration mixed equally with fear. The same instinct for self-preservation he'd felt in the bar—to get up, to walk away, to be safe, unknown—hammered in his chest.

The fog closed in around them.

After a second, John realized Greg had stopped kissing him back. In fact, he wasn't moving at all.

The noise of music from inside the bar had stopped, too.

John pulled back, and saw that Greg was frozen in place, eyes closed, lips slightly parted. The fog hung in the air around them, unnaturally still. It was exactly the same as what John had experienced in the transporter back in Atlantis, but on a much larger scale. The world around him had simply stopped.

John stepped away from Greg and into the middle of the terrace. Loudly, he said, "Your timing really sucks, Ford."

"Lieutenant Ford's not here," a voice said. "He asked me to come and talk to you instead."

John recognized the voice, even though it had been almost six years since he had last heard it, and the only sounds it had been making then had been the wordless screams of a man dying in agony.

But the version of Colonel Marshall Sumner who had just appeared next to John wasn't the withered near-corpse he'd been when John had pulled the trigger and ended his life before the Wraith could; he looked hale and hearty, a man in vigorous late middle age. He wasn't wearing the uniform he'd died in, but was instead dressed in faded jeans and a checked shirt that was a little frayed at the cuffs. He looked like he'd just come from a day working on the ranch and was ready to down a couple of beers with his buddies and watch the game.

John's mouth felt suddenly dry. He tried to keep his tone level and easy. "Long time."

"From my perspective, not really," Sumner said. "You made Colonel. Congratulations."

"Thanks." It was awkward accepting a compliment from the man whose death had given John a field command. Not to mention that John had been the one to kill him.

But if Sumner felt resentful that it had been John who'd put a bullet in his chest, he didn't show any signs of it. "I've been keeping tabs on you, as far as I can from this side. I gotta say, you surprised me. I didn't think you had it in you."

John had spent the weeks leading up to the Atlantis expedition's departure undergoing the SGC's version of basic training, and during that time Sumner had found a hundred different ways of indicating that he didn't think John had it in him. Coldly, John said, "Can't say I'm disappointed to have proved you wrong."

Sumner held up a hand and, to John's surprise, smiled, which was a facial expression John didn't think he'd ever seen on him while he'd been alive. "Hold on, son. There's no need to get defensive." He sat down at one of the empty tables on the terrace. "I'll admit, the first thing I thought after I died was, Shit, they won't last a week. But you did a better job than I expected. Truth be told, I think you did a better job than I could've." He shook his head. "Hell of a thing to admit, but there it is. Death gives you a sense of perspective."

The fog seemed to be getting thicker—John couldn't figure out how, because it wasn't moving at all. But Sumner, who was only sitting a few feet away, was already half-shrouded in it.

"You can see the whole picture better from a distance," Sumner went on, warming to his theme, "but you don't feel things the same. Passion, anger... those things are for the living, and they leave you. Everything I ever did was preparation for Atlantis. I wanted that more than I ever wanted anything. That was my mission, my command, my moment. And I died the day we got there."

Sumner didn't sound bitter, but his voice was thick with sadness and regret, and that was almost worse. The silence shrouding them was total, unbroken by the noises of traffic, the muffled sounds of music and voices from inside the bar, even the faint whisper of the night breeze.

"That's the thing about death," Sumner said. "It doesn't happen when your story is finished. It doesn't happen once you've done everything you were supposed to. It doesn't happen when you're ready for it. It just happens. And it's no different for you."

"I'm not dead," John said sharply, "and I'm not dying."

Sumner smiled again, but with incalculable sadness. "Yes, you are. You just don't know it yet."

The pain in John's head was almost unbearable. He closed his eyes and pressed a hand against his temple in an attempt to relieve it. That didn't work, and when he opened his eyes again, the fog had become so dense that he couldn't see Sumner at all, or anything else. His vision was filled by a wall of gray, and there was nothing he could use to orient himself. He turned around, but that was a mistake, because the movement triggered a wave of dizziness that made him lose his balance and fall to the ground. The fog wrapped itself around him, as tight as a shroud; he couldn't see, hear or feel anything, except for the pulsing pain in his head, like an electrical current arcing from one side of his skull to the other.

He wanted to cry out, but the fog rolled into his throat and he couldn't.

The world was gray, then it was black.


***


White ceiling tiles surrounding a basic light fitting and an energy-saving bulb.

Huh, John thought: Not Atlantis.

He went back to sleep.

The next time he woke up, he was alert enough to place the ceiling tiles and energy-saving bulb in the broader context of a hospital room.

He looked around, instincts from hundreds of offworld missions over the years kicking in to prompt him to take stock of his surroundings. One window, blinds drawn; one door, closed; one chair, occupied; one McKay, seated on chair.

John braced himself for the inevitable tirade of sarcasm and/or abuse, and was surprised when it didn't come. Instead, Rodney said, "Do you want a drink of water?"

John nodded. He did want water; funny that he hadn't thought of it before Rodney offered. His brain still felt half switched off.

Rodney lifted a bottle of water with a straw in it and held it while John sucked greedily. He didn't feel much more alert, but at least now he could talk. "Where...?"

"San Francisco General Hospital," Rodney said. "Do you remember what happened?"

John thought. "I was outside. The fog rolled in. My head hurt."

"That guy you were with, Greg," Rodney said, "He probably saved your life. Apparently you had some kind of seizure. He called 911, and then he came back into the bar and found the rest of us." Rodney scowled, displaying a hint of his usual scorn. "Which was not an unreasonable response, I suppose; he didn't know we had two doctors with us. Of course, by then the ambulance had arrived, and we couldn't exactly say, No, we'll take care of this, we just have to take him back to our giant invisible city floating out in the Bay, it has great medical facilities."

"So I'm here."

"Yes, although now you're awake, you're going back to Atlantis as fast as we can get you there. And, if Jennifer has anything to say about it, possibly never leaving ever again." His mouth turned down. "She feels responsible for what happened."

"It's not her fault," John said. "The tests were clear. I thought I was okay."

"Yeah, well, I think the point where you get to say 'I'm fine' with any degree of credibility has now passed." Rodney was leaning forward in the chair, his arms resting on his knees. For someone who was usually all gestures and energy when he talked, he was uncharacteristically drained and somber. It occurred to John that he could see daylight outside the window, and he didn't know how long he'd been unconscious for, or how long Rodney had been sitting there waiting for him to wake up. "Did you see Ford again?"

"No."

"Oh," Rodney said, sounding hopeful. "Well, that's good—"

"I saw Sumner."

"Oh," Rodney said, in a completely different tone. "And how is he?"

"He's dead, Rodney." John leaned his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes against the brightness which was forcing its way into the hospital room between the gaps in the blinds. "He's dead and he came to let me know that I should be, too."

Rodney was quiet for a few seconds. Then he said, "You know, it occurs to me that the thing Ford and Sumner have in common is that you might, maybe, still hold yourself responsible for—"

"McKay," John interrupted. "First off, I don't actually need you to point that out to me. Second, if you have a qualification in psychology you haven't told me about before now, feel free to say, otherwise leave it."

"Leave it?" Rodney repeated, his voice rising. "I'm supposed to leave it? I have spent the last five years following you into every conceivable kind of danger, and last night you could have died while I was arguing with Carson about whisky. Some stranger was there and I wasn't," he finished angrily.

"Sorry," John mumbled. He wasn't even sure what he was apologizing for. It wasn't his fault he'd had a seizure.

There was another short silence.

"Did you like him?" Rodney asked suddenly.

John had a horrible feeling he knew where this was going. He played for time. "Who?"

"That guy. Greg. Did you... I mean, you seemed to be getting along really well."

John had liked Greg. Not that it mattered, now, since their first kiss had ended with John thrashing on the ground and Greg making a 911 call. It had been a long time since John had last gone on a date, but he had an idea that kind of thing put people off. "We were just talking, Rodney," he said, and hoped that Rodney would take the hint and leave it at that.

No such luck. Rodney doggedly persevered, "Was he your, you know, type?"

John had thought his day could not possibly get any worse. He saw now just how very, very wrong he had been. He wondered if he could pretend to have another fit to end this conversation. "Do we have to talk about this?"

"Yes," Rodney said, lifting his chin, "Yes, actually, we do." It was all Keller's fault, John thought morosely. He was sure that the old, pre-relationship Rodney had never wanted to do stuff like talk things through or discuss difficult subjects in a mature and adult way.

Apparently taking John's silence as acquiescence, Rodney went on, "Look, it's not as if I didn't know already. I mean, yes, the first couple of times women threw themselves at you and you appeared completely oblivious, I thought you were, well, completely oblivious. And then, later, once I figured it out, I knew you weren't in a position to say anything. Then we got back to Earth and they repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell, and you still didn't say anything—and, by the way, congratulations to your government on only being twenty years behind Canada on that. And then suddenly you decide to pick up a guy in a bar in San Francisco in front of everyone you know. Forgive me for feeling a little bit confused by your sudden change of approach."

"Is this going to be a problem?" John asked shortly.

"Of course it's not a problem, are you listening to me at all?" Rodney snapped back. "You should be with whoever you want to be with."

Sourly, John said, "Because everyone else is paired off, and it'd be convenient if I was, too."

"Oh, for Christ's sake," Rodney said. "No. You should be with someone because you deserve it. Because you deserve to be happy. If that means a stranger you meet in a bar, then fine, I fully support your life choices. But the John Sheppard I have known for the last six years would cut off one of his own limbs rather than expose himself like that, and that's what's got me worried, here." Rodney lifted his hands and briefly pressed his fingers against his eyes. He looked shattered. "I don't know whether this is post-traumatic stress disorder finally kicking in, or a brain injury, or whether you just had one too many brushes with certain death, but there is clearly something wrong and I'm worried about you, okay? And I think after all this time I've earned the right to worry about you, so don't tell me you're fine. Just don't."

John had a sudden flashback to how Rodney had been in the first couple of days after he'd been diagnosed with the brain-eating parasite he'd picked up from the water on PXD-3423. McKay had confidently insisted to anyone who would listen that there was nothing wrong with him. He'd believed it, too. But Rodney hadn't been fine. He'd been a million miles from fine, and it had been obvious to everyone except him.

"Sumner told me I was dying," he said at last. "He said I just didn't know it yet."

Rodney was quiet for a few seconds. Then he said, "Yes, well, without wishing to speak ill of the dead, he's full of crap."

After that, it seemed like they'd both run out of things to say. John stared up at the hospital room ceiling for a while. The tiles were pretty boring, he decided. He liked the ceilings in the infirmary in Atlantis better.

Which was a good thing, because he had a feeling he was going to be seeing a lot more of them in the immediate future.


***


It was amazing how much could change in just one day.

It had been less than 24 hours since the word had come down that Atlantis was going back to Pegasus, and the orders hadn't even been made official yet, but there was already something perceptibly different about the mood in the city. The months of inactivity had finally ended, and there was suddenly a renewed sense of energy, a buzz about the place; everyone seemed busier, more purposeful, more focused.

John felt like the whole city was getting ready for a party, and he was the only person not invited.

As soon as he'd returned to Atlantis, Keller had sequestered him in the infirmary and spent a full day running a multitude of different tests and scans on him, all of which had revealed exactly the same thing as the first round—nothing at all. Between them, Keller and Beckett examined John for things he'd heard of, like epilepsy and brain tumors, and for things he was just as happy not knowing anything about (he still had no idea what Von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome was, but apparently he wasn't suffering from it, which was something). But no matter how hard they scrutinized John's brain, they could find nothing wrong with it, or him.

That should have been reassuring, but somehow John wasn't feeling reassured. He didn't like the idea that something might be broken inside his head, but if there was, then at least that meant there was a physical cause for what he was experiencing, something tangibly wrong that could be fixed. Because as unpleasant as that idea was, the alternative was that he was passing out and having visions of dead people for no explicable reason.

And if that was the case, John knew he could end up making preparations for Atlantis to go back to Pegasus without him. Sure, he'd experienced more than his share of weird medical phenomena since he'd first stepped through the Stargate, but all of those things had happened to him when he'd already been in Pegasus. If he didn't pass the pre-mission medical before the departure date—which was likely to be only weeks away, according to Woolsey—then John knew he would be staying behind on Earth when Atlantis left.

So when Keller suggested putting him on medical leave, John used every argument he could think of to talk her out of it. If he was going to have another seizure, he pointed out reasonably, it would happen no matter what he was doing. And, anyway, most of his work in the coming weeks would involve administration and meetings. He was relieved when she eventually relented, but the price of John's limited freedom was that he was absolutely forbidden from taking part in any activities that might result in even the slightest degree of what Keller called 'cranial trauma'. In practice, that meant no running with Ronon or sparring with Teyla. Or even standing up too quickly.

Yesterday, John had just been given the best news he'd received in months and had been making plans to celebrate.

Today, his life consisted of wall-to-wall paperwork and the possibility that there was something seriously wrong with his brain, and he was specifically banned from doing anything he actually enjoyed to take his mind off it.

All in all, it was hard to see how things could get much worse.


***


He was back in the ZPM charging room, the air around him shimmering with rising heat, the ZPM invisible at the centre of a mass of light and energy, the stolen heart of a sun close enough to reach out and touch.

He put his hand against the control panel in the wall and thought, Close, and the door closed, sealing the chamber shut with him inside it, like the lid coming down on a coffin.

He heard McKay's voice over the radio, but the scream of the overloading ZPM made it impossible to make out the words. He opened his mouth to answer, but the scorching air rushed down his throat, searing his lungs and cutting off his yell of pain before it could escape. His throat worked but no sound emerged. He wasn't going to get a chance to choose his last words: he'd already spoken them.

He sank down on to his knees and covered his face with his hands for whatever measure of protection that could give him against the heat and the unbearable light. He could hear nothing except the ZPM's howl and then not even that. His senses were being stripped away from him, one by one. Soon the only thing left was pain, a savage, burning agony in every nerve ending. He held on to it because even pain was life.

And then the pain became suddenly diffuse, no longer part of him, but something outside, other, distant. The light and the noise no longer surrounded him but instead passed through him; he was insubstantial, without form. He tried to hold on to his sense of himself, but already everything he was, everything he had been, felt unreal and insubstantial. Then the light faded away, and there was only the infinite dark.

He was dying; then he was dead.

John woke up.

His quarters were dark and quiet. He could hear himself breathing—too fast—and feel his heart thudding in his chest, as if he'd just been sprinting. He concentrated on slowing down his breathing. After a couple of minutes, he realized he'd unconsciously added a silent chant over the top of his pounding heartbeat: not-dead, not-dead, not-dead, not-dead.

The lights came on as he sat up, and he felt weirdly reassured by even that small proof that he was still part of the world. He was relieved, too, to find he was alone in his quarters. He'd been half expecting Ford or Sumner to be there, waiting for him.

Not an hallucination or a seizure, then. Just a regular nightmare.

That should have made him feel better.

He checked his watch. It was after 2am. He thought about turning out the lights and trying to go back to sleep.

His head hurt.

He got up, pulled on sweats, and went out.

He didn't think about where he was going until he was halfway there. He'd left his quarters with the vague idea of heading out to one of the piers for some fresh air, but when he got in the transporter, he found himself choosing a different destination: level 5, section 20. Where the ZPM Charging Room was.

Over the years, John had nearly died in a lot of places all over Atlantis. He could think of at least ten separate occasions in the Control Room alone, although that total was artificially inflated by all the times he and his team had come in hot from missions, sprinting through the 'Gate with a hail of energy weapon blasts, bullets, poisoned darts or good old fashioned rocks following them. But even discounting the Control Room, it would have been possible to fill the city with small plaques reading John Sheppard Nearly Died Here. The corridor outside the storerooms on level five was where Elizabeth had tried to kill him while they'd both been possessed by the consciousnesses of long-dead aliens, and jumper bay number two had been his departure point for at least three certain suicide missions. The ZPM Charging Room was just one more place on the list of places he'd nearly died. Its only distinction was that it was the most recent addition. There was no reason for him to visit it in the middle of the night.

But the part that really surprised John, when he got there, was that someone else had had the same idea.

McKay was sitting on the floor of the Charging Room. He'd removed several wall panels and there were crystals and other bits of Ancient technology strewn around him, as well as a laptop which was hooked directly into the controls embedded in the wall. He looked up, startled and a little guilty, as John walked in. "Oh. Hi."

The centerpiece of the room was the pedestal, topped by a cradle perfectly shaped to the angles of a ZPM. It was the first good view John had gotten of it, since the last time he'd been in the room it had been radiating energy with such intensity that looking straight at it had been impossible. He eyed it with suspicion. "Please tell me you're not trying to fix that."

Caustically, Rodney said, "Yes, since we didn't succeed in destroying San Francisco last time, I thought I'd just come down here and have another go." He waved at the mess around him. "Why do you think I've just spent several hours removing the key components? This thing couldn't recharge the battery in your watch, never mind a ZPM. And what are you doing here, anyway? It's two in the morning."

"You're up," John pointed out.

"Yes, but since every minute of my day is currently taken up by pointless administrative make-work, forgoing sleep entirely is the only way I can actually accomplish anything useful. You, on the other hand, are supposed to be resting in case you break your brain."

"I think it's too late for that."

It was supposed to be a joke, but came out sounding a lot grimmer than John had intended it to. Rodney's expression creased in worry. "What happened? Are you okay? Did you have another hallucination?"

"No, I—" John stopped. "I was having trouble sleeping, so I decided to take a walk."

"Right," Rodney said, in a tone of voice which strongly implied he didn't believe that for a second. But he didn't challenge John. He only said, "Well, if you're staying, you can help me."

John picked out a path through the detritus and crossed the room to sit down in a clear patch of floor next to Rodney. "Help you do what?" he asked, although he thought he already knew the answer.

"I'm trying to figure out what happened when the ZPM overloaded," Rodney said, confirming his suspicions. "According to Atlantis's main sensors, it went critical right after you closed the door. Since that clearly didn't happen, I'm hoping the readings taken by the sensors inside this room will explain why. But half the crystals are fried and although I know the data's in there somewhere, I can't find it."

"I might be able to." John placed his hand against the control panel and started mentally poking around inside it. He could feel the broken connections caused by the shattered control crystals, each one an impenetrable pocket of cold nothingness. When he hit one, it was like reaching into a grave.

The sound of Rodney's voice broke his concentration. "Are you sure you're okay?"

John took his hand off the control panel. "I said I'm fine."

"It's just," Rodney said. He hesitated. "You were shivering."

"Well, maybe I'm cold," John said. He sat back, abruptly regretting his offer of help. "Look. There wasn't any explosion, and I didn't die. Why isn't that enough for you?"

"Because it's obviously not enough for you," Rodney shot back, "or you wouldn't be making late night pilgrimages to the site of your recent near death experience."

John tried to think of a comeback to that, and failed. All the counterarguments he came up with immediately collapsed when set against the annoying truth that Rodney was right.

There was a control crystal lying on the floor next to John's foot. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands, examining it. There was a hairline crack in it, so fine it was barely visible. He wondered if the crystal had cracked when the ZPM had gone critical, or if the crack had already been present. Maybe that had been the trigger which had caused the system to overload in the first place.

Maybe Ford and Sumner were the hairline cracks in his mind, the fault lines which had been there for so long he hadn't even been aware of them until they'd split wide open.

In a tight voice, Rodney went on, "As you so accurately pointed out, I'm no psychiatrist. I'm a scientist, so I'm working to my strengths. Unexplained seizures are outside my area of competency, but if you need to know the reason why you didn't die in this room—that's something I can do." More quietly, he concluded, "I want to help, and this is the only way I know how to. Unless you'd prefer me to stop."

John set the cracked crystal down again. "You don't have to... I don't want you to stop."

"All right, then," Rodney said stiffly. He rubbed briefly at his eyes, looking suddenly very tired, and John remembered how late it was.

"I hope your girlfriend's not waiting up for you."

"It's debatable whether 'girlfriend' is still an accurate descriptor."

Uh-oh. Carefully, John asked, "Did you guys have a fight or something?"

"Or something," Rodney said glumly. "Jennifer's been acting weird for days."

"She seemed okay when we went to San Francisco." John didn't remember noticing anything off about Keller that night. But he'd ended the evening unconscious in the back of an ambulance, so it was possible his recollections of it were distorted.

"Yes, she was fine, apart from how she spent most of the night convincing Teyla to experiment with cocktails so she didn't have to talk to me."

That was kind of true, now that John thought about it. But he knew the role he was supposed to be playing here, so he shook his head and said, "You're being paranoid."

"I'm not," Rodney insisted. "She's avoiding me, and I don't know why. Of course, it doesn't help that it's been days since we had time to say more than good morning to each other. I think—" He stopped, then said all at once, "I think she's planning to break things off, and she's working up to telling me."

"You don't know that," John said. "Maybe there's something else she wants to talk to you about."

Rodney rolled his eyes. "Please. What else could it be? Obviously I was acceptable when we were in Pegasus and the pool of potential matches was limited, but being back on Earth has shown her how poorly I measure up against a larger population. Let's face it, I'm not exactly prime dating material."

If McKay had set out to present a picture to back up his assertion, he couldn't have done much better. He looked tired and a little pathetic, sitting in the middle of a jumble of wires and cracked control crystals, the dim overhead lighting accentuating the dark circles under his eyes. The weird thing was, it didn't make John want him any less. Rodney was desirable; he had to be, by definition, if John desired him. John just wished he could make Rodney see that—see himself, the way John saw him.

"Don't be so hard on yourself," John said. "You can beat off the competition any day."

Rodney glanced up at John, and gave him a weak half-smile. "Thanks for the moral support, but you're not in the market to date me."

John felt his mouth go dry. He hesitated for a moment, and then the same reckless feeling that he'd had when he'd decided to flirt back with Greg overtook him.

"No, because you're with Keller," he said. "But I could be. I would be."

Rodney went very still. Fuck. This wasn't some guy in a bar, John reminded himself. This was his best friend of five years, and one of the very few relationships he'd managed to sustain for any length of time without sabotaging.

But Rodney didn't look shocked or outraged. He was looking down at his laptop, a tiny smile playing on his features, and he looked, if anything, almost bashful.

At last he said, "Well. That's, um. Actually quite a confidence booster." Then he raised his head and said, in something more like his normal tone, "Although it could just be more proof that there's something seriously wrong with your brain."

"Like you haven't been telling me that for years," John said, also pitching for something more in the spirit of their usual interactions. He couldn't quite make it work, though. He'd spent years carefully preserving the safe equilibrium of his friendship with Rodney and, in the space of a week, the ZPM Charging Room incident, John's sudden health issues and a chance meeting with a nice architect called Greg had conspired to undo all his efforts.

It was kind of funny, John thought, that he'd gained a reputation as a risk taker, when in fact the opposite was true. Where Atlantis was concerned, all he'd ever done was take whatever action was most likely to keep the city and the people in it safe. And if he had risked his own life in the process—well, at least he'd succeeded in drawing people's attention away from the things he never risked.

The laptop bleeped, and Rodney dived for it like a drowning man clutching at a life-belt. John was pretty grateful for a way out of the conversation, too.

"Found your missing data?" he asked.

Rodney frowned. "Maybe. I'll need to extract it and run a full analysis..." He broke off and yawned hugely.

John nudged his arm. "You don't actually have to stay up all night unless there's a fleet of Wraith hive ships heading our way." When Rodney didn't move, he added, "I'm not at death's door, McKay."

"You'd better not be," Rodney said darkly. He sat back, and yawned again. "All right, yes, I guess I'm at a natural break. I can leave this running overnight, check the results tomorrow."

They left together, McKay sealing the door of the ZPM Charging Room behind them. At the transporter, John wished him goodnight and they headed in different directions. It had been Elizabeth's idea, originally, that the living quarters of the expedition's senior personnel should be spread through the inhabited areas of the city rather than grouped together, and the arrangement had proved its worth more than once over the years. Rodney's quarters were two levels above the main science labs, while John's were closer to the jumper bays.

But John didn't want to go back to his room yet. His limbs felt heavy and his eyes were gritty with tiredness, and he wanted to sleep, but he didn't want to dream. He hesitated for a moment before choosing his destination, then selected the infirmary.

The infirmary lights were on, which didn't come as a surprise—there was always someone on duty through the night, even when, as was the case now, there were no patients in residence. John walked through the deserted main ward. The nurses' station was unmanned, but when John looked into the office behind it, he saw Beckett sitting at Keller's desk.

"John," Beckett greeted him. He smiled—oddly, John thought. Like Carson was more sad than pleased to see him. "How are you?"

John shrugged. "I'm having some trouble sleeping, and I can't shake this headache. Any chance you could give me something?"

"I'd like to help," Carson said. "I really would. But I can't."

John looked at him, nonplussed. "I only want a couple of Temazepam."

Carson said, "I'm sorry, John."

At that moment, John noticed that what he had taken for normal, middle-of-the-night quiet had somehow shifted into absolute silence, unbroken by even the very faint hum of Atlantis's environmental systems. It was exactly the same oppressive stillness he'd experienced during the visitations from Ford and then Sumner. But that wasn't possible, because Carson wasn't—

dead.

"Damn," John said softly. "I forgot."

The original version of Carson Beckett nodded sadly. "Yes. I can't say I blame you. It's hard to remember someone's dead when they're, well, very much not dead any more. I could be jealous of him, I suppose, but to be truthful, I can't find it in me."

John took a couple of unwilling steps into the office. It was filled with a hundred tiny signs of Keller's occupation—folders labeled in her neat handwriting, a framed photograph of her father, a potted geranium. John tried to remember what the office had been like when it had been Carson's, and found himself struggling. He thought there might have been a Highland Landscapes calendar pinned to the notice board, but he wasn't sure. The broad brush-strokes were there in his memory, but not the details.

"It's not easy for him," Carson went on. "I don't think he's particularly happy. He's living someone else's life and he knows it, poor bugger. No, seeing him alive when I'm not—that isn't the hard part."

"I guess you're going to tell me what the hard part is."

"That I am," Carson agreed. "The hard part, John, is that life goes on. People are shocked, and they grieve, and then they pick themselves up and keep going, because there's nothing else to do. Every death leaves a wound, but it heals over time. Even the scar fades, eventually. People forget. Don't imagine they won't forget you."

"That's a pretty grim prognosis, Doc."

"I'm sorry," Carson said again. "John—"

"No," John interrupted. "First Ford, then Sumner, now you—I've had it up to here with this. If you think you can persuade me into my grave, you're wrong."

"You don't understand." Carson was twisting his hands together in front of him; he seemed genuinely upset. "I'm not here to persuade you. I'm here to tell you—"

He broke off. John felt suddenly cold. "Tell me what?"

Carson paused, and seemed to gather himself, and when he spoke again, it was with the measured demeanor of a medical professional delivering the worst possible news.

"If you won't let go of your life willingly," he said, "it will be taken away from you, piece by piece. Vision, hearing, touch... it'll all go, in the end. It's already begun."

You're dying, Sumner had said: You just don't know it yet.

When John had told Ford he wasn't afraid of death, he'd been thinking of it as an either/or choice, a binary switch with two settings: on/off, alive/dead, here/gone. Death as a process—drawn out, slow, inexorable and humiliating—wasn't something John had ever given much thought to. He did now.

He swallowed. Or tried to; his throat was too dry. "How long?"

"I can't tell you that." Carson sounded apologetic.

Bitterly, John said, "Then the only choice I have is between now, and later."

"Is that so bad, really?" Carson asked. "It's the only choice anyone ever gets. And even then, only if they're lucky."

"I'm not ready," John said. He was aware, even as he said it, how selfish it sounded, how trite: I'm not ready. I'm different. It's not fair.

Carson knew it, too, because he said, "No, well, who is, lad? Do you think I was ready?"

John felt suddenly overwhelmed by exhaustion. He sat down in the chair on the near side of the desk, and let his head rest in his hands for a few seconds. "It's funny, I thought... I've made the decision before. More than once. I was never scared. I'm not scared now. I just thought it'd be easier than this. I want..." He shook his head; he wasn't making sense, even to himself. When he lifted his head, Carson was watching him quietly from the other side of Keller's desk. Waiting. "I want more time," John said. "I need more time."

"Aye," Carson said softly. "Is that your answer?"

John nodded.

"Well, then." Carson stood up, business-like. "On to the floor with you."

John looked at him. "What?"

"You're less likely to do yourself an injury if you're already down there when the seizure starts."

"Bruising is the least of my worries," John said. But he got off the chair and lay down on the floor of Keller's small office, with his head in the doorway and his feet under the desk. He felt slightly ridiculous.

Carson got up and came around the desk to crouch next to John. He leaned over John, so that his face filled most of John's field of vision. "I'm going to count down from ten. Try not to panic. Ten, nine, eight..."

John wanted to tell him that he wasn't going to panic, but his tongue had suddenly become thick and unresponsive. His arms and legs felt cold, and he was certain that the room was filling with water. Sea-water, salt and icy, leaching the warmth out of him. The shields had failed; the city was flooding; Atlantis would sink back to the cold depths again and this time he was going to sink with it.

The water was lapping around his face, rising to cover his mouth and nose. He tried to breathe and felt water pouring into his lungs. Carson wavered in John's vision, shimmery and out of focus.

More time, he thought: More time.

He saw Carson's mouth moving, indistinctly forming the final numbers of his countdown. Three. Two. One.

Time ran out.


***


"Dr Taylor was in the store room at the other side of the lab," Keller said. "She heard a noise, and when she came to see what had happened, she found you on the floor of my office and raised the alarm. The good news is that we were able to stabilize you quickly."

John looked at her from his infirmary bed. "That kind of implies there's bad news, too."

"I'm sorry, yes. The episode last night appears to have been more severe than the previous one. We performed a number of scans while you were unconscious, and there's some evidence of contusions to your brain tissue."

"Brain damage," John said flatly. He flexed his left hand, with difficulty. His fingers were stiff, but at least he could feel them. When he'd first regained consciousness, his whole hand had been numb. Since then, sensation had gradually returned, but that just meant he'd been lucky, this time. Carson's warning still echoed in his head: piece by piece, slice by slice. He wondered how much he'd have to lose, before death started looking like the preferable alternative.

"It's no more serious than the accumulated damage you've suffered from the concussions you've had over the years," Keller said. "I'm not concerned about the possibility of lasting impairment from this episode. But that won't be the case if the seizures keep happening, and especially not if they keep getting worse." She paused. "I'm going to have to take you off duty completely. I'm sorry, Colonel, I know it's the last thing you want, but I have to put your health first. I've discussed it with Dr Beckett, and we're in agreement."

John could feel his world narrowing, but he couldn't argue with her. Reluctantly, he nodded. "You still don't have any idea what's causing this, do you?"

"Not yet," Keller admitted, "but we'll figure it out." She looked away briefly, then back at him again. "So, um. There's something else I need to talk to you about, and I know this isn't the best time, but gossip travels fast around here and I want to tell you myself." She took a breath and appeared to steel herself. "I'm not going back to Pegasus. I'm staying on Earth."

John flashed back to his conversation with Rodney. McKay had been right in his belief that Keller was working up to telling him something: he'd just been wrong about what it was.

"I've been offered a position as head of medical research at the SGC, and I've accepted it," Keller said. "It wasn't an easy decision. I've loved being part of the Atlantis expedition. I've learned so much—professionally and personally—and I've done things I never even dreamed about. But research is where my interest is, and being in charge of Atlantis's medical section isn't a research job." It was oddly formal speech, and John thought she'd probably been rehearsing it in her head for a while. Then the mask slipped as she leaned forward a little and confessed, "The truth is, I never managed to shake the idea that I only ended up in charge of Medical because Dr Beckett died. There's always been a part of me that didn't think I really deserved it, that sooner or later I was going to screw up badly."

John looked at her levelly. "You know how I got my job, right?"

"That was different."

John thought about the whole first year of the mission. He remembered it as one long blur of adrenalin, desperation and seat-of-his-pants improvisation. He hadn't had the first fucking clue what he was doing; he'd made it up as he went along and hoped and prayed he didn't make a mistake that got everyone killed. He'd been lucky. "Trust me, not really."

But Keller was looking dubious, and he could tell she didn't believe him. She shook her head and said, "It's time for me to go to something I've earned on my own merits."

"I guess I'm not gonna be able to persuade you to change your mind," John said, "so I'll say thanks for everything and wish you luck instead." He held out his hand—his right hand, the one he could control just now—and Keller shook it. As she let go, John added quietly, "You earned your place here, Doctor. Never think you didn't."

"Thank you, Colonel." Keller smiled, and then, abruptly, she was a doctor talking to her patient again. "Mr. Woolsey has already spoken to Carson informally about taking over as CMO, which means that Carson is going to be your doctor again before too long. He's been fully involved in all your treatment so far anyway." She paused. "I'm really sorry. I know the timing sucks."

She sounded genuinely contrite, and John had to feel for her. "I guess you've told Rodney."

"Yes," Keller said. "That's kind of a whole other issue, actually." She looked away, and John got the distinct impression that she really didn't want to pursue that subject. He didn't push it. He'd hear Rodney's side before too long.

"Where is McKay, anyway?" he asked, partly in an attempt to move the conversation on, and partly because, well, he was feeling a little disappointed that he hadn't seen or heard anything from Rodney since he'd woken up.

"He's in back-to-back meetings all day," Keller said. "So, you see, there are some advantages to being on medical leave."

"Right, I'll just get back to my hectic schedule of... lying here."

He was joking, but it turned out to be unfortunately prescient. Lying in an infirmary bed staring at the ceiling was virtually the only thing Keller was prepared to let him do, at least until she and Beckett managed to figure out what was causing the seizures. He was allowed magazines, a book and his iPod (although he wasn't allowed to go to his quarters to get them—Keller had a nurse do that, quashing John's faint hope of escaping from the infirmary for ten minutes) but by late afternoon he was feeling restless and bored. His frustration was made even worse by knowing that elsewhere people were busy making preparations for Atlantis's departure; it didn't feel right that it was all still going on without any input from him.

He wanted to call Rodney over the radio, but McKay wouldn't have time to talk if he was stuck in meetings and, anyway, what was John going to say to him? Why haven't you come to see me? Yeah, that was mature.

So when, in the early evening, Teyla appeared, John couldn't have been more thankful to see her if she'd been coming to rescue him from a rat-infested prison cell on an alien planet. Which Teyla had in fact done, more than once, so he had solid grounds for comparison.

"Come to visit?" he greeted her, trying to sound merely pleased, and not as pathetically grateful as he felt.

"I have come to break you out," she said, her expression mock-serious. "Put on your boots."

John was more than happy to obey. The fingers of his left hand still worked only sluggishly, and in the end he left his bootlaces half untied rather than ask Teyla for help. "How'd you get Keller to agree to this?"

"She was reluctant," Teyla admitted. "She would prefer you to remain here, under observation, but she has agreed to let you leave if you are not left alone for any length of time."

"So you have to spend your whole evening with me."

"It is not a trial," Teyla said. "I would have come sooner, but I have been occupied by the departure preparations."

That made something twist sourly in John's gut, but he was too pleased to be escaping from the infirmary to spoil the mood by showing it. On the way to the transporter, he listened as Teyla told him about the briefings on the major Pegasus societies and cultures she was preparing for new personnel. The more she talked, the more John realized she couldn't wait to go back. For Teyla, he suddenly realized, the months they'd spent on Earth had been an exercise in patient endurance.

She took him to the South Pier; they were still calling it the South Pier even though it currently pointed east, toward the San Francisco shoreline. It was dusk, although not completely dark yet, and the lights of the city were starting to come on.

When the warm, smoky aroma of food cooking over an open fire wafted toward him on the evening air, John thought for a second that it was coming from somewhere on the shore. He realized at once that wasn't possible—it was too far away. Then he saw Ronon, standing intent over a portable barbecue, and couldn't help turning to grin at Teyla.

Wryly, she said, "I was given the job of going to get you because apparently I am not considered proficient enough to oversee the food preparation."

John had experienced Teyla's cooking once or twice, and privately thought that Ronon had made a good call on that. And Ronon was taking his food-preparing responsibilities seriously: the barbecue was so heavily laden with juicy steaks, plump hot-dogs and spicy chicken skewers that it looked in danger of collapsing. There was beer, too—John was pretty sure he wasn't supposed to drink, but he was equally sure he didn't care—and a flask of the only ruus wine on planet Earth. All in all, there was more than enough for three people, even when one of them had Ronon's appetite. "Is McKay joining us?" John asked, helping himself to a beer and trying to sound casual.

"He expected to be late, but he said he would come as soon as he could," Teyla said. "I will have a hot-dog, please, Ronon."

Once Teyla was occupied with intently squeezing generous amounts of ketchup and mustard to her hot-dog, Ronon gestured with the tongs at the sizzling cornucopia on the griddle. "Sheppard?"

John chose a steak that was done to perfection (seared on the outside, pink and tender in the middle—in another life, Ronon would have made a terrific chef) and sat down on the edge of the pier next to Teyla to eat. A few moments later, Ronon joined them, having prepared for himself something that looked like half a chicken stuffed with several hamburgers.

"Appetizer," he said, when John looked at him.

They ate mostly in silence, which suited John fine. The food was as good as anything he'd ever eaten, and infinitely better than the bland salad he'd been given for lunch in the infirmary. He couldn't think of anywhere else he would have preferred to be at that moment than sitting here, with Ronon and Teyla on either side of him, Atlantis at his back, and the lights of San Francisco shining across the bay. He'd never given much thought to what it might mean, to die content, but right now he thought it might feel something very like this.

Ronon spoke first. "I heard Keller's not coming back with us." He'd polished off his chicken-stuffed-with-hamburger and was now halfway through a triple hotdog.

"She's going to be head of medical research at the SGC," John said. "It's a big promotion for her."

Teyla looked across John at Ronon. "Remember that this is her homeworld. She has been away from it for a long time; it is understandable that she might wish to remain. Others may, too."

Softly, John said, "Some of us won't get to go back."

Teyla's expression filled with concern, but she didn't say anything. Ronon hadn't mentioned John's health situation either. John was grateful to both of them for allowing him the pretense that everything was fine, but he couldn't sustain it, even inside his own head. He'd told Original Carson that he needed more time, and it hit him with sudden force that this was it, and that it was trickling away like sand in an hourglass, second by second.

He looked straight ahead, out over the rapidly darkening waters of San Francisco Bay. "Thanks for doing this," he said quietly. "And thanks for... you know. Everything."

He felt Teyla's fingers gently touch his wrist; a moment later, Ronon's big hand gripped his shoulder warmly. He didn't look round—didn't trust himself to—but he heard Teyla say, close to his ear, "You forget how much we have to thank you for."

"Did I miss the food? I really hope you kept some beer for me, because after the day I've just had, I need it."

Nobody, John reflected fondly, could shatter a moment's peace like McKay.

"Beer's in the cooler," he said, looking over his shoulder. "Food's there; help yourself."

Rodney didn't need a second invitation. "This is all over-done," he complained, although John noted that didn't seem to be putting him off much.

"It's overcooked because you're late," Ronon pointed out. "You should've gotten here when it was ready."

"Yes, well, you can thank the SGC for that," Rodney answered. "I've had to go through the departure plan at least four times today in four different meetings. Because just having one big meeting would be, I don't know, too efficient or something. Oh, uh, don't move for me."

That last part had been addressed to Teyla, who was standing up and brushing the crumbs off her clothing. "I'm afraid I must go now," she said apologetically. "I promised Kanaan I would return to settle Torren for the night."

Now Ronon was getting up, too. "I said I'd meet up with Amelia when her shift finished."

"Rodney, you will make sure John gets back to the infirmary?" Teyla asked. Rodney mumbled something indistinct through a mouthful of hamburger, then gave up and simply nodded instead. John felt a sting of resentment at the idea that he needed to be watched over like an invalid, but he knew, too, that it was Teyla and Ronon's care for him that had made the whole evening possible. He couldn't accept one kind of concern and begrudge the other.

Once Teyla and Ronon had gone, Rodney shifted up into the gap they'd left, so he was shoulder to shoulder with John. The night air was cool, and John could feel the warmth radiating off Rodney. He edged as close as he could without actually touching.

"I'm sorry I didn't come and see you earlier," Rodney said.

John magnanimously decided not to mention he'd been a little annoyed about that. "Keller said you were stuck in meetings."

After a few moments of silence, Rodney said, "So, uh, how are you doing?"

John turned his beer bottle around, and started working at the label with his left hand, forcing his stiff fingers to do what he wanted them to. "How am I doing? I'm having unexplained seizures which are slowly giving me brain damage, and dead people keep showing up to lecture me about my attitude. That's how I'm doing."

"Who was it this time?"

"Carson."

Rodney frowned. John waited while he worked it through. "Oh."

"Yeah," John said. "It took me a second to get there, too." He turned to Rodney in appeal. "Do I look crazy?"

Rodney blinked, but appeared to give the question serious consideration. "Not to me," he said at last. "Then again, you and I have done enough weird stuff between us that I don't think either of us is well placed to evaluate what's crazy and what isn't."

"True," John conceded. "I turned into a bug."

"I ascended and came back," Rodney said.

"There was the VR on the Aurora. That was weird."

"Not as weird as entering your subconscious and meeting your evil doppelganger."

"At least my subconscious didn't have any clowns in it," John pointed out.

"It didn't have any hot girls, either," Rodney said, smirking. "Hey, remember the personal shield? Way back, just after we arrived?"

"I got to shoot you and throw you off a balcony," John said. "That was awesome."

"That was the start of my crush on you," Rodney said. He said it quickly, as if he was applying the band aid removal principle: get it over with as fast as possible. Then he immediately lowered his head and focused intently on the label on his beer.

John stared at him for several long seconds. His chest felt tight. "Your... crush?"

"In my defense," Rodney said, sounding more like himself again, "at the time I didn't realize it was a crush. I only figured it out later."

John stared some more. The world tilted on its axis around him, and when it realigned, it was subtly, but fundamentally, different. It was a world that included a set of possibilities he'd never allowed himself to hope for.

"I thought you only went for blonds," he managed finally.

Rodney gave a helpless shrug. "So did I. And then I kept thinking it in the face of a growing body of evidence."

"Jesus, McKay," John said, still stunned. He didn't know whether to laugh or throw something at Rodney. Although that was not untypical of how he felt a lot of the time around Rodney. "If I'd known you had a crush on me, I would have..."

John stopped. Rodney was looking at him. "What would you have done?" he asked.

John knew the answer to that.

Nothing. Even if I'd known, I wouldn't have done a fucking thing about it.

He didn't say anything. After a few seconds of silence, Rodney turned away a little, so he was looking out over the dark water. "Yeah. That's pretty much what I figured." Then he set down his beer next to him, on the edge of the pier. "Jennifer's taking a job at the SGC."

When Rodney had first shifted up the edge of the pier to sit next to him, after Teyla and Ronon had left, John had been pleased to steal a enjoy a little physical proximity with plausible deniability, but now he could feel the tension building in McKay, written in the rigid lines of his shoulders and arms. He still couldn't make himself move over and break the contact. "Yeah, she told me."

"It's a great move for her," Rodney said, "and it's what she wants. But neither of us wants to do the long distance relationship thing, so I was thinking... I was thinking I might stay on Earth, too."

They were sitting right on the edge of the pier. Far below, John could hear the soft noise of waves lapping against the base of Atlantis. He curled his hands around the pier's edge, gripping so hard he could feel the muscles in his arms knotting. He wasn't sure if he was holding on or readying himself to push off.

"I could still be part of the mission," Rodney said. "I'd just be based at the SGC. Zelenka could do the day to day stuff, managing the labs and science personnel on Atlantis. My role would be more about setting the overall direction of research, fighting our corner with the IOA, that kind of thing. And with the Gate Bridge, I'd still be able to visit Atlantis once or twice a year."

"Once or twice a year," John echoed.

"Right," Rodney said, giving John an uncertain look. "So, uh, what do you think?"

"I think," John said. He stopped, took a breath, forced himself to go on. "I think you should do whatever's best for you."

"That's it?" Rodney asked. "That's all you have to say?"

"What were you expecting me to say?" John asked. His head hurt, the same fucking headache he'd had for days. "Wait, I'll try again. No, Rodney, I can't possibly let you do that, you're essential to the success of the mission and everyone will be dead inside a month if you're not there. Is that better?"

"No, it isn't better!" Rodney twisted round so he was facing John, one hand braced against the pier, fingers splayed wide, the other pointing at John, either in anger or entreaty, John couldn't tell. "What does it take to get you to stop reading from the script? I thought you were finally being honest with me! I'm trying to be honest with you."

"You want honesty?" John said. "Fine. Here's honesty for you."

Before Rodney could react, John pulled him roughly toward himself and kissed him.

The movement was so abrupt that Rodney nearly lost his balance. That had potential to end really badly, since they were perched right on the edge of the pier. His arms flailed for several seconds, until John tugged him even closer, pulling him into a hard embrace.

John had devoted a lot of thought to what it would feel like to kiss Rodney. He'd worked up a number of fantasies about it, some slow and tender, others desperate and fast. None of them had been anything like this: hard and regret-filled on John's side, shocked and unresponsive on Rodney's.

Then, abruptly, something changed. Rodney shifted his body, as if he wanted to get closer to John, as if he liked it. His mouth, which had been slack with surprise, tensed for an instant, and then John felt Rodney began to kiss back.

John began to move his hands up and down Rodney's back, hungry for touch, desperate. He'd touched Rodney before, of course—a lot of times, over the years—but always briefly, for some functional purpose. He'd never touched for pleasure, and now he wanted to seize this opportunity, if it was going to be his first and last.

"Okay," Rodney said, pulling back a little. He was breathless, almost panting. "Uh. Wow. I—"

John let his hands fall back to his sides. "That was—" He broke off, not sure how he'd been planning to finish that sentence. That was a huge mistake, maybe. Or, possibly, That was everything I've waited my whole life for.

"Yeah," Rodney said. His eyes were glazed; John had no idea what was going on in that enormous brain. "I'm sorry, I, ah—"

"You don't—" John started, but Rodney had already gotten up, and was walking away from him, back along the pier. He was almost out of earshot when John finally found his voice. "McKay!" he called out.

Rodney stopped. He turned around.

Right then, too late, John saw the fog.

It rolled in from the sea, rising up from the water in thick tentacles that curled over the edge of the pier, like some incorporeal sea-monster trying to drag Atlantis down into the deep. Within seconds, there was a heavy curtain of fog around John; Rodney wasn't far away, but he was already an indistinct outline, barely visible.

John scrambled to his feet, and started to walk toward Rodney. A sudden lancing pain in his head forced him to stop, and when it subsided, the fog was so thick that he couldn't see anything.

"No," John said, his voice unnaturally loud in the silence. "No, no, no, no. Not now. Come on."

The fog swirled, thickened, and coalesced into a solid, human shape.

"Hello, John," Elizabeth Weir said.

She looked like Elizabeth—the Elizabeth who John remembered, and not the disembodied Replicator version which had claimed to have her memories.

As if she could read his thoughts, she said, "I know. Sometimes I wonder if I'm really me, too."

He looked steadily at her. "And are you?"

She shrugged and smiled. Like Ford, she seemed almost more like herself than he remembered her, as if everything that had been vital and true about Elizabeth Weir had been distilled and then recreated. She looked younger—or, maybe not younger, but not stretched taut by worry and responsibility, the way John remembered Elizabeth had so often been.

"Replicators replicate," she said. "It's their nature. When they made me like them, I became plural, scattered. There are still fragments of the person I was out there, and I'm sure they all believe they're the original. Maybe they're right."

"I'm sorry," John said. "I shouldn't have left you. I should have done more to save you. I should have tried harder."

She shook her head. "I made my choice. You don't have to be in the military to understand duty, John. I knew what my duty was, and I did it."

Suddenly, it made sense. "That's why you're here, isn't it? To tell me to do my duty and die like a good soldier."

"No. No more persuasion." Her voice was level, but firm. John knew that tone—it was the one she'd always used with him when she'd made a decision and wasn't going to be moved from it. "You're alive and dead, John. You're a paradox, and the universe can't tolerate a paradox indefinitely. You have to be one thing or the other. I've come to bring you back with me."

"I'm not ready," he said. "I need more time."

She shook her head. "You've had all the time you should have had, and then some. You should have died when the ZPM overloaded."

"What if I just—refuse to go with you?"

"Then you won't be alive or dead," Elizabeth said. "You'll be stuck in between. Believe me, you don't want that."

John wondered what that would be like. Would he be lost in the fog, forever? Or maybe he'd be trapped on Atlantis, perpetually wandering its rooms and hallways, able to see his friends and colleagues but never speak to them, never be heard. Maybe he'd see his own body lying in the infirmary, hooked up to a ventilator and a drip, living but unliving. They'd call it a persistent vegetative state and put him in a room somewhere and eventually everyone would forget about him. It wouldn't be life; it wouldn't even be a shadow of life.

"Elizabeth," he said, "I know you. You know me. Everything we went through, everything we survived—we never gave up. I can't give up now. There has to be something."

She hesitated. It was barely noticeable—a flicker in her expression, there and then gone again. But John saw it.

"There is something," he said.

Elizabeth's expression became pensive. She walked in a slow circle around John; as she moved, the fog wrapped itself around her in hazy, diaphanous layers.

"You are a coin," she said, "spinning in the air. You are indeterminate. There is a possibility you may be able to influence your own outcome."

John tried to decipher that. He was sure Elizabeth hadn't been this enigmatic when she'd been alive. "You're saying... I can appeal." When she didn't contradict him, he said, "Okay, then I want to do that."

"You don't know what you're asking."

"My other options are death or an irreversible coma," John pointed out. "Tell me what I need to do."

She pursed her lips, reluctant, but said, "You'll have to make your case."

"All right. Fine. I can do that."

"Remember that just wanting to live isn't enough. Everyone wants that."

"I have a reason," John said, "and I'm ready."

Elizabeth nodded. "Follow me."

John looked back up the pier, trying to find Rodney in the swirling mass of fog. He was in there somewhere, frozen right in the middle of turning round to—to do what? John didn't know. Being alive meant that something always happened next. If he didn't come back, there would be no next for him. His life, his story, would end right here, unfinished and incomplete.

I'm coming back, he promised silently.

He followed Elizabeth into the fog.


***


There was nothing to see except endless, swirling gray. There was no sound; the fog seemed to smother noise, and when John lost sight of Elizabeth and called her name, his voice was swallowed up by the silence. He kept walking. Wherever he was now, he sensed it wasn't somewhere he could leave by simply turning around and going back the way he'd come. It was too late to change his mind.

At last, the fog started to thin. It separated into veils of mist, each one lighter than the last. He began to see shapes forming in the dimness, almost as if the fog was condensing and solidifying into tangible objects.

The last mist veil parted for him.

He couldn't have described where he was. He had the impression of somewhere a little like Atlantis's Gate Room except much bigger, with high windows of stained glass and the sweeping, graceful architecture that the Ancients had favored. But every time he tried to look at some specific aspect of his surroundings directly, it became suddenly indistinct and unreal.

The only way to see anything was not to look at it. Instead, he had to let things seep into his perception at the edge of his vision. He had the impression of a structure rising up and up, far above him, and of many tiers of galleries rising in concentric rings. He also had the feeling he was being observed, but every time he tipped his head up to look, he saw nothing except the endless writhing mist. They were there, nevertheless—Elizabeth, Ford, Colonel Sumner and the original Carson Beckett, each one of them a flickering and insubstantial presence, watching him.

There were others, too: familiar phantoms, the same faces who haunted his memories and his dreams. Peter Grodin and Kate Heightmeyer. Shaun Markham, shot down by a Wraith dart, and Derek Griffin, who'd saved McKay's life in a submerged jumper but drowned himself. Brendan Gaul, who'd put a bullet in his brain rather than face a slow and lingering death. And then there were the people from before Atlantis. Dennis Mitchell and Wayne Dexter. Scott Holland. Ben Osborne, John's best friend in high school, killed in a car crash two weeks shy of his twentieth birthday. His father. His mother.

"I'm here," he said loudly. "I'm ready."

What do you want?

John hadn't heard anyone speak. The question was suddenly there, in his head, like the memory of recent speech.

He turned around. There was no one there, but he remembered someone being there moments earlier. He tried to recall what they'd looked like, and couldn't.

What do you want?

Now he remembered the question being asked twice, the second time with some impatience.

This was going to be weird.

"I want to live," he said.

There was no wind at all, but the mist spiraled and twisted as if lifted by a swirling gust of air.

Everyone wants to live, he remembered being told. We know you, John Sheppard. You were born. You lived. You died.

"The last part, not so much."

There is imbalance. You are in flux. Uncertain. This must be resolved.

"I'm not gonna argue with that. I just want it resolved in a way that lets me have my life back."

He remembered being asked, Why?

"Because it's my life and I wasn't finished with it."

You lived all the days allotted to you, and then twelve more. Why was that not enough?

"Because..." John stopped. The watching phantoms seemed to be leaning forward, eager to hear his response, although it was hard to tell because every time he looked directly at them, they melted into the fog. He had the sudden conviction that, far from being alone in this place, he was on display before an infinite, invisible audience. Or maybe it wasn't an audience; maybe it was a jury.

He closed his eyes and tried not to think about who might be listening as he said, "Because I'm in love."

The fog surged upward, agitated.

John waited, but he didn't suddenly remember being asked any questions. He wondered if he needed to say more. "I, uh... His name is Rodney McKay. Doctor Meredith Rodney McKay, of Vancouver, in British Columbia, Canada, currently working for the Stargate program—"

He remembered being interrupted, We know who he is. At that, John had to suppress an entirely inappropriate urge to laugh. Apparently McKay's reputation extended into the afterlife.

The next question that planted itself in his memory stopped that impulse dead in its tracks.

Are you loved in return?

John swallowed. "I don't know. That's why I have to go back. To find out."

He remembered being asked, Why did you do nothing in all the days you had?

John wanted to answer that he didn't know. But when he spoke, he heard himself say instead, "I was scared."

A mind can lie, he remembered being told, but a soul can only speak the truth.

"Now you tell me," John said under his breath. If he even had breath, here. More loudly, he said, "I regret a lot of things I did in my life, but I regret the things I didn't do more. This is one thing I might be able to fix. I'm asking for a second chance."

A second chance is not a small thing, to be granted lightly.

"I know. But you asked me why you should let me go back. That's why."

Your testimony is insufficient.

The words crashed into his memory like stones, heavy and final. "No, wait—"

Your testimony alone is insufficient. The evidence of another is required.

Suddenly, Rodney was standing next to John. He blinked a couple of times in confusion and then said, "Huh. Lucid dreaming. Interesting."

John stared. Rodney was there, right next to him, real and solid and vital in a way that nothing else in this freakish place was. It was such a relief to see him, to know that he was real and that he wasn't going to slide away or evaporate under John's gaze that John couldn't look away. Around them, John could sense the massed host of phantoms pressing forward, drawn by the vital presence of a living person like moths to a flame.

Rodney didn't seem to be aware of them. "Why are you staring at me?" he asked John. "Do I have something stuck between my teeth?" Then he frowned. "I must have fallen asleep. I don't have time to sleep, I have too much to do!" He closed his eyes and screwed up his face, in much the same way he had when he'd been trying to think himself out of the VR simulation on the Aurora. When that didn't work, he opened his eyes and seemed to take in his surroundings for the first time. "What kind of dream is this, anyway?"

"The kind that's not a dream," John said. "This is real."

Rodney waved a hand at him dismissively. "You're a projection of my subconscious. You would say that."

"No, listen," John said urgently. "You were right—I should have died when the ZPM exploded. Except I didn't. Somehow, I'm alive and dead at the same time, and it turns out the universe really doesn't like it when you fuck around like that."

Rodney snapped his fingers, like he'd just remembered something important. "Alive and dead. That's exactly what you are. You're in a state of quantum flux. My God, that's it. I need to wake up, right now. I have to figure out how to save you."

"How to save me?" John repeated.

"You have a black hole in your head," Rodney said. He held up his finger and thumb, illustrating something tiny. "A small one. But, still. Black hole."

John tried to think of a response to that, and came up blank. He wasn't even sure he'd heard right. "I... what?"

"I should have worked it out sooner," Rodney said. He brightened. "Huh, what do you know—I'm brilliant even when I'm asleep."

"McKay," John said, "what are you talking about?"

"All right, I know you're only a manifestation of my subconscious, but it'll help if I talk this out." Rodney started to pace up and down in front of John, waving his hands like he was delivering a lecture. "Those sensor logs we managed to pull out of the crystals in the ZPM Charging Room all showed the same thing as the main Atlantis sensors. The ZPM exploded right after you closed the door."

John already knew this part. "I was meant to die."

Rodney broke off from his pacing and held up a hand. "Wait. The sensor logs I retrieved from inside the room recorded something else, something the rest of the sensors on Atlantis missed. There was a safety mechanism in place. When the ZPM started to overload, the safety protocols kicked in. They created a microscopic singularity right at the center of the ZPM—a wormhole no bigger than a fraction of a nanometer. The singularity was designed to act like the overflow in a bathtub, giving the energy from the explosion somewhere to go before it could do any damage. I couldn't figure it out at first because the data seemed to be saying that the ZPM both exploded and didn't explode. I thought the ZPM exploding was a zero-sum event, but it wasn't—it was a quantum event. It both happened and didn't happen. Which makes you the equivalent of the cat in the box. Congratulations, you're Schrodinger's Colonel."

"Alive and dead," John said, getting it.

Rodney nodded. "The singularity was supposed to collapse as soon as it had done its job and drained off the excess energy from the explosion, but it didn't. With the ZPM completely drained, there was nothing to anchor it. It started drifting randomly, and it didn't stop until it collided with the nearest piece of dense matter. Which happened to be your brain."

Slowly, John said, "I have a black hole in my head."

"It's miniscule," Rodney said. "We're talking about something that can float through the gaps between atoms. Most of the time you're not even aware it's there. But every so often it's colliding with a cluster of neurons, and that's what's been causing the seizures. All we have to do now is figure out how to remove it. You can't extract a microscopic quantum singularity from brain tissue using tweezers."

"Then what do you use?"

"Some kind of gravitational containment field would probably work," Rodney said, "although it'd have to be something that didn't affect the brain's electromagnetic field. But I need to wake up now so I can start working on it."

"Rodney," John said, "you're not dreaming. Do I sound like a figment of your imagination? This is real."

A flicker of uncertainty passed across Rodney's face. Then, before John could press home his advantage, he remembered a voice saying, You will give your evidence now.

Rodney jerked his head up, and looked around. "Did someone say something about ten seconds ago?"

"It's weird," John told him. "You don't hear her speaking, you just kind of remember it."

"Hear who?" Rodney asked.

"I don't know. I think she's judging my case. Try not to piss her off, okay?"

John remembered being told, You will be silent now.

The mist thickened around him, forming itself into coils that wrapped themselves around his wrists and ankles, and then his head. Fog filled his nose and mouth and flowed down into his lungs, filling his chest. He couldn't move or speak. All he could do was listen.

He heard Rodney's voice demand, "Who are you? What did you just do to him? Is he all right?"

If there was a reply, John didn't hear it. The next thing he heard was Rodney's voice again: "And if I answer, I can wake up and get back to work?"

There was a short silence. John was aware of Rodney still standing next to him, but he couldn't turn his head—or even shift his gaze enough—to see his face.

Then John remembered a voice addressing Rodney. It asked, What is John Sheppard to you?

Rodney said, "He's my colleague. In the field, he's my commanding officer—although I'd like to point out that I have seniority in technical or scientific decisions on Atlantis. He's my friend. He's the best friend I've ever had." He stopped. "It's just... sometimes I think we missed one hell of an opportunity."

Every life has its share of squandered opportunities. This one is no exception. Why should he be given the right to make good his mistakes, when it is denied to others?

"Because he's earned it," Rodney said at once. "I never met anyone as ready to make sacrifices for other people." He took a couple of steps forward, which brought him back into John's limited field of vision. "This is the guy who flew a nuclear bomb into a Wraith hive ship to save Atlantis. He was willing to lock himself in a room with an overloading ZPM to protect the lives of others. He never asks for anything for himself. If he's asking for something now—if he wants some more time, the chance to put something right—you should give it to him. He deserves it."

John remembered the voice saying, You argue well.

"Yeah, it's my gift," Rodney muttered.

He has already had all his days, and more. If he is allowed to return to his life, where would his extra days come from? The universe must remain always in balance. For every act of creation, there must also be an act of destruction. You know this to be true.

Shit, John thought, suddenly seeing where this was heading. He tried to speak, to interrupt, to say anything, but he couldn't make a sound.

Rodney knew something was up, but not what. "Yes," he agreed, cautiously.

If you truly believe he deserves to live, then are you willing to trade your life for his?

No, John thought. He struggled against the coils of fog which bound him, but they were as unyielding as chains. He could feel sweat beading between his shoulders and trickling down his back. No. Say no, damn you.

"Yes," Rodney said. He sounded a little surprised, like he hadn't known it was the truth until he said it. "I... Yes. I'd give my life for him."

John could feel pain and pressure building behind his eyes, the heat of unshed tears. He remembered the anger in Rodney's voice when John had shut the door to the ZPM Recharging Chamber. He hadn't understood it, then, but he did now. John had always believed that laying down your life for others was the ultimate act of selflessness, but from this side it didn't feel like that at all. He didn't want his life back at that price; he didn't want Rodney to make that choice for him.

He didn't want to go back if Rodney wasn't going to be there.

He remembered the voice telling Rodney, You may wake now.

"Wait, what?" Rodney said. "What about the deal we just made?"

There is no deal. You were asked if you valued this man's life more than your own. You do. You are released.

"Wait!" Rodney said. "I'm not—"

He vanished.

At the same time, the coils of fog which had been holding John in place melted away. The release came so suddenly that he staggered before managing to keep his balance. His head throbbed and his mouth was dry. "That was fucking unfair," he snarled. "I've had enough of this. You can do whatever you like to me, but you don't get to threaten the people I care about. You don't—"

Another bolt of pain shot through his skull, this time accompanied by a blinding flash of light and an intense buzzing. John went down on to his knees, pressing his hands reflexively against his temples. He felt like his entire head would split open if he didn't hold it together.

He heard the murmur of voices growing in volume and intensity around him. The phantoms were close by, ghostly hands clutching at him. Then they were gone, too, melting away, back into the mist.

When John could look up and focus his vision again, he saw that he was in the center of a wide disc from which curved, tapering arms radiated outward in a spiral. Above and below him there was only blackness. He could feel the entire structure rotating with immense, graceful slowness.

He was standing on a spinning galaxy.

He remembered a woman, robed and ageless, standing next to him. He remembered the expression on her face as one of kindness.

"Did I win or lose the appeal?" John asked.

He remembered being asked, What do you think?

"I think," John said, "that I'd really like to go home, now."

You have traveled a very long way.

"That's the truth."

The hardest part of the journey is still to come.

There was something at his feet. He looked down and saw a heavy, lumpy bundle. It was wrapped in a piece of faded cloth—sky-blue once, gray now—that John recognized as a blanket from the bed he'd slept in when he was eight years old. He knew, without having to ask, what the bundle contained. It was everything he was. Everything he had to carry, willingly and unwillingly. It was weighty and awkward, impossible to bear with ease.

He hefted it, looked around. "Which way do I go?"

He waited, but he didn't remember being given an answer. He was alone with his burden.

He turned around on the spot, but every direction looked the same. In the end, he simply started walking.

It wasn't too difficult at first. He fell into the rhythm of walking, stopping every hundred paces or so to shift the weight of the cloth-wrapped bundle. It was tied up with string, and he had to make regular longer stops to re-tie the knots when they started to come loose. He didn't want to lose anything important.

He walked for a long time. He started to feel tired.

He saw that Rodney was walking alongside him. John didn't know how long he'd been there.

"I'm right here," Rodney said. He close enough that John could have reached out and touched him, but his voice was oddly faint, as if he was actually much further away than he seemed.

By now it was a real effort to keep moving, and even breathing was hard work. John wanted to speak to Rodney, but his chest hurt and he couldn't.

"You have to keep fighting," Rodney said. "I've never seen you give up. You can't give up now."

Easy for you to say, John thought resentfully. Rodney was strolling along beside him, barely exerting himself. John shuffled the bundle again, trying to find an easier way to carry it. The damn thing felt like it was getting heavier.

"Teyla's here. Ronon, too. You're not alone. Are you listening to me, Sheppard?"

The bundle nearly slipped from John's grasp. He had to stop to gather it up again. Rodney walked on, oblivious. Wait, John wanted to call out. Don't go. Wait.

I need you.

"I'd change places with you if I could," Rodney said. His voice was very faint, now, and he was fading from view as he receded into the distance. "But you probably wouldn't let me."

Rodney vanished from sight. John tried to lift the bundle, intending to run, to catch up with him, but exhaustion made him fumble, and he dropped it. It hit the ground and split open, spilling its contents far and wide. Ticket stubs and photographs, his dog tags and pilot's license, the letter of condolence he'd written to Ford's family, pages from an old address book, a set of keys, a medal, a wedding ring, the bullet that had killed Sumner, an Atlantis mission patch—every last token he'd been carrying so carefully fluttered or rolled or fell away, and within seconds it was all gone, and he was left standing alone in the dark, holding a rag and a piece of string.

His name had been in the bundle. It was gone, now, too.

He tried to remember where he'd been going.

He saw something in the distance, a shimmering circle of liquid blue light. It looked familiar, but he couldn't remember if it was the start of his journey or its end.

He thought: I want to go home. He didn't know what that meant.

He started moving toward the light.


***


Light. A bright light, filling his vision completely.

"John. John. Can you hear me?"

The light made him wince; he tried to turn away from it.

"Take it easy. Don't try to move too much."

He knew the voice. The voice came with a name. Keller.

"Wait, I'll dim the lights. Let me just—" Her voice faded momentarily, and then the glare assaulting his eyelids eased to something more tolerable. He tried opening his eyes again, this time with more success.

He managed to open his mouth—his lips felt like they'd been glued together—but the only sound that emerged was a cross between a cough and a croak. Keller gave him a couple of ice chips to suck on, and for the next while he didn't want to do anything except revel in the divine sensation of cold water trickling down his throat.

"Is that better?"

He swallowed and said, "Yeah," in a rasping whisper.

"Do you know where you are, John?"

"'Lantis," he said. "Infirm'ry."

Keller looked pleased. "That's right. Good." She fed him another couple of ice chips, and waited while he sucked on them.

John's head hurt—that seemed to be the one constant feature of his life, lately—and he felt weirdly disconnected from his body. "Surgery?" he asked.

"Yes," Keller said. "You've undergone major brain surgery, but the early signs are that it's been successful. I'll save the details until you're feeling better—to be honest, I'm not sure I completely understand it myself. Essentially, you had a small black hole stuck in your head."

"McKay."

Keller nodded. "Yes, Rodney was the one who figured it out. He was convinced your seizures had something to do with the incident with the ZPM, and he was right. You can thank him yourself when you see him. I sent him away to get some rest once we were sure you were going to pull through."

"He was here," John said. "Talking."

She smiled. "Well, you know Rodney. That's his MO."

"I was on the pier," John said. It was definitely getting easier to speak.

"That was eight days ago," Keller told him. "You had a massive seizure and fell into a coma. After Rodney made the connection with the ZPM explosion, Carson and I worked on keeping you stable while he built a containment device to extract the singularity. It's been several days since we operated, but this is the first time you've really been awake."

John nodded, or tried to. He felt stiff and uncoordinated. He tried to figure out if anything was seriously wrong, beyond the normal after-effects of anesthesia and major surgery, but his body was sending out too many conflicting messages. "Brain damage?" he asked, and tried to prepare himself for the worst.

"No," Keller said. "You're going to have to spend some serious time convalescing, but there are no signs of any permanent damage. You're going to make a full recovery."

Deep inside himself, John felt a hard knot of dread loosen and dissolve. "Alive."

"Yes, you are," Keller agreed, smiling. "Very much so."

John closed his eyes for a second. The enormity of it hadn't completely sunk in. The clock had been reset to zero; he was going to get his second chance.

"Are you okay?" Keller asked him after a moment.

John opened his eyes. She was blurry. He wondered why. "Okay," he said. He still couldn't control his voice; it cracked on the word.

Very gently, Keller said, "You're crying."

He started to tell her no, he wasn't, but then his vision abruptly cleared and he realized his face was wet. He shut his eyes again, ignoring the sting. Keller took his hand and murmured quiet reassurances: It's okay, it's all right, it's fine, everything's going to be fine.

He let go. He slept. He didn't dream.


***


By the next day, John was alert enough to start receiving visitors, although Keller didn't allow anyone to stay more than ten minutes. Ronon and Teyla got around that restriction by coming multiple times, each. After lunch, Woolsey came by to tell John that he was negotiating with the IOA to have their departure date postponed until John was fit, and his last surprise visitor was Major Lorne, who'd returned hours earlier from a month-long period of leave to be told that while he'd been away, they'd almost blown up San Francisco and that his CO had gotten a black hole lodged in his head. "I guess we brought the crazy back from Pegasus with us," Lorne said, and John had to agree.

John had just finished dinner and was contemplating a nap when Rodney appeared. He hovered in the doorway, looking like he couldn't decide whether to come in or not. "Hey," he said. "How are you?"

There were a dozen easy answers to that, every variation on 'I'm fine' that John had used over the years. He hesitated, then tried something different. "I'm, uh. I'm not really sure yet. I'm alive. I'm going to start with that and... see how things go."

Rodney came into the room. He sat down on the chair next to the bed and looked curiously at John, like he was an experiment which had suddenly started churning out erroneous results. "Huh. That's the first time you've ever given me anything approaching an honest answer to that question. It's usually, I'm fine, Rodney, it's just a flesh wound. Or, I'm fine, Rodney, lay down cover fire while I go in."

John shrugged. "It's a whole new me."

"I hope not," Rodney said, "considering I just went to a lot of trouble to save the old you."

"Yeah, Keller told me," John said. "Thanks for that."

"Any time," Rodney said, sounding distracted. He looked down at his hands, then up again. "Listen, there are some things I really need to say to you, and I appreciate this may not the best moment, but we're both here, conscious and capable of communication, and I've had a lot of time over the last few days to think about missed opportunities, so I'd really like to get this off my chest." He stopped, and took a breath. "I was here while you were in the coma."

John nodded. "Keller told me that, too."

"I, uh, I ended up talking to you. Pretty pointless but, well. You know me."

John smiled. "I know you."

"And I said some things... Things I don't actually regret." He looked at John. "I would have swapped places with you. I would have made that deal, if it would have brought you back. And I like Jennifer a lot, but I had to think really hard about whether I wanted to move to Colorado for her. But you—I'd die for you."

"I'd live for you," John said. "Every day. The rest of my life. However long I get."

"Is that a promise?" Rodney asked. He sounded as serious as he ever had.

John's mouth went dry. "Yes," he said. It felt like taking a vow.

"No more stupidly outrageous risks?"

"Only stupidly outrageous necessary ones."

"I guess I can live with that." Rodney hesitated. "When that guy was hitting on you in the bar, I was really jealous."

"He wasn't my type anyway. I only go for genius Canadian scientists. I, uh. I'm sorry. I wasted a lot of time."

"Well, we're here, now, so." Rodney stopped. "I don't actually know what happens next. I'm kind of a novice at this."

"I think you need to have a conversation with Jennifer," John suggested.

"We already did that part. She's okay. I think she knew before I did."

John remembered Jennifer putting her hand on his. She'd comforted him as a friend rather than a colleague or a patient. He owed her more thanks than he'd probably ever be able to express.

"Want to try the kissing thing again?" he asked, hopeful.

Rodney looked dubious. "The last time we did that, you had a massive seizure and almost died."

"So, we have nowhere to go but up."

"Point," Rodney conceded. He leaned across the bed and kissed John on the lips, tender and light.

Rodney pulled back, and scrutinized John carefully. "Well?"

"Still here," John said.

"You are," Rodney agreed. He grinned suddenly. "This is going to work, isn't it? We can make this work."

"We went to another galaxy, Rodney," John reminded him. "We can do anything."


~ Ten weeks later ~

Rodney checked the readings one last time. "That's it. Everything's green. We're ready."

"That sounds like my cue," John said. He spoke into his radio: "Control, do we have a go?"

"You have a go, Colonel," Woolsey's voice replied. "Proceed."

John approached the Control Chair. He glanced over at Carson, who was standing at the far side of the Chair Room. "Sure you don't want to go first?" John asked him.

"I flew Atlantis to Earth," Carson said. "Believe me, I'm very happy just to be the backup for the return journey, Colonel."

"You know, we're on a timetable, here," Rodney said. He was doing his best to sound annoyed, but he couldn't manage it: he was almost humming with excitement.

John sat down in the Chair, and let Atlantis rise up to meet him. It was like connecting with the jumpers, except a thousand times more vast and powerful. The city was his to fly. The galaxy—the universe—was wide open with possibilities.

He knew where he was going.

Home, he told her: Take us home.