Word Count: 6700
Rating: PG, gen
Warning: Not a happy story. (highlight to read specific spoilery warning) Character death
Summary: This story goes AU off rhymer23's Types of Intelligence. It was a possibility that had occurred to me when I read the original: If one little thing had been different... You have to read the original story for this to make any sense at all. Text at the beginning is a slightly rewritten scene from her story, using a lot of her words, and bits of her story are scattered throughout.
John woke slowly, in brief moments of lucidity wrested from the dark fog of drugged sleep. He saw that he was on Atlantis, and that was enough to let him sink back peacefully into the haze. He surfaced again into a blur of people, motion and noise -- doctors telling him to do things, to move things, to breathe. He wanted to sleep again -- but --
"Rodney?" His throat was so sore that no sound came out, just a faint breath from dry lips.
"Rodney is fine." Teyla's voice. He felt her hand close over his.
It should have been enough, but sometimes you had to see. He managed to open his eyes. Teyla on one side. Ronon standing behind her. He moved his neck in tiny increments, but there was no Rodney on the other side. Over two weeks, it must have been, two weeks in that cell, and Rodney -- He remembered Rodney freaking out; remembered hissing at him to be quiet; remembered lunging forward ... And then, just fragments of pain, and Rodney's voice babbling at him in snatches caught out of darkness, begging him to wake up, to be all right. He would have answered, but it had been hard enough just to breathe, and somehow he always fell asleep before he remembered how to do both at once.
I want to see him, he thought. His lips moved ineffectually, but perhaps Teyla understood what he was trying to say. Her fingers squeezed his, lightly, gently. "Rodney is fine, John," she said softly. "We are all fine. Please, sleep now."
Teyla said it was all right. Teyla wouldn't lie. Still fighting a nagging uncertainty, he slept.
Rodney didn't come. John knew how Rodney could wallow in guilt, suspected that was what was going on now. Teyla made veiled apologies for him, offered excuses. "He is very busy, studying your double. He fears that it may have been able to send a message to whomever created it."
"Could send a team back." The idea of going back to that planet, to that prison, made something cold open up in the pit of his stomach, but there were bound to be things they could discover from the facility where he and Rodney had been held. "A team in a jumper," he added, sipping from a plastic cup of water that Teyla held for him. "A very heavily-armed team in a jumper."
Teyla shook her head. "The facility has been destroyed." When John raised his eyebrows, she explained, "A self-destruct was triggered when we entered the building. Perhaps something that we tripped by accident, perhaps something that was done intentionally to prevent us gaining access to their knowledge. In any case, we barely escaped before the explosion."
"Lorne's team went back the next day, check things out," Ronon added, leaning back in a chair on his other side. "Nothing left but rubble. Sensors said there was nobody alive." He sounded satisfied.
Still, Rodney didn't come. John heard secondhand, from Keller, that the duplicate of himself had managed to shut itself down somehow, completely burning out its core processor and memory unit. Rodney was working around the clock trying to restore data from the damaged unit, to try to identify their mysterious enemies. Guilt, John thought. At one point he asked Teyla to bring Rodney to him. "Tell him anything. Tell him ... Hell, tell him I'm worrying myself sick, not being able to see with my own eyes that he's okay. Tell him it's hindering my recovery -- something like that."
"I will try. But, John, he has been very withdrawn. He hardly speaks at all, to any of us. He feels terrible for what happened to you."
"It's not his fault." He remembered that from the cell, too -- Rodney's apologies, the broken sound of his voice as he talked himself hoarse, his voice a lifeline that John had used to claw his way back, time and again. And they'd taken Rodney away, at least once; the piercing terror in Rodney's voice had cut deep enough into the fog of pain and fever that John had managed to open his eyes. He'd seen Rodney struggling, not to escape, but to get back to John -- he'd tried to get up, tried to go to him, to do something, but there was only splitting agony and darkness. Obviously their mysterious captors had brought Rodney back unharmed, because both of them were here, on Atlantis, safe. But still, he'd be more comfortable if he could see for himself.
John wasn't sure what Teyla said to Rodney, or what Rodney said in return, but he didn't come, at least not while John was awake.
Heightmeyer's replacement, a rail-thin woman with thick glasses and a soft, girlish voice, had a short session with John once a day, as soon as he was able to sit up and carry on a coherent conversation without falling asleep in the middle of it. She listened quietly and made small notes on the computer in her lap as he tried to arrange his memories of his and Rodney's imprisonment into something vaguely coherent.
"Are you talking with Rodney, too?" John asked after he'd told her, again, about Rodney talking him through his semi-lucid periods in the cell; she wanted to hear all about that. The thought occurred to him that he might be able to get an idea of Rodney's mental state from her, even if she wouldn't be able to furnish specific details.
"Your team are doing fine, John. You don't have to worry about them."
John pushed himself up a little higher in the bed. It was so hard to assert himself when he was lying flat on his back, barely able to raise his arms without feeling as if he'd run a marathon. "Look, I know Rodney didn't get physically hurt, but he was there, too. I think it was more mentally traumatic for him than it was for me. You seriously aren't treating him?"
Not-Heightmeyer -- he'd always had trouble remembering her name -- pushed her glasses up the bony bridge of her nose and studied him. Finally she said, "John, you do understand that the recollections you have of Rodney in the cell are hallucinations, don't you?"
All the air went out of his lungs; for a minute all he could do was stare at her, until words would come again. She was still talking, about confusion and trauma-induced false memories, but he'd never been so clear-headed in his life -- or so terrified. "No, we were captured together. What are you talking about?"
"John," she said gently, leaning forward. "The only person in the cell was you. Rodney has been here, trying to find you, the entire time you've been gone."
They finally had to call Teyla to come calm him down. There was a stabbing pain in his side and he was sure he'd torn some stitches, but damn it, he was getting down to the labs and talking to Rodney, or whatever was wearing Rodney's face, if he had to crawl there.
"John -- John!" Darkness closed in on the edges of his vision, narrowing it to a tunnel with Teyla's face at the end. Her hands were warm, cupping his face. "John, you are hurting yourself. Your body is not healed yet. You must get back in bed."
"Rodney --" But he'd screamed himself hoarse at the startled therapist, and now that he had someone who might actually listen, he couldn't manage to form a coherent sentence. A spike of cold shot up his arm, and he realized he'd been sedated. "No," he said, and fought against the firm hands on him, fought until he fell into a muffled dark sea.
He woke with a headache and a sharp taste in his mouth. His lips were so dry they hurt. Groaning, he raised a hand to rub at his eyes.
"John? Thank the Ancestors." Teyla bent over him, offering a cup of water. "Small sips," she added, as he choked on the first gulp. A tearing pain ripped through his side when he coughed, and he cursed when he had enough breath.
"Colonel, I see you're awake." Keller descended on him with penlight and clipboard, taking note of his vital signs. "What were you thinking, trying to get out of bed like that?" she scolded gently, pressing a thermometer into his ear. "We had to re-suture you in seven different places. You're very lucky you didn't have to go back into surgery."
"I had to --" And the horror came rushing back, the fear. "Teyla ... Rodney, the person you think is Rodney, is an impostor like the one impersonating me. We left Rodney on the planet."
"No, John, no." Teyla's hand smoothed over his forehead, gentle and soft. Her eyes were sad. "It was a dream, that's all. Rodney's here on Atlantis, and he's fine."
"No, Teyla, I'm serious. He was there with me in the cell, the whole time." But an icy fear clutched his guts -- what if they were right? What if his memories were the ones that couldn't be trusted?
"John, I have spoken to Dr. Randall." Teyla's voice was very gentle, and yes, Randall, that must be the woman's name. "You were very badly injured. You conjured an image of Rodney in your delirium. It is a common thing."
"No, damn it, listen to me. Rodney's the reason why I was hurt -- the guards were going after him. I got in the way." He glared between her and Keller, both of them wearing identical expressions -- brows furrowed, open, worried. "I remember it, damn it! I can see why I'd hallucinate after I was hurt, but why would I create a whole false history?"
"You've been very ill, John," Keller said softly, and a shaky rush of horror ran through him. They didn't believe him. Even Teyla --
"Teyla, you have to send someone back. To the planet --" But then he remembered: Destroyed. The facility. Gone. Everyone dead. And Rodney with them, if he'd ever been there at all.
John sank back down into his pillows, staring up at them. Wildly, desperately, he thought, Please, let me be wrong. Please. I don't care if I'm losing my mind if it means I'm wrong. "I need to talk to Rodney," he said. "If it's really Rodney, why won't he come see me? You need to bring him, Teyla; I don't care if Ronon has to throw him over a shoulder and haul him down here. Get him."
"I don't know if it's a good idea for him to have more visitors right now," Keller said, and John stared at her in disbelief. Maybe they were all copies.
"What harm could it do?" Teyla argued. "John, I will bring him." Her eyes held his with promise, and then she slipped away, while Keller continued to fuss with his assorted tubes and wires. She brought him a bowl of broth; he sipped a little, and then continued staring at the ceiling, trying desperately not to think of the cell, of Rodney being dragged away.
No! Let me go! I have to -- Sheppard!
He must have slept, because he woke to the soft familiar chattering of computer keys. Rodney. Something deep in him relaxed at that sound. He'd gone nuts in that cell, but he didn't care; even if they yanked his flying clearance when Dr. Whatsername filed her report, it was better than the alternative.
The clattering of keys ceased; Rodney looked up and met his eyes briefly before looking away. "Hey. You're awake."
"Yeah." He couldn't help himself -- in spite of the relief washing over him, he still found himself studying Rodney closely, looking for ... for what, he didn't know. Anything un-Rodneylike. He had to know.
"I'm sorry I haven't been by," Rodney said, still looking away. "I'm just -- it's just --" He trailed off, one hand fluttering in a painfully familiar gesture. John's eyes followed it, almost against his will, looking for anything in it that wasn't Rodney, wondering if he'd know it if he saw it.
"I know how it is," he said, because Rodney seemed to expect a response.
Rodney nodded. "They said you don't think I'm really me."
John felt a tiny stab of betrayal, even though he knew there was no reason why Teyla shouldn't have spoken to Rodney, and possibly to Ronon as well. "Yeah, well, things have been a little crazy around here, you know."
"I know." A smile ghosted across Rodney's crooked mouth. And he still wouldn't look John in the eyes ...
"Rodney, look at me."
Rodney looked up, reluctantly, still in silence. His eyes were wide, guileless and blue. Rodney wore his heart in his eyes, his soul in his eyes. He always had.
Rodney had held John in that stinking prison cell, had held him together, held him to life with a rope made of words. And now he was completely silent, until finally he said, a little impatiently, "Satisfied, Colonel? That I'm really me?"
"Yes," John said. "I'm satisfied."
"That's good. So, uh ..." Rodney stalled out in a verbal tailspin, flustered, a slight blush climbing his face, and for a moment John wasn't as sure as he had been. Again the expressive hands fluttered. "Are we done?"
"Yeah, we're done." He could see how Rodney was straining towards the door, wanting to get back to whatever Teyla had interrupted him in the middle of doing. "You can go. Thanks for coming down, Rodney."
"Right. Uh. I'll be back tomorrow, huh? Bring you some things from your quarters? I bet you could use some books to keep you busy."
"Yeah," John said. "That'd be nice. Thanks, Rodney."
Rodney nodded, and beat a hasty retreat, laptop under his arm. John lay back and stared up at the ceiling. Horror curled in his belly, slow and thick. After the footsteps of the thing that called itself Rodney McKay had died away, he reached for the call button and summoned the night nurse, and asked her to get Keller.
"It's the middle of the night, Colonel. She'll be asleep."
"Wake her up. It can't wait."
"This could have waited for morning," Keller said, haggard and tired-looking with a bathrobe wrapped around her narrow shoulders.
"No it can't," John retorted. He was exhausted himself, still fighting his body's irritating ability to sleep twenty-two hours a day, but fear and urgency energized him. "You need to put Rodney under a scanner."
"Just ... put him under a scanner, all right?" He pleaded with his eyes, having no other weapon. "Worst-case scenario, it takes a few minutes of your time and Rodney bitches a little. Come on, Doc. With all the things we've seen, are you really going to let this go?"
"I'll ask Colonel Carter," Keller sighed. "In the morning, John."
He didn't think he'd be able to sleep, but he blinked his eyes and it was not just morning but afternoon, with nurses moving around in a hush so as not to wake him, and Carter sorting mission reports at his bedside. "Nice to have you back," she said. "Keller was telling me you think there's more than one impostor on Atlantis."
"Yes." He still couldn't allow the full ramifications to sink in. Nothing left but rubble, Ronon had said.
"Dr. Randall said that you hallucinated Rodney while you were being held prisoner."
"Rodney was in the cell with me." He had to keep saying it; he couldn't let himself acknowledge the possibility that they might be right. "The one here is a fake. Look, just scan him, okay? If I'm wrong, it's no big deal, just a precautionary measure. But if I'm right ..."
"I'll talk to him," Carter said. "But I'm not going to order him unless you can give me more evidence than a hunch, John. I'm sorry."
Elizabeth would have believed me, he wanted to say. But it was bitter and petty and maybe not even true, and he needed Carter on his side. "Okay," he said instead. "And what about a recon mission to sweep the area around the prison for Rodney?"
"John ..." Carter's face held the expression that he was starting to recognize and hate: sympathy, concern, pity. "The facility where you were held was completely destroyed. Even if anyone was there, they wouldn't have survived."
John realized that his hands had unconsciously curled against the sheet, knotting the coarse fabric in his fists. He forced his fingers to relax. "He could have escaped. Maybe they even took him somewhere else. How long has it been since you brought me back? A couple of weeks? If he's been trying to survive on his own for all this time --"
"He would have just dialed the gate," Carter pointed out. "John, I'm simply not willing to do that, especially since there's a possibility that our unknown enemy might be continuing to monitor the area. No one but you is suspicious of Rodney."
"Then they're all blind," he snapped, frantic worry leaving him tense as a coiled spring. "All I had to do was take one look at him." And the false Rodney must have known that -- he'd known and tried to stay away.
Carter laid a light hand on John's arm. "If it will make you feel better -- and I agree that we can't be too careful; I don't know how many times we had to deal with this sort of thing at the SGC -- I'll make sure he comes in for a scan today. Will that do?"
"It'll do," John muttered, and tried to sleep again.
He woke when Teyla and Ronon showed up with a tray of soft and bland food from the mess, including a smuggled cup of chocolate pudding for dessert. It should have been comfortable and companionable, but he didn't remember a thing they talked about, the conversation ebbing and flowing around him while his thoughts spun like a carnival ride.
Keller joined them a little later, after the conversation had wound down. Teyla was lying, half asleep, on the bed next to John's, and Ronon had occupied himself with a book. Keller wore a smile; she glanced at John's team, but he just nodded at them. There is nothing you need to say to me that can't be said in front of them.
"We ran the scan on Rodney," Keller said, and John sat up, listening. "He's entirely human."
"You're sure." John wished he could just accept her words at face value, and let it rest, but something in him kept niggling, pushing.
Keller nodded. "Absolutely." A slight frown creased her forehead, and she added, "We had to run the scan twice -- the scanner malfunctioned the first time, went completely on the fritz. We fixed it, scanned him again, and it came back perfect, identical to his last couple of scans. It's clearly Rodney."
"You fixed it." Quiet alarm bells began jangling in the back of his mind. "Who fixed it? Rodney?"
Keller looked uncomfortable. "Well, he was right there, and all he had to do was something with the crystals; it wasn't worth calling someone from the engineering lab all the way to the medical wing."
"You let him mess with the scanner, and then scanned him with it?"
"John." Teyla laid a hand on his arm.
He shook her off, in no mood to be placated. "You have to listen to me, damn it. That's not Rodney!"
Keller sat on the edge of his bed, leaned over and clasped her hands over his upper arms, looking him in the face. "Colonel, please, you need to listen to me. We scanned him. The scan came up clean. It's Rodney."
"Because you let him sabotage the scanner!" Drained, exhausted, he sank back into the pillows; he wanted to push her hands away, but all he had in him was to stare back at her in challenge, refusing to look away or back down. Finally, she was the one who dropped her eyes.
"John," Ronon said. He couldn't tell if it was in sympathy or warning.
Keller sat back with a small sigh. "Colonel, you're putting stress on yourself and slowing your recovery. Would it help if I recommend regular sessions for your team, including Rodney, with Dr. Randall?"
"Sure," he said through his teeth, with all the self-control he could muster. Helplessness and frustration choked him; he waited impassively as she turned and left, then swiveled his head to find Teyla and Ronon staring at him with identical looks of concern. "You have to go back to the planet."
"There's nothing alive there," Ronon said.
"I don't care. Just look around, okay? if Carter hassles you, tell her to talk to me. Guys ..." He saw them exchange a glance, and he felt suddenly more alone than he had since he'd come to the Pegasus Galaxy. They didn't believe him, and he didn't know what to say to convince them. He couldn't blame them; half the time he hardly believed himself, these days.
"Please," he said.
Ronon and Teyla came back to report that fast-growing vines were already beginning to cover the ruins of the prison, the wild jungle swelling back into the void where the facility had been. There were no signs of visitors or habitation -- no sign that their mysterious enemy had tried to rebuild, no sign that Rodney or anyone else had been living in the ruins.
In the meantime, the Rodney on Atlantis was a little friendlier than he had been, dropping by to chat briefly and drop off things from John's quarters. He never stayed long, though, and he didn't seem to want to engage in the sort of rambling conversations about everything and nothing that had been their way for so long.
It's not him, John would think, and then in the next breath, I'm crazy, I'm sick, I'm imagining things. He's just dealing with stress and guilt. That's what everyone keeps telling me.
"How did you know that I wasn't me?" he asked Ronon.
The big man lifted a shoulder in a shrug. "I don't know. Lots of little things."
"And you don't notice any of those little things with Rodney?"
Another shrug. "I don't know him as well as I know you."
He slept, and woke, and ate, and argued with Carter about sending another team back to search the planet again. He had a physical therapy session, and an appointment with Dr. Randall that consisted primarily of the psychologist offering him books on psychological trauma and PTSD. He refused to even look at them while he ate dinner, but after the infirmary had gone quiet for the night, he lay awake and stared up at the ceiling. Finally he picked up a book at random and read about flashbacks and stress-induced delusions, while his stomach knotted itself tighter and tighter.
He must have fallen asleep, because he woke with a jolt, with the book in his lap and a crick in his neck, to find Teyla sitting on the bed opposite his. The infirmary was nearly dark, but her eyes were luminous, watching him.
"Jesus," he said, his heart slowing.
"I am sorry, John. I did not mean to wake you."
"It's all right. I'd probably wake up soon anyway." Since they'd been cutting back on his meds, he'd been drifting awake regularly throughout the night. But he didn't mind -- it meant his head was clearer, making it easier to think his way through the Rodney problem. "What's on your mind?"
"I have been thinking." She looked down at her hands, folded in her lap.
"Yeah?" John said, pushing himself up a little higher in the bed and then trying to rub the cramp out of his neck muscles.
Teyla drew a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. Someone who didn't know her well might not have noticed the tension in her shoulders. "You have put Ronon and myself in the position of choosing between you and Rodney. It is not possible to believe both of you; our allegiance must be thrown one way or another."
"I'm sorry." And he was; he only hoped he wouldn't end up doing irreparable damage to the integrity of his team if he turned out to be wrong.
"Ronon, I think, wishes to stay neutral in this."
"And you?" John asked quietly.
A slight, sad smile quirked her lips. "I am with you, John, no matter what."
For the first time since he'd been injured, John woke in the morning at something resembling his usual hour, exhausted but clear-headed. Purpose, he thought. It made a difference.
He and Teyla had talked until he drifted off in the middle of a sentence. When he woke, she was gone -- down to the labs to keep tabs on Rodney, he presumed, as per their discussion the previous night. Teyla had agreed to be his eyes and ears outside the infirmary.
"You've noticed that Rodney is acting different," he'd said. "Come on, Teyla. It can't just be me."
"He is ... quiet. Withdrawn. I had assumed it was due to guilt, because of what happened to you."
"C'mon, Teyla -- when does Rodney ever do that? Guilty or not, he talks. It's what he does."
Teyla had nodded, and looked away. When she'd looked back at him, her eyes had been like holes in her face. "John, you do realize that if this ... person is not Rodney, then Rodney is --" She'd drawn a deep breath, and didn't finish.
"Not necessarily," John had said, with dogged optimism.
He clung to that optimism today, as he went through his physical therapy and sank back into bed, aching and bone-weary. His physical inadequacy had never frustrated him so much as it did now -- he needed to be out there, interviewing the false Rodney, looking for the real one. Relying on other people to do his work for him was like walking on stilts; he couldn't feel the ground beneath his feet.
He expected Teyla to come see him, but instead, the first person into his corner of the infirmary that afternoon was Zelenka -- a breathless Zelenka with hair and eyes even wilder than normal. "Your suspicions about Rodney," Zelenka said, and then fell quiet, breathing hard.
John set his mostly-empty lunch tray aside. "Yeah, Doc. I'm listening." Clearly, word had gotten around the entire city that Colonel Sheppard had lost his mind.
"I agree with you. You are right," Zelenka said in a rush.
John stared at him. "Sit down," he said, finally.
Zelenka sat, but he was quivering with nervous energy, his foot tapping on the floor. "There have been small things, for weeks now, but I made excuses to myself. I thought that he was concerned for you, that he was obsessed with trying to understand the artificial intelligence that had replaced you. But today -- today there was a small emergency, a malfunction of the gate's dialing protocols. We lost the shield and were on the verge of losing power to the entire city. And Rodney -- Rodney froze, Colonel." Zelenka leaned forward, hands gripping his knees. "He did not know what to do. I was looking at him, I saw him ... saw him pretending to type on his keyboard, but there was nothing but gibberish on the screen."
A shudder passed through John, slow and long. God, he had wanted to be wrong.
Zelenka looked up, his face tormented. "It, the replacement, cannot think as quickly as Rodney," he said, soft and broken. "I should have noticed long since. It has his knowledge, but not his ability to synthesize the things he knows. It is not a genius, merely a computer with extensive programming. I have worked most closely with him -- with it. I should have noticed --"
John raised a hand, stalling the flood of apologies. "Where is it now?" he asked quietly.
"In the labs. Teyla is with him. With it."
"Have you spoken to her? Does she know?"
Zelenka shook his head.
"All right. Get me a radio. No ..." The artificial Rodney had had weeks to do God knew what to the city's systems. He had no idea what had been compromised. "I'm going down there," he said, and swung his legs out of bed.
Zelenka reached out to help him. "This is not wise," he said grimly as John wobbled on his feet.
"Look, I've been trying for days to convince everyone that I'm not crazy. They'll just think this is more of the same. You want to go a few rounds on that merry-go-round with me? Get me some clothes."
It might just be his imagination, but he felt a little stronger with a spare medical uniform covering him rather than the scrubs. They made it out into the hall without incident, slipping past the duty nurse while she inventoried the drug cabinets.
"This is a bad idea," Zelenka said.
"Got a better one?"
"Yes! Tell someone!"
The transporter doors closed behind them and John breathed a sigh of relief, punching the level of the labs. "Ronon's the only person I trust not to go straight to Carter and tell her that I'm infecting others with my crazy ideas, and I have no idea where he is."
With some effort, he managed to step out of the transporter and walk down the hall without needing Zelenka's offered assistance. A handful of scientists passed them, garnering a few curious glances.
"What are you planning to do, then?" Zelenka said in a harsh whisper.
"I don't know. Find proof. Confront him."
"They're right, you are crazy," Zelenka muttered, but he followed John into Rodney's lab.
The lab hadn't changed, and John had to pause in the doorway -- overwhelmed with the memory of a hundred sleepless nights or bored afternoons when he'd come down here: hung out, played games, tossed wadded-up bits of paper at Rodney's shoulder just to listen to him rant --
"John!" Teyla's voice was a fierce hiss. "What are you doing here? You should be in bed!" She'd been sitting at a stool near the door, but hopped down and was at his side in an instant.
Teyla gestured across the room, to the door to one of the private labs. "Working. He has not come out since I have been here." She looked back and forth between them. "What has happened?"
"The Doc here agrees with me." John gave up on his pretence of strength and accepted the supportive shoulder that Teyla offered him. He was about to fall over where he stood, and there was no one else to see them. "This Rodney's an impostor."
Teyla looked up to meet Zelenka's eyes. "You are sure?"
"Of course I am not sure; how could I be? But ..." He pressed his lips together, nodded slowly. "I am certain that something is wrong, very wrong -- certain enough to risk Rodney's wrath. And that," he added with a ghost of a smile, "is very certain indeed."
"Well," John said, with assurance he didn't feel. "Let's go beard the lion in his den, shall we?"
He paused then, as the door on the far side of the lab opened. Rodney stepped through and then stopped when he saw them all staring at him. For an instant, his expression went perfectly flat, before his features arranged themselves into a look of concern. "Sheppard, what are you doing out of bed?"
"Came to talk to you." John pushed himself away from Teyla, forced himself to stand upright. "Can we have a chat?"
Rodney glanced back and forth between the three of them. "I suppose," he said, warily. "You shouldn't be up."
"John." There was a warning tone in Teyla's voice. "This is not wise."
"I'm fine," he repeated, trailing his hand along the lab countertop to maintain his balance. A small object caught his eye, and quietly, stealthily, as his fingers slid past, he palmed it. Like hell he was going in there completely unarmed.
"Colonel --" Zelenka said.
"I know what I'm doing." He smiled at Rodney, who returned it somewhat hesitantly. John made a little "after you" gesture and followed Rodney into the private lab, closing the door softly behind him.
I know what I'm doing. Yeah. If only. All he knew was that he couldn't lie in a comfortable hospital bed in the infirmary, not knowing if there was an impostor walking around Atlantis with Rodney's face, not knowing if he'd left Rodney behind on that planet. This was his problem to solve, and no one else's. He had to know.
"You shouldn't be walking around," Rodney said briskly, circling the examination table in the middle of the room. John stopped, arrested despite himself by the sight of the body on that table. It was himself, John Sheppard, with his head and neck peeled open, and wires strung out everywhere. No, he reminded himself, not me, a robot, a fake. Still, he had difficulty tearing his eyes away from the simulacrum's waxen skin.
"Any progress?" he asked, voice as light as he could make it.
"It's coming along," Rodney said, and offered no more information; he bent over a computer in the corner. "If you don't mind getting to the point, Colonel, I have a lot of work to do, and never enough time to do it."
It was wrong, all wrong, just ... wrong. Rodney should be talking a mile a minute, enthusing over his new toy. Instead, he was typing industriously, shoulders hunched, body language throwing off Leave me alone vibes.
Maybe it was guilt, as everyone kept saying.
John limped around the end of the examining table and leaned a hip against the wall next to Rodney. "Hey, McKay, hold out your hand for a minute."
Rodney raised his head from the computer screen and stared at him. "What?"
"It'll only take a minute." John smiled at him, hoping it didn't look as forced as it felt. "Trust me, buddy?"
Rodney hesitated for a long moment; then, reluctantly, his eyes still on John, he held out his hand.
John's arm shot forward with reflexes dulled only slightly by his time in the infirmary. Earlier, in the lab, he'd palmed a small lancet, and now he slashed the ice-sharp blade across Rodney's palm. It left a thin dark line, and as they both stared at it, the edges of the incision began to well a silvery fluid that resembled mercury.
Grief rose in John's throat, thick and choking.
Not-Rodney wrenched his hand away and, in the same motion, struck out for John's throat with his other elbow. John parried the blow on his forearm, but left himself open for a hard punch to the torso. Pain tore through him; gasping, he fell, curling around his stomach as the Rodney doppelganger drove an agonizing boot into his ribs.
Rolling onto his back, John squinted up through a prism of pain-induced tears, struggling weakly to fend off the doppelganger as it crouched over him and forced his hands down at his sides. All he could focus on was Rodney's face -- Rodney's face, gone flat and dead, as if maintaining human facial expressions was too much effort now that the pretense no longer had to be upheld.
"You son of a bitch," John whispered, and then Not-Rodney's forearm pressed into his throat, cutting off his oxygen. A galaxy of dark spots whirled in his vision, and the sound of his own harsh breathing faded to white noise.
Dimly, so dimly, he felt the body above him stiffen, saw red light flash across the doppelganger's expressionless features before it slumped slowly off him. Then hands were on him, helping him sit up as he gulped lungfuls of air, every one a hot bolus of pain. "Slow, slow," someone was saying, and Ronon's voice said, "Sheppard, are you all right?"
"Fine," he wheezed. His mouth tasted like metal; he brushed the back of his hand across his lips, and it came away streaked with red.
"Get Keller down here," Ronon bellowed over his shoulder.
John slumped backwards, into Teyla's embrace; he didn't know where she'd come from, but she was there. "Rodney ..." he whispered.
"I know," Teyla said, and her voice was fragile. "I know, John."
He couldn't get enough air into his burning lungs, and his head flopped to the side, bringing his gaze down to Rodney, or the thing that had pretended to be Rodney, lying where it had fallen. Its eyes were open, two lifeless blue marbles. As his vision telescoped into darkness, those eyes were the last thing he saw, and he read accusation in that blank, fixed stare.
John floated in and out of consciousness, woke and slept to the sound of soft voices and the fuzzy warmth of drugs in his veins.
He woke at last, all the way, to Teyla's hand over his, and her face above him. "Hi," he said, and grinned a little, still hazy with drugs and sleep.
"Hi." She helped him sit up and gave him a cup of water. It seemed that they'd enacted this scene too many times over the last couple of weeks.
Teyla nodded to her left -- Ronon sprawled, asleep, on the bed next to John's, stripped to the waist with a sheet tangled around him. John's attention was drawn to Ronon's outflung hand: some of the fingers were bandaged, and deeply ingrained dirt encrusted the nails of the others.
Teyla saw where he was looking. "We have been digging," she explained, holding up her own hand to show blisters and calluses.
He started to ask, "Digging for what?" but closed his mouth on the words. "Find anything?" he said at last, when he could speak.
She gave her head a quick sharp shake. "No. It is unlikely that we will. The facility was very large, most of it underground. Your subcutaneous transmitters were taken from you. There is no way, really ..." She trailed off.
But still, they were looking. John didn't have to ask why. He'd be helping, if he could.
"Would you like something to eat?" she asked, helping him to lie back down.
He knew he should be hungry, but the thought of food turned his stomach. "I think I'd rather sleep."
"As would I," Teyla said, and she dragged another bed over until it butted up against John's. She stretched out with a hand on his arm.
They weren't normally this tactile with each other, any of them. Still, John found that he had to stop himself from reaching out to put a hand on Ronon, too. Just to feel him breathe; just to ground himself on the teammates, the siblings, who still lived. The enormity of his loss, their loss, pressed him down, but he didn't think about it, couldn't think about it. It hasn't hit me yet, he'd said to Teyla once, about another lost friend. It seemed a long time ago now. I'm not looking forward to it when it does.
He closed his eyes, and tried not to dream.
Author's note: I always seem to remix rhymer23's stories into the most depressing possible versions! But I couldn't help thinking, when I read the original, how lucky they were that Rodney was actually in the cell with John when the rescue party showed up. Otherwise, would they have believed him?