Title: Tao of Whales
Pairing: McKay/Sheppard (plus team)
Word Count: 16,700
Summary: "Wow, I'm almost as smart as a whale," Rodney thought in wonder.
Notes: This is basically "Tao of Rodney" in the A Clear and Different Light universe. This takes place a few months after the end of ACaDL.
The portal's blue light wavered before stabilizing; the portal mages were exhausted, on both sides. At the top of the stairs, Rodney's fingers tightened on the railing, his knuckles white. The blue glow of the portal made his drawn face gray and brought out the dark shadows under his eyes.
Taranan refugees staggered through in small bunches, clinging to each other. Some were so shell-shocked that they could only stumble to a stop and stand, trembling and staring at the floor. Others scanned the other knots of refugees in the portal chamber, looking for friends and loved ones. Several Earth soldiers shepherded them, urging them along.
The last through the portal were Teyla and Ronon, Teyla with her charmed sticks held in the ready position, and Ronon with a child clinging to his neck, her tiny hands crossed above his wings. Rodney relaxed a little upon seeing them; when John followed them through, hands held before him and limned with green fire, Rodney's shoulders slumped.
"Let it collapse!" John shouted, his voice ragged with exhaustion as he brought down his hands in a tearing motion. The portal mages let it fall, the magic bleeding away into the world, and for a moment everyone simply stood still in the suddenly altered light.
Then Carson sprang into action with his staff of nurses and healers, sorting out the injured from the stunned and frightened as best he could, gently soothing the shaken refugees. He was also, Rodney knew, searching for Wraith taint; John, too, despite his obvious weariness, wove a complicated route through the crowded room, his eyes quickly scanning the shifting crowd.
The Atlantis portal room was as magic-clean as they could make it, woven about with the very best wards that the sharpest minds of two galaxies could produce. So far, they hadn't had another breach of anti-Wraith security, but the memories of the first time -- and the scars -- were still fresh in all their minds.
Woolsey descended the stairs. Like everyone else in the room, he was visibly exhausted. For two days he'd been helping hold the portal and block the Wraith from finishing the job they'd started on Taranus. Rodney, listening from above, heard him ask John, "They're all clean?"
"Far as I can tell." John ran his hand over his stubble. "I think we won this one."
They had been winning most of the battles, but Rodney wasn't sure if they were winning the war. The Wraith had lain low for awhile after the defeat of one nest on Atlantis, but lately they'd started to become bolder, encroaching once again on the human-inhabited areas of the galaxy. So far, most of the Atlanteans' victories had depended upon picking their battles carefully. Their main advantage lay in the fact that the Wraith weren't prepared for Earth magic, nor for the advances that Teyla's people and some of the other Pegasus peoples had made in anti-Wraith rune technology since the last Wraith war. To keep that advantage, though, they had to avoid too many direct confrontations, particularly another all-out battle like the one that had taken place on Atlantis.
For one thing, Rodney thought, they probably couldn't win another all-out battle. They'd only won the first one because John had almost killed himself in the chair. Working around the clock, the science department was making slow headway on figuring out the chair's functions, but Rodney didn't plan on letting John near it until they'd figured out how to use it without risking the operator's life.
Of course, that didn't stop their fighting contingent from risking their lives offworld in the meantime.
"We really have to stop meeting like this," Rodney said as Teyla and Ronon reached the top of the stairs. He meant it to come out flippant, but it only sounded small and scared.
Teyla smiled wearily. Her runes were smudged, her hair a mess, but she looked lovely to him. Reaching out, she lightly smoothed her palm down his cheek. "We promised to return, Rodney," she said. "And so we have."
"Yeah, that's another thing," he said, managing to steady the betraying wobble in his voice. "You shouldn't make promises like that. It isn't fair, you don't know that you'll be able to keep --"
Ronon reached a long arm around to cuff him in the back of the head. "Settle down, McKay. We got the Taranans out."
Rodney looked down into the portal chamber. John was still talking with Woolsey, as the last of the refugees trickled out of the chamber with medical staff fussing over them. "Is that all of them?" Rodney asked. It had seemed a lot when they were filling the chamber with their noise and fuss, but from what Teyla had said of Taranus, it had contained cities.
"All that are left," Teyla said quietly.
John climbed the stairs, and Rodney knew him well enough by now to recognize the depth of the exhaustion dragging down his limbs, the strength of will that he was exerting to hold himself together. The Atlantis expedition had few mages to spare for offworld operations, and Rodney knew enough about Earth magic to know that those few mages had to draw heavily upon their own energy to channel their magic.
Seeing the three of them waiting at the top of the stairs, John visibly drew himself together; there was even a bit of a spring in his step when he reached the top, a little hop off the top step. "Have fun holding down the fort, Rodney?" he said, a lightness to his rough voice that hadn't been there when he'd been talking to Woolsey.
"You know these idiots would sink the city in hours if I ever left," Rodney managed in reply, but then his throat was too tight to speak, and he didn't pull away when John laced dirty fingers through his own.
"Next time," Rodney said, "I'm coming with you guys." He avoided their eyes. "Even if it's dangerous. I mean, I know I don't go offworld much, but -- I don't want to do this again, okay?"
John's fingers gave his a light squeeze. Teyla's hand settled gently on his other arm, and he took them home, or maybe they took him.
After a year and a few months, Rodney had almost gotten used to having the Atlantis expedition cluttering up his city. But adults were one thing kids were quite another. Especially these kids. Teyla had occasionally brought some Athosian children with her to see the City of Ancestors over the years, but those had been so quiet and well-behaved that he'd hardly even known they were there; they'd learned from infancy how to properly conduct themselves on trading trips. The Taranan kids, on the other hand ...
"We are trying to find a world where we can resettle them," Teyla explained patiently. "Athos cannot take in every group of refugees that comes through the portal; it simply is not possible, especially with winter coming on our continent. We are looking at possibly settling them on the other hemisphere of Athos, but we would have to rely on your mages to ferry them there, and they would not have access to a portal of their own."
"Fine, whatever," Rodney sighed. "Just ... don't let them touch anything, okay?"
Part of the problem with the Taranan children was a lack of sufficient adults to care for them. Many of them were orphans, and in addition to that, many of the adults were too traumatized to feed themselves, let alone to look after a bunch of fractious and upset kids. The only thing that kept the situation from getting completely out of hand was the intervention of the whales, who, as it turned out, loved human kids. Most of the Taranan children could swim, so they were parked at the South Pier to be whalesat. (Rodney was very definitely not jealous at all. No matter what John claimed.)
Of course, there were still problems. Rodney was finally managing to get some work done on the chair, for the first time in days, when Carson stuck his head in. "Ah, there you are. We could use your help, Rodney."
"Now what?" Rodney said over his shoulder.
"One of the kids has gone missing," Carson said, and Rodney rolled his eyes before he could stop himself. "You know this city better than anyone. The life sign detectors aren't showing anyone we can't account for, so either she's in one of the damaged parts of the city..."
"Or we have more Wraith," Rodney said quietly. During the battle they'd learned all too well that Wraith shadow-magic could mask a prisoner from detection by either human senses or magic. In the aftermath of their dubious victory, a further problem was that Atlantis's extensive network of spells had been damaged by the work that the Wraith had done while infesting the city's mages. John and the remaining mages had been working hard to fix and restore Atlantis's magic, but there were still areas of the city that weren't working properly, and certain others where water had been allowed to leak in by the failure of the spells that had kept it well-preserved and dry through the millennia. Rodney hated to admit it, but the city that he used to know like the back of his hand had become strange to him. And there were an awful lot of places where a nosy, inquisitive child -- or a frightened one -- could slip through the cracks.
"Have you talked to Ford?" Rodney asked. "That's what he's for, after all." Ford had done a very capable job in the wake of Sumner's death during the battle, and he'd managed to retain command of the city's military despite his youth and inexperience.
Carson nodded. "We're sweeping the city quietly. We don't want to cause a panic. But we could really use your help, Rodney."
"Ask my sister," Rodney said tartly. "She talks to the city."
Carson raised his eyebrows. "She's back on Earth, Rodney; she's been gone for weeks."
"Oh. Really? Permanently?" She hadn't even said goodbye. Or maybe she had and he'd forgotten. Maybe he ought to pay more attention to the general goings-on in the city.
"No, not permanently," Carson sighed. "Am I your family's answering service now? If you'll excuse me, we have a missing child to find."
"Of course we do," Rodney snapped, and packed up his equipment.
He found himself paired off with a nervous, twitchy apprentice mage and an equally nervous-looking young soldier for, quote-unquote, "protection". They wandered around the outer reaches of the city. Occasionally they passed pairs of soldiers, trying to look decidedly casual and not at all like they expected to find Wraith behind every pillar.
Down, the whales suggested. If the little human podling was afraid, she'd probably dive.
The whales might be geniuses, but they did have some trouble figuring out human psychology ... and physiology. Still, Rodney thought they might have a point. Most of the damaged sections of the city that had not yet been repaired were below the water line.
During the years he was living alone on Atlantis, he'd rarely come down here. Rodney was not, of course, afraid of the water in any way -- he'd learned to swim before he could walk, after all. But being surrounded by air and yet enclosed by the pressure of all that water made him very uncomfortable; it was a tense, stifling feeling, and he'd generally left the lower levels of the city alone.
The lower halls of Atlantis were dark and kind of damp. Some of the corridors were closed off; others had a thick layer of dust on the floor, or pools of water. The young mage and soldier accompanying Rodney had gone very quiet. When a soft sound came from up ahead, they all jumped. Listening more closely, Rodney realized that it was the faint sound of a weeping child.
Finally! "I knew it couldn't be that difficult," Rodney muttered under his breath.
"Mariya?" the mage called, and was answered by a thin, plaintive cry. The three of them followed the sound through a maze of corridors growing steadily wetter and danker. Working lights were few and far between down here, and finally gave out entirely, so that only a ball of magefire in the young mage's palm lit their way.
"Why in the world did she come down here?" Rodney complained, splashing through a puddle and then remembering that he was wearing shoes. Damn. He was still used to running around mostly naked, as he'd done for years before the arrival of the Atlantis expedition.
"Probably afraid of Wraith," the soldier said. "People in this galaxy train their kids to hide underground -- in cellars, caves and the like. They ward them --"
He stopped talking when they reached a hole bisecting the corridor. Part of the damaged floor had apparently given way and collapsed into the space below. In the warm glow of the magefire, water rolled in the gap, dark and oily.
"Hello?" a small voice filtered up, trembling.
"She's down there?" Rodney knelt on the edge of the hole and peered down. This must be one of the sections of the city that had flooded, either because of damage during the Wraith siege, or simply due to spell decay over the years. He couldn't see much -- a very large open chamber of some sort, mostly full of water.
The mage pointed down, and her little ball of magefire floated down towards the water, flickering over the surface. "There she is," the mage said. The little girl was plainly visible, clinging to a drifting piece of debris, looking bedraggled and exhausted. "Don't worry, honey," the mage called down to her. "We'll have you out in just a minute!"
Annoyed as Rodney was at having his work interrupted, he couldn't help feel a twinge of pity; she looked scared and utterly miserable. Then the ball of magefire dipped to the surface of the black water, and something, deep inside the room, began to glow. For a split second he thought that it was just his eyes, but no, something was happening -- a network of blue lines spreading through the water. Damn it -- the magefire had triggered something; this was why Rule Number One in Atlantis was If you don't know what it does, don't touch it. The little girl gave a startled cry and then slipped off the piece of debris that was holding her up.
"Call for help!" Rodney yelled at the other two, who were just standing and staring. Without stopping to think, running on pure instinct, he dove into the water. He splashed to the surface and looked up to see both of them still staring; impatiently, he stabbed a finger at the runes on his neck, just recently renewed by Teyla. "I can breathe underwater. Just get some help down here!"
Without waiting to see if they'd obeyed, he ducked underwater and swam towards the girl's struggling form. She clearly knew how to tread water, but was so tired that she was having trouble keeping her head above water. As Rodney swam up under her small shape, he looked down and sucked in a deep breath of charmed water.
The room was huge, much bigger than he'd realized, and the floor was covered with an elaborate diagram -- it was a spell circle, Rodney realized, but much more complex than any of the ones he'd ever seen John and the other Earth mages create. As he watched, the blue lines flowed outward, racing like fire on gasoline along the channels of a previous hidden pattern.
With a last, despairing cry, faintly audible through the water, the little girl sank. Rodney kicked his legs and swam up to catch her from below. As he did, the circle closed beneath him, and sudden light filled the water -- a web of light, above him, below him, around him, trapping him in a blue-white tapestry. He tried to cry out, more in surprise than anything else, and then blue light filled his head along with the whales' panic, and there was nothing.
Teyla was eating in the Atlantis cafeteria when Marie called her to the infirmary. As soon as the nurse began to explain the situation, she was on her feet and running; she was most of the way there by the time Marie had finished telling her about Rodney and the missing Taranan child being found limp and unconscious in the lower levels of Atlantis.
She got her breathing under control and then stepped into the infirmary. The first thing she saw was Rodney flailing at Carson. He looked a bit pale but otherwise undamaged. "There has to be something wrong with me, Carson. They found me floating in the water. That's not normal."
"I thought floating in the water was perfectly normal for you, Rodney." But Carson looked distracted, and Teyla noticed that he kept glancing towards a drawn curtain at the far side of the infirmary. One of the nurses was sitting just outside the curtain with a weeping woman in a ragged dress of Taranan style.
Teyla quietly hailed a passing dryad. "Jennifer, how is the little girl?"
Jennifer shook her head, her leaf-green eyes sad. "She's in a coma. Rodney was wearing your protective sigils, so even unconscious in the water, he was fine. The girl, though, wasn't breathing when they were both pulled out. Excuse me, I need to go help them ..."
Teyla let her go, and went to collect Rodney. "Ah, there you are, lass," Carson said in relief. "I didn't want to let him leave without someone to keep an eye on him for a few hours, and I know you two are close."
"The whales can watch me," Rodney said, a bit sullenly.
"Someone with hands rather than flukes would be best, Rodney. Now you come back immediately if you start experiencing any strange symptoms." Carson squeezed Teyla's arm and then vanished into the back of the infirmary.
Rodney slid off the bed; Teyla noticed that he seemed a bit shaky, and put a hand on his elbow. "Healing magic," he muttered as she led him out into the corridor. "It's hardly a real discipline. Not like the hard sciences, or even parapsychology or astrology..." But he kept glancing behind him.
"It is not your fault, Rodney," Teyla said, stroking her hand down his arm. "Marie said you were very brave, jumping into the water to rescue her."
"It's not bravery if I know I can't drown, Teyla."
"But you did not know what the room would do." Teyla frowned. "What did it do, Rodney?"
Rodney shook his head. "I don't know. Zelenka's people are all over it, I guess, trying to figure out what it is -- well, what's left of it; once it discharged its magical load, it went dead and started collapsing. I would be down there too, but Carson doesn't think I should get near it, just in case there's now some sort of sympathetic connection between me and whatever they were building down there." He scowled. "Even though it might as well be a lump of clay now, for all the magic that's left in it."
"The Ancestors?" Teyla asked.
Rodney nodded. He reached up and rubbed at his neck. "I didn't get a good look at it, but those were definitely fae symbols. Uh, where are we going, anyway?"
"You are going to your quarters to rest," Teyla said firmly. "And, once it is safe to leave you, I am going back to Auralia to help John and Ronon."
"What's that and what are they doing there?"
Sometimes Teyla forgot that Rodney was almost entirely outside the Atlantis power structure and gossip mill, even more so than John or herself. "It is a world that has agreed to take in the Taranan refugees, but they recently suffered a devastating earthquake. We are helping with their cleanup."
In the wake of the battle that many on Atlantis were already referring to as the Wraith siege, Teyla was pleased to see that Atlantis as a whole had responded by becoming more involved with the Pegasus Galaxy, rather than more isolationist as she'd feared. She understood that the Magic Division back on Earth was heavily divided on this, with some of the mages wanting to close the Milky Way-Pegasus portal completely, but they had the support of Archmage Weir in keeping it open and offering their assistance to the rest of the galaxy. And Mage Woolsey, having experienced the devastation of Wraith possession firsthand, was one of their staunchest champions in maintaining the flow of aid and supplies from Earth.
"I'll come," Rodney said immediately. "Then we could go right away, right? Because you'll be keeping an eye on me."
His eyes on hers were earnest. "I meant it, Teyla. I know I don't generally go offworld, but I'm tired of watching you guys put yourself in danger all the time and having to wait and -- I mean, the not knowing ... I can help, right? Maybe it would help to have me there?"
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "Would the whales mind if you go offworld?"
"Are you kidding?" Rodney said gloomily. "They'll pitch a fit. But, you know." He scratched his neck, and his gaze dropped to his toes. "Pod is pod."
To her own amusement, Teyla had known Rodney long enough to understand what he meant.
Auralia, despite the ethereal name, was a dismal rainy heap of a world. Rodney thought of stories John and Teyla had told him of the other worlds they'd been to, beautiful worlds with sunny forests and tropical beaches. Naturally, he got to go to the one that looked like British Columbia in February. After an apocalypse.
It wasn't actually as bad as he'd feared -- he'd had visions of bodies in the streets, roaming packs of wild dogs and the like -- but many of the low stone buildings had collapsed and sloughed into the streets. Roof timbers stuck up like the spars of wrecked ships, and an avalanche had washed over one end of the sprawling mountain town, turning neighborhoods of little stone houses into a uniform mass of mud and rocks.
"Rodney!" John, his face smeared with mud and his hair plastered to his head, straightened up from a pile of rubble. "What are you doing here?"
"Whatever they want me for, I guess." Rodney poked at a rock and tried to stop imagining Wraith behind every bush. "Okay, that came out wrong."
But John grinned at him, and maybe the rain and mud was kinda, sorta worth it.
The Auralian elder who was directing the cleanup set him to work removing debris from what had once been a school. Rodney noticed Teyla giving him worried looks every time they trotted past each other with wheelbarrows of rocks and broken tile, but he really didn't feel bad at all. Actually, he felt pretty good for a guy who hadn't had much sleep in the last few months. Well, aside from the fact that his neck itched. And his arms. He scratched at his forearm, where Teyla's trailing runes vanished under the damp, muddy cuff of his jacket, and wondered if he might be having an allergic reaction to one of her new pigments. It had happened once or twice before -- never badly enough to cause a severe reaction, but enough to make him slather himself in anti-itching lotion and cetacean sympathy until the rash healed.
And he couldn't stop thinking about the little girl, and wondering if he could have, should have done things differently. No, he told himself; she'd fallen already, and you'd just have stood there watching while things happened the same way.
Aside from guilt and a bit of itching, though, he felt great. Better than great. Maybe it was being offworld, getting away from Atlantis and all the lingering bad memories of the Wraith attack. He'd been trapped in labs for so long now, when he used to spend his days swimming with his pod. Whatever the reason, he felt so energized that he could barely keep from bouncing as he climbed a pile of debris to join John and Ronon at the top, helping them shift a broken beam.
"You look cheerful," John said, flashing him a quick grin.
"Do I?" Rodney made a conscious effort to wipe whatever expression John had seen off his face, because really, even he knew it was hardly appropriate when a little kid was fighting for her life because he'd been too slow to save her -- hardly appropriate when helping people pick up the shattered pieces of their homes. And yet ...
I didn't used to think this way, he thought. A quick flicker of magefire ran down the beam as John used his powers to work it free of the debris. Propelled by magic, it slid to rest on the farm carts that would be used to haul it away. I didn't used to care what people thought of me. It wouldn't have mattered.
Why does it matter now?
Because of them, because of these people, he thought, leaning into the back of the cart as its wheels spun in the mud. Ronon was next to him, wings folded over both their shoulders like a sheltering raincoat; the rain on the wet feathers created a haze that looked like a halo of light. And he wondered why he'd never thought about it before, not in those terms. He had always found human emotions murky and opaque, including his own, but really, they followed reasonable natural laws after all. He was able to divide his attention easily between the physical labor and a mental trip back through the last couple of years, and it was surprising to him how clear the patterns became when he reflected on them and thought about it.
People weren't so hard to figure out, after all. He wondered why it had seemed murky before, when it was so plainly evident now.
They ate a cold lunch, or possibly dinner, in one of the remaining intact houses. Rodney was starving; he couldn't remember the last time he'd been this hungry. Physical activity would do that to you, he supposed. The food was very plain -- flat bread and stew -- but it tasted fantastic. He wondered if the cooks on Atlantis could get the recipe.
"Are you feeling well, Rodney?" Teyla asked quietly from her seat on the floor next to him. John and Ronon had gone back outside into the deepening, rainy dusk.
"I'm great. Really good. Why?" he wanted to know, anxiously. "Do I look bad?"
"No. You look fine. I was not expecting you to ..." Teyla hesitated. "I did not think the work would be to your liking."
"Well, nobody enjoys clambering around in the mud." Though actually, he was enjoying it. Teyla smiled at him, and Rodney returned it. The flickering firelight seemed to create a gentle nimbus of light around her, as if she was glowing softly in the dark.
Actually -- was she glowing? It wasn't quite a glow, though, more of a strange double-vision effect. Rodney saw her smile falter and realized that he was staring, but just as she opened her mouth to say something, there was a loud rumble from outside, and several shouts of alarm.
"Earthquake!" Rodney yelled, springing to his feet. A ripple of panic spread through the people gathered around the fire.
"It is not! Rodney, stop!" Teyla swung herself to her feet, gripping his shirt. "The debris piles are shifting. Sometimes, when the beams are moved too fast --"
She broke off as the curtain over the door was drawn aside and a dripping-wet Auralian pushed his way inside. "Honored guest Emmagan, your friend Sheppard --" he began, and that was all it took -- Rodney had dropped his bowl of stew, and he and Teyla were both running, out into the rain.
The steady drizzle of earlier had become a cold, stinging downpour. Wind whipped the rain into Rodney's eyes, and he squinted against it. There was still a little light in the gloomy sky, enough to show up the black hulks of collapsed houses around them. Flashlight beams flickered through the rain, and he and Teyla splashed through the mud, orienting on the source of the lights and commotion.
Even in the twilight and the rain, Ronon was very obvious -- his size and his wings were a dead giveaway. He appeared to be struggling with two Auralians. As Rodney approached, struggling through the mud as fast as he could, he heard someone saying urgently, "You cannot go up there, the pile is unstable and it could come down --"
"The hell I'm not!" Ronon snarled. "Sheppard's in there!"
"What happened?" Teyla panted, echoing Rodney's thoughts.
"The pile shifted," a pale-faced Auralian told them. "Mage Sheppard was using his magic to move some of the rocks, but something slipped and he fell down inside the wreckage."
John had been using his powers all day. He had to be impossibly weary -- and if he hadn't floated himself out yet, then either he didn't have the energy to do it, or he was hurt ...
Rodney was moving before he realized it, lunging forward to lay his hands on the rain-slick, splintery beams. The pile of debris had the same odd double-vision effect that he'd noticed with Teyla earlier, a ghostly echo of each rock and beam, overlaid on the real ones and faintly glowing in the twilight. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to reach out in a way he couldn't quite define, feeling his way down the beams with delicate psychic fingertips. He could feel the stresses in them -- it was like being able to touch physics, and for a moment he was just caught up in the awesomeness of it, before, yes, priorities here -- John trapped, John hurt; and he snapped out of his reverie, using his newfound physics senses to give a little tap here, a poke there ... he worked the equations in his head at the speed of thought, figuring how much stress he needed to exert, in which direction --
The pile of debris shuddered and shifted again. Someone gave a little shriek, and it might actually have been Teyla. But then a rock rolled aside and John was sliding out, covered with mud and bleeding from scratches on his face, but gloriously, wonderfully alive. Rodney let go of the beam and staggered backwards, reeling from a sudden exhaustion and thinking, What did I just do?
"Wow," John said. Ronon helped him to his feet, maybe holding his arm a little more tightly than necessary. "Did you guys get another mage in here? I felt someone working the energies, but I was so damn tired I couldn't do anything to help."
"It was Rodney," Teyla said.
John's head came up. Rodney tried not to meet his eyes, feeling suddenly, acutely self-conscious. "Are you okay?" Rodney said instead.
"I'm fine, just kind of banged up. Rodney, what did you do?"
"I ..." The creepy thing was, he could still feel physics happening around him, even though the awareness had receded somewhat. "... I don't know?"
"We're going back to Atlantis," John said, and no one argued.
"This is very strange," Carson said.
Rodney glared at the healer as Carson removed his hands from Rodney's shoulders, breaking off the subtle tingle of connection. The double-vision effect kept coming and going, making him dizzy when he moved his head. "Not what I want to hear, Carson!"
"What's strange, Doc?" John sat on the next bed over, while Jennifer cleaned his scrapes. She worked smoothly and efficiently, wiping down each gash with an antiseptic towelette and then smoothing her dryad-green fingers after it, using a light healing cantrip to close the torn flesh.
Carson took a step backwards, frowning at Rodney in concentration. "You haven't any fae blood, do you?"
"Not that I know of. Why?"
Carson looked over at John. "I have a little touch of the fae, Rodney. But when I lay my hands on you, I'd swear that you've got it as strong as he does. I can feel the faerie blood all throughout you."
There was a moment of silence. Ronon chose that moment to step into the main infirmary from the showers; he paused in the act of toweling his wings dry. "What?" he said, glancing back and forth between them.
"Rodney," John said, drawling it out as he squinted past Jennifer. "Something you want to tell us?" There was a bit of a challenge in his tone.
"I'm not, though!" Rodney protested, and then backpedaled, because John being John, he just would take it the wrong way. "Not that there's anything wrong with -- I mean, you know that I think it's ridiculous the way that you people fixate on human genetic purity, but, well ... I guess it's possible, but I certainly haven't heard about anything on either side of my family."
"It can skip generations," John said, swinging his legs down off the side of the bed. "No one in my immediate family --" He broke off, and continued after a moment. "There's actually one school of thought that most, if not all, people with mage abilities have some fae in them somewhere, so far back that it doesn't manifest in any obvious way."
"Thank you for the lecture, Doctor Science," Rodney snapped. "That doesn't explain why this is happening to me now. Don't mage powers manifest during puberty?"
"That room under the city ..." Carson murmured.
Rodney turned a sharp look on him. "You examined me right after I was in that room! How could you not notice that I've turned into a fae?"
"First of all," Carson said shortly, "you haven't turned into a fae, you're just exhibiting fae-like traits in your aura; but you weren't like this a few hours ago. I gave you a very thorough examination, and I can assure you that I didn't notice anything of the sort."
"Well, obviously you missed something," Rodney said sullenly, and then blinked; the auras around everything in the room had begun to give him a headache.
"Rodney? What's wrong?" Carson and John spoke almost in unison.
"Nothing, it's just ..." Rodney rubbed his eyes, waving his free hand at both of them. "I'm, uh. Seeing things, a little, I guess."
"Seeing things?" Carson asked sharply. "How long have you been 'seeing things', Rodney?"
"Since going offworld, I guess? I can't really ... it's hard to describe."
To Rodney's discomfiture, Carson placed a hand on each of his shoulders and stared into his face. "Well, try."
"I, er ..." It was a lot harder to sum up what he was seeing than he would have expected. For one thing, it wasn't just that he saw things; he felt them, too. He could feel the walls of Atlantis around him, even Carson's heartbeat rippling through the hands on his shoulders. So he tried to describe that, as best he could.
"Magesight," John said, as Rodney began to wind down, and there was a soft hint of wonder in his tone. "I think you've got magesight."
"I never really understood this magesight that you've spoken of," Teyla said, in the cautious, not-offending-the-natives tone that she always took when she was discussing Earth magic.
Rodney scratched at his forearm. "Yeah, I'm not really sure if I understand it, either. I mean, you guys talk about it, but ..." He trailed off.
John and Carson shared an eloquent look. "It's ... look, magic and healing, both of them, are all about manipulating energy, right?" John said. "Just different aspects of it. And magesight is the ability to see that energy. That's all."
Rodney gave him a sharp look. "That's a whole lot less, um, mystical than I'd always got the impression that you guys go for."
John snorted. "Right, because I'm Mr. Mystical. That's me." Jennifer was done with him, and he slid down from the bed he'd been sitting on, and hopped up beside Rodney. His thigh pressed against Rodney's, warm and secure.
"So what do you see?" Rodney asked.
John blinked, and for a moment, the normal, hazel human eyes were replaced by vivid green cats' eyes. Another blink, and they were gone. It was a measure of how much he trusted the people in this room that he was even willing to let them see him like that. "It's hard to describe, Rodney, which is why we don't generally try to describe it to non-mages. I see auras, and I see the lines of force in the room. Right now, you ..." He looked briefly disconcerted as he blinked back to magesight, waiting a long moment before flickering back to his regular eyes again. "Okay, wow. Your aura is something else again."
"Something else like what?" Rodney had thought he was beyond being freaked out, but, okay, wow, apparently not.
"It's just different." John squinted at him. "Everyone's aura is unique, but yours is incredible. I can't really describe it. Do you see it, Carson?"
"I'm not sure I'm seeing the same thing you are, lad," Carson said. "We both have the sight, but mine is more specific than yours. There's a certain difference, though."
"What difference?" Rodney practically wailed. "What does it look like? Give me a hint!"
"It's not exactly something you can describe," John said, and his long, strong fingers closed over Rodney's, trapping his hand in mid-flail. Their relationship was something of an open secret on Atlantis, but like John's cats'-eyes, it wasn't something that was often expressed in front of other people, even Teyla and Ronon.
A full-body shiver worked its way through Rodney, but he let John lower his hand until it rested on John's muscular thigh. John, despite his flippant tone, did not let go. Rodney sighed. "Great; something weird is happening to me and none of you have the slightest clue what."
Teyla sat on Rodney's other side, not quite as close as John; she had known him the longest, and because of that, she very seldom touched him without his permission. "What do the whales say?" she asked quietly.
John raised an eyebrow. None of the Earth humans had even thought to ask, of course, but Teyla would know that the connection between Rodney and the whales went much deeper than he'd bothered telling anyone.
"That I'm far too young to go offworld by myself," Rodney grumbled, "and that's pretty much it. Also, I'm starving. I don't suppose one of you could get me something from the cafeteria, since you're all standing around anyway?"
In the end, Carson released him, because there was nothing they could really do for him. Zelenka's team was still studying the mysterious room, and, though he chafed at the restriction, Rodney privately had to agree that it was probably a good idea if he stayed away from it until they knew more about how it worked. Instead, Teyla, Ronon and John herded him to the cafeteria.
Rodney almost walked into a pillar when the double-vision thing flared up again. "Okay, that's really annoying."
"What is?" Ronon asked, looking up from preening his wings, as he often did by habit when he wasn't specifically doing anything else -- ordering the ruffled feathers, laying them smoothly side by side, and plucking out damaged ones. He tended to leave a little trail of feathers in the halls.
"Magesight?" John asked.
"I guess," Rodney said; he sounded sulky even to himself, but, given recent events, he didn't really care. "How do you manage to walk anywhere without tripping over things?"
"I can teach you to turn it on and off," John said.
To Rodney's surprise, it really wasn't that hard; by the time they reached the cafeteria, he was mostly in control. He noticed John frowning at him, but the cats'-eyes weren't in evidence, so John's expression must not have to do with his allegedly freaky aura. "Well? What?"
"It's just -- I didn't even know it was possible to learn to handle magesight so quickly," John said. "You've only been doing it for a few hours."
Rodney might not have wings, but he preened anyway. "Well, I am a genius."
"If this has anything to do with what happened to you earlier, I wonder what would have happened if a mage had stepped into that room." John's eyes practically had little stars in them.
"John," Teyla said quickly.
"I wasn't planning on it. Besides, it's broken now. But still -- if it gave Rodney magesight, when he doesn't have a drop of mage talent --"
"Hey!" Rodney said. But it was hard to get angry when his mind was already moving on, skimming over possibilities at a speed he wouldn't have believed possible just this morning. "You know, I think I'm getting smarter, too. Though it's difficult to tell, since I was pretty smart to start with." There was a muffled snort of laughter from Ronon. Rodney glared over his shoulder at him. "Don't even."
"How do you know?" Teyla asked him, as they selected fruit and pastries from the all-night table. The cafeteria was dimly lit and nearly abandoned. The four of them made their way to a table by the window, looking out over the moonlit ocean. Far out on the horizon, the whales left silver rings on the waves.
"I'm just thinking faster, that's all." He couldn't figure out how to condense his thoughts down to simple human speech to explain to her. Maybe this was how it had felt for John, trying to explain about magesight. Only, of course, without the genius part. "Ooh! We need to collect data on this." Pulling a napkin towards him, he fished in a pocket for a pen. There were a few advantages to wearing clothes, he had to admit. "Teyla, give me a math problem. John, time me."
Teyla sighed and offered some of the simpler rune-math calculations that she used when she was designing a new rune. Rodney rolled his eyes. Though he'd always had a bit of trouble with rune math -- it was entirely different from either Earth or whale math; he could hardly be expected to bother learning every kind of notation in existence -- these would have been easy problems for him even under normal circumstances. "Come on. Something hard."
Teyla quizzed him while they ate, and he covered both sides of several napkin with notations in his own personal shorthand, recording his times. John, amused, timed him with a wristwatch. Picking up two napkins and comparing them, Rodney frowned. "Teyla, are these getting easier?"
Her brows climbed. "No, Rodney; I am actually giving you progressively more difficult problems."
"Huh. I'm actually getting faster. Maybe I'm getting smarter even as I sit here."
John and Ronon shared a look. Rodney scowled at them. "I saw that."
"Maybe you are just getting more used to solving this kind of problem," Teyla said, but she was frowning. "These were never easy for you before, Rodney."
Rodney scowled harder; he didn't like being reminded that any kind of (human) math was hard for him. But she was right. Also, he'd eaten one of every different kind of pastry on the table, and he was still vaguely hungry even though he was also unpleasantly stuffed. And his neck itched.
"Dunno about the rest of you, but I'm turning in," Ronon said, stretching. "Long day."
Teyla nodded and rose, graceful despite her obvious weariness. "I suggest the two of you get some sleep as well. We still have much work to do on Auralia."
"Joy," Rodney muttered, but quietly.
He watched them walk off. Though neither of them were officially attached to the Atlantis expedition, both maintained semi-permanent quarters on Atlantis for those times when they weren't on Athos.
"You going to bed?" John asked him quietly.
Rodney shook his head. "I haven't seen the whales in a while."
"How long? Hours?" John said lightly, but he rose and followed Rodney out of the cafeteria.
The ocean was flat and glittering under the Lantean moon. Rodney shed his clothes on the pier and slipped into the pleasantly cool water. A broad whaleback rose up under him and lifted him out of the water with great delicacy for something so large. He sighed and stretched out, folding his arms under his chin. Turning his head, he saw John watching him from the pier, sitting beside his pile of clothing. "Come on in," he said. "Water's fine."
John shook his head and sat on the pier, legs dangling over the edge, and smiled. "Not really in a mood for a swim."
"So why are you here, then?"
John just shrugged. "Guess I wasn't quite ready to turn in yet. Sometimes I run. Sometimes I come down and watch whales."
And watch you. It was as plain as if he'd said it aloud. In fact, for a moment, Rodney thought he had said it -- but the odd, happy little flip in his stomach was swallowed by the whales' mental flood of interest.
You're much better now at talking in the usual way, little podling.
The "usual way" was telepathy, of course -- and he could tell so, without the usual layers of obfuscation that accompanied a conversation with the whales. He'd never been bad at talking to whales, of course, but he always got the feeling that there was a whole conversation going on over his head, in frequencies he couldn't quite touch.
But it wasn't that way now. The pod were chatting, as they did, and rather than the indistinct murmur that he usually heard, he could understand most of it.
Wow, I'm almost as smart as a whale, Rodney thought in wonder, and sat up on the broad, smooth whaleback. Talk to me, guys, he thought at the whales, not bothering to vocalize as he normally did; though normally it helped him focus his thoughts in the whales' direction, he found that it was actually quite unnecessary and pointless.
Talk about what? the whale under him asked.
I don't know. Anything. Math.
Very gently and carefully, the whale offered him a three-dimensional construct of the ocean currents in her immediate vicinity. The whales always handled him with kid gloves, so to speak, when they talked math with him -- they were afraid of driving him insane by accidentally dumping too much information into his brain.
But this was easy. This was kid stuff -- kid-whale stuff, anyway. He could grasp it with ease, and reached for more. The whales, startled, responded, very cautiously at first and then with more conviction and confidence. They could recognize the changes in him, the receptivity of his mind, in a way that the humans couldn't.
Podling, what has happened to you? the fluid dynamics whale asked him. You are different.
I'm smarter. Better.
Hands on his shoulders. He reacted instinctively, acting from instincts he hadn't even known he possessed -- his brain was processing on a dozen levels at once, one level telling him very rationally that it had been several hours (really?) since he'd begun communing with whales, another handing back information on the current state of his body (chilly, low blood sugar, kind of achy and sore), another already acting to bring up his body temperature and metabolism, another informing him that the person touching him was John, even as he acted to do -- what? Green light flared around him as he tried desperately to catch up on a meta-processing level, because he'd just attacked John and he hadn't even known he could do that --
-- John, who was, of course, a mage, and deflected Rodney's unskilled flare of energy, but it knocked him back; he glided over the waves and then came back to settle on the whale's back. The whale was rock-solid under them both. The rest of the startled pod might have been frozen on the waves.
"Rodney?" John said gently, crouching down. "You okay?"
"I don't know," Rodney breathed. His voice shook. He'd attacked John. But what a rush, that wash of energy through his body. He was shaky and trembling, but he could still feel the aftereffects of that incredible, unexpected high. "What -- what happened?"
"You just blew raw energy at me." John was moving slowly and carefully -- Like he thinks I'm a wild animal or something, Rodney thought, but hadn't he just reacted like one? Already, though, his brain was working its way around this new information, slotting it into place -- next time he could react more consciously, control this newfound ability more readily.
And a tiny, scared little piece of his mind wailed, What's happening to me?
The whales, big eavesdropping busybodies, picked up on this, and when he opened his mouth to explain, what came out was a small, scared, "The whales are worried about me."
John gave a small, startled bark of laughter. "Yeah, buddy, so'm I. You've just been sitting there on that whale for hours -- no offense," he added to the whale, "-- and your aura's going crazy. Do you feel all right?"
"Yes," Rodney said. "Well, sort of. Well," he admitted in a small voice, "no. I'm cold and hungry -- I'm really hungry, and, and my arms hurt."
"Here," John said gently, "let me see," and he took Rodney's hands in his, turning them over.
Rodney sucked in a sharp breath when he got a good look, and so did John. The graceful Athosian designs that Teyla had, as usual, painstakingly inked onto his arms and the backs of his hands were delineated in swollen, red flesh. For a moment, both of them just stared in shock. Then John, with exquisite care, laid his thumb down across one of the markings; it hurt, but Rodney tried not to flinch.
"Iron," John said softly. "There are trace amounts of iron oxides in the pigment. Not enough to bother me, really -- it just feels a little bit warm to me. Have you touched anything made of iron lately?"
"Is that what -- am I --" For a man with a genius-level IQ under normal circumstances, who could almost feel himself getting smarter by the minute, Rodney was having a hard time getting his thoughts to come together. "Is Carson right? Am I going all ... fae?"
"I don't know." John's grip shifted back to Rodney's hands; he very lightly caressed the untattooed parts of Rodney's hands with his thumbs.
"Not that there's anything wrong with that," Rodney said, trying to get his voice back to normal. Somehow, John's hands were very grounding. "Can we, um, get this stuff off me now?"
"How?" John said.
"How" was a good question. The pigments normally wore off on their own, or would, if Teyla didn't keep renewing them; Rodney hadn't been entirely without them since Teyla had started doing the painting for him when they were both children.
They tried taking a shower in John's quarters. Rodney technically had quarters of his own, but he tended to spend little time there, especially now that he was sleeping with John -- they hadn't said anything or made a big deal about it, and neither of them really had a word for whatever they were to each other, but Rodney's clothes and the handful of other items that he owned were slowly but surely migrating over to John's place.
The shower was nice, and it warmed him up and relaxed him, but didn't do anything at all to the paint -- which wasn't surprising, since keeping him afloat was its entire purpose. The rash seemed to be getting steadily worse; it felt like poison ivy, itching and burning. So they ended up knocking on Teyla's door in the middle of the night. After a pause, she opened it, wrapped snugly in a patterned Athosian robe.
"Rodney?" she said, looking back and forth between them. "John? Is everything all right?"
"Sort of." John's eyes flickered nervously around her quarters. She didn't keep much stuff here, since technically she still lived on Athos, but she'd managed to deck it out like the inside of an Athosian tent. Rodney was used to it, but John rarely came here. "Um, can we come in?"
Even woken in the middle of the night, Teyla was nothing if not gracious. "Of course. Please." She took Rodney's hand and sucked in a startled breath.
"Yeah," Rodney said, "that's kind of the, um, problem."
Teyla turned on a lamp and drew him closer to it. "Rodney, what has happened? Are you allergic? I have been using the same pigments on you for years."
"I'm not sure, but it's kind of acting like I've suddenly become allergic." Rodney's knees folded and he sat down on the edge of her bed. This was all just too weird, and he was shaky and starving.
"Food," John said, "you said you were hungry, right," and he vanished out of Teyla's room, off down the hall. Rodney looked up and stared after him for a moment.
By the time John got back with a handful of pastries, Teyla had gently stripped off the paint, and Rodney had discovered yet another weird new ability -- as soon as the irritating pigments were gone from his skin, he could heal the damage in its wake. Not a mark was left.
"Oh wow," John said, when Rodney, after inhaling two pastries, told him this.
But, having discovered this newfound ability, Rodney's superfast brain had already jumped on to a related possibility. "Thanks," he said to Teyla, "thanks, really --" and he was out the door. Normally he shouldn't be able to run to the nearest transporter without even getting winded, but apparently his control over his body was better right now in all ways. Even John and Teyla had trouble keeping up.
Rodney took them to the infirmary level. "You two really don't have to come."
"Oh yes we do," John said.
The infirmary was dim and quiet, with just a single night nurse on duty, reading an old copy of the Applied Journal of Healing Magic in a pool of lamplight. She looked up at their entrance. "Can I help you?"
Rodney went shy and flustered. "The girl, the one who -- you know, the one. Can I see her?"
Most people around Atlantis tended to react to Rodney in a certain way -- giving him an odd look when he started spouting incomprehensible statements, then getting out of his way and letting him do whatever he wanted. The nurse was no exception; she just pointed to a curtain at the back of the infirmary.
The Taranan girl was still in a coma. Her mother drowsed at her bedside. When Rodney pulled the curtain aside, she started awake. "Honored McKay --" she began.
"Just a minute," Rodney said absently, and let his body do its new thing. It seemed natural to lay his hands on top of the blanket covering the girl's small body, so he did.
There was a rush of energy, a little like what he'd felt when he'd thrown all that energy at John, but richer, warmer. The little girl drew a deep breath and then she blinked sleepily up at them. She started to raise an arm and then stopped, startled by the healing filaments all over her body. "Mommy?"
Rodney took a step backwards, then another. The little girl was awake, blinking and talking with her arms around her mother's neck, and John and Teyla were staring at him. In the back of his mind, the whales made worried noises.
The next thing he knew, he was out in the corridor, and John and Teyla each had a hand on his back. He was sitting down. He didn't remember how he'd gotten like this. He could feel their worry bleeding down their arms, through their fingers, into him, and he was pretty sure the feeling was neither metaphorical nor his imagination. With the whales, he could hear their thoughts only when they were projected at him, but he was starting to be able to hear the humans around him all the time.
"What's happening to me?" he asked in a tiny voice.
"If I didn't know better," Carson said, "I'd say you were pure fae, Rodney. I've never seen anything like it."
Rodney's sensitivity to iron had grown so severe that he couldn't even stand to be in the infirmary anymore, at least not without being acutely edgy and uncomfortable, with a growing ache like he was coming down with the world's worst flu. Vaguely he recalled John once telling him that it was intensely uncomfortable for those of fae blood to live in human cities. He was starting to see why.
Luckily Atlantis had been built by fae, so as long as he stayed out of the areas where the humans had brought their Earth technology, he was fine. Right now they were out on a balcony not too far from the infirmary. The sun came up over the water while Carson examined him. Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney could see little rings of ripples in the long rays of the rising sun: the whales, keeping an eye on him in their own way.
With a great flurry of wings, Ronon landed on the edge of the balcony. "So what'd he do to himself now?"
"I didn't do anything to myself in the first place," Rodney snapped. When Ronon approached him, he winced; Ronon stopped, looking puzzled. "Knives," Rodney said. "Ow."
"He's acutely iron-sensitive," John explained to Ronon. "Worse than me now."
Ronon paused in the act of pulling a knife out of his hair. "Do these hurt you?" he asked John. "To be around 'em, I mean."
John shrugged. "Not really, not if I don't touch them. I can feel them, but it isn't painful. Rodney, on the other hand ..."
"There are only a handful of cases like this in the historical medical literature, all people who were very nearly pure fae-blooded." Carson sounded excited. Rodney restrained the urge to kick him in the shin -- or toss him off the balcony; he was pretty sure at this point he could probably do it without touching him, and wasn't that a fun thought. "Acute iron sensitivity, healing powers, magesight -- Rodney, what else can you do?"
"I'm really smart," Rodney said, and when everyone looked at him with varying degrees of exasperation: "No, more than usual, I mean. I can understand whale math." He could tell by the mental feedback, as well as the looks on their faces, that this wasn't nearly as impressive to them as it was to him. "Also, I seem to have become telepathic, which is kind of creepy, by the way."
He had to clamp down on the mental response to this, because all of them tried to blank their minds at once, which of course had the opposite effect. "Oh, stop it. I've been living with telepathic whales all my life; I know how to avoid picking up stray thoughts if I don't want to. Well, I'm learning fast, anyway. It's just a matter of not listening. What else ...? Oh, right -- I nearly blew up John." Which he still felt guilty about.
"He missed," John said.
The door to the balcony burst open, and Zelenka stumbled out into the morning sun and the wind. He looked even more mussed than usual, with his hair askew and shadows under his eyes. "There you all are! Does no one wear a communication pendant anymore?"
"What's the matter with you?" Rodney demanded, then realized an instant later, as Zelenka started to splutter through a long-winded and confused explanation, that he could just cut right to the point. He felt a brief twinge of guilt for skimming Zelenka's surface thoughts, but not nearly as much guilt as almost frying John earlier. Besides, he just needed to dip in quickly enough to find out what the werewolf was going on about.
A minute later, he panicked and blew out all the windows within three floors of the balcony.