hollows for the unmended

Title: Hollows for the Unmended (1752 words)
Author: busaikko
Artist: danceswithgary (link to art)
Beta: argosy
Summary: Rodney has all the words. John has none. (standalone in the same series as What Comes Around.)
Written for: Artword Challenge 013: Dual (i.e., the story tells part of the story, the art tells the rest.)
A/N: Title taken from the poem She says, follow the graves by Peg Duthie. chesneycat and E. shared invaluable personal experiences with aphasia, for which I am grateful.

"Which do you want, the apple raisin or the mocha?" Rodney holds out the snack bars, one in each hand. Sheppard looks up from his work, staring at Rodney, his expression hard and flat. "If it's all the same to you — " Rodney goes on, and shrugs.

"Apple," Sheppard says. Well, not exactly: it takes him four tries with lots of stuttering, and he tries to get Rodney to play word-association with snake?, except Rodney doesn't do that. He makes Sheppard sweat and get it right. The sooner Sheppard is fixed the sooner life will go back to normal.

He knows that Sheppard wants that, too. It's why he withholds the bar and glares, as if Sheppard's trying to get away with something. Which he is.

Sheppard rolls his eyes. "Please. Apple."

One of Carson's nurses turned out to be a paediatric speech-language pathologist who spends half her time with the linguists, studying language acquisition in children raised near Stargates. She has a prestigious grant from the Taiwanese government; she's not thrilled about putting her research on the back burner for one patient. As soon as John had a fairly stable vocabulary, she pushed him to produce two-word sentences. Rodney supposes that John's passed the test; he also suspects that when John's expected to produce three-word sentences, he'll be saying pretty please a lot.

He drops the bar into Sheppard's hand, and then reaches out as if to snatch it back. Sheppard's hand snaps shut around it.

"You're not just saying that?" Rodney asks, suspicious. "Because you always ask for apple. I don't have to have the mocha, you know." He tries to pin Sheppard with a glare, but Sheppard's eyes slide away. "Can you even say mocha? Oh!" Sheppard's gaze drifts up again. "Is there citrus in that?"

Sheppard turns the bar over in his hand, looking for the ingredients, and Rodney practically has to bite his tongue to keep the never mind from popping out. They'd had a funeral for Sheppard, and Rodney had lost his own words when Elizabeth asked him to give the eulogy. He'd literally frozen, tongue-tied, heartsick, red-eyed, and lost. And then Sheppard came back. A little bit of brain damage is nothing compared to dead, and if it means Rodney has to give Sheppard extra time to do stupid things like reading pointless fine print, well. Being alive means there is time.

Sheppard holds the bar out, his thumb underlining citric acid. He pulls his eyebrows together and jerks his chin to the left. This means he's asking a question, and Rodney knows damn well what the question is. He eyes Sheppard, and then lets it go. He wants his snack. He can feel his blood sugar going funny on him.

"I could maybe eat it," he says. "It probably wouldn't kill me. But best not to take the risk. I could always bring two mocha. I keep requesting apple raisin because I thought you liked it. You always eat it." He snatches the bar back and tosses it carelessly in his bag. Before Sheppard can get out the first good insult that comes to mind, Rodney peels the mocha bar and bends it until he can rip it in two. "Here."

"Kindergarten," Sheppard says after a sticky, companionable minute of chewing. He pushes up from the lab table that Rodney's cleared for him and walks over to the window. It's autumn-ish now, and Sheppard hangs his thermos bottle outside to keep it cool. He hauls it up by the strap and fills his cup and Rodney's with the Athosian tea that's horribly bitter hot but surprisingly refreshing chilled.

"Kindergarten," Rodney repeats, blankly. "As in, everything I need to know?" Sheppard raises his eyebrows at him and looks enigmatic. "What I learned in kindergarten was that if I threw sand in people's eyes, it gave me enough time to run away." Sheppard snorts. "Sharing?" Rodney suggests. "Taking turns? Nap time?"

Sheppard tries something that might be share. Rodney works with him idly on pronunciation. It's not, as he keeps telling Sheppard, a big deal to him. English might be the international language of science, but he's worked with a lot of very intelligent people whose accents he barely understood (as well as people he did understand but wished would shut the hell up). Sheppard can still do calculus; he's still himself inside his head, despite the interface problem he's currently having. Rodney likes him. For that, he is willing to ignore the extraneous ums, ahs, stutters, and utter lack of all prepositions.

Sheppard said once (it took a very long time) that it made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end when he tried to picture Rodney as a paragon of selfless patience. Rodney gave him a razor-sharp twist of the mouth and told him that he wasn't being patient; he was just biding his time. Sheppard had grinned and laughed and seemed to find comfort in that.

"Well," Rodney says now, craning to look at Sheppard's watch. "Back to work."

"Pumpkin," Sheppard says, with a little nod as if he's agreeing with whatever Rodney just said. Rodney waves his hand over his head and shrugs: two can play at the gesture game. Sheppard frowns as if he's annoyed with himself, and tries to explain. "Time," he says. "Carson?"

"You've got another two hours before he comes after you," Rodney says. "So no trying to weasel your way out of the satellite data logjam."

Sheppard grumbles, but he settles in at his laptop. He has developed the annoying habit of whistling through his front teeth. Rodney thinks he started to compensate for not being able to pose annoying questions. Fortunately, Rodney has a huge box of elastic bands in different thicknesses and diameters, just right for shooting across the lab. Sheppard's whistled "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", on and off, for a full half an hour before Rodney starts rifling through his box, looking for a missile with the right amount of sting. He has a nice springy green one in hand when the whistling abruptly stops right after the bit about walking in the sun. The room vibrates with silence.

Carson expects Sheppard to have flashbacks. No one knows what happened to Sheppard after Rodney, Ronon, and Teyla were culled on M7S-218. They tore the hive ship apart looking for him before coming to the inevitable conclusion that he'd been left behind. That he'd been left behind because he was dead. The corpses were already on pyres by the time they'd returned. Elizabeth said that the Genii finding and returning Sheppard, even worse for wear, was miraculous. Rodney didn't believe in miracles. Sheppard's head had been shaved; part of his skull had been popped out like a cork and plugged back in. There is a neat hairless scar still visible. Sheppard is expected to be traumatised; he's expected to be angry, or grieving, or frightened. To smoulder. To erupt. Rodney's been waiting for him to crack for weeks now.

Instead, Sheppard has his silence, and he wields it with calculated control. Rodney studies him surreptitiously. Sheppard has one finger on the laptop's screen, and he's looking back and forth from his notepaper to the data. After a long moment, he studies the keyboard, bites his lip, and taps something in. He frowns, backspaces, and types again. His shoulders dip as he relaxes, trailing his finger across the screen to make sure he's right. Then he looks straight over at Rodney, inviting him to share his pleasure with a look one part smug to two parts mischievous.

Rodney never knew Sheppard's favourite colour, or what kind of childhood he had. He never knew why Sheppard got married, or why he got divorced, or why he has that damn poster of Johnny Cash on his wall but not one Cash song on his MP3 player. None of that was ever important, until he realised that he might never know. Never know why they found Sheppard's dogtags on that planet, or whether Sheppard had seen them culled and thought them dead, or what Sheppard had been doing while Atlantis mourned him.

Well. Let Sheppard seal himself up in a shell of his own silence. It isn't Rodney's job to prod him out. As he understands it, his job is simply to treat Sheppard as himself.

"No," Rodney tells him, negating with one hand and pointing at John with the other. "You can't have untangled that rat's nest. You're hallucinating."

"Bet?" Sheppard's cocky. "Tape," he adds after a long moment of thought, his eyebrows going up in challenge. He points at Rodney, and at himself, and then makes the aerial shorthand that means after dinner.

He's been trying for a week now to get Rodney to watch something called the X Games, a get-well-soon gift from one of the Marines. Not the X-Files, which would have been bad enough, but some kind of skateboarding contest for the suicidal.

"When you lose, you'll be giving me your pudding cups for the rest of the month."

Sheppard shoves his chair back and sweeps his arm towards his laptop screen. Rodney drags over his own chair (his chair, imported and ergonomic and nearly vetoed by the SGC on four occasions; and woe, woe, woe to any minion stupid enough to park his ass there). and snatches up Sheppard's notes in his left hand as he starts scrolling through. Sheppard now can't spell for beans, which is sad because he used to be Rodney's only real competition in the Scrabble tournaments. Winning's not so much fun anymore.

Twenty minutes and five files later, Sheppard gets up to get them both coffee from down the hall.

Forty minutes and an involuntary, aborted attempt to rip his own hair out later, Rodney still hasn't found any glaring mistakes.

"Fine," he says, slapping Sheppard's papers back on the table. "Fine, make me watch your ridiculous DVD. You had better have beer. And those cheese things." He looks pointedly at his watch. "You're going to be late."

"Crap," Sheppard says, launching out of the chair and out of the room with a Tigger the tiger bounce in his step.

Rodney finds he doesn't mind losing, so much. Sheppard had better hurry up and get fixed, he thinks morbidly, as he takes another look at the data now happily compiling itself. Because whatever changed Sheppard is changing him now, as well, and he's not sure that's a good thing.

Not at all.

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