shine like the sun

Detective John Sheppard knew Ava Dixon was trouble as soon as she walked into his office looking for her brother. (7200 words, Vegas-verse Outcast AU)
Written for: 2009 McShep Match Team War, Prompt 'Point of No Return'
Warning: Canon character death. Violence.
Betas: Kanata and Kimberlyfdr.
A/N: Title from the song 'Angel-Land' by Jim White.


Mostly now these days
I'm dreaming normal dreams,
little things like who I spoke to, or what I did today:
I have not written a speech for God to say in years.
Jim White


The sun was shining through the windows, brilliant and glorious, when the woman walked into Detective John Sheppard's office. Later, he thought that was kind of funny; later, when he knew he was dead.

At the time, he'd been nursing a headache from heat that hadn't broken for the past fifteen days; long enough for the elderly and infirm and hopeless to start mummifying behind their closed doors. On the TV there were daily warnings from the National Weather Service and the CDC. The tightened water restrictions had the city tense and kindling-dry, and the air was a syrupy weight of dust and pollutants, rippling down like curtains of gold. John's hacking cough had been around since before the heat wave, but he blamed the smog anyway. It beat the hell out of remembering that his insides were permanently messed up, or how they'd got messed up.

McKay's doctor friend, the one who'd seen John at the VA hospital, had said John should count his blessings that he was still walking and talking. John figured he'd just found out that the earth was in the crosshairs of several intergalactic wars, which was more than enough; he wasn't going to go and get religious on top of that. He didn't say that to Dr Keller, though. She seemed like a nice wholesome kid, although John thought she was possibly a spy, and definitely a liar.

The woman who walked into his office in a halo of hard white sunlight also set off John's instincts for reasons he couldn't quite put into words. Older cops said they sensed wrongness in their bones or their teeth or in old scars; John felt it in the heat of the air that came in with her: suffocating, and still.

Her name was Ava, and she was a smooth piece of work. She said she'd heard about him, asked for him by name to help her find her brother. Said she thought they had a lot in common, as she looked up from where she sat; tiny and beautiful and self-contained as the desert. John was grateful for the cheap, battered steel of his desk between them, and he rubbed the knot of tension at the back of his neck as he read through the papers she'd brought.

Her brother Archie had disappeared. John wasn't surprised. A lot of people came to Las Vegas to get lost. The missing persons report had been filed last week, but no progress had been made; likely because the Las Vegas Police Department had more important things to do. John was still supposed to be taking things easy. He imagined that was why he'd been given this nowhere case from the slush pile. It was supposed to be as easy as asking a few questions and getting no answers.

Except Ava thought her brother was likely to turn up in Area 51, which meant she was a nut or she thought he was stupid or she knew things she wasn't supposed to. John wondered, watching her calm possession, how she'd killed her brother. That was how her calm read to his instinct. Like murder had been done.

The aliens John'd met had been cold like that. Both of them he would have killed in a heartbeat if they'd been killable. And he wouldn't have felt bad about it, either.

He wondered things about Ava that felt insane, except he'd been in Area 51 himself.

He got Ava's cell phone number and the name of her hotel, promising to have a look around and phone in the morning. Barring, he said, with a smile that felt sharp and a low rasp to his voice, any real cases coming along, or the inevitable alien invasion.

"You'll find him," she said, big eyes rounding, her sincerity every bit as false as his own. "I have faith in you."

*

John wanted to call Rodney McKay, but he was real good at not doing what he wanted; not right away. He thought he was cagier, after seeing aliens and spaceships and nearly bleeding to death out by the side of the road. He was part of a huge government cover-up, a living breathing X-file, and it worked pretty well for him in ways he didn't really want to question too hard. The FBI had made sure John had a job to return to when he got out of rehab, and Agent Woolsey had been helpful in a way that made John suspect that his freedom and continued good health were not exactly in his own hands. He had been more or less ordered to stay in Vegas and keep quiet. John wasn't big on talking, anyway; he wasn't in the game like McKay was.

John didn't say much, but he figured maybe he wasn't as stupid as people thought, because in the months of rebuilding his life he'd pretty much worked out how to play McKay. McKay treated John with a combination of simmering frustration and off-balance solicitousness, meaning either guilt or courtship; John wasn't sure which. He just thought it was funny, and being able to laugh to himself about it was how he knew he'd survived. He had no qualms about using McKay's feelings for him to ask for favors.

So John spent the hours after Ava's visit researching the case. He checked out the brother's hotel and his rental car agency, and ran his name against passenger manifestos, and when it got too hot to pound the pavement he slouched down with his computer and Google. Nothing turned up, except for the fact that Ava Dixon was registered with Classmates.com, class of 1996. He got the name of her high school and called to see if Archie Dixon had also been enrolled there.

The school had no record of Ava's brother, but John got the e-mail address of Ava's ten-year reunion committee and the name of the college she'd gone to. He sent off some letters, walked around the corner for an overpriced mixed-fruit drink thing, and decided to go sit in the park to drink it. John missed coffee, but caffeine was on the long list of things that might put him back in the hospital. He had a MedAlert bracelet so that if he did fuck up he'd be shipped right back to Jennifer Keller. John wasn't eager to see her ever again.

Even in the shadiest part of the park the temperature must have topped a hundred. White daggers of sunlight shot down through the leaves of the overspreading trees; cicadas screamed, the shrill of the bugs vibrating in unison worse than their dissonant tuning up. John had no idea what kind of freakish summer cold he had, but the noise resonated in his skull and the drink only made his throat itch worse. John hated cough drops and he hated feeling like McKay knew him inside and out, but he knew if he got to coughing out here he'd be blinded with headache, so he unwrapped a piece of half-melted gum to chew and tried to ration out the sweetness.

He was on his second piece when his phone vibrated in his pocket. A woman named Marylee619 wrote that she hadn't known Ava had a brother and hoped he wasn't in trouble. She told John the reunion would have a memorial prayer service for all the graduates who'd died (passed, she wrote), and that Ava's brother (who Marylee619 assumed was alive and wanted by the police) would be more than welcome to come and say a few words about his sister (all her classmates apparently knew Ava was dead, interestingly enough).

John sent off thanks for the information, made a few official inquiries about the dead woman who'd walked into his office, and called McKay.

He wasn't entirely sure McKay was on Earth this week. John wouldn't put it past him to make excuses to stay in the Pegasus Galaxy until the heat broke, even though McKay rarely ventured out of central air-conditioned cold anyway.

McKay had fucked John two days after he came home from the rehab center. He'd taken him slow and desperate, sweet and hungry, more than John could absorb when he was still on painkillers and half thinking if he shut his eyes he'd never wake up again. McKay kept asking if he was hurting John and John kept saying no and come on and Jesus, McKay, because there was nothing in the world like having sex with someone who knew every knowable detail of your entire sex life. John had been lying about the pain: his chest had hurt like being cracked open all over again. But in the morning he felt nothing, not one twinge or bruise. He woke feeling stretched soft and lightheaded from deep, sound sleep.

When he opened his eyes, McKay was sitting next to him, with a book in one hand and tracing John's scars with the other; up, down, across, and back again. It was odd seeing the touch, but not being able to feel most of it because of the nerve damage.

"John," McKay said, and his mouth stayed open a moment longer, as if he wanted to say something else. But then his lips pressed into their usual disapproving line and he stood with a quick brush of his hands down his sides. He brought John his medicines and a glass of water, fucked him again with such precision that both orgasms were done by six forty-five, and pushed John out the door at seven o'clock, freshly showered and ready for work, with two bran muffins in a paper sack.

McKay had been gone when John came home, but he apparently considered himself John's special new intergalactic boyfriend. He kept dating John when he was on Earth, and John hated himself for enjoying the attention. McKay hadn't lied; he did know everything there was to know about John, right down to what expensive presents John wished he wasn't too proud to accept (he made McKay return them and was irrationally angry for days afterwards) and what kinds of sex John liked to watch in porn but never had the balls to try. With McKay there was never any refuge, no safe zone of default conversations about football or the weather or golf handicaps. McKay was exhausting and demanding and impossible to turn down or turn off.

McKay talked about the world ending, and acted as though John had earned a part in all the wars that were taking place, had paid for it with his blood on the sand. John learned about the Gou'ald and the Ori and the mind-reading robot Asurans. He learned about the good Asgard and the renegades, who made clones and conducted human experiments, and the Wraith, who ate people. McKay talked about Pegasus civilizations that killed half their populations to ensure the survivors' protection from the Wraith.

John learned tangentially that McKay was up to his ears in dubious moral decisions. It was a wonder he wasn't put on trial for war crimes, or just taken out and shot. McKay had blown up four-fifths of a solar system once. He had mastered Asuran technology to bring his brain-damaged boss back to life, and used her as bait when stealing some kind of power source thing. She died or was tortured or imprisoned. McKay didn't know.

"I still miss her," he once said wistfully. "Maybe she's still out there."

"If she is," John said, "you think she'd forgive you?"

"Sometimes, John," McKay said, snippy in the way that meant he was furious beneath a tightly composed facade, "leaving someone behind is the right thing to do. It's maybe not good, but we're not living in a made-for-TV, happy-ending-guaranteed universe. The bottom line, the line that has to absolutely hold, is that we eliminate every threat to our survival as a species."

"You'd let the aliens kill me, too, huh?" John said.

"Yes," McKay answered, turning his gaze on John like he was looking at a recalcitrant theorem. "We'd shoot right through you to get to the aliens. Blow you to bits. With my luck I'll have to give the order the next time around. Are you finished pointing out my depravity and the depths thereof, or do you want to go on?"

John dragged McKay off to bed instead, because it wasn't like he was going to say yes, I love you, too, and he couldn't say I'm sorry. It wasn't like either of them could promise the other redemption. John knew that, and he figured that when McKay realized it as well, then they probably wouldn't be lovers, or friends, or able to look each other in the eye ever again.

He would take what he could get while he could still get it. He wasn't a good person, either.

*

McKay answered his phone on the eleventh ring, saying, "I am busy here, I don't have the time for your midlife crisis."

"Fine, thanks," John said, trying to get a smile in his voice just to make McKay's blood pressure rise. "Had a dead woman walk into my office today asking about Area 51. She said she and I had something in common."

"Hell," McKay snapped, and John heard the sound of something smashing and someone shouting. The phone blipped off.

John crushed his empty paper cup and flipped it into the waste bin. He stretched his arms out along the back of the bench and looked up at the sky through the leaves, needing to squint even with his sunglasses on. The wind on his face was hot, and he could feel the backs of his legs sweating where they pressed against the wood. All he could hear was the scream of the insects, drowning out thought and memory.

Maybe he was getting old.

McKay showed up in one of the ubiquitous black SUVs that screamed top secret government vehicle not even half an hour later, which was good time for him. He parked on the side of the street and honked the horn twice — and then, John guessed, crossed his arms and sat fuming, watching the dash clock and counting each second as an insult. John took a deep breath, pushed himself up, and made himself walk out into the light, towards McKay.

"A dead woman," McKay said, as John pulled the door shut. The locks all clicked down, smoothly menacing, and John gave McKay his best dumb smart-ass grin, leaving the shades on. McKay leaned over, gave John a very neat and how was your day dear kiss, and slid a hand possessively up John's thigh.

"A living, breathing dead woman," John said, shifting in his seat because his body was responding to the touch and not the conversation. "Ava Dixon. Died December 12th, 2005. Looking for her brother, Archie Dixon. Both have legitimate California driver's licenses, and the brother paid for the hotel with a real credit card. I ran their fingerprints," he added. "Nothing. So I'm thinking. . . zombies."

McKay gave John a scowl and pulled back. "Don't even start with me," he said, and put the car in drive. "Did you eat today?"

"Yes," John said, and then, "maybe." He hadn't been hungry since the heat started. "Might've been yesterday," he admitted, because McKay would nag until the truth was weaseled out, and that was mostly the truth. McKay's shoulders slumped anyway, as if John's fucked-up-ness was entirely his fault. "Didn't forget my medicine, doc."

Rodney was too distracted by traffic to react to the jibe, but John guessed he'd hear about it later.

"You've probably had that headache for the past two days, too, because apparently you're not smart enough to put two and two together and get that this is how your body waves a big flag and shouts, hello, I'm starving." Rodney pressed the heel of his hand hard against his forehead, as though he was praying for strength, and then ordered John to get his bag out of the back and eat two or three power bars; which was a huge personal sacrifice on his part, he wanted John to know. Then he looked at John expectantly. "Tell me what you know about Ava Dixon."

John pushed the seat back, stretched his legs out, and obediently peeled a peanut butter flavored bar. He had everything written down, but he'd memorized it anyway, so he chewed a bit before giving McKay a tight little smile and starting to talk. McKay seemed unimpressed by all the details of Ava's educational history, which John had spent most of an hour teasing out. John got the feeling that McKay already knew all there was to know about Ava Dixon, and that he was testing John. But Rodney stayed quiet, fingers impatiently drumming the steering wheel, until John mentioned that Ava had worked for Richard Poole of Stanton Research, which was part of Devlin Medical.

"Devlin," McKay interrupted, looking distracted. "Did you know they killed my sister?" John knew she was dead — McKay, morbidly, wore her wedding ring, which John had thought skeevy — but not the details. He started to say something, generic condolences, but McKay cut him off with a swift chop of his hand through the air. "There's this stratospherically high up cabal in government called the Trust that serves the Gou'ald interest on earth. And someone's been feeding them Pegasus technology. My technology," he stressed. "My research. And Wallace, Devlin's CEO, killed his own daughter because he was an ignorant fuck, and killed Jeannie trying to get me to work miracles. Which just don't. . . ." He waved, fingers trying to catch something invisible. "Most of the time, I'm good, but I can't, not always. I couldn't."

"I'm sorry," John said, breaking in because watching McKay's words unravel made his stomach churn. "So Ava — she's using me to get to you? You do have her brother in a secret lab, because of her research?" Or because McKay was getting his revenge, an eye for an eye, John thought, but did not let himself say.

"Look," McKay said. His face pinched as in pain, an expression John associated with advanced physics expressed in words of one syllable. "The Ancient people on Atlantis used little machines to make things."

"Nanoids," John said, nodding. He occasionally did listen.

McKay snorted. "These nanites can be dumb, just programmed to perform a task with a set objective like build a spaceship or repair a severed spinal cord, or they can be smart. They can be used to make Asurans; robots that look just like people."

"You gave your boss nanites so she could fight those robots that stick their hands in your head."

"Just please shut up," McKay said. "We don't have time. The one important thing to know is that the nanites these people are building are really, really crappy. The nanites that kept Elizabeth alive were Ancient. The medical ones Wallace built killed Jeannie because they have coding problems. They never turn off. They just keep improving things until there's nothing left. So you'd think people would not go around creating human-form nanite robots. But you'd be wrong, wrong, wrong."

"Ava's a robot," John said, feeling the pieces of the case start to slide into place. "Her brother is, too? — and you already caught him."

"He turned himself in, actually." McKay shrugged. "He had advanced social programming. He even apologized for all the trouble they caused by killing Poole and escaping, but he refused to tell us how to find Ava before he self-deactivated; just said she was dangerous and clever enough to know things like, oh, how to turn off the trackable energy signature given off by her nanites." McKay shifted, looking uncomfortable. "We think Ava and her brother were trying to reach their buyer in the Trust."

John shook his head. "It makes no sense she'd come out of the woodwork to approach me. How would she know — " He traced a quick line in the air between himself and Rodney.

McKay kept his hands at ten and two and his eyes on the road, the mirrors, anywhere not John. "Your nanites are trackable. I mean. . . you didn't really think you miraculously survived being shot, did you?"

John held up his arm, staring at the paler skin between his elbow and his wrist, where he could see the veins beneath his skin. "I'm a robot?" He didn't feel cool and kick-ass. He felt like crap. His throat was killing him.

"You were dying," McKay said. "In fact, you were dead. The nanite therapy was the only thing we had that could have saved you."

"You said it doesn't work."

"I said the nanites don't stop. The medicine you're on makes you sick enough to keep them busy by giving you pneumonia or cancer or whatever it is this week. The point is," and McKay stopped, blanking for a moment as if he had no idea what to say. "If you stop taking the medicine, the nanites will kill you. If we zap you with a disruptor to turn the nanites off, whatever disease of the week you have will kill you. It's," and McKay's inability to finish sentences was really disturbing, "You're." McKay took a breath. "The decision to do this wasn't made because we're benevolent."

"I'm an experiment," John said, and scratched his arm because thinking about it made his skin itch all over. "I'm bait." McKay made an unhappy little noise of agreement. "Did you program me to sleep with you? Is this because the other Sheppard, the one who was such a hero, you're trying to turn me into him while you're turning me into a robot?"

"Wow," McKay said, after a moment of utter silence, "that may be the single stupidest thing I've ever heard. Not to mention insulting." His shoulders hunched, damaging the effect of the neatly starched shirt. "I blame my mother's taste in trashy romance novels," McKay went on. "Something about a good-looking, unshaven man who is down on his luck but pulls off a daring rescue anyway? That just hits every one of my buttons. And yeah, I know that makes me the girl in the corset."

"Don't touch me," John said, not because McKay was reaching out, trying to have a moment, but because he was hyperaware of his body and his breathing and the weight of his clothes and the glare of the sun and the billions of tiny little robots crawling through him like bugs. It was a gorgeous day, and he was alive; the sun was killing people in his city, and he should have been buried months ago. That was so terrible that it was almost hysterically amusing.

"For the record," McKay said, and John could see him pulling himself upright with that stupidly brave dignity he had, "it was my idea. I pretty much blackmailed Jennifer into giving you the treatment."

"And here I thought you people just did whatever the hell dumb things got into your heads." John's smile was so tight it made his face hurt. "So what now, Miss Scarlett?"

The reply was fast and bitter. "You want me to bash your head in with the candlestick in the library as an encore?" And McKay looked injured, as if he'd expected — what? John to stop worrying and learn to love the nanites?

"Would that kill me?" John asked, trying not to think about all the ways this conversation beaded up like mercury and slipped away from him.

McKay tipped his head to the side. "You really don't want nanites working on your brain. The cells would be repaired, but nanites don't care about preserving memories or language or learned skills, like reading. Try to avoid head injuries."

"Good to know." John took a breath and blew it out, focusing on the double yellow lines, trying to keep from coughing, remembering the desert and his destiny. "Is she following us?" he asked, even though talking was the wrong thing to do. The first spasm of coughing jerked him forward into the bite of the seatbelt.

"Sorry," McKay said, taking a hand off the wheel, his face pinched. "Sorry. I — there's, here," and McKay produced a thermos flask and shoved it into John's hands. He waited until John had taken a few good swallows of some nasty sports drink, nauseatingly sweet and — with John's luck — probably piss-yellow. It did the trick, though, and John handed it back wordlessly.

"Yes," McKay said, and John raised his eyebrows in question. "Yes, of course she's following us, she can sense you like a beacon. We want her to follow us. That's what makes this a trap." He jerked the car off the main road, accelerating into the turn and kicking up a cloud of dust. John wondered if driving like an asshole was a requirement for using a government SUV. "You shouldn't trust me," McKay said, words fast and impatient, as if John were doing something irredeemably stupid.

John dropped his head back against the headrest, looking sideways at McKay, and breathed in through his nose, trying to force air past the tightness in his chest. The low afternoon light tangled in McKay's hair, making it look thinner than usual despite his creative combing technique. John knew how soft McKay's hair was; he thought that had to mean something. "Just tell me what to do," John said, finally.

McKay's mouth went soft and dragged down at the corner, but he pulled his shoulders back and stared straight ahead, and told John what to do.

*

"So there's no backup coming," John said, not caring if he sounded pissed. He crossed his arms as McKay entered yet another string of codes into the keypad for the door of the secret government storage facility tucked between an abandoned filling station and a yard full of scrapped backhoes and dump trucks. The flight path for planes using the east runway was right overhead; the descending planes sounded like the thunder that rolled after dry heat lightning.

"Guns are inefficient against replicators — even the ones that can't replicate. Just try and get close to her."

"Great plan," John muttered, watching the road. "What if we can't tag her with the signalling thing? What if she gets away?"

"The other you had a refreshing confidence in my abilities." The door gave a muffled clang as another set of bolts snapped back, and McKay grabbed the handle and shoved the door hard. The bottom of the door dragged over the concrete floor like fingernails down a blackboard. John winced, swallowing angry words. That the other Sheppard was an asshole and that McKay was a dick for having liked him. McKay didn't seem to notice, walking in and snapping impatiently for John to follow.

McKay left the door open like the world's most obvious trap. Inside, there was a cluttered corridor stretching back the length of the building. Doors ran down the left, and bright lights snapped on, probably on motion detectors, throwing black razor-edged shadows along the walls.

John shaded his eyes and wished he hadn't left his sunglasses back in the car.

McKay opened the fourth door down with another bunch of codes and shoved a box over with the heel of his shoe to prop it open.

"Weirdly enough," McKay said, his voice echoing as more lights came up, "security around here is usually this bad. Granted, officially this is storage for preassembled masonry panels. But have a look at this."

He pulled a tarp off a big squarish thing with a snap and a flourish. A man lay on a gurney with his arms and legs stretched straight and his eyes open. He wasn't breathing, but he was still held down with restraints bolted to the table. Walls of what looked like the stuff soap bubbles were made out of, swirling and iridescent, boxed in the gurney. John guessed it was a force field, because every cheesy sci fi cliche seemed to turn out to be true.

"One deactivated replicator," McKay said, sounding both angry and pleased. "We downloaded his consciousness into a virtual reality, where apparently he's got a whole second life as a gymnast, or something. Zelenka's trying to get the funds to transfer the body to a secure research facility, but the program budget this year's a bitch. Until then — " McKay waved and scowled.

John reached out a finger to poke the shield, because while all the alien tech — and its implications — scared the shit out of him, it was still pretty cool. McKay slapped his hand down, and shoved John back a step with both his hands hard against John's chest.

"Did I not just tell you that you're full of nanites? Do you know what would happen if you zapped yourself? Because I don't. Try not to be a dumbass," and McKay made that sound more like a plea than an insult, "any more than usual. John."

It was freakish and unnerving how McKay simply saying his name made John want to impress him, startle him, earn his praise, and fuck him senseless, usually all at the same time. It was like a promise, always hanging, tantalizing, just above him, and he couldn't stop reaching for it.

Dumbass thing to do.

McKay put on his headset and had a cryptic little conversation with some colonel in a spaceship. John had thought it was stupid that they couldn't beam Ava up into space to be frozen inert and dropped into atmospheric re-entry without all the sneaking around and drama.

Because we don't know where she is, McKay had snapped. Untrackable nanites, remember? And the Asgard beam – He had gone on for several minutes, giving John technical specifications and statistics, which John ignored, watching McKay's mouth instead.

He kind of wished he'd listened, now.

The storage room was dry and hot like a kiln, windowless, the air stale. McKay was sweating, his hairline damp and rivulets threading down his neck to stain the crisp starched collar of his shirt. John thought about why McKay was here. His instinct told him that McKay's drive and arrogance were dangerous. He'd once ripped a hole in reality; he'd brought John back from the dead. And now this was the closest to revenge McKay might ever get for his sister's murder. John had once believed in himself that much. He'd gambled lives, and lost.

McKay tapped his radio off and took out his signal device, checking it carefully before sliding it back into his breast pocket.

"I'm going to get in place," he said, and jerked his thumb back towards the hallway.

John hitched up one shoulder and let it drop. "I should have brought a magazine." He hated stakeouts, especially without coffee.

"Think happy thoughts," McKay suggested. He took a step forward so he could slide a hand around John's waist, raising his chin so John barely had to tilt his head down to kiss him. McKay pushed into the kiss, and John let him take control. He didn't know how McKay could stand to touch him, with the nanites and all, but John supposed they'd been there all along. Millions of them, keeping John's dead body alive, and in certain circles John thought that might even be considered romantic.

When McKay pulled back, John kept his eyes closed a moment, just breathing, and McKay ran his thumb over John's lower lip. "I'm going to take you someplace nice," McKay said, and because they were alone he was speaking almost fondly, the way he did when he made John come screaming. "When this is done."

John opened his eyes just enough to glare, and McKay moved back, raising his hands more in defense than apology.

"Don't," John said, short, and McKay looked down, and then to the side, and then back at him. "Don't make me," John started, and McKay broke in, saying, "I won't," and then adding, with a sort of bitter amusement, "As if I could."

John took out his own signal device, needing to pull his focus off McKay. The device looked too much like a cheap MP3 player for him to have much confidence in it, and turned it over between his fingers, careful not to hit the broadcast button. McKay snorted and went to take position.

John waited standing up, shifting his weight from one foot to another, and then gave up and pulled over a drum can to sit on, even though the rim made his ass go numb after ten minutes.

He planted his elbows on his knees, dangling his hands down, and thought about Hawaii. He'd make McKay sit in the sun and get some color in his cheeks. He'd buy McKay loud shirts and maybe go surfing, though John wasn't sure he'd be any good at it now. He hadn't seen the ocean for, what, ten years? The air would be different there. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to breathe. That was the thing about goddamned McKay, he left John breathless and bothered.

Ava showed up when John was mentally enjoying a sunset, so he was kind of pissed at her for interrupting.

"Hello, detective," she said, walking right up to him as he stood. She barely came up to his shoulder, but the room seemed smaller with her in it, almost claustrophobic. "I thought you'd need more time for your famous persistence to work."

"I'm just that good," John said, curling the words around a slow smile.

Ava grabbed his shirtfront, yanking him straight up and then twisting sideways to throw him hard into a stack of crates. John heard the splintering of dry wood before he felt the sledgehammer blow of the pain that made him too confused to break his fall. He hit the ground with a wrist under him and he felt something snap. Ava was right there, slamming a tiny boot hard into his stomach and then bringing it down on his hand as he tried to curl defensively.

"No." Ava pressed hard on John's folded-down fingers, and John panted open-mouthed as he stared up at her. There was no sense in trying to keep his dignity after having his ass handed to him. "You're not good. You should have walked away. You should have run, a long time ago. But seeing as you came here to be with me, you can damn well give me enough nanites to get my brother activated and operational."

"That's not your brother," John said, boots scraping for hold on the floor as he tried to turn his body so that the angle he was pinned at wasn't quite so excruciating. "They downloaded him to some computer. That body on the table, it's empty."

Ava looked momentarily lost, like a small child alone and scared. John twisted his torso and yanked hard. His hand twisted free, even though it was fucked up and hurt like the devil, and he got his knees under him with adrenaline-fuelled speed.

"It doesn't matter," Ava said. She broke off a board from the crate and swung it so fast that John heard it cutting the air like a whip. He ducked, not fast enough, and found himself sprawled out on the floor again. This time, he was bleeding and his eyes were unfocussed and there was a high keening whine in his head, like a jet engine. Ava crouched down next to him. She held out her hand, tipping it over to let something fall to the floor right in front of John's eyes; Rodney's sister's ring, sunbright gold, spinning before it fell silent. "Your friend is dead. I killed him. It was funny watching you wait to be rescued. But I have a rescue of my own, now."

John was pretty sure that Rodney wasn't allowed to die, not in this or any other universe. He was larger than life, smarter than everyone, a constant in all the important equations. He couldn't be dead. John thought no one could understand this better than he did. Even though he had died in the desert, he was mostly clean-shaven these days, because of Rodney, and his clothes were mysteriously wrinkle-free, because of Rodney, and there were hypoallergenic sheets and two pillows on his bed, because of Rodney. So Ava could go fuck herself.

He blinked and realized that he'd said some of that out loud. He'd also grabbed Ava, knocking her off balance and throwing her to the floor. She tensed beneath him, and he realized that she didn't need to breathe. He'd counted on having the few seconds necessary for her to catch her breath to plant the signal device on her, but he barely had time to jam his aching hand in his pocket and hit broadcast. He used his other arm to wrap around her neck and hold on tight.

The alien beam came immediately, a brilliant white flash that felt like ice water without being cold. John shut his eyes instinctually. He didn't feel anything at all, and then Ava shoved against him, twisting away. John felt like he was flying and drowning and burning, all at once. When he opened his eyes, for the very briefest second when it was possible, he saw stars all around him, welcoming him home. He'd thought the end would have a color: red like blood and fire, or black, or hot-aluminum white. But the end, when it came, was just a sudden, sharp, shocking and terrible silence.

*

John's office was in the west wing, which meant that he had a wall of windows pouring sun in on him. Captain Hendricks had come by to give John a welcome-back stack of paperwork, asking "You doing okay?" while looking down at John with a crease between his eyebrows. John hated when he pulled that concerned crap, and he felt bad because he knew Hendricks was sincere beyond a mercenary concern for John's productivity.

John managed to shrug him off, glad that the new medication he was on didn't leave him glassy-eyed and sleepy, and found himself left alone for the rest of the long, bright afternoon hours.

A bit after four, someone knocked on John's open door, and he took a moment to shake himself out of the hypnotic boredom of forms and filing. He looked up, pen still in hand, back cracking from stiffness he hadn't even noticed.

"Hi," and the man just invited himself in, walking straight to John with aggressive confidence. "I'm Rodney McKay, and I'm the love of your life."

John looked out at the hallway, wondering if there were candid cameras somewhere. "John Sheppard," he said. "I only talk to crazy people in a professional capacity, so if you're not confessing to a crime, go be nuts somewhere else."

The man pulled one of John's crappy wire chairs closer to the desk with the toe of his shoe and sat down. He put his hands on the desk and threaded his fingers together, leaning forward with an expression that suggested he was used to being dishonest but was trying, desperately, to appear sincere. His left ring finger was pale where a ring would have been. John wondered if divorce had made McKay crack up, of if his mental problems had caused it. "Look me up. We worked several cases together. The serial murders in the desert? The robots? It's McKay, M, C, capital K, A, Y."

John mouthed the word robots slowly, and McKay's cheeks flushed, his chin rising another notch. "The computer going to tell me about the love? And the robots?"

McKay's eyebrows went from hopefully arched to flat. "Doubtful."

"Look," John said. "Look. I'm sorry. You came here obviously expecting, what, I'd know you? You'd hit on me, trigger my memory, mess with my head? That's just not — "

"I was beamed straight into the infirmary when my sub-cu stopped transmitting vitals," McKay said, speaking fast as if he hoped John wouldn't notice that he wasn't making sense. "I have an interesting scar that I'd be happy to show you later. I told you to avoid head injuries, and you didn't listen to me, so I suppose it would have been useless to tell you not to spacewalk, too, but — I know you don't remember. I mean, when. . . ." He waved a hand in the air as if conjuring something up, before looking consternated and dropping his hand to the table again. "You were. . . incredibly brave — stupid, but brave — and I just thought. Now that I'm back in the neighborhood, so to speak." He raised both hands and made a tight gesture, like a ring. John bet he was a terrible poker player, with all his nervous tells. "Because you were the love of my life. I just thought you ought to know."

"You talk a lot for someone who doesn't finish his sentences," John said, and made a neat pile of his paperwork. He dropped it in the empty second drawer of his desk, turned the key in the lock, and put the key with the rubber bands in the top desk drawer. McKay watched this performance as though he was itching to tell John he was being an idiot.

John found he enjoyed driving McKay nuts, and it made him feel. . . well, kind of empty and kind of sad and all those other things that the psychologist kept warning him were natural emotions when recovering from his kind of head trauma. He remembered the theme song to Scooby-Doo, but being the love of Rodney McKay's life was swept away with the rest of the past six months.

"So, were we," he started, and then chickened out mid-sentence, settling on shutting a finger between them and raising an eyebrow suggestively.

"Sleeping together?" McKay filled in, with a twitchy smile. "Yes. You filled my MP3 player with horrible country music for my birthday. I tried to give you a 55-inch television once, and you threw the world's biggest hissy fit. You flounced." McKay grinned. "And then you went for your gun."

"Good for me," John said automatically. "Did I shoot you?"

McKay winced; not badly, but John was paying very careful attention, watching for any signs that this was an elaborate practical joke. "No, John," McKay said, and he sounded irritated, but John was starting to read him now. He thought McKay was trying to express regret.

"This'd be a lousy time to start a relationship," John said. "I'm fucked in the head. I don't know myself some mornings. Though it might be worth it just to piss my therapist off. No offence, but I don't even know if I feel gay or straight."

"You always felt good to me," McKay said. He spoke with a kind of wistfulness that made John want with the same instinctual desperation as someone drowning wanted air.

"So," John said, and leaned back. "You going to buy me dinner?"

"You like steak," McKay responded. "With a baked potato and broccoli for the green vegetable, which is disgustingly healthy. You despise spinach, string beans, and sushi."

John was suddenly hungry, even though he'd had no appetite in the summer's never-ending heat.

"Doesn't seem fair," John said, pushing his chair back but not getting up, not yet, "you knowing so much about me, and all I know is how to spell your name."

"You know the most important thing." McKay stood and held out a hand. John took a breath, and then reached out.

He took McKay's hand and let himself be pulled up and led out into the low heavy orange glare of the setting sun.

* * * t h e * e n d * * *

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