Summary: This slice of time and space. This reality. Yes.
Fandom: Stargate Atlantis
Original Story: [shift] Reality and the AU Scene by gblvr.
Author's Note: The title and the section headings are taken from Albert Goldbarth's poem, "Reality Organization". Thanks to alimaaneal for listening to me babble, to bibliotropic for the last-minute read-through, the mods for giving me a much needed extension and the barista who gave me the free iced coffee.
"Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn't know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou."
I. 4:30 a.m. with the woe adding up/in notches on your gut-wall
I hated hospitals. The antiseptic smell always permeated everything from the beeping machinery to the ugly green, or beige, or tan walls. Nurses at East General might have been sympathetic, but they inevitably said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Sheppard, but he hasn't woken up today."
In the room, Rodney's face was slack in sleep, with drool collecting at one corner of his mouth. His eyelids fluttered constantly and he would have looked a bit like an overtired child finally giving in to a nap, except for the way his arms shifted restlessly every few seconds, as if making aborted gestures.
Most of all, I hated the helplessness.
II. this isn't the time when you want to know everything's nothing
In those first few visits to the Starlight offices, I had been mostly aware of Rodney McKay as a shape hunched over a keyboard, typing away furiously. Then McKay looked up one day and I had been caught, startled by a pair of intense blue eyes standing out from the common office colors. McKay ducked his head and I was struck by the need to know more.
I went first to Radek, who had, according to Elizabeth's meticulous records, worked at Starlight the longest. "A bit shy, perhaps, Mr. Shep - I am sorry, it is John, right?" I nodded and he took off his glasses to rub at his nose before continuing. "Maybe - what is the word - standoffish, yes?" He put his glasses back on. "Ah, but what a mind," he added, and smiled.
Steven more or less agreed. "Quiet, but does good work." That proved to be the consensus on one Rodney McKay, CPA. So much for basic intel.
Only Elizabeth had anything to add. After the standard assurances of quality of McKay's work, she tilted her head and said, "I think he's lonely, John."
In her eyes, I read our history - the acknowledgment of mutual loneliness that had resulted in our short, it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time fling. We had emerged from the affair as friends with the agreement never to try it again. I nodded ruefully, and said, "All right. Thanks."
After that, I simply watched McKay - or Rodney, as I had began calling him in my head. I learned where Rodney went for lunch, how he came in early and left at the same time every day; how he always wore blue shirts, and that he was due for a haircut in the next week or so. It all felt vaguely stalkerish and several times I was sure that Rodney was watching me back, his eyes resting on me and darting away when I turned to look. I was disconcerted to think I had been caught out, but Rodney never said anything.
So, half-paranoid and half-hopeful, I made elaborate plans for the my first sortie, only to impulsively ask Rodney out for lunch when he bumped into me in the hallway. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, I thought and hoped I'd be able to share this story with Rodney one day. He seemed surprised and a bit flustered, but he went along, and by the time we were sitting in the park, I was convinced that this was the best idea I had ever had.
As we ate, I inched a bit closer to Rodney. I didn't want to spook him, but I needed to be close, all the same. It was the same kind of need I had felt crouching down with others in my unit, under heavy enemy fire. That need had made me uncomfortable, grateful for the relative solitude of the skies.
But with Rodney - I wasn't sure if I could explain it. I had a boyfriend once, Daniel, who was big into things like reincarnation and dream interpretation and astrology. Daniel said that if you met someone from a previous life, you'd be able to recognize them. I always told him that was bullshit, but it was kind of how I felt about Rodney. I wanted to know everything thing about him - I asked question after question and ended up pushing him too far - but at the same time, I felt, deep in my bones, like I knew Rodney, had known him for years.
III. but some few subatomic elements skeetering
I've gone over that day in my head again and again. I followed Elizabeth into the cab. We were on our way to a meeting. She had been teasing me about Rodney for weeks now, but smiled with genuine pleasure when I told her about the planetarium trip. Leaning in, she kissed me lightly. "For luck and old times' sake," she said, prompting me to kiss her in return, breaking away with a laugh.
And then I happened to look up and saw Rodney staring at us in horror from across the street. I froze for one critical moment, and by the time the cab's movement had jolted me aware and I found the voice to yell at the driver to stop, Rodney had disappeared. I spent a several frantic minutes trying to raise Rodney on his cell, leaving messages on it and his office voicemail. We were halfway to the meeting by then and I let Elizabeth convince me to go though with it. But the meeting had be rescheduled anyway, because halfway through, Teyla called and told us in a shaken voice that a Rodney McKay had been hit by a car and admitted to East General Hospital.
That night, I dreamed of Afghanistan. It was an old, familiar nightmare, about trying to lead Holland, who had a head injury and was delirious, through the harsh desert with little water and lots of people who would be happy to see us dead.
Except this time, I shot down a nest of rebels and was scrounging through their bodies for supplies when I realized that one of them was Rodney. His hands clutched ineffectually at his stomach, red blood seeping out, staining his hands, uniform and the sand beneath. His eyes stared up at mine, betrayed.
I woke up, shaking. Stumbling towards the bathroom, I threw up until there was nothing left in my gut. My mouth tasted like shit. I didn't need Daniel to tell me what this dream meant.
IV. through emptiness, what seem the solid edges of things
I would have liked to say that I spent every minute by Rodney's bedside. That his injuries were minor and that I insisted that he come home to my place. That he stayed and Teyla brought his cat and his computer and his clothes over. I would have liked to say that I kissed him every morning and he kissed me back. That I encouraged him to go back to school, to study astrophysics instead of accounting, if that's what he wanted. That we had sex on every surface in the house and that he held me when I dreamed of Afghanistan.
I would have liked to say that he forgave me.
Instead, feeling guilty, I stayed clear of the hospital for days. It wasn't until Teyla approached me, and said, "I think Rodney's condition is more serious that they're telling me."
"What do you mean?" I replied, irritated. The spreadsheets on my desk refused to make any sense and my back ached from sitting down for so long. She frowned and I sighed. "Sorry, Teyla."
Her face softened. "I just think that Rodney is sleeping overly much. Also, his doctors are around a lot more that they should be for minor ailment, if my experiences with hospitals are any guide."
A cold spike of fear went through me. "I'll go right away." I offered her a weak smile. "See if I can knock some answers out of those doctors' heads."
Teyla looked relieved. "I worry about him," she admitted. "Thank you, John."
The first person I saw at the hospital, after I signed in, wasn't Rodney or his main physician, Dr. Beckett. A small blonde woman introduced herself as Dr. Kate Heightmeyer and asked me earnestly if I knew Rodney and if so, would I be willing to share any insights about him with her. "Mr. McKay has been rather uncommunicative," she explained.
On the whole, I disliked shrinks and tended to stay the hell way from them. But I had seen a few do good things while I was in the service and so I swallowed my dislike and talked to her. I told Dr. Heightmeyer about taking Rodney out for lunches, about the park and the planetarium, about Elizabeth's kiss and the accident. I would have told her anything she asked, if I thought it would have helped Rodney. I felt exhausted when I was done. To her credit, she didn't give me any platitudes, but merely walked with me to Rodney's room. And she didn't comment when I sat down, took his hand, and said "Hey, buddy," even though he didn't wake up or move at all.
V. are haziness of particle give-and-take
Like the sight of clean water in the desert, my memory of the day in the planetarium had made me move forward. And like clean water, I have had to ration it, using it only to get through long nights and morning meetings. I didn't know if I was making any sense. I was never very good with metaphors. But I knew I never realized how thirsty I was until I met Rodney.
That day, Rodney looked at everything with wondering delight. I talked the whole way there, but once we got to the planetarium, Rodney took over, telling me facts about the stars and his ideas about extraterrestrial life and the latest physics theories. In return, I told him how bright the stars were in the desert nights, and something about SETI, and nodded along with the math (the theory itself was pretty much over my head). Mostly, I just watched him: his hands moving as he traced his thoughts in the air, the way his face lost its habitual wariness, his triumphant grin at making some point. I found myself torn between rage at his folks who had made him so guarded, and selfish gladness that was what made it possible for him to be here now, with me. I was sure I looked like a lovesick fool, but I didn't care.
I didn't share it with Rodney, but I had been thinking about my theory of life off and on all that day. My theory - well, more like an idea, really - was that life was a stack of realities organized in a pattern, like a Fibonacci sequence or the math required for a successful landing. In one reality, there's nothing but me, the plane and the sky. In another, there's blood and desperation in the desert. And on and on, from Lorne arguing about the Orion account numbers to my mom feeding me tomato soup when I'm eight and feverish. As the lights dimmed for the last show, I was thinking about this and looking at Rodney when he turned around.
"Nothing. I just...I had a great time today, Rodney. Thanks for slacking off with me."
"Yeah, me, too. I. Yeah." Something in his voice made my heart flip and I couldn't stop myself from kissing him. His lips are slightly chapped, but warm, and after a long second, he kissed me back. I want to stay here forever. Rodney tilted his head and slid his mouth along mine. I don't know if I was breathing. This slice of time and space. This reality. Yes.
Had Rodney asked me what I was thinking about, I would have said, "You."
VI. and "really"/must look like continual maelstrom, and people you love
The doctors didn't have good news. Doctors never have had good news. Beckett and neurologist named Biro had diagnosed subdural hematomas, which was a fancy way to say bleeding in the brain; Heightmeyer believed Rodney was depressed, both now and at time of the accident, which just made me mad. Biro had said something I didn't quite catch about diminished cognitive abilities. My hands tightened into fists, because if there was one thing Rodney prized, it was his smarts. "So, what does this all mean for him?" I asked, trying to keep my voice even.
"Mr. Sheppard. There's...something else." Heightmeyer pauses, opening a file. "I believe Mr. McKay is suffering from a rare form of amnesia called reduplicative paramnesia. He's told me about his dreams, that in them he and everyone else he knows live in the lost city of Atlantis, in another galaxy. Usually in cases of RP, the patient believes that a location has been duplicated, but there have been rare cases in which the patient duplicates everyone they know."
"I don't know...it sounds like what you're saying here is that Rodney is delusional."
Beckett clears his throat before he speaks. "Yes, in a manner of speaking. He thinks his dreams are reality, and that this — that is you and me and everyone and everything around us are the dream."
I wanted to act, not just ask questions, but how do you fight delusions, especially when they weren't your own? However, though they insisted that I wasn't legally authorized to make medical decisions for Rodney, I did get them to agree to move him to a private hospital by offering to pay for it.
When they finally left me alone with Rodney, I leaned my head against the wall and sighed. I felt closer to tears than I have been for years. It wasn't a pleasant feeling, but I pulled myself together, walked over to Rodney, still and quiet on the bed. I pressed a kiss on his forehead, and whispered, "I know it isn't my place, but I promise I'll take care of you, Rodney. I won't leave you behind."
When I got back to the office, I pulled Radek aside and asked him to hack into Rodney's files. He frowned thoughtfully and disappeared for the rest of the afternoon. At quarter to six, he handed me a pile of papers and shushed me when I tried to thank him. "A mind, yes," he said. "But also a friend, whether he knows it or not."
I read deep into the night, looking up unfamiliar medical terms, searching for that one piece of information that would have made the whole thing make sense. Finally, I got to Heightmeyer's notes on Rodney's dreams. The descriptions were clinical, but I could almost have heard Rodney's excitement as he talked about wormholes opening up to alien worlds and a whole new physics to learn. I read and reread these notes over and over, mostly ignoring Heightmeyer's snide little comments like stargates = escapism and "Wraith" symbolic of early losses? But eventually, I found myself nodding forward, the print in front of me dissolving into blackness.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself in Atlantis. I could tell just from Rodney's descriptions: beautiful gold walls and a window with a view of towers spiraling up towards the sky and blue water all around. Even the air smelled different. Best of all, Rodney was sitting up in bed next to me, awake and looking cheerful. I couldn't help staring at him. My Rodney, alive and aware. He caught me at it though, and asked snarkily, "Do I have mashed potato on my face or something?"
"So, what? Why are you staring at me like that?"
"Just...happy that I still can, I guess." And I was. Happy, and so, so, grateful.
I didn't remember dreaming any more that time, but I returned to the files night after night, hoping to trigger more trips to Atlantis. Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes not. But those dreams were damned seductive. If mine were half as real as Rodney's, then I didn't blame him for sleeping all the time.
There was one dream in particular in that period that I loved. We were Rodney's couch and we trading deep kisses, all teeth and lips and tongue. One of my hands was cupping Rodney's chin and the other was spread across his soft belly. Rodney groaned, and he was fine, fine, fine.
VII. are whole new sets of cells each 7 years
The grounds at St. Catherine's were lush and quiet. I had been making it a point to take Rodney out there every time I had gone up. The spring days were nice, warm without being sweltering. I didn't know if there was any part of Rodney capable of enjoying it, but it had to be better for him than being stuck in bed all the time. His new physician, Dr. Keller, said that he had fallen into a moderate-to-severe coma, which meant he was a bit responsive, but mostly not.
I had been making the two-hour trip every weekend and once or twice a week when I could since I got Rodney transferred here. Lorne bitched about the extra responsibilities I had dumped in his lap, but he did it good-naturedly, and I appreciated that a hell of lot more than I did Elizabeth's sad looks. By now, I had my favorite places and I wheeled Rodney to one of them, a flower bed with tiny blue and white flowers that reminded me of stars, telling him how I found out that it was Teyla and Miko, of all people, who had pulled that huge April Fool's prank on the whole office and that I was reading about string theory, and seriously, Rodney, it's putting me to sleep, though you're right that Brian Greene is an ass.
Rodney has never said anything, but I could hear him breathing, which was something, at least. I found us a good, private spot near the flowers and parked the wheelchair. Rodney had sunscreen on his face to keep him from getting burnt and a blanket across his lap if it got chilly. He did pull the blanket up or push it away at times, so I didn't worry about that anymore.
I slid down on the ground in front of him. A bit wet, but it wasn't too bad this time. I really ought to have remembered to bring a blanket for myself. Resting my head where Rodney's knees met, I closed my eyes. Between the sun on my face and my hour of sleep last night, it would take me only a few minutes to doze off.
When I did, I hoped I would dream of Rodney and myself, in Atlantis.