No, I'm not dead. Really. Eventually, I'll get around to detailing all the wonders and terrors of the last week (lots of the latter, but ending in the former), but for now, I bring fic.
This is the one that ate my brain. Long, long ago, this was my very first adventure with Rodney and John. A few people said quite rightly, "What?! That's it? You just stop it there? No, no, missy. Get your ass back here and explain." The better part of a year later, I finally have an answer for them.
Spoilers: The Lost Boys, Coup D’etat.
Feedback: Will be hugged like a puppy. Even if it bites.
Summary: It's a delicate balance.
Notes: So, this one should be subtitled ‘Rodney McKay and the Planet of the Pot Smokers’. That would give the unfair impression that it’s going to be silly and light-hearted, however, and this one is a little too dark for that. Not dark!fic (I don't think?), but sunshine and roses it ain’t. If you need further proof, look to the drabbly offshoot predecessor.
The title refers to an insurance term relating losses suffered to the amount of coverage in effect. For warnings, please see the end of Part I.
ETA: For the much prettier website version, use this link: (Burning more attractively)
The Ratio of Burning
Rodney comes back damaged.
They handed over a fully functioning, loudmouthed genius with a penchant for sarcasm and slight irrationality. They get back a fully functioning, polite savant with a penchant for silence and serenity.
When he isn’t being terrifyingly helpful, Rodney isn’t talking. Rodney isn’t blinking. Rodney isn’t pacing as though he can walk to a thought. It’s only on close inspection that anyone can tell Rodney is breathing. On a scale of one to ten, this is an eleven of disturbing.
The Yolen people are absurdly pleased with their handiwork, presenting McKay as a gift to their new friends, like a good bottle of wine at a dinner party.
He will be more efficient now, they say. Dr. McKay will be better.
John’s sick with it. He never wanted this.
You got anything to calm him down? Breathe, Rodney.
They’re through the gate a grand total of ten minutes before Rodney is bouncing in that way that would be frightening on any other man approaching forty, but somehow isn’t on him. His hands are flying and his voice is dropping words here and there to catch up to his brain, and John joins Teyla and Ronon for the show.
It’s a short walk to the city from the MALP’s photos, and the whole way there Rodney’s eyes are on his readings. Teyla takes point, Ronon takes rear, and John reaches out every now and again to steer Rodney away from a rock in the path or a low-hanging branch. When they’re closing in, John clears his throat meaningfully and Rodney mutters, “Yes, yes” and holsters the scanner in favor of his sidearm. They’ve learned to be cautious.
They walk from the trees and into the first clusters of houses without confrontation. The pictures don’t do the dichotomy of it justice. The houses this far out are small, functional units. They feel like office buildings, although the curtains in windows and children peeking shyly from doorways mark them as homes. The path abruptly goes from dirt to stone, though, and it’s like another city entirely. There’s suddenly pattern and form, all tall spires and graceful curves. The greys and browns become soft blues and greens. The one thing that doesn’t change is the cleanliness; John hasn’t seen so much as a candy wrapper yet.
The streets are filled with people. Men and women in loose, pastel clothing talk and smile and occasionally wave to John and the others. None of them seem to be doing anything productive, but doing it happily nonetheless. Very happily.
“So is it just me, or are you thinking all that’s missing is the Hendrix?”
John gets his point. “More like Marley.”
Rodney shakes his head. “I don’t care. This is definitely better living through chemistry.”
Teyla looks confused, but Ronon nods once. John’s going to ask about that later. Right after he figures out why the locals are giving them mellow smiles and otherwise ignoring their existence.
Except for the very large man striding toward them, flanked by two women who are barely dressed. John goes still and wary and feels his team do the same.
The man stops a few feet in front of them and inclines his head gracefully. “Welcome, Far Ones.”
“Hi. Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard.” He waits, and gets only a bland smile. “And you …?”
“I am Iverik, Speaker for the People.” Same smile.
Initial contact meetings are usually like the first day of school: no one knows whether they’ll like each other, everyone’s a little afraid, and there’s an even chance someone will be bleeding by the end of it. John has learned to be very careful with the information he gives out. “Great. So, Iverik, you obviously know we’re not from around here. We’re explorers, maybe looking for someone to trade with. Any idea who we should talk to about that sort of thing?”
“Of course. I am at your service. You will need rest and refreshment, and then you must speak with our wisest councilors. Please come with me.” His tone dips and rises, fluid and loose as the robes that seem to be the style here.
John can’t find any reason to object, even if the voice in his head is screaming too easy. Iverik and his escorts turn, and John makes eye contact with his team. Teyla and Ronon shrug, and John nods and falls into step next to Rodney, who’s looking less than pleased. John keeps his voice low. “At least the flower children are helpful.”
“Just don’t drink the water.”
John almost grins, but stops when he sees the tightness around Rodney’s eyes. This isn’t something they can play off yet. He files that away for reference.
They walk down the middle of a wide boulevard paved with interlocking stones, and the crowds part effortlessly for them. There’s something oddly familiar about the city here, but John can’t quite put his finger on why. Iverik leads them to the doorway of what’s definitely a palace, high walls and towers and all.
Rodney’s got his scanner back out. He doesn’t say anything, but the way his hands poke demandingly at the equipment is loud enough. He waves the screen under John’s eyes for a moment and points, and rolls his eyes when John shrugs. John’s following the rising power readings just fine over his shoulder, of course, and Rodney probably knows it.
Their guides lead them through broad corridors to a chamber with a high glass ceiling. In the center is an Ancient control chair.
Rodney makes a sound like he’s swallowed his tongue. “Colonel...”
“Yep. We’ll work on it.”
Rodney’s voice is distant with want. “That would be good.”
Women wait on either side of the chair with garlands of flowers. Teyla accepts hers graciously, but Rodney hardly notices his own. John smiles at his attendant, and Rodney notices that. John smiles a little wider.
Ronon looks at the garlands skeptically and doesn’t bow his head for one. His gifter isn’t bothered, though, and loops it over his hand. Ronon looks at John from under his eyebrows, and John lifts a shoulder. “When in
For the next hour, they get a crash course in the beauty of utopian life among the Yolen. The sum total of the historical knowledge of the Yolen people seems to be that life is good. They don’t need records or archives to tell them this.
Teyla patiently tries for more. “Surely you must have need of something. We have medicine and other goods that –“
Iverik very politely shakes his head. “Oh, no. You’re offer is most generous, but we have all that we require. More would only burden us with excess.”
She doesn’t give up, although his calm seems to be taxing hers. Ronon shares a look with John, clearly amused. Finally, though, she resorts to invoking the boogiemen of the galaxy. When ‘Wraith’ gets her nothing but more blank looks, she tries her best to explain.
Iverik’s smile never wavers. “These sound like most unpleasant beings. I am glad they cannot be in a place so fine as this.”
That stops even Teyla.
John’s not impressed, but the energy readings aren’t getting any less fascinating, and he has a feeling this is going to be a long trip.
Slightly separated from them, Rodney is using the small words and big gestures that scream impatience as he drills his own cluster of locals. The Yolen’s seem to be catching on, though, and nodding more often. They’re pointing to a doorway on the far side of the room, using words like ‘source’ and ‘center’.
Rodney eventually comes over to explain that he’s on to something. There’s a ‘path to knowledge’, apparently, and only the very brightest are allowed to walk it. Also, it seems that knowledge is shy and doesn’t like crowds. The path is only for one.
It goes without saying who will be chosen. Rodney’s not even smug about it, just insufferably matter-of-fact. He’s too busy with the wonders he’s about to discover, trying to shape them with his words and his hands so that John will understand.
John doesn’t like it. Experience has taught him too much about the consequences of dividing themselves. The problem, however, is that the Yolen’s are strange, but there’s nothing threatening about them. Rodney tries to bludgeon him with logic, and since there really isn’t anything that he can hold up as a reason not to try it, John sighs and settles in for the duration. At least this crowd seems harmless enough.
It’s mostly a blur after Rodney comes back.
He goes off to the promise of ‘enlightenment’, and Jesus, they should know better by now. Rodney rolls his eyes and John grins a little, reminds him to keep his head up and check in every half hour, and that’s it.
Later, John will think there should have been something more there.
A few hours pass, and Rodney’s voice comes through the radio at regular intervals with exactly the impatience John expects. When the fifth checkpoint comes and goes with no word, though, the quiet voice of unease gets a little louder in John’s mind. Iverik insists that all is well and won’t elaborate. John is just on the verge of setting out after him when Rodney trails his Yolen escort back into the huge reception hall.
Rodney doesn’t say a word. That’s John’s first clue that anything is wrong. His second comes when Rodney doesn’t so much as glance at the control chair. He can visit the Atlantis version whenever he likes, and still Rodney’s eyes run over it like fingertips every time he’s in the room. Now, John raises an eyebrow at him questioningly, and Rodney just stares blankly back, smiling. The muscles across John’s shoulders tighten.
Rodney gives a slow nod. “I am well.”
“That’s nice.” John squints at him. “Mind telling me why the hell you skipped that last check?”
It’s good bait, and John’s expecting at least a snapped comeback about the idiocy of time constraints on genius.
Rodney tilts his head negligently. “It doesn’t matter. As you can see, I came to no harm.”
John can’t see that at all.
John remembers asking Rodney where he’s been, and getting nothing but placid non-answers in return. He remembers firing pointed, sharp questions at the Yolens. He remembers a fair amount of shouting (his) and an equal balance of quiet certainty (theirs), the gist of which being that the gift could not be returned. He remembers Iverik’s calm, bland face.
He doesn’t remember pulling his sidearm.
Teyla stands beside him. She sights down her P-90, holding the Yolens in view, but her voice is pitched urgent and low enough for only John’s ears. Ronon’s hands are busy with Rodney and his own weapons.
And because they aren’t ready to wage a war, because they need more intel, because this is fucking out of left field, they maneuver Rodney through the city toward the gate. The Yolens follow them en mass, puzzled. Such ingratitude, their faces say sadly.
John keeps his aim for minutes after the gate closes.
He knows that Teyla’s right. It is just a drug, and it will wear off soon, and there’s no point in killing anyone over something that they’ll laugh about tomorrow. His hands aren’t fisted and his teeth aren’t clenched.
He knows it right up until Beckett comes back with blood screens that are clear and brain scans that aren’t. Beckett says chemical imbalances and blocked neural pathways, and John hears wrong and broken.
“Are we even sure that we’ve got the right physicist?” John honestly doesn’t know what answer he’s hoping for.
John’s heart pounds and he realizes he wanted the opposite.
There’s only silence.
Rodney is not unbalanced, or unstable, or even unhappy. He’s simply not Rodney.
“Anything will need to be specifically calibrated to his brain. Whatever’s been done, it’s precise.”
He continues with details of serotonin levels and dopamine inhibitors, but they all mean ‘no’. John doesn’t look at the man that sits on the infirmary bed, silently absorbing their words and offering none of his own.
The natural thing to do, of course, is dial the Yolens and politely request the refund they denied earlier. John is fully prepared to do that. Politely.
A week later, they know as much as the Yolens themselves. Enlightenment, they say, is achieved through the Cleansing. All of the brightest minds are Cleansed, and have always been so. It is a mystery and a miracle. Those chosen are simply brought to the inner chambers of the palace, pointed to the correct doorway, and the rest resolves itself. After, they work tirelessly to aid all, keep the City functioning, and give of themselves without question.
They say these are the honored.
They say this is as it must be. Unchangeable. Ancient.
Lorne doesn’t meet John’s or Teyla’s or Ronon’s eyes in the briefing. His team has found only an empty room and a hollow legend to go with it. Even the Ancient chair doesn’t react to them, and the working theory is that the power source is somehow disconnected. They can’t know for certain because they will not take Radek through the gate to perform the necessary tests, despite his insistence. One genius is enough.
John wants to be irrational.
They fall into new patterns. Rodney spends his time almost exclusively in the labs or in his quarters. He doesn’t collect John to go test modifications to the jumpers, which is really just an excuse to steer perpetually to the left until John falls for it and loses his cool. He doesn’t sit in the chair room for the inspiration he claims not to need. He doesn’t arrive at briefings ten minutes late and bright-eyed, or ten minutes early and ready to steamroll them all. He doesn’t forget to knock when excitement overrides everything else. It doesn’t, now.
They learn to specify that he should sleep at a certain point each night after a patrol finds him standing in a corner three nights running. John knows because he’s been told, but it takes him eight days before he can be in the same room with him. He wants to be unfair and think ‘it’, and manages just fine until John finally does stare him full in the face and sees Rodney.
After that, it’s harder to stay away. It’s no easier to stay close. He settles for watching from a distance that almost lets him pretend.
Almost. The labs themselves are too quiet, and Rodney’s people keep coming to John with minor problems to solve. He doesn’t understand why they won’t go to Zelenka until Simpson happens to make a mistake while John’s nearby.
Everyone freezes. Zelenka is clearly angry. “No, no. We have seen this, yes? You must account for variation in the third calibration. We cannot afford -" He cuts off, swallows. Finally he sighs, and his voice is gentle and weary. “Once more, please.”
She nods without meeting his eyes, and John gets it. He misses odd things, too.
The mess hall coffee isn’t strong enough.
They’ve had blue jello every Tuesday since they reestablished contact with Earth. Three weeks running, John takes two bowls and throws them both away when he realizes that he’s saving them.
His room is too clean. There’s a t-shirt that doesn’t belong to John over a chair. He lifts it every now and again and puts it back exactly where it was before.
He doesn’t sleep well. His blankets are suddenly sufficient. No one jostles him awake at three in the morning, pressing cold toes against his calves.
He’s glad he’s too tired to get his mind around the overall picture. The small things are enough.
John starts cataloguing the ways everyone else is handling the situation. He knows damn well it’s an avoidance mechanism, and does it anyway.
Lorne makes John strangely proud of his command. The Major and McKay had never been especially close, but when Lorne gives his reports, it’s with a solemn knowledge in his eyes. It has nothing to do with Rodney and everything to do with the way Lorne runs his eyes over his own team before each trip through the gate, and the way he’s asked John to hold his letters for each of their next of kin on file.
Ronon follows John around like a large and quiet shadow. Not always, but often. When John steps from his room in the morning, Ronon is there. When he leaves his office, Ronon is waiting by the stairs. He’s gone back to saying as little as he did when they first met him. John tries to find a tactful way to ask, and fails miserably. He doesn’t put a stop to it because he knows all about the need to be sure of at least one thing.
Teyla avoids him entirely. When he catches sight of her, it’s in quick glimpses as she turns a corner, or at the briefings where she is guarded and precise. He starts deliberately putting himself in her way, and tries his best to trail her discreetly. That proves to be difficult, and he has to admit that the Pegasus galaxy is probably better stealth training than anything the
It’s not until he finds her watching Rodney that he gets it.
It’s late and quiet in the labs, just the sound of Zelenka typing. Rodney is assembling something complex at a workstation. His hands are relentlessly competent. He doesn’t look up when John walks past the doorway, or when John stops at the sight of Teyla in a back corner. Her eyes meet John’s, and there’s a flash of guilt in them. At first he thinks it’s for the spying, but her eyes move back to Rodney and she suddenly looks tired.
John has understood their place in her world for a long time now, if he’s honest. Rodney is hers. They all are. A lifetime of being protector and keeper has made her unable to draw lines, and connection has always meant responsibility. Citizenship and chain of command don’t change that in the slightest. John can’t take one from her without the other, and he doesn’t try.
He backs quietly from the room and pretends he doesn’t know.
Two weeks after their first visit to Yolenira, Lorne’s team walks through the wormhole for yet another futile session of friendly questioning. They redial in under an hour.
Lorne’s voice, slightly tinny over the speakers, sounds stunned as he requests permission to return. No one objects, and the team is back in Atlantis within minutes.
Lorne says, “It’s gone, sir.”
“The chair,” John says, his first and immediate thought.
Lorne nods. “Yeah. The chair, and pretty much everything it was attached to. Sir, the city’s gone.”
They debrief, and send the MALP to do a fly over, and brief again. They stare at pictures of a gaping hole in the ground, miles deep and wide. When there are no life signs, they decide to go back in person for a closer look. Zelenka finally gets his way and is included on the team, along with Simpson, Kusanagi, and a geologist named Perkins. When they assemble at the gate, Rodney is with them.
John stares at Zelenka. “No.”
The straps on Zelenka’s vest apparently demand his full attention. “He is the best we have, even in such a capacity. He knows what should and should not be present. If we wish to find…” He frowns, but his posture is firm. “Dr. Weir agrees.”
John spends the next three hours watching them. It’s unsettling, and that’s somehow a relief. There’s no business as usual among the scientists. Radek directs, and the others follow him readily enough, but Rodney trails around after him waiting to be given a task. John notices that everyone is staring at anything else. Perkins stumbles through a question. Simpson and Kusanagi are both silent. There is a certain satisfaction in knowing that John’s team isn’t the only one unbalanced.
The silence can’t last; the tension is too high. Simpson insists that the residual energy readings point to some form of explosion. Perkins counters that the whole damn mess looks like a second Barringer’s, and says anyone but a moron could see it. By the time they degenerate into the truly nasty insults, Zelenka and Kusanagi are involved and the volume is high.
John watches Rodney watch the crater. He whistles sharply, and everyone falls abruptly silent.
Without facing them, Rodney says, “The energy output is fully consistent with that of several charged Z.P.M.s applied to this usage; namely, to make the city fly. The resulting crater is simply the natural fallout from takeoff.”
Problem solved, he turns and walks in the direction of the gate. His footsteps are loud in the silence. John turns to ask whether this is the answer they hadn’t found yet - although he already suspects it is - and sees Zelenka staring at McKay, his shoulders weary and his eyes old.
John gives the order to return to Atlantis.
He waits until long past . This is the way he’s done it so many times before.
Rodney opens his door wearing a t-shirt and loose pants. Whoever gave him the instructions on sleepwear didn’t know him well enough; John knows he prefers boxers.
“Hello, Colonel. How may I help you?”
“I need to ask you something.” John watches his face carefully.
There is no flicker of knowledge. “Of course. Please come in.”
He stands aside, and John walks just far enough into the room for the door to close. When he steps too close, Rodney doesn’t so much as blink.
John leans in, and when Rodney’s eyes stay open John closes his own. There’s no hesitation in Rodney’s lips. They respond exactly the way they should, and his head tilts to the perfect angle.
It feels nothing like it should.
Rodney’s hands are still and empty at his sides. His mouth is talented and silent. By now, he should be stroking John’s head, or holding fists of his shirt, or slipping fingers under it. He should be making those sounds that John can taste on his teeth.
He should be here.
John pulls away slowly. He keeps his eyes closed for as long as he can. When he opens them, Rodney is watching him, blank and guileless. John steps back to the door and through it.
“You haven’t asked me anything, Colonel. What is it you wanted to know?”
“I figured it out. Don’t worry about it.”
Rodney smiles beatifically, nods, and wishes him goodnight.
John goes back to his room and eventually watches the light work its way across his ceiling.
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This fic contains the death of a major character. Sort of. Basically, the major character himself is not actually dead, but depending on your metaphysical take on things, a version of him does die. Regardless, all other characters herein believe he's dead for a good portion of the story, so please give this one a miss if that's an issue for you.
Additionally, there is one brief mention of animal harm. The animal in question is wild rather than a pet, and the harm is accidental, but the animal does die.