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Week 46: Ascent, John/Rodney, PG, Part One

Title: Ascension World: A Place For Children
Author: Panisdead
Pairing: Rodney McKay/John Sheppard
Rating: PG
Word Count: 12,350
Notes: Completed for prompt #46: ascent. Cross-posted to AO3. Many thanks to Runpunkrun, Umbo, and Girlpearl for their beta and encouragement.

Summary: "Are we sure we want to go in?" John said, nose wrinkling. "I think it's educational."



The sign swung gently in the mid-morning breeze, rusted metal symbols clanking faintly together. Rodney stared at his tablet, then at the sign, then back at his tablet.

"Ascension World," he read incredulously. "Really?"

Teyla took the tablet out of his hands and examined it while John peered over her shoulder. "That is my understanding as well," she said.

Rodney squinted at the broad metal archway overhead. Now that he wasn't focused solely on the lettering on the sign, he noticed the way the pillars of the arch were wrapped with tasteful iron vines that bloomed into sedate flowers across the apex of the arch, dripping down into bland iron buds on either side of the letters. A second, smaller line of text was etched below the first. "A place for children."

"I didn't think the Ancients were big on children," John said. He had moved away from Teyla and was now standing a little inside the arch, in front of what looked like turnstiles.

"Nothing I see here is challenging that assumption." Rodney frowned. He scanned the area again, taking in the rusted gate, the high walls, and the wide, paved path leading past the turnstiles into what looked like an empty courtyard. Far from the Disney World of the Pegasus Galaxy, this place reminded him of the mall area between federal buildings. "Of course, given what we know about the Ancients, their children probably found fun a foreign concept."

"It's a park, McKay," Ronon said from behind him. Rodney twitched. He appreciated stealth in battle as much as the next person, but the downside was that in practice he often forgot to pay attention to Ronon's whereabouts.

"You know, for kids," Ronon went on. "To teach them important skills through play. I thought you had these on your world."

"Ours tend to be a little more, I don't know, peppy," Rodney said. He looked back at John, who was now half-way down the path staring suspiciously at a placard.

"I think this says 'release your burden,'" John said, nose wrinkling. "Are we sure we want to go in? I think it's educational."

Rodney found himself perking up a little. It was true, he didn't care much for children aside from an abstract interest in providing the best education possible for those who would be changing his diapers in the nursing home, but in the area of education he was pretty sure he and the Ancients were in line. The sooner you could put away childish things in favor of differential equations and exotic weaponry, the better. "Some of us value the pursuit of knowledge," he said, purely to goad John.

John squinted and made his why do I put up with this face at him, but he turned and headed down the path, motioning for the rest of them to follow. Rodney rolled his eyes--it was his idea, was it not? He didn't need herding--but trotted along after Teyla.

The turnstiles were squeaky and stiff with disuse, but the paved path was in surprisingly good condition for something over ten thousand years old. Watching John and Teyla stride ahead, Rodney had a brief but vivid fantasy of the four of them skipping down the yellow brick road toward Ascension World, John's gingham skirts belling out around him, ruby slippers glittering. Then he had a brief moment of self-disgust over how quickly he’d devolved into stereotype. It hadn’t been a week since The Revelation, and he was already stripping John of his individuality in favor of easy classification. Ugh.

Rodney came back from his attack of conscience to find the rest of the team a good six meters ahead and Ronon staring back at him in irritation. He shook it off and hurried to catch up. He could self-flagellate later.

The path led through a short concrete tunnel, devoid of plaques or decoration, and opened out into a large circular courtyard paved with cobblestones. Low, flat benches ringed the area, while patchy shade covered the center, filtering down from a mesh screen strung overhead, rotted through with age. In the shadier areas, weeds sprung out of the cracks in the cobblestones, while in the full sun the stone was bleached to a yellowish white.

Rodney reached the center and turned slowly in a circle, unimpressed. Set several meters back from the benches was an outer ring made up of six or seven low, dark buildings that would bear further investigation, but the immediate area was barren. Empty courtyard to the north. Empty courtyard to the east. To the south, the path leading back to the park entrance. To the west, a squat metal box into which Ronon was stuffing metal tokens.

"Hey," Rodney said, starting forward. As he watched, little pink lights on the front of the box flashed weakly, then the machine grumbled and spit out a little paper cup full of blue slush.

"Ronon, don't eat--ewww," John said.

"Don't bother," Rodney said, pulling up next to him. He and John traded aggrieved looks as Ronon upended the cup into his mouth and swallowed.

"Oh!" Teyla said in delight. "It works!" She stepped forward, already holding out more tokens. "What flavor did you get?"

"Tuttle root," Ronon said, dodging away with a smirk as she slapped at him. "Blue raspberry, I think. It's a little stale."

"What do you want to bet he didn't really say blue raspberry?" John asked sotto voce.

Rodney grunted in agreement, although in all honesty he found the vagaries of the gate translation system somewhat dull. More pressingly, "It's ten thousand years old, it's probably sentient by this point. Please tell me you're not going to put that in your mouth."

John gave him a wounded look. "I like snow cones," he said, holding out his hand for tokens. "Ronon, give."

“Get your own,” Ronon said, jerking a thumb toward the entrance tunnel. Rodney turned back to look and saw a small, oblong dispenser mounted on the inside wall. He must have missed it in his hurry.

John jogged over and fiddled with it, then came back with two jingling paper envelopes. Rodney took one and shook a few tokens into his palm to examine. They were oval, with engraved flowers not unlike lotus blossoms on each side, along with Ascension World in tiny text along the outer rim. Designed for the park, then, rather than actual currency. Rodney dropped them back in the envelope and stuck them in his pocket, where they clinked against his thigh.

John's cup of slush was bright green. "I'm not holding your hair when you vomit," Rodney warned him, but John just rolled his eyes and passed him the cup.

"Green apple," he said.

Rodney took a slurp. The flavor was thin and watery, but tart and pleasantly cold in the hot sun all the same. It was the first real concession to childhood as he recognized it that they'd seen so far. He dumped the rest of the snow cone into his mouth, ignoring John's protests, and dropped the cup into what was probably a waste bin on the side of the machine. The cup promptly caught fire.

"Whoa," John said, eyebrows raised.

They all stared at the tiny pile of ash in the bin. After a moment, Rodney took Ronon and Teyla's cups and tossed them in to see if the results were replicable. They were.

Ronon nodded in approval. "Kids would like this," he said.

Rodney was inclined to agree.

He was less inclined to stand around staring at a trash incinerator, though, however flashy. He caught John's eye and turned toward the east-most building from the entrance, pulling out his scanner. Low-level energy readings, nothing terribly provocative. No large or humanoid life signs; minimal rodent activity. Nothing indicating the presence of further Ancient vending machines.

He wandered over, noting the tarnished metal strips set into the concrete, winding back and forth before ending up at more turnstiles in front of the building's door. Apparently Ancient children didn't require guide ropes or metal railings to keep them in line.

There was another metal plaque over the door. This one appeared to say "Wraith Blaster," which made a little more sense in the context of an amusement park, although the subtitle, "unburden yourself of responsibilities" seemed a bit heavy.

Rodney pushed through the turnstiles and put a hand on the door. It slid open with a grating sound, letting out a wash of cool air. Inside was dark except for more strips of metal set into the floor, this time glowing faintly. He stepped inside.

Behind him he could hear the distinctive sounds of John getting his shorts in a wad because Rodney had entered without letting someone with an automatic weapon scan the room first, but when he turned back to engage, John was standing in the doorway with his head cocked, looking disconcerted.

"What?" Rodney asked.

John frowned. "It smells like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in here.”

"What are you talking about?"

"Like soft serve ice cream and air conditioning."

Ronon shouldered around John. "Let's see if it's still running," he said, grabbing Rodney's arm and spinning him around, and it was only then that Rodney realized the emergency track lighting led toward a line of gondolas with distinctive metal lap restraints.

"Oh no no no, I get motion sick," he protested, trying to back away.

"No you don't," John said, grabbing his other elbow.

"Okay, I don't want to have an encounter with animatronic Wraith!" Rodney went on, like it ever did any good to appeal to these people with logic.

Between John and Ronon's manhandling he ended up in the back seat of the first gondola, ass jammed into the child-sized molded seat. Teyla perched next to him with the air of anticipation of one whose buttocks weren't overlapping their kiddie cup, while John and Ronon crammed into the front seat.

"Okay, hold on," John said, and pressed his palm to the center of the little control panel on the dashboard of his seat.

Nothing happened for long enough that Rodney started to get twitchy. Then there was a faint grinding sound and the entire room erupted into the violent brightness of a space battle. A hologram of a Wraith hive ship hung just overhead, firing energy weapons, while tiny Wraith darts shrieked by in swarms so vivid and startling that Rodney momentarily forgot to be annoyed at the depiction of sound in space.

Ships took fire and exploded, caught fire and disintegrated around them, and then a line of text unfurled across the belly of the hive.

"'Center yourself," Rodney translated. The text faded and disappeared.

Automatically, Rodney closed his eyes and breathed in. He could hear the others doing the same nearby, the same way they did every time Teyla smiled and reached out and bowed her head. It was Pavlovian.

On the dashboard, a button lit up. The light began to brighten slowly as Rodney watched, still breathing deeply.

"Huh," John said. He pressed the button.

The room went black and quiet as the space battle disappeared.

Another line of text appeared on the ceiling. "'Congratulations. You have defeated the Wraith.'"

Rodney stared.

"Well. That was anticlimactic," John said slowly.

"I'm leaving," Ronon said in disgust. He got up and stomped out, the door whooshing serenely closed behind him.

"What the hell," Rodney said, still caught somewhere between bemused and the adrenaline spike of space battleus interruptus, but rapidly turning the corner into pissed off.

"I also would like to know what the hell," Teyla said, and both John and Rodney turned to stare at her. She was bolt upright in the seat, shoulders stiff with what Rodney supposed was anger. "If the Wraith could be stopped by deep breathing--" she stood up abruptly and pushed out the door after Ronon.

They stared after her in surprise.

"Holy crap," John muttered.

Rodney felt a weird sense of remorse, not that he was in any way to blame, nor could he possibly have anticipated this sort of outcome without extensive prediction matrices. Still. "It is patronizing to the point of obscenity," he pointed out. "You can't really blame her."

"Of course I'm not blaming her!" John said, nostrils flaring with wounded pride and what passed for empathy from him. "It's just, you know..." he deflated a little, glancing uneasily at Rodney, at the door, at the empty ceiling. He sighed. "Kind of a let-down. It's supposed to be an amusement park, jeez."

"Not terribly amusing so far, no," Rodney agreed.

John sighed again and stood up. "I better go, you know," he said, waving one hand uncertainly.

Talk to her, Rodney extrapolated. He slumped down in the seat as far as his ass would allow and stared at John's retreating back, feeling awash with cynicism. Checking in with Ronon and especially Teyla was the responsible and kind thing to do, certainly, but so unlikely to leave anyone involved actually feeling better. Expurgated, maybe. Appeased, if they were lucky. Mired in an uncomfortably intimate conversation about dead relatives seemed the most likely, though.

Now Rodney found himself sighing. John seemed to kind of like that sort of thing with Teyla, though, the intimate conversation. Or if he didn't like it, he at least kept going back for more.

If Teyla had been there for The Revelation, he bet John wouldn't have bolted.

And that was about enough of that, Rodney thought, standing up and pulling his scanner out of his vest pocket. Practically anything else he could be doing at this moment would be more useful than moping in a gondola.

He pulled his flashlight out for good measure and flipped it on. A quick scan of the surroundings showed blank dusty walls with no other outward sign of decay. The room appeared to be both circular and smaller than he'd previously noticed--there were three other gondolas spaced at even intervals, with the same glowy track lighting set into the ground between them.

Rodney followed the tracks with the beam of the flashlight until they fetched up against the far wall. The darker outline of a rectangle caught his attention, and Rodney made his way over to examine it. It was a door, unremarkable, with a small sign inscribed with "Continue" set over the lintel. The exit, then, and a possible explanation for the circular nature of the courtyard. It made sense that the Ancients would require their amusements to be experienced in the proper order. Apparently they'd completed part one.

Rodney waved at the door, which didn't want to open, and required some prying and eventually a good kick to trigger. He stepped out into the sharp bright sunlight, finding himself in a weedy patch of gravel on the side of the building. Ahead of him was another low-set building with turnstiles leading to the entrance, while to his right was a small square hut with what appeared to be wash basins set into the front wall. Ancient restrooms. Rodney stuck his head inside, noting rows of stalls with knee-high kiddie versions of the Ancient toilets, and came back out to stand in the gravel again.

When he had fiddled with the basin faucets to discover that he could, in fact, still wash his hands after he peed should he so desire, it occurred to him that he couldn't see any of the rest of the team. Rodney sighed. He'd rather hoped that by the time he made his way out of Wraith Blaster the consoling part of the morning would be over.

He hesitated in the gravel for a moment longer, feeling the competing emotions of desire to continue exploration and the guilt of knowing that not responding to his teammates' distress made him a crappy person.

Guilt won out eventually. Rodney made his way back around the side of the building into the central courtyard, where he found Ronon sulking on a bench with a pile of crumpled paper snow cone wrappers at his feet.

"Teyla?" he asked.

Ronon grunted and jerked his shoulder toward the shadiest corner of the courtyard, where Teyla and John were seated amidst a miasma of emotional tension.

Great.

Rodney took a step forward, then stopped and turned grudgingly back to Ronon. "You're...okay, right?" he asked.

Ronon stared at him for a long moment then shrugged. "I've been condescended to before," he said, turning away to sort through the pile of tokens on the bench next to him. "I'll live."

Rodney nodded sharply in agreement and set off across the courtyard toward John and Teyla. They were having some sort of intense, murmured conversation, chock full of meaningful eye contact, which they halted as soon as he arrived.

"So!" Rodney said brightly, and then immediately faltered.

John sighed and stood up. "You're sure," he said to Teyla.

"Quite," Teyla said. She reached out and briefly squeezed John's wrist, then turned to Rodney and gave him a small, tight smile. "I will expect to hear from you at regular intervals."

"Of course," Rodney said, feeling like his expected emotional trajectory had just hit a wall. "Wait, what are we doing?"

"You and I are going to check out the other exhibits," John said, tugging him back toward Wraith Blaster. Rodney waved awkwardly to Teyla and followed.

"And Ronon and Teyla are going to, what, sunbathe?" Rodney persisted as they tramped past Ronon and back across the courtyard yet again.

They rounded the corner of the building. John stopped and rubbed the back of his neck irritably. "Teyla's humoring me," he said.

Rodney gaped. "Why in the world would she do that?"

John sighed. "She pays attention, she's heard me talk about amusement parks for years. First time I ever spoke to her I made some crack about Ferris wheels." He looked sheepish, if a person could look sheepish and eaten up by brooding at the same time.

"And she doesn't want you to miss the opportunity, even though so far the opportunity looks entirely substandard," Rodney said, getting it.

"Mmm," John said, staring distractedly at the kiddie restrooms. "If it helps, I feel lousy about it. But if I call off the mission and we go home now I think it'll just piss her off more."

"So exploring's the lesser of two evils?" Rodney asked.

"Yep."

Rodney rubbed his hands together briskly. "You know Ronon's working on the mother of all sugar headaches right now."

"Yep."

"So let's go."

The plaque over the next door read, "The Truth Helmet," and the inscription was unburden yourself of falsehoods, or maybe false prophets; Rodney wasn't really sure.

The ride itself looked like the dental exam from hell. Twelve vinyl-covered exam chairs, partially reclined, sat in rows of three in the center of the room, while narrow benches ran along the perimeter. Suspended above each chair from a single wire like a particularly creepy light fixture was a metal beanie.

"There is no way," Rodney said, staring at the nearest chair. "What if it melts my synapses? You'll have to do it."

John poked the beanie over the chair in front of Rodney. It began to glow faintly as it swung, throwing shadows like the bare bulb of an interrogation scene in a prison movie.

"Out of curiosity," John said, "can you think of a way this could go well?"

Rodney considered. "Not really, but I'm sure it'll be educational. Hop in, Colonel."

"I don't want to wear the truth helmet," John said irritably.

Of course he didn't, Rodney thought with bitterness. They'd already seen how excessive truth-telling affected them. "You can turn it off first if you're so worried. But you're the one who's being humored here, I think you should get the full experience."

John crossed his arms over his chest and averted his eyes, shoulders tense. "It's not a good idea, Rodney."

"It hurts my feelings when you don't want to confide in me," Rodney said. "I know you're laconic at the best of times, but I really just want to feel close to you and I hate that you'll apparently spill your guts to Teyla at the drop of a hat but talking to me is some big production. Plus that thing from last week was a pretty big deal and I'm getting a little choked up at the thought that you didn't feel you could share it with me oh my god," he yelped, slapping the beanie and thinking off, seriously, off at it.

John was staring at him with big eyes.

"Did you do that on purpose?" Rodney's voice soared and cracked with the force of his embarrassment. "Did you tamper with it on purpose just to get a rise out of me?"

"How the hell was I supposed to know it was a truth force field!" John barked. "I thought you had to wear the helmet, same as you!"

"Well now we know better," Rodney said peevishly. And then, feeling mean, he added, "Coward."

John's jaw clenched. "Fine," he said, looking murderous. "Quid pro quo? Fine." He slapped his hand on the helmet and stared Rodney in the face. "I wish I hadn't told you I was gay. Happy now?" He slapped the helmet back off and stomped out.

"Christ, this is the worst amusement park ever," Rodney said.

*****************

"The way I see it, we have two options," Rodney said, steaming to a halt in front of John and crossing his arms. "We can give up, go back to the jumper, and ride all the way back to Atlantis secure in the knowledge that we suck, the Ancients suck, and this day sucks most of all, and also that we have failed to comply with the wishes of our friends who we inadvertently allowed to be grievously insulted. Or we can man up, go on to the next exhibit, and deal with this like the adults that we are!" He stopped, panting with righteousness.

John rose slowly to his feet from where he'd been slouched on a bench along the side of the restroom.

Rodney waited.

John crossed his arms.

"Or we could go with a third option of your choosing," Rodney offered, caving magnanimously.

John's gaze was set someplace over Rodney's left shoulder. His mouth tightened briefly, then he squared his shoulders and looked Rodney in the eye. "What I said was out of line," he said stiffly. "Let's keep going."

"I--that's generous of you," Rodney said, shocked into graciousness. "Really? I mean, I'm sorry I goaded you."

"It's forgotten," John said, turning toward the third building. "Let's move."

They trudged around the side of the Truth Helmet building in silence. Not having come out the proper exit, they waded instead through the rather more unruly weeds between the east side of the building and the high outer stone wall ringing the park. Rodney stopped to brush stickers off his pant legs, yelping as the barbs embedded in his fingers instead.

When he looked up, John was watching him with unexpectedly soft eyes.

"Why would you say something like that?" Rodney blurted.

John’s face tightened down again. “Have you met yourself?”

"That hurts me," Rodney said, rolling his eyes to cover for how it really kind of did. "But seriously, why wouldn't you want me to know?"

John tipped his head back to stare at the gathering clouds in apparent exasperation. "I don't like talking about it. And you know how you are, you--like to talk."

"I wouldn't have hassled you!" Rodney squalled.

"Hassling me about it right now," John said, turning away. He put a hand on Rodney's shoulder and tugged lightly in an obvious attempt to get them moving again. "Can we just--look, we're good, okay?"

"I hardly think that's for you to judge," Rodney said with wounded pride, but he let himself be jostled into motion again.

They trudged some more. A few meters later they rounded the corner and found themselves at the exit of the previous exhibit. From the space between buildings, Rodney had a clear view of the central courtyard. The sun-dappled stones of earlier were now the same pale uniform color under the overcast sky. Far across the yard he could see Ronon and Teyla seated together on the Bench of Discussing Dead Relatives where he'd found John earlier. Teyla's head was tipped against Ronon's shoulder, and even at this distance the lines of her body spoke of exhaustion.

Rodney felt like shit all over again.

"Ronon," John said softly into his radio. Across the yard Ronon raised a hand to his ear, while Teyla didn't move. "You want us to wrap it up here?"

Whatever Ronon replied, he did it on John's private channel. Normally this would have been preferable, but today Rodney felt perversely left out.

"If you're sure," John said, hesitant. "You know we'll leave if she gives the word."

Across the yard Teyla sat up and flung out both arms in a dramatic stage gesture, shooing them. John gave an unwilling huff of laughter and saluted.

Galled, Rodney tapped his radio. "Ronon, if you two get tired of woolgathering, I need measurements and base power readings for anything functional in the courtyard and entryway. If you're quite finished with your siesta."

Ronon raised a hand in a different, one-fingered salute, then slung his arm around Teyla and slumped even further down on the bench.

"Charming," John drawled, but when Rodney looked over John gave him a half-smile and turned away.

"I really wouldn't have bothered you about it," Rodney said to his back. "You're my best friend."

"McKay, you bother me all the goddamn time," John said tiredly. "Don't worry about it. Let's just keep going."

The third exhibit was a maze of empty corridors. Rodney let the door swoosh closed behind him and stared. The corridor in front of him traveled about six meters forward before curving off to the left. The same soft, diffuse lighting that filled the halls in Atlantis bathed the walls and the floor. As far as Rodney could tell there was absolutely nothing to see.

"What does this have to do with freedom from desire?" he asked.

John looked at him sharply. "What?"

"Haven't you been reading the signs? This one is Tunnels of the Mind, subtitle unburden yourself of desire."

John frowned. "Sounds like a parasite."

"It does, doesn't it. You don't think--"

"Not really," John said. "But who knows? Come on." He started forward, P-90 at the ready.

Probably even the Ancients wouldn't make parasitic infestation part of a children's exhibit. Rodney shrugged and followed.

There was nothing around the first corner except more blank corridor. There was nothing around the second corner either, or the third. Rodney dogged John's heels, waiting for the inevitable catch, the part where something terrible and sufficiently culturally Ancient leaped out at them and hissed about how they were bad children who'd never shed their physical bodies if they didn't solve the maze, but it didn't come. Just meters and meters of flat eggshell white walls, floor, and ceiling.

They turned the fourth corner. "Oh, finally," Rodney said, sinking to his knees in front of a control panel set low on the wall. "There must be a short cut."

"It's only been ninety seconds," said John.

"Well, they were very uneventful." Rodney got the panel open and flipped on his pen light. "Huh."

"Good huh or bad huh?" John crouched behind him, leaning over his shoulder to get a better look.

"More like bemused huh," Rodney said. "Look at this." He trained the light where the control crystals should have been. The slots were filled instead with tapered cylinders with rounded safety edges.

John reached out and flicked one with a fingernail. "Feels like plastic," he said.

"Or rather silicate, or some sort of molded ceramic compound, but yes, your point stands," Rodney said. John was uncomfortably far into his personal space, bracing a hand on his shoulder for balance. Rodney wondered if he was supposed to be reading too much into that sort of thing, now that he knew John liked men. He cleared his throat and John leaned back and stood up.

Rodney stayed where he was and fiddled with the fake crystals for a moment for formality's sake, but it was useless. They really did look like plastic. Some of them even had sloppy seams down the side.

"Well, I guess we keep going," he said, stuffing the pen light back into his vest. He stuck his arm up and John grabbed his elbow and hauled Rodney to his feet, rolling his eyes. Rodney felt a little bit of the tension that had been sitting in his stomach since the truth helmet, or maybe last week on the pier, give way.

The corridors wove back and forth endlessly ("Eleven minutes, McKay,") until Rodney began to despair, not of failing to escape--someone on this team would have explosives, if it came down to it--but of ever seeing or discovering or thinking of anything that wasn't eggshell white.

Beside him John was quiet, with the exception of instructions to stay back when Rodney, lulled into security along with utter boredom, made to round corners first, and John's unwelcome time-keeping.

The sixth control panel appeared in corridor twenty-two. Rodney stared at it without hope; none of the others had yielded anything worth finding. He pulled the pen light out of his pocket and knelt anyway.

Above him John cleared his throat. "I had this dream once where I was in my dad's house," John said. "I opened the back door to let my dog out and there was this whole other room there instead. A room full of ice crystals. Kinda looked like control crystals."

"Do we have to talk about this now? It seems unnecessarily recursive." Rodney popped the latch on the panel, irritated.

John scowled. "Thought you wanted me to share." He nudged Rodney's thigh with the toe of his boot, jostling him and making him drop the light.

"Nobody but you thinks sharing your hopes and dreams means literally talking about your dreams." The opened control panel looked exactly like all the others: full of smooth, rounded crystals that looked nothing like the real ones. "This one time I dreamed about a room full of ice cubes," Rodney mimicked, slamming the cover shut in disgust.

"Fine." John turned on his heel and stared off down the corridor, jaw set.

"Oh, don't sulk."

"Whatever," John said, striding forward at a pace that left Rodney scrambling to gather his tools and catch up.

"Dear diary, I hope and dream that around this corner there's a grilled cheese sandwich," Rodney said in a mocking falsetto, digging the hole deeper. He couldn't help himself. It was all the eggshell white.

"Get moving, McKay," John called from around the corner.

Rodney got to his feet and stomped after him. Under the irritation and frantic boredom with his surroundings, he could already feel stirrings of remorse, peppered with self-disgust. No wonder John went to Teyla for this sort of thing.

He rounded the corner to find John scowling at him, hands on hips.

"I blew it, didn't I," Rodney said grimly.

"Just a bit, yeah."

Rodney deflated. Just because he recognized the need didn't mean he enjoyed taking his lumps. "Maybe next time you could warn me when we're about to have a moment," he said sourly, trying to push some of the blame back onto John, where he preferred it. "And maybe wait until we aren't surrounded by--by--total nothingness." He slumped against the wall and rubbed at his forehead, closing his eyes to block out John and the stupid empty corridor. "I hate this exhibit."

He felt John come to lean against the wall next to him, shoulders just touching. "Hey," John said, leaning into him. Rodney leaned back, eyes prickling with how unexpectedly grateful he was to feel John touching him just now. "Hey Rodney."

"What," Rodney muttered to the inside of his eyelids.

"I wanted to warn you," John said softly into his ear.

"Now? Really? But I thought we--okay, just--just a second." Rodney took a deep breath and squared his shoulders against whatever John Sheppard considered an emotional revelation. He opened his eyes. "Okay, I'm ready," he said.

John put his lips right to Rodney's ear. "I found the exit," he whispered.

***
Outside on the weedy gravel path again, Rodney shook himself all over. "What a stultifying experience. I feel like my head's been stuffed with cotton wool." He narrowed his eyes at John, who was still looking smug. "No thanks to you."

"I don't know, I was amused," John said, smirking at him.

Rodney grimaced. "It's about time someone was." He frowned at the exit. "While we're on the subject, what could that possibly have had to do with freedom from desire?"

"Curiosity," John said unexpectedly.

Rodney looked at him.

"Not desire desire, but, you know, desire for knowledge," John went on. "By the end of it, were you at all curious about the maze, or did you just want to get out?"

"That's rhetorical and you know it."

"See there? Freedom from desire." John nodded sagely at him.

"Huh." Rodney glanced from John to the exit and back, unwillingly intrigued. "It's like a koan, only even more pointless."

"What is the sound of your brain on eggshell white," John agreed.

Rodney huffed and pointedly busied himself with his scanner, which continued to register basically nothing. He still felt off-kilter, like he'd just woken from a ten-year nap. A nap with really poor REM sleep and unsettling dreams.

Dreams. He glanced up at John, who was maybe ten paces away peering into the open doorway of a second set of children's restrooms. This building had a small covered platform jutting out from the side wall that even Rodney could recognize as a diaper-changing station. The same metal waste incinerators from earlier were mounted under the platform, which seemed like a simultaneously dreadful and yet very satisfying method of dirty diaper disposal.

"So," Rodney said, shuffling closer while keeping his gaze fixed determinedly on the scanner. "A room full of--" he cleared his throat, "--ice cubes, you mentioned."

Silence. Rodney peeked up at John to find him watching Rodney with narrowed eyes. Rodney tipped his chin up defensively, then remembered he was giving John space for low pressure sharing and quickly tipped it back down.

All at once John took a breath and settled back against the restroom wall, crossing his arms over his chest and propping one foot on the stones behind him. "Ice crystals," John said. "I think it was a spare bedroom, except everything was frozen over. It was creepy."

Well, that was random. He was making an effort here, though, so, "Houses in dreams are supposed to represent yourself," Rodney said gamely.

John wrinkled his nose at the sky. "Doesn't everything in dreams represent yourself?"

"You're the one looking for psychoanalysis," Rodney said. "So? Is there an unexplored facet of your personality that you subconsciously find inhospitable and perhaps even off-putting? Something that your father disapproved of, hmm? Did you want me to guess?"

John glared. "What do you think?" Abruptly he pushed off the wall and spun to face Rodney, nostrils flaring.

"I can't help it if your brain defaults to unimaginative imagery!" Rodney protested, backing away.

"Rodney," John started, but Rodney barreled on.

"Seriously, what exactly am I supposed to be saying, here? You bring the subject up, but you don't want to talk about it and you're sorry you even told me, but you want me to ask questions, but only if I ask the right kind of questions and then only in the right way, which you know has never been one of my strong suits." He flung his hands up, beseeching. "I'm terrible at this, I know, but I'm trying. Just--what do you want?"

"I want to go on to the next exhibit," John said.

"You--no," Rodney said. He felt half a minute away from stamping his feet or throwing himself to the ground in a tantrum. He wanted to grab John by the shoulders and demand that he make sense, or barring that, that he at least stop changing the subject. He knew on some level that he was out of line, that this subject was probably considerably more difficult and frightening for John than for him. But it had been a long morning, and a long damn week, and while Rodney dealt perfectly well with uncertainty he dealt not at all with confusion.

"No," he said again. "I don't want to."

John sighed and slumped back against the restroom wall again, out of his aggressive posture. "Nothing's changed, Rodney," he said tiredly. "There's still ground to cover. Teyla and Ronon are still pissed. Let's just get through the damn park so we can go home."

"And what will happen back at home, hmm?" Rodney asked. His chest hurt.

"I told you," John said. "Nothing's changed."

"Then let's go," Rodney said. "If nothing's any different, we might as well keep right on pretending this mission is both useful and loads of fun." He turned and started toward the next building, crunching angrily through the gravel.

"Keep it down, McKay," Ronon's gruff voice said abruptly into his ear, and Rodney jerked and flailed in confusion for the quarter of a second that it took him to remember the comlink.

"What?" he snapped, searching the underbrush in disorientation before zeroing in on the faraway outlines of Ronon and Teyla across the courtyard.

"Teyla's asleep," Ronon said. "Quit running your mouth."

Rodney squinted and saw Ronon's lumpy elephantine outline resolve into the disquieting spectacle of Ronon, seated on a bench, with Teyla stretched out next to him with her head in his lap.

"You can't possibly hear me from this far away," he protested automatically, while his brain spun in confused circles.

"Whatever. Shut it," Ronon said, and hung up on him.

Rodney wheeled to face John, emotional trauma shunted to the side for the moment. "Teyla's asleep. On a mission."

John's eyes widened, then narrowed. "She's been--weird, lately," he said reluctantly. "Tired."

They stared at each other in mutual suspicion.

"It could be a virus," Rodney offered. "Or an infection. Or a neurological condition, or exposure to environmental toxins, although in that case you'd think she wouldn't be the only person affected, or what if it's a covert expression of her Wraith DNA? She could be on the verge of running amok with extra orifices." He broke off, torn between disgust and the mounting dread provoked by his own hyperbole.

"Or she could be tired," John said.

"Fine," Rodney said petulantly. "I'm sure that's all it is."

They sized each other up for a moment.

"As a break in the tension, that was quite effective," Rodney offered.

"Mmm," John said.

"Oh fuck it, let's keep going," Rodney said. He turned and strode off down the pathway toward the next building. After a moment John caught up with him.

"Maybe you were tense," John said.

"I don't want your stupid olive branch," Rodney said scornfully. "I'm only doing this because the alternative is getting into a jumper with a woman on the verge of a viral outbreak. It has nothing to do with humoring you."

John bumped shoulders with him. "I'm trying, too," he said, softly.

"Well, you suck at it," Rodney said.

"Yeah," John agreed. "And you pissed all over my olive branch."

"Kinky," Rodney said, and they both snickered.

The fourth exhibit was housed in another low, squat building similar to the previous ones, although this structure stretched back further, almost abutting the park wall. Rodney was pretty sure that any disorientation he had felt in previous exhibits had been related to clever architecture rather than the possibility that the buildings actually were larger inside than out, but it was reassuring to note that this building was truly physically longer than the others.

"The River of Solitude," John read. "Unburden yourself of...something. What's the opposite of solitude?"

"Before today I would have said 'an amusement park,'" Rodney said, squinting at the sign. "People? Crowds? Teeming masses? No, too literal. Friendship, maybe. I don't recognize the root word at all, so I'm going on context alone. Connection. Intimacy."

John made a face.

"Right, we can probably skip this one," Rodney said, rolling his eyes.

John scowled at him and waved open the door, stepping inside. Rodney followed him through the doorway and into a swamp.

Part Two

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
lilyfarfalla
Apr. 12th, 2012 04:17 pm (UTC)
12,350 words!!! This is exciting, but I guess I shouldn't read it at work. ;) Super excited though!
panisdead
Apr. 12th, 2012 10:23 pm (UTC)
I hope you like it! (Again, begun elsewhere, completed for this community. I kind of freaked out when I saw the prompt last Saturday). ::g::
lilyfarfalla
Apr. 12th, 2012 10:45 pm (UTC)
Meant to be!
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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