by Eildon Rhymer
Rodney can't speak. Surely Sheppard wouldn't be so cruel as to tease him…?
"Can you hear something?" Sheppard settled down against the rock, and blinked up at the hazy sky.
"I cannot," Teyla said. Ronon raised his blaster, prickling with readiness.
"It's the birds," Sheppard said, "singing so sweetly. Insects making insecty noises. The sound of blossom blossoming. The joys of summer, and things like that."
Teyla smiled. "It has been too long since I heard the sounds of nature in all its untouched beauty."
Sheppard closed his eyes, smiling beatifically. "It's enough to drive a man to poetry. Or sleep. Yes, sleep. The first uninterrupted sleep on a mission since… ever." He put his hands behind his head, and let his breathing slow.
"I think McKay's trying to tell us something." There was a chuckle in Ronon's voice if you knew where to look for it.
Sheppard opened one lazy eye. McKay was bouncing up and down, his arms flapping and his face red. His mouth was opening and closing like a beached fish, and his hands were making elaborate gestures, like a deranged wizard.
Sheppard raised his head, pretend-urgent. "What is it, Lassie? Timmy's fallen down the abandoned mine-shaft?"
McKay threw his hands up, then brought one down in a fist, shaking it at Sheppard. Sheppard hadn't realised that people actually did that outside cartoons. Rodney's face was murderous. It reminded Sheppard suddenly of a Wraith.
"Book?" he said, frowning. "No, movie. Two words? Is it Top Gun?"
McKay folded his arms, huffing in a sharp breath. Tapping his toe, he looked down his nose in a supercilious fashion. I don't care, his posture said. Mock away, oh you of the puny brain.
What would it be like, Sheppard wondered suddenly, to be robbed of words when words were your currency? McKay thought with words. He worked with words. He measured out the spaces of his personal relationships with words. To suddenly be without them must be like… like Ronon being without his knives… Like facing a future in which he could not fly.
Sheppard pushed himself to his feet. "We'll get you back to Atlantis, Rodney. Carson'll know what to do." He patted McKay awkwardly on the arm. "I'm sure it's not permanent."
McKay swatted him on the shoulder, and gave a silent snarl. "Ow!" Sheppard protested, rubbing the throbbing spot. "What was that for?"
McKay was tugging Sheppard's vest insistently. When Sheppard turned round, he saw that McKay's face was scarlet and drenched with sweat. With a long-suffering roll of his eyes, McKay stuck out his tongue and started to pant like a dog.
The Lassie joke was on the tip of his tongue, but Sheppard bit it back. A man had to stay original, after all. "I think Rodney's hot," he announced.
"We are all hot." Teyla wiped her brow with the back of her hand.
McKay flapped his hand towards Ronon, grimacing with disgust. Sheppard followed the direction of his gaze, and echoed that disgust. It just wasn't fair. One day Sheppard hoped to find an atmospheric condition that actually did bother Ronon. He decided to make it his goal. Break Ronon. That sounded like a reasonable enough addition to his to-do list.
"We'll take another break," he announced, heading for a patch of shade and pulling out his dwindling flask of water.
McKay flopped down in the shelter of a tree, dropping his jacket down beside him. A moment later, and he was scrambling through the pockets of the discarded jacket. His cry of triumph when he found the power bar was almost audible, for all that it was confined to his eyebrows and his chin. "Food equals energy," Sheppard pointed out. "Energy equals heat. Heat equals bad. Genius physicist like you should know that."
McKay stuck out his tongue.
Sheppard narrowed his eyes. "Reverted to kindergarten level, have we?" Come to think of it, a silent McKay had a lot in common with a two year old. Sheppard fought the urge to speak to him in words of one syllable. That way lay tantrums.
Oh, to hell with it…! "Drink, Rodney. Not food; drink. Good drink. Nice drink." He waggled his own flask in the air. "Good for you."
McKay sniffed, and snapped his head to one side, chin jutting. He was quite clearly sulking.
Sheppard peered into his flask. McKay had drunk far too much at their last stop, tilting his flask to almost vertical. "Here," Sheppard said, sealing the flask and tossing it to McKay. "Have some of mine."
McKay tried to catch it, but missed. For the first time since he had lost his voice, there was something resembling a smile on his face. At least, there was if Sheppard squinted.
He knew the exact moment when McKay began to fall behind. Waving to the others to stop, he turned round to find McKay half a dozen paces behind him, bent double and panting. He had already started to wave his hand madly, as if he had expected them just to walk off and leave him here, while he waved and waved but couldn't catch their attention.
Sheppard signalled to the others that it was time for another rest. Ronon looked as if he didn't approve. Teyla shaded her eyes and peered through the shimmering heat. The Gate is less than a mile away, her posture clearly said.
Sheppard ignored them, and led McKay into the shade, one hand hovering over his back. He held up five fingers meaning five minutes.
Ronon was concentrating on trying to catch a mosquito-like creature between this thumb and forefinger. Sheppard could hear its high-pitched whine, then tried to convince himself that he hadn't just heard the ripe squelch as it died.
He was slow to realise what had just happened. Oh. He cleared his throat, surprised to find that it had thickened with too much exertion in the heat, and not enough talking. Just because McKay couldn't talk it didn't have to mean that they couldn't. He wondered if any of them had done it consciously.
McKay was fiddling in his vest, and pulled out the Ancient artefact that had caused all the trouble. He rotated it round and round in his hands, his face a mask of dull misery.
Ronon was now sprawled against a log, catching an opportunity for rest whenever it presented itself. He tilted his head in a predatory fashion. "I could shoot it."
McKay clutched the artefact defensively to his chest with both hands, his mouth leaping open in a silent squawk.
"It's not a magic box, Ronon," Sheppard told him. "His voice isn't trapped inside."
"Wasn't thinking of releasing his voice."
Sheppard drew his gun out with deliberate slowness. "Now there's an idea…"
"John," Teyla said warningly.
But McKay was attacking the device with fresh purpose, his eyes alert and his face intent. Sweat trickled across his face, and his hair was dark with it, sticking up in anguished points. He looked like a cartoon image of a crazed scientist.
Sheppard sheathed his gun with a half smile. He unscrewed his flask, tilted it to hear the tiny and pathetic sploshing sound, and sealed it up again. Best leave it, just in case.
Something smashed into the ground beside him. McKay had hurled the artefact away, and was glaring at it with fury. Then he let out a breath. His empty hand fell to his side, and his shoulders slumped. Robbed of his words, it seemed, Rodney McKay conveyed more about his feelings than when he was armoured by them. It was a curious, almost unsettling observation. The first thing most people assumed about McKay was that the words said everything.
Wrapping his jacket around his hand to protect it, Sheppard picked the device up gingerly, and crawled to McKay's side. "Can't work without someone to shout at, huh?" he said quietly.
For a moment, McKay looked completely defenceless, as if Sheppard had landed a blow with a knife.
"I'll ask inane questions, if you like," Sheppard told him. "Nag you for a progress report. I'll even insult myself in creative ways and tell myself to shut up, if that helps."
The corner of McKay's mouth twisted. He pushed Sheppard away, but he snatched up the artefact all the same, cushioning it gently.
Sheppard gave McKay the last of his water. By the time they saw the Gate ahead of them, McKay was almost crippled by the heat. Sheppard gestured to the others that they should slow down to his pace. With Teyla ahead and Ronon behind, Sheppard kept pace with Rodney.
With Ronon or Teyla, it would have pleasant, walking along in silence, but a silent McKay was not McKay. He was a stranger. He was broken. Several times Sheppard had caught himself imagining what McKay would say, silently speaking Rodney's litany of complaints to himself.
Strange to think I'd miss his whining. But like McKay's thoughts, that was something that would never be said out loud. Sheppard did not need an Ancient device to keep things silent.
McKay's fingers kept touching Sheppard's arm, kept tugging in his vest. Sometimes Sheppard felt as if there were words in those touches. Sometimes he almost heard them – words conveyed through a soft touch of clumsy fingers, through a swat of outrage aimed at his head.
Who'd have thought there could be words in so many things? But, then, Sheppard had always heard the song of the sky, and alone in a plane or a jumper, had carried out long conversations with the vessel that soared beneath his touch. Why was it more strange to hear the words that lay in a touch, in a flick of the fingers, in the tightening of a jaw?
They reached the Gate. Sheppard clapped a hand on Rodney's shoulder, squeezing it briefly. Teyla did the dialling. McKay was still clutching the Ancient artefact in his right hand, and his other hand rose to his throat, as if it could draw the voice back with a physical touch.
"Teyla," came Elizabeth's voice through the open Gate. "What's your status?"
"Warn Doctor Beckett we're on our way," Sheppard said. "McKay's exhausted from the heat, and… uh… there's something else."
"Rodney?" Elizabeth said. "Are you there?"
"He… uh… can't talk to you right now." Suddenly it didn't seem funny any more. If anyone on Atlantis dared laugh at McKay for this, he would have Sheppard to deal with. No, Sheppard thought, looking at Teyla and Ronon. They would have all three of them to deal with.
McKay placed his over-loaded tray on the table, and sat down next to Sheppard. "Better."
Ronon stabbed a piece of greenery with his knife. "There goes our peace and quiet."
"No, really, Carson was baffled, but they don't call me a genius for nothing. Even languishing there on my sick-bed, I worked out how to reverse the process. Though what possessed the Ancients to create such a thing? I though the Ancients were supposed to be all wise and all-knowing. This was just… petty. Cruel, even."
"Maybe it was a meditation tool," Teyla offered, "for those who wished to be freed from the distractions of the body."
"Or a training tool for naughty little boys who will not shut up," Sheppard said, with a pointed look at McKay.
"Oh, ha ha, very funny." McKay stuffed a lump of something indeterminate into his mouth and carried on speaking around it. Sheppard grimaced. "Anyway, I've got things to say to all of you." He jabbed at Sheppard with a fork.
Sheppard leant away from it, narrowly avoiding a gravy-stained impaling. "Stop it, Rodney. You don't have to do the mime act any more."
"I still have the artefact, colonel. I'm sure you wouldn't want to have a little accident? Who knows how it would react to your super-powered gene."
Sheppard began to imagine of a whole day trapped with McKay, unable to answer back… No, it didn't bear thinking about. Best stay quiet. He pressed his lips together. As silent as the grave.
McKay was pulling a bundle of paper out of his pocket. It was a surprisingly thick bundle, and the sheets of paper were not small. "I've made a list," McKay announced. "You first, colonel. That oh-so-witty thing you said just after I touched the device for the first time… If I'd been able to, I would, of course, have retorted…"
Sheppard leant back in his chair, and folded his hands on his stomach. Was it a bad thing, he wondered, that this seemed like the very epitome of contentment? Sometimes he worried about himself; he really did.