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[iv]

William thinks Johnson looks tired. “You look exhausted, my friend,” he says, sitting down next to him on the common lounge couch. “Come. Tell me your troubles.”

Johnson quirks an eyebrow at him. “Yeah, no.”

“There are deep shadows under your eyes. Epic shadows, Johnson, I could write poems about these shadows,” he presses a palm to his chest, “about how they mirror your tragic soul.”

Greta says, “Please don’t let him,” following William down onto the couch.

William is affronted, and wounded to his very core. William’s epic poetry is the stuff of Chaucer; there could be quests and maidens and knights and dragons and True Love, all because of Johnson’s tragic half-moon smudges, like fallen angels left thumb-prints when they wiped away his tears. Oh. Oh, that’s lovely. He’s going to have to write that one down.

Greta kicks off her shoes and wriggles her feet under William’s thigh. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Johnson says, slumping down further on the couch and tipping his head back to stare at the ceiling.

He looks pale. Pale and tired; William is sure this is a bad combination. William, however, is not a doctor – in the medical field, at any rate – and Johnson’s other half most decidedly is. William’s sure little DeLeon is taking great care of Johnson in his time of distress.

“At least Sergeant Crawford’s awake,” Greta says, and when Private Novarro flounces – that’s the very word for it, too, William swears - into the lounge and Greta’s entire countenance lights up, cheeks pinking, and William feels a frown pull at his mouth. A horrible, unsightly wrinkle-inducing frown.

He just wishes Greta would find a more appropriate suitor – perhaps someone who doesn’t wear his cap sideways with quite so much earnestness and pep.

Novarro leans into the couch arm and smiles down at Greta and says, “Hi,” and he’s honestly cute, if you go for that, but William has his doubts that Novarro could properly take care of his Greta. Which is something he will never voice, because Greta’s bound to take exception, and the very last thing William wants is Greta mad at him. There’d be a distressing lack of cuddling during movie nights, for one.

Johnson makes some sort of sound, half-asleep, before jerking upright and rubbing a hand over his face. “Jesus Christ,” he mutters and William eyes him curiously. Something is plaguing Johnson, he’s sure of it.

“I’m here for you, Johnson, I hope you know that,” William says. Captain Gabe calls William magnanimous. He calls him sweet and kind-hearted and slightly soft in the head, and he calls him all this with a frighteningly enormous grin stretching his mouth. William fully agrees with Captain Gabe. He should be awarded hugs and smooches for his goodwill.

Johnson flips him off.

Uncalled for, perhaps – he’s simply trying to be nice, to be supportive - but it makes William smile anyway. He shifts so he’s farther from Greta – a tragedy – and instead a warm, supportive bundle against Johnson’s side.

He’s fully expecting to be pushed away; Johnson isn’t the most demonstrative guy, despite the many times he’s let DeLeon sprawl all over him in public. But Johnson just makes a little noise of protest and half-heartedly tries to shrug William off. Half-hearted shrugs are no match for William. And then Johnson gives up and presses back.

It’s possible, William thinks, that this isn’t something William can fix.

*

Alex would give anything, any fucking thing, to have this constant nagging headache go away. It’s not even close to migraine proportions, he doesn’t think, but it’s always there, a pressure at his temples, above his eyes, and it’s slowly driving him insane. The flashes of black at his peripheral vision aren’t really helping, either.

Singer worriedly flicks a pen light across his pupils and says, “You’re reacting fine, Al, I’m not sure what’s wrong, but,” he bites his lip, “it could be neurological.”

Awesome, Alex thinks. “Maybe I have a tumor,” he says, and Singer pulls a face.

“Stop, it’s not a tumor,” he says, and Cash does a shitty Schwarzenegger impression from across the room where he’s sitting by Ian.

Alex bites his lip to keep from grinning – that just encourages the douche.

Alex swings his legs. “It could be.” Honestly, he just wants his head to stop fucking hurting. If it was a tumor maybe they could, like, operate and take the fucker out. Drugs don’t seem to be affecting anything, either; they just make him drowsy, but the headache’s still there, a low-level annoying hum along his skull.

“We need to scan your brain,” Singer says, and, honestly, Alex’s had about fifty million brain scans since coming to Atlantis, they’re pretty much routine, so he just nods okay.

The scan takes less than five minutes and Alex hums the theme from Dallas and wonders if that’ll show up somehow, like it’ll affect his brainwaves or whatever, but Singer just harrumphs at the screen and shows him the slices of his skull afterwards, finger tracing multicolored lines with a frown of concentration on his face.

“Nothing,” Singer says.

Cash whoops, because Cash is an asshole.

Singer glances over his shoulder at him. “Nothing, as in nothing’s wrong, asshole,” he says. “It’s perfectly normal.”

Alex flips Cash off with a smirk.

Ian says, “So did you scan my brain while I was out?” voice still a little rusty – it had been scary for a while, even though Alex would never admit it; Ian had been out of it for fucking days.

“You’re fine, Ian,” Singer says, tapping on his datapad. “You just need more rest.”

“Yeah, but,” Ian shrugs, “I was fucking hallucinating, man.”

Ian’s the only guy Alex knows who could just come out and admit that, who’d be able to admit that and not make it seem like any kind of weakness at all. It’s a fact. Ian imagined a kid with warm hands and black-framed glasses who’d kind of hypnotized him into a coma, and what-the-fuck-ever, it happened and it’s over.

Alex is seeing strange shadows, blurs of black, and he feels like a fucking moron, especially now that Singer’s confirmed he doesn’t have any physical cause for it.

“So I’m having psychosomatic delusions,” Alex says evenly, ignoring the heat on the tops of his cheeks. He’s not blushing. If he thinks that hard enough, he figures it might eventually become true.

Singer says, “Well, maybe not,” but he’s biting into his lower lip and giving him huge baby deer eyes.

Alex sighs. “You’re gonna make me go to Blackinton, aren’t you?”

“Ian has to go, too?” Singer says, hands spread out in front of him.

Alex grabs his wrists and tugs him in close, ‘til Singer’s caged between his knees. He leans forward, dropping his forehead on Singer’s shoulder. Singer shakes off his grip and slides his arms around his back in a loose hug.

Singer says, “It’ll be fine, Al, promise.”

*

“Hmmmm,” Blackinton says, crossing his legs. “And how are you feeling, Joe?”

Joe feels like crap, to be perfectly honest, but he just grins and shoots Blackinton a thumbs-up. “Awesome.”

“Cool, cool.” Blackinton bobs his head. “Anything you want to talk about?”

Joe shrugs. “Not really.”

“Okay.” Blackinton bites his lip and scribbles something on the pad of paper resting on his knee. Then he links his fingers together and smiles at Joe. “Well, I’m here if you need me.”

He looks kind of expectant, so Joe says, “Sure.”

“Dr. Ritter says you’re climbing steadily towards tip-top shape again, so I’m going to go ahead and advise Colonel Sheppard that you can return to active duty. Light active duty, considering your cast.” He taps his pen on the paper and keeps eye contact with Joe, grin fixed, and, really, Joe suspects he does that creepy shit on purpose.

Joe gets to his feet and shoves the hand not lashed to his chest in a sling into his pocket. “So we’re good?” he asks, inching towards the door.

“We’re good,” Blackinton says. “But I want to see you next week, Thursday morning, all right?”

“Fine, okay,” Joe says over his shoulder before darting out into the hallway with an embarrassing gulping sigh of relief. It’s like—he almost died, he’s perfectly aware of that, and the weird thing is that he’s okay with it. And the being okay with dying thing? Is freaking Joe out.

He hasn’t been sleeping all that well. It doesn’t help that Bob’s avoiding him again.

On shaky legs, he walks down the corridor and takes the nearest transporter up to his quarters, then promptly collapses onto his bed, bending an arm over his eyes. The whole thing fucking sucks, he thinks. Every time he closes his eyes that same fucking well of peace floods over him, only instead of calming him down, like before, it kicks up his heartbeat and all his muscles clench, like he’s fighting it, and he just wants whatever the hell is doing this to him to go away.

“Just,” Joe says to the empty room, like his psyche is fucking tangible. “Just leave me the fuck alone.”

“Why?”

Joe jumps, whipping his arm off his face and jerking upwards. “What the fuck?”

The kid looks exactly how Joe remembers; maybe a little more bright-eyed, a little more fucking fascinated.

“You,” Joe says, flailing. “I can’t—”

Cocking his head, the dude sits on the end of Joe’s bed, and, like, Joe feels the shift of the mattress, sees the dip in the blankets, pulled down by his weight – like he’s real, not just some fucked up part of Joe, some split his brain had made to fucking cope or whatever – and maybe he should consider actually talking to Blackinton about this, but at the moment he kind of just wants Bob.

“Okay,” Joe says, getting up. “Okay, I’m going to go and you’re—not coming with me.”

Joe doesn’t stop and look back, just slides his palm along the door crystals and slips into the hall, fingers biting into his palm to keep from shaking. It takes him three minutes to walk to Bob’s quarters, two rights and a left along the maze of corridors, and then he leans into Bob’s door chime.

When the door opens, Bob’s standing there, arms crossed and glaring at Joe, and Joe is done with Bob’s attitude, okay, he can’t handle it right now.

Joe says, “Look, I get it, you’re surly, something crawled up your ass and died, but can you save it for when I’m not losing my mind?”

Bob’s face goes blank. “What?”

“There’s no one standing behind me, right?” Joe asks.

“No,” Bob says, eyes widening just the slightest bit.

It doesn’t exactly make Joe feel much better, considering he’s not sure anyone else can even see the kid. He doesn’t turn around, though, he doesn’t check. He just pushes past Bob and drops down onto his bed and says, “I’m taking a nap.”

Joe curls up on his side, facing the wall, and presses his eyes closed. He hears the door slide closed, hears the heavy clomp of Bob’s boots and then feels Bob’s hand close over his shoulder. Joe hunches a little, ‘til Bob’s knuckles graze his ear.

“Hey,” Bob says, gruff and low.

“Napping,” Joe says.

There’s a huff of breath and Bob lets him go. Joe tries not to feel a loss and turns his head into the pillow, breathing in a mouthful of fabric softener and Head & Shoulders and Bob. He’s instantly drowsy, nights of fitful sleep catching up with him, and he barely moves when Bob circles a big hand around his ankle, pulling his leg straight.

He’s vaguely aware of Bob tugging his boots off, of Bob curling up behind him, arm slung over Joe’s chest. Bob’s heart is a steady beat along his back.

*

Mike is a horrible team leader. “I suck,” he tells Chris. He’s sprawled over a cot in the infirmary, an arm flung over his face.

“You’re drunk,” Chris says.

“Well. Yeah.” Mike thinks this is a stunning given, since he’s got a mostly empty rum bottle wedged between his legs. Of course, it hadn’t been full when he’d started, and hard liquor and Mike have never been friends, taste wise, so his sips have been on the small side, but. He wishes he were drunk, so he’s willing to act the part. He’s past tipsy, at least, and he’s gone straight into maudlin, with a stop off at self-pity.

The important thing—the important thing is that Mike is a fucking lousy team leader. It doesn’t really reflect awesomely on him when people are constantly getting hurt and-or kidnapped under his command.

“Quit being a girl about it,” Chris says, because Chris is an unsympathetic asshole. “So you lost Joe. He’s the one who wandered off in the first place.”

“It’s a big deal,” Mike says, struggling up until he’s propped against the wall, one leg dangling off the end of the mattress. “Bryar thinks it’s a big deal. Plus, you know,” he flaps a hand around, “that whole mess with Urie and Wentz. And, oh god, remember,” he snaps his fingers, “remember when DeLeon got turned into a giant cat?”

Chris rolls his eyes. “That wasn’t you, dumbass. That was Ballato.” He grabs the bottle off the cot and takes a healthy swig.

Mike watches him swallow, bleary-eyed, and says, “Aren’t you on duty, Gaylor?”

“Whatever.” Chris shrugs.

It’s late. At least, Mike thinks it’s late. He’d stolen the rum from Morris around ten, so it’s gotta be well past midnight now. The infirmary is mostly empty. Crawford’s watching them with half-mast eyes and a bemused curl of his lips, but it’s not like Mike cares. Mike’s a fucking mess; he has no idea what he’s still doing on Atlantis, except for the fact that he feels like they’re all fucking messes, in some way, and that’s really fucking profound for someone who’s consumed a fifth of Mount Gay.

When the infirmary doors slide open, Mike doesn’t even try to hide the bottle. He gives Johnson a little wave.

“Hey,” Johnson says, slipping his hands into his pockets. He’s rumpled in jeans and an undershirt, hair hanging over half his face.

“Hey,” Chris says. “What’s up?”

“Can’t sleep, so, uh.” He shrugs a little without dislodging his hands.

Chris says, “Didn’t DeLeon just—”

“Doesn’t seem to be working,” Johnson says, and Mike notes, sort of detachedly, how Johnson’s hand shakes when he rubs his palm over his forehead, pushing his hair back.

Chris nods. “All right, hang on. I think we’ve got something stronger.”

Johnson presses his eyes closed and slumps against the wall. His voice is kind of faint on, “Thanks.”

*

It isn’t so much that Alex can’t sleep. It’s that he’s figured out that whatever the fuck these shadows are, whatever’s going on in his brain, they’re trying to tell him something. Maybe something his subconscious already knows or whatever, and the deeper his sleep gets, the clearer everything becomes.

The sleeping pills Singer had given him had helped, but he’d jerked awake hours later, still feeling restless, a voice echoing in his head without any recognizable words, an invisible pressure against his, like, fucking spleen or something. It’s fucking frustrating, is what it is.

Instead of going back to bed, though, Alex stops by the mess. It’s mainly empty, with Gerard and Bryar at one table and Lacey slumped in the corner, a paperback curled open in one hand, the other clutching a flask to his chest. He’s mouthing the words as he reads, and Alex steers clear of him, slipping into the chair across from Bryar with a muffled groan.

Bryar gives him an intimidating scowl-eyebrow arch combo, but Alex doesn’t give a fuck. He wants to know what’s up with Joe. He’d spotted him lurching out of Blackinton’s office earlier, looking like warm death; looking how Alex feels, honestly.

Gerard snuffles into his coffee cup and Alex slants him a glance.

Gerard’s got glazed zombie eyes. He gives Alex an absent smile. “Hi.”

“What the fuck, man,” Alex says tiredly.

Bryar grunts.

Gerard nudges one of Morris’s homemade brownies towards him. “For stress,” he says.

Alex shakes his head. “Not sure I can call this stress, dude,” he says, just as a sharp pain slices across his midsection. He freezes, says, “Ow,” through gritted teeth. It’s almost like the dull pressure from before, when he’d first woken up, only a lot worse. Huh.

“Hey, um, are you okay?” Gerard asks, all big, worried eyes.

“Fine,” Alex says, then tries to stand before he realizes Gerard’s gripping his arm, and that his hold on him is probably the only thing keeping him upright. “Whoa.”

Bryar says, “You’re white.”

“Thanks.” Alex feels white. He feels sort of floaty and not-really-there and then he feels hot. Like, burning hot. There’s epic hotness here, and Alex is having some trouble breathing. He pants, “Shit, shit,” just before blacking out.

*

“Is it lupus?”

“It’s not lupus,” Alex says, elbowing Cash in the stomach to get him to back the fuck up. He’s hovering, and he’s getting on Alex’s nerves.

“Is it Huntington’s?”

No,” Alex says. “You’ve seriously got to stop marathoning House with Ian.” Cash’s become something of a hypochondriac. He’d told Alex the day before that he was sure he had armpit cancer. Alex doesn’t actually know whether he’s serious or just fucking with him. It’s hard to tell with Cash.

“Well, why’s Johnson so,” Cash waves a hand around, “like that?”

Like that is unconscious and scary-pale, and Alex is not freaking out. Alex is calm, cool and collected, and Johnson is going to be fine. He’s got a virus. A creepy alien stomach virus, it looks like - probably the same one that felled Ager three days ago, and Thompson two days before that - and the fact that there’s no plausible explanation for why he’s out cold like this is no reason to worry. No reason at all.

“He’s sick,” Alex says, and Cash rolls his eyes.

“No shit, honest?” Cash says.

Alex waves his hands around. “I’m trying not to panic here, okay. You could be a little supportive.” Johnson’s restless on the cot, eyes shifting back and forth under closed lids.

Cash frowns. “Maybe you should let Ritter handle this.”

“Or me,” Gaylor says, walking over with his datapad. “Considering he came in on my watch.”

He was carried in, actually, Alex knows. By Sergeant Bryar. If Johnson hadn’t been a pale, sweaty, limp mess, Alex might have found the idea of that really hot.

“Why don’t you sit down, DeLeon?” Gaylor says. He clicks on a penlight and lifts Johnson’s eyelids, then takes his pulse.

Alex collapses into the chair next to Johnson’s bed and grabs his hand. He could be offended by Gaylor’s casual dismissal, but mostly he’s just relieved he doesn’t have to worry about staying professional.

“Breathing’s still regular,” Gaylor says absently. “It’s almost like.” He pauses, presses his lips together, then flicks a glance towards Alex. “Look, I know it’s not the same thing, but I was here when they brought Crawford in, dude. There’s something strangely similar going on here.”

“The unconsciousness.” Alex nods. That’d crossed his mind, too. “But Ian nearly went hypothermic. Al has, like, a fever.”

“Body’s reacting the same way. How was their blood work after their last mission?”

Alex shrugs. “Fine, as far as I know. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Gaylor frowns down at the datapad. “It’s fucking weird,” he mutters, and then says louder, “Okay, so, now we wait.”

“We wait,” Alex echoes.

“Wow, you guys are awesome at this,” Cash says, and Alex flips him off.

It’s not like he isn’t as frustrated as Cash; it’s actually a pretty sucktastic idea, waiting, but he knows there’s really not much else they can do.

*

Mike is barely alive. Mike has tiny screeching gulls battering at the inside of his skull with their wings and pointy beaks. Mike hasn’t had a hangover this bad since eleventh grade, when Betty Fells’ dad bought them forties of malt liquor for Fourth of July. Not cool, Betty Fells’ dad. Not cool.

“Are you alive?”

Mike snuffles into the bed sheets, inhaling antiseptic. He’s pretty sure he’s still in the infirmary. “Aspirin,” he says, groaning at the sound of his own voice, echoing in his head. If he moves, he’s pretty sure he’s going to throw up all over himself.

“I think you’re gonna need more than aspirin, dude. You’ve got a mission briefing in three hours.”

Three hours? What the fuck, he’s supposed to be off-duty for three days. “The fuck?” he says thickly. Something pokes him in the back of the shoulder.

“I’m pretty sure you’ve been passed out for, let’s see, yeah. Fifteen hours,” Chris says, sounding entirely too cheerful. “And for the span of roughly two full days you steadily went through the rest of Morris’s rum, Saporta’s stash of Jim Beam and that bottle of wine Ty’s been saving for his grand seduction of your second-in-command. More than I’ve ever seen you drink in all the years I’ve known you. Kind of impressive.”

“Oh, fuck,” Mike says. Mike is the biggest screw-up in the Pegasus galaxy, he’s sure of it. Even Alex fucking DeLeon never loses full days to binge drinking - except that once, maybe, when they’d had to fish him and Chislett out of the water off the east pier and he’d apparently rambled for two hours at Tyson about his great love of Johnson’s boots.

His eyelids are gummy, but he manages to pry them open, oh so carefully, thankful that Chris has the lights dim around his bed. And then he does a slow, painful blink, because—because something’s hovering over an occupied bed three rows down. Something man-shaped but, like, eerily incorporeal, like a shadow. Mike suppresses a shiver, ‘cause that’s just bound to make him vomit.

“Hey,” he says, low, and Chris bends down closer. “Turn slow, man, tell me I’m not crazy.”

Chris arches a bemused eyebrow but obligingly shifts so he’s following Mike’s eye-line. “What—”

“Shhhh,” Mike says. “I think it’s eating Johnson.”

“Fuck,” Chris says, loud enough to make Mike wince and grab for his head, which basically makes Mike’s stomach roil in protest and, like, twist up into his throat.

He swallows back bile, and when he opens his eyes again, the man-shape’s gone.

*

When Alex wakes up, he feels hot and dry and like a band of steel is squeezing his head. He makes it two feet off the bed before throwing up in what he really hopes is a trash bin.

Then there’s hands on his face, in his hair, cradling his aching head, and Singer’s saying, “Alex, Al, hey, hey,” in this incredibly soothing voice, the voice that makes Singer a pretty fantastic doctor – among all the actual medical things he can do, that is.

Singer feeds him water and helps him back into bed and looks at him with these huge, dark eyes that never fail to make Alex feel disgustingly squishy inside.

And then he remembers this dude – this pointy-nosed, thin dude with glasses and a ratty Misfits tee hanging off sharp shoulders. It’d been like arguing with a brick wall. Like dealing with something that wasn’t exactly stubbornness, more like an incredible lack of comprehension.

This dude, this thing – Alex doesn’t believe in coincidences or mass hallucinations, and he thinks this is probably exactly what Ian had seen, the same kid with the skinny limbs and wide, blank stare – hadn’t wanted Alex to wake up, not yet, but Alex doesn’t really appreciate being told what to do.

Now, what with the throwing up and everything, he half wishes he could have a do over.

He’s still sluggish, and there’re weird trails of light floating off of Singer as he moves closer to the bed. Alex reaches out and grabs Singer’s fingers to keep them still.

“Hey,” he says, croaks.

“Hey,” Singer says. His smile is weak, but it’s there, and Alex tries to smile back.

And then Alex clears his throat and says, “So I think there’s something stalking me and Ian.”

*

[v]

Surprisingly, Frank isn’t the first one to realize that Gerard isn’t sleeping. That’s Pete.

Frank thinks it’s probably because Pete doesn’t sleep much himself, but he’s still upset that he didn’t catch it, that it took Pete pointing out how tired Gee looked.

Even Bob says, “Yeah, man, he’s been like a zombie, we figured you knew,” and Frank is, like, totally pissed off at himself, what the fuck.

Pete bites into his peanut butter sandwich and bobs his head. “He’s off his game. Me, I’m topnotch on two, three hours sleep, but Gee starts repeating himself and humming ABBA, so it’s, like, bad.”

“Dr. McKay kicked him out of the lab this morning,” Brendon says, “and Spence said he found him wandering the hallways and had to escort him back to your quarters.”

“What the fuck,” Frank says, fisting his hands on the mess table. “Where the fuck have I been?”

“Tito,” Bob says.

Frank palms his forehead. Fucking Tito. He hadn’t been back to his pool for nearly three weeks so Frank’s been taking a submersible ‘jumper out with Ray to sweep for him every day. They’re due to leave for another sweep in two hours. Frank isn’t sure he should go now, but on the other hand, what’s he going to do to Gee, tie him to the bed?

As nice as that image may seem, he knows it’s not going to do Gerard any good.

“Anyone know why he isn’t sleeping?” Frank asks.

Bob shrugs. The set of his shoulders is pretty tense, though, and Frank knows Bob’s been off ever since Joe was rescued from M30-255.

“Shit,” Frank says. Even on their good days, he’s not always sure how to handle Gerard. Gerard freaks out about weird shit, and even though they’ve been worlds better at, like, communicating, that doesn’t mean Gerard tells him everything that’s bugging him. Obviously.

“So, no, really, anyone think this has to do with Crawford’s team?” Brendon says.

Frank stares at him. “What?”

“All I’m saying,” Brendon says, hands up, waving a little, like he’s doing fucking spirit fingers or something, “is that they’ve all been weird ever since Crawford took Joe and Gerard off-world last month.”

Bob’s expression barely changes, but Frank can tell he’s gone from curious to enraged. It’s in the set of his mouth, the way his lips press tighter together.

“Huh,” Pete says, nodding. “You’re right.”

Frank doesn’t know where Pete and Brendon get off being so fucking observant all of a sudden. It’s kind of depressing.

“I don’t usually follow gossip,” Brendon says, which is a blatant, bald lie, “but word is Crawford’s got an imaginary friend.”

*

Ian holds up a fist for Blackinton to bump and says, “My man.”

“How’re you holding up, Sergeant?” Blackinton asks, tapping his pen on a pad of paper, legs crossed. He’s got a serene smile on his face. Ian’s heard it described as creepy, but he’s got nothing against Blackinton. Dude makes him laugh, especially when he goes all British Guy Ripley on Pete’s organized talent nights in the mess.

“I’m good.” Ian nods. He’s generally good. Feels fine, if a little muscle-sore. There’s just a little thing that’s bugging him. It’s minute, almost inconsequential, in the grand scheme of all things Pegasus and alien. “I gotta ask, though. Is it normal for hallucinations to, like, hang around after the fact?”

Blackinton’s eyebrows shoot up.

Ian shrugs, figures he might as well go for it. Blackinton’ll probably eat this shit up, and hey, even if it doesn’t help, at least it’ll be funny listening to Blackinton try to explain his psyche. He doesn’t actually think he’s hallucinating. Not this, at least. He’s pretty sure whatever he’s seeing is fully real, if really strange. “I mean,” Ian says. “He’s quiet and all, but I figured it’s a little weird he’s still here. Since I’m not, like, dying anymore.”

Blackinton presses his lips together. “I see,” he says. “And is your friend—here now?”

“Nah. He usually pops up when no ones around. So give it to me straight.” Ian grins. “Am I crazy?”

*

Gerard has never been what anyone would call well-adjusted. He’s an alcoholic, a recovering drug addict. He once spent nearly three months in complete silence and he’s got a series of paintings, somewhere in storage back on earth, depicting his own death in increasingly horrific ways.

Still, there’s having issues, and then there’s being fucking insane, and Gerard feels like he’s dangerously close to losing his mind.

His brother had killed himself over fifteen years ago.

Mikey is gone. Mikey is not standing in front of him, looking like he’s just rolled out of bed, like he hasn’t combed his hair in three days, like he’d looked every day of junior high, before Gerard stopped paying attention.

“You. You need to go away,” Gerard says, voice shaking. He wants to press his eyes closed, but at the same time he doesn’t.

“You’re not sleeping,” Not-Mikey says, and fucking duh he’s not sleeping.

His vision’s been fucked up for days, blurry and black at the edges, and every time he closes his eyes it just gets worse. Shadows flickering across his mind’s eye, impressions, that creepy feeling like he’s being watched, neck hair prickling.

He wants Frank, but Frank’s out with Ray again, and Gerard likes Tito a whole lot, so he understands why, but he really, really wants Frank. Frank’ll tell him he’s not crazy.

“You’re not real,” Gerard tries.

“I’m not?” Not-Mikey looks down at himself, swipes a palm absently along a jean-clad thigh. He gives Gerard a head-cock, eyes questioning, and then he’s gone, like he’s twisted up in a small tornado of black smoke that quickly disperses into nothing, starting from the outside and going in.

There’s a buzzing in Gerard’s ears, a pressure against his eardrum, and he grits his teeth as his eyes water. “Go away,” Gerard says, because he knows he’s still there, even if he can’t see him.

There’s no answer, but Gerard hadn’t really been expecting one.

*

Ryland practices patient confidentiality and all, but he also works for the government, and doesn’t have half as many scruples as his predecessor, Heightmeyer. Ryland likes being in the know. He likes the advantage of having basically every ear on base – even Colonel Sheppard comes in like clockwork every week to stare at his walls and complain about Dr. McKay and quiz him about his knowledge of Roxette.

He’s not going to let information about his patients slip idly from his mouth, he’s not going to gossip, but he knows a thing or three about base security – he’s paid to know – so he doesn’t hesitate very much at all to bring up the whole mass hallucination thing, first with Keller, and then with the colonel.

Keller, because there’s a chance it’s all medically related, and Colonel Sheppard, because, medically related or not, he’s got a bunch of scientists and soldiers under his command who might very well be mentally unstable. It’s his fucking duty to pass that info on. If they want to take it to Weir, they can take it to Weir.

In line at the mess, Suarez nudges him in the back with his elbow. “Hey, Ryland,” he says, “word is you got Weir to send Way back to earth.”

“I suggested it,” Ryland says. “And only for a leave.” He knows it’s not going to be a popular notion, but Way’s at the end of his tether, anyone with functioning eyeballs can see that. He also knows, though, that Atlantis is more important to Way than anything else, possibly even Iero, so he’s not going to suggest anything permanent. Sending Way home for good would only do him harm.

“Whatever, man. Iero’s gonna be out for blood when he hears.” Suarez smiles at him; that evil smile where he knows Ryland’s going to get his ass kicked and he’s hoping for a front row seat. Sometimes, Ryland doesn’t know why they’re best friends.

“I like how you’re reveling in my demise,” Ryland says. “Very awesome of you.”

“I know, right?” Suarez scoops up two bowls of Jello and slides them onto Ryland’s tray. “Get extra meatloaf, will you? I’ll scope out a table.”

*

Bob is not freaking out. He’s not exactly sure what he is doing, but he knows he’s not freaking out at all. Really.

“I can hear you thinking,” Joe says. “It’s freaking me out.” He’s on his back on Bob’s bed. It’s pitch black in the room, and Bob can only see a small gleam of Joe’s eyes.

Bob’s got a hand curled around Joe’s bicep, right above his cast, and he doesn’t know how to say I thought I’d lost you without coming across as a total girl. It’s maybe fucking him up inside, twisting his guts.

His grip tightens, and Joe says, “Hey, hey, careful,” but Bob doesn’t let up, just swallows hard and takes in a noisy breath.

“You’re a shit,” Bob says thickly, and it’s not exactly what Bob wanted to say, but he’ll make it work.

Joe freezes. “Oh.” He tries to squirm away from him, but Bob knows Joe hasn’t been sleeping right, not when he’s away from Bob.

“You’re a shit,” Bob says, “and if you ever pull something like that again, I’ll—” He chokes on his words, like they’re all backed up in his dry throat, and Joe’s hand comes up to pat blindly at his face in the darkness.

His palm catches Bob’s jaw and Joe says, “Bob, hey,” and twists towards him, tucking his face into Bob’s neck, and Bob can feel the way Joe’s fingers shake against his skin. “Nice that you care, dude,” Joe says, words muffled.

“I don’t,” Bob says. He clears his throat. “Just—inconvenient, having to save your ass all the time.” He sneaks an arm over Joe’s side, forced casualness, and he very carefully does not pull Joe closer.

*

When Frank stumbles into his quarters, half-asleep, Tito still fucking missing, he looks up and freezes, every single muscle in his body going rigid. “Holy shit,” he says, because that. That right there, in front of Gerard, is Mikey Way. Younger than he’d been in that alternate universe, thinner, but definitely Mikey fucking Way.

“What?” Gerard says, blinking over at him with tired, bleary eyes. There are circles the size of fucking planets under them, making his cheeks look puffy.

Frank waves a hand around. “That. Fucking that, Gee, what the hell?”

Gerard’s eyes widen and he glances from Frank to Mikey to Frank again. “You can—you can see him?”

Duh. Oh my god, this is what—you thought you’ve been hallucinating,” Frank practically yells, now with both arms waving around. “And Crawford has an imaginary friend, and the fucking Jonas brothers—everyone’s pretty sure they’ve fried their brains, but apparently.” He clicks his mouth shut and fists his hands in his hair, what the fuck. His life is insane. And then he remembers that Gerard’s on the fucking edge, and his dead brother’s standing there, watching them, and he has no idea what the fuck is going on.

He takes a deep breath.

Gerard bites his lower lip. “Frank,” he says, and it comes out broken.

Frank digs his palms into his eye sockets and sighs. “Yeah?”

“I really want a cigarette.”

Frank laughs, startled and strained. “Too bad, we quit.” When he lowers his hands, blinks open his eyes again, Mikey’s gone. “So this can’t be good,” he says, in a much, much calmer tone.

Gerard’s grin is kind of manic, like it isn’t a grin at all, just a baring of clenched-together teeth. “Good thing is I’m not crazy yet, though.”

“Gee, Gerard, what.” Frank shakes his head. “Did you tell—”

“Blackinton wants me to go back to earth for a while,” Gerard says, and Frank sucks in a breath. That’ll happen over Frank’s cold, dead body – which, considering the circumstances, Frank isn’t actually going to say out loud.

Instead, he just lets that comment slide and says, “Okay. Okay, there has to be a. A fucking explanation for this, right?”

Gerard shrugs, set of his shoulders tight.

Frank has no idea what to fucking do here, but it’s like. It’s like, okay, they’ve all heard of Daniel Jackson, right, and Frank can’t help but think. It’s not like it’s totally out there, as far as things go here.

“Okay, so.” Frank sidles closer to Gerard. He wants to collapse next to him on the bed, wants to grab his hand and hold on tight, but he’s not sure what that’ll do to Gerard just yet, and he needs to say this—this niggling little idea, that has the potential to be really fucking cool. “I’m just throwing this out there, but—have you thought about Ascension?”

Gerard goes white, then red. A blotchy red, heating up his collarbone, throat, cheeks in awkward patches. He looks like he wants to cry, and Frank regrets even fucking saying anything, even though he’s pretty sure it needed to be said.

Gerard shakes his head vehemently. “He died. Mikey died, I saw it. There was no glowy light or whatever. We fucking buried him.” He thrusts his hands in his hair. “Frank, I. Whatever this is,” Gerard says, “it’s not Mikey.”

*

“So what’s the emergency?” Joe asks as the door to Iero’s quarters slides open.

Iero grabs his arm and jerks him inside, and Joe immediately sobers when he sees Gerard.

“Fuck, Gerard, you look like shit.” Joe knows he’s been a mess for days himself, but Gerard looks wrecked.

Gerard gives him a weak smile. “Hi, Joe.”

Iero points to the bedside table. “Is that weird?” he asks.

Joe furrows his brows. “It’s a flower.” He’s never thought of flowers as weird before, but now that he really looks at it. He steps closer and says, “Oh, hey, is that from that—is that from the awesome greenhouse on PX2-430? Mine died, like, the next day, what the hell?” Joe reaches out, feels the soft blue petals. It hasn’t lost a single one, stem still freshly rigid.

“So that’s not normal, right?” Iero says. He’s bouncing back and forth on his feet, arms crossed and hands tucked under his armpits.

“Not really.”

“Even if I was, like, taking awesome care of it?” Gerard says, palms out and looking nervously hopeful.

“Not unless you’re magic, dude. It’s not even wilted.” Joe narrows his eyes and hunches down in front of the table to get a better look. The center’s a creamy yellow, it’s still got freaking pollen on the stamen, and there’s— “Huh.”

Joe pulls his little-used glasses out of the inside pocket of his jacket and slips them on, blinking as the smudge of black in the center of the flower focuses into something less black than brown; something more of a, a tiny beetle than a smudge.

“What?” Iero says, hovering over his shoulder.

“More your expertise than mine,” Joe says. He presses a petal gently back and gestures towards the little bug. “Think maybe this is your culprit right here.”

*

“So this is disturbingly like Horton Hears a Who,” Pete says.

Patrick gives him a look.

“Oh, what, like you weren’t thinking that, too.”

“It’s just a bug,” Patrick says.

Pete cocks his ear towards the flower. “It’s humming.”

“It’s buzzing,” Patrick says.

Pete frowns. “It’s humming Master of Puppets.”

Patrick opens his mouth, closes it again, leans forward with skeptical eyes, then says, kind of incredulously, “It’s humming Master of Puppets.”

“Told you,” Pete says with a smug grin. Pete knows what’s what. Pete is totally awesome, thank you very much.

“Why are you here?” Iero says, not looking up from where he’s scrolling through the Ancient database.

Pete shrugs and Patrick sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose, which just makes Pete nudge his shoulder and waggle his eyebrows at him. Pete’s just nosy, and Gerard’s been miserable.

Other than the weird Metallica humming Who, though, nothing much is going on in Iero’s labs. It’s kind of boring. Osment, the terminally cheery entomologist, had spent ten minutes blabbering on about shells and legs and body mass or something before she’d been driven away by Pete’s blank stare of indifference - and that had obviously been a mistake, because even Osment’s enthusiasm for bugs was mildly more entertaining than watching Iero hit the spacebar on his keyboard every few seconds.

Iero arches an eyebrow at them. “Are you seeing Gerard’s brother as a creepy apparition?”

“I wish,” Pete says.

“Pete,” Patrick says.

Pete says, “Like you don’t,” and Patrick shakes his head.

“I really don’t, Pete,” he says. “I’m completely fine with not seeing Gerard’s brother as a creepy apparition.”

Which is, of course, the moment when the little humming beetle up and disappears.

*

Gerard maybe shrieks like a girl and jerks his legs out of the water when something slick tickles the bottom of his foot. He looks down into the murky pool, though, and sees the tip of a red tentacle waving back and forth, and he lets out a slow breath. Tito. Frank’s gonna be stoked to see him back.

Two of Tito’s limbs snake out of the water, touch Gerard’s knee, and then sink back down again.

Gerard should probably radio Frank. He definitely should radio Frank, but he doesn’t reach for his comm. link. Instead, he shifts so he’s on his stomach by the pool, soaking the front of his shirt and pants, and props his head up on folded hands, peeking over the edge and down into the water.

When Tito isn’t at the surface, you can hardly see him at all. Just a dark, undulating mass that could easily be mistaken for kelp, or even just the absence of light against agitated water.

He watches Tito sink down and creep back up again, over and over, like it’s a game to him. It’s soothing, and Gerard’s eyes are half-slit when a shadow falls over him.

“Hi,” Ray says, settling down next to Gerard on the floor.

Gerard bites his lip and nods, shifting so he’s sitting up again.

Gerard has known Ray longer than anyone else on Atlantis. They’d actually grown up together, even though they hadn’t really been friends - Ray can be, if possible, even more spacey than Gerard – but they’d hang out occasionally, read comic books, listened to music. Most of that was due to Mikey. Most of it, Gerard doesn’t really remember all that clearly. He’s kind of embarrassed about that, so they don’t talk a lot anymore. It’s stupid, because Ray’s the one person he can still talk to about Mikey.

Before – before he’d gotten his PhDs, before he’d left earth, before Frank, who barely brings up Mikey at all, and always looks like Gerard’s about to break whenever he does – Gerard had gotten a lot of well-meaning it’s-not-your-fault’s, and Gerard would bob his head and agree and then quietly extricate himself from the conversations at the nearest opportunity.

It had never mattered to him what anyone else thought - maybe it was his fault, maybe it wasn’t, but the people who counted, his mom, his dad, they didn’t even have to say anything. It was in their hard, grief-leaden eyes and pinched mouths. It was in the way they couldn’t keep eye contact with him for more than a few seconds, gazes sliding over his shoulder or down onto a tabletop, into a clutched cup of coffee. The way they wouldn’t call, even after Gerard got clean.

Ray has never once told him that it wasn’t his fault, but he always looks at him with clear eyes and a warm smile.

Before he’d left Jersey for college - and later OCS and TBS and whatever other hell it takes to become an officer in the Marines - it still kind of boggles Gerard’s mind that sweet, affable Ray’s a major – he’d sat next to Gerard on his bed and knocked their shoulders together and said, “I’ve always wanted to do something great, you know,” like they hadn’t just watched Mikey’s coffin get lowered into the ground.

Gerard, barely sober and hating it, had crumpled his pack of cigarettes in his hands and said, “Yeah.”

Ray had smiled at him, like they were on to something, like wherever they went from that moment would be great.

Gerard thinks maybe Ray’s the reason he ended up at college at all, even if he was long gone by that point.

Ray takes his shoes and socks off, rolls up his pant legs and slips his feet into the water.

“Careful,” Gerard says, “Tito’s back.”

“Cool,” Ray says, and splashes a little.

Ray makes him feel almost normal, not so much like he’s going to twitch out of his skin, which is nice.

So an alien bug is manifesting itself as his younger brother, for reasons that Gerard can’t fathom – pulled from his subconscious, maybe? Gerard does tend to think about Mikey a lot, he can’t really help it. He’s not going to let that ruin what he has here, though; he’s not going to break down or anything. He’s going to be fine, and they’re not going to send him back to earth.

“I’m going to be okay,” he says. He’s not sure if he actually meant to say that out loud, and he bites his lip, heat on the tops of his cheeks, but Ray just nods, hair flopping over his forehead.

“Sure, man.” Ray grips Gerard’s shoulder. “Better than okay.”

For the first time in days, Gerard feels lighter, like there isn’t a stone in his stomach, and whatever’s squeezing his heart let’s go, just a little bit.

*

“I don’t get why no one believes us,” Joe says.

“Because they’re douches,” Nick says. He twirls his spaghetti onto his fork and grins and Kevin thinks he’s been spending too much time with the botanists.

“I mean,” Joe goes on, “it’s our job. It’s why we’re on Atlantis in the first place.”

“You sure?” Carden says. Under the table he presses the entire length of his leg against Kevin’s, and Kevin fights off a giddy smile, because he’s stupid-in-love, but he’s not a total loser. He thinks.

“Huh?” Joe says.

“You sure?” Carden asks again. “You did blow up the SGC’s ‘jumper.”

Kevin stifles a groan, because here they go.

“It was a freak accident,” Joe says, waving his arms around. “They can’t blame me for that.”

“You used a one instead of a seven,” Nick says.

“Your sevens look like ones!” Joe’s face is red, and Carden sneaks his hand onto Kevin’s thigh and Kevin swallows hard.

Carden leans a little closer and whispers, “Want to get out of here, Skip?”

Kevin nods. Desperately. He desperately wants to get out of there, before they start pulling each other’s hair and throwing Jell-O. Kevin knows this is a concession to him, because Carden loves watching when Joe and Nick, “lose their shit.” He’d told him that last time it happened, in one of the lower labs, fingers curling into Kevin’s hips, a warm, solid weight along his back, cool laughter in his voice.

Kevin’s hoping Carden’ll get them off-world and accidentally married somehow, because this keeping his virginity thing is turning out to be really hard. He blames Carden and his hot, careless touches and knowing smirks.

“Kev thinks I’m right, right Kev?” Joe’s narrow gaze pins him down, freezes him halfway to his feet, bent slightly, knuckles braced against the table.

“Uh. Sure?” He flicks a sideways look towards Carden.

Carden rolls his eyes and mouths a totally uncalled for, sarcastic, good one.

Nick snorts, which means he totally doesn’t believe him, which means that Joe’ll get even more pissy, and Kevin wants to beat a hasty retreat, but he’s kind of trapped now. Trapped by Joe’s increasingly violent arm-flails and Nick’s grip on his belt loop. Kevin doesn’t know how that happened. He totally has to work on his reflexes or something.

Luckily, Dr. McKay shouts across the mess, “You! McFly!” and Nick startles enough that Kevin can break free, letting Carden drag him out of the room by a hand fisted in the front of his jacket.

“It’s like watching three inbred puppies slobber all over each other,” Carden says.

Kevin twists out of Carden’s grip and pushes him towards the nearest transporter. “Smart ass.”

“Oh, hey now.” Carden looks at him with raised eyebrows. “Language, Skip.”

Kevin sticks his tongue out, then ducks and laughs when Carden makes a grab for him, pushing him up against the wall of the transporter.

“Hang on, hold it,” someone yells, and then Sergeant Crawford’s sliding in, panting a little, heavy, wet curls soaking through the collar of his jacket, with a skinny guy in civvies trailing almost aimlessly behind.

Kevin stares at him and the guy – kid, really, he looks maybe sixteen, tops - kind of fades in and out, and Kevin thinks oh.

Carden nudges his arm. “You’re seeing this, right?”

Crawford grins and leans past them, pressing two fingers onto the lower biology lab quadrant. “I,” he says confidently, “am totally not crazy.”

“Not unless you’re taking all of us with you,” Carden says. “Huh.”

*

Ian glances over his shoulder to make sure the kid’s following him, then says, “It’s not like I don’t appreciate it, but normally I’m good with taking showers all by my lonesome.” He’s not saying he would’ve minded some company, preferably in the form of Cosgrove or Asher, but he’s been showering just fine without accidentally killing himself for nearly twenty-nine years, thanks.

So he’d been naked and wet – kind of a thing, it seems, with this dude – and allegedly in risk of falling to his death by slipping on the slick tile, and the guy pops out of nowhere and grabs hold of his arm as he steps out of the stall.

“I’m helping,” he says, and Ian shakes his head.

“No, dude, no. What you’re doing is freaking everyone out,” he says. He feels like he should really try to get that point across to him.

Right now, though, they’re going back to Iero, so they can figure out what the hell to do with him.

There’s yelling echoing in the corridors when they get to the lower biology labs, and then there’s a yelp and Wentz is literally tossed out the doors of lab five, skidding across the hall to slam into the wall.

Hey,” Wentz says. “Uncalled for, Iero, you could’ve broken me and shit.”

Patrick steps into the doorway, a long-suffering look on his face, but his eyes are bright and amused. “You pretty much deserved it, Pete,” he says.

Wentz says, “Traitor,” and then glances over and spots Ian and says, “Oh, wow, Mikeyway!” and bounds to his feet like a spastic monkey or something.

Ian takes a giant step backwards.

Wentz holds out his hand for the kid to shake, but he just stares at him blankly, so Wentz drops his arm and leans in closer, eyes narrowed, studying him.

“You’re a handsome dude. You chose well, creepy apparition of Gee’s brother,” Wentz finally says, nodding, like he’s completely serious.

Ian really fucking loves living on Atlantis. There’s never a dull second, honestly. He slides his hands into his pockets and says, “Figured Iero might want him back.”

Iero pokes his head out next to Patrick. He points at them and says, “So I have no idea. I think we’re just going to take him home.”

*

[vi]

Osment looks like she might actually keel over in pure joy when Gerard activates the chamber.

It’s a cool spring there, simulating early morning, Joe can practically see the flowers open up to the first rays of the sun. Ten minutes pass before he can breath properly, watching a crocus-like bloom, bright royal purple, shift in the breeze to reveal a yellow center. And nestled in the yellow is a black and red—fly of some sort.

Osment is making cooing noises, holding a leaf up with two big brown caterpillars, mottled with spots of blue.

There’s something too small to see buzzing around Joe’s head. He doesn’t know why he didn’t realize there were so many freaking bugs here last time.

“We have to catalog absolutely everything,” Osment says, carefully releasing the leaf and then shrugging out of her pack.

“Is anyone else worried that these bugs are sentient beings who can maybe read our minds?” Nick says, nose scrunched up as he shifts his gaze around the room.

As the bugs get—more curious, is the only way Joe can think of to describe it, they stretch and shimmer and fade into shadows, deep velvet black, mimicking human shapes.

“And shape-shift,” Pete says. “Don’t forget how super-cool that is.”

Asher stares at Pete. “How do you have a PhD?”

Pete holds up a couple fingers, grinning. “Two of ‘em.”

Joe watches as Gerard kneels down in a particularly thick patch of grass, a riot of blue and pink and yellow flowers winking in and out of the tall, pale-green blades.

No one had really wanted Gerard on the mission – he looked better, but he still looked awful - but he’d shown up at the ‘gate, cradling the blue flower in between careful palms.

“He just really likes me,” Gerard had said, shrugging. “Like, he wanted to be helpful. I should make sure he gets home safe.”

Joe certainly wasn’t going to argue him out of coming. It’s not like he’d wanted to be all alone with Osment, Pete and Team Kennerty, anyway.

Joe takes a deep breath, sucking in all the fresh air he can, and closes his eyes. He’s okay, he thinks, now that he knows that whatever he’d felt before - that eerie calm about his potentially messy, painful death - was the result of some sort of freaky alien mind-meld. It’s still pretty fucked up, but he’s cool with it. Mostly. It helps that Bob’s stopped being an emotional mandroid or whatever and has given in to his cuddling demands. Cuddling with Bob is kind of a cure-all – which he plans on telling Bob often, since Bob goes bright red and, like, holds him down and tries to make him take it back, only more fun stuff happens instead. Bob is never getting away from Joe ever again.

There’s a breathy laugh, and Joe looks up to see—“C.C. DeVille?” Joe says incredulously, with Gerard grinning wide enough to split his face.

“I just thought, you know,” Gerard waves a hand, “with the Mikey thing. If I pictured someone else hard enough, would it—and, oh my god, this is awesome.”

“You went from your brother to the lead guitarist for Poison?” Joe asks. Awesome isn’t the exact term Joe would use for this. It’s not like—the blank staring is just off-putting, actually. “Can you make it go away?”

Osment is practically yipping from her corner of the room, and then there’s a slightly less than stiff breeze and Osment says, “Butterflies, look, look,” and the room explodes in a colorful mess of tiny, paper-thin wings, rising up from the long grass. The figure of C.C. splits apart like so much smoke and takes off, too.

*

Mike is feeling pretty awesome about this whole mission. He has Wentz and Way and Joe and Osment and he’s totally not going to lose any of them.

He’s still amazed Bryar let him take Joe; he’s sure this is his chance to prove himself as a competent team leader. Asher’s even been looking him in the eyes when he talks to her lately; it’s sort of awesome for his self-esteem.

Granted, Bryar had threatened painful, messy death – not in so many words, but in the way he’d gripped his wrist and glared like, if he chose to glare hard and long enough, laser beams would eventually shoot out of his eyes and burn tiny deadly holes all over Mike’s face. Or something.

Mike nods to their hosts and lets Travis charm them into indulgent smiles. He has no idea how Travis does that all the time, but it definitely comes in handy.

Mike has to admit, too, that the whole greenhouse thing is cool. When Travis and Mike step inside, Asher and Nick are standing sentinel on either side of the door, Osment’s—Osment’s crying, Mike thinks, and Joe’s lying sprawled out under a giant, shady tree, good arm bent and pillowing his head, a blade of grass clenched between his teeth.

“I can change the seasons,” Way says excitedly, and an elder, Grendal, steps forward with an amused grin.

“We would rather you did not,” he says, and a little powder blue butterfly lands on his shoulder, wings fluttering. He brushes at it lightly and chuckles as it hovers over the tips of his fingers, riding them for a second before flying off towards the sky.

And then a tiny, tiny bug flits up to Gerard and settles directly on the tip of his nose. Osment goes, “Aww, that’s just the cutest thing.”

“Are you sure you do not wish to keep him,” Grendal says to Gerard, and that’s a first. Usually they’re getting chewed out for taking something without asking, or almost getting sacrificed for “gaining the favor of the gods, you are truly blessed; now we must cut out your heart so it beats forever in tune with the natural world.”

“Uh.” Gerard grimaces.

Osment steps forward, a giant notebook full of doodles and diagrams clutched to her chest, and says, “Oh, we don’t—we don’t want to disrupt any more than we already have.” Her smile is huge. “I’m sure he’ll be much happier here than buzzing around our city.”

Grendal inclines his head. “As you wish. Although they do not choose someone to follow lightly.”

“Of course not,” Osment says, still smiling. All her enthusiastic cheer is unnerving.

“Are we sure she’s not a zombie?” Mike whispers to Nick out of the side of his mouth.

“She’s, like, Rainbow Brite,” Nick says.

Asher punches Nick in the arm. “If anyone’s galloping over a sparkly rainbow on a unicorn here, it’s you, champ.”

Nick points a finger at her. “Inappropriate.”

Asher blinks.

“Dick-licking hag,” Nick adds.

“Shut up,” Mike says. Jesus Christ. They’re lucky the elders still seem to be infatuated with Travis and Travis’s hair and long torso, who smoothly cuts in front of Osment – she’s just standing there, grinning, and Mike’s really afraid that she’s scrolling through a mental list of recipes for brains, it totally wouldn’t surprise him – and starts subtly steering the group of villagers from the room.

They give him half-bows – that Travis jauntily returns - and slip out the door one by one.

*

Gerard cups the tiny beetle in a hand and bends close and whispers, “So, um. I know you probably want to come back with us, but you’ll be happier here.”

There’s what looks like an extra-large jack-in-the-pulpit by his feet, and he hunches down, coaxes the beetle onto the tip of a leaf, grinning at him fondly. It’s like, once he realized it honestly, true-blue, cross-your-heart wasn’t Mikey, that it just plucked Mikey from Gerard’s mind—like he felt Gerard’s affection, maybe, and wanted to be close to him, well. It’s just really sort of sweet. He thinks maybe he’ll miss him.

Not that Gerard wants him hanging around. It’s hard enough living with Mikey’s memory, and not, like, his specter. It’s going to be awesome, getting a full night’s sleep. God, he can’t wait to go home and nap. Maybe he can talk Frank into join him, magic sleepy time under the unicorn blanket. That sounds super fantastic.

“Bye, little guy,” Gerard says, carefully letting the edge of the leaf go and getting to his feet, rubbing the flat of his hands on his thighs.

Joe claps his back. “He’ll be good,” he says.

“It’s weird that I’ll miss him a little, right?” Gerard asks. He bites at his thumbnail. It’s totally weird, Gerard knows it.

Joe shakes his head and says, “No way, dude,” because Joe’s an awesome, supportive friend - Gerard doesn’t get why Dr. McKay is always going on about how evil and vindictive all the botanists are.

Gerard grins around his thumb and shrugs.

And then Kennerty shouts, “Oh hell, where’s Pete?”

Gerard glances at Joe, then back towards Kennerty again.

“Marshall said there were ruins just outside the village,” Asher says, cocking a hip.

Kennerty groans, slaps a hand onto his forehead, pulling it down to drag over his entire face and down over his throat, like he’s thinking about maybe trying to strangle himself. “Great.”

“Crumbly ruins,” Wheeler says, “with, like, holes and shit.”

“Fucking perfect.”
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