By Chandri MacLeod
Fandom: Stargate: Atlantis
Categories: angst, hurt/comfort, team
Spoilers: through season 4
Summary: None of them like to admit it, but sometimes John's wrong. Usually it's Rodney who has to say so.
Disclaimer: They're not mine, alas. I'm just using them for fun.
Author's Note: Written for the must be dreaming challenge over on sga_flashfic. It appears there's a part of my brain that has difficulty grasping the whole flashfic concept, because I did not mean to make it this long, but it sort of... got away from me. The next one, I swear, will be shorter. Beta by mik100, faster than light.
They've spent a day on the mainland doing the hunter-gatherer thing with a group of Athosian kids, collecting herbs and samples of a long list handed them by Parrish and Keller; they haven't had much of a chance to survey the mainland since they landed here, and there are still a lot of things that the scientists in particular are impatient to investigate. Theirs is only one of a dozen trips to the mainland this week, making up for lost time discovering new cures for the common cold in the stalk of the Pegasus dandelion or something Rodney is sure will turn out to be equally useless.
But it's been nice enough, though Rodney's sure he's getting a sunburn and John seems dedicated to mocking him to the end of time for tripping in a gopher hole and going head-over-heels down a hill into a creek. His clothes are still wet, but at least it cooled him down, some. It's spring on the mainland and getting warmer every day.
They're still arguing cheerfully as they leave the jumper bay, Ronon right behind them, Teyla lingering with the kids as they gather together their bundles of fruit and tubers and other things. When the alarm starts to sound, loud and sombre, it takes Rodney's brain almost three seconds to catch up, providing alarm, registering the timbre and pitch of the alarm and adding quarantine and oh shit, even as the bulkhead is slamming down almost on their heels.
John spins around immediately, pressing his hands into the door as though trying to osmose some information through his fingertips, and then turns to look questioningly at Rodney even as he's reaching for his radio.
"I don't know! How should I know?" Rodney protests, reaching out almost against his will to press his hand against the door as John asks:
"This is Sheppard. Report."
Rodney waits while John listens, scrabbling his own radio out of his pocket while his heart thumps against his breastbone, the stutter of adrenaline triggered by the shrill of the alarm. He hears Lorne's voice almost the second he gets the earpiece in place.
"—looks like a lockdown, sir. The jumper bay, most of the quarters near the tower, the mess hall..."
"Why aren't we locked down?" John asks, because indeed, the corridor outside the jumper bay is open and clear.
"Don't know, sir. Doctor Z is going through the sensor readings. But we're stuck up here, the control room's..."
"Right, Major. I've got it." He's already walking, long legs eating up the distance between the bulkhead and the transporter, and Rodney's scrambling to keep up as John checks in with Teyla, tells Ronon to stay put as two Marines come pounding up.
They get a good picture pretty quickly, as they collect stragglers from the clear corridors and herd them towards the labs and the uncompromised common areas, Keller chattering in their ears as she works. Halling calls the illness som, and Keller compares it to influenza. It's a run-of-the-mill affliction among the people of the Pegasus galaxy, as ordinary as measles or the chicken pox is on Earth. And like those illnesses, it's so ordinary that everyone gets it, usually by the end of childhood, and it's rarely fatal. Also like the measles, it's worse on adults than on children. Rodney wonders if they're ever going to stop running across these things — probably not. Probably this is just what happens when two groups of people from so far away spend so much time together.
"I think we should keep all the uninfected adults as far away from the infected as possible," Jennifer says, sounding slightly breathless, doubtless doing six other things while she's talking to them. Rodney is scrolling through interface after interface, making sure the quarantine is working properly, only locking certain sections, keeping the corridors clear, accepting his overrides when Keller sends suited teams into the trouble areas. "I'm not really sure what will happen if an adult with no antibodies contracts this."
They find out a few hours later, because the disease has four stages. Most of the Athosians — nobody older than twenty, because it's been almost a decade since anyone had it - only go through the first two, fever and nausea, no worse than the flu. The third stage, though, shows itself when Lieutenant Montana, sequestered in the mess hall, passes out and won't wake up.
"Some kind of coma," Keller says over the com. She doesn't sound encouraged when the typical remedies do nothing. Montana's running a fever of a hundred and three and getting worse. Then Moira Quinn in Botany loses consciousness as well, and Keller stops giving them updates, handing over the duty to one of her nurses and starts giving out stimulants to the command staff. She thinks it might be a mutated strain, which would explain why it's hit Quinn and Montana so hard, so fast. About half the Athosian kids are down with it, and worse off than they should be, according to Halling.
They all end up back outside the jumper bay that night, Rodney and John and Ronon, eating MREs because it seems unfair for them to get real food while Teyla's stuck with rations and cranky kids.
"I'd rather eat the MREs right now, anyway," Rodney says, digging into his spaghetti and meatballs.
John makes a face over his macaroni and cheese. "I have no idea why."
"Because they're closer to sterile than fresh food," Rodney explains loftily. "Less chance of infection."
Ronon shrugs and reaches for a second pouch. John frowns at him. "Okay, first of all, I'm not even sure that's true," he says. "Second of all, you've been shot, and you're scared of the mumps?"
"Keller said it's more like influenza," Rodney returns tartly. "And yes. I am afraid of a disease that can kill me, that can apparently kill me worse than half of the expedition. That's not crazy."
"Hm," says John cynically. "You're still mad Keller didn't have a biohazard suit to spare."
"Which is kind of irresponsible!" Rodney says defensively. To be fair, Keller was the one evidencing caution, reminding them both repeatedly that som apparently hits gene-carriers harder than everyone else. Montana and Quinn both have the ATA gene, and it was just dumb luck that few other gene-carriers were in the quarantined areas when the lockdown happened.
"And you are a hypochondriac," John concludes, taking a huge bite of macaroni and cheese and asking into the radio: "Teyla, how're you doing?"
Teyla's been calm and encouraging all this time, and it's been more than a day - but easy enough for her, because none of them seem to be very sick. "Most of the children have been through som before, as have I," she reassures them. "It is very uncommon for it to be contracted twice."
But Teyla's not always right, and by the end of the second day two of the kids, including Jinto's friend Wex, are running fevers and puking. "Adra is also feeling unwell," she admits, but not in a voice that asks for anything - just conveying information.
Unfortunately John Sheppard never had to be asked do anything stupid in his life, because before she's even finished saying it he's barking out an order for Rodney to override the lock on the jumper bay door, "and I don't give a shit about quarantine protocols, either."
He's halfway to the panel before he checks himself, hears Jennifer in his ear yelling "don't you dare, Rodney!" and turns to frown at Sheppard.
"What, have you got a death wish?"
Sheppard scowls at him. "We can't just leave them locked in there because the city's—"
"The city knows exactly what it's doing, Colonel," Rodney points out. "The city is designed to protect uninfected people from an outbreak. That's the whole point. The city has surmised that the three of us somehow aren't infected, and is trying to make sure it stays that way."
John gives him a forbidding look, but Ronon shrugs and says "The doc said not to," and looking between the two of them, John grudgingly subsides.
He has to come and go, as does Rodney, tweaking protocols to let Keller and her minions move about the city, but Ronon stays there, sitting against the wall with a deck of cards, playing Solitaire and talking to Teyla. When it gets bad in the night, Rodney comes with supper and John's there, leaning against the locked door and talking to Teyla on the radio.
"Wex has fallen into a deep sleep," she's saying, and she sounds hoarse with fatigue. "I can't seem to wake him."
John looks up and spots Rodney, and pushes away from the wall. "Okay," he says, "that's enough. Open the damned door."
"John, we have discussed this - it would be unwise—" Teyla begins.
"Rodney," John says, ignoring her in favour of grabbing Rodney by the shoulder. "I'm telling you to open the door, now."
"So you can, what, heal them with your brain? You can't do any good!"
John covers the mic of his radio with one hand and hisses: "Coma's third-stage. You heard the list the same time I did, Rodney. We need to get the kid to the infirmary. And Teyla's—"
Rodney bristles, because the condescending tone gets under his skin. "Yeah, and then we'd need to deliver ourselves right afterwards. Or did you not hear the part about what happens to adults who've never had this disease?"
"He's right, Sheppard," Ronon says from the floor. "If you haven't had it, it can kill you. I've never seen it this bad."
"There," says Rodney, pointing frantically at Ronon. "See?"
"Yeah, and if they stay in there much longer, it's going to kill them! So open the god-damned door, Rodney!" He gives Rodney another shove, and Rodney shoves back. He has been awake for thirty-six hours and he's tired and just as fucking worried as John is and above all, he is having absolutely none of this self-sacrificing martyr bullshit.
"No! God! Are you stupid or something?" he shouts, and he's worked himself up to a good rage, so it's easy to yell, because he's starting to feel vaguely, genuinely squeamish and everything he's saying is true: "We. Could. Die. I don't know about you, but dying after fever, vomiting and coma is one of my least favourite ways to die. At least they've got antibodies that can—"
And then he stops, because John's gone silent, and is giving Rodney a narrow look, something abruptly chilling that makes Rodney's mouth snap shut, still pushing forward defiantly even as his every instinct makes him want to cringe back.
"Jesus, McKay," John says, and his voice is low, flat and icy. "I really thought you were better than this."
When he turns and walks away, he's not angry, not storming, but cold, and Rodney can't read a damned thing even from the set of his shoulders as he disappears from sight.
He stands there, panting and confused, as the meaning of John's words sets in. "What the hell does—" he says aloud, but he knows. He knows what it means.
He doesn't hear Ronon get up, but then he's there, big hands around Rodney's shoulders, shaking him, gently, once. "You made the right call," he says, gruffly. Rodney blinks up at him, not sure if he's hurt or still angry.
Ronon shrugs. "He wants to do things he can't do," he says. "Sometimes he has to hear it."
"He..." Rodney stares up the corridor.
"He'll get over it," Ronon assures him, and then lets go, sliding back down the wall and picking up his cards.
In the end, more than half the city gets it. Keller and her staff isolate the antibody, synthesise a vaccine, on the third day, and there are only three casualties. Wex, Montana, and Quinn never wake up.
It's another three days before the city is back on its feet, unsteady with the lingering effects of fever. Halling speaks gracefully at the memorial, and Sam says a few words, awkward but sincere, and Rodney thinks she might have actually helped some people feel better. If nothing else, it's brought the city together, the Lanteans and the Athosians, in a way they haven't been together since the first year before suspicion divided them.
After the service, Rodney gets away as fast as he can, instinct taking him past the gym, where he finds John beating the crap out of a punching bag with Ronon holding it steady. Teyla's sitting against the wall, her knees pulled up, still looking pale and tired. Ronon grins at him as he comes in, brief as a flash, before he leans back into the bag. Teyla raises her eyes to nod as he approaches. John doesn't even stop punching.
Nobody says anything, and Rodney's not sure what to do. Usually John's the one to start these conversations, to execute the capable flick-of-the-wrist that shuffles the team back into arrangement with itself. But he doesn't do it this time, and it leaves Rodney standing in the middle of the floor, wanting to stick his hands into his pockets and stare at his shoes.
"Are—" he tries, and then stops. "I mean, is everybody—"
He sighs with frustration, tilts his head back to look at the ceiling. "Okay, so this is why this is not my job on the team," he complains.
He expects Teyla's indulgent smile, Ronon's amused grin - but John's reaction surprises him, because he jerks his head up, and Rodney can't tell what he's thinking at all. That's not really unusual, because Rodney's always known he didn't have much of an innate sense of people, but with his team, that's been different for a long time, with John in particular.
But John just stares at him, stony and unreadable, before he turns back to Ronon, picking up a towel from the floor beside him. "Thanks," he says to Ronon, nods to Teyla, and then he's gone, striding out without even giving Rodney a second glance.
After a second, Rodney realises that he feels off-balance — actually shifts his feet to catch it, swallowing hard. It would be better, he thinks, if John was actually angry, at least, would show he was angry, because this icy shut-out doesn't fit any of the parameters Rodney has in his head for dealing with John Sheppard.
He hears Ronon sigh, and looks up to see him shaking his head almost imperceptibly. He wonders how long he's been standing there, staring after John, and he wonders what his face looks like - because it feels like he's been punched in the stomach.
But eventually Teyla says "good night, Rodney," and Ronon claps him on the shoulder as they pass, and Rodney's alone in the gym, the lights dimming as though he wasn't even there, or maybe they're responding to his mood. Looking out the window, he can see it's later than he thought it was, the sea shining silver under a dark, starry sky.
Once he's caught his breath, feels himself again, he leaves the gym, toys vaguely with the idea of calling on John in his quarters and demanding an explanation, but two things stop him. One, he knows why John is angry, and he's angry on his own account, because it wasn't his fault, damn it. And two, if John won't even answer him on the radio - which he won't, Rodney's tried twice - he's not going to answer the door. The doors in Atlantis aren't on hinges, you can't slam them in someone's face, but John's expert of giving the impression that they've been slammed.
As he makes his way back to his quarters by the long route, he remembers the tension in Sam's shoulders all through the service, the furtive looks she kept sending Rodney across the room. It wasn't until afterwards, when everyone was eating tiny, decorative food and talking in soft voices and carefully avoiding Rodney's gaze, that she came to stand beside him for a minute. "You know that first time we met? I still think you were wrong," she confided, tiredly, not looking at him but bumping their shoulders together, "but I know how you felt."
Rodney thinks it will be hard to fall asleep, but apparently being unfairly blamed for things that aren't his fault is as soporific as it's always been. He drops off in less than five minutes, and sleeps solid until morning.
It's Teyla who tells him about the festival of lights, what the Athosians call the cel unal, the little storm. On Athos it was faint, she tells him, embers leaping across the heavens. She asks Rodney to find out whether there is anything similar on New Lantea, and when he looks it up, he finds her one that will happen in less than a month. On New Lantea, he tells her, it will be brighter, be nearer, and she's delighted. That the planet's different, the stars are different, doesn't seem to matter. People in Pegasus don't seem to measure things by days so much as by necessity.
"We have a tradition," she confides to Rodney two weeks after the outbreak, and he is oddly touched that she chooses him to enlist in her confidences, as he always is when she tells him anything she needn't say. "We name the lights for our troubles, and then... send them away as they fall."
"Wishing on stars?" Rodney ventures, uncertainly, and she nods. "Yeah, we do that, too. I think every planet has something like... anyway. You wanted to do something for..."
She nods again. "I think it will do people good. And not just my people, but everyone in the city. You have said that the lights of Atlantis make the stars difficult to see..."
"Uh, yes," he says, vaguely recalling explaining light pollution to her. Atlantis doesn't generate enough of it to blank out the sky, not by a long shot - Pegasus is just too dense to be muted, and anyway the Ancients seem to have had light pollution in mind when they designed the city. But no light is always better than hardly any, when it comes to skywatching.
"I thought we could celebrate cel unal on the mainland," she says, folding her hands in front of her, and Rodney doesn't sigh, because by now he knows there's no more point arguing with a decided Teyla than a decided John. They both just know his buttons too well. Hell, even Ronon's getting disturbingly good at making him do things he doesn't really want to do.
Which is assuming that he doesn't want to help Teyla organise what sounds like a big group stargazing party. He likes stargazing.
"I..." he says, and then, flushing, he nods. Teyla's smiling at him, expectantly. "What do you want to do?"
Their first night on Atlantis - not the first night but the first night of calm after they'd settled in — Rodney couldn't sleep, and so he wandered the cleared corridors in the dark. He made his way from his room to the control room and then walked along the west pier, staring out at the ocean and up at the star-crowded sky with wide eyes and open mouth.
He didn't hear Sheppard coming, jumped hard enough to lose his footing when the other man greeted him, a lazy "hey" that was soft enough that he might not have meant to be heard. But Sheppard reached out and steadied him easily, fingers shockingly warm against the chilled skin of Rodney's arm. He'd gone out in just a t-shirt, not expecting his feet to carry him out-of-doors.
"Sorry," Sheppard said, "didn't mean to startle you."
"Uh, good," Rodney said, flustered, pulling his arm away. "Fine. I mean, of course you didn't. Apology accepted."
He stared, suddenly unable to remember why he was here - probably because he didn't really have a purpose in mind when he left his room - until Sheppard rolled his eyes expressively. "What, do I have something on my face?" he asked, and Rodney blinked, uncomfortably aware that what he'd been thinking, right at that moment, was how Sheppard was still ridiculously good-looking after three days of no sleep and under the starlight of another galaxy. He was as stupidly attractive now as he'd been leaning back in the Antarctic chair, head tilted back and eyes bright and wondering. Rodney had been vaguely hoping that the effect would dull with time and exposure, because he'd never been very good with impulse control and otherwise, he was bound to make a fool of himself over it sooner or later.
"No, no, nothing on - your face is fine," Rodney stuttered, and then shivered involuntarily when Sheppard grinned at him. Because it was cold, he told himself firmly.
"Have you actually slept yet, McKay?" Sheppard asked, raising one eyebrow in a way that should have looked silly, but didn't. Rodney rubbed his hands up and down his arms, trying to warm up.
"I tried," he admitted, "but I can't."
Sheppard frowned at him. "Why not?"
Rodney boggled. "Why... are you serious? Are you seriously asking me that?"
This time, Sheppard raised both eyebrows. Rodney judged that to be an order of magnitude of some kind.
"Major, we're in another galaxy," he shouted, and threw out his arms. He was feeling a little jittery, wired, and it took effort for him to drop them again. "It's... I mean... I mean look." He looked up, and he saw Sheppard look, too, and then they were both silent for a long while.
"Huh," said Sheppard, quietly astonished. Rodney looked at him. He was standing close enough that Rodney could feel his body heat, easily see the wide-eyed amazement on his face. Then Sheppard looked at him, and the grin on his face was bright and broad and childlike. "Wow," he said.
After a second, Rodney started to laugh, and then he was laughing so hard he was wheezing, bent over and leaning on his knees. "I can't - I can't believe you - I can't believe you!"
"What?" asked Sheppard, mouth twisted in a scowl that was really more of a pout. "What'd I do?"
"You haven't even - we've been here for days and you haven't... is this the first time you've looked at the night sky since we've been here?"
Then Sheppard looked embarrassed, actually looked around to see if there was anyone else nearby - of course, there wasn't. They were all alone at the end of the pier, no one to hear them but the ocean.
"Okay, yeah," he admitted, "it's kind of stupid," and now he was laughing too, graduating to an awful, ridiculous braying chortle as he collapsed on the deck next to Rodney. "I mean I'm, I'm a pilot."
That set Rodney off again, and it was a while before either of them could form coherent words around the powerless laughter of exhaustion. When they were out of laughter, wheezing for breath, Sheppard laid back on the deck and threw out his arms.
"Hell of a sight, though," he said, and Rodney looked down at him. His eyes were closed, and he was smiling, and a moment later Rodney realised he'd fallen asleep.
Sometimes he thinks Teyla accords everyone their mental age, and not a minute more or less. It's the only thing that ever explains the strained patience she's always displayed with him, the impression Rodney gets of fleeting fondness, frustration, indulgence. He's had a lifetime of being indulged for one reason or another, usually because of what he can do — he's always been valuable, and so he has had privileges.
But there is a world of difference between being valuable and being valued — between indulgence due to what he can do and... and who he is. And he doesn't really think he ever had that before Atlantis.
He doesn't let himself think about it much, because he got all his introspection out of the way when he was eleven years old and realised the theories were corrupt, the standards lacking cogency. There was no comfort in what was, by its nature, irrational. But there is affection here, the kind he always had trouble believing was real when he was younger, anything but tidy words to explain away biology, to soften it and civilise it. He still doesn't always trust it. But he trusts his team.
He trusts Teyla, trusts that the hand she lays on his arm as he scrolls through star charts and projects them on the lab ceiling isn't just for steadying herself. He risks a glance at her face, sees her eyes shining, the stars reflected in them. The small, serene smile on her face, that turns warm when she looks at him. Like she never had any doubt he would make her smile like that. Like nobody ever told her that he was bound to disappoint her eventually.
He hates thoughts like this, and he frowns to himself when she looks up again. They're soft at the edges and lack definition, like fuzzy photographs. He can't make sense of them. They're just there.
"I think... here," she says, pointing with one graceful hand, fingertip hovering just short of the screen in front of them, careful not to smudge the image with fingerprints. "This hill."
"Hmm," Rodney says, and rotates the image so that the topographical map of the mainland is in proper context to the star-strewn sky, all faint blue lines crossing and re-crossing each other on black. "It's about half a kilometre from the main research station. And there's plenty of room." More than enough — the research station is a sad little cluster of usually-empty prefab buildings, there to store equipment more than anything else.
"I believe we can easily arrange the lighted path here," she reaches out and traces a line from the station, marked out on the map in pale green lines, her finger not quite touching the monitor. Most people forget, and leave smears of grease on the screen, but Teyla just listened the first time he flinched and explained, tensely, why she shouldn't touch. It surprised him, because she showed more respect for the machines in his lab than most of the scientists who'd come with them. But then, Teyla is always surprising him. For one thing, she hardly ever shouts at him and she seems to find him calming, where most people find him irritating, and he can tell that, which is unusual, too.
"Lighted — like what, torches?"
"Lamps." She smiles at him, drops her hand into her lap. "Storm lanterns. The children make them."
Rodney furrows his brow. There's more behind that, he's sure, but Teyla seems disinclined to explain further right now. "What about food?" he asks. "Is this a party sort of thing, or more..." he circles one hand in the air, "...not?"
She tilts her head. "Traditionally, there is a feast, though it has been many years since we could spare the supplies — mostly it is delicacies, desserts and..."
"Well, we can do that," Rodney says, a little impatient but getting excited. "We've got plenty of supplies." And at least three older Athosian women have been helping in the mess for months, providing an array of pastries and little cakes and other things that Rodney has never had before and all taste unfailingly delicious. "I'm sure Sam would approve the allocation."
Teyla smiles. "I believe you are right," she agrees.
They discuss it further, Rodney spinning out ideas for luxury menu items and carting telescopes to the mainland and Teyla is mostly conservative — but after a while she starts making more extravagant suggestions, half-remembered traditions from her childhood that haven't been upheld in decades due to scarcity or danger. She smiles brightly, instead of her usual tamped-down quiet warmth, a way Rodney has rarely seen her smile.
He finds himself just listening to her describe the last cel unal festival she remembers from her early childhood, back when they still had crops on Athos and they could risk building the paths and of light through the woods that led to the viewing place. She tells him about a field of sweet-smelling grass pressed flat by barefoot children, about digging the fire pit to roast tubers and meat and the Athosian flatbread that reminds Rodney of bannock. About lying in the dry grass and listening to the sweet murmur of what she just calls star songs, falling asleep before daybreak curled up in a hand-woven blanket under the sky.
He just listens, and thinks that that's strange — usually he feels the need to speak, to fill up the space around him just to remind people that he's there. But it pleases him enough to listen to Teyla. He realises he's never had a friend like this before, a person it makes him happy to see happy, for no other reason. The closest he remembers is being with Jeannie when she was small, but even those memories are tainted with recrimination, the bitter taste of responsibility he never wanted, with guilt and with the visceral remembered terror of invisibility. He knows that wasn't all of it, but the level parts are fragmented by distance and terror. He's not sure if it's because he can't remember, or if it's because there are so many other weighty memories attached to everything to do with his family that he can't remember right.
Teyla says they should get Ronon and John to help, but when Rodney cringes at the mention of John's name, Teyla gives him a stern look.
"No, I don't mean," he says, flustered, "I mean, yes, sure, ask him to help. I'm sure he'd be glad to. Just..." He looks away, scrolling through meteorological reports as an excuse not to meet her eyes, because his face is red, he can feel it. He sighs. "Just don't... don't tell him I'm helping. He'll think I'm trying to look like... in fact, maybe I shouldn't. I mean a lot of people probably won't be pleased with me since..."
"I asked for your help because I believe you are best suited to the task," she tells him, coolly, as though she's annoyed with him for bringing it up. "And I still believe that to be true." She tilts her head a little. "Rodney, you must talk to him some time." She sounds slightly exasperated.
"I tried," Rodney snaps, louder than he meant to, and he keeps his eyes on the screen. Then he lets his shoulders slump, puts the tablet down on his knees and scrubs at his face, because Christ, he's just so tired of this, it's been weeks.
"No one blames you." Teyla's using her soothing voice, the one full of conviction and sense, like this is obvious and it's his fault he can't see it. "Any more than they blame Jennifer. Illness is unpredictable."
Besides, she's wrong. "He does. He thinks I was scared," Rodney says, quietly, not looking at her. "He thinks that's why I didn't..."
"Rodney," Teyla says, and there's a hint of whip-crack in her voice that makes him sit up straight without thinking about it. She touches his back, and he flinches. "Rodney," she says again, more softly. "I do not believe that is true."
He risks a glance at her. She's frowning at him, graceful brows drawn together, the long-suffering look she wears when she thinks he and John are being childish; which is, admittedly, a lot of the time. "It's what he said."
"I do not think—"
He leans forward, just enough to move away from her hand, which she leaves there, hovering in the air just above his shoulder. "It's what he said exactly. It's the words he used. He thinks I'm..." He rubs his face, doesn't say it out loud, but she hears it anyway, he's sure. Coward. Useless. Selfish.
Her hand lands on his back again, between his shoulders, more firmly. "He knows you too well to truly believe that," she murmurs, gently. "He is simply..."
"Except I was afraid of it," Rodney reminds her. "And I almost did it anyway. I almost did what he told me." He's still angry with himself over that, over almost jumping when John said jump, and he doesn't want to think about that right now.
"If I had, we'd have... he'd have ended up... god, he's such an idiot sometimes." He feels deflated, like every time John turns his back on him he's got a little less air. He wonders how he can feel this angry and this bereft at the same time. But he was right, damn it. He was right and it turned out okay, because he did the right thing. Except the worst thing that could happen has happened - maybe worse than if he'd done what John asked, and it had ended up killing them, killing John.
No, not the worst thing. Because at least the idiot is still alive, even if this is never okay again. And god, it has to be okay again. It has to.
"Sometimes," Teyla tells him, soft and precise as she always is, "it takes a great deal more courage to do the right thing than the thing we wish to do."
He's quiet for a minute, considering that, before he shakes his head. "I'll help. I want to help," he says, even as he can manage. "Just don't... don't tell John, okay?"
"If it is what you want," she says uncertainly, but she lets her hand fall away. He doesn't say what he's thinking, that it's harder when the right thing and the thing you want are one and the same, that this shouldn't be what it gets you.
Finding the personal shield was possibly the coolest thing that had ever happened to him, barring possibly the actual trip through the gate to the floating city in another galaxy. But the shield, at the time, definitely made his top five, because, come on, invulnerable. And he didn't put much thought into it until much later, but the first person he wanted to tell was Sheppard.
Well, no, that wasn't true — he'd been quite sure at the time that the Major had been his first choice because of his annoyingly strong expression of the gene. The ATA therapy had still been a work-in-progress, not guaranteed to work or anything, and he'd needed somebody else to initialise the shield. But after a couple of hours and a dozen experiments, he'd been willing to admit that Sheppard had been the obvious choice to share this with all along.
After all, there weren't many people on the expedition who could be counted on to a) trust his judgement enough to shoot him in the leg (at least not for reasons Rodney could be fairly sure were scientific and enthusiasm-driven and not petty professional jealousy) or b) jump up and down and whoop like a ten-year-old when Rodney practically bounced, unharmed, off the decking after he'd pushed him off a balcony. And they'd had fun coming up with experiments, too, spent hours doing it, talking about the possible applications of the shield, how it might work, though admittedly all of Rodney's ideas had been better, more sensible. But he'd not once regretted his decision to appeal to the Major for help. Sheppard understood the innate coolness of virtual invulnerability. And it didn't help that he was hot and kind of a dork, two things that recommended just about anyone in Rodney's books, even if they didn't benefit him directly except in his imagination.
Later on, it had been at least partly because of Sheppard that Rodney did what he did, possibly the stupidest thing he'd ever done (and at least he was being consistent), even though he was fairly sure that the shield would protect him. As little as a year ago it wouldn't have been enough, the "fair certainty" that anything wouldn't kill him wouldn't have been enough. But he'd been uncomfortably aware that he was the best suited to march down into the cloud, with the shield keyed to him alone. And since their arrival in the city, he'd become even more uncomfortably aware that if he didn't, Sheppard would, Sheppard, who had thus far displayed both an unhealthy heroic streak and a remarkably stupid disregard for his own safety. At least when Rodney did something reckless he knew it was reckless, which had to count for something.
So Rodney stepped up, dizzy and nauseous and terrified and firmly ignoring the frantic voices of reason and self-preservation that had been his guides for decades, and he did it. He came through.
It wasn't the first step, the first change, he knew that, but it was the first one he took knowing he was taking it. And he took it with only one backward glance, for John Sheppard and no one else.
Teyla wants to put Ronon in charge of food, but Rodney insists he go along to make the first contact, because, he says, certain assurances must be made.
"I'm not gonna let them poison you, McKay," Ronon says, but he looks mostly amused, and he doesn't say anything else as they sneak into the kitchen right before the lunch rush and explain what they need to the day's chef-in-charge.
It turns out that the kitchen staff is already enthusiastically on board since Sam's already told them about it, and Rodney and Ronon leave to eat lunch themselves, Ronon promising to return later with Teyla's list of traditional cel unal foods and the list of suggestions being gathered from the rest of the expedition.
Teyla is eating with John when they get there, and his gaze barely flickers over Rodney before he greets Ronon. Rodney almost doesn't sit down, pauses until Ronon pulls him down into his seat, as John turns to Teyla and asks if they can spar right after lunch instead of at two o'clock, because he's had to move firearms training for the new marines up by two hours. Ronon eats fast and disappears, probably heading back to the kitchens to get them started on pastries, cakes, tarts, and a rainbow of other treats.
"That will be fine, John," Teyla tells him, and then John launches into a story about the most recent minor disaster with the new recruits, still ignoring Rodney even when he gets to the part of the story where one of them locked himself in his quarters and Rodney had to come get him out at three in the morning. This happened yesterday, and it was Lorne who came to rouse Rodney, while John stood silent against the wall, watching him work but saying nothing at all.
It's like that again, now, and Rodney finds, for the second time in a week, that he's completely lost his appetite. He picks at his food, sips at his coffee, and doesn't look at any of them until John gets up, gathers up the remains of his lunch, and tells Teyla he'll see her in fifteen minutes in the gym. Again, he completely fails to acknowledge Rodney, and Rodney half-rises as John's about to.
"Colonel, I wanted to ask you—" he begins, but suddenly he does get a response, a cold scowl as John jerks back from his reaching hand.
"Whatever it is, McKay, I'm sure you can find someone else to touch things for you."
Rodney doesn't have time to respond to that, or even formulate a response, because Teyla reaches out and presses fingertips briefly to John's collarbone. "John," she says, sternly, and she looks almost disappointed. It's enough to wipe the scorn off John's face, but he just shakes his head and looks away from Rodney.
"I'll meet you in the gym," John says again, and Rodney doesn't watch him go this time — pushes his tray away so hard it almost slides off the table into Teyla's lap. Teyla stops it with the heel of her hand, and sighs.
He knows that a lot of people think he's oblivious, but the truth is that he spends a lot of time observing. He's a scientist, after all, but really it's just the way his brain has always worked, taking in everything it could and filing it away for later. He's noticed that Teyla has quieting ways of touching each of them that they all obey without thinking. She touches Ronon on the inside of his wrist, sometimes clasping her fingers around it, and the big man goes gracefully still. It's not the grace that's startling so much as the speed of it, the total lack of hesitation.
With John, she lays a hand on his chest just under the collar bone, careful, as though she is aware of the usual aversion John has to being touched, and John will pause, always glancing at her in consternation even as he does it. It's oddly formal and yet not, as though the dignity of it is an excuse to let John submit to the touch.
When she wants to quiet Rodney, she lays a palm between his shoulder blades, fingers gently pressing against his spine, and although he goes reflexively still when she does it, now after all this time, the first time it was shocking, making him flinch away. He remembers the look on her face that first time, when she hadn't known him long, when she was still puzzled by their idiosyncrasies, the look that was almost alarmed — like she could see him tensing up, and he can't remember why, even now, though he remembers the feeling.
Years later, he knows she thought he was afraid of her, but that wasn't it, not really. It was just that anybody touching him with such surety was as foreign to him as Pegasus itself. That the ease with which she reached out to them made him feel — still makes him feel — like he missed something. Like he's still missing it.
The first time they returned to Earth after the siege, Rodney really wasn't expecting the weight it dropped on his shoulders. He'd been dreading it, but hadn't been able to put a finger on the feeling. Sam was polite enough, even almost friendly, and O'Neill was as uninterested in his character as always, but almost everyone else he came across treated him with the undisguised scorn he'd reluctantly come to expect from this particular base. The SGC was kind of weirdly close - which he understood a lot better after a year trapped with two hundred strangers-who-were-no-longer-strangers in another galaxy - and to them, he was still, always would be, the guy who'd tried to kill Teal'c.
It was sort of ironic, because Teal'c himself didn't seem all that interested in him one way or the other, and Jackson drifted along on the cloud Rodney had found common to archaeologists in the SGC, so it seemed more like the base was being pissy on SG-1's behalf so that they could keep their hands clean. Rodney knew this was both petty and paranoid, but couldn't bring himself to care.
The support staff were particularly scornful. They'd refined it to an art form, moving in synch, not even acknowledging him directly if they could help it. It only really bothered him when he was walking through the halls with Sheppard, because of all of them, Sheppard didn't pretend not to notice. Sheppard got a funny look on his face when he greeted an airman and the airman nodded at him and scowled at Rodney, even if he didn't actually say anything.
Rodney had gotten good at pretending things didn't bother him, though, he'd had a lot of practice, so it was easy to fall back on old habits, to be as arrogant as he needed to be. It was better to be an asshole than to be embarrassed by newfound perspective of what an asshole he'd been, no matter how many eye-rolls or censorious frowns it got him from Sheppard.
On the fourth day of debriefings, though, Hammond showed up, and spent an entire three-hour session grilling Rodney in a kind, reasonable, insufferably grandfatherly way. He questioned every decision and every mistake and every death on his watch over the past year, asking the same questions over and over "for clarity's sake," until Rodney was shaking with suppressed... he wasn't even sure what. Rage? Humiliation? Shame? None of these things were exactly familiar in this context, and that was as unsettling as the rest of it. Finally they called a break and the room emptied slowly, several of their questioners sending satisfied looks back over their shoulders as they passed out the door.
Hammond just nodded at Rodney and left, head bent close to Landry's. The really infuriating thing was that he hadn't been doing it to make Rodney crack - he'd been polite and courteous and sincere, while the rest of the questioners, other Air Force brass and IOA members and a few others Rodney didn't know, looked on with poorly-concealed smirks.
That left Rodney alone with Sheppard, who had been sitting next to him the whole time, fidgeting with his pen, drumming his fingers, bouncing his knee. The man couldn't sit still for five minutes together, and all through the debriefing Rodney had been on the point of reaching out and stilling Sheppard's bouncing knee with his own hand.
"Oh my god," Rodney finally burst out, "can you please stop that? I know you're restless and freaked out they're going to court-martial you and everything, but you are driving me insane."
To Rodney's mild surprise, Sheppard did stop, going still and thoughtful as Rodney turned to look at him. He twirled his pen once, but that was about it. "So," he said, "what the hell was that about?"
"What was what about?" Rodney asked, sagging back into his chair. He wasn't quite up to going out there just yet; they'd be in recess for lunch, and Rodney was feeling uncharacteristically not-hungry. And tired. Christ, so tired. He heard Sheppard get up, wander across the room to inspect pictures of jets in flight on the opposite wall with his hands behind his back.
"They just raked you over the coals for three hours straight," John provided, in an almost bored voice. "Did you run over somebody's puppy with your car?"
Rodney knew that bored voice. He was not fooled at all by the bored voice - it was the same voice Sheppard used when he was trying to wheedle out information to be used later in mockery and blackmail. Suddenly it was the one last thing Rodney couldn't take, and honestly, he'd expected that particular straw to come from one of the many, many local people who hated his guts.
"I'm a selfish coward, remember?" Rodney snapped. "Are you being deliberately obtuse, or are you actually unaware of how I made my entrance to the SGC? Have I not described Siberia in sufficiently accurate detail?"
Sheppard just raised one eyebrow. "Nah, I know," he said. "I've just never seen an entire military base get this co-ordinated in short-sheeting a bed before."
It was in the same lazy drawl as before, and Rodney wanted to hate him for it, but he became suddenly aware that with Elizabeth and Carson both currently in other parts of the world, Sheppard was the only likely ally he had within arm's reach. At least Sheppard was aware that Rodney could do selfless things, and Rodney was pretty sure that the guy liked him, though even after a year he wasn't entirely sure of why.
He leaned forward and put his face in his hands. He wanted more than anything else to go back to his hotel room and crawl into bed. "It's fine," he mumbled. "It's fine. I don't care. They're right, after all. I just want to get this over with so we can go home."
"Hey," said Sheppard, and now he actually sounded annoyed.
"Hey what?" Rodney asked tiredly.
"Look," said Sheppard, putting his hands on his hips, "they're not right, okay? You're a different guy."
Now Sheppard was looking at him with that patient, quirked-eyebrow face that meant he thought Rodney was being irrational, and Rodney was really getting frustrated. He leapt to his feet, heard the chair rolling away behind him. "You feel sorry for me!" he said, accusingly, though he wasn't sure why. "You don't - look. You hated me when you met me. Jesus. You're a good judge of people. That should tell you something. There was a reason. I was..."
He stopped, because his throat felt tight, and his face was hot, and it had been days of this. God, he really was an asshole, and how had it taken him this long to notice? His life had been so much easier before Pegasus forced self-awareness on him.
He hadn't realised Sheppard had crossed the room until he found himself being guided into a chair, Sheppard's hands firm around his elbows, and then he looked up and Sheppard was crouching between his knees, still looking patient and tolerant, but with a furrow of worry, frustration, between his eyebrows.
"You shouldn't feel sorry for me," he repeated, doggedly. "I almost killed him. The point here isn't that I was right, but that I was willing to kill someone just on the off-chance that it might be easier." He crossed his arms, and added in a small, mulish voice: "I was right, though."
Sheppard rolled his eyes. "God, and I thought I was crap at this. I don't feel sorry for that guy, Rodney," he explained, slowly. "I don't know that guy. I know you."
Rodney blinked at him, because if there had been sense in there he really hadn't caught it. "Huh?"
Another eye-roll, and Sheppard sighed. "Jesus, Rodney, you've been in another galaxy for a year risking your life to save our asses. You're different."
This seemed like too easy an out, and Rodney opened his mouth: "I'm not—"
"You are," Sheppard insisted, and with a funny, darty motion of his eyes, he leaned forward a little as if he could press sincerity into the space between them. "And for the record, I... didn't. Hate you. When we met."
Rodney blinked at him. They sat there like that for a while, Rodney becoming increasingly aware of how close they were, of the improbable amount of heat being generated by Sheppard's hands on his arms, charging into his body like electricity. "Um," he said, intelligently, but he considered it an accomplishment because it had taken him almost thirty seconds to force out the one syllable.
Sheppard's eyes snapped back up to his, and they were sharp and dark and Rodney almost jerked back from the intensity of that stare.
"You're not that guy anymore, Rodney," he repeated, softly, fingers squeezing gently. "I'll take on anybody who says you are."
"It's not that simple," Rodney protested, weakly.
"It's that simple," Sheppard stated flatly, and for an endless, totally insane moment, Rodney thought Sheppard was going to kiss him, but... he didn't. Rodney almost kissed him instead, stopped himself, because he wasn't an idiot, Sheppard was... well, Sheppard, and they were in a base belonging to the U.S. military, Rodney wasn't a moron, no matter how disappointed he suddenly was.
But it was a near thing.
It doesn't take long for news of a party to spread through the city; Atlantis is full of people always eager for a distraction, and after the last few weeks they practically jump at the chance. Two days after Teyla asks permission of Sam, Rodney comes into the lab to find half of his staff engaged in loving descriptions of fondly-remembered pastries that could be assembled by the kitchen staff, the other half pretending to work while actually discussing what kind of liquor they might be able to smuggle to the mainland, this latter discussion being led by Zelenka.
"I have nearly perfected distillation process," he's saying, leaning close to Simpson and Bryce. "It is very young, but should be ready by..." he breaks off, looking up as the others do, seeing Rodney standing in the open doorway. For a minute, Rodney's torn between reactions. He knows that under normal circumstances, he would probably throw a fit over his minions wasting their very valuable time like this. But these are not normal circumstances, he hasn't been sleeping well, and he kind of likes that there's at least something he can do right. His staff is smiling, excited, just like dozens of other people he's seen today. He's done something people are looking forward to, even if they don't know it.
So he just sighs, shakes his head, and goes to settle in at his usual workstation. Around him, the chatter continues, albeit a little more quietly.
The problem is, Rodney can totally see where John's coming from. He wishes he couldn't, but he and John have always existed on this wavelength where some things didn't really need to be expressed in words. It only took a few words to put them where they are now, after all. I really thought you were better than this.
He gets that it's not really about that. He gets that John deals badly with helplessness and worse with failure, that it's worse when people die from a disease than when someone kills them because there's nothing you can do to stop it, nothing to fight — worse for John, anyway, who can't even manage sitting still for five minutes together.
Of course, knowing all of these things doesn't do much to make Rodney feel better — because even if he isn't really, John thinks he's blaming him. And after all this time there are parts of his brain that are wired to respond to that. Rodney's gotten used to trusting John's judgment, even when he knows, rationally, that John's wrong.
Okay, that, he can hate. He's accustomed to being in control of his mental processes, not surrendering them to the possibility of affection without even realising he's done it. He used to hate people who let themselves be sidetracked so easily by things that couldn't be rationalised.
Rodney didn't know Montana — he was a vaguely-familiar shape met only occasionally in the lunch line, and that was about it — and Quinn had only been in the city for four months. Not nearly enough for Rodney to mentally filter her loose from the usual slurry of stupid that represents the vast majority of what the IOA sends him these days.
Wex, though, he did know. Wex was fourteen years old, and Halling's nephew (or something — the Athosians have some very puzzling and open-ended familial definitions and Rodney's never managed to learn them all by heart), and showed some hint of promise in mathematics. Rodney is the first to admit that he has no grace or tolerance to speak of when it comes to children, but Wex was one of the few and far between who actually seemed to appreciate Rodney for how brilliant he is. For a year now he's been hanging around in the labs, taking lessons where he could get them, studying engines and electrical circuits and explaining to Zelenka the differences between Earth and Athosian mathematical systems so that he could devour textbooks at an incredible pace. Sometimes he did calculations in his head just to look impressive. Zelenka was considering bringing him on as an assistant — in an extremely limited capacity, of course.
So that's what it comes down to, of course. John thinks everything is his own fault, but in this case it's no one's, and in this case, in a lot of ways, it looks like Rodney's.
Which from John's point of view is easier, of course, than taking on the deaths a scientist and one of his own men, not to mention a fourteen-year-old kid's, onto his already over-burdened shoulders. Rodney can understand the process, even if it's completely insane. Even if it's making him doubt himself. It's not as if the first thing on his mind wasn't that John was going to get sick and die, like half the quarantined parts of the city almost did before Jennifer found the cure.
I hate psychology, Rodney thinks, bitterly, pushing his way out of the locker room where he's finished gearing up, by himself, because Ronon and Teyla are always ready first and John hurried out as fast as he could this time, without a glance back over his shoulder. When Rodney reaches the gate room, John's facing the gate, thumbs hooked in his belt, and Teyla is watching his back with a critical expression.
"Sorry I'm late," Rodney says, still fiddling with the straps on the front of his vest, "but seriously, what the hell is your hurry, Sheppard?"
John just shoots him an unreadable look, doesn't say anything as Chuck dials the gate. They do this run to Tamal every six months or so; the Tamalu mine a metal that can be refined to something very like the conductive alloy present in most Ancient tech. Atlantis has been trading with them for it for over a year, now, and although the science team hasn't managed to turn it into anything quite like what the Ancients did, they're getting close. This particular mission is just to make sure things are going as they should, the meet-and-greet to ensure there'll be no problems with the upcoming delivery.
Tamal is a planet hovering perpetually on the edge of summer, swathed in bristly, shoulder-high yellow grass except for the tiny valley where the village is located. It's hot enough that Rodney is sweating, that Ronon's left his coat behind, that Teyla ties up her hair only a few minutes down the path to the village. John just trudges onward, taking the lead, Ronon on their six and Rodney in the middle, as always. They don't talk much, and by the time they reach the village it's starting to get on Rodney's nerves; ignoring him in the city is one thing, but so much of their team dynamic, their routine, revolves around his and John's banter, their bickering, something that's been missing since the outbreak. And for the first time in a long time, he doesn't feel driven to demand attention.
Rather, he stares at John's back for ten minutes, trying to think of something appropriately cutting to say, before lapsing back into depressed silence when he finally realises maybe this isn't going to work itself out. This isn't the usual way John tries to extract emotional revenge; he's not taunting, not sneering. In a way that would be better — anger Rodney could read, could track, could use to formulate a response. But he's never dealt well with silence, particularly John's; it's like he's finished, like he's done, and as they pass into the village Rodney feels the despair of that like a twist in his chest. It seems so completely unfair, that John gets to just decide they're not friends anymore and Rodney doesn't get a say.
The village council — a triad of withered old men — meets them in the main street. Rodney always has trouble telling them apart, in their almost-identical homespun, their actually-identical wispy grey hair, their faces like dried apples. He does know that the one who wears a sash across his torso is the negotiator, and as always the team splits up, Ronon following Teyla into the meeting hall to go over their trade agreement for the hundredth time with the sashed elder in tow, the other two politely leading the way for John and Rodney out to the edge of the village to inspect the mines.
"We have discovered a new vein," the older of the two old men tells them, wringing his hands excitedly. "It seems greatly plentiful — we may be able to deliver the next shipment ahead of schedule."
And John talks to him, Rodney notices with some bitterness, as they go deeper into the mine. Rodney tries hard not to flinch as the lights above them flicker, tries very hard not to think about the fact that they've come so fast so far underground, but he's trailing the group and it's only a few minutes before he's slowing, looking anxiously back up the tunnel to make sure it's still there. He doesn't mean to, but it's reflex. He doesn't care much for underground, not as a general rule.
"McKay," John says, sharply, from ahead, and Rodney reluctantly hurries to catch up.
"I'm sorry," he says, as he gets back within earshot. "It's just..."
"Keep up, or stay above," John snaps, turning back to the elder to ask him to repeat his question — apparently he was interrupted when John paused to shout at Rodney. This time he does give Rodney a sneer, though, and it's the same face Sam wore around him when they first met, undisguised contempt and disappointment. Coward, it says, and it's not something John's ever, ever said to him, not until now, and damn it, insists something stubborn inside Rodney, that's not fair.
However he might want to protest the implication, he can't help but flinch when the lights flicker again, this time going out for almost four seconds. "Fuck," he mutters to himself in the dark, and then "can't anybody do something about..." as they stutter back to life, and he can hear his voice is a little thready. But god, in the dark the tunnels seem so much smaller...
"I am sorry, Doctor McKay," says the other elder, who's been silent up until now. "We have been having problems with our electrical systems for most of a moon. Our engineers have been unable to resolve the issue."
"Afraid of the dark, McKay?" asks John, and it sounds innocent, but Rodney can hear the scorn in it. It makes him bristle.
"No," he replies shortly, and then turns to the second elder. "I can take a look," he offers. "I'm probably a lot better than any of your engineers."
He sees John raise an eyebrow. The unusual thing about this isn't the offer — because he hates to see broken things when they could easily be fixed — but the total lack of boasting in his voice. It surprises even him. He knows by now that he never wastes a chance to boast about his genius because he doesn't get much chance to show off in many other areas — Kate used to needle him about that topic in particular. But right now he's aware of how aware he is of John, and that's just pathetic, because he thought he'd given up on trying to impress the cool kids when he was eleven years old.
The elders eagerly accept the offer of help, though, and pretty soon he's being shown into a — very, very — tiny room cut right into the rock, full of snarls of wiring and pipes meeting from every tunnel in the vast network of the mine. He sighs, and then wades into it to have a look.
He finds the problem almost immediately, and after a little tinkering knows how to fix it. It'll just take a little delicacy, he thinks, reaching for a tool from his kit and glancing up to make sure Sheppard's watching. It's irrational, he knows, because Sheppard's always teasing him about showing off, but it's not like he had to offer to fix their stupid circuit breakers. He's doing something nice, and damn it, he's going to have witnesses.
His lack of proper focus might have something to do with the fact that he's sitting on the floor of the room a few minutes later, slightly electrocuted and feeling jittery. But hey, the lights are back on, and nothing's on fire.
Of course, John's pretty pissed off, hauling him to his feet and shaking him. "What the hell is wrong with you?" he demands, and Rodney's still a little shaky. He's been electrocuted before, he's not going to die or anything, but he aches all over and it occurs to him he should be more freaked out than he is. John's really pissed, which he finds vaguely surprising.
John doesn't say anything else, though, just gives him a close look and then hauls him back up to the surface. He doesn't say anything else to Rodney, in fact, until the mission's over and they're stepping back through the gate. "Don't you ever pull a stupid stunt like that again, McKay," he hisses on the other side, already stalking away.
Well, Rodney thinks absently as he wanders down to the infirmary, because his hands are kind of singed and Teyla's got him firmly by the elbow, at least that proves John was paying attention.
Keller applies a salve to his hands and wraps them, chiding him about taking better care of his hands. Teyla sits nearby, submitting gracefully to her own post-mission examination from one of the other doctors. Afterwards, Rodney finally feels the delayed reaction set in, and he sits there staring at his bandaged fingers, shaking just a little, but interestingly, not from fear. He was never going to die, after all, and he wasn't underground long enough to actually fear the walls closing in on him. Really, he thinks, this is anger, or something like it.
"Mind your own goddamned business," he hears then, John's growl from across the infirmary. Nearby, Teyla cocks her head, then shuts her eyes when they both realise that John's addressing Ronon.
"Nobody's hurt. Not really," Ronon says, sounding perplexed and maybe a little annoyed. "What's your problem?"
"My problem is—" John begins loudly, pauses, and continues at a lower volume, but straining his ears Rodney can still hear every word, "—It isn't about today. My problem is that he disobeyed orders and people—"
"Y'know, I wouldn't have done it either," Ronon interrupts him, deceptively easy-sounding. "What you asked him to do."
For a second, Rodney's really, really sure that Ronon isn't trying very hard to keep his voice down.
"People died, Ronon. Our people."
"Yeah, and three out half a thousand's a good score, from what Jennifer said."
"It's not about numbers," John snarls.
"It has to be, sometimes, or you lose your mind," Ronon points out, and now he does sound annoyed, for Ronon at least. "You're making it about something else."
There's a shuffling noise, like someone walking away and then stopping, walking back, a rattle of curtain rings. When Ronon speaks again, Rodney realises he's probably stopped Sheppard from going, and his voice is lower, serious as Ronon rarely sounds despite his usual bored tone.
"It wasn't fair, what you asked him to do. You're too smart to think it was."
There's silence, in which Teyla seeks out and catches Rodney's eye, reaching out to gently touch his arm, but Rodney pulls it away as he hears John leave, stomping out into the corridor, hears Ronon let out a frustrated sigh and leave, too.
Rodney reaches for his clothes, steps behind the curtain and starts dressing with single-minded focus, because at the moment it's easier than thinking. Teyla doesn't move, sits on the cot across from him watching, head tilted to one side and expression thoughtful.
"I don't believe this is a battle that can be fought for you by others," she says, gently. Rodney looks at her, catches the arch of her eyebrows, shakes his head. He looks down at himself and sees his t-shirt is on inside-out — pulls it off and fixes it, puts it back on.
"It's not like I haven't tried," he snaps at her. "I might as well be invisible."
"You have not tried to confront him directly," she points out reasonably.
Rodney throws up his hands. "I really don't see what good that will do. He can ignore me twice as effectively in private as he can in public, where at least he has to give the appearance of acknowledging my existence."
She's quiet for a while, but as he's struggling with the zipper on his jacket, she hops down from the bed and pads across to stand in front of him, still barefoot and wearing scrubs. "Rodney," she says, and again her tone is gentle, wise in the way Teyla gets when she's saying something she knows he won't want to listen to. She stills his hand on the zipper and holds his wrist until he looks up.
"You have changed a great deal since our first meeting, Rodney," she says slowly. "It was, I suspect, a much simpler existence when the only authority you trusted was yourself."
Rodney can feel himself flush, and reminds himself that this, exactly this, is why Teyla is really the second-in-command on the team, because he is definitely not this attuned to the people around him. It's also why he sometimes really, really kind of hates her, though he doesn't, really.
He looks away. "And?" he grits out, clenching his teeth.
He can't see the gentle smile, but he can feel it. "A consequence of trusting the judgement of others is that sometimes that judgement is unflattering," she says, and she pulls his hand away from his jacket to grip the zipper-pull between graceful fingers and pull it easily free. She zips up the jacket and places her hands on his shoulders.
Rodney stares at his own hands, at once embarrassed and angry and very, very confused. "I don't—" he says, and shakes his head. "I never said he was wrong." Which is the trouble with this whole stupid mess, because emotions are irrational and he knows this, but he can't get rid of feeling like he could have done more, anyway. And why does he feel worse about this, three deaths, just three, when he's been actually responsible for so many more?
Christ, he hates perspective. Perspective sucks.
Teyla's hands tighten on his shoulders. "But he is," she tells him, firmly, and he looks up in surprise. All this time Teyla's been remarkably non-partisan about the whole thing, quietly encouraging but not actually stating an opinion one way or the other. Then again, Rodney thinks, she rarely does. It's part of who Teyla is to be neutral, to be balanced, to keep her opinions to herself until they're useful.
"No one blames you, Rodney," she says, squeezing again. "Ronon is right. You made the right choice. Even if it was for... different reasons than others might suspect."
It takes him a second, but then her careful emphasis hits him. "Oh, Christ," Rodney whispers, dropping his head. He might have known that of all people, Teyla knows. "I don't..."
But when he looks up, she's smiling at him, a little smile, calm and slightly amused. "I will speak with John tomorrow," she finally says, nodding slightly. "While we practice, and he cannot escape the conversation." She drops her hands, steps back a little. "Consider what I said." She turns to gather up her things, and is gone before Rodney can think of anything intelligent to say.
He does think about it, though, thinks about it while he wanders down to the labs to make sure no one's setting things on fire, but everyone's either working quietly or making plans for the party, and he finds he can't concentrate very well in the atmosphere of quiet anticipation.
He thinks about it while he's walking back to his quarters, and then he thinks about it while he scrolls through his latest projects, trying to find one that sparks inspiration — none of them do.
He thinks about it getting ready for bed, and then tossing and turning for an hour, his hands itching under the bandages. He hardly thinks about it at all as he's reaching for his radio and signalling Sheppard, who he knows wakes automatically at a radio call, and Rodney's really not above taking ruthless advantage of conditioned responses.
"What, McKay?" John sounds more sleepy than angry, and Rodney tries to take that as a good sign.
And now that he's got John on the line, he realises that he didn't actually have anything planned, which may have been a mistake. "I just wanted to apologise," he temporises. "For today. I didn't mean to..."
John mutters something, probably something derogatory, and there's rustling, probably of sheets — Rodney firmly forbids his brain from adding any more detail to the mental image of John half-dressed and half-awake. "You had to wake me up at two in the morning to do that?"
"McKay," John says warningly, and the cool tone is back, making his name sound like a slap.
Rodney understands conditioning, understands habit, understands that John's angry for no good reason, understands that even Ronon and Teyla think John's being an ass. But beyond all that is that John's treating him like he treats people he has to put up with, has to tolerate, and he seems to mean it, and that makes all the rest of it kind of irrelevant.
"Sorry," he says eventually, flatly. "I'm sorry I woke you." And he clicks off, cutting off John's annoyed "McKay," and just barely stops himself from hurling his earpiece at the opposite wall.
Those things are expensive, after all, and they haven't got a lot of spares.
The first time they made camp off-world after Ronon joined them, it was on a planet with no moons and so far from the galactic centre that the sky seemed almost empty of stars. Rodney found it unnerving as the sun was setting, and by the time they were sitting around the fire eating their MREs, he was trying not to look up. It felt wrong, to be pressed down into the dirt by unrelieved inky darkness, when he'd gotten used to the glittering sprawl of the stars over Lantea.
To be honest with himself, it was less the empty sky that bothered him and more that the night on P3X-171 was so dark, murky and warm like the night was a living thing. He couldn't see more than a few feet beyond the circle of firelight, and he wasn't going to check, but he thought that if he stepped beyond it he wouldn't be able to see his hand in front of his face.
Not that he was afraid of the dark. He just... didn't like not knowing things. Like what might be lurking beyond the reach of their flashlights, for instance.
Okay, maybe he was a little afraid of the dark. On an alien planet. In another galaxy.
Teyla never seemed afraid of anything, though, and if Ronon was bothered by the matte-black sky, he didn't let on. John, Rodney thought, was more genuinely bothered by the emptiness of the sky, because John was a pilot, because John was like that, always bothered by the big things. John kept looking, neck craned back and brows drawn together, frowning up at the sky as though it had wronged him somehow.
They slept together close to the fire that night, as close to the light as they could get without the heat being too much, and they all lay awake longer than they usually would. "I was gonna ask if you could see your star from here," said Ronon, propping his head on one hand, "but that was before I knew the sky was empty."
"It's not empty," Rodney snapped, because the sleepier he got the heavier the sky seemed to hang. "The stars are just... too far away to see."
Teyla sent him a look, probably for his sharp tone, so after a second he said, "you can't see Sol, even from Lantea," like a peace offering, and Ronon nodded. "Not without a very, very powerful telescope. It's just..." he waved a hand through the smoke from the fire, "too far."
When the fire and burned down to embers, Rodney was mostly asleep, but waking up ever few minutes to blink blearily into the darkness. "I really hate this," he muttered, as John sat down on his sleeping bag to unlace his boots. "It's like being in a power outage when you're a kid — you wake up in the middle of the night, and you can't turn on the light..."
"Yeah," John agreed, more fervently than Rodney had expected. "And you start to panic, because you can't even find your way to the door or another person..." He broke off, shaking his head and glancing at Rodney. "Sucks."
"Yeah," agreed Rodney, quietly, wondering if maybe, of the two of him, he wasn't the one more bothered by the dark, and John had just admitted it, in his own roundabout way.
They were both silent for a minute, John unlacing his boots, Rodney staring wide-eyed at the faint glow of the coals. Then he heard John getting up again. He assumed that the other man was just going to take care of nature, but a second later John dropped his bedroll on the ground next to him, on the side away from the fire.
"Um," Rodney said, uncertainly, as John slid into his bag and pulled up the zipper. "What are you..."
"You don't mind, do you?" John asked. "Just, it'll be easier to find you in the dark. If, y'know... something happens."
"Oh," Rodney said faintly. They always did this when they camped, kept him between them. He didn't mind, exactly, but even after all this time he was still getting used to it. "No, it's... it's fine."
"Hmm," said John, burrowing down in the bag, and then he inched over so they were close, pressed together through the sleeping bags all along their sides. Rodney imagined he could feel body heat emanating from John's body, but knew he was just imagining it through all those layers. Not that he was going to complain.
"Go to sleep, Rodney," John said, minutes later, and Rodney did, the light of the fire in front of him, and John watching his back.
Both the most and least disturbing about this fight they're having — if it's even a fight anymore, and Rodney can't tell if that's better or worse — is how little it changes his daily routine. Oh, yes, he sees Sheppard less, John doesn't hang around the labs much anymore or drag him out of them late at night when he's been working too late, and nobody pesters him all day with e-mails about video golf and the possibility of starting up a Dungeons & Dragons group with some of the scientists and a few of the marines. Nobody brings him lunch when he forgets to eat, but he's got a stash of power bars in the lab, and nobody makes sure he's got his vest adjusted properly before missions, but he's got years of practice at that now and doesn't really need the help.
He sees less of John, but he can still do his job. They still go off-world, they still find interesting Ancient tech buried on dead worlds and they still have awkward encounters with people on worlds that aren't quite as dead as they're supposed to be. Rodney still does target practice like he's supposed to, except instead of being dragged half-protesting by a cheerful Colonel he waits until late when the range is deserted, because he's still self-conscious about holding a gun in front of people who aren't his team. He still practices with Teyla and sometimes with Ronon, and is embarrassingly inept with both of them. Between the som outbreak and cel unal they go on three off-world missions, Rodney breaks two laws of physics (one with Zelenka's help), and there is one minor power failure in the city that the engineering department solves in under an hour.
Everything's more or less the same. It's just a lot less fun, and he spends more time alone than he has four years, because it seems wrong, off, to do social things with other members of his team when John's basically not speaking to him. Like he's got the lesser claim on their company, and he hates himself for thinking it, because it's exactly the kind of self-pitying bullshit psychobabble that Kate used to spout. But it doesn't stop him from feeling it.
The festival looms up surprisingly quickly after that, and comes off without a hitch — of course, because when Rodney organises things they work. That's just how it is.
Like most of the gene-carriers in the city, he ferries two groups of Athosians and expedition members to the mainland, handing over his run to Lorne as soon as possible because even after all this time he still can't ever feel quite safe flying over open water with anybody but John as the pilot. By the time it's getting dark, though, everyone who's coming is already there, and the research station surrounded by hastily-erected Athosian tents, is ablaze with torches and bonfires. The lanterns aren't immediately in evidence, but he's been here most of the day, watching the children assemble them out of stripped wooden frames and thin coloured cloth covered with words in careful Athosian script, inked on with fine brushes that even the youngest children wield with great care.
He's seen the kids carrying them beyond the huddled buildings of the station and the colourful tents, tonight full of people disembarking and making their way up the rise to the hilltop, hanging them on tree branches and staves set into the turf. From the ground, it's a path of tiny coloured sparks that reminds Rodney of Christmas lights, a sight he realises, with a disorienting jolt, he hasn't laid eyes upon in two years, not really. He's never on Earth for Christmas. Maybe, he thinks absently, he'll visit Jeannie for the holidays next year. She invited him and John both, but didn't seem to expect he'd come.
He isn't entirely clear on the purpose of the cel unal festival, but Teyla, who pays attention to such things, likened it to New Year's, in that the spirit of it is about moving on, leaving the past in the past, carrying forward what should be carried. To Rodney that felt dissonant, because in his head the New Year is associated with the bitter cold of January, while on New Lantea it's more like late spring. But as Teyla said, it's more about the event than the season; the brightness of the sky matters more than the temperature, which on Athos at the time of the cel unal would have been biting cold, the tail-end of the long winter.
Rodney's been watching the cooks for an hour, accepting the nods of people making their way up the hill in ones and twos. The whole evening has been merry, people just enjoying themselves, something he hasn't seen for a long time. Most of the city is here, just a few generous (or cantankerous) souls left behind to hold the fort; even Sam is here, dressed in civvies, jeans and a t-shirt and a well-worn leather jacket, with a bottle of what looks like honest-to-god Earth whiskey tucked under one arm, and Jennifer laughing at her other side as they pass.
Almost all the scientists are here, and Zelenka has passed most of the evening surrounded by a fluctuating crowd that seems to be getting more and more unsteady on its feet as the night wears on. Apparently Radek's gotten his distillation process down to a science, as it were, because he's distributing what Rodney guesses is vodka with free abandon and a grin to anyone who approaches with a glass in hand.
Teyla and Ronon he's seen on and off; at these gatherings Teyla is most often with her people, and during the feast she was constantly surrounded by them. Rodney even saw John, though uncharacteristically, John's been quiet, speaking when spoken to, keeping as much on the edge of things as Rodney is. Usually, John spends these kinds of events mobbed by people who want to talk to him, bask in whatever it is that makes John Sheppard John Sheppard. Rodney never thinks he enjoys it so much as he's gotten used to it, feels it's what he's meant to do. But this evening John's been drifting through things, very occasionally pausing to stare intently at Rodney from across a dozen heads, a wooden tankard of Athosian beer clutched in one hand while the other is stuffed deep into the pocket of his jeans.
But he doesn't approach, and eventually Rodney stops looking for him, concentrates instead on eating as many pastries, tarts, cakes and anything else he can get his hands on. Soon enough he's pleasantly full and slightly tipsy off of Radek's industrial solvent and maybe dozing off a little, the itching in his still-bandaged palms almost unnoticeable. He looks up when someone approaches, though, boots crunching on the gravelly soil, and thinks for a moment that it's John — but no, he knows better than that. He's not drunk enough to be imagining things, wasn't far enough asleep to be dreaming, like maybe he has been all this time to think their friendship was stronger than this.
It is, in fact, Ronon, towering even taller than usual with a five-year-old girl perched on his massive shoulders. Rodney cranes his neck up and squints at him.
"Hey, McKay," he says, nudging Rodney with his foot.
"Don't do that," Rodney gripes, kicking gravel in Ronon's general direction. "What do you want?"
"You haven't lit a lamp," Ronon says, like this is a perfectly good reason to kick someone.
"You haven't lit a lantern yet," Ronon repeats, a little more slowly like Rodney didn't understand him the first time, but he's really just doing it to be annoying. Ronon points up at the little girl on his shoulders; she has masses of curly dark hair and a skinny, freckled face sticky with sugar. "So Adra made you one."
"I made you one," Adra repeats needlessly, holding out a lamp at the end of one scrawny arm. Rodney blinks up at them again and then swallows hard in realisation — he knows this child. Wex was her older brother. But she's just looking down at him with the inscrutable seriousness all Athosian children seem able to switch on and off at will. Rodney supposes it's something you learn if you spend all your life under threat of being culled like herd animals.
"It's very important," Adra explains impatiently, when he just sits there.
Ronon rolls his eyes. "Take the lamp, McKay."
Rodney climbs only a little unsteadily to his feet, and accepts the lamp by its strings from Adra's hand, and then the brush she waves at him. "Here," she says, "you write with this."
Rodney looks down at the lantern — a storm lantern, the Athosians call it. It's pretty simple, for the most part, light as a feather and built like a box-kite, except for the strange affair of strings and folded paper tied to the top four corners. It looks a little like a parachute. He looks up, up, and then up some more at Adra, who's watching him solemnly while Ronon smirks between them. "What do I write?" he asks, and Adra shrugs her shoulders.
"I don't know," she says impatiently, the universal impatience of children with foolish adults. "It's your wish."
"Just wishes?" he says, tilting the lamp in his hands. There's a candle inside, still unlit. The cloth is blue.
"Mm, no," says Adra after a pause. "Sometimes you write what you're sorry you missed."
She tugs on Ronon's hair, and he looks up at her. "Where to?"
The curly-haired child gestures towards the path of coloured lights. "Up!" she says, and Ronon laughs, grinning at Rodney before he breaks into a run that makes Adra squeal and clutch at his hair to keep her perch.
Rodney looks down at the lamp, and then looks up again, trying to spot John in the crowd, which is thinning as the hour grows later and more and more people make their way up to the top of the hill, where they can see the shower better. But there's no sign of John, who's probably up on the hill by now, if he hasn't already returned to the city. Maybe he's gone already. Maybe Rodney imagined seeing him, and he was never really here.
Teyla comes to lead him up to the hill when he's dawdled too long, leading him with one of his hands tucked into the crook of her arm, and he follows with the unlit blue lantern dangling from one hand. The climb is gentle and easy, and he gets a whiff of something sweet and green-smelling as they walk, mixed in with the unmistakable aroma of faint smoke, burning candles.
"What is that?" he asks, taking only small sniffs out of habit, a lifetime of allergies having taught him wise paranoia.
"Sweet-smoke," Teyla tells him. "At least, that is what we call it. The smoke is supposed to bring good luck; it is mixed into the lantern candles." She tilts her head at him, courteous. "It will do you no harm."
"Uh, good," he answers, not surprised she made sure, because Teyla is always careful, but touched, nonetheless.
And now Rodney knows why the hilltop is heavy with the scent; everyone walked the lighted path to get here, between two long lines of burning lamps. There are canopies set up in a line on the far side of the hill, just below another little rise, a hillock, really, that spans only about ten feet, so that it's free of revellers. There are people standing, sitting, lying in the grass, wrapped in fleeces and patchwork quilts and Athosian-weave blankets, mostly in groups of three or more, but some apart from the others in pairs, all quietly conversing, but content; even Rodney can feel it, from where he stands.
It's an unfamiliar emotion to witness among these people — his people, he thinks, fidgeting with the strings of his lamp. Even after four years in this galaxy he's still struck dumb by the idea of belonging somewhere. And then he does see John, standing apart from anyone else with the tankard still in his hand, looking determinedly up at the sky and no one's face. Rodney glances up as well, and for a while is just taken in by the sight of the meteorite shower, bright streaks of white criss-crossing the star-crowded sky.
He's not sure how long he stands there, staring, before Teyla touches his wrist. "If you will give me your lamp, Rodney," she says, and he drops his gaze to her face. "They are about to send them up."
"What?" he says. "Oh. Right." And relinquishes his hold. Teyla smiles at him, a mere twitch of her lips, and then makes her way across the hilltop towards the canopies, where the Athosian children are lighting tapers from a low-burning brazier.
It's only now that he understands the name and what makes them special, understands the strange contraption of string and folded paper, because as the lanterns are lit, the children lift the paper and pull until it spreads into a kind of canopy. Rodney watches, hands in his pockets, mouth open, as the canopies spread, catching the hot air rising from the candles, and send the lamps rising swiftly from the children's outstretched fingers like balloons; points of stillness against the "storm" of the falling stars. As with everything Athosians do, there's no hurry, no race, just patience, and soon enough Rodney is watching the rising lights instead of those lighting them. When his neck gets sore, he drops his eyes again, seeking out John almost involuntarily, finding him standing backlit by the braziers, head tilted back to watch the sky.
It's like the first time Rodney ever saw him, eyes wide and wondering, mouth parted, like he can't believe he lived to see this, to see something like this. It makes Rodney's chest hurt, just a little, enough that he tears his eyes away and looks up again, the rising coloured lights of the lanterns and the trails of falling space-rock, the incredible vibrant scatter of millions and millions of stars. It's easier to feel small against the whole backdrop of the Universe than against feeling like he's going to burst from the sheer incomprehensible terror of feeling this way about another human being.
Most of the time, it's complicated, a jumble of want and affection and frustration and familiarity, layered together with the tension of the day-to-day. Rodney can't ever quite work out what it all means, and that drives him up the wall, when he has time to think about it at length, which he rarely does. They don't get a lot of time unfilled by crises of one stripe or another.
But sometimes, oh, sometimes it's simple, fierce, raw, a rush of heat that leaves him awestruck at a glance of John's profile, the fleeting smile he only ever shows to his team, and them only rarely. Mostly only to Rodney, something Rodney didn't let himself believe for years, that John saves that smile for him. Sometimes he understands that, at least, when it's pared down in quiet moments, a flash of something caught in the light; John smiling like a kid, Rodney staring at him as he watches the shower of falling stars and thinking, god, god, I love you.
And usually it's a thought he keeps underneath a multitude of interweaving threads, reminders of why not. He's never had many friends. He has family, here. John doesn't... he wouldn't... and even if he did, Rodney has yet to know that kind of affection unmetered by ambition or utilitarian motive. It isn't that he doesn't trust John, so much as it's that he knows himself well enough to know nobody ever wants that. Wants him. Not on his own. Not for no reason. Usually he doesn't care. Usually it's enough to find release in another living breathing human being, if only for a little while.
This is different. And maybe it was never real, but it's different, all the same. It still means something, even if it's not what he wanted. At least now, he thinks, hopelessly, he knows he'd have meant it if he said it. Knows it won't go away.
It's almost over by the time John finds him, and everyone else has either gone back to the city or is curled up under the canopies, sleeping or... enjoying one another's company in other ways. Rodney is sitting at the edge of the gathering on the little tree-bare hillock, elbows resting on his knees and his face tilted upwards. He's trying to catch the last few streaks of falling stars, even if they aren't stars. It's one inaccuracy he's never minded much.
He doesn't hear John coming, John and Ronon and Teyla, until they all sink into the long grass next to him, Ronon and Teyla curling up together and leaning back to watch the sky. John just sits there, posture straight for once, and Rodney shuts his eyes because he doesn't want John to see how easily this gets to him. He bows his head, and is surprised when a blanket is draped around his shoulders, heavy and smelling of sweet-smoke. He opens his eyes, blinks at John in confusion and surprise. But John is frowning at Rodney's shoulder, putting what Rodney thinks is an unnecessary amount of concentration into arranging the blanket, pulling it around Rodney's right side. Rodney catches up the trailing edge without really thinking about it.
"So, apparently I've been acting like kind of an asshole," John mutters, eventually, resentfully, after Rodney's looked back up at the sky.
Rodney swallows hard, refusing to look. John doesn't want him to, anyway, he can tell. He should be mad - he wants to be, he knows he should be, probably, but of all the things about himself that John has changed is that he's never quite sure he's right anymore unless someone, at least one person, is with him. Usually it's John, ultimately it's John, but it wasn't this time, and he still feels off-balance.
He draws in a shaky breath, lets it out with focused concentration so it doesn't shake the same way. About fifty different responses spring to the tip of his tongue, but they all sound too arrogant, too much like he's defending himself, and despite knowing he was right he still doesn't want to say so.
"I can't tell you what to think," he says instead, and god, that's pathetic enough to make him angry with himself. Rodney McKay doesn't care what anybody thinks. Except, he does, and for the hundredth time in three weeks he briefly, bitterly misses the time when he didn't care about anyone enough to care about their good opinion. When he first realised this was happening to him, that he was becoming this person, he wanted to hate John for being so instrumental in making him feel this uncertain about himself, but over time he'd convinced himself it was worth it. At least, that he wanted to believe it was.
And then, this. Things were so much easier when I was just a selfish prick.
John makes a frustrated noise that isn't quite a sigh. "Christ," he mutters, and settles down in the grass, very close; they're almost leaning together, but aren't, quite. John smells of Radek's horrible vodka. "Look, I was..." he shoots a glance at Teyla, and Rodney looks. To all appearance, Teyla is ignoring them serenely, leaning companionably into Ronon's side as tiny lights arc across the deep-blue sky. But she still manages, somehow, to project an air of stern expectation, and John turns back to him. "I've had it pointed out to me that I tend to... take on responsibility for things that aren't really my responsibility."
Rodney doesn't have to ask to know that it was Teyla who pointed it out to him, and chooses to believe that she pointed it out with sticks to John's soft parts. And that... is actually a somewhat surprising surge of anger, right there. Resentment for making him care enough about John's affection to doubt himself. Fuck, he hates doubting himself. It makes him feel like he's coming apart at the seams.
"I'm sorry," John offers, quietly, like a little boy who's stolen money from his mother's purse to buy candy at the corner store and isn't sorry at all. It's stupid, and it's not enough, but it's good, because it's what Rodney needs to get angry again, properly angry without being unsure, finally, god. Scowling, he turns to his left and shoves John hard enough to send him toppling over.
"You're sorry?" Rodney spits, and he feels as though, in the interest of drama, he should fling aside the blanket and leap to his feet, but it's getting colder and the blanket is warm, and anyway he'll be damned if he's going to go to extra effort for John's sake right now. "You - you - you —"
"Breathe, McKay," Ronon offers in a bored tone, even though he doesn't appear to be paying attention, either.
"Christ, I hate you sometimes! You know that?"
"Rodney, I—" John tries, but Rodney waves a hand sharply to cut him off.
"No, look. Shut up. You," he says, jabbing a finger viciously in John's direction, "do you know what you've done to me? You've made me give a shit what people think. And I never... I never used to do that. It was so much easier. But okay, fine. Fine, I thought. I can do that. I can do... brave things. I can think about what I say before I say it. I can try not to be selfish - which goes against my basic nature, I'll have you know!" he shouts, lashing out with one foot to kick at John's leg. John yelps and pulls his leg away, but doesn't say anything, just lies there staring at Rodney.
"I mean do you have any - do you have any idea how hard it is for me to... to..." He breaks off, because even on top of everything else the words trust you get stuck in his throat, even couched in words like to watch my back, because what he really means is to care about me. Because it means too many things to make their way out into the chilly night air - they take up too much space in his chest already.
But he's saved from trying to push them up, push them out, because then John is scrambling up to his knees and reaching for him and saying, urgently, "Jesus, Rodney," and "hey, hey, I know," and "I'm sorry, really, I'm sorry," and crushing Rodney to him like he's afraid he might burn up and float away into the sky like one of the flying lamps.
It's a minute before Rodney can return - and that's what it is, there's no other word for it - the hug, because his arms are trapped by the blanket and has to work them free. But eventually it's gone on for a while longer than maybe either of them might have meant it to if there had been anyone there aside from Ronon and Teyla. Rodney doesn't want to let go, at least doesn't want to be the one who lets go, so he turns his face into John's warm neck, where he can feel the pulse against his cheek, and mumbles, "God, you are such a girl," and John's laugh rumbles and vibrates down his spine.
They wrap themselves up together in Rodney's blanket, and lie down in the grass, and John keeps his hand tucked under Rodney's elbow and himself pressed up against Rodney's side, like it's just for warmth. "You can't just go around changing people and then walk away," Rodney mutters, and John sighs and presses his face into Rodney's shoulder.
"I know," he says. "I know. I was... I got sca— I got mad when I couldn't..." He squeezes his eyes shut and Rodney feels the fine tremor of remembered adrenaline as John says: "I don't like not being able to fix things."
"Fixing things is my job."
"Yeah, and keeping you guys alive is mine," John returns, stiffly, pressing a little closer, but Rodney still can't see his face.
Rodney considers this. "I was glad Sam and Keller ordered you not to help," he admits, and that does it, John lifts his head to look down at him with another unreadable expression - god, how many of those can he have? Rodney blinks up at him, and uncomfortable, shuts his eyes. "You would have gotten it, too. That's just the kind of luck you have. We have."
"And?" John prompts. Rodney doesn't look, but he can imagine another expressionless face, careful and guarded.
"And I probably would have done it anyway, eventually, just because you asked me to." It's true. One way or another, Rodney always does what John asks him to do.
Rodney feels strangely exposed, under the open sky with his eyes shut, but he doesn't want to open them. When he answers, it's quiet, forced out through sheer force of will. "And I didn't want you to die, okay, you asshole?"
John's quiet for a long time, until Rodney starts expecting a draft of chilled air, John pulling away, getting up to sit in the grass, out of touching distance, like he has a handful of other times. But he doesn't. Instead, Rodney's just about to the point of preparing himself for it, resigned and kind of weary, and then he feels John's breath on his face, and then-
He's often imagined kissing John. He can admit this, because one of the nice parts of becoming increasingly self-aware is new facility in imagining. He's imagined that John kisses slowly, with the same lazy, drawn-out intent Rodney's seen when John's teaching him to shoot, reading another painstaking eleven words of War and Peace, flying the jumpers. Like he's taking his time to experience every single second of it, trying not to miss anything.
The real thing is a lot like this, except instead of the quick-flick supposition and filing-away of the physical aspect, a hurried turn to the parts he could accurately mimic in his head with his eyes closed, the physical aspect is unmistakably present. There are chapped lips, and breath, and John's smell, and the flare of close, warm, the flood of realised adrenaline as his brain catches up to his body and makes him dizzy with it. He can feel his own heart thudding hard and feel John's chest hitching when Rodney fists a hand in his shirt. Rodney is briefly, overwhelmingly aware of all of his skin and all of John's, all pressed together under their clothes and tingling.
It's over too soon, and it's good they're lying sprawled in the grass because Rodney's pretty sure that would have made him fall over anyway. Just a kiss shouldn't do this, shut down his brain, make him lose track of everything so easily for seconds at a time, but it can, it does. Eventually he opens his eyes, and John's grinning, and oh, it's that smile, the god, god I love you smile, and suddenly, because his brain has always run ten speeds higher than the average person's and he rarely forgets things, Rodney's wary, worried, clutching John's sleeve. He's been here before and he's never liked where it ended up - or didn't, rather.
"You don't... that wasn't..."
"What?" John sounds satisfyingly scratchy-voiced, but Rodney struggles to frown up at him.
"If that was just an apology, and you're going to go back to — because to be honest with you, I think I might have a mental breakdown if you decide you're going to—"
But John just rolls his eyes and relaxes against him and says "Oh for fuck's sake," and kisses him again, this time with even more care and thorough intent that leaves them both breathless and boneless.
"You're completely insane," John mumbles into Rodney's shirt, burrowing further down into the blanket as Rodney rearranges it around them. "Seriously, how can you possibly be this neurotic and still—"
"Yes, yes. Pot, kettle," Rodney says airily, still a little breathless, but he's smiling so wide that his cheeks hurt. "Apology accepted."
"Thank god," Ronon says loudly from the grass to their left, and then there's the smack of a palm hitting a bare shoulder and he says "ow!" and Teyla says, in a voice that is no less affectionate for its dignity:
"My father used to tell me that if you share your wishes, they are more likely to come true."
"So what'd you wish for, Teyla?" Rodney asks obligingly, flicking John on the ear without really looking.
"Peace," Teyla replies, without hesitation. "And comfort."
"The destruction of the Wraith," Ronon offers, sounding sleepy and pleased. "Or what Teyla said. I'm pretty open."
There's general agreement to that - dead Wraith are a good wish. "And you, John?" asks Teyla, but John shakes his head.
"Mmm, sorry, Teyla," he says, his voice a little muffled by Rodney's shoulder. "Where I come from, if you tell someone, it won't come true."
Teyla nods, politely, as always. "And you, Rodney?" she asks. "Will you share your wish?"
And Rodney thinks about it, then drops his head back into the crook of John's arm, leans into it when John snakes his other arm around his waist, folding them together under the sky. "Nah," he murmurs, "it's okay. I got mine."
He closes his eyes, sleep already pulling him down, down, down like the stars.
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