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There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do

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McKay’s shadow stretches towards the doorway, a long thin blackness in the moonlight streaming high through the stained-glass window. John stands in the darkness outside the gym watching Rodney pace the empty room with quick steps, hands kneading one another restlessly. John heard the radio call Rodney made, the almost-polite request, and he wonders about it, wonders why Rodney didn’t call him. Except if John’s being honest, he knows the answer as sure as he knows anything.

Doranda.

Rodney’s gotten used to going to other people when he needs something, when he needs someone to trust, to trust him, and John knows more than a solar system shattered that day. He just doesn’t know how to gather up the pieces and make them whole again. He’s stopped being angry at Rodney, but he’s still mad at himself, and Rodney doesn’t seem to know the difference—or if he does, it doesn’t change anything. Everything’s still too raw between them all these months later, and even friendly insults seem to cut much deeper than they used to.

So John lingers in the dimly-lit recess just beside the gym door, the space where he can still watch most of Rodney’s movements and not be seen, and he waits. He doesn’t know quite what he’s expecting, but it’s been a long day and he’s pretty sure he won’t be able to sleep anyway. Something in his gut tells him maybe he needs to be here. Even if Rodney wouldn’t want him to be. Didn’t ask for him. Doesn’t need him. Maybe John will learn something that can make things right again.

Or maybe he’s just looking for something that he knows is going to hurt.

Rodney’s been quiet all day—at least since the bomb threat was neutralized—which invariably means he’s thinking about things he shouldn’t be. If it wasn’t deeply personal Rodney could be counted on to shout it from the spires of Atlantis, and even then, sometimes Rodney lives in the land of Too Much Information. That’s just what he’s like, and John depends on it. Rodney’s volume is as clear an indicator of his mental health as anything John’s encountered, and when he’s quiet, John can practically hear Rodney’s brain screaming in terror, collapsing in upon itself like a black hole. He’s learned to differentiate between Rodney’s vocal “we’re all going to die, but I have an insane plan that might work” and the silence that settles in when he’s really truly frightened. John remembers the pain in his neck from the damn sucking Iratus bug, and the way Rodney worked, focused and oddly quiet, jaw shifting restlessly around a power bar. It was the first time John had thought he might actually die in the back of that jumper—with Rodney darting furtive glances in his direction and saying almost nothing at all.

“Come on, come on,” Rodney’s muttering, loud in the empty room, and John wishes he could step through the door and say something helpful. He imagines doing it: drawing Rodney’s attention with a word, a smile, a touch on his shoulder. Considers how a hand on the arm, the warm casual press of flesh, used to be enough to steady them both. To convey friendship and affection and something else neither of them has ever acknowledged. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking on John’s part, but he doesn’t think so.

Still, Rodney called someone else tonight, and maybe John shouldn’t be here, even if Rodney is on his team and that makes this his business. He knows how Rodney’s shoulders would straighten defensively, the way his chin would thrust forward, eyes questioning, and the distance between them would be as wide as a galaxy. They would exchange politeness, or at least what passes for politeness with them, and then one of them would leave. Probably Rodney. Nothing at all would be resolved.

Sometimes Rodney needs someone to save him from himself. John can do that. Has done it. Will do it again if he has to.

He stays where he is. Rodney needs something he obviously can’t give, and John cares enough that he’d rather it come from someone else than watch Rodney suffer in silence, but knowing that doesn’t stop the dull ache of regret he feels. There’s an apology resting on his tongue, but he suspects it’s much too late for that. Doranda was months ago and there’ve been casual hurts piled on top of one another since then until neither of them can start a conversation without feeling wary. The word ‘trust’ has become something they volley back and forth to score meaningless points in a game neither of them can win.

John hates being careful. He’s always been able to count on Rodney to just say what he’s thinking, but now … there’s too much they don’t talk about. None of them talk. About anything. Not even Elizabeth, although maybe she talks to Dr. Heightmeyer about it. John doesn’t. He tells Kate about riding the waves off the coast of California, how he loved the cold expanse of Antarctica, how he feels at home here. He smiles and chats and won’t let her push him in directions he doesn’t want to go. He gives up just enough to convince her she’s reaching him and not enough to be anywhere near honest. Sometimes he thinks she knows she’s being conned, but she lets him get away with it. John figures it can’t be easy hearing everyone’s nightmares all the time, but one of these days she’s not going to let him fly under the radar anymore.

The soft beat of footsteps echo in the corridor and John pulls a step back toward the wall. The botanists have replaced the ten thousand year old plants with trees that bear a striking resemblance to miniature palms, and John lets the foliage screen him as the men stroll past, talking softly. Gleason peers into the gym, just long enough to register it’s McKay wearing a groove in the floor, then keeps going. Neither of the soldiers looks back, and John makes a mental note to speak with them later about 360 degree surveillance on night patrols. This isn’t supposed to be a walk in the park.

John counts Rodney’s steps as he paces. Fourteen steps back and forth in an endless loop, and John wonders if Rodney’s counting too. If he’s working out some unknown problem in his head while he’s walking. It’s not inconceivable given that Rodney never really stops thinking, although John still wishes Rodney would stop throwing out probabilities about the likelihood of their deaths on any given mission. These days “we are so screwed” is usually immediately followed by a numerical representation of exactly how screwed they are, and John might find it funnier if Rodney wasn’t freakishly accurate with whatever equation he’s come up with to predict how colossally fucked up things are on any given day. Chaos theory has nothing on Rodney McKay’s instinctual understanding of certain doom.

Today Rodney spent his waking hours trying to figure out how to diffuse a bomb locked into Atlantis’s internal systems by a Go’auld masquerading as Colonel Caldwell. They came within a hair’s breadth of being responsible for torturing an innocent man. Kavanagh’s never been anyone’s favourite, least of all McKay’s, but John remembers Rodney was the first to balk at the idea of forcing the issue, and John knows Rodney’s not the only one feeling a little unsettled by that particular turn of events. Elizabeth’s taking it as a personal and moral failure, and maybe that’s what it is. John doesn’t know, and that’s worrying too.

Caldwell’s never really been one of them—not in the same way the rest of them are, the group who stepped into the absolute unknown with no guarantee of anything—but Kavanagh, jerk or not, was there from the beginning and he was part of the team that got them through the gate when the jumper got stuck in space and John died with a bug on his neck. He’s still got the scar from that one, and his fingers drift upwards to rub the raised flesh. They’ve all got more scars than they used to. Rodney too.

John’s more aware than ever that everyone is necessary—even Kavanagh—and none of them are safe. Not even in Atlantis. There are too many variables, too many things that can go wrong, and maybe it makes him a jerk, but there are days John’s grateful for Kavanagh and Dumais and Sumner, Gall and Abrams and too many others, because sometimes they’re what’s standing between him and his team and certain death. Sometimes other people die in the nano-viruses and Wraith attacks, and John’s come to accept he can be angry and absurdly grateful at the same time. There are an infinite number of worst case scenarios they haven’t even thought of yet, in spite of Rodney’s best efforts to quantify the dangers they’re facing. John lets him do it because it’s Rodney’s way of dealing. Pie charts and probabilities of how likely they are to be sucked lifeless by Wraith, killed by angry villagers, or poisoned by citrus, and John knows it’s just Rodney’s way of trying to hang on to a little bit of control over his life.

John gets that. He really does. Even if Rodney doesn’t understand John isn’t any more in control than he is. John’s willing to let Rodney have his delusions because some days it’s easier to think somebody’s responsible, and John’s been in the military long enough to see the value in having someone higher up to blame. Someone’s got to have it all together, and John’s gotten really good at pretending to be what people need. He can be a hero. He can ride a nuclear bomb into a hive ship and let them call it something other than a death wish; John knows he had to do it, knows it was his chance to atone for waking up the Wraith, for putting a bullet into a man he never had a chance to like, although Rodney’s never quite forgiven him for riding off into the glow of a nuclear sunset.

John sees it in his eyes every time he walks away.

Rodney checks his watch and goes back to wringing his hands together like someone itching for a fight. John’s never had a problem making McKay mad, and he’s pretty sure Rodney would be pissed to know he’s here. John takes a certain amount of satisfaction from that. They’ve had their share of arguments—yelling over jumper consoles and radio headsets and more often than not over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. John doesn’t know what to call it—this thing between them—but it tells him he’s alive, they’re both alive, and maybe it isn’t talking, but sometimes it’s the next best thing. Sometimes when they’re yelling at each other, face to face, flushed from the heat of the exchange, it’s the next best thing to everything John can’t let himself have.

He’s got a responsibility to Atlantis. To his team. This isn’t at all about what he wants.

John’s always prided himself on being the kind of soldier who will never expect more from his men than he’s willing to give. He’ll be the first into battle, the last to leave, and they’ll call it leadership and courage and a hundred other things it isn’t. He can kill sixty Genii and let everyone think it was a daring plan rather than sheer desperation; he knows he would’ve killed every last Genii if he’d found Rodney dead.

Or Elizabeth. Of course, he would’ve done it if either of them had been taken from him. He knows it the way he knows a lot of things he’d rather not examine too closely. He’s always cared too much about his people, and it’s that more than anything else that’s made killing a little easier. The irony isn’t lost on him.

Everyone has things they don’t, can’t, won’t talk about. John can live with that. Mostly. He’s gotten used to Rodney talking non-stop: to him, with him, sometimes at him, and he doesn’t mind the barrage of words under most circumstances. But McKay’s been extraordinarily quiet since they shut down the bomb and John wants to hear him say something about what the hell’s going on in his brain. Anything. Even if it’s not meant for John’s ears.

John checks his watch and estimates the elapsed time. Any minute now.

When Ronon rounds the corner, he doesn’t seem surprised to see John there, but he doesn’t say anything when John gives a small shake of his head. Ronon narrows his eyes, but keeps on walking into the gym. Rodney stops pacing and looks up.

“What took you so long? I could’ve reconfigured the transporter to beam you directly here in the time it took—”

“McKay,” Ronon says, not harshly, but there’s a growl in the tone nonetheless, and Rodney cuts himself off with a muttered, “yes, yes, well, you’re here now,” and John smirks in spite of himself because Rodney isn’t like anyone else John’s ever known. Not many people would drag a six-foot four Satedan warrior out of bed at two in the morning and think nothing of the consequences.

“Were you sleeping?” Rodney asks suddenly, although Ronon’s dressed as he always is. “I suppose you probably were, or hey, at least doing whatever you normally do at this time of night, which could be anything, really, since I don’t even know where your quarters are, and—”

“McKay.” Ronon tilts his head expectantly, and Rodney swallows the rest of his words, backing up a few paces before waving his left hand in a distracted way.

“Sorry. I just—it’s been a long day what with the bomb and the almost getting killed, again, and saving all of Atlantis from—”

“You wanted my help with something.”

It’s a statement, not a question, and it does the trick of getting McKay back on track and focused. Ronon might not be the most socially adept of the group—he can rival McKay for bluntness on any given day—but he’s learned how to deal with Rodney as well as the rest of them, and John can’t help but feel proud of him for that. Sure, they’re an unlikely bunch, but they’re a team and John’s never had people he’s trusted this much. Never.

“Okay, this is—this is going to sound strange, but just go with me on this. Do you—do you have your knife with you?”

“Which one?”

“How many do you—no, never mind. Sheppard told me about the Hair of Many Blades on the hive ship. Quite frankly, I think he was jealous since his style can’t camouflage anything but his brain.”

Hey, John thinks, but he’s only mildly offended because it seems remarkably like a compliment coming from Rodney. He’s still curious about the Mensa thing, especially since John flat-out refuses to take the test again—and who the hell brings Mensa sample questions with them to another galaxy?

Rodney points at Ronon’s waist. “That one. The one you always wear.”

“I always wear them all,” Ronon says, but he unsheathes the blade on his belt and holds it up. It’s silver, and even from the shadows John can see the way the edge glints in the moonlight like a toothy grin. If possible, Rodney’s face looks more pale than before, and John wishes he could tell him a lame science joke or solve a math problem because seeing Rodney’s pleasantly startled expression when John surprises him just never gets old. But this isn’t the moment for surprise, and John feels vaguely uncomfortable about where this is going.

Rodney. Knives. Nothing good can come from this.

“Can I—can I see it for a minute?” Rodney asks, voice tight as piano wire, and Ronon wordlessly hands it over.

John doesn’t know if Ronon knows about the torture. He wasn’t here a year ago. He was still running from the Wraith then, and John figures maybe even on Atlantis Ronon’s never stopped running. He’s hard to pin down, and the likelihood that he’s going to disappear on them one day is something John’s never deluded himself about.

Ronon probably doesn’t know about the scar on Rodney’s arm, although Rodney’s stopped wearing the long sleeves he hid behind for the longest time. Tonight he’s wearing his mission jacket, the Canadian flag bright against the shoulder, and underneath is the dark grey t-shirt, the one that clings softly at his middle where he can’t quite fight the signs of too many powerbars and drifting towards forty. It has short sleeves and if John were to look, he knows exactly where to find the evidence of Kolya’s cruelty. John knows Rodney will never get over it, though sometimes when he’s quiet, when they’re waiting for something to happen, he can see Rodney’s fingers rubbing down the fine white line on the inside of his right arm, rubbing as if he can make it go away. As if that might let him forget.

As if any of them could.

John remembers standing on the deck of the control room—Rodney wearing his wound like a badge, badly-wrapped bandage tied right around his sleeve because Beckett’s down with a head injury and the rest of the med staff are just returning. Rodney’s past the terror and the pain, has taken a handful of painkillers from the stash John knows he keeps in his room for emergencies, and he’s more cheerful than he should be with blood soaking through two layers of sleeve. Elizabeth’s restless and distracted, the possibility of death still not far enough removed from her mind, and he knows she’ll want to talk to him later. When her mind isn’t screaming that she’s down right happy he killed sixty men—give or take—trying to get to her (and Rodney), and John figures he’s got a while before she’s ready to have that conversation. Elizabeth’s going to have her own demons to sort through.

Rodney had let John lead him to the infirmary. Didn’t argue or struggle or even talk when John propped him on a chair and laid out antiseptic, bandages. A needle and thread. Didn’t do much more than watch as John undid the bloody wrap, tugged off Rodney’s beige-and-blue jacket, his long-sleeved shirt, more carefully than he’d ever undressed anyone in his life. John cleaned the wound with water and a soft cloth, wiping away the blood drying at the edges of the jagged cut. He leaned into McKay’s space, let their knees bump together while he sewed, let his fingers linger on the still chilled skin.

He hates Kolya for marking that flesh, for making Rodney learn about terror and failure, forcing him to talk the one time he didn’t want to. He hates silver knives with serrated blades and the sight of blood, and every time Rodney’s too quiet, John remembers that night and all the things he didn’t know how to say.

“Goddamnit, McKay,” is what he’d said when he’d finally seen the wound. He’d meant he was angry (at Kolya) and sorry (for not protecting Rodney) and grateful (they were still alive). Rodney had winced and John had gentled his touch, but looking back he thinks maybe he should’ve said something else. Something that Rodney wouldn’t interpret as angry (at him) and sorry (Rodney talked) and grateful (Atlantis had been saved). John’s never been good at this.

Ronon interrupts his thoughts, trying to get McKay to adjust his grip, but John knows Rodney’s not interested in that kind of lesson. Rodney hands the knife back, hilt pressing into Ronon’s palm, and he can’t help but notice Rodney’s staring at the knife the same way he stared at his arm that night, with the same kind of horrified fascination people usually reserve for great white sharks and programs on Fox. From the moment Kolya pressed the blade into Rodney’s pale skin and the first trickle of blood appeared, John knows he was torn between looking and not looking, screaming and not screaming. McKay’s world of endless variables reduced to an either/or, and there wasn’t a damn thing John could do about it, even if he’d known.

If he’d known, he would’ve aimed for Kolya’s head instead of his shoulder. He would’ve splattered the man’s brains all over the pristine floor of the gateroom, and he wouldn’t have wasted time feeling bad.

“You said all you needed was ten minutes alone,” Rodney says, speaking around what sounds like a lump in his throat, and John stands in the shadows and shakes his head, wants to tell Ronon to stop this right now, stop because Rodney doesn’t know what he’s asking, but there’s nothing John can do except watch and wish he’d said something to Rodney when it might’ve made a difference. When John was stitching Rodney’s skin back together with short careful pulls of needle and thread, when he was grateful for field training and the unenviable ability to separate what he wanted to do from what he had to do.

What he’d wanted to do was pull Rodney into a tight hug, tell him he’d done everything exactly right, that he’d been brave and brilliant, and John was so damn grateful he was alive. What he’d done was sew careful stitches into his skin, stroking his fingertips lightly over Rodney’s arm to stop the shaking. He’d helped him tug on a new shirt, so much more awkward than helping him out of the old one, and wished he knew how to take the first step. He walked Rodney back to his room, poured him a glass of scotch and told him to get some sleep. What he’d desperately wanted to do, what he couldn’t admit back then, was how much he’d wanted to stay, wrap himself around Rodney and make him warm and alive again, press lips and fingers into cold skin until it glowed pink with sweat. He’d wanted to make promises—reckless, stupid promises that he wasn’t sure he could live with, but he wanted to try.

He hadn’t done any of the things that might’ve made surviving a little easier. For either of them.

“With Kavanagh,” Rodney continues, his eyes never leaving the knife. “You said all you needed was ten minutes alone with him and he’d talk.”

“Yes,” Ronon says, and John lets out a breath because Ronon’s not boasting and he’s not lying. He’s stating a fact and John’s really damn glad the Satedan’s on their side. It’s not the first time he’s thought that.

“I—well, I want to know what you were going to do. To him. With the knife.” Rodney’s stammering in a way he never has before except around beautiful women, and this isn’t nervousness so much as fear. Ronon seems to know that too, and he’s looking at Rodney through narrowed eyes like he’s trying to figure out what to do with Rodney. “I—I need to know. I just need to know.”

“Because of Kavanagh?” Ronon’s not stupid and he understands people more than they give him credit for. John waits to see what Rodney says because he’s pretty sure it’s not that. Not at all.

“What? No, no, not because—jeez, I never liked Kavanagh, but I’m not some kind of sadist who gets off on someone—anyone else’s, not even Kavanagh’s—no, just …” Rodney takes a few steps back and runs a hand over his forehead, and John imagines the sweat that’s gathered there, the way it’s clinging to Rodney’s hand until he wipes it on his pants.

“No, that’s not the reason” he says again, and John isn’t sure Rodney will be able to explain this even if he wants to. He’s tense and agitated, the set of his shoulders a sure sign he’s going to be complaining loudly tomorrow, and suddenly Rodney pulls off his jacket and tosses it in the corner, rubbing away a trickle of sweat. Even John’s beginning to think the gym seems unusually warm. There’s a droplet of sweat sliding down his own neck; he doesn’t move to stop it. He thinks again about leaving.

Rodney’s response, which isn’t anywhere close to being an explanation, seems to be enough for Ronon, who shrugs and says “okay” without anything more. He turns the knife in his hand until it’s sitting comfortably and he raises the tip so it catches the light.

If John leaves now, Rodney will see him. He swallows dryly and shifts his weight from one leg to the other. He can feel the tension in his back, his calves. He’s older than he used to be, and his muscles know this. Maybe Rodney won’t be the only one complaining tomorrow.

“It’s about fear,” Ronon says in a voice that is calm, soft. John watches him move around Rodney in a slow circle, giving him room enough to twist so he can watch Ronon’s every move. “Anticipation.”

John watches Rodney’s Adam’s apple bob nervously as Ronon stalks him casually, still circling, the knife moving silently through the air like the fin of a shark.

“It’s about what you think I’ll do.”

Rodney takes an involuntary step backwards when the knife drifts closer, and Ronon smiles the kind of smile you don’t expect to see on the face of a friend. John knows he has one of those too, although Rodney’s never seen it, and with any luck he’ll never have to.

“It’s about you,” Ronon says, and without realizing it, McKay’s let himself be backed towards the wall. John can see the tension in Rodney’s body, the way his shoulders are back, head up, defiant and trusting and terrified all at the same time. He’s cornered and his body realizes it even if his mind doesn’t. It doesn’t matter that this is Ronon.

John knows what it’s like the first time—how you never actually believe the person’s going to do it until the blade splits the skin, until the blood starts to run and the pain surfaces all at once. Until then you can convince yourself it’s a joke, a mistake, a misunderstanding. The first time you can believe it isn’t happening. For a moment.

It gets harder after that.

“Kavanagh?” Rodney says, and Ronon shakes his head.

“Didn’t let me get this close. Fainted before I got five steps inside the room.”

Rodney chuckles weakly. “Fainted. That’s the correct medical term, you know, although personally, I prefer passed out. Not that I ever—no matter what Sheppard might say—”

He’s talking to fill the silence, to keep the fear at bay while he still can. John’s always been fond of banter as a means of distraction from what’s about to happen; he used it with the Wraith Queen, after all, but watching Rodney try to avoid what’s coming just reminds him how inevitable it all is, and nothing in the world prepares you when the moment comes.

John shouldn’t be here, but it’s too late for the truth of that to do him any good. He doesn’t know how to walk away.

Rodney’s never learned how to bluff. He’s not a card player or a ladies’ man, and John’s pretty much given up believing Rodney’s ever going to be more than a piss-poor liar. He’s excruciatingly honest—about his own abilities and everyone else’s, and it’s clear he’s never understood the value of modesty. When you’re the smartest man in two galaxies it makes a twisted sort of sense, but John wishes he could teach Rodney how not to wear his emotions on his face. Wishes he could save him from everything that openness costs him.

John knows the exact moment Rodney’s back hits the wall, when he realizes there’s nowhere to run, and Ronon’s knife is hard and sharp in the moonlight. The last blush of colour drains from Rodney’s face; his mouth opens and nothing comes out. His eyes are huge and blue, and John’s taken a step forward before he realizes there’s nothing he can do, and besides it’s Ronon. He won’t hurt Rodney—John’s as sure of that as Rodney must be—but still, John thinks he should stay. This has to play out to the end.

Ronon wraps a fist in the front of Rodney’s shirt and tugs it upwards exposing the soft flesh of his belly. John can see Rodney automatically pulling in his gut, not from any sort of vanity, but just wanting to keep as far away from the knife as possible. His neck is craned awkwardly, back of his skull pressing into the wall. Ronon angles the blade and moves it in a quick downward motion over the skin.

John holds his breath, whole body tense and hard. It’s a fight not to close his eyes. Force himself to stay in the present. Relax. This isn’t about him.

“The skin here is soft, unprotected. It gives you a large area to work with. Shallow cuts that bleed a little and hurt a lot. Plus they have to watch.”

Rodney’s eyes track the blade’s progress as it slides harmlessly over his stomach. John imagines the crisscross of red lines there, the thin drips of blood that would slide from one cut to the next. He knows the cuts don’t have to be deep. That they hurt like hell. That they don’t tend to scar. Sometimes he thinks it would be easier if they did—at least there would be some proof of what was done, that it was as bad as memory tells him.

Ronon is still talking: “If you tie their arms, there’s nothing they can do. If you want it to be slow, if you want it to be painful, it’s always the belly.”

“Not the arm?” Rodney asks, his voice breathless and high, and John closes his eyes because he knows exactly what Rodney’s thinking, and he wants to tell him torture is torture. Location is relative, and there isn’t anyone who doesn’t break given the right motivation. Not anyone.

Ronon shakes his head and reaches for Rodney’s arm, his right arm. John knows Ronon can’t help but see the ghost of the scar visible on Rodney’s skin, but nothing changes in Ronon’s expression and John wonders if that should scare him more than it does.

“The arm is harder to control,” Ronon says. The knife hovers just over Rodney’s skin, Ronon’s dark hand gripping Rodney’s wrist so his forearm is spread flat. John can still remember each stitch it took to close the wound, the way Rodney watched the movements of the needle and never said a word. John had wrapped the bandage tight and hoped it was enough to hold everything together.

“With the arm, we both have to hold still. If either of us moves suddenly, the blade slices a tendon. Cuts too deep and severs a nerve. You lose the use of a finger, a hand. You’re useless because there’s nothing more I can threaten you with except your life, and you’re not sure it’s important anymore because your hands are everything to you.”

Rodney’s nodding weakly, or maybe he’s just shaking—John isn’t sure—but Ronon’s voice is steady, uncharacteristically patient, as if he’s teaching a lesson to a student. John closes his eyes and tries not to think of Rodney without the full use of his hands. He talks with them. They’re as expressive as everything else about him, and John’s breath catches at the image of strong hands sliding over his own skin. Hands that could know him as well as his own. If he’d let them.

He can’t afford to think about this. What Kolya could have cost them—him.

“Too much at stake with an arm. It’s not what I would do.”

“So, professional torturers go for the belly. Amateurs, the arm. Good to know; really, good to know.” Rodney chuckles, too shaky to be a real laugh, too long to be anything but the edges of hysteria, and Ronon moves the knife away, but doesn’t let go of Rodney’s arm.

“It’s still effective,” Ronon says. “It’s just not what I would do.”

He’s quiet and sincere, and John suspects he doesn’t really understand what Rodney’s asking, but maybe he does. Sometimes John underestimates his people. Ronon slides the knife back into the sheath on his belt.

“But you would’ve cut him. Kavanagh, I mean. You would’ve—”

“I wouldn’t have had to.” Ronon lets Rodney’s arm go, takes a step back and even from the doorway, John can see Rodney start to relax. He shakes out his shoulders, long slim fingers dancing at his side. He presses briefly against his right arm, fingers tight along the ridges of the scar, as if the pain is still there, as if Ronon has sliced him wide open for everyone to see. John thinks maybe he has.

“But—”

“It’s about fear. Anticipation.” The words have a cadence to them. “The threat is everything. I wouldn’t have had to touch him. The threat was enough to get anything I wanted.”

“But …” Rodney’s staring at his own arm and it occurs to John that Ronon’s never asked why Rodney wants to know. Not once. He came in the middle of the night because Rodney needed him, and if he’s wondering about Rodney’s sudden interest in torture techniques, it’s not enough to make him ask the question. Rodney’s never curious without a reason and even Ronon knows this.

John knows reason is a seven inch scar that took twenty-six stitches to close.

“McKay. Some men are messy. Some are crazy. Some just like to see blood.” Ronon shakes his head. “If someone wants to hurt you, threaten you, scare you, they will. If they want information, they’ll get it. Everyone breaks.”

“You wouldn’t.” Rodney’s voice is almost a whisper. More than a little bitter and full of certainty. “You’re the guy with the knife, not the poor bastard passing out on the floor.”

Ronon turns around and points to his back. “Dr. Beckett took the tracking device out of my back. I couldn’t trust him, so I refused anything that might’ve made me weak. I passed out from the pain.” Ronon turns and thrusts his shoulder towards Rodney’s face. “I was held by enemies of Sateda who played games of nahru on my skin. I waited six days to tell them what they wanted, but I still told them.”

“But your people had time, you didn’t give up—”

“The result was the same. The only difference is the number of scars I wear. The number of times I bled.”

“Sheppard wouldn’t have—” Rodney starts, and Ronon cuts him off with a low growl. Leans in tight until their bodies are inches apart. McKay doesn’t back away, just stares up into Ronon’s unflinching gaze.

“Sheppard would have. He has.”

“He—no, he … really?” Rodney sounds skeptical, but his voice is closer to normal.

“Yes.”

“He never said anything.” Rodney sounds vaguely hurt, and John thinks the time he could’ve said something has long since past. Maybe he’s wrong. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to go through it all again.

“He never said anything to me either,” Ronon admits, still in McKay’s space. He shrugs. “Doesn’t change it.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“Huh.”

John knows he hasn’t discussed this with Ronon—or anyone—but he isn’t wrong, and that seems to be the universal truth of it. Everyone breaks.

From the look on his face, Rodney’s still casting around for a way to make sense of it all, for a way to reconcile what he thinks heroes do. He wants it to feel less like a failure, and John knows it takes a long time before just surviving counts as success. Rodney’s used to dealing in grand gestures—Nobel prizes and foil-stamped certificates to hang on the wall. No one told him that sometimes it’s about bleeding and begging, and more often than not no one will ever know exactly how brave or how cowardly you were.

“Everyone breaks,” Ronon repeats. “Everyone feels ashamed, believes someone else would’ve held out longer. Not given in.”

Rodney nods in understanding, but it’s a thoughtful nod not blind agreement, and John feels something shift. He figures he’s going to be answering questions he doesn’t want to one day soon, but there’s probably time to decide if he’s going to tell the truth or pretend Rodney doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He owes him something, but he isn’t entirely sure what, and there are other dangers in being too honest.

Maybe Rodney will never believe he was brave, but John knows it doesn’t matter in the end. Rodney survived—they all did—which, if John thinks too hard about it, is some kind of miracle.

He’s seen the security feeds from the night of the storm: Rodney stepping in front of a gun, desperation clear on his face and Elizabeth carefully shielded behind him; Kolya’s man dragging a knife awkwardly, carelessly, through the skin and muscle of Rodney’s arm while Kolya circled, his mouth moving in soundless images. John didn’t count the minutes because even one second of Rodney on his knees, bleeding, was too much to endure, and he’d silently registered all the sharp presses of wet fingers into that wound, Kolya and his men reminding Rodney of his weakness at every opportunity. He remembers Kolya back-handing Rodney across the face in the control room. The way the scientist had shaken it off as if there was nothing more Kolya could do to him.

John had erased the whole damn file knowing if he didn’t Rodney would find it and use it to blame himself. John wasn’t prepared to let him do that, and couldn’t live with Rodney torn apart in unforgiving black-and-white. Neither of them needs the images to remember what terror looks like.

“Maybe if I’d …” Rodney trails off, and Ronon lets him. Waits to see where this is going, and John’s waiting too. “No, I suppose you’re right.”

John lets out the breath that’s gotten caught in his chest, and he doesn’t think he’ll ever stop being thankful that Rodney’s still alive. Even if he blows up solar systems and doesn’t know when to shut-up and argues with John about everything. John’s so fucking grateful he feels it like an ache throughout his body. A pleasant, stupid, such-a-mind-numbingly-bad-idea kind of ache that’s getting harder and harder to pretend isn’t there. It’s torture not to walk in there right now and throw his heart on the floor, no matter what the consequences might be.

John thinks he should leave. He’s pretty damn sure it shouldn’t be this difficult.

“We all break,” Ronon finishes, hands clasped tight on Rodney’s shoulders. “Some sooner, some later, but we all do. What matters is after. What you do. Whether you stay broken or not. It’s about the only thing you can control.”

Ronon walks out then, past the open doorway, past where John’s holding motionless in the shadows, every muscle punishing him for standing here so long. Rodney’s alone in the middle of the room. Quiet. Unmoving. His fingers trace the edges of the scar on his arm without hesitation, learning its shape with a new respect.

“Everyone breaks,” he says softly, trying out the words as if for the first time, and they follow John into the ghost-grey light of the corridor.

He skirts the late-night patrol, runs the last set of turns until his palm slaps against the panel of the door, and he falls onto the bed, hand already scrabbling beneath his clothes, reaching for a cock that’s been waiting too long. His fingers pull hard through familiar heat and coarse hair, sweat-damp skin making it easy enough to push himself over with quick, sharp, almost painful strokes. Before he’s even formed a complete thought, he’s coming, mind overflowing with blue eyes and the dust of planets and something like a knife driven deep inside his gut. John thrusts up with a raw sound, Rodney’s name silent on a lip that’s bitten-through and bloody. He ignores the sting of salt water trickling down his face, and alone in the darkness lets himself break and break and break.

 

THE END