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knowing, not knowing, pretending

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The explosion is spectacular; the north pier goes up all at once, the flames blue and gold and green. It knocks them back, even from a hundred yards away, and Rodney ends up sprawled across Ronon, Teyla's hand clenched around his arm. There's no going back to find John; there's not even anywhere left to look for him.

At the service, there's a flag but no casket, no body to send home.

Rodney knows what it means when there's no body.

--

Atlantis limps along without him, just as broken physically as it is in spirit. Rodney can feel her- that's all John, creeping into his head again, Rodney never thought of her as sentient- he can feel her sagging under the weight of it, feel her turn inward, away from them.

And then the lights start going out, one by one, and no one can turn them back on, not even Rodney, who was always her second favorite.

They evacuate everyone to the alpha site, eventually, when the main systems start to fail, when no amount of work will coax her out of it; when Rodney tries to dial her, there's no answer.

--

When Rodney was seven years old, he packed up his clothes and his chemistry set and all the encyclopedias he could fit. He took his bright red suitcase down to the garage and waited, waited for the Tardis to appear in his front yard and the Doctor to take him away. He waited and waited and waited, until it got dark and he couldn't stand the cold any longer.

For years that was the worst thing he had ever felt, that disappointment, that cold, solid feeling that all the things he loved the best weren't real and never could be. And then a man from the government came and took him away, and he found out that it was real, all of it was, and the Gate wasn't quite a Tardis, but only because it was better. And he lived it, lived the dream, lived the fantasy that had always been out of his reach, complete with the people he was never good enough for before, the ones who inexplicably loved him, despite who he was.

He had it and lost it, and that's worse.

--

He could try, he knows he could. He can see the equations in front of him when he closes his eyes, the first steps, tantalizing and always, always there. He could maybe even get Atlantis to limp along with him, dragging out her suffering long past where he should.

He knows all this because John told him, laid it out for him in the middle of a sleepless night, the way another him fought and fought and drove himself crazy with it, lived to be a sad old man on nothing but one thin hope.

But there's no galaxy to save, this time, no Michael, no Wraith, just an old floating spaceship and John, and John would- John said he would- rather not be saved if it meant Rodney could be happy.

John always was a martyr; he never considered the consequences.

--

Rodney lives in Toronto, these days; he tried everywhere, the mountains and the coastline and the desert, as far as he could get away from anyone and anything he knew. In the end, it never worked, not when he'd grown so accustomed to being around people, in a tiny little city where everyone knew his name. He lives down the road from Jeannie and only grumbles a little when she makes him babysit and tries not to think how far that makes him from the person he used to be.

He gets a phone call from her one afternoon, and she pleads for him not to freak out or hyperventilate or just throw himself out a window, but she's sending someone down to see him, and won't he open the door, please?

The doorbell rings and Rodney considers strongly not answering it, but he looks through the peephole and sees something he can't explain. He opens the door and it doesn't get any better; there's John, just standing there, looking pale and drawn but otherwise like himself- or, at least, what Rodney thinks he used to look like.

"Rodney," John says.

Rodney screws his eyes shut. He can't look, can't process, can't take this in. It would be adding something to his meticulously constructed world, and Rodney doesn't want more. He wants to live with his memories, the ones where the world is ending and the stakes are always high, the ones where they're happy, the ones where their lives are more perfect than they ever realized at the time. He wants to keep playing them over and over again until they're fragile and worn, guarding them carefully, just like he's been doing ever since John left.

"Rodney," John is saying again, and still Rodney doesn't open his eyes.

"You were gone," Rodney tells him, because he can't say it, can't say you left me, as much as he believes it.

"Didn't want to be," John says softly.

Rodney opens his eyes and pushes him away, suddenly, because he's had enough. "I can't fucking-" He pulls at his thinning brown hair. "I can't just sit you down and make you a cup of fucking tea, you're dead, and I-" He loses his balance, sits down hard on the porch rail. "I-" He squeezes his eyes shut again, because it's safer behind his eyelids, because he's learned to live with what goes on there.

He hears John step closer, and then John's arms are around him, John is tipping up his face to kiss him, a soft brush of the lips that tastes like salt. And Rodney can't believe this is happening, just can't, because that would be- that would be impossible.

But John's right there, John's holding him tightly enough that it actually sort of hurts, and there's something about that, the kind of imperfection that never happens when he dreams about this moment. In his dreams, it never hurts, and this does, more than anything, his heart ripped in all directions at once.

John pulls back; Rodney cringes with embarrassment as he realizes that his cheeks are wet, but John just wipes the tears away, smiling his little half-smile.

"Give me a minute," Rodney says, fanning his eyes with his hands.

"Relax, Rodney," John says, and Rodney's heart twists again. "We've got all the time in the world."

"No, we don't," Rodney says, shaking his head. John's face clouds over, but it clears when Rodney quickly adds, "but I don't have anywhere else to be."

"Good," John says, and he leans back in and presses a kiss to Rodney's lips. Rodney sighs and lets him in, cautiously, lets something new unfold.