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Ishmael

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Rodney has never viewed himself as a particularly self-sacrificing person, but standing in his burning city, watching the last jumper headed for the mainland take off into the night sky, he finds that what he feels is more relief than fear. Everyone who survived the initial impact is gone, safe, and he allows himself a moment of grim satisfaction. That he should be the last seems fitting somehow, left behind to be consumed by the same flames that are destroying what for the last three years has been his life. After all, this is his fault.

He was knee-deep in a project that now seems pointless when the Daedalus fell out of hyperspace two days ahead of schedule just outside Atlantis' solar system, but he didn't worry, nor when they Daedalus didn't answer Atlantis' hails. Improved engines, perhaps, powered by a ZPM; a malfunctioning communications relay. However, the ship didn't swing into orbit; it dipped into the planet's atmosphere instead, and then there was concern, only still not enough. He should have insisted Elizabeth give the order to raise the shields then, or convince Sheppard to give the order, condemning the Daedalus to die and saving the city. Had it been another ship, perhaps he would have. But until the very last moment, none of them had truly believed the Daedalus would really come crashing down.

It has cost them Atlantis.

For a city made of concrete and steel, she sure burns brightly. The air is filled with smoke, the roaring of the fire, the sound of glass breaking and buildings falling. Rodney is torn between staying to see what the heat will do to the naquadah generators and watching the city go down from a relatively safe distance. Relative because even the long west pier is still part of Atlantis and will sink just like the rest of her. But in his hands he's still holding the ZPM he saved from the fire, and the least he can do is throw it into the sea to keep it away from the flames. That's the reason he stayed behind. The heat is intense enough to melt even Ancient crystal casing, and if the ZPM blows up, it will take the rest of the planet right along.

The ZPM is the reason he didn't run to the jumper bay when Sheppard ordered him to. Rodney had enough time to save either himself or to unplug the ZPM and save everyone else, and he chose the latter. Of course, Sheppard wouldn't have left him behind; not Rodney, who is Team and therefore by default one of the three most important people in Sheppard's life. So Rodney faked his own death. Took the ZPM, wrestled the city's sluggish and mostly unresponsive systems into submission, and created an explosion that was large enough to convince even Radek that the Ancient energy source had gone out, only more quietly than expected. Rodney ignored the frantic voices from his radio as he made his own life sign blink out, cradled the ZPM, and ran outside, watching the jumpers leave the city. There was no way they could have picked him up, not from where he was standing, and time had run out.

Rodney doesn't regret it. Atlantis is dying but most of his friends are safe; that in itself is enough to make his impending demise acceptable. There's a strong wind on the west pier, air sucked in by the flames to fan them, but the wind is cool on his heated face. Cool is good. He turns, his eyes burning as they take in Atlantis in all her glory, her tall spires blackened and crumbling, his beautiful city ravaged by a fire he could have prevented. The wind whips around, driving heat and smoke in his direction. His eyes burn for a different reason now, and the smoke feels like glass in his throat as he starts to cough. Strangely, the heat is giving him goose bumps. His time, too, is running out.

The drop is perhaps five metres from the top of the pier to the water below, and Rodney wonders what he's doing even as he jumps – he's in the middle of the ocean with nowhere to swim to, and drowning can't be better than choking on smoke. The water is icy and makes him gasp for air. Maybe he'll freeze before he drowns. He's still holding the ZPM, but it's either let go and swim or follow it into the cold, cold depths of the ocean. Rodney shivers, hard, and forces his body to uncurl around the Ancient energy source. To his surprise, he's still willing to fight for his life, however futile his efforts might ultimately prove to be. He swims.

Rodney has never been good at this kind of exertion and his shoes don't make it easier. He doesn't kick them off, though. His clothes and the heat at the back of his head are the only things still connecting him to Atlantis, to a life that, despite the constant danger, was good. He knows it's stupid, but he's determined to die with the expedition patch on his arm and the standard issue shoes on his feet. It seems right, somehow.

All too quickly, his strength is fading. He doesn't even know what direction he's swimming in, his fingers are numb, his body is shaking. And now, a mile or two from the city, alone in the ocean under familiar stars, he's afraid. Afraid because he's going to die here, alone, without anyone ever knowing what he did to save them. And then it hits him, the reality that he's actually going to die this time, no Sheppard to come looking for him, no last minute brilliance, no Hail Mary pass. This is it. The fear is drowning him as much as the water.

Something brushes against his leg, and he flinches away, flailing as he goes under for a moment. When he comes up for air, there's an eye twice the size of his palm right in front of him, and he wants to laugh, cry, anything, because the shaky relief that swamps him is simply too much. In the end, he settles for a single, croaked word.

"Sam."

The whale blinks at him, then dives away, the wake pulling Rodney back under. He tries to claw his way back to the air but he's disoriented and weak, not really knowing up from down. His lungs are screaming for a breath, the freezing salt water burning in his eyes as he tries to fight, to hang in there for just one more second. The next moment, something bumps into him from underneath, pushing him out of the water. And air has never tasted sweeter even as he inhales so fast he starts to choke on his own spit, coughing and wheezing on top of the giant whale that obviously thinks it's a dolphin, for it's carrying him away from the blazing chaos that undoubtedly caught its attention in the first place. Rodney doesn't care where they're going, lying on cold, rubbery skin with his eyes closed, one hand clumsily petting the creature that, for all intents and purposes, has just saved his life for a third time.

Sometimes, being Rodney McKay is amazing.

Even above the water, huge fluke hitting the surface every now and then, Sam is fast. Rodney can tell by the way darkness engulfs them in no time, nothing but night in every direction, the sky a bit lighter where his city still burns. He's determined not to look at it, but a strangely dull thud makes him turn around. Behind them, white blooms into the sky like an exotic flower as Atlantis explodes, the naquadah generators shredding her into pieces as fine as dust. Rodney waits for the wave to roll over them, but it seems they are already too far away. He's not sure if he's relieved or disappointed. There should have been a tsunami at least, making her demise known to every shore of this world. Then again, the Athosians built their new settlement rather close to the sea. Relief then, that at least they are safe; too many have died already.

It's still night when Sam comes to a halt, but Rodney's certain they've been going for hours. His clothes are dry, for one. He can hear the sound of waves rolling over sand close by, so he'll just assume that this is his stop. Lights are flickering in the near distance, campfires, and Rodney marvels once again at the amazing friend he's made.

"Thank you," he says, gratefully petting Sam's back, and he swears the whale answers with a soft, fishy huff of breath. The water's still cold when Rodney tumbles off Sam's back with little elegance – it's spring on the mainland, he remembers – but not as cold as the icy depths around Atlantis. Sam huffs again, slaps his fluke into the water, and disappears back into the ocean. Rodney waves, feeling a little stupid, but he's allowed. He can feel hypothermia coming on and hypoglycaemia, and he thinks he might have pulled a muscle. He's as wet as a drowned beaver, and he has just lost Atlantis. That should be reason enough to cut him a little slack.

When his feet touch solid ground, he stumbles onto the beach and towards the campfires, wanting nothing more but to sit down for a moment, right there in the sand, closing his eyes and mourning his city just for a minute. Only the promise of warmth and food is enough to keep going, and he walks on until he staggers, drenched and bedraggled, through the trees that surround the Athosian camp.

The jumpers are neatly parked side by side at the far end of the settlement, and Rodney's surprised at the number of people he sees. His eyes are inevitably drawn toward one person, though, and he finds him sitting at one of the smaller fires, away from the crowd. Sheppard looks pale and sick, staring into the flames and showing no sign that he's listening to Teyla's soft talking, or even noticing Ronon's silent presence on his other side. They all look tired and a little forlorn, but Sheppard… Sheppard looks like his heart has been broken.

Losing a home can do that to a man, Rodney supposes, feeling a little numb himself.

It's Ronon who spots him first, back straightening as he stares. Teyla's words break off abruptly, her mouth forming a soft "oh" when she looks to see what has made Ronon sit so still. Their reaction is enough to make Sheppard look up, tired eyes widening as they meet Rodney's, and then Sheppard's scrambling to his feet and almost running over to where Rodney's still standing, giving him barely enough time to register the murmur of shocked surprise that's rising through the settlement before a hard mouth descends unto his own, hands clutching his shoulders as Sheppard kisses him with a desperation that's frightening. Rodney's heart is beating faster than it has all night and he doesn't know where to put his hands and he thinks, stupidly, that Sheppard's not the only one who never sees these things coming. The kiss lasts barely long enough for Rodney to start to return it, then he's pulled into a fierce embrace, still floundering, wondering if the world tilted when Atlantis exploded.

"You son of a bitch," Sheppard breathes into his wet hair, "I thought you were dead."

"I, ah, made sure the ZPM wouldn't blow up," he explains stupidly, bringing his arms up to hug Sheppard, awkwardly, when the other man makes no move to step back. Sheppard doesn't say anything, just hugs him harder, mashing Rodney's face against his collarbone, obviously not caring that his own clothes are getting wet. Rodney pats his back, feeling the fine tremors running through Sheppard's body, his friend's harsh breath warm against his ear. It's choked, almost hiccupping, like Sheppard might be crying, and that idea disturbs Rodney more than the knowledge that unless Earth sends another ship, he'll be spending the rest of this life with farmers.

"I'm sorry," he offers, not certain what he's apologising for, but hoping it's what Sheppard needs to hear. Sheppard nods, clinging to him for another moment before he takes a step back, his eyes bright but dry. And now the others are there, touching Rodney as if to make sure he's no apparition, telling him how glad they are he's alive. It's nice to hear, but all he can really focus on is Sheppard, who's still holding on to him like he's not planning on letting go anywhere in the near future. He knows he's always been one of the few people Sheppard considers important, but only now, for the first time, does it occur to him that perhaps his place is at the very top of that list. The thought frightens and exhilarates him, and he has to test that hypothesis, right now. So he pulls Sheppard back in, brings their mouths together for another kiss. And it's a little like coming home, like he's been adrift and Sheppard has fished him out of the water.

He can hear laughter around them, catcalls and murmured approval. The sounds mingle with muttered curses and tears over the fall of their beautiful city, and tomorrow, Rodney will be trying to cope with life away from all technology, to find a way to make their sudden exile a little easier.

Right now, all that counts is Sheppard's smile against his lips.