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“Rough couple of days, huh?”

It had taken almost two hours but Sheppard was finally able to locate McKay. The high strung scientist was seated on the balcony of the top most peak of the main tower. It’s not a spot a lot of people know about, a spot McKay had unofficially claimed as his own private get away. John had to admit it was a pretty impressive hide away, from here you could see all of Atlantis.

“You can say that again,” Rodney’s voice was a little hollow and robotic sounding, like he was just going through the motions. To be fair the last few days had been utter hell and they’d all been put through the ringer. But, Rodney was right when he complained that in war time situations the scientists get treated like crap then are expected to save the day in impossible situations. It’s a rough situation but Rodney seemed to handle most stressful situations with a certain sort of excitement.

This time was different though.

The Siege of Atlantis was a full out war, not the skirmishes they’d previously had with the Wraith. It lasted almost a week with little to no rest and lots of death and destruction. John was accustomed to war and the particular stress that brings, but others weren’t so well versed. Rodney has always excelled during high stress situations and this time was no different, without him Atlantis would be lost, but now that the fight is over he seems to be flagging.

He’s become distant, often lost in thought and unable to keep up with conversations. Since he emerged from his well-deserved day of rest he hasn’t even yelled at or insulted any of his staff.

This Rodney McKay isn’t the loud, sarcastic, smartass that John asked to join his off world team.

“How you holding up, Rodney?” John asks as he takes a seat next to McKay. Looking out at the city below them is one of the true beauties of this galaxy, and they saved it.

They should be out celebrating their victory, getting drunk on Athosian wine and dancing like no one’s watching. Yet, here they were, sitting at the loneliest part of the base. There’s no doubt about it, they were wallowing.

“I’m alive, you’re alive, the city’s intact, and the Wraith hopefully won’t be an issue for a while. I’m great, everything’s great. You know, until the Wraith figure out what we did and then we’re all dead,” Rodney rambled in his usual way but John prided himself on knowing how to read Rodney McKay.

Rodney was saying all the right words and they were just as fast paced as they should be, but his body hardly moved. One of the things John finds most endearing about McKay is the way he is never still, how when he talks he uses his whole face, his hands, his hips, even his feet. Rodney moves as if the words he speaks are a melody and his twitches and shuffles the accompanying dance. To see him so still adds a new level of sadness to the already sombre mood.

“Come on Rodney, I know you better than that. Something’s eating you up and you want everyone to think you’re fine. When you wanna talk, I’ll listen,” John softened his words and looked at Rodney. He’s never seen the man look so vulnerable before, so heart broken and lost. It was nearly John’s undoing.

John turned his gaze from Rodney to look out at the beautiful city once again. He could feel the blush on his cheeks and just hopes that the dim dusk lighting hid it from Rodney. For several moments they sat in silence on the cusp between comfortable and awkward; even from this distance they could still hear the ocean.

“I, um, no one – no one’s ever offered to actually listen to me before,” Rodney whispered, his voice rough and broken. He rubbed his hands on his pants several times and kept clearing his throat as if he’d swallowed a stone.

John wasn’t very good at the whole emotions things, but for the people he truly cared about he was willing to give it a shot.

“I’ll always listen. Even when you let your ego do most of the talking, I’ll listen.” His comment worked as intended and lifted the heavy air surrounding them. They chuckled for a moment, and for that moment everything felt right. For that single moment things were normal, there was no war, no death, and no missing friends. For a moment it was just John and Rodney, just like old times.

Then the moment was over and reality set back in.

“I don’t, I don’t know why I feel like this, I don’t even know what this is,” Rodney comments, sounding just as lost and confused as he appears.

This is a conversation John has had before, with countless soldiers, the survivors.

“It’s grief and a bit of guilt. You lost people that were under your command and it’s killing you. That’s the burden of being a leader.” John looked out over the city, his voice calm and even, his hands clenched together. This is one of the many horrible things about being in charge that John hates, but somehow he never thought he’d be giving this speech to Rodney.

He never realised how much Pegasus would change everything.

“I guess that makes sense. But I’ve lost people before, too many people. And living with that is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and some days I feel like I can’t do it anymore. But it’s not because of them that I’m up here hiding myself away like some Disney princess in her ivory tower.” John looked over at Rodney and raised his eyebrow, mirth dancing in his eyes.  Rodney rolled his eyes. “Shut up, it was a perfectly good analogy.”

John smiled to himself and ducked his head. That sounded more like the Rodney he’s come to know.

He hated to ruin the moment and disrupt the easy calm they’d developed but John had a job to do. As Rodney’s… well, actually, John didn’t know what they were but they were something. So, as Rodney’s something it was his job to get Rodney to deal with his emotions and get him back to his old self.

Sheppard is pretty sure he knows what the real issue is anyways. He knows Rodney better than anyone on Atlantis and he’s pretty sure McKay is beating himself up about something that isn’t, in any way, his fault. He couldn’t stand to have Rodney unnecessarily guilt tripping himself any longer.

“You’ve lost people, but this time you lost a friend,” he murmured, trying to be as gentle as possible.  

Beside him he heard Rodney gasp and looked over to see him valiantly holding back tears. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Rodney cry before and he doubts the scientists is going to let himself cry now. It was more than a matter of pride, it was about holding it together just a little while longer.

“I don’t have many friends,” Rodney retorted in his attempt to stall the impending conversation. Usually John would give him the out, but he knew Rodney needed this.

“You’ve got lots of friends. And Peter was one of them, even if you don’t want to admit it,” John replied as softly as possible as he looked at Rodney out the corner of his eye.

Rodney’s whole body tensed up at the mention of Peter and his face went completely blank.

The loss of Peter Grodin had affected many Atlantis personnel as Peter had been popular and an integral part of Stargate operations, but none felt the loss quite like Rodney did.

Neither Rodney nor Peter would have admitted to being friends but they shared a certain amount of respect for one another. Over the year they’d inhabited Atlantis the two had found a way to work extremely well together and between the two of them they not only got Atlantis working again but they also kept her working. McKay may have been cordial with some of the other scientists he’s lost but with Peter Grodin he had found a friend.

Losing a colleague is hard, but losing a friend is torture.

“He, he, he put up with me pretty well, huh? He was one of the few that threw back whatever I dished out, it was kind of refreshing,” McKay chuffed like he was surprised, but the smile he wore vanished a moment later. “He was an idiot. He should have let us pick him up, he should have– “

“McKay,” John sighed, sympathising with the man.

“No, he wasn’t the idiot. I was. I should have just gone in and gotten him anyways. I shouldn’t have let him try to be a hero; I should have just flown in and saved him. It’s my fault he’s dead and I have to live with knowing that for the rest of my life,” Rodney’s voice kept cracking and breaking, like his emotions were clawing their way up his throat whether he wanted them too or not. It was painful and John felt like crying a little himself. “How do you live knowing it was your fault someone you cared for died? How?”

McKay looked at him like he had all the answers in the galaxy. He never thought Rodney would ever look at him like that, and it breaks his heart to have it happen now because of this.

John didn’t have the magic answer that would make everything better. There was no right or wrong answer here. Just because he’s been through similar conversations in the past doesn’t mean he ever knows what to say when asked this question. It’s like asking someone the meaning of life, and in a way that’s exactly what Rodney is asking. Maybe that’s the answer.

“You make his sacrifice mean something.” When he speaks his voice is strong and calm, full of reassurances. He looks right into Rodney’s troubled eyes and pours all his conviction and strength into it. He had to make Rodney believe that he could get through this.

“You weren’t supposed to have the perfect answer for that,” McKay grumbled good-naturedly after a prolonged moment of staring, but Sheppard could tell his words had made an impact. Rodney sat up a little straighter, his hands relaxed and the air around them felt a little lighter. Rodney might be trying to wave off all the emotional talk but he listened and he understood.

John chuckled and nudged his shoulder against Rodney’s. When he pulled back, he didn’t go far and kept his shoulder lightly grazing McKay’s. In response McKay kicked out his knee so their thighs were pressed together. It was far more intimate than the situation required, far more intimate than just friends or work colleagues.

It was more and less in many ways, but it was something. Just like they were something.

It’s always something undefined but not for lack of trying. Maybe they need a word all their own to describe it.

“It’s not the perfect answer, but it’s the answer you needed.”

Rodney looked at him again, in that vulnerable way from earlier. He was looking at John like one of his equations he’s trying to figure out, but it was far more delicate than the way he treats physics. John swallowed hard and returned the look. It was terrifying and exhilarating, a kind of rush John thought could only be achieved by flying. This intensity was something he always lacked with Nancy, or any of his previous relationships. It struck him then that he was comparing his thing with Rodney to his past romantic relationships. That kind of thinking should have shocked him or at the very least freaked him out a little but the knowledge seemed to slot into his mind as seamlessly as Rodney fit himself into Sheppard’s life.

“You really do know me pretty well, don’t you?” Rodney asked, his eyes too knowing.

John just smiled back at him before returning his gaze to the city. They sat there for a long time in comfortable silence, thinking and feeling in their own ways.

At the peak of Atlantis, the great city of the Ancients, sat two men. They’d been through trials no one could dream of and faced every adversary together, as they would continue to do. Pegasus may have taken a lot from them, but it could not take them.

Whatever it is they were.

They’d find a word for it someday.