“Coffee or chocolate?”
A pause. “Next.”
“Oh, come on. Give me an answer. Coffee or chocolate?”
“Nope. That’s a ridiculous question. Next.”
The other man shines a Maglite against his eyes, and John swats at the assault rather ineffectively.
The light flickers out and John tries to focus his watery eyes enough to glare.
“Well?” Rodney urges.
“Fine.” John scowls one last time and looks around the lab. “Teyla’s tava cake or Lorne’s Quillian Root Surprise?”
Rodney’s disgusted face makes his eyes tear up again, only this time with unrestrained glee.
The Marines find them bickering in Lab G-14 about thirty minutes after the report came in. He and Rodney finish gearing up in less than ten.
It looks harmless, the first time they see it. Just an ordinary room in an unoccupied tower in the eastern part of the city.
That’s pretty much enough to tell them it’s better off left alone.
But like most of the crisis events in Atlantis and offworld, they are lured in by the promise of high energy signatures. Even Rodney, who has self-preservation in spades and has gone too wary of honeytraps after a decade in the Pegasus galaxy, believes that this time the risk is minimal compared to the potential reward.
Two hours after that declaration, looking at his best friend’s desperate and terrified eyes, John wonders why none of them seem to have learned that anything Ancient is always going to be too good to be true.
“I said,” Rodney thunders, knuckles white as his fingers latch on to the edge of the console, as white as the rest of his face, “don’t touch anything. Is that still so hard to understand!”
The part of John’s brain that he always keeps cool and detached from any emergency situation even as it happens notices that Rodney’s hands aren’t even shaking. The man always has a strong and steady grip, even when he is running from the Wraith or rewiring the universe within a thirty-minute window.
John is almost always right there with him, but this time he can’t seem to sit still. Not when he knows exactly what to do.
The room keeps telling him so.
“Just hang on for second, all right?” Rodney’s voice is shrill but determined. Always so determined. “I’ll figure out how this stupid system works in no time.”
It’s not about time, John wants to tell him. They’re not getting out unless John does what he has to do. The walls will only keep closing in and closing in, faster than even the ones choking John in the throat, and they will both die.
John closes his eyes, and begs one last time. He begs Atlantis not to ask this of him.
In a stroke of poetic irony, the room stops its whispers.
pro unde verta
Even without his strong background in Latin, John knows that he will have little trouble getting the meaning behind the words. His inheritance, their legacy, has allowed him to learn just enough that when the room started shifting, John immediately understood what has to be done.
Not for the first time, he curses the blood running through his veins.
Your deepest truth
John squares his shoulders and opens his eyes.
Rodney has stopped his frantic fiddling and he’s now standing on the platform with John, the one at the center of the room. It’s the last destination of the four, bright panels that frame the entire space. The intersection.
John hates how it has to come to this.
“It’s okay,” he tells Rodney, unable to stomach the guilt that has no business living in the other man’s eyes. “It’s not your fault.”
Slowly, John takes a deep breath. His fists tremble at the knowledge of what his next words are going to cost him.
“I love you.”
John’s breath stills, and he tears his gaze away from Rodney’s shoulders to his face. He sees the set of the man’s jaw, the thin line of his lips. He sees the faint sheen of sweat and every flicker of lashes. He sees Rodney’s eyes: blue, and scared, and clear.
“I’ve always loved you. And I’ve always known.”
Rodney exhales, the sound impossibly delicate and heavy at the same time. Like the words had to be unearthed from somewhere inside him and are now fluttering like dandelion in a soft breeze.
“There was…You were never meant to know. I had no plans of telling you. You were my friend and you were my teammate, and that was enough.”
Lost in the haze of his own confession, Rodney nods, eyes unseeing.
“But I’ve always loved you.”
When John takes a step forward, hand about to reach out to do something, anything, Rodney snaps like a pulled string, and holds his gaze.
Something in his eyes shutters, locking John out perhaps for the first time since he’s known the man.
“And that’s my truth.”
The lights flicker, and the console beeps.
It takes John a moment to realize that the walls have started moving back, away from the platform. Only when Lorne calls his attention does he notice that the door that was sealed shut is now open, and a bunch of soldiers and scientists are now running around the abandoned facility.
John blinks, and realizes too late that Rodney is long gone.
Rodney marries Jennifer on the seventh anniversary of the Atlantis Expedition.
The ceremony is held in the gate room, with all the people that matter. Woolsey officiates, Torren carries the rings, and the whole thing lasts less than an hour.
A year later, they welcome twin girls.
The couple agree that they each get to name one. It’s a neat arrangement, proposed by Teyla after the third mess hall argument that ends with Chuck being banned from giving suggestions to anyone else’s future children.
In the end, Jennifer names their firstborn Clarissa, after a great aunt.
Rodney names the younger one Joanna Elise.
Jennifer is kicked out of the infirmary after Carson put his foot down and told the two hyperactive little girls that neither their father nor uncle will be going anywhere for at least twenty-four hours, and that it’s best for everyone to get some rest until then.
The McKay twins are the newest scourge of the galaxy, but they eventually let themselves be dragged away when their mother promised a really interesting bedtime story.
As soon as his daughters are gone, the smile vanishes from Rodney’s face. Carson, who was always too damn perceptive for his own good, notices and gives John a sympathetic nod before leaving.
There’s no curtain between them, and for that John is both grateful and pathetically scared.
I’ve always loved you.
The words are still ringing in his ears, familiar and alien at the same time.
They’re now on uncharted territory, and he fears that they may have just reached the edge.
“Your head still hurting?”
John heard Rodney’s token protests, and Carson’s usual reassurance. It seems like a safe bet, for now.
Rodney just snorts. “Seriously? You wanna talk about that?”
On a normal day, John will take offense at that. He will insist that Rodney’s head is the single most valuable resource of the expedition. It is John’s duty to make sure it’s secured.
But it’s not a normal day, and he wonders if there will be another one, after today.
“What do you want me to say?”
Because John will say anything, do anything, to fix this. Because despite what happened, and what didn’t happen, despite the truth that he still has trouble coming to terms with, Rodney still comes first.
“Go to sleep, John.”
It’s an out. Rodney’s giving him a way out, even if it’s just for today. If John’s a better man, he will take it.
There’s a beat before John hears a loud sigh. He still can’t make himself look at the other man again.
John tries to keep his voice steady against the pounding in his ears. “Truth or dare.”
It feels like an eternity before Rodney responds.
pro unde verta
Your deepest truth
“…Did you mean it?”
John waits and waits and waits.
He doesn’t get an answer.
He doesn’t like it, but avoiding Rodney seems like the best course of action. At least until his mind settles enough to process what he’s learned.
It’s easier, in a way, since Rodney hasn’t been in a gate team since the girls were born.
It just becomes difficult when Jo seeks him out, bright eyes just as knowing and just as stubborn.
“I’m really just busy, peanut. There’s a Coalition thing coming up, and your dad and I have our own things to prepare.”
Joanna, who has lighter hair and prefers music over science as an outlet for her mathematical prowess, squeezes John’s fingers before giving him a sad smile.
“I just don’t wanna see you both sad,” his goddaughter tells him.
That night, John paces the length of his quarters and begs for the strength to make the right decision.
Your deepest truth
In the end, the choice is taken from him when his radio comes alive with news of an accident in one of the grounding stations.
Everything stops, and his petty worries become ashes in his mouth when he hears that Rodney was the only one working in the area.
John jerks, hard and violently, and wakes up to the smiling face of Jennifer Keller-McKay.
His back is stiff, and when his vision clears, he finds himself camped out outside the infirmary. Rodney.
“Is he— Did you—”
Before his mind can run away from him, Jennifer squeezes his arm and tips her head to the direction of the doors.
“He’s awake. And he’s asking for you.”
The relief is palpable, and John has to brace himself against a wall before he stumbles. Jennifer keeps him from completely keeling over, and when he turns to face her, he sees her face, and the softness in them every time they are faced with a situation like this.
Between one breath and another, John wonders how much she knows.
“Go ahead,” she tells him, giving his shoulder one last squeeze.
There’s far too many equipment connected to Rodney, and even when John saw the state of him when he was wheeled in, it still knocks him breathless to remember how close it was. How close it feels like, every damn time.
Rodney scoffs. The sound is weak, but so genuine it almost makes John sob. “You gonna come in or what?”
John ducks his head, suddenly feeling shy. He gives his boots a good glare and wills them to move.
“It’s all right, Sheppard. In my condition, I can’t possibly be any threat to you.”
It makes him look up, and when John sees Rodney, he finds a smug grin on the other man’s face. It succeeds in convincing him to cross the threshold.
“How are you feeling?”
John finds a single chair next to the bed Rodney’s occupying. It’s familiar, looks just like the one they’ve all been using for years. But Rodney looks odd, when John sits and looks at him. Maybe because bedside vigils haven’t been his job for a while now, as far as Rodney’s concerned. There’s still a chair when his best friend’s laid up, but it’s no longer his place.
“Like I just got zapped by enough power to turn on a hundred toasters.”
Surprised, John laughs despite himself. “You really did the math?”
Like clockwork, it comes, the looks that tells him just how much of an idiot he truly is.
“Don’t be an idiot.”
“Sorry,” is John’s automatic response, going for cheeky but missing by a mile. As soon as the word’s out, the rest of the air in John’s lungs follow.
“Sorry,” he repeats, this time a little softer, a little more desperate. “I’m sorry, I should’ve been there.”
It’s the truth. He really had nothing much to do then, and if he hadn’t been stupid and scared, he’d have been with Rodney when he was working on the station. Because despite everything else that changed, watching Rodney fixing the city, taking care of them, is still one of his favorite things.
And just like always, Rodney doesn’t need to hear the words to understand.
“I’m sorry, too. For what happened.” With a little difficulty, Rodney shrugs, the gesture both defensive and self-deprecating. “It’s my fault things have been weird between us lately.”
John’s just beginning to shake his head when the other man makes an impatient sound.
“Don’t even try,” he scolds. “There’s a reason why we can’t look at each other in eye lately, and it sure isn’t because we’re swamped with ‘paperwork’.”
The finger quotes look pathetic, with Rodney’s arms lifting barely an inch from the bed, but it’s the effort that counts.
“Which is why we have to talk about it.”
Something cold runs down John’s spine, and it turns warm as the sensation spreads to the rest of his body. He keeps himself seated through sheer force of will, and when he looks up, he meets Rodney’s eyes. Always blue, and always knowing.
“Rodney, you don’t—”
“The room spoke to me, the second it turned trash compactor on us. At first I thought it was the gene, but then it was just me, so it probably had something to do with the console. Who cares?” He huffs, entirely without humor. “I had to say something true, and. Well. It was the first thing that came to mind. It's the only truth I've got left.”
Something flickers across Rodney’s face, and like a veil lifted open, John finally sees it. Plain and simple, and he wonders how he never saw it before. It’s always been there.
“So, yeah. I meant it. And I’m sorry for putting you through it, but now that it’s out, I can’t take it back. I don't think I want to.”
Rodney’s voice is steady, resolute, and John is thankful because between the two of them, it’s John who feels like one more crack, and he'll shake apart.
Your deepest truth
“I was prepared to take it to grave, you know. Wasn’t hard. I’ve had years of practice. But things never go the way we want it, right? Not in this place.” When Rodney smiles, it’s soft, and sad. “I do love you. God, so much. And I know it’s not fair, because… I mean, I love Jennifer and the girls, too.”
For a moment, Rodney wavers, and John feels tugged and swept by the dip and rise of his words.
“They’ve made me who I am, but then again, so have you.”
Slowly, Rodney’s eyes glaze over, mind going somewhere John can’t seem to follow.
“I think about it, sometimes. What if. There were so many moments. When you almost die. When I almost die. Whenever it seems like the world’s gonna end. Maybe in another reality, it happens. There’s an infinite number of them. There’s gotta be one where we’re both on the same page, right?”
There are words stuck in John’s throat, a hundred vows left unspoken, a thousand pleas.
“But at the end of the day, this is the one we have. And in this one, you’re my best friend. And I can’t lose that, John. I can’t lose you.”
“I never meant to mess things up. Not this one. So please, let us be okay. I just want to know that we’re okay.”
Before John can say anything else, the sound of squealing girls invades the infirmary. John stands up just in time to see a blur of pink and blonde, and Clarissa races to her father’s bedside.
Joanna slinks in right after her, smile bright as she spots Rodney and John.
Before the rest of the entourage arrives, John moves to the other side and finds Rodney’s uninjured hand. He gives it a squeeze and waits for Rodney to meet his gaze.
“We’re okay,” John tells him, the only thing he allows himself to say. “We’ll always be okay.”
When Jennifer arrives, John quickly excuses himself. Outside the infirmary, away from knowing gazes and sad eyes, John lets himself breathe.
Your deepest truth
I love you. I've always loved you.
Despite everything, Rodney still comes first. And maybe in another world, in another lifetime, John can find a place for his own truth.