Every night near eleven Rodney drives home to the house at the edge of town, where the college crowd has petered out and it's just big trees and huge snowdrifts in winter. John liked the trees and the nature, and Rodney liked when John liked things, though he liked best of all that John didn't know that.
It's dark and cold and wretched in Illinois during November, and the only thing Rodney wants is to strip off his sopping wet coat and shoes and socks and pants and crawl into bed.
And every night near eleven, after Rodney has pulled off his sopping wet coat and shoes and socks and pants and crawls into bed, he freezes and waits until a wave of loss rolls over him again, with a new-again tidal pull of cold surprise that John's not there waiting for him.
Rodney's at the beginning of the mail route so when he tumbles out of bed and heads out for his miserable nine a.m. intro class his mailbox is already packed with solemn letters from their HMO, mountains of paperwork that he tackles on weekend afternoons in the naked winter light of his kitchen table. There's nothing else to do and Rodney's always been good with numbers, so he sits with his bank books and his calculator and adds and subtracts out the costs of every month they stole out of fate's hands and forced out of John's will. It all seems stupid and unimaginably small now but Rodney remembers that when the doctors had said, "It would give you three months more, maybe four," it had seemed like eternity.
Rodney knows better now.
One of Rodney's upper-level physics students has turned in her third blank assignment before he overhears a department secretary whispering how unfortunate for Carol, about how sad it is her sister died. They say, well, at least they saw it coming. They say, at least they had enough time to say goodbye properly. They say, I wish there was something I could do for her.
Rodney cancels all of his classes for the rest of the day and writes Carol a note on honest-to-God paper, tells her that he's lost all of her assignments, and that if she doesn't mind, he's too lazy to look. She can turn them in later if she wants.
If it's colder than usual that day, Rodney's sure it has to do with a low pressure front coming out of New England and nothing to do with the fact that he spends an hour in his car in the faculty parking lot trying to breathe and utterly failing.
In one way or another Rodney has always known he was going to lose John. For a long time, on Atlantis, he thought it'd be to the hungry ocean, the greedy waves lapping at the sides of the city during high winds and roaring storms. He thought he'd lose John on one of their missions, in stranger jungles, to exotic poisons or unknown weapons. He thought he'd lose John to the Wraith, to the Genii--to a thousand different things that would send him home in flag-draped box. Rodney had nightmares about being handed a folded American flag, of collapsing on the green grass in Arlington.
But John always exceeded expectations, survived all odds, astounded everybody around him, so Rodney did not return from Atlantis a military widow and when he held onto John at night, it was with a sense of ignorant entitlement that made it all the sweeter.
Four years later, John got into a minor wreck, and when Rodney came to pick him up from the hospital, nervy and scared and grateful John was fine, they found out that he wasn't fine at all.
John worked in the Boeing offices, where he made and flew experimental airplanes for a living, proving that some people could actively decide never to grow up. If he had an office Rodney had never seen it, and whenever Rodney visited, it was to see John in a big open room with the other Phantomworks engineers, crowded around blueprints with their sleeves rolled up.
When they'd left Atlantis, older and wearing her scars, they thought nothing would ever thrill them again, that the crushing banality of ordinary life on their native soil would drive them crazy.
It turned out John's taste in music and habit of leaving towels all over the bathroom floor and Nazi-like rules for the kitchen would really push Rodney over the edge. And when they were having long and drowsy truces, it would be a small, ordinary life they led; it turned out good.
"What the fuck are you doing to the grass?" John had demanded.
"There just has to be a more efficient way to do this," Rodney had complained leaning against their newer, improved lawnmower, suped-up with cannibalized parts from a race car.
And then John would yell about destroying the turf and Rodney would accuse John of trying to poison him because hey, Rodney was probably allergic to this kind of grass.
Rodney was offered tenure and he abused his superior intellect and power to torture undergraduates and adjunct professors and drop snide comments at conventions to people who published trashy books and became commercial success. That didn't keep him from being the guy who got kicked out of bed for eating in it.
Somehow they went from heroes of the galaxy to two guys who argued about taking out the trash. They fit their schedules around one another's, fit their lives around each other, and Rodney realized that whatever it was between them had been an all-new adventure.
The Stargate programs are set to be declassified at the beginning of the new year, and Dr. Rodney McKay has six crates worth of papers, peer reviewed by other SGC scientists ready for publishing as soon as the president says the word.
The peon assigned the job of contacting everybody from the project asks Rodney if Colonel John Sheppard is available and Rodney hangs up on him. The stuttering apology he gets half an hour later when the flunkie calls back doesn't make things any better, but it does remind Rodney to put on his game face for when he flies down to Colorado that week.
When he gets there everybody is jubilant and nervous, and when he and Elizabeth and Zelenka and Carson get into a room together they manage to talk for all of two minutes before the conversation collapses into silence from all the words they're not saying. Which is Elizabeth's cue to start making conversation to take up the space.
Rodney's actually listening to Elizabeth talking about her dogs when he snaps:
"Oh for fuck's sake. He's dead. We were all there. It's been three years. We can talk about it."
Because the thing is that though Atlantis is all of theirs, and always will be, John is in all of their stories. He's the guy who turned on all the lights and turned them off when the very last members of the original crew left. He saved them all a thousand times. He's their grand, unifying theory, their strings vibrating in eleven dimensions, the glue that held them all together. John threw barbeques and hand grenades and he loved Atlantis like he loved Rodney and was so extraordinary for it, singular and constant, that not talking about John when talking about Atlantis is like trying to describe morning without the sun.
John's funeral was on a Tuesday. It was sunny. Rodney doesn't remember all that much of it, but he knows Zelenka and Elizabeth and Carson stayed with him for a week afterward.
He doesn't remember much of that, either.
The point Rodney tries to make, that makes Elizabeth bite her lip and Carson rub at his face and Zelenka look away is that he's over it and they should be, too, because Rodney's done being furious over the unfairness of it all and crippled by loss and ruined over this--he really, really is.
"He was an asshole," Rodney insists.
"Only to you," Zelenka says, laughing. "He was very nice to all of us."
"He was a jerk," Rodney says, scowling. "He made fun of Babylon 5."
"A sign of a broken moral compass for sure," Elizabeth demurs.
Zelenka rolls his eyes, Carson mutters something about Rodney's character under his breath, and it's all okay.
The fact that he and Elizabeth and Carson and Zelenka are in a bar in Colorado Springs getting totally fucking shitfaced later that night means that Rodney's just thrilled to be liberated from his grief. He tells them about how John made Rodney do yardwork and watch all three Back to the Future movies and go hiking. He tells them about how one time, when they were all coming over for a barbeque, John set the grill on fire an hour before they showed up and he made Rodney go buy a new one while he hosed down the sizzling remains. They laugh and laugh until their eyes are blurry and head off one by one in phoned-in taxies.
When Rodney leaves, it's with some guy with dark hair and muddy eyes, and hey, he tells himself, when he's slinking out of an unfamiliar apartment later, it's just something guys do.
Rodney's so over acting out.
Between diagnosis, treatment, and taking John off the respirator, they had one whole year of hospitals and chemo, radiation, John making jokes about how Rodney had always hated the hair when all of it had started to fall out. One year when Rodney was so busy being manically busy and nauseated with worry that by the time the night the living will was pulled up, Rodney was so frozen by the utter lack of things to do that he just sat at John's bedside in the hospital, listened to the heart monitor trip and stumble and fall into a shrill, resonant beep that was calmly turned off by a nurse about a minute later.
Elizabeth and Zelenka were in the waiting room and Carson was in the staff lounge at the hospital and when Rodney came out to tell them, Elizabeth had crumbled to the floor. Rodney had never seen Elizabeth on her knees, shattered like that, and he wondered for a whole two minutes when John would help her up before he realized that this time, he'd have to do it.
So he'd reached out a shaking hand to her, and that was when it started to sink in that they were alone.
"I think we're looking at this all wrong," John had said during some of the last days.
"Oh is that so?" Rodney had asked, curious and annoyed, which was normal and in times of great chaos, any reprieve was an oasis.
John had cocked his head, a rueful smile on his face, as familiar as the rhythm of the Atlantean ocean to Rodney. "We have spent a majority of the time we've known one another fighting with each other, and really, it'll be better for your blood pressure," John had said.
"You know what," Rodney had said, tapping at the inside of John's left elbow, trying to ignore all the worn-out veins, "I think you're right. My life will be so much easier."
John had hissed when the IV needle went into his skin, but the smile had bounced right back, manically cheerful, and he'd said, "I know I'm right. This is all so much artifice."
Rodney had snorted. "Big word coming from a military grunt."
"Plus," John had emphasized, voice over-bright, "you get to sleep with all new people."
"You were always a little boney for me," Rodney had said. "Okay, hold up a second," he'd murmured, and turned on the IV drip, pulled up the sheets around John's shoulders, and crept carefully into the bed from the other side. He had brushed slow kisses over John's temple and the tip of his elf-ear and the corner of his left eye before he'd kissed John on the mouth, tired and scared and skin-hungry.
The thing that really killed Rodney more than the cancer had killed John was that in a way, Rodney had never really believed John would actually die.
On December 31, Rodney tenders his resignation from Northwestern University, effective immediately.
On January 1, the president calls a press conference and he talks about the Stargate for the first time, with the childlike wonder of a boy and the elegant grace of a true statesman, and when Rodney listens to him talk about taking a leap of faith, through a circle to the edges of the galaxy and beyond, about science and miracles and the most beautiful and terrible things mankind has ever known, he realizes he's sitting in front of the television in the green room of the White House crying and that he is not alone.
He reaches one hand out and Elizabeth takes it and they nearly break each other's fingers when the president first says the word "Atlantis."
The president says:
Through science we stay forever children, hungry for knowledge and unafraid in our pursuit of it, provided by our creator with a desirous heart and able mind. We have stumbled through the natural history of our own planet and walked to the edges of the world on our shaky legs. And through the Stargate we have made the first of what will be many leaps of faith, through the unbroken, liquid edges of our ever-expanding universe to stars we cannot see in our sky--that spiral out of the reach of telescopes, beyond the curving arms of the Milky Way.
Today, we stand beholden to our own spirit for discovery, humbled by our determination, made new by our success and trembling before the vastness of possibility that lies ahead of us--and that longing has made us young again. For just as the very nature of existence, the fabric of reality grows and stretches outward, we will forever reach for its uneven edges, yearn to know it in whole. The first heroes will be remembered as astronauts and scientists and soldiers who took the long walk, and brought home knowledge and hope and photographs that have mapped the inky oceans of the universe.
We thank them for their achievements, for their ingenuity, and for all too many, their sacrifice, and though they may no longer walk among us, they rest honored and safe in the knowledge that they have traveled many miles, and that they are due their rest--
We'll keep going, though, and keep the torch lit.
Good day, and God bless.
Elizabeth's the only one of them that makes a good showing at the press blitz afterward.
Rodney hasn't seen so many scientists crying since they finally figured out how to recharge a ZedPM, and he swears he can hear John laughing at him, loud and alive and ringing, but before Rodney can look over his shoulder and scowl at the shadows in the press room curtains, he hears somebody say:
"Dr. McKay--tell us about Atlantis."
So he does--and because he does, he tells them about John.