Rodney McKay sat on the edge of the bed in his quarters, hunched over a little with his forearms on his legs and his hands dangling between his knees. He had his eyes on the wall, but he wasn't really seeing anything.
When he heard a knock on the door, Rodney wasn't surprised. It was late at night but nobody would actually expect him to be sleeping. Not with the Wraith within days of entering their planet's orbit and obliterating the city. It was probably one of his science team with a question, or some ridiculous scheme to save them all that would turn out to be completely useless but might keep everyone occupied for a few more hours, keep their morale up while they waited for ugly Gothic vampire death to come get them.
Rodney's morale had collapsed awhile ago, but then he tended to react to certain doom in a certain way, and this was about the most certain doom he could possibly imagine.
It didn't help that he'd had about six hours of sleep in the past three days.
Not that Rodney was trying to sleep now. He didn't want to know what he would dream.
"Come in," he said, mildly shocked at how exhausted his voice sounded. He straightened as the door opened, tried to look alert if not exactly friendly. But he couldn't quite find the energy to stand.
John Sheppard stood in the doorway. He was mostly in shadow, backlit as the light in the corridor shone into Rodney's nearly dark room. But the shape of his body, the way he stood, was unmistakable. And Rodney's heart lurched with pain that had nothing to do with knowing they were all going to die.
Less than a month ago, John had told Rodney he wanted a relationship. He said he wouldn't walk away again. He said he'd prove it, prove that Rodney could believe him.
And he had, at least a little. John had started taking more meals with Rodney, started standing closer to him, sitting next to him. Not so that anyone else would notice, really, but Rodney did. It wasn't much, but it had been something. A first bit of proof, and maybe recompense for what John had done before.
But it wasn't much, and soon it was obvious that that would be the extent of it. It was like John had reached a boundary he couldn't cross and was stranded, perhaps not even so reluctantly, on the wrong side. They hadn't kissed again since the balcony, sure as hell hadn't done anything else.
John hadn't even seemed particularly interested when Allina had apparently been flirting with Rodney while they were on Dagan. So Rodney had tried to go for it. Until she had betrayed them all, of course. Because there had been no reason for him not to. John hadn't given him one.
Rodney had given up, then, conceded defeat. Weeks ago, he had told John on the balcony that he wasn't going through this again, and he'd meant it. Rodney had just never gotten a chance to tell John that this time he would be the one walking away.
Because they'd found out that the Wraith were coming, and there was no more time for hurt, or anger, or broken promises. There had only been the rush to find something, anything, that might save all of them.
But there had been no solution, nothing to find. All Rodney had come up with was a way to warn Earth. And say goodbye.
And now John was standing in the doorway, and Rodney's heart lurched, and he had to swallow before he could speak. "John?"
"Hi, Rodney," John said quietly. His voice was dull. "Elizabeth wanted to know if the data packet is ready to go out."
Rodney blinked. For a second John's words made no sense to him. "Oh, yes," he said. "Just about--we're still waiting for the last of the personal messages. I'm sending it in the morning."
"Yeah." John nodded as if they were having anything approaching a real conversation. "She asked me to send a message to Sumner's family, if he has one."
"I see," Rodney said, though he really didn't. He couldn't fathom why John was telling him this, what he was doing in Rodney's doorway at all.
"Yeah," John said again. He took a step, crossing the threshold to the darker interior of the room, but he hesitated. "Can I come in?"
Rodney blinked again. "Of course." He shifted over on the bed in case John wanted to sit beside him, though he didn't expect him to. But he hadn't expected John to show up at his door, either.
"Thanks," John said, and Rodney could barely make out the twitch of his smile in the dim light. John walked the rest of the way into the room, letting the door shut behind him. For a moment the return of thicker darkness made John all but invisible. Rodney only knew where John was by feeling the mattress move when John sat on the bed.
Beside him. No, Rodney really hadn't expected that.
John didn't speak for a long time, and Rodney watched him as his eyes adjusted to the change in light. John sat loosely, slumped with his hands on his thighs. His face was almost entirely obscured by shadow.
"I got to watch a Wraith culling," John said.
"I know," Rodney said quietly. He'd been at the briefing, called away from his work on the message as soon as John and Teyla had returned. He'd seen the refugees, seen how formal Teyla was to John, how cold.
"Teyla wanted me to stay on the planet," John continued. "After we'd gotten the intel on the Wraith ships. To pick up a family." He spoke staring straight ahead at the blank metal wall. "I said only if we had time."
"I guess you had time, then," Rodney said. He spoke out to the room as well, not looking at John. He had already learned that John didn't like talking about anything personal, anything painful, if he was looking at you. It made Rodney wonder whether John would record a goodbye of his own, or whether the lens would be too close a substitute for a face.
"Yeah," John said, though his voice sounded just as dull and his eyes were still fixed on nothing. "We had time."
John didn't add to that, and after a moment Rodney glanced at him. His eyes had adjusted well enough now that he could see John's face. "You saved nearly twenty people," Rodney said, because John looked so sad and Rodney didn't understand why.
"No," John said. "I didn't. Teyla did. If she hadn't forced my hand, threatened to stay behind, I would have taken off before most of them got there." His voice dropped to almost a whisper. "She kept talking about saving who we could, doing what we could. How anything less would mean we would be like the Wraith." He took a breath, ran his hand through his hair. "But I didn't want to stay. I wanted to get the intel back before we were discovered."
John finally turned to look at Rodney. His eyes were black shadows in the dark. "I was willing to let them die, Rodney," John said. "I was willing to let the Wraith have all of them." He turned away, bowing his head and burying his fingers in his hair, resting his forehead on his palms. He made a sound vaguely like a laugh. "Acceptable losses. It's all about the acceptable losses, isn't it? Like those kids--Ford said maybe we should take their ZPM to power our shields. And I didn't tell him that wasn't an option."
"I didn't either," Rodney said quietly. "And if we had, we would have brought the kids here, anyway. We wouldn't have abandoned them."
"That's not the point," John said. He sounded like he wanted to be angry but didn't have the energy for it. "That's not the fucking point. He made a bad call and I didn't say anything, and then I almost let twenty people die because I didn't want to take the risk to save them." He dropped one hand, rubbing the other over his face.
Rodney hesitated, then put his hand on John's far shoulder, at the junction where it curved into his neck. John's skin was warm through his t-shirt but John didn't react to Rodney touching him. "We're in a war here," Rodney said. "That information was vital to Atlantis. And Atlantis is vital to Earth. Maybe to our entire galaxy."
Rodney licked his lips. What he was about to say was awful, absolutely horrific, but that didn't make it less true. "In light of that...In light of that, maybe twenty people, or even a few hundred people, are acceptable losses. There are more than six billion people on Earth, John."
"I know," John said. "I know that. I know all of that." He finally lifted his head but he still wouldn't look in Rodney's direction. His voice went quieter still, until he was truly whispering and Rodney had to strain to hear him. "But I almost left them out there. And I have to live with that."
The silence settled like another layer of dark. Rodney's hand on John's shoulder felt heavy and awkward, but he didn't move it.
"I almost killed Teyla and Carson," Rodney said at last. He felt his mouth twitch in a smile though there was nothing even remotely funny about it. He'd almost left them to be electrocuted in a corridor. "I wasn't sure the shields would charge if I waited. And--and the city was more important. To Earth. To everyone who would have been stranded if Atlantis had been destroyed."
He took a breath but it didn't do anything to relieve the constriction in his chest from thinking about it, about what he had almost done. "I consider Teyla a friend. Carson is my best friend out here," he said, and for the first time he felt John's shoulder move under his hand, and Rodney realized that John didn't know that, that he and Carson were that close. "But I would have killed them, to save the city. If you hadn't told me to wait."
"Acceptable losses," John said.
"Yeah," Rodney said. "I was willing to do that."
John exhaled in a shuddering sigh. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
"No," Rodney said. He pulled his hand away from John's shoulder, sliding it down his back. When Rodney put his hand on his own leg again it felt cold. "I'm just letting you know that you're not alone."
He saw John nodding, out of the corner of his eye. "Thanks."
Rodney shrugged, twitched another smile though he was sure John didn't see it. "You're welcome."
He expected John to leave after that but John stayed where he was. Rodney wasn't sure he'd ever seen John so still--he was the kind of person who could be motionless if he had to, quiet in a way Rodney had never mastered and barely understood, but this was different. This was a dangerous stillness. Not like something waiting to strike, but like something giving up, waiting to die.
Well, they all were, weren't they? But all the same it was wrong, seeing John like this. Disturbing.
"Are you okay?" Rodney asked him, which was a stupid question because the answer was so obvious, but Rodney couldn't help it. He hated silence, hated especially this kind of silence that reminded him of funeral parlors and hospital rooms. He would have said anything to fill the space.
"I will be," John said. And he put his hand on Rodney's thigh.
John turned his head to look at Rodney, finally. His eyes were black in the dark. "Can I stay?" he asked. His voice was imploring and he pushed his hand higher up on Rodney's leg. "I really want to stay." And John leaned in and kissed him.
God, Rodney wanted this so much. He kissed John back, grabbed John's shoulders in his hands--and God, he had missed that: the curve of John's warm, solid muscle under his palms, the hint of bone--and his tongue slid over John's, licked at John's teeth and tasted him the way Rodney remembered. It was all sex and heat and John's mouth, and John's tongue in Rodney's mouth, and John making those tiny noises in his throat that Rodney loved, that he'd never forgotten, and he'd wanted this for so long, and he wanted John so badly...
Rodney pulled away, keeping his hands on John's shoulders, keeping him back. "You don't want this," he said, and it was so fucking hard to speak but Rodney was right--he knew he was right, the way he was right about almost everything, damn him. "You don't really want this." You don't want me, he added silently, but that was pathetic and didn't matter anyway. "You've never..." Rodney was panting and it wasn't just desire. "I don't--I don't want it to be like this. Not like this."
"Rodney," John said, and his voice has an edge to it Rodney didn't entirely understand. "This is probably all we're going to get. And I just want to...I want to not think, tonight. I don't want to think about anything." He moved closer and Rodney inhaled sharply when he felt the gentle press of John's hand against his groin. "Except this," John said. "Except you. Can we do that? Is that all right?"
Rodney closed his eyes. He could feel John's breath against his face, his lips, moist and warm. This was wrong. This was stupid and he was going to regret this and John was going to leave again and it would be that much worse if they did this. But they were all doomed anyway and so they were going to, because John wanted it, and Rodney wanted John so badly and this was it, this was all they'd ever have.
"All right," he whispered. "All right."
"Cool." And John breathed his smile against Rodney's lips and Rodney gave up, conceded, lost, and later when they were naked and moving together, Rodney bit his tongue so he wouldn't cry out John's name. And John buried his face against Rodney's neck and shuddered, and if he said anything, Rodney couldn't hear it.
And later still, Rodney woke from a dream of sea and metal and fire, and he was alone. Just like he'd known he would be.
Rodney found him, out on the far balcony with the broken grounding station, sitting on the step to the lower level of the platform.
Rodney had known John would be here, when he hadn't found him in the Jumper bay or the control room. Somehow since the hurricane this had become the place they went to when they needed space, needed to think. Despite the fact they had both nearly died here. Or perhaps precisely because of that--maybe it was a reminder that they were still alive, despite everything. A physical suggestion of hope, that things might yet be okay.
Maybe. Or maybe it was just out of the way, one of the few places in the explored city where someone could actually be alone. Rodney wasn't feeling all that much hope these days, anyway.
"John," he said.
John turned his head, looking over his shoulder. "Hi," he said. His smile was tentative. "Somebody need me?"
"Weir wants a meeting with all the group heads in about an hour," Rodney told him. He smiled back, easily. He wasn't even angry. He'd given up, after all, and there was a strange relief to that. "I came to find you because you didn't have your radio."
"Bad habit," John said, and Rodney could see his relief in the sudden relaxing of John's shoulders, the way his smile widened. John's eyes were still shadowed though, despite the bright daylight, but Rodney was certain that his own looked the same. "You didn't have to haul your ass all the way out here to get me."
"Someone had to." Rodney shrugged. John ducked his head a little, looking embarrassed. "It's okay. I wanted a break." They still had nothing, he had nothing at all, and he had welcomed the excuse to leave the lab, all those expectant faces begging for him to save them.
"Thanks," John said. He looked out over the water, then turned back again. "You gonna sit down?"
Well, there was no reason not to, was there? Rodney crossed to the edge and sat down next to John, but far enough away so they weren't touching. It reminded him of when he'd last been here, next to Elizabeth, trying to keep her warm in the pelting rain while they waited to find out if Kolya was going to kill them. It wasn't a very pleasant memory and Rodney lowered his eyes, watching his booted feet.
"Thank you," John said, "for last night." He was looking at the ocean.
Rodney glanced at him sharply before turning his head away. He hadn't expected that. He'd been sure that John would never mention it, pretend it had never happened. Rodney reminded himself that it didn't matter, that he'd given up, but his heart lurched again. Which was so stupid, because all John had said was 'thank you', as if Rodney had performed some kind of public service instead of fucking him.
"You're welcome," Rodney said woodenly. He realized he'd started kicking his feet back and forth and immediately stopped moving his legs.
"I'm sorry," John said. "I wish...I wish we had more time."
Rodney closed his eyes. "It wouldn't change anything."
"Yes it would," John said.
Rodney opened his eyes, turning to look at John. "It's easy to say things you don't mean when you know you'll never have to answer for them."
John lifted his head, looking straight at Rodney. He blinked, looking stung. "I do mean them."
Rodney snorted and shook his head. He turned away. "You think you do." He took a breath. "It doesn't matter, anyway. In a few days we'll be withered corpses floating among pulverized debris. So...so say whatever the hell you want."
He climbed to his feet, pushing himself away from the edge, then turned and started back to the doorway. He had to get back to the main part of the city anyway, and it was a long walk to the nearest transporter.
John had stood as well, following him. He stopped Rodney with a hand on his arm. "Rodney."
"What?" Rodney snapped. But he turned around.
"I think it matters more," John said, "because we might only have a few days. I think that means it matters more."
Rodney shifted his arm, and John let go. "No," he said. "That just means you've decided you don't have to worry about the consequences. And that's nothing. That's nothing at all."
This time when he turned away John didn't try to stop him.
But much later, John came to Rodney's lab and found him.
Rodney glanced at him, then turned back to his laptop, rubbing an eye with the heel of his hand. He was so tired that the screen was blurring; he'd sent the other scientists away hours ago, ordering them to get some sleep. But he couldn't make himself stop. There had to be something. There had to be something.
"What do you want?" He hadn't really meant to snap. He was just so tired.
"Nothing," John said. He had his hands in his jacket pockets, standing quietly, looking somehow calm and certain when there was no calm place left in the universe and the only certainty was death. "You need to get some sleep, Rodney."
"I know," Rodney said, but he shook his head even as he spoke. "I can't. I just..." He put his hands over his eyes, felt a shudder go through him that he couldn't control. They were dead. They were all dead and they just hadn't stopped breathing yet. He dropped his hands, leaning heavily on his desk. The data kept scrolling on his computer screen, mechanical and useless. "I can't find it, John," he said. "I can't do this. I got nothing."
He heard John walk to the lab table, felt John standing beside him. "Maybe I can help."
Rodney smirked without humor. "Maybe. I doubt you could do any worse." He exhaled heavily. He was so exhausted his eyes hurt and he rubbed them again. "You know, I was actually in this position once before, a few years ago." He glanced at John, who was just silently listening. "Anubis--he was one of the nastier Goa'uld--had devised a way to use our Stargate to destroy Earth, to overload it with so much power that it would blow up. The force of the explosion would have taken out half the planet."
John blinked. "I didn't know that."
Rodney smiled a little. "You wouldn't. The majority of the world never knew. Thank God." He shifted around so his back was leaning against the table as he faced the empty room. "I was working with Colonel Carter, though she was a major at the time. I suggested generating an EM pulse, sending it back through the gate to the source of the energy stream, to knock the mechanism out."
"Like with the nanovirus," John said.
"Yeah," Rodney said. "Like that. It didn't work, though. Sam--Major Carter had said it wouldn't, but I didn't listen. When the EM pulse failed the backlash almost killed her." Rodney shook his head, remembering how very, very awful that had been, the hammer-blow of guilt. "She was fine...but I had no idea what to do after that. Absolutely no idea. I was practically begging her to come up with something, some way to save us."
"What happened?" John asked.
"A guy from another planet suggested moving the Stargate itself," Rodney said. "We attached it to an experimental ship and flew it four million miles into space. When the gate finally exploded it made a spectacular light show, but did no damage to Earth."
"Wow," John said. He looked just a bit stunned. Then he frowned. "But if the gate blew up--"
Rodney waved a hand. "How did we get here? Yes, yes. The Russians had another one. We bought it from them."
"Oh," John said. He nodded thoughtfully. "Cool."
"Right," Rodney said wearily. "'Cool'." He had no idea why he'd told John that story. He was so tired that he was babbling. "I wish that little guy were here now."
"We're gonna get through this, Rodney," John said.
"Don't." Rodney raised his hand as if to push John back. "Just, don't. You know we're not. Everybody knows we're not. I've failed, and we're all going to die." He bowed his head, feeling the pull of tense muscles all the way down his back. "Just go to bed, John. We should go to bed. Maybe...maybe I'll have something in the morning."
"Rodney." Rodney felt John's hands on his shoulders, solid and strong and warm. He raised his head reluctantly, looking at John's eyes.
"You haven't failed, Rodney," John said. "It's not over yet, so you haven't failed. You'll come up with something, just like you always do, and save all our asses in the nick of time." He nodded firmly, as if willing Rodney to agree with him. "You're going to do it. You've never let us down."
Rodney looked at him. John's eyes were wide and earnest and very sincere, and it felt almost like John's hands were holding Rodney up. "You're just saying that," Rodney said. "You don't really believe it."
"Yes I do," John said. "I believe it more than anything."
"Thank you," Rodney said softly. Then it was too much, all of it. Rodney had to look away. He licked his lips. "I had a dream about you, the other night," he said. "After we... After." He was babbling again, damn him. "I dreamed that you...that you were the Archangel Michael, or, or like him, anyway. You--you had the flaming sword. And wings." Rodney laughed, because it was so stupid. He wasn't even religious; he had no time for that mythological crap. He kept his head turned, his eyes resolutely on the edge of the lab table. John's hands were still on his shoulders and Rodney didn't know whether he should move, shrug them off or not. "You destroyed the Wraith ships in one blow, blasted them all to pieces with the sword. I mean, that part was awfully Star Wars, but..." He shrugged. "Anyway. I dreamed that."
"You..." John's voice was strangely quiet, subdued. Maybe he was thinking Rodney had lost his mind. "You have that much faith in me?"
No, Rodney realized. That wasn't subdued. That was awe.
It made him turn his head, look John in the eye. "Of course I do," he said, surprised. How could John have thought otherwise?
"Thank you," John said. He still sounded awed, which made Rodney a little angry. "I wish I deserved it."
"Of course you deserve it!" Rodney snapped. He tried to pull away from John but John wouldn't let him.
"You're wrong, though," John said, as if Rodney hadn't spoken. "Those wings are yours, Rodney. You're the one who's going to fix this. I'm just a pilot. You--It's you. You're the one."
He kissed Rodney, just a brief brush of lips. "You're the one," he repeated. He smiled again, moving his hand to smooth his thumb over Rodney's mouth. "Get some sleep," he said. "Maybe you'll have something in the morning."
Rodney watched him walk out of the room. For just a second he let himself imagine wings, white and perfect, rising out of John's back.
Then he turned back to his computer. He wasn't going to sleep tonight. He wasn't going to give up. He would find something. There had to be something.
John had such faith in him. And Rodney wasn't about to lose that. He wasn't going to let John down.
He had never so badly wanted to live.