Rodney stood in the doorway to his quarters, leaning against the doorjamb so he wouldn’t fall over, and tried to figure out why they didn’t look right.
It was the poster above the bed that finally clued him in, shining ghostly in the near complete darkness. Rodney was so tired he’d walked to John’s room instead of his own.
His eyes finally adjusted so he could see John on the bed. John was lying on his back on top of the covers, still fully clothed except for his boots and socks, with his arms and legs straight, almost like he was at attention.
It made him look like he was dead, actually, enough so that Rodney made some tiny, horrified noise before the logical part of his mind could kick in, remind him that if John were really dead he would be in the morgue--or scattered atoms in the upper atmosphere, really--but by then it was too late and John was snapping upright and reaching for the gun on the bedside table.
Luckily, Rodney thought dimly, John was probably less tired than he was, since he put his hand over the gun but didn’t pick it up to fire it.
“Rodney?” John said instead, squinting at the light coming in from the hallway. He left the gun and rubbed one of his eyes with the side of his hand like a child. “What’s wrong?” His voice was thick and slow with sleep and Rodney felt incredibly guilty for having woken him up, but he couldn’t seem to make himself apologize. Or leave.
“What is it?” John swung his feet over the side of the bed and stood. He swayed a little and Rodney could almost feel his exhaustion, like a physical presence in the room.
“Don’t go,” Rodney said, startling himself as much as John, since he’d had no idea he was going to say that. “You already--" Rodney blinked stupidly, not even sure how he was going to finish the sentence, but thinking of a blue dot, rising on a screen and then bursting into nothing. “It won’t work. You’re going to die.”
John was still for a moment, and Rodney couldn’t tell what he might be thinking--it was too dark and Rodney was too tired. But then John took a breath and ran his fingers through his hair, a gesture so characteristic that it made Rodney’s chest hurt in pain even deeper than the need to sleep, which felt like weights in his bones.
“We can’t just sit here and wait for them to come, Rodney,” John said. It was a lot like what he'd said to Weir during the briefing, but it was as if he was too tired for whatever conviction he might have felt to make it into his voice, and Rodney thought he already sounded defeated. “This may be our one chance to scare them, let them know Atlantis isn’t going to be fucked with.”
Rodney waited for the bland assurance from John that he would be fine, that nothing was going to happen, but John didn’t say anything else and somehow that was worse than the lie would have been. “It won’t work,” Rodney said again. He wanted to let his body slide down to the floor, put his head in his hands. He felt a bit like weeping, but he was sure that was just the exhaustion pulling at him. The breathtaking knowledge of everything they’d lost, everyone they’d lost, and the certainty that it wasn’t over, that Rodney still had to face the worst loss of all and that he would somehow have to live through it. “You’re one ship against twelve,” he said, knowing that John was more than aware of that, that it wouldn’t make any difference, he was going anyway. “It’s pointless. Stupid.” There was more he knew he could say, so much more he wanted to, but the words were all trapped in his head, tumbling around like debris. Irretrievable.
“You should be asleep, Rodney,” John sighed.
Rodney shook his head and it felt like there were rocks in it, rattling around. “No,” he said. “There’s too much work to do.” He had to fix the city, repair the damage the Wraith caused. Right then it seemed impossible.
Impossible. Like the idea that John could actually come back alive from going out with the Daedalus. Or come back at all.
“I was…I was going to my room,” Rodney said. He’d been going to get something. He couldn’t even remember what it was.
“You can barely stay upright,” John said. “Does Elizabeth know you’re wandering around?” Rodney was still trying to figure out the answer to that when John took a breath, as if steeling himself, then crossed the room. He put his hand on Rodney’s shoulder and it was shockingly warm through Rodney’s T-shirt, warm from sleep. Rodney hadn’t even realized he was cold. John’s eyes were black in the dark, heavy-lidded like he wasn’t entirely awake himself, but his hand was strong enough, tugging. “Come on.”
“I can’t,” Rodney said. But he still followed John into the room, let John’s hand guide him to the bed. Rodney sat like an obedient dog, watching dully as John knelt to unfasten his boots. “I can’t,” he said again, not even sure what he was talking about.
“It’s okay,” John said. “I have to get up in two hours anyway. I won’t let you sleep too long.” He stood and pushed Rodney’s shoulder a little and Rodney tilted over until he was lying on his side, watching as the room started spinning languidly. He felt John moving his feet, thought he should probably help, but by then he was already stretched out and John was snugged up behind him.
John put one arm over Rodney’s chest and Rodney’s breath caught, like it hurt, and one of John’s legs was between both of his, and John’s face was tucked into the back of his neck so Rodney could feel the wet warmth of it when John breathed.
“You’re not sleeping,” John said. The words buzzed on Rodney’s skin.
“You can’t die,” Rodney said.
“I’m not going to die,” John said. He gripped Rodney a little tighter.
Rodney put his hand over John’s, held it as though that would keep John from going with the Daedalus, keep anything from happening to him if Rodney just held on tightly enough. “You can’t,” Rodney said. “When I watched you, on the screen… I--" He inhaled sharply, feeling it shudder through him. John’s body was a solid weight pressed against him, warm and alive and real, his hand clutching Rodney’s.
“Shh,” John said. “I came back. It’s okay.” He yawned, moving in a little closer. John was a thick stripe of warmth all the way down Rodney’s body.
“Go to sleep,” John said.
“You didn’t even say goodbye,” Rodney whispered, breathing the words out to the dark.
John murmured something, but he sounded far more asleep than awake and Rodney couldn’t understand him. Then John’s arm twitched as he fell away, into sleep, and Rodney listened to John’s breath evening out, and then Rodney finally closed his eyes.
He woke up feeling groggy and sick, so many hours later that bright sunlight was streaming into the room. Rodney lay there for a moment, listening, hoping, but there was no one else there. John had left, and he hadn’t woken Rodney up, and he hadn’t said goodbye. Again.
He hadn’t said goodbye.
Rodney clenched his eyes shut, pressed his teeth together until his jaw ached. He was thinking of a blue dot on a screen, one ship against twelve. He had no idea how long they’d been gone for already, how long it would be now until the Daedalus returned. Until he could find out if the ship even would.
Rodney sat up, grimacing at the surge of dizziness when he moved. He shouldn’t have slept--there were too many people waiting for him, counting on him. And he had so much work to do.
And maybe, if he kept busy enough, he wouldn’t have to think about the Daedalus at all. Or John, dying in agony as the ship disintegrated around him.
Rodney shuddered, tying not to imagine it. He scrubbed his hand over his face before he moved it back to the bed, and felt something crinkle under his palm.
Rodney lifted his hand like he’d been burned, then stared numbly at the neatly-folded square of white paper, trying to think of the last time he’d even seen paper or where John might have gotten it from, or why. Rodney hadn’t used paper in a long time.
He picked it up, unfolding it in strangely clumsy fingers. The note was short, in quick, messy lettering. Messier than Rodney’s own, and much less neat then he would have expected John’s to be.
All it said was:
You were sleeping so soundly I didn’t want to wake you.
I promise I’ll come back.
See you soon.
Rodney held the note in his hands for a long time, reading and re-reading it. Then he folded it gently, like it was a delicate and precious thing, and tucked it into his pocket. And every once in awhile while he was fixing his city, he would reach into his pocket and touch the smooth edge of the paper.
It was warm from his skin, and felt a little bit like hope.
“Hey,” John said. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
Rodney was sitting with his back against the city wall, looking out over the ocean with his knees pulled up and his forearms resting on them. The sunset was especially beautiful tonight, painting long streaks of gold and orange across the horizon.
It was almost possible to ignore the damage, far below among the city’s branches and piers, almost all of it caused by the Wraith Darts when their pilots purposely crashed them. Smoke was still visible here and there, in among the gaping twists of metal where the Darts had exploded.
“Hi,” Rodney said. He shuffled over automatically so that John could sit beside him, and John sat so close that their sides touched. Almost instantly Rodney could feel the heat from John’s body and it was like being in John’s quarters again, when Rodney hadn’t known he was cold until John had touched him. It made him think of the note, the tiny fold of warmth in his pocket.
John looked like Rodney felt: so tired Rodney wasn’t entirely certain how they’d both managed to make it all the way out to this particular balcony. Everyone had been ordered to get at least eight hours of sleep as soon as the personnel could be spared, but obviously it hadn’t been enough.
John let his legs splay out in front of him with his wrists on his thighs, hands facing upwards. He tilted his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. “This is nice.”
“You should be sleeping,” Rodney said.
John grinned, then cracked his eyes open, arching his eyebrows a little. “That’s really funny, coming from you.”
Rodney shrugged, feeling his shoulder move against John’s. “I tried,” he said. It was why he was out here, after all, instead of in his quarters. “I’ve got…” He turned his hand in a loose circle near the side of his head, trying to find some way to explain. “I can’t stop thinking.”
“I know,” John said quietly, and his eyes came fully open, so that now he was looking up at the darkening sky. “It’s like, I can’t shut my brain off. I keep seeing Ford.” He gestured at the left half of his face. “All fucked up by the Wraith. Or Everett.”
“Yeah,” Rodney said, nodding. Except that he kept seeing the little blue dot of John’s Puddle Jumper, heading towards the giant red Hive Ship like a tiny, hapless animal towards a predator’s bloody, gaping maw. And then the silent, sterile explosion on the screen though it had felt like Rodney was the one who'd disintegrated; disappeared into a billion scattered pieces of nothing.
“It’s too much,” Rodney said softly. He was looking back at the drifting smoke, curling endlessly into the darkening sky, but he was seeing a blue dot, and Aiden’s alien rage, and the two Marines who had almost died to protect him, and the way he’d almost died, and how obscenely beautiful it had been, at night with the darts and the lights from the rail guns. “It’s too much,” Rodney said again, and John looked at him like he was trying to understand.
“I don’t…I don’t think we’ll be able to fix it,” Rodney said, because it was true, he was scared they wouldn’t. But that really wasn’t what he’d meant. It was just that John had been waiting for Rodney to say something. “All the damage.”
For a moment there was just silence, and then Rodney felt John bumping his shoulder like it was a normal, everyday thing. “I thought you could fix anything.”
“I’m sorry,” John said quickly. Rodney looked at him, and John’s expression was almost horrified. “I didn’t mean--"
“No,” Rodney said thickly. “It’s all right.” He rubbed his hand over his face, inhaled, deep and shuddering. “It’s just… Peter said that to me. A few hours before he died.” He shook his head as if trying to throw off the memory, wishing he could. “I guess I never thought I’d hear it again.”
“I’m sorry,” John said again.
“Yeah,” Rodney said softly. “Me too.”
John didn’t answer, but he shifted against Rodney’s side, sealing the gap that Rodney had made between them when he’d moved. The warmth from John’s body flowed back into him and Rodney felt himself relaxing, a little bit.
“We lost so many people,” John said. “The Athosians, those poor bastards on the balconies…” He shivered, and Rodney pressed closer to him as if John were the one who was cold. “I keep thinking about it, if they were in the Hive ships, when--”
“If they were, they were lucky,” Rodney said fiercely, cutting John off. John turned to look at him, the shock on his face evident even in the dying light.
“They were lucky,” Rodney said again, stabbing the words out.
“I didn’t even think about it,” John confessed. He looked away, down at his hands still turned palm-up on his thighs. “Not until afterwards, when I was on the Daedalus and the Hive ships were gone. How many of our own might have been on board, how many people I’d...” He took a breath. “How many had been killed.”
“Damn it, will you stop?” Rodney snarled. He put his hand on the back of John’s neck, wanting to shake him. “They were dead the second the Wraith beams got them! You know that! They were going to be food, John, okay? They were going to be tortured and eaten. How is saving them from that a bad thing?”
John turned his head so Rodney could see his face again, and his eyes were fathomless with shadows. “I should have done more.”
“What?” Rodney's eyes shot wide, then he just sagged back against the wall, sliding his hand off John’s neck and away. “Jesus fucking Christ, John,” Rodney said. He wanted to slam the back of his head against the wall, maybe scream a little bit. “You nearly blew yourself up to save us. What the fuck more do you possibly think you should have done? Idiot.” He snapped off each word with his teeth. “Fucking suicidal idiot.”
He could practically feel John’s surprise give way to ire, curling off John like smoke. John’s teeth were very white when he pulled his lips back. “I--"
“No,” Rodney said, before John could even get the sentence started. “Just shut up, okay? Shut up and listen.” He felt John move away from him, shift his legs as if to stand, and Rodney grabbed his wrist, hard enough to pin him in place so Rodney could glare at him. “You really don’t get it, do you?” It was hardly a question, so he didn’t wait for any kind of answer. “When you were in that God-damned Jumper, and I was watching that blue dot climbing towards the Hive ship, and I knew you were going to die…” Suddenly he had to fight to drag back the anger and it took a few breaths before he could. “And I knew I couldn’t do anything to save you, I swore to myself that if you just…” Rodney gritted his teeth, but John was looking at him now and it was too late not to tell him. “If you just came back, I would give--I would do anything. Everything. Whatever you wanted. Even if, even if you could never reciprocate. It just, it didn’t matter. It doesn’t.”
“Oh,” John said, very softly. Rodney still had his wrist, holding it between them.
“Yeah,” Rodney said. He tightened his grip a little bit. Not enough to hurt, just enough to keep John there, with him. “You have no idea how important you are. To, to everyone.”
“Luminous,” John whispered. And Rodney could only nod, because it was true, and because he still felt flayed open that John had heard that, that he knew.
John relaxed his arm, and Rodney let it fall back to rest on John’s leg, but he didn’t let go. “I thought,” John said, voice was rough. “I thought you’d given up on me.”
Rodney nodded again. “I did,” he said. “But that didn’t make it any easier to lose you.”
John turned his hand in Rodney’s grip so that their palms were touching, and then John linked their fingers together. “I came back,” he said and smiled, though in the new half-light of the balcony lamps it seemed small and uncertain. “Don’t I always come back?”
Rodney didn’t feel close to smiling. “One day you won’t.”
“Maybe not,” John said, no hint of a joke in his voice. “But I’m here now.”
“I know,” Rodney said, and he could feel a little bit of anger, crawling back, and he tightened his fingers around John’s, like a reminder of his life. “You’re here now. But…” He shook his head. “I don’t know how long that will be for. You always…” He stopped, his mouth thinning into a tight line. "You always go away."
“All I was thinking of was you,” John said. “When I was in the Jumper. How I would have given anything to see you again.
“I want you,” John said simply. “I want the consequences. I want everything. But you have to be patient, okay?” And now his simile was both hopeful and sad. “You said it yourself, before--this is huge. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Rodney managed a smirk, though his heart had leaped up, beating so fast it was like fear. “I thought that was flying into a Hive Ship with a nuclear bomb in the backseat.”
John shook his head. “No. Dying's kind of easy.”
“Don’t you dare joke about that, Sheppard!” Rodney snarled. He let go of John’s hand and pulled him into a fierce, awkward hug. “I’m so glad you’re not dead,” Rodney said tightly. His face was pressed against John’s neck, breathing in the warmth of his skin. “I mean, I’m really glad. You don’t even know how much.” Rodney moved his head so that his mouth was buzzing against John’s skull when he spoke. “Don’t ever do that to me again.”
“I’m sorry,” John said, and Rodney knew that was all he could say. Because they both knew that he would do it again if he had to, that someday he might. John inhaled deeply and Rodney could feel John’s chest move against his. “I’m pretty glad you’re all right, too.”
Rodney laughed, and if it sounded a little bit liquid he was pretty sure John didn’t hear that part. “I’m really glad you’re all right,” Rodney said again, and he meant so much more than that. He huffed out a breath against John’s skin, and then pulled away. John let go reluctantly. He kept his hand on Rodney’s arm.
“Yeah,” John said. “Me too.”
“I’m not very good at being patient,” Rodney said.
John smiled at him, wide and finally real. “Yeah, I think I noticed that.”
“But I could try,” Rodney said.
“I’d like that,” John said seriously, though he was still smiling. “I’d like that a lot.”
Rodney stood up. His muscles hurt, from the cold and the remains of the exhaustion he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to escape. John stayed sitting, but when Rodney held out his hand John took Rodney’s forearm and let Rodney pull him to his feet. They both held on much longer than necessary.
“You’re really not going to leave again?” Rodney asked him.
John shook his head. “No,” he said. “I promise.”
Rodney looked at him, then gave a slow nod. “Good,” he said. His mouth quirked in an almost-smile. “Because if you do, I’ll kill you.”
John raised his eyebrows. “I did leave a note.”
“This is true,” Rodney said. He walked past John, going to the entrance back to the city. He looked at John over his shoulder. “About God-damned time.”
“You know how hard it is to find paper around here?” John asked. Rodney could tell he was trying to school his expression into affronted innocence, but John was grinning a little too much to make it work.
Rodney’s next glance back was full of practiced disdain, though he really wanted to grin back. He felt like he was, actually, inside. “I thought someone who turned down MENSA would know how to type.”
“Oh, you’ll find I can do all kinds of things,” John said.
Rodney snorted out a laugh but didn’t say anything, just walked through the large doors and down the corridor.
He didn’t have to look back to know John was right behind him.