He always had to have the last word, even dying.
His breath rattled in his chest, stuttered, and stopped.
Rodney McKay was dead.
"Atlantis?" one of the doctors echoed as the others shut off the monitors. "Was that some project he worked on for the government?"
No one noticed the crumpled picture that fell from his hand and landed beneath the hospital bed.
A nurse pulled a sheet over the body. She moved quickly and efficiently, without any affection. Rodney McKay had not been an easy patient. The US Air Force major standing out of the way next to McKay's nephew, Will, didn't fault her; he knew exactly how Rodney McKay had been, he'd seen and heard it all in the last few days.
So he kept his expression blank.
"Not that I know of," he said.
The doctor shrugged, nodded to McKay's nephew, and left the room.
The major had been assigned to make sure McKay didn't babble anything classified on his deathbed. McKay had the personality of a rabid viper, even in old age, and had bitterly assured the young major that he'd been keeping secrets since before the major's daddy slipped it to his mother for the first time. He'd added waspishly that he'd hated the military for forty-two of those years and he wouldn't be spilling the secret of creating a ZPM, either. It was going to the grave with him.
It had, too.
The major was of the opinion McKay had chosen his last word merely to confound everyone.
He was wrong.
John was ticklish. Rodney found that out accidentally and took unmerciful advantage ever after. He'd play his fingers over John's sides, pretending it was all a game, quietly judging whether John's ribs were too prominent again, and plotting to feed him if they were. But after; they'd raid the mess hall after they had wrestled half off one of Atlantis' too narrow beds, and he'd kissed John until they were both gasping with desire and laughter.
"Merry Christmas, Dr. McKay," Sgt. Deitweiller said, half amused by the scientist and half sincere.
"What?" McKay stopped with his foot already moving and almost fell. He blinked at Deitweiller and Corporal Lewis standing guard as the first line of defense of the SGC, caught between bad temper and bewilderment. They'd just spent ten minutes verifying his clearance and ID, the same way they did every day. A scanner had checked him for weapons, contaminants and Goa'uld infestation. McKay had complained through the entire procedure, exactly as he always did. "What?"
"Merry Christmas," Deitweiller said again, gently.
McKay gave a jerky nod. "Oh. Oh, yes. Merry Christmas, or whatever holiday you follow, Sergeant. Why you think I would have a merry Christmas is a mystery for the ages, of course. Perhaps you'll explain it to me some day, but wait, no, because I don't care. I have very, world-shakingly, important research to conduct on this one day of the year when I can count on my moronic colleagues to leave me alone. So, yes, obviously, a very merry Christmas indeed and please refrain from wasting any more of my valuable time.."
He waved a hand at Deitweiller dismissively and stomped down the corridor to the elevator that would drop him twenty storeys under Cheyenne Mountain.
"Why do you bother?" Lewis asked after McKay had disappeared.
Deitweiller considered the younger soldier. "Because he's here every year, Corporal, just like me, and no one else does."
"Because he's an irritating jackass," Lewis muttered. "Scientists."
Deitweiller thought of mentioning the time they had a foothold situation under the Mountain. Dr. McKay had picked up a P90 and fired cover for Deitweiller's squad, saving Private Jamieson. So many people had come and gone from the SGC in the last twenty years that almost no one knew Dr. McKay hadn't always lived in his lab.
He didn't say anything in the end. Lewis would either learn to respect the SGC's scientists or get reassigned. Dr. McKay wouldn't give a damn what Lewis thought either way, any more than he cared what Deitweiller thought. McKay had a universal disdain for everyone in the military, the SGC, and most of the human race and no qualms at all about communicating that disdain. Underneath the acid, though, when he thought no one was watching, McKay's shoulders slumped with the same weight that bowed General Carter down, the weight of loss. He was a jackass, sure, but he was a jackass who had no where to be and no one left to be with on Christmas, just like Stan Deitweiller.
It didn't cost a lot to wish the man Merry Christmas.
They stumbled back to Rodney's rooms after the "One Year in Atlantis and Still Alive' party. John slung his arm around Rodney's neck and leaned too close, but it didn't matter for once. John snickered into Rodney's ear when one of the marines asked if Rodney needed help getting the colonel back to his quarters; leaning into him, boneless and warm, while Rodney managed a graceless demurral. John waited to slip his hand under Rodney's shirt until the door closed behind them and from there they stumbled to the bed, shedding clothes awkwardly, impatient caresses interfering, until Rodney knelt on the edge with John stretched out naked and willing before him. He ran his hand up John's calf and watched him shiver and smile; so open it almost hurt. It was like flying and falling and floating, all in John's wide open eyes.
Rodney slid the charged ZPM into the receptacle and watched it light up with satisfaction. No one, not even Sam, had a clue how he'd done it and he wasn't about to reveal the secret until the SGC had fulfilled their part of the bargain.
He couldn't suppress his smile as he stood behind Sam and watched her dial the Atlantis sequence into the SGC's computer. His heart was tripping too fast. He had no doubt the ZPM would work. It would. It had taken him three years, but he understood exactly what the Ancients had done and he'd duplicated it perfectly.
Cold smoke curled off the Stargate as the ring spun, each chevron lighting in sequence, a sequence Rodney still knew by heart.
"Seventh chevron, locked," Sgt. Davis intoned.
Rodney braced his hand against the back of Sam's seat. The ring turned and turned and stopped. He waited, but the chevron failed to light.
Sam turned to look at him. Davis carefully didn't. Rodney stared through the window at the Stargate. "Dial it again," he said.
"Dial it again."
Sam entered the gate address again. The Stargate spun and failed to lock. No wormhole formed. Rodney insisted on typing in the commands himself the third time. It failed again.
"Rodney," Sam said once more.
Rodney stood up from the computer. "Right," he said flatly. "Wasting power. Wasting time. Waste of time." He looked down at the Stargate a last time. "I'll be in the labs."
He walked out of the control room and never returned to it again.
John kissed like he wanted to live in Rodney's skin, slow and thorough, with teeth and tongue, like he never ever wanted to stop. John slid into Rodney the same way, wrapped around him, deep inside him, trying to rock them both on the edge forever, like he was afraid, and sometimes his breath sounded like sobs.
"I knew this was a mistake," Rodney snarled as he threw clothes into his suitcase. Downstairs, his mother and his father were engaged in a screaming match. He suspected his stepmother was hiding in the guest bath and didn't blame her. She couldn't have expected this much family togetherness when she agreed to attend Jeannie's Thanksgiving dinner. He knew Jeannie hadn't mentioned inviting their mother too, because she hadn't told him either of their parents would be in attendance. Even without that warning, he'd been reluctant to come. But he had thought John would have told him to try, so he had.
"So you're just leaving again?" his sister snapped from the doorway of the guest bedroom. She folded her arms over her chest.
He glared at her. She lifted her chin just the way he did; a piece of body language he had been horrified to realize they both had picked up from their father.
"Yes. The other option is mass murder starting with that cretin you married and ending with our parents," he told her.
"You couldn't act like a human being for just one damn weekend, could you?"
Rodney picked up a stack of T-shirts and dropped them into the case. "No. Were you really insane enough to think having me, Dr. Cyril McKay, his latest bimbo and our mother in the same house could result in anything but bloodshed?" One of the shirts slid aside, revealing the soft, black cotton beneath it. Rodney froze, forgetting Jeannie, forgetting the rest of his rant and everything but the hole ripped in his life.
"Wendy isn't a bimbo – "
"Who cares?" Rodney said automatically, only part of him hearing Jeannie.
It was one of John's shirts. He'd packed it accidentally, shoved it between two blue and black shirts and forgotten it. He felt like he couldn't breathe. His hand squeezed spasmodically on the cotton. The edges of his vision went gray.
"I have to go back to Colorado. I have work I've got to do," he blurted. "I've got to find some way – some way to find out – "
"It's Thanksgiving, Rodney, whatever it is can wait. You've been off on your classified projects, in Russia and Antarctica and wherever it is you won't even talk about, for years," Jeannie said impatiently. "You said you wanted to be closer. I thought this was our chance. I'm sorry Mark's been a prick and Mom and Dad have been…Mom and Dad, but do you have to go?"
"Thanksgiving," he repeated dully. He still clutched John's T-shirt. "What have I got to be thankful for? Everyone's gone, I don't even know what happened, because I wasn't there! I don't know if John's dead or worse and they won't let me go back – "
He slumped down on the edge of the bed and stared past Jeannie to his fourteen year old nephew, who was standing at the top of the stairs. Below, a door slammed, followed by the revving engine of a car and a screech of tires.
Jeannie turned around.
"Mom, Grandfather and Wendy just left."
"Well, shit," Jeannie remarked.
"I'm hungry. When are we going to eat?"
Jeannie sighed. "Where's your father?"
"In the den with Grandmother."
With the bottles, Rodney thought, and saw the same knowledge in his sister's eyes.
Jeannie sighed again and said, "Great. Just go ahead and serve yourself and your sister something, Will."
"Okay," Will said with a small nod, before clattering back down the stairs.
Rodney smoothed wrinkles from John's T-shirt, folded it and stowed it carefully in his suitcase. Jeannie watched him finish packing silently. All the anger had drained out of her face by the time he looked up and met her eyes.
"Look, just come down to the kitchen and eat something. Everything is citrus-free. I'll call a cab to get you to the airport afterward."
He snorted and then closed his suitcase. "Why not?"
"Good," Jeannie said, then asked, "Who's John?"
Rodney pressed his lips together. He couldn't make any words come. He didn't think they ever would, not to describe John.
"John's gone," Rodney said, finally, forlornly.
Something that started so badly shouldn't have made Rodney so stupidly happy, but it did. It made John happy too; he knew it did. They lived in a charmed space that no one else saw when they were in Atlantis. John was the key to something Rodney hadn't even known he needed until he had it; a mystery he could never fathom, but something he could have, if he just held on.
It was cold and bruised the first time. John's hands locked on Rodney's shoulders and shook him; water from their soaking uniforms spattering around the dark, empty Jumper and puddling on the metal under their boots. Rodney pushed back furiously and John lifted his hands away, holding them up, open, staggering back. His eyes were dark and wild. He looked wounded; he looked the way Rodney felt: as if the planet's endless rain had washed all the strength out of him. They were both shivering; shaken to the core, three steps from a culling beam once as they ran. Their team had broken and scattered on John's orders, Ronon with Teyla, running cross-country for the two Jumpers hidden miles from the Stargate. Half of Major Lorne's team were already gone, lost as a dart quartered above the forest, hunting prey, hunting them. No one else had made it to Jumper One and, with the Wraith overhead, they couldn't risk radioing to find out if anyone had reached Jumper Two.
He stared at John as if at a stranger, wondering how anyone could keep doing this, over and over, because he couldn't stand it. He watched John shake until he had to lunge forward and hold on to him, so they could both feel some warmth. John stilled for one breath, then clutched Rodney just as tightly, whispering things that hurt against his throat. Whispering don't die, don't go, don't leave me alone, I can't stand it anymore. His voice was ragged and uneven.
Rodney tried for words, but they didn't come and his lips were touching John's stubbled jaw. John twisted in his arms and their mouths were on each other, lips cold, kissing through the taste of rain to the heat inside. They were too raw and desperate to do more than fumble and grind against each other, still far too aware of where they were and what lay outside to even come. They made a thousand promises with their hands and their mouths, though, all of them in silence, while the drowning rain rattled on the roof of the Jumper.
Rodney hated his dreams.
He dreamed of hollow halls and empty rooms. Echoes of his steps and seabird screams bounced from the shining towers, shadows chased will-o-wisp Wraith ghosts through forlorn rooms. Dust stirred from a book abandoned half-read, a coffee cup never emptied; dust that glittered gold and spun through salt-heavy air. He ran, but the shadows slid away and left him nothing; nothing to touch, nothing to hold, and only the whisper of the great ocean to hear.
He searched his nightmares each time he slept and found no one; just the city, deserted between one breath and the next. A notebook page that fluttered as he passed, a word scrawled there, an open laptop still running, the screen-saver dissolving into a word he glimpsed but could never read, but he had to keep moving. He had to find someone. In the gate room, the ring stood still and darkened, void. He turned his back to it and heard it began to spin, heard the chevrons fail to lock, and he saw the word scrawled in blood on the steps.
It hadn't happened that way at all.
"That's it?" Rodney demanded, shooting to his feet so fast the table rocked and three Air Force Generals had to clutch their coffee cups or wear the contents. "You're just writing everything in Atlantis, everyone there, off? I always knew the military were lying hypocrites, but I thought you had some loyalty to your own. No, no, I didn't, because I know for a fact exactly how much respect you have for people that actually have some loyalty, and I believe the result was a black mark." His eyes narrowed. "Is that it? Is this just a really convenient way to get rid of Col. Sheppard?"
"Dr. McKay!" General Landry snapped. He rose, slower than Rodney had, and leaned forward, bracing himself on the table. "Enough!"
Rodney clenched his hands into white-knuckled fists. Beside him, but still seated, Sam Carter said nothing, but she wrapped one strong hand around his wrist. Whether in support or to keep him from throwing himself across the table at Landry, Rodney didn't know. On his other side, Col. Caldwell remained silent, neither supporting nor arguing against Rodney.
"We have too many enemies in our own galaxy to waste time and ships pursuing dangerous mysteries in the Pegasus Galaxy, no matter how many good men and women have been lost. To do so would only court losing more."
This was like some terrible, terrible nightmare replay of the mist planet, Rodney thought distantly. The one that fooled them all into thinking they were home, but couldn't get back to Atlantis. What he wouldn't give to see Gen. Hammond in front of him instead of Landry. Hammond had never liked him, but he had always been fair and would never have betrayed Atlantis like this. Nausea made Rodney's stomach lurch.
"I resent your implication that any member of the US military or Stargate Command would sacrifice over two hundred people to remove one thorn in our sides," Landry went on, glaring back at Rodney. "I'm willing to overlook it, in this one case, out of respect for your admirable dedication to your colleagues. But the matter is settled. There will be no more deployments of any sort to the Pegasus Galaxy. We cannot take the risk."
"What about the Stargate?" Rodney demanded.
"Opening the Stargate to another galaxy would take more power than the partially depleted ZPM we have can provide," one of the other generals said.
"Then I'll find a way to recharge it."
"McKay," Caldwell murmured. "Atlantis is gone."
"Dr. McKay," Landry stated, "if you can give a us a ZPM that works, you can stand in the control room and dial Atlantis yourself."
Rodney met his eyes without flinching. "Then I will."
He woke panting and aching, reaching, always reaching, but the other side of the bed was empty, the sheets cool as the moonlight filling his bedroom. The air sliding in the windows whispered of cedars and snow, cars and earth and smoke, but never of salt and water. He could feel it on his face, though, and taste it on his lips.
"No life signs," Caldwell declared. He sounded tired. "There are no life signs anywhere on the planet, Dr. McKay. What else do you want me to do?"
Rodney stared out the Daedalus' bridge view-port at the blue-green curve of the planet below them. Nothing. There was nothing. Nothing where Atlantis once rode the ocean. Nothing where the Athosians had made new homes on the landmass.Nothing where John had made love to him.
"No debris, no radiation, no sign of what could have happened," Caldwell continued. "There's nothing left to do here. Whatever happened…we're too late."
It was no big deal. The SGC needed Rodney at the Terra Atlantea base in the Antarctic. No one else had as much expertise with the Ancient technology. Rodney used it and understood and he had the gene, thanks to Carson's therapy. John laughed and told him to go. Atlantis would survive two and a half months without him. Zelenka would keep the rest of the scientists in line. John was due for leave in a month and would come through on the next scheduled opening of the Stargate between Atlantis and the SGC. They would spend a couple of weeks on Earth and return home on the Daedalus together. A month, John said, and gave Rodney a little push toward the event horizon. He wouldn't have time to miss him before they saw each other again.
Those big blue eyes were full of apologies. Rodney wanted to take her throat between his hands and squeeze and shake until she took it back. He couldn't, because all he had was a shaking video image on his laptop's screen. Sam was in Colorado and he was at the bottom of the world. It really didn't matter where he was; he wasn't where he should be: Atlantis.
John should have walked through the Stargate under Cheyenne Mountain five days ago.
"I'm sorry, Rodney. Atlantis missed the check-in again. It could be their ZPM. We won't know what's wrong until the Daedalus can report – "
"Rodney, we need you to finish recalibrating the interface between the Command chair and the new defense systems."
"I don't care, Carter. I'm going back to Atlantis."
The janitor found the faded photograph on the floor of one of rooms. He picked it up curiously. Two men, one laughing, one glaring at the camera, a blue ocean stretching to the horizon behind them. He flipped it over, but there were no names, no way to know who they had been or who the pic had belonged to, just a word. He turned it in at the nurses' desk and forgot it not long after.