Author: Chandri MacLeod
Category: Angst, Hurt/Comfort
Spoilers: Through Spoils of War
Summary: After Rodney is held hostage on a trading mission, he starts to slowly fall apart. When he won't admit anything's wrong, he's sent back to Earth to recover, and it's up to John to pick up the pieces.
Warnings: For this part? Character death. Lots and lots of it. But probably not what you think.
A/N: Thanks should go to mik100 for insisting I add more (descriptive!) gore. All in the name of good art. This part also came out quite a bit longer than parts 1 and 2, so I had to split it up or face the wrath of Semagic.
ETA - Direct links on LJ:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3a | Part 3b | Part 4a | Part 4b | Part 5a | Part 5b
Or: read in one piece on my website
The second person Eron Vaal kills is the weeping blonde woman. Rodney learns her name only in the last seconds of her life, when one of her colleagues shrieks “Cordei!” and catches her body as it falls.
“Did you hear that?” Vaal demands into his radio, or whatever on Ava passes for radios.
“That was a statement,” Vaal says. “I want to talk to my wife.”
The really scary thing, Rodney thinks, is that Vaal doesn’t sound angry, and Rodney’s pretty sure you don’t shoot people if you’re calm. Not generally.
No, Vaal looks disturbingly focused, and he paces to the other side of the control room, listening to the other side of the conversation while Rodney struggles to focus on the screen. The hostages can only make out scraps of what’s going on outside, and Rodney stopped listening four hours ago because it was too distracting, and because one of Vaal’s men cuffed him across the side of the head for working too slow. Not that they’d know if he was, he said bitterly, afterwards. Not that they’d know Ancient programming code if it bit them on the…
He stopped, there, because the goon raised his fist again and Rodney’s a genius, he doesn’t need to be told twice.
From what he can make out, the Parliament has taken Vaal’s family into custody. Even Rodney knows it’s a bad ploy, that the last thing you do with hostage-takers is threaten them. And Vaal doesn’t see them as hostages – not against anyone but Rodney, anyway. Vaal wasn’t planning on using them as leverage. He just wants to get out with what he came for.
It was the first contact between the control room and the outside world, something Vaal was not apparently expecting. Rodney assumed they would know what was happening up here, at least to a point – the Avans have these strange computer-interface devices that must have told those below how many were present, even who they were. They are not, evidently, useful enough to actually let anyone help them, or even reach them because Vaal’s men don’t have the things. They make Rodney vaguely uncomfortable; make him think of an episode of The Outer Limits where a global computer system tried to take over the world through people’s cybernetic implants and made them insane.
If Vaal were crazy, it would explain a lot. But he’s not. It’s almost worse.
But it makes him feel torn between fury and gratitude because the strategy is clearly insane, is only making Vaal angrier… and yet it means he’s been distracted screaming into the radio for the last five hours, too busy to kill anyone… except Cordei, of course. But Rodney is only a little ashamed of his relief over that. That it hasn’t been any of his people. That Vaal is angrier at the Parliament, for a moment, than he is determined to escape.
Until someone on the radio says something that makes Vaal set down the receiver with exaggerated care, walk over to the last four Avan scientists, and kill them all with each a single shot to the head, bang bang bang bang.
They go down soundlessly, like stricken birds or bowling pins. This bizarre, incongruous silence follows the thunder of the gunfire, while all of them hold their breath, watching Vaal, who lowers his now-trembling arm. He isn’t even breathing hard. Rodney feels his breath freeze in his throat, and he doesn’t move, afraid of drawing attention to himself. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Radek and the others doing the same. The only things moving in the room are Eron Vaal’s lips.
“Minister?” he says into the radio, after he has holstered his gun and carefully wiped the spots of blood-splatter from his knuckles with a handkerchief.
And now, in the silence, they can hear the voice at the other end. “This is Minister Sarna.” Rodney isn’t sure if he’s imagining it, but he thinks even crusty old Sarna sounds truly angry.
“We began with twelve hostages,” Vaal explains, for all the world like a lecturer of poetry, care and precision in every syllable. “And now there are six. I will leave you to imagine which ones remain.”
The static crackle of the radio cuts off with a swipe of Vaal’s thumb, and he sets it carefully down on the nearest flat surface. Rodney’s still frozen, hands white-cold around his tablet, even though his back is complaining about the position he’s sitting in.
Then Vaal looks dispassionately at the undignified tumble of limbs that were once Orsa and the others, and jerks his chin, once. Vaal’s men descend on them like polite vultures, stripping off jewellery and ornament. The youngest thug appropriates Orsa’s thick eyeglasses and tests them against his own eyes. It’s seeing them dropped so unceremoniously back to the floor once searched that unfreezes Rodney’s tongue.
“You didn’t have to do that!”
He can’t believe his own ears. Why is he talking?
Vaal looks surprised, too, but he just gives Rodney a cool, slightly amused look that barely covers what is now evident as despair. Desperation. Their eyes meet and Rodney goes cold.
“The Parliament left me no choice, Doctor McKay.” There’s no wheedling in it, no soft request to agree, to justify. Vaal’s certain. He’s so certain it chills Rodney’s blood. “We once had laws against the involvement of civilians in such conflicts… they have crossed a line.”
It’s not justification but close enough, and Rodney actually can’t stop himself. “Well maybe you should have thought of that before—” and he stops himself, swallows the words back like bile, but too late. Vaal smiles, a horrible, cold smile, and his eyes flicker sideways, a signal Rodney doesn’t catch in time.
Three heavy boot-steps, and that’s when Vaal’s second shoots Simpson. Two shots, right in the chest, and Simpson doesn’t even scream. She just crumples, surprised, blood creeping and blooming black on her expedition jacket. Rodney doesn’t have time to react to that, because Ager rises half to his feet, supposedly to stop them, because he’s military and therefore, just now, an idiot, which the rebel thug sees, and then Ager’s falling, heavily, eyes shocked. And then the gun’s turned on Miko, and Rodney’s shouting:
“If you shoot her, I’m the only one left with the gene!”
Radek has Simpson, is cradling her shoulders and whispering down at her, glasses slipping down his nose. Rodney barely takes it in before he pushes the tablet away from him and staggers across to stand in front of them.
“You can’t,” he says, “you can’t, you need us both, all of us, and it hasn’t been an hour.” And suddenly he’s in Atlantis again with the storm coming, and still can’t believe what he just did, stepping between a deadly weapon and another person. Behind him, he can hear Miko breathing high and shallow, little squeaks of terror, hear Henriksson gulping back air, the telltale sounds of someone trying not to vomit. Rodney’s not sure if he’s breathing or not. His throat seems to have seized up.
Vaal has his speculative look again, straightens and narrows his eyes. “I gave you too long the first time. Perhaps you didn’t believe me. Very well, Doctor McKay,” he says, in his dark, hot voice. “A further reprieve. But then we’re back on schedule.”
He paces back to the window, and the constriction of Rodney’s throat eases, and he turns to look at Ager, propped awkwardly against the wall like a mannequin; but Rodney only has to touch him to know the shot was too true and he’s gone. He hates himself for thinking that at least he didn’t know the man that well, because he needs to, and turns to stare down at Simpson instead. But Radek is meeting his eyes, shaking his head, looking sick and angry and exhausted. “Nothing,” he says. “Nothing to do. Rodney…”
Miko is crying now, silent tears muffled by the hands over her face. She’s holding her glasses between two fingers and shaking. There’s a smear of red on Radek’s cheek, red on his hands, red matted in the strands of Simpson’s blonde hair where Radek brushed it out of her eyes. Rodney can’t tell if she’s dead, but knows it might not matter. Might not matter if she’s dead yet.
He doesn’t know what to do.
“I’ve got to get back to work,” he whispers, and does.
But an hour later, it still isn’t working. This has never happened before. It’s always hard, there’s always pressure, it’s always a miracle when he pulls it off, but this is different. The other times he wasn’t alone. The other times his people were helping him, not held hostage against his talents, bleeding or under threat. Rodney can’t stop thinking about their bodies, how denied the use of their hands and the bolstering influence of one another’s ingenuity that’s all they are. Flesh and blood and muscle and bone, and strength to strength they’re helpless
against Vaal and his men, mere raw material to make a point, means to an end.
Rodney starts hearing the unholy volume of his own pulse, beating a counterpoint rhythm under the horrible buzzing of the air, and he hardly hears the next shot, fired without hesitation, Henriksson this time, because Vaal has heeded Rodney’s warning and will leave Miko for last, he’s sure of it.
He wishes, with growing desperation, that John was here, because John can always centre him even when he doesn’t want to be centred. Not many things besides terror can divorce Rodney of his control, of his ability to isolate his mind from his traitorous impulses, this uncomfortable knowledge of physicality. He’s never been well in touch with it, comfortable in his own skin, and now his skin is all there seems to be; he can’t stop thinking about how his hands shake, his knees hurt, his head hurts, about how fast his heart is beating. But John’s not here, and he can’t concentrate, he can’t do it. He’s not sure he could do it without a knife at his throat.
An hour after that, to the minute, Vaal himself crosses the room, drawing his knife as he goes. It’s maybe the passing of one heartbeat that Rodney realises; Vaal only uses the knife when he needn’t be efficient. The Avan scientists were nothing, were coin, but this is… this is something else. There was something different with Henriksson and Ager, like he knew they weren’t close, but with Simpson he watched with strange, focused interest and this time there’s something so much worse. He looks at Rodney as he presses the point of the knife gently under Radek’s ribs, asks: “How much longer?”
Rodney doesn’t remember getting to his feet, but comes to himself to find his own voice pleading, saying “I don’t know, you don’t understand, it’s not that simple,” because with Simpson it happened too fast but this time… and two men, their grip like steel, restraining him; someone knees him in the stomach and he folds over.
A second after that, his goons have to hold Rodney back, screaming until he’s hoarse, as they back Radek into the wall, wide-eyed with silent terror and all out of words. Vaal’s arm moves, swift and easy like when he slit Orsa’s throat, like Radek’s flesh offers no resistance but a little gasp and hitch of breath. Through it all, Rodney holds his gaze, fighting against every instinct screaming at him to shut his eyes, to look away, because he’s trying but there’s nothing else he can do, he can at least do this. But it’s nothing. It’s nothing.
When they let him go he slides down the wall, throat working but silent, hands splayed over his belly like he could hold in the blood spilling out between his fingers. Before they shove Rodney back to his computer Radek’s eyes are unfocused and glazed with pain, his lips barely moving.
Vaal advances on Rodney where he’s slumped on the floor, the console digging into his shoulder, and places an almost friendly hand on his shoulder. The knife is in that hand, and it presses, again gently, into the tender skin above Rodney’s collar, and he can feel hot blood soaking into his shirt, not his blood. His stomach roils, but he keeps it still. Vaal’s eyes are hot and maybe mad, but his face is quite calm.
“You’re going to be… so sorry when our people get here,” Rodney wheezes, because fuck, if he’s going out, he’s going out with a curse on his lips. “You have no idea what you’ve…” He wants to say something about Acastus Kolya, about sixty men reduced to sparks against the shield, but he can’t, because:
“No one is coming, Doctor McKay,” Vaal tells him, and again it steals the breath from Rodney’s lungs. He’s seen something change in Vaal’s eyes, something shift, and suddenly he knows, knows that Vaal no longer expects to escape alive.
“No one is coming for you. Just as no one will save my wife and sons. This is war. No one saves you.”
He lets go, and Rodney just breathes for a moment, before resolutely turning, pulling himself up to the console by one hand, reaching for his tablet and starting again.
Rodney doesn’t turn around when he’s sure, that it’s too far out of his grasp for an hour, for two hours, for here and now. He’s a fucking coward, but he doesn’t turn around because if he looks at them, sees Radek’s greying face, sees how Miko is pale and drawn and distant, or the others, he won’t be able to work, and then he’ll be useless, completely useless, if he wasn’t already.
He tries to pretend he can’t feel their accusing stares searing into his back.
Three days passed, in something approaching peace and quiet. But by John’s count, it had been forty-five days since Ava, and little had changed. Somehow, he’d been expecting something by now, on its own, even with Rodney trying so hard to prevent it.
But every person was different; everyone could stand more or less than the next. Some people could bear keeping such things inside for only days, but maybe the truly stubborn could bear it better. Or at least, longer. John was beginning to fear Rodney was the latter, because he was sleeping better, certainly, but still hadn’t spoken a word aloud about anything that had happened on Ava, barring what had been forced out of him on the lakeshore.
Three days passed while John waited, worrying not only about Rodney but himself, too. Jeannie had been as good as her word, but John still couldn’t stop thinking about it, especially with the considering looks she kept giving him when she thought he wasn’t looking.
Other than that, Jeannie bustled cheerfully in and out, and engaged her brother in several spirited arguments as to the value of public education. Once John and Rodney went with her to the college to watch her lecture, and Rodney interrupted the class no less than six times to correct the textbook. The students enjoyed this greatly until Rodney began to elucidate his point with an explanation of something edging on classified and John had to haul him out of the lecture theatre. That day he was treated to an hour-long lingering rant about the stupidity of undergraduates, the decline of scientific scholarship, and the doom of society in general. He found himself caught up in it, forgetting, for a few hours, why they were there, grinning and shaking his head and deflating Rodney at the appropriate intervals only to watch him puff himself up again.
What finally happened was small, and simple, and he should have seen it coming. But it could have been any one of a hundred things, just waiting for the moment when they were all unsuspecting, Rodney most of all.
Supper that night was pizza, which Madison helped assemble only so long as it took to sprinkle liberal handfuls of grated cheese and chopped green pepper on her own little pie. Then she hopped down from her chair and dragged John and Rodney into the living room. The space station had been completed the previous day and was sitting safely atop a bookcase next to the kitchen door. Instead, Madison brought out a chessboard and a wooden box of pieces, and dumped them onto the coffee table.
“Mummy said you played all the time, Uncle Mer,” she said cheerfully, unfolding the board and setting up the pieces.
Rodney stood staring a moment, mouth open. “What’s the matter?” asked John.
“Oh, nothing,” Rodney said, sitting down on the couch across from Madison. Whatever the moment had been, it had passed, though he picked up one of the pawns and turned it thoughtfully between his fingers before setting it down again. “Are you any good?” he asked Madison, and Madison narrowed her eyes at him.
John laughed at the tableau, Madison glaring challengingly across the table at Rodney, Rodney crossing his arms and glaring right back.
“You’re on,” he said.
Four games later it was coming up on eight o’clock. Rodney and his niece were evenly matched, something which John might have expected Rodney to react to with frustration, blaming his losses on the flickering of the lights, or the distraction of noise, or hunger, as he did when he lost to other people. Instead he was hiding a smile, though he greeted every success on Madison’s part with criticism about how this could have been done more subtly, or how he’d seen that move coming a mile away.
“Yeah, but I still beat you,” Madison pointed out, grinning, and turned to John. “Do you play with Uncle Mer, Uncle John?”
John grinned back. “Yup.”
“Occasionally,” said Rodney bitterly.
“All the time,” John told Madison.
“And do you beat him?” asked Madison.
“Occasionally,” repeated Rodney, firmly.
John just grinned wider, because the truth was that Rodney had never actually beaten him at chess. Rodney had been flummoxed the first time, and said the only reason he kept playing because it was one of the great mysteries of the universe, and he was a scientist.
Jeannie sat down next to Rodney then, and Caleb followed, crouching down next to Madison. “How’s it going, Maddie?” he asked, squinting at the board.
“I beat Uncle Mer twice,” said Madison proudly.
“Your Uncle Mer used to lose to me all the time, Mad,” Jeannie told her, winking at John. “With these same pieces. And he always used to ask for do-overs, too.”
“I did not!” protested Rodney. “You were distracting! Always chewing gum or humming or something!” He turned to John as if for appeal. “She was a cheater, too. Used to move the pieces when I left the room to get a snack.”
“You left the board five times every game.”
“I have low blood sugar! It’s a very serious condition!”
The argument carried on like that for some time, until finally Madison bored of it and got up to select a DVD from the shelf next to the TV, ignoring them all. But she looked up from the DVD player with annoyance on her face. “It won’t work.”
John, who was closest, got up to help, just as the timer sounded from the kitchen and Kaleb went to check on the pizza. “What’s up, Mad?”
Madison scowled at the television. “It won’t work.”
John looked. He was pretty sure the Sailor Scouts were supposed to talk, but there was no sound coming from the TV. He looked around, saw four speakers around the room, but they were all silent. He’d half expected Rodney to shove them both out of the way to fix it with his usual bluster, but he was still deep in an argument about the vagaries of distraction tactics in chess and wasn’t paying attention. So it was left to John to crawl behind the TV to see what was wrong, while Madison plopped back down next to the chessboard, chin resting impatiently in her hand.
It looked like a loose connection, all right, and it took John a minute to find the right cable in the mess of wires behind the TV. He was willing to bet that Jeannie had set up the system, because it was hooked up with the same ruthless determination for functionality and utter disregard for tidiness that Rodney used when he jury-rigged the systems in the city.
He shook his head over the fire hazard and began to patiently sort through the tangle of black cable, reaching up to reconnect the speaker output. But there was still no sound, so John had to check three others, all of which placed him at an uncomfortable angle to the wall, while Rodney and Jeannie went on arguing pleasantly.
When he pushed in the second jack, the room was suddenly filled with a low hum that told him he’d made the wrong connection. He left it while he squinted at the back of the DVD player, trying to figure out the right jack.
It was a second before the back of his neck began to prickle, and he found himself seized by an inexplicable urgency to silence that sound. But he’d lost sight of the correct wire, and while he was searching for it with clumsy fingers, he realised that the conversation behind him had stopped, and that Jeannie was talking, low and scared: “Mer? Mer, what’s wrong?”
John stood up so fast that he banged his head against the bottom of the DVD shelf, but it didn’t stop him from looking straight at Rodney, seeing the bloodless cast to his face, how he’d gone still and was staring sightlessly at the opposite wall. Then Jeannie touched his shoulder, and Rodney jumped to his feet, knocking the chessboard and the wooden pieces everywhere.
Madison made a high, surprised sound and leaped out of the way as Rodney looked wildly around and barrelled out of the room like he was being chased. A second later, the front door opened and closed, and it seemed to shake them all out of their shock.
John reached behind the TV and yanked all the cables out of the back of the DVD player with one hand. The buzzing noise was abruptly cut off, and he actually swayed for a second in relief, before he caught up with himself and went running for the door.
Jeannie stopped him with a hand on his arm, actually caught him and hauled him back, asking: “What just happened?”
John looked down at her. She looked scared, blue eyes wide, and he looked past her to where Madison was clinging, whimpering, to the edge of the coffee table. “Is she okay?” he asked, his voice tense.
Kaleb stepped out of the kitchen to scoop up his daughter in one fluid motion as Jeannie glanced back at them. “She’s fine,” he said, looking at both John and Jeannie as he stroked Madison’s hair.
“Is Uncle Mer okay? Did I scare him like last time?” Madison asked no one in particular, in a shaky voice not unlike the one she’d used in the park after she’d skinned her knee. This time, though, she looked alarmed, her chin trembling.
“He’s – it wasn’t your fault,” John told her, and looked pleadingly at Jeannie, who frowned at him, still wide-eyed.
“I’ve got to—” Find him, stop him, help him, but the words didn’t come. Kaleb pulled Madison’s head down onto his shoulder, the whimpers subsiding, but John was still tense and thrumming, because he couldn’t explain, but he had to go. Jeannie finally saw it and nodded, curtly.
“Go, go,” she said, and gave him a little push. John gave her a look of undying gratitude, and went.
Outside, it was dark, with nobody abroad to see John as he made his way down narrow, tree-crowded lanes, cut across green and peaceful yards waving with moonlit shadows, nobody to see the subtle panic he thought must be showing on his face.
After ten minutes with no sign he paused to listen, because Rodney was anything but stealthy even now, but the night was silent, humid, and standing by a high fence on the corner a block from Jeannie’s house he found himself wreathed with the scent of night-blooming flowers. It seemed hardly real, like the close and quiet streets had swallowed him up. But the stillness made John think of deep water, and suddenly he knew where Rodney had gone.
He walked through the empty gardens of the Shadbolt Centre feeling conspicuous and furtive under the high spotlights gracing the flowerbeds. He almost lost his footing twice as he passed out into the darkened park, hastening as he made his way down the incline towards the lake. Finally his whole line of vision was full of the glitter of moonlight on water, not the ocean but at least water, and he stopped again, scanning the shore, trying to catch his breath.
It took several minutes, or felt like it, as he stood on the hill above the lake and tried to see movement, see a bowed, head, hunched shoulders, see something – and then he did.
Rodney had hardly gone far from the straight path down the hill. John found him sitting in the grass at the edge of where the shore became reeds and mud. He looked perfectly at peace, his elbows resting on his knees, fingers laced together and hanging loosely. His eyes were closed, the only sign of something wrong if John hadn’t been able to read his face, the tightness around his eyes and mouth, the little crease between his eyebrows.
“Rodney,” John called, softly, to let him know he was there, and saw Rodney start, turn his head so quick that John winced in sympathy. That would hurt, later.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, looking up at John as he sat down next to him in the grass. He seemed honestly bemused, and it confirmed what John had feared, expected.
“Jeannie was worried about you,” he lied.
“You…” John rubbed the back of his neck. “You sort of freaked out back there.”
“I did?” Rodney blinked at him, looking confused and alarmed and, for the first time, not trying to clumsily hide it. “What did I—”
“Scared Madison, but not too bad,” John said quickly, as gently as he could, because Rodney groaned and covered his face with his hands. “Just scared her.”
“How can I be like this?” Rodney asked of the air, the words muffled by his hands.
John reached out and prised the hands gently away. Rodney didn’t jump, and it only occurred to John then just how much he’d been touching Rodney since they’d arrived on Earth. But any strangeness was pushed away by the needs of the moment, because Rodney didn’t even resist, just stared sightlessly down into the reeds. “Like what?”
He felt it before he heard it, the deep breath that came out on a whimper, the hard shudder of pent-up tension in Rodney’s shoulders. “He never touched me!” There was a querulous edge to it, something sharp and baffled and desperate, and it wavered over the water before dying away. “He never— how can I still be like this?” He dropped his head again, and then he was standing, arms wrapped around himself, and John could almost feel him pushing it back, trying to make himself still.
Not again, John thought, fiercely, and rose to his own feet, suddenly tired of it, out of patience. “Because you won’t talk about it,” he ground out. He was angry, angry at Sarna, angry at the Avan Parliament, angry at Vaal, angry at Rodney for keeping it at arm’s length for so long that it had become so hard. “Because if you don’t, it just gets worse and worse, until you can’t control it. Until you start losing track. Until you can’t concentrate. Until you lose whole hours of the day. Fuck, Rodney,” he swore, as Rodney shrank back in blank surprise, but John couldn’t stop himself, “you wouldn’t even admit it when you almost blew up the lab. You could have…” But he couldn’t bring himself to say aloud what could have happened, how much worse it could have gotten before Keller finally stepped in. What had happened was bad enough.
Strangely, Rodney was calmer now, no longer seeming likely to blow away on a breeze if there’d been one, but he looked stricken, astonished, like he couldn’t believe John was saying these things. But John was coming to realise that maybe they’d been too careful, stepped too soft around him, and that had helped make it worse. He’d thought it back in Atlantis, that Elizabeth would have made Rodney talk about it, would have pushed, until it came out, loud and messy, that it was like an infection, it had to hurt, had to burn, before it could heal, and they’d all forgotten that. They’d thought more to protecting Rodney than helping him.
“I told you,” Rodney said, with a bite of impatience to mask the white-faced terror now bubbling perilously close to the surface. “I can’t.”
“You have to.” John was standing near him now, could feel the heat radiating off Rodney’s body, smell the sweat of his flight through the silent streets. “You have to, or it’ll be like this forever.” He tried to speak softly, insistent.
He saw Rodney’s fingers tighten around his upper arms, saw his chin lift, defiantly. But the mouth opened and froze there, like he couldn’t remember what he had planned to say, or thought better of it. Instead, he glanced at John, an assessing, frankly terrified look before dropping his eyes, and said: “You were there.”
It was a test, John realised with a jolt. A reach, the first one, and he wasn’t about to pass up the chance. “You didn’t tell me what they did,” he pressed, ignoring how Rodney twitched, slightly.
“Sure I did,” he said, blinking rapidly. “You read my report.”
“Rodney,” John said, and then, when Rodney still didn’t look at him, “Rodney,” and then he had to face the raw, awful look in Rodney’s eyes.
“You told everyone what happened. You didn’t tell me what – what they did.”
That awful rawness again, Rodney closed his eyes over it and sat heavily, suddenly down on the grass.
“Because I can’t, okay?” he shouted, and the words dodged back and forth across the water. Even John jumped, at the way the shout split the silence, at the torn-open agony in Rodney’s eyes, but he held firm against it because he needed to, crouching down next to him in the grass. Rodney went on talking, in a torrent of words running together, shaking his head.
“He told me to do something I couldn’t do and then he killed people because I couldn’t do it, one by one, and I couldn’t work fast enough, and when he ran out of people to kill, he–”
His voice was climbing higher and higher until finally he shut his mouth, and his face just… crumpled. He was shaking like a flag in a high wind, fingers clenching and unclenching.
“I couldn’t do it,” he repeated, “and when I think about it I remember being there, and my head aching and him cutting Orsa’s throat and Miko crying and people pissing themselves and that fucking buzzing noise and–” and John reached out and gathered Rodney to him without thinking, because it looked like Rodney was about to fall. He leaned into John without hesitation, which was surprising and oddly pleasant, something John tried not to think about too closely.
“It wasn’t your fault,” John said firmly.
“I should have been able to do it,” Rodney protested. “I just… I couldn’t work fast enough—”
“Vaal was insane,” John insisted. “You can’t assign reason to crazy people. You can’t line up your motives with his, you can’t gauge how smart you are or how good you are by what he did!”
“I couldn’t—” He felt Rodney’s breath hitch, “I couldn’t work fast enough.” The broad shoulders in John’s arms were shaking, and Rodney’s face was pressed wetly into the crook of his neck but he could still hear the words.
“How can I?” he asks. “How can I go back and be responsible for… for their lives, for your life when I couldn’t even…”
John sighed, shut his eyes. He wasn’t listening. He understood that – he couldn’t listen. It dawned on him properly, then, though he’d known it academically, that Rodney had been living in that cramped, terrified moment at the end of Vaal’s knife for the past six weeks. He slid one hand to the back of Rodney’s neck and held it there, as Rodney whispered:
“What do you do?”
And John answered calmly: “You talk. You talk about it, everything, over and over until it’s… it’s not so big.” He smiled against the side of Rodney’s neck. “You’re good at talking.”
“Ha, ha.” Rodney muttered, and lifted his head a little. “I’m sorry, I’m getting you all – I shouldn’t be – ” He started to withdraw, but John held on, until the tension in Rodney’s back muscles drained away, his loose-curled hands resting tentatively along John’s ribs, hot even through his clothes.
“Don’t apologise,” he said, trying to sound stern, but he had to swallow against the lump in his throat. “You don’t ever need to apologise to me.”
“Okay.” The agreement was hesitant, and a second later, Rodney added: “Do we have to do this now?”
John tensed, and forced it away before it gave him away, because for a moment he’d thought Rodney had said that with a double meaning… but he couldn’t have.
“I’m so tired,” Rodney murmured, as explanation.
“No,” John told him. “Not tonight. But soon…”
“I know.” And Rodney sounded annoyed, so much like himself that John chuckled.
“Thanks,” came the whisper from right next to John’s ear, and Rodney’s arms tightened around him, just for a second. It was just what it was, just gratitude, and exhaustion, though it could have been strange. But it was only Rodney, and it felt almost dizzyingly natural. Like hugging John was something he’d always done.
John sighed again, a deep breath in, a heavy exhalation, the smell of Rodney, stress and sweat and the bitterness of exhaustion, all around him like the still summer air. The following rush of affection, of impending grief, of everything else, was so intense that he had to close his eyes against it, searching for something to say that would bring reality back into balanced focus, keep him from feeling like he’d drown in it.
“We need you there, Rodney.”
Rodney’s body felt limp now, exhausted, heavy, as he muttered: “Sam’s just as smart as I am.”
And then John had to strain not to laugh, because even now there was a trace of bitterness there, of grudging respect. “Maybe,” he agreed, and lowered his head, Rodney’s hair brushing under his chin. “But she’s not you.”
Go to Part 4a