Title: Catalysis (4b/5)
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.
A/N: Another two-part-part. Please don't hurt me.
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
“This isn’t really working,” muttered Rodney, dropping his arms to his sides.
Beside him, John sighed, quietly, and opened his eyes. “That’s because you’re doing it wrong,” he said, casting a critical eye over Rodney’s body, and Rodney felt himself flush. Lucky he was already flushed deep pink from the heat and the impending sunburn, or this could have been embarrassing.
“I’m doing what you’re doing,” he griped, crossing his arms and glaring.
John studied him through half-closed eyes, a look that was undoubtedly studying and not just observing, and then reached out for Rodney’s arms. Rodney barely started, and found himself once again distantly astonished at the fact that it no longer surprised him when John touched him. It shouldn’t have – John had always touched him, more than anyone else, anyway, and under torture he might have admitted that he liked that. Liked there being someone who thought nothing of it, like it was normal.
Generally Rodney had always found it safest not to think about it too much. It wasn't the kind of thing you brought up over cards. At least, it wasn't the kind of thing Rodney brought up over cards. Or John. Besides, I want somebody to touch me seemed to come with implications that precluded just how complicated the desire really was. Because it wasn't about sex.
Okay, it was a little about sex. But not entirely. It was much more basic than that, much more simplistic, much harder to express. And so he didn't. Hadn't, when he'd noticed the touching, almost carelessly bestowed. He'd just noted it, been grateful, and moved on.
So he made himself be still and pliant as John uncrossed his arms, tugged at his wrists until they hung loosely at his sides, even patiently uncurled his hands. It was hard to stay still, because this was different, now that he was paying attention, and he’d been paying a lot more of it to John over the last several weeks. He hated to admit it, but John Sheppard had become his point of stability, and John seemed equally, annoyingly set on keeping a constant eye on Rodney, too.
But it was, he was finding, a lot harder not to think about how he liked John touching him while John was actually touching him, and not by accident or out of habit, either, but with intention. He didn't think it was the heat, the mugginess of the air, that put heaviness in his muscles. He didn't think it was the temperature that made John move like that, languid and slow and focused. It was something else. But it was something so foggy that Rodney couldn't quite grasp it; could only let John move his hands, nudge his ankles apart with one bare foot, then step back, cocking his head slightly to one side.
"Try it again."
Rodney gulped – when had his mouth gone so dry? – and tried it again. And okay, he had been doing it wrong, and he got three moves in, clumsily but better, before he lost his footing again, muttering a curse as John reached out to catch his elbow.
“Uncle Mer!” He turned his head to see Madison frowning disapprovingly at him from under an enormous straw hat. She had been watching them for the past half-hour, and he’d seen her come outside but promptly forgotten about her presence until now. She was sitting on the top step of the back porch, elbows on knees and chin in her hands, her bare toes pointing at each other. The hat was so huge it shaded her bare shoulders, even her knees where they stuck out under the pale green sundress.
“What?” he demanded, wearily.
Madison’s mouth drew up into the annoyed little twist Jeannie wore when she was lecturing him about something. “Daddy says swear words mean you have a limited vocabulary.”
English majors, Rodney thought, with some violence.
“Yes, well, your Daddy may not know this, but sometimes swear words mean there aren’t any other words to describe something,” he shot back. “Lucky for you, you’ve never been in that situation.”
“Hmph,” Madison replied, clearly unconvinced.
“Look, be quiet, okay? You’re breaking my concentration.”
“Uncle John said you’re doing it wrong,” Madison pointed out, reasonably. “If you knew how to do it right you wouldn’t have to concentrate so hard.”
Rodney levelled on his niece one of his best glares, one of the top five, one that usually sent minions scattering like dandelion fluff. But Madison remained unmoved. In fact, she didn’t even look impressed.
It never worked on Jeannie, either. Damnit.
Instead, he turned back to John, who was smiling his I-shouldn’t-laugh-at-this-but-I-really-w
The smile softened, and John shrugged. “Okay, here.”
Rodney was only a little surprised when this time, John arranged himself at his back, placing his hands on Rodney’s shoulders. They felt cool.
“What are you doing?” he asked, with only a hint of a stutter.
“Look,” came John’s voice from right next to his left ear, “you think too much about this stuff. And this isn’t thinking, it’s muscle memory. It’s your body thinking it’s in danger and reacting even though you know better. Right?”
“So we’ll just teach your muscles, and you try to stop thinking for a second.”
He sounded calm, patient, annoyingly untouched by just how much blood had just rushed into Rodney’s face. His hands were gently circling Rodney’s wrists, arms and chest flush with Rodney’s shoulder blades.
“Rodney,” he said, and Rodney felt one stubbled cheek pressed briefly against his neck as John told him, still calmly: “Relax. Close your eyes.”
He did. “Okay,” he said, forcing a deep, deep breath and letting it out slowly, because after a moment it felt like John’s languid focus had soaked into him through osmosis. “Now what?”
John just started moving.
Bow stance and Rodney’s arms were lifting, sweeping slowly left, and then step back, and John hooked a foot around his ankle and he was stepping, all his weight on his right foot. Step and push, and they were halfway through the first form before Rodney realised John was whispering each move as they made it, half to himself.
They went through it three times until finally Rodney was moving on his own, more sure in the motions now, but John still moved with him, no longer guiding, just following, close in case he faltered. He was caught up in it now, both of them were, and by the time John stopped, he could feel how still he’d gone, inside and out. He felt a little light-headed when John stepped back, but the calm remained. He dropped his arms.
“Okay, so you were right,” he said, and was that a squeak he’d just made? Of course not. He swallowed before daring to speak again. “That’s… muscle memory, huh?”
He was balanced on this bizarre precipice between the leaden calm of his body and the rapid thrum of something wholly imaginary, deep in his chest. He was a little worried about which way he’d tip if he turned around and actually looked John in the face. A little fascinated by the prospect, actually, but a lot more scared shitless.
Madison came to his rescue, breaking the spell. She hopped down onto the grass and stood at the foot of the steps, hands on her hips. “Can I try?” she asked.
Rodney actually felt John grin, and tried not to roll his eyes. Madison liked John better than him. It was a switch, because usually it was Rodney kids wouldn’t leave alone, but John got along with them better. Probably because he thinks at about the same level, Rodney thought, not bitterly at all.
Still, it was at his side that Madison came to stand, glancing up at Rodney as John said “If your Uncle Mer doesn’t mind.” Rodney looked down at her. She was pouting. Okay, that was just unfair. Not like he was going to say no, anyway, but come on.
“Yes, fine,” he said, impatiently, and watched as she took off her hat and threw it Frisbee-like in the direction porch steps.
“Don’t you need that?” he asked. “You don’t want to burn.” Madison was even paler than he was, which was saying something. But she just shook her head.
“I’m wearing the smelly sunscreen,” she said, holding up her arm for him to sniff, but he didn’t have to. He got a strong whiff of coconut from where he was.
He shrugged, and now shot a glance at John, who was wearing his I-shouldn’t-smile smile again as he got himself back into position, to Rodney’s left and a little ahead, where Madison could see him.
This time when they started again, John didn’t speak, just moved slowly, every so often glancing over at Madison to see how she was doing. Madison, though, was watching Rodney, eyes wide and serious and her movements slow and deliberate. Rodney tried to be annoyed when Madison had it down pat after four repetitions, but mostly he was just pleased, because see? She didn’t always like John better. Also, his niece? A genius.
Rodney was sweating by now, and he was just about to suggest they take a break when a towel hit him in the side of the head. He snatched it out of the air and spun to face Jeannie, who was standing on the porch with her arms crossed, barefoot like they were. It had been too hot for shoes for two days, after the temperature shot up past thirty-six degrees Celsius, and take that, detractors of climate change.
But he paused when he caught sight of the look on her face - it didn’t last long, but it was far too much like worry, like fear, like tenderness - and for a second he felt stripped utterly bare like uninsulated wire, shaking as he mopped the sweat from his forehead and the back of his neck. She was going to say something. She was going to ask him something, and he wasn’t ready.
But she turned to John, instead, the strange look vanishing. “I’ve made some iced tea,” she said, tilting her head in invitation. “Help me bring it out?”
Rodney wanted to say something then, he wasn’t sure what, something sparked by the fact that John glanced at him before answering, eyes dark and unfathomable, but all he said, as John brushed past him and climbed the steps, was: “Iced tea? You’re sure it’s--”
“It’s raspberry, Meredith. I made it myself. Who do you think you’re talking to?” Jeannie’s scorn was somehow bracing, and he shut his mouth as John and Jeannie disappeared into the cooler dimness of the house. He was unable to remember why he’d been so tense, only a moment before.
Then Madison was tugging on his shirt. “Uncle Mer?”
He looked down at her. “What?”
“It’s hot.” She was pouting.
“Yes, I know. Well spotted,” he replied.
“Uncle Mer.” Her tone was impatient, like he was the stupid one.
She pointed across the patchy brown lawn to the shed, sitting quietly in the shade of the huge oak tree on the far side of the yard. “I have three Super Soakers.” Madison grinned. It was an evil grin.
“Oh.” Rodney grinned back, patted her on the head. “You are my favourite niece ever,” he told her, and she giggled.
Through the kitchen window, John could see over the roofs of the houses to where a massive billboard advertising home insurance presided over the rushing cars of the highway. It was at least four streets away, but staring at it gave him a strange sense of cultural dissonance.
One thing that jarred John every time he returned to Earth was the words everywhere. They complained about the Ancients’ penchant for building incredibly dangerous things and neglecting to label them, but the truth was that it marked a gaping divide between Pegasus and Earth.
On Earth, everything was explained, lines drawn, purposes defined. Labels on everything, even things whose simplicity seemed to preclude them, like doors and microwave dinners and bags of chips that felt compelled to explain how they should be opened. The soap dispenser in Jeannie’s guest bathroom had the word “PUSH” embossed in tiny letters on the pump.
He’d grown used to having to intuit such things, and having everything spelled out for him in such excruciating detail made him feel coddled and unnecessary. But it wasn’t just him, he’d come to realise. Only a world secure in its ongoing existence could possibly justify the time it took to write “PUSH” and “ON” and “OPEN” on everything it made, not to mention spending millions of dollars and thousands of hours making movies and television and advertising household cleaning products. In Pegasus, ultimately, you were on your own, and whatever security you had, you made for yourself and defended it, too.
It came to something just that simple; Earth was safe, or thought it was. Atlantis was not.
Atlantis was home.
It came to him with such overwhelming force that he swayed a little. Sometimes it did that. Usually he was too busy trying to avoid getting shot to notice. In Jeannie’s cool, clean-scrubbed kitchen, it was like a bloodcurdling scream in a chapel.
It seemed to have no effect on Jeannie, though, as she bustled around taking down glasses from the counter, pouring jars of sun-brewed tea into a huge blue glass pitcher she asked John to get down from the top shelf.
“Hand me the ice container, will you?” she asked, and John opened the freezer, basking for a minute in the blast of freezing cold. He helped her pour ice cubes into the pitcher of tea, watched Jeannie stir it with a battered wooden spoon.
“So is this some kind of therapy?” she asked with deceptive airiness, tapping the spoon on the rim of the pitcher and then putting it in the sink.
“Some -” John was puzzled for a second, until she pointed to the screen door, through which they could see Rodney and Madison walking across the parched grass, towards the shade at the back of the yard. But John knew what she meant almost at once.
“Oh. Sort of,” he admitted.
“I thought so,” Jeannie nodded. “But it’s not the first time he’s done this stuff, is it?”
“What do you mean?” Jeannie looked perplexed, like someone who’d just sat down and found the chair missing.
She gestured again, vaguely in the direction of the yard. “It’s Tai Chi, isn’t it?”
John shrugged. “Something like.” Something like that, and a little Satedan hand-fighting, and a lot of Teyla’s meditation techniques, but close enough. What mattered was that it worked, and it worked for John.
“It’s funny,” said Jeannie, taking a bowl of raspberries to the sink and rinsing them, then dropping them, one by one, tea. “I would have expected it to look silly, for Mer to look silly, but he doesn’t. Kind of clumsy, because it’s Mer, but not silly. And I realised… he’d done it before. He’s been learning this stuff, hasn’t he?”
John knew the look in her eyes, because it was the same one he’d seen in Rodney’s the first time he’d fired a gun at another person, the first gut-deep comprehension that kill or be killed wasn’t just a philosophical exercise. Granted, that person had been a Wraith about to suck the life from John’s chest, but the mix of holy shit and oh god, this is real, isn’t it? was a unique one.
“Yeah,” John told her. “For a while now.” He looked down at his hands, pale against the warm grain of the butcher-block countertop on the kitchen island. “He’s had to.” A hard thing to admit, because no matter how many times they had it proven that it was necessary, Rodney having to shoot people and fight people and get hurt and hurt others still made John feel like he’d failed, somewhere. Like it shouldn’t be, but the world wasn’t fair.
Jeannie offered the bowl of berries to him, and he popped one into his mouth, as Jeannie set it down and stared, miserably, out the back door. “It took me a year and getting kidnapped and almost… almost dying to realise that he’s really doing something dangerous,” she said, softly, and John had a moment of panic where he thought she might cry, but she didn’t, just shook herself and carried the bowl back to the fridge. When she shut it, she turned back and stared at him, eyebrows drawn together.
“What I asked you before… about what happened to him. It happened to you, too, didn’t it?”
He’d been expecting it, and so it hit him no harder than a little dizziness, and he nodded, slowly. “Some of it.”
“How close…” her voice was small, and John stayed where he was, because she was clutching the handle of the refrigerator behind her back and John knew better than to meddle with other people’s methods of steadying themselves. “…how close did he come?”
He didn’t look away. He was pretty proud of himself, even if a hint of cold sweat was springing up on the back of his neck. “Pretty close.” He held up his thumb and index finger, a hair’s-breadth apart. “This close.”
It was Jeannie who looked away, shutting her eyes, leaning her head back against the stainless steel fridge door. “He’s getting better, though, isn’t he?”
And just like that, John relaxed, at least, enough, running a trembling hand through his hair. “Yeah,” he said, quietly. “He is.”
She sighed, coming back to the counter. “I shouldn’t have asked you what I asked you,” she said, sounding penitent, meaning before.
“It’s okay,” he said, and meant it. There ensued a few seconds of not-uncomfortable silence, and then Jeannie slapped her palm down on the countertop.
“Sounds like a great idea,” he agreed, and she started bringing down bread and told him to rummage in the fridge for ingredients. As they were buttering brown bread, he glanced out at the yard, saw Madison dragging the end of the hose across the lawn, and then looked back.
“Can I ask you a question? And you can tell me to shut up if you want.”
Jeannie shrugged. “I think I owe you one.”
John started layering sliced tofurkey onto a piece of bread. “What was he like growing up? With your parents, I mean.” He reached for the mayonnaise, and started lathering it onto the other slice. “It seems to be kind of a… sensitive topic.” Which was a mild way of putting it, but they were Jeannie’s parents, too, so he figured delicacy was called for.
She didn’t look up, but she didn’t snap at him, either, so he just waited. Eventually, she said: “If you’d asked me that five or six years ago, I’d have told you he was the problem - Mer always thought he knew better than everybody, including our parents. But now?” She went still, scraping excess mustard from the butter knife in her hand on the rim of the jar, and looked up at him with uncertainty.
“I mean, he was always pretty lofty about how smart he was. That’s just Mer. But the truth is, he didn’t start to get so overbearing about it until I was about six. That was about the time they diagnosed my epilepsy. There was a year where I was in and out of hospitals, and I remember Mer just… changed. I didn’t understand it at the time, I just knew that when I was well again, there were all these problems between my brother and my parents. When I got older I just thought it was that he was older than I was, it was something people went through with their parents, but he went to school not long after that, and we never talked about Mer when he wasn’t home.”
John thought about that, wondered if maybe Rodney’s hypochondria hadn’t started around the same time.
Jeannie shrugged. “I just always got along with them better. I never thought about it much until they died, and there were some conversations…”
Jeannie shrugged again, now looking slightly uncomfortable but trying not to show it. “We had this aunt - she was a nurse, took care of me a lot when there was nobody else to babysit, especially after Mer left. Mer missed Dad’s wake, some idiotic neighbour noticed, said something nasty… and Aunt Caroline went off on this tear about how it wasn’t like our parents had ever made Mer feel all that welcome. She was really angry. And Dad was her brother.”
Jeannie began to arrange the sandwiches on a platter she pulled out from under the counter, setting them at straight lines with the edges, discomfort showing in enforced order. “It just hadn’t ever occurred to me that whatever went wrong between them hadn’t been Mer’s fault. Because it’s the kind of thing he does, you know?”
“I know,” said John, smiling a little.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever know for sure. I was too young, and it was so long ago. But I think…” Finally she looked up, frowning, unhappy. “I think maybe he felt like they didn’t want him.”
She wiped her eyes with the back of one hand, John realising only belatedly that she was crying, now, and how sneaky was that? But she just reached for the tea-towel and dabbed at her face and was fine again.
“He used to say things like that, but I always thought he was being dramatic, you know, blaming it on someone else. And I just never believed it could be true, until then. I mean, he’s a pain in the ass, sure, but he’s still Meredith. You can’t help but…”
She trailed off, suddenly looking at him with pointed expectation, and John found himself, this time, undeniably blushing. He was forced to sublimate it by viciously cutting his sandwich into crooked halves, avoiding Jeannie Miller’s gaze at all costs.
A second later he heard her sigh, and then she was next to him, pulling him down to place a kiss on the top of his head like he was a little boy, which of course only made him blush harder.
“Fine,” she said resignedly, when he dared to look her in the face again. “But I’m glad he’s got you.”
“Thanks,” he murmured, and cleared his throat. “So. Lunch?”
She picked up the tray with the iced tea and the glasses, leaving John to bring the sandwiches. They took them out to the table on the porch, and then Jeannie straightened, looking around. John looked, too. The yard seemed to be deserted.
“Maddie? Mer?” she called, and that was when she made the mistake of venturing out onto the lawn.
There was a rustling from the bushes under the porch. That was all the warning they got, before Madison and Rodney burst from cover, huge bright green plastic water guns already firing.
Jeannie shrieked, and Rodney sprayed John right in the face, taunting him from the foot of the steps. “What’s the matter?” he jeered, spraying John again, in the chest. “Scared?”
“Okay, that’s it,” John told him, and tackled him from the top step. He’d wrestled the water gun away from him in a second, but Rodney was already diving for the bushes and producing another, bigger one, this one with spinning barrels and holy shit, where had they gotten the ice cubes without him and Jeannie seeing them? And proceeded to soak John from head to foot, all the while laughing maniacally and dodging John’s pathetic attempts to return fire.
Then Jeannie came running across the yard with the garden hose and a vengeful grin, and it was on.
John finds out later that Zelenka’s confession was preceded by a screaming match to end all screaming matches; he knows Zelenka didn’t tell Rodney about checking his work, but he couldn’t imagine the Czech letting it lie in the heat of the moment. The gossip-mill version, as John gets it, goes something like this:
McKay: “What happened? What the hell happened? What is wrong with you people? Can I not go away for a week without you courting the destruction of the planet?”
This was followed by almost grateful silence, something like relief, because it was the first time Rodney had raised his voice in days. But as the seconds ticked past, it was Zelenka who spoke up:
Zelenka: “It was not our fault! You were the one calculating the energy input!”
McKay: “Then you entered it wrong! Honestly, can you even read? ”
Zelenka: “I double-checked my input as I always do! The information was incorrect! Why can you not admit that you are wrong?”
Reports after that point varied, blurred together (and to be honest most of the main fight could have been taken piece-meal from any of their other arguments except for volume) but one description, specifically from Cadman who’d been supervising a delivery of equipment from another part of the city, said that instead of firing back in full voice Rodney had turned and walked out of the lab without a backwards glance, taking not even his laptop.
“They all looked pretty freaked out, sir,” Cadman tells him later. This conversation is as private as the one with Zelenka, and she’s come to his office at the end of the shift looking nervous and unhappy. “The look on Zelenka’s face was… well, the look on McKay’s was worse. He was all sweaty and I almost thought…” here, she hesitates, looking unsure.
John waits; he knows Rodney and Cadman have been friends, or at least friendly, since shortly after the body-sharing incident. Cadman took it upon herself to make Rodney be more social; that all it got her was new status as “worthy of mockery” in Rodney’s eyes is a statement to something, but John isn’t sure what.
“Sir, I wouldn’t tell this to anyone else, I swear – McKay brings a lot down on himself anyway, and he doesn’t need any more, but – but you two are…” there’s a significant pause, “…are friends, and I thought someone should know.”
It’s a weirdly significant pause, and John absolutely does not blush. But for a second, and the reasons, at the time, escape him completely, his face feels hot. He keeps his expression neutral and tilts his head at Cadman.
“Come on, Lieutenant.”
Cadman frowns. “He looked like he might cry, sir.” She doesn’t look uncomfortable – Cadman never does, didn’t even after spending all that time in Rodney’s head. And she certainly doesn’t get embarrassed. What she does look is worried, genuinely worried, and John feels an answering spike of tight-knotted sympathy as he nods, and tries not to knead too obviously at the place under his left temple where the headache is starting.
In the end, it’s the fire and the fight – which however well anyone knows the people involved, was at least louder and more disruptive than any previous fight – that generates real complaints, generates reports. Which is something, because after almost four years in the Pegasus Galaxy only new personnel still fill out reports on interpersonal disputes. The general feeling is that that sort of thing is Atlantis business, and none of the business of the SGC, even if they would understand – which, the general feeling also suggests, they wouldn’t.
He gets another several worried e-mails from members of the science division, including one from Katie Brown, which is as brusque and polite as she ever is with him (he’s not sure what he did to earn the disdain of a mousy botanist, but he’s never cared enough to find out). It’s about time for personnel evaluations and Rodney hasn’t been meeting with his department heads like he’s supposed to. Most of them have been too intimidated to push the matter, but for someone who coddles flowers for a living Dr. Brown’s pretty stubborn.
Her e-mail explains she found Rodney dozing at his never-used desk, startled awake by her arrival, and that he made an excuse before hurrying out, tablet clutched possessively to his chest. The e-mail doesn’t use that many adjectives, but John can picture it anyway. She says she’s worried.
She’s not the only one.
He accosts Rodney in the mess line at lunchtime, making sure the other man sees him coming, guides him none-too-gently out of earshot of the general populace. When they’re sitting at a table in the corner nearest the exit, he broaches the question he spent most of his morning trying to frame.
“I hear you had a fight with Zelenka.”
It’s not his best work. He can admit that. But Rodney reacts more strongly than he expected, going pale and defensive. “It’s… we have fights all the time.”
“Not like that one, from what I’ve been hearing.”
Rodney’s eyes narrow. “What, are you spying on me now?”
John’s surprised by the defensive tone, the suspicion, and he apparently shows it, because Rodney digs in; Rodney McKay can smell weakness.
“What’s with the sudden curiosity? You never cared about the day-to-day in the science division before, so why start now?”
It’s said bitingly, the leave me alone tone that most people translate as prickliness too sharp to sympathise with, but John’s used to it. He says firmly: “The day-to-day in the lab doesn’t generally involve things bursting into flame,” meaning: You can scare off everybody else like that, but not me.
“It was just an electrical fire,” Rodney says, dismissively, but there’s an edge of panic to it.
“Rodney,” he murmurs, “It was an overload. There was a calculation error.”
Rodney scowls. “So you have been spying on me.” But John catches the flash, sees that big brain searching, reaching, and not finding. And then it hits him.
“Jesus, Rodney,” he breathes, leaning forward and pitching his voice low with concern, “you don’t remember, do you?”
“Of course I…” but Rodney’s voice his high and thin, a warning to back off. John’s not backing off.
“You don’t remember,” John repeats. “How much? The fire? The argument? How much of it did you lose?” He knows he’s letting his own fear creep into his voice but he can’t stop it. He needs to know.
Rodney’s white-faced, swallowing hard, eyes darting left and right, for an escape route or to see if anyone’s watching, John can’t tell. Finally he lets out a shallow breath, and whispers: “The whole morning.” He squeezes his eyes shut, rubs at the bridge of his nose like he can force his memory back into order with his fingertips. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he says then, barely above a whisper.
“You had a blackout,” John tells him tensely. “Do you even know what that means?”
“I’m not talking about this,” Rodney snaps, and he looks slightly ill, pushing his tray away from him. “I need – I have to go.”
And just like that, he’s gone, a whirlwind of nervous energy striding from the mess. John sits staring at Rodney’s abandoned tray for several minutes, wrestling with himself, before finally he pushes himself up and returns to his office.
The e-mail he sends Keller is four lines long, uncouched in delicacy, and leaves him feeling hollow and guilty, like he’s betrayed Rodney’s trust, except that he had to wring the confession out of him.
A few hours pass.
And then Keller is calling John to her office and staring at him across her own desk looking worn and concerned and annoyed and not diplomatic at all, a new look for her that John would like if it weren’t for the fact that he knows exactly what this is about. The conversation is more or less what he expected, full of phrases like “it was only a matter of time” and “only temporary” and “for his own good,” and John comes away from the meeting feeling even worse.
He gets another e-mail in the early afternoon the next day, a three-line message from Zelenka, bolded and flagged Urgent. It tells him Rodney left the lab around lunchtime and hasn’t been back. A quick call to Keller confirms that Rodney came begging for painkillers at twelve-fifteen, claiming a migraine, and then left again without even demanding to be examined or coddled. Keller sounds worried, but John has to cut her off because suddenly alarms are blaring and he has to go do his job.
It turns out there was another fire, totally unrelated to the first - a genuine electrical fire of some kind in one of the uninhabited sectors of the city that the engineering department has been using for propulsion research. Somebody forgot liquid fuel was flammable, or so John can only assume, and there isn’t too much harm done but it takes him, five marines, Zelenka and a handful of miserable engineers to convince the bulkheads to unlock and let them in to put it out.
What with minor injuries and panic and damage control, it’s one in the morning by the time he stumbles back into his quarters, showers, and falls into bed. He’s almost asleep before he sits up again, fully awake and then fully upright, pulling on his boots again, because he never did track down Rodney.
He tries the obvious places - mess, quarters - first, before giving in and checking for him on the scanner. He finds him, of all places, in the firing range on the West pier.
John slips in as quietly as he can, not that stealth is all that necessary with Rodney emptying a whole clip into the paper target at the end of the range. How long has he been here? Rodney is sweating and shaking but still sighting, and as he stops to reload, John can hear him muttering something. As he gets close enough to see Rodney lean his forehead against the dividing wall, eyes tight shut, he can hear the words he’s whispering; they stutter out into the sudden pressing quiet: “Clear blue skies. Clear blue skies. Clear blue skies.”
John stops short, has to take a breath before going on. He makes enough noise that Rodney hears him coming even with the earmuffs, and he turns to take in John with a defensive sneer already in place.
John’s prepared for the sneer, for the “Do you mind? I’m kind of busy.” But he’s not quite prepared for how violently Rodney flinches away from his hands, when he reaches out to pluck the earmuffs off his head. John’s frozen as Rodney glares at him, red-faced, chest heaving.
John stares at him for a minute, not sure whether to be angry or worried, but in the end he settles for confused. “What are you doing?” he asks. Rodney, eyes wide behind the safety glasses, looks up the range at the shredded paper target, at the Beretta in his hand, back to John.
“I’d have thought it was obvious,” he says nastily, but the scorn is forced.
John strives to keep his face even, his posture relaxed. He sighs. No big deal. “It’s one-thirty in the morning,” he points out.
“I’m a busy man,” Rodney snaps.
“Yeah,” agrees John, “so am I. That’s why we have scheduled range times. Anyway, your qualification’s up to date. And you hate the range. So answer the question.”
He’s not going to answer the question. John knows that before he asks it. He watches Rodney narrow his eyes at him, and then start unloading the Beretta, holster it, push past him to stow the leftover ammo in the lockers, all with a hurt slump to his shoulders. “I’ll get out of your way,” he mutters. John lets out an exasperated sigh.
“I’m not kicking you out,” he explains. “It’s just… it’s out of character, and when people I know start acting out of character, I start worrying. Since it’s my job and everything, I don’t think it’s a totally out of line question.”
Rodney stops with his hand on the locker door, pulls off the safety glasses and shuts the door slowly. “I was done anyway,” he says, shrugging. He meets John’s eyes for only a second, looking uncertain and still kind of adversarial. John risks a few steps closer, stops easily when Rodney pulls in on himself a little – not much, but enough that he notices.
Rodney frowns sideways, which is something John’s never seen anybody else do, and always makes his breath catch just a little. It distracts him for a second while Rodney’s shoulders relax, and he wipes his forehead with one sleeve. “I can’t sleep,” he admits, “and I can’t concentrate, because I can’t sleep… like I can’t turn off my brain.”
He sounds like he finds this puzzling, and John keeps his smile small, because as far as he’s ever been able to tell, Rodney’s inability to stop his mouth was all the evidence he needed that the brain behind it was always working, too. Rodney’s surprise, John thinks, comes mostly from the fact that he’s never tried to stop thinking. And why would he? Rodney’s typical response to fear is to batter at it with his brain until it lets him past. Just sometimes that doesn’t work, and he’s not ready to admit it, yet.
But there’s something more behind it, something very faintly desperate, and Rodney’s not looking at him anymore, but into the stark shadows cast against the walls by the range spotlights, his eyes unfocused. “I thought I could… burn some of it off,” he explains. Like grounding a charge. Trust Rodney to try and apply physics to himself even when he’s too keyed-up and terrified to sleep.
“I think I would have picked something quieter,” suggests John. He sticks his hands in his pockets as Rodney turns back to the metal doors and locks up with a wave of his hand. “I’ll run with you, if you want.”
Rodney turns back to him quickly, surprised, a little suspicious. For a split-second John’s on the verge of telling him everything; that he knows what it feels like, that everybody’s worried, what Keller told him and Carter’s about to tell him and what’s going to happen tomorrow, whether he likes it or not.
But eventually Rodney shakes his head, and John’s resolve is gone like dissipating smoke. “I – no.” And is it John’s imagination, or is there reluctance in the tone? “I think I’m just going to bed.” He moves toward the door, and John steps back, giving him plenty of room.
Rodney pauses at the door, and doesn’t turn around, but John hears: “Thanks for offering, though,” before Rodney’s out of sight.
He stands there for a few seconds to be sure Rodney’s gone, and then he goes around thinking off lights and shutting doors. When he’s back in the corridor, he leans against the wall, forehead flush with the cool metal, and just breathes, feeling the city around him. He’s never told anyone, but sometimes it feels properly alive, like it knows him, and that’s comforting. For a minute, he stands there unmoving, letting himself float in the half-aware pulse and flow of Atlantis herself.
Eventually, he has to push himself up again, and by the time he reaches his quarters, he’s yawning. That’s something, he thinks – that at least one of them can sleep. Things are going to get harder in the morning, and he has a feeling he’ll be glad he got the rest.
Early in the morning - very early in the morning - of their twenty-first day on Earth, John returned from his run and sprawled cheerfully on his side of the bed, jostling Rodney out of a light doze.
“Let’s go hiking,” he said, disgustingly awake. Rodney pulled the sheet over his head, trying vainly to block out the noise.
“You are insane,” he muttered into his pillow. They’d got to bed late, mostly because Jeannie had somehow emerged from the water fight completely clean and had insisted the three of them were not allowed back into the house until they cleaned off. This had naturally degenerated into another water fight, this time with more mud. By the time it had wound down, Kaleb was home, dodging water balloons from the porch while he barbecued dinner, because it was still too hot at six o’clock to do any real cooking indoors.
John, of course, had still woken up like really irritating clock-work at six AM, as if there was no time difference at all between galaxies.
“Aw, c’mon, Rodney, you did bribe me with the beauty of the outdoors,” John wheedled, suddenly leaning into Rodney with his shoulder, so that Rodney got a whiff of sweat and morning fog and stiffened, fighting against the way it made a shiver run through him, all the way down to his toes. John didn’t notice, just kept talking about how beautiful a day it was going to be and getting up, mercifully moving away, to open the curtains, which wasn’t merciful at all.
“Oh, Christ,” whimpered Rodney, burrowing into his pillow.
“Yes, Rodney, that’s the sun,” John explained patiently, moving around and taking things out of drawers. Rodney was only dimly aware of John peeling off his shirt and picking up his shower kit from the dresser, and then his eyes focused and he was very aware of it and had to close his eyes again, because oh, wow.
It wasn’t exactly unexpected, had become matter of course, in fact, but the power of it was like nothing he’d known since the first year in the city and oh. John was still there, and still talking and walking around shirtless and this could get embarrassing if John didn’t leave the room right now.
“Fine, fine,” he said, finally capitulating in panic when John, still shirtless, crouched shirtlessly down next to the bed to lean in and whine some more. “Fine, we’ll go hiking. I hate you.”
“You love me,” John returned, grinning, and went away, taking his sweat and his smell and his annoying voice and his naked chest with him.
Rodney pressed his face into the pillow for another four minutes and thirteen seconds, praying for death, but when that didn’t help he just decided to be immensely grateful that there was more than one bathroom, and that the remaining one was well away from the bedrooms where other, saner people were still sleeping, and oh, god, he hated his life.
On the other hand, he thought, as he padded down the corridor a minute later, they’d been sleeping in the same bed, sleeping touching in the same bed, for nearly three weeks, now, with not a hint of interest from Rodney’s wayward libido. So was this a good sign? Were the important parts of his brain working again?
It said something really profound about his current existence that the re-assertion of hopeless, inappropriate crushes could be interpreted as a good sign.
But he got himself back in order with a shower, and made his way downstairs dressed and feeling actually pretty okay. It was a nice day out, might not even be blisteringly, cancer-inducingly hot, either - he checked the weather on the internet as he applied two layers of SPF 50. John asked about good places for hiking, and Jeannie, who had come down while Rodney was showering, made a couple of suggestions, one of which Rodney vetoed immediately.
“Oh, come on, Mer. The Mountain’s got some great trails, and you’d have a beautiful view of Deep Cove. Plus there’s a great restaurant, in case you’ve forgotten.” Jeannie was teasing him, he could tell, but John was just watching them and grinning.
“We’ll hardly be in a condition to eat in a restaurant after getting all revolting and sweaty, and it’s called Cardiac Hill for a reason,” he shot back.
“I don’t know, Rodney. It kind of sounds like a challenge to me,” John said, still grinning.
Rodney just glared at him. “This from a man who thinks it’s fun to jump out of perfectly-functional planes at several thousand feet. I think we can safely say that your judgement is somewhat skewed.”
“Meredith!” Jeannie ‘s scolding tone was softened by the giggle that followed it.
Rodney kept glaring, intent on making his point. “Just believe me when I say it’s not an ironic title.”
When they went out to the car an hour later, Rodney stared at it for almost ten minutes while John was still in the house, making lunch. It was Jeannie’s car, the Prius he’d bought her. The back tire was flat; there was nothing unusual about that. What was unusual was that there was a magnetic Support Our Troops decal on the back of the car.
For a minute or two, Rodney wasn’t sure what to make of it. It was the yellow ribbon kind, the kind with the tiny maple leaf at the peak of the loop and the letters in curling white cursive. It stood out against the pale green of the Prius paint job, or he might not have noticed it at all when he went to open the trunk for the air compressor he knew Jeannie kept there.
Yellow meant “missing.” He was pretty sure, anyway.
It had to be Jeannie’s. Jeannie, who hated just about everything the military in any country stood for. But…
“Finally noticed that, huh?” Rodney whirled – Kaleb was standing at the foot of the front steps, the strap of a red MEC backpack on one shoulder and the other hand in the pocket of his corduroy blazer. God, how archetypal, Rodney thought, it probably has patches on the elbows, but his eyes were drawn back to the decal.
“When did she…” he gestured vaguely at it, and Kaleb came to stand beside him.
“The first year you were… you know. Gone,” Kaleb told him, shrugging.
“But I wasn’t… doesn’t yellow mean…”
“’Missing in Action,’” Kaleb supplied, looking at him with a shuttered sort of expression.
Rodney stared at it in silence for a couple of seconds longer. “But I wasn’t missing.”
“Well, she didn’t know that.” There was a sudden prickle of anger in Kaleb’s voice, and Rodney looked up in surprise.
“You never told her you were going. That you were going. She tried to call you one day and you didn’t answer. It was around Mad’s second birthday. But no answer. After a month, she started calling the military, and they wouldn’t tell her anything. Finally it had been three months since she’d talked to you and the best she got was a letter from some General telling her you were… far away, somewhere secret, and that there was no way to know if you were ever coming back.”
Rodney stared at him, absorbing Kaleb’s silent anger and finding he had no adequate response. “Oh,” he said, weakly.
“Yeah,” agreed Kaleb. “At that point assuming the worst wasn’t exactly stupid.”
Rodney turned back to the yellow decal. They’d known going through the Stargate the first time that it might be a one-way trip. Every member of the expedition had known it. And most of them had been chosen, at least in part, because they didn’t have anything on Earth to hold them. At the time, he and Jeannie hadn’t spoken in almost two years and he had consequently counted himself alone, without anything to hold him there. It truly hadn’t occurred to him that the feeling might not be mutual.
They hadn’t just fought about the baby, or about Jeannie dropping out. She’d always hated his work; hated that he’d chosen to use his talents for the benefit of the American military rather than ordinary people. When he’d accused her of ruining her life, throwing away a promising career, she’d called him a hypocrite. He’d always had as little to do with academia as he could manage, finding them ridiculous, ponderous, a hindrance.
At the time, he’d thought he’d burned his all his bridges. And she had been the one to say “I hate you.” Not him.
He’d written her seven letters in the week before they left and never had the courage to send even one.
“She thought I was dead.” It wasn’t a question. He felt strangely numb.
“She thought you might be.” Kaleb’s voice was prickly again, but not quite with anger. “And that message didn’t help.”
Message…? Oh. The last-ditch databurst, their first call back to Earth; the not-goodbye, explaining nothing, that had reached Jeannie though the video hadn’t. It had been a little cruel, he realised now, outlining how he’d like her to protect his estate in the event of his death. But at the time he’d only thought that someone had to, and she was all he had. It had implied nothing, exactly, but hadn’t offered anything, either.
“Well, in my defence,” he explained, unable to keep a grim smile off his face, “when I wrote that I really did think I was going to die.”
Kaleb muttered something that sounded a little like “lucky you,” but he couldn’t quite make it out and wasn’t going to ask it be repeated. He kept staring at the decal.
“I’ve got a bus to catch,” Kaleb said then, and turned away. “See you later.”
"Yeah," said Rodney, barely looking up as he went.
Go to Part 5a