Title: Catalysis (5a/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: This chapter took a long time, but OMG guys I finished it. Excuse me while I pass out for a while over there in the corner.
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 drive to Diez Vistas - it meant “ten views” but Rodney told John only four of them were really worth it - was quiet and peaceful; it was still early, the streets relatively empty, the light cool and grey. Rodney gave John the occasional direction as they skirted Port Moody and took the turnoff for Buntzen Lake, leaning back in his seat, enjoying the silence of the narrow rural road, the trees pressing in on both sides. A week ago it would have panicked him, but John was there, so it was all right.
They finally turned into the rustic parking lot and turned off the engine, and Rodney stood looking around for a second, getting his bearings.
“You been here before?” asked John, doing another habitual check of the contents of their backpacks, even though Rodney had made a perfectly serviceable checklist.
“Not for years,” he answered, absently, then dug in his pocket for the map Jeannie had given him. Kaleb was one of those freaks who went hiking for fun, and so he had trail maps of most of the good hiking areas within three hours’ drive. He handed the map to John. “Here. I think I remember most of it, but you’re better at maps than I am, anyway.”
John took the map, blinking at him in apparent surprise until Rodney demanded: “What?”
John smiled, slipping the map into the side-pocket of his pack before slipping the straps over his shoulders. “Nothing. Just usually you’d go crashing off into the trees and ignore me, if I asked you that kind of question.”
Rodney felt his face reddening. “Well, if you’d rather get hopelessly lost in the wilderness-”
The smile never faltered. “Rodney, we’re twenty minutes’ drive from a strip mall.”
“Yes, well,” Rodney said, but couldn’t think of anything else to say, so he just scanned the edge of the lot again, spotting the reflective green-and-white sign that marked the beginning of the trail. “Come on. This was your idea.”
He didn’t wait for John, but he knew John followed anyway.
It was a little more than an hour, and getting warmer, before they burst from the trees into a denuded stripe of grass that stretched down the ridge in an unnaturally straight line. John paused as Rodney trudged straight across, then stopped, looking back at John with puzzlement.
“What - oh. It’s a right-of-way,” Rodney told him, pointing up. There were massive power lines stretching overhead, the huge wooden poles marching down the incline like matchsticks at a distance. “They keep it clear for the Hydro lines.” Rodney kept walking, reached the far edge where the cleared area was bisected by a huge rusted pipe, and put his hands on his hips. “There are some interesting urban legends about Hydro right-of-ways and fertility, John,” he said impatiently, and John hurried to catch up, just belatedly realising the way the hair on his arms seemed to be tingling with the hum of electric power. It was uncomfortable enough that he almost stumbled as he reached Rodney.
“You’re worried about my fertility. I’m touched,” he joked, and was taken aback when Rodney blushed a deep shade of pink.
“Come on,” he snapped, “if I recall correctly, it gets steeper up here.”
The trail did, indeed, get steeper beyond the cut, and John let Rodney take the lead, because it was easier to move slowly than to wait for Rodney to huff and puff and snipe his way up behind him. It also allowed him to appreciate his surroundings, the forest cool and shadowed and dim, trees leaning and pressing so close the air even felt green; not wild, but ponderous, deliberate, aware. It was like being in Atlantis, but the sense of something much younger, and at the same time much, much older. He knew he was imagining it, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t every day, anymore, that he got to take a walk through the woods without being shot at.
The trail veered right and left and upwards in seemingly endless switchbacks, until suddenly they came out at the top in the open air, and John was actually breathless at the sight.
From the top of the ridge a seemingly endless expanse of land and water stretched out to the horizon. A line of sharp-edged conifers framed the view spreading out beneath them, but beyond them was the water, and green and craggy fingers of little islands and the jut of the mainland and beyond it all, John thought, the ocean, though he couldn’t be sure.
“Wow,” he said, as Rodney sat down on a huge rock and dug in his pack for his bottle of water.
“Yeah,” he agreed, sounding just a little short of breath as John sat down next to him. “Cool, huh?”
John nudged him with his shoulder. “I thought you hated hiking.”
Rodney huffed, shrugged. “I can still like the view,” he said, and then brightened. “Still got the map?”
John obligingly handed it over, and Rodney unfolded it on his knees, squinting down at it for a second before raising one hand to give names to the various humps and rises of land. “Okay… that’s… that’s Burnaby, there, at least the edge of it. Uh… I think that’s Belcarra – I think there’s a much less steep trail there, if you’re interested. Oh. That’s Burnaby Mountain.” He gave the air a particularly vicious stab. “Which by the way is subsiding into Deep Cove, making it a brilliant place to build a university.”
John didn’t need to look at Rodney to know he was rolling his eyes, but he looked anyway, and saw a grin sneaking its way onto his face. He was enjoying himself, even if he wouldn’t admit it, and they’d both needed this. To just do something for the sake of it, without thinking about why they were here or what had happened or anything more important than a beautiful day or a breathtaking view.
“You can see the city - I mean the real city, downtown - on the edge, there,” he pointed again, and John made out distant skyscrapers and streets all scattered in a sort of sparkly white pattern beyond the nearest floating fingers of rock and bristly green. There were three and a half million people down there and it still looked unfinished, new. Though maybe his perspective was just a little skewed.
“What’s that, out there?” John asked, after a minute or so of just staring, appreciatively.
John pointed, tracing a long oblong of pale, hazy blue against the paler blue of the sky, set against the far edge of the distance.
“What - oh.” Rodney squinted again, folding the map carefully back into its assigned creases and handing it back to him. “That’s Vancouver Island. You can’t always see it, but it’s pretty clear today. Usually there’s haze.”
John dropped his arm, regarding Rodney thoughtfully as he slid the map back into the pocket of John’s pack. “That’s where you grew up, right?”
“Hm? Yes. There.” He gestured vaguely at the far southern tip of the blue blob. “You can’t see it, of course. It’s too far away. And there’s not much to see, anyway. It’s a city, but not a big one.”
Rodney was babbling. John frowned at his profile, because Rodney didn’t babble unless he was excited or uncomfortable or terrified, and John couldn’t find anything about the situation that should inspire any of those things.
“Not a swinging party scene?” John asked, lightly, and was rewarded with a sharp, painful-sounding bark of laugher.
“I was fifteen when I started my undergrad, remember? And I was never exactly…” he made a vague hand-gesture that John understood perfectly, an all-encompassing expression of what Rodney wasn’t exactly.
“But you must’ve gone home for holidays and stuff,” John said, curiously.
“Not if I could help it,” Rodney muttered back with surprising bitterness. “But I’m sure it’s just as somnolent as it was when I was fifteen. It was just…” he stopped, there, frowning down at his water bottle, twisting and untwisting the cap.
“Just what?” John asked, knowing he shouldn’t push, probably, but really wanting to know. Rodney curled in on himself a little. “Come on.”
“I was glad when I was old enough to leave, okay?” Rodney finally said, the words jumbled together and coupled with an awkward, one-sided shrug. “That’s all.”
That so clearly wasn’t all. But it was all Rodney was going to say, that much was clear. God, and he’d thought his childhood was a fucking mess. He didn’t talk about it, but because he didn’t want to, because it was unpleasant, not because it was actually too painful to think about. Rodney’s hands were shaking.
“I’m sorry,” John muttered. Rodney just shrugged.
John stared down at his palms, as if he could find an answer there, knowing he should say something else, aside from an apology; it had been days since they’d talked about anything real, and the last time hadn’t been anywhere near this pleasant. And wasn’t that a change, that it had taken all of this to get them to a place where it felt halfway normal to ask questions about things that were real, things that weren’t right there in front of them? Weird, too, because John had always figured they kept on the safe side of that line for a reason.
He looked at Rodney again, who was still staring out over the valley. But all he could think of was a selfish question, something that had been bothering him for days, for weeks, even, and he’d kept himself from asking because… well, because he’d been terrified of the answer, honestly, and hadn’t wanted to inspect why it scared him so much.
“Are you coming back?”
It came out strangled, more than he’d expected, though he kept his face straight, stiff, because if Rodney looked at him when he felt this way he was pretty sure he’d lose it, and that would be embarrassing. But Rodney didn’t look at him – he just shut his eyes, as if he’d been expecting the question.
The silence stretched out until it felt thin and brittle, and John dragged his eyes away from Rodney’s profile, instinctively seeking out the long shining line of the distant Pacific, a thin sparkling thread girdling the sky beyond Vancouver Island. Somewhere out there was a place that had hurt Rodney so much that he’d never wanted to see it again, and it wouldn’t have shaken John so deeply if he’d been able, in that instant, of imagining anywhere so completely home as Atlantis. He’d never had anything to hold him to Earth. He’d never expected to feel tied to anywhere else, either, but once he had, he certainly hadn’t expected to discover there was anything else that might come to matter as much.
He really, really hadn’t imagined he might end up having to choose between the two, and the idea alone was making him feel a little sick.
But Rodney said: “I want to,” in a broken sort of voice, and John practically sagged with relief, and before really thinking about it, was reaching out to curl his fingers around Rodney’s forearm, squeezing gently, and saying:
“I want you to.”
I, not we, and goddamn, he really hadn’t meant to say that. But Rodney was just looking down at John’s hand on his arm, not moving away, not reciprocating, just staring at it, like he’d never seen it before. Eventually, feeling confused, John dropped his hand, and turned back to the view. A breeze was sweeping up the ridge, cooling the sweat from the climb, calming the whirl of distant panic at the back of John’s head until he could only remember it, but he could feel Rodney thinking.
“Well, come on,” said Rodney after a while, getting to his feet. “Burning daylight, still six kilometres to cover.” All in the awful, brisk, cheerful voice John had come to associate with fatal gunshot wounds. Rodney demanded sympathy for everything except what was really important, because if it was important to hold close, it could hurt you. The question was still there, not quite answered.
But it struck too close to home, and for the moment, John let it go.
It was growing dark by the time they made it back to the car, and Rodney dropped into the passenger seat without even making a grab for the keys - he was bone-tired and oddly content, thought he might even fall asleep in the car.
He was, in fact, just beginning to doze off, comfortable and lulled by the sound of the engine and John humming tunelessly to himself, when he was jolted awake by the sound of a siren. Then they were slowing down and Rodney heard the gravel shoulder crunch under their tires, and he turned and glared at John, who held up his hands in a gesture of innocence.
“Nothing! I wasn’t even speeding!” But he still looked nervous as he rolled down the window for the nice lady in the motorcycle helmet and handed over his wallet and the plastic sleeve full of ICBC insurance papers Rodney frantically dug out of the glove compartment.
Rodney subjected John to a mental dressing-down but didn’t actually say anything as the female officer - obvious only by the curves under her uniform, because she was still wearing her helmet - paged through the documents, making the hmm noise of disapproval that Rodney thought the bureaucratic system must train into its servants.
“So what’s the verdict?” John asked, after almost a minute of uneasy silence, and Rodney couldn’t believe he’d just mentioned verdicts to a police officer when they’d probably just broken several laws, because that was just the sort of thing John Sheppard did.
“Well, there’s a problem,” said the police officer, finally raising her visor, and of course she was hot. There was just no justice in the Universe at all. John immediately put on his puzzled-but-honest face.
She looked up from John’s wallet. “Thing is, your license is expired.”
“What?” yelped Rodney. “You’ve been driving around without a license?”
John gave him a look, the tight-lipped, raised-eyebrows smile that meant Please, shut up, and let me be charming before they kill us.
Rodney wanted to say something nasty like maybe Earth women may not as easy as wide-eyed village girls in the Pegasus Galaxy, but of course it wasn’t true. The cop met John’s open, puzzled look and smiled like she couldn’t help herself.
“You’re kidding,” John said, craning his neck to look at the license like he’d never seen it before. He chuckled, low and self-deprecating and really irritatingly sexy. Rodney scowled at the dashboard in disbelief as the policewoman’s smile grew wider.
She shook her head anyway, though. “It’s two years out of date, Mr. Sheppard. I’m afraid this is a problem.”
“Seriously?” Rodney finally asked from the passenger seat, annoyed beyond all reason. “He flies jet planes for a living, and it’s a ‘problem’ that his license to drive a six-cylinder combustion-engine vehicle – which by the way, couldn’t pass the speed of sound if there was a tyrannosaurus rex on our tail – is a couple of years out of date?”
“Rodney.” John’s voice had that warning note, the one he usually used when they were surrounded by angry, spear-bristling mobs in funny headdresses.
“Oh no,” Rodney began indignantly, but John reached out and placed a hand over his mouth, with strange, abrupt gentleness, and turned his head just enough to give him a later look. Rodney was so surprised that he stopped talking, even after John took his hand away. Rodney touched fingers to his lips, actually struck silent, still imagining he could feel the calluses of John’s fingers on his skin.
John turned back to the cop, who was watching the exchange with speculative eyes. “Listen,” John drawled, “obviously these are exceptional circumstances. We’ve been on assignment… overseas, and kind of far from anywhere that needed a driver’s license.”
Overseas, thought Rodney scathingly, with a purely mental eyeroll.
“On assignment?” she asked, and because Rodney was watching he saw her face change. “I saw the Support Our Troops magnet on the back. You guys military?” She gave Rodney a vaguely sceptical look, but Rodney just glared at her.
“My ID is in the wallet,” John said, and she flipped obligingly until she found the U.S. Air Force identification card. She looked thoughtfully between John and the card, and then finally shrugged, and handed it back.
“You know what?” she said, scribbling quickly on her pad, “I’m going to let you off with a warning this time. Just make sure you get that license renewed as soon as you can.”
He could only see the back of John’s head, but Rodney could just picture the slow, dazzling smile John was giving her. He saw it reflected in her face, the quirk of her mouth, the way she brushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes.
She would be blonde.
“Why thank you,” John murmured, “I really appreciate your understanding.”
“Don’t mention it,” she said, giving John a warm, bracing smile, and a smaller, sadder one to Rodney, “my little brother’s AIRCOM, in Afghanistan. I know what it’s like trying to adjust.” She tossed off a little mock-salute. “You take care now. And watch your speed.”
“Have a good night,” John called after her, and turned to Rodney with a completely insufferable grin of triumph and relief. “There,” he said, “that wasn’t so bad, was it?” The smile was sincere, and teasing, and that was just completely, utterly, painfully unfair.
John was looking at him with that odd, fond tilt, that bright spark of affection Rodney usually saw only for a second and later decided he’d imagined, brief as it was. He only ever saw it when they were in mortal peril, really, so it was possible his perceptions were skewed on that point, but sometimes, in his more paranoid moments, he wondered if John only dragged it up to push him. That it wasn’t real. That he didn’t mean it.
It always worked, because it was a challenge and a threat and it made something inside Rodney coil warm and hopeful and terrified like nothing else in the world ever had, including the first time he’d ever seen the Stargate.
But just like every other time, he wasn’t quite sure, and there, again, was the fact that this was John, and John would never, couldn’t…
For the second time Rodney was struck silent without even trying, just staring, wanting to be angry and wanting to be violent and just… wanting, with such dizzying bitterness that he didn’t trust himself to speak.
He pressed his forehead against the cool glass of the passenger side window, and firmly ignored the other voice, the faint underlying worry of the tone, until John gave up. Then they were pulling away from the gravel shoulder of the road, and they spent the rest of the trip in silence.
“How do you do that?” Rodney finally asked, as they were pulling into the Millers’ driveway. He sounded both awed and annoyed, and he was still clutching the pink paper of the “just-a-warning-this-time” form. It was the first time he’d spoken in almost half an hour.
“Do what?” John tried to sound guileless. It probably wasn’t working.
Rodney snorted. “There are not enough James Kirk jokes in the world,” he snapped, getting out of the car and slamming the door behind him.
It took John a second to follow, because he was still processing the look the cop had given him after she glanced at Rodney. At Rodney and then at him. John hadn’t realised what his hand was doing until he was already covering Rodney’s mouth, easy as breathing and completely natural.
He never thought about it, hadn’t until recently, when reaching for Rodney sent him flinching away. In Atlantis it was something he just did. People in Pegasus touched each other a lot more than he’d ever been used to, before. Whether that came of a much more perilous lifestyle or just much looser general propriety (if that was the word) he’d never been sure. The first time Teyla had taken his shoulders in her strong small hands and touched their foreheads together, he’d had to steel himself to keep from flinching away. But that was familiar now.
He’d had to remind himself, after they’d stepped through the gate, to watch his hands, not only for Rodney’s sake but because they were arriving on Earth via a U.S. military base and there were already enough rumours on his record, unfounded and otherwise. He had no interest in feeding anyone’s gossip, true or not. And it wasn’t.
But the policewoman - who up until that moment had been flirting with him - had shifted gears so easily that it had actually left him floundering for a second, even more when he realised why. What she’d assumed.
They’d gotten the same looks in the park the day Rodney had his flashback, too. John had sensed that and been too distracted to give a damn. The strange thing wasn’t the looks - those were familiar, if not so much in the recent past - it was that none of them, so far, had come laced with any real animosity. Surprise, sure, but nothing else he’d come to expect. Indulgence, if anything.
It had to be the city. For one thing he’d never seen so many rainbow stickers in his entire life. There had been one in the window of the college daycare, for fuck’s sake. And he was pretty sure that the salesgirl at the Space Centre gift shop – the one who’d been so cranky over having to take American money – had assumed he and Rodney were together, too.
And Jeannie. He let out a slightly hysterical chuckle and let his head rest on the leather-wrapped steering wheel. God, it was a good thing Rodney was so oblivious. John hadn’t been paying attention, and of course Rodney never paid attention to people unless they were useful, but in hindsight it was almost funny.
Except… it wasn’t true. But Rodney…
“Fuck,” he muttered, and opened the car door.
Jeannie and Kaleb and Madison had gone to Kaleb’s parents’ for dinner, so the house was empty and dark as John circled it, pushing open the gate and stepping into the back yard. It was blue-black under the shadow of the neighbouring houses, except for the little pools of light cast by the porch lamps, the bright blue mosquito-zapper, and the faint yellow glow of the little solar-powered lanterns scattered throughout the garden. Somewhere nearby, in a neighbouring yard, a sprinkler was running.
He glanced automatically up at the sky, but was disappointed; the sky never looked right on Earth anymore. It was too dark, too faint – scattered with a few anaemic stars bleached out by the sprawling glare of human cities. There was nothing at all like the sky over New Lantea, millions upon millions of stars so great in number they seemed to crowd one another, making you feel small, powerless, but at the same time awestruck, significant, eternal.
Rodney was standing in the middle of the yard, looking up. To John’s surprise, he didn’t look angry; more confused, maybe annoyed, looking at the few visible stars as if they could make things make sense. John wasn’t even within arm’s reach of him before he said:
“The last time we were here, Jeannie asked if I was going to marry Katie.”
And John stopped, like Rodney had slapped him. “You…” Jesus. “You didn’t tell me that.” He glanced toward the porch, feeling like he should really sit down, but didn’t move. “Are—”
Rodney – the bastard – just shrugged. “I thought about it,” he said. “But Katie – Katie didn’t…” Now he sounded unhappy, and glanced at John, who could only stare at him. He hoped the horrified feeling gnawing at his gut wasn’t showing on his face, because although there was a possibility that Rodney was just fucking with him, if he wasn’t, that would just not be cool.
But Rodney said: “We stopped… seeing each other, I don’t know, months ago. Katie deserves better than me.”
What John felt wasn’t exactly relief, but it was close. He said, weakly, because he felt he was supposed to: “Hey. She would have been lucky to…”
Rodney rolled his eyes, and now John felt like he was back in familiar territory. “You thought it was a joke from the second I started dating her,” he pointed out.
“I didn’t think she was right for you,” John replied, shocked into honesty. “That’s not the same thing.”
Rodney frowned at him, and then lifted one hand to rub at the bridge of his nose, looking pained. “Well,” he said, “that’s true enough.” Then he raised his head, and looked at John with serious, expectant eyes and a flush rising in his face. “Though obviously there were other reasons it would have been a gigantic disaster.”
It was like Rodney had reached into his chest and squeezed, and John was suddenly rooted to the spot, because about two seconds of frantic mental replay had him completely and totally certain that Rodney really had just admitted what it sounded like he’d admitted. John felt his mouth opening and closing soundlessly as he groped for an answer, but apparently his speech centres were also suffering from some form of panic-induced paralysis.
“I don’t – I didn’t—”
Which was clearly the wrong thing to say, because Rodney’s face made the transformation from pained into furious within a couple of breaths.
“Oh, no you don’t. You may be able to pull that dumb-as-I-look crap with other people, but I know better.” Rodney’s voice was sharp, strained, disbelieving. Hurt. He advanced on John in three long strides, jabbing him hard in the chest with each syllable. “Don’t even pretend you didn’t know. Because on top of everything else that’s just… just…” He turned away again, and John couldn’t see him but his posture was tense, the tips of his ears flushed pink.
“I didn’t!” John protested, purely out of reflex. “How was I supposed to—”
But that was a load of crap. And not really fair, either, because he did know, had known. The idea of Rodney hiding how he felt about anything was basically laughable; it would have been way too complicated to notice, that was all. At least that was what John had always told himself. In the heat of any moment it hadn’t really occurred to him that it was something more than chemical, not consciously, anyway – and that wasn’t the same thing.
Which was stupid, he realised now, because they were friends, closer to each other than John had ever been to anyone, and that changed everything.
Maybe he had used it in the past, when there was nothing else and no one else to save the day, because the best way to motivate Rodney was to challenge him. Maybe he had known that his baffling ability to sway people with a smile and a tilt of his head worked better on Rodney than any dozen chieftans’ daughters or alien priestesses they’d ever encountered, even though Rodney noticed and called him on it and then did what John wanted anyway.
…okay, yeah. He was an asshole.
But instead of several reasonably intelligent, appropriately sensitive things he could have said, things that might have eased them back from the edge of this very dangerous ledge, he said: “I didn’t know you were…” And it was a rotten lie, turning to ash in his mouth as soon as he’d said it.
“I’m not,” Rodney snapped, glaring at John like he was an idiot.
John blinked at him, confused. “Then… huh?”
Rodney huffed out a sigh, took a few steps across the grass, towards the edge of the yard. “I don’t know. I like who I like,” was the flippant answer, but when John just stared at him he stopped and turned back. He turned red, and shrugged, a jerk up and down, almost defensive. His chin came up, and he said, almost primly: “I don’t like labels.”
Except yours, thought John, and then he thought: huh, as he recognised exactly that tone of voice and the cadence, because genetics was a strange and puzzling thing sometimes.
Rodney looked at John again and added testily: “I’m kind of picky about who I consider even worthy acquaintances, if you didn’t notice, and of the extremely limited list of acceptable candidates none of them have ever tried beating down my door for… you know. Other reasons.” He shrugged again. “I take these things on a case-by-case basis.”
“And you decided this when?” asked John, unable to keep the amused drawl from his voice.
Rodney looked at him, shoulders still hunched up somewhere around his ears. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “Fourteen? Fifteen? Around the time my parents finally got rid of me.”
It was at least the third time Rodney had talked about his parents like that, a short shock of jumbled words like he was tearing off a band-aid, and then moving quickly past.
John said nothing, certainly not about the fact that he’d spent a perhaps inappropriate amount of time picturing Rodney as a kid, and so it was easy to envision that. Teenaged Rodney, short and plump and awkward, looking out at the world and the way other people related to each other and concluding, with studied detachment, that their methods were counterintuitive, were unrepeatable, were unscientific, were stupid. All undertaken in self-defence, maybe, out of utter confusion, because anyone with eyes and ears could tell Rodney had never been any good with people, but with that strange, calm concentration he devoted to everything he considered important.
Something about the image made John’s heart hurt, a little.
“I don’t… I’m not one or the other,” Rodney muttered, more to Jeannie’s rosebushes than to John. “I just… you. Okay?”
John almost didn’t hear the last part, almost lost under the rhythmic hiss of the sprinkler and the breeze, and the fact that Rodney’s voice had dropped away until it was almost a whisper. And John didn’t know what made him do it, but before he knew what he was doing his mouth was moving, and his voice, riding the crest of a wave of panic and hope and grim determination, was saying:
Rodney froze, and then he spun around so fast that he stumbled, and had to catch himself on a low-hanging branch. It was almost comical for a split-second, until he saw Rodney’s face, written with horror and astonishment and accusation and oh, crap.
Rodney looked mad, he looked pissed, and he had a right to be. It was John’s fault, he’d left it too long, known and said nothing and acted like it didn’t matter and used it. Maybe there were some things you couldn’t forgive, and somehow it was so much worse now that it had been said. Maybe irreparable.
He was suddenly driven breathless and shaky-kneed by the slight widening of Rodney’s eyes as he stepped into the light - and, god, Rodney had the bluest eyes of anyone John had ever known - and he sat down, heavy and abrupt, on the top step of Jeannie’s porch.
“You– you–” stuttered Rodney.
“Yeah,” admitted John, hoarsely, and forcing himself to look away, he added: “Sorry.” He felt hollow and horrible.
He could still feel Rodney’s eyes on him, like they were burning a hole in him, and he was about to get up, go inside, never speak of it again, when Rodney gave a little huff and took a breath, and John recognised it as his God, how can you possibly be this stupid? noise.
He jerked his head up as Rodney was closing the space between them, hands reaching out, cupping John’s cheek with a big warm hand, turning his face into the blue-yellow glare of the porch light.
“Jesus fucking Christ, you are such an idiot,” Rodney hissed, and then Rodney was kissing him.
When they parted with a wet sound a few seconds – minutes, days – later, Rodney was breathing hard, and wasted only enough oxygen to gasp, furiously: “So what the fuck took you so long?”
And then he was folding up into John’s arms with a noise like a sob, holding on like he’d never let go again, and John held on right back.
There’s an e-mail waiting for John when he gets back to his room. So much for sleep, he thinks, when he sees it’s from Carter, asking him to come see her... three hours ago. Okay, well, so he’s been busy. But the tone of the message makes it clear it’s not optional. That it’s time-sensitive. So he goes right back out.
She doesn’t answer her door, and after a few attempts he wrestles briefly with himself before just asking the door to open - and it does, like they always do. He steps inside, looking uneasily around for a minute, ready to step back out again if she’s not there, or if she’s there and he’s just pissed her off… but he sees the back of her head, over the back of the couch.
“Hello?” he ventures, softly, but she still doesn’t answer, so he moves carefully around the end of the couch.
Carter’s leaning her head in her hands, and on the tablet in her lap he can see a long, complicated equation full of stylus notations. John realises with a jolt that she’s been checking the same math Zelenka told him about, the equation that caused the fire. He realises subsequently that she’s actually dozing, and he actually feels bad about shaking her awake.
“Hmm?” she says, muzzily, clears her throat as she recognises him. “Oh. Hi.” She’s still soft-edged with sleep, wearing an oversized green t-shirt and sweatpants and fluffy purple socks, and looks like anything but the leader of a city in space, even less like somebody who once blew up a sun or sent an Asgard warship hurtling into a planet. He likes her better this way, mussed and human. Her t-shirt says “Science: It Works, Bitches” in faded white letters.
“Sorry I just barged in,” he apologises. “But you didn’t answer--”
She interrupts him with a shrug. “I didn’t lock it,” and: “I was expecting you. I just drifted off.”
It absolves him of feeling awkward, but all the same, he’s not sure how to act around her right now, and it takes her a moment or two to notice, to shake herself a little, to sit up straight, gesture him to a seat. She stays like she is, though, legs tucked up underneath her, like she’s too tired to give a damn about decorum. He likes that, too, thinks, as Carter drags fingers irritably through her hair, that this is something Elizabeth never managed, made him feel like they were equals. He never minded, helped set those lines where they were, considered it natural. At the core, Elizabeth was better than he was and he knew it. Carter isn’t, and she knows it, too.
“So, Colonel,” he says, “you wanted to see me?” As if they haven’t both rehearsed every word of this conversation already.
But she makes a face, annoyed, he thinks, and says, “Oh, for – will you please just use my name? It’s—” she glances at her watch, “—three-fifteen in the morning and this conversation isn’t exactly on the books.”
He blinks at her, feeling sheepish. “Sorry. Sam?”
She sighs her relief. “Sam.” And then: “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he says, frowning. He thinks he means it.
She holds up the tablet. “I’m guessing you know what this is?”
He gives it a second glance, thorough enough this time to be sure it’s the same file Radek sent him. He went over the math himself, and although he couldn’t follow most of it with a casual inspection, even he found several obvious mistakes, false assumptions, leaps of illogic. He looks away, because the evidence of Rodney’s decaying faculties made him a little queasy then, and it’s no better now, with so little sleep under his belt.
Instead, he drops his head. “Yeah.”
“Did you understand it?”
It’s not a challenge, not dubious or condescending, not even pre-emptively amazed, like it would be, coming from Rodney - she’s really asking. He glances up, sees her watching him with nothing but curiosity. But there’s an underlying tension, shadows under her eyes. She’s probably gone over it half a dozen times in the space it took him to get through the first three pages, and she looks slightly bereft, like somebody’s knocked her legs out from under her but she’s had to stand up again anyway.
“Enough of it,” he tells her.
She sets it down on the low table between the couch and the chair, and for a moment they both stare at it, the white stylus scribbles intersecting the tidy, orderly, wrong lines of numbers and symbols like twitches and curse words. He knows she and McKay had years of math-fights before they even met. John also knows that for Rodney (though Rodney would never, ever admit it), the fact that Carter was almost never wrong was a sort of universal constant.
John thinks the feeling may have been mutual. For years, they’ve probably had no other equal but each other. John tries to imagine what that’s like, being so high at the top of your game that almost nobody could reach you, and then having the only challenger struck down, not by death or fair defeat, but by nightmares.
He really can’t decide if that’s worse or better than how it feels to him. Can’t be good, though.
“What are you going to do?” he asks eventually, when she says nothing for something like twenty seconds.
“Jennifer’s relieving him of duty as of 0900,” Sam says, still staring at the tablet. John reaches out and blanks it with the touch of a button, blinking at her.
“Jennifer?” Keller’s been on Atlantis a while, John knows, but she hardly talked to anyone outside of the infirmary until she was made CMO, and John’s pretty sure that the only person who calls her by her first name is Teyla.
Sam blinks at him. “Doctor Keller worked at the SGC for several years. Under Janet Fraser.”
“Oh.” Of course. Right. But they’re getting off the point. “He’s already grounded from off-planet missions.”
She sounds pained. “I thought we agreed that -”
“No, no, we still do,” he says quickly, but he frowns. “And obviously he can’t…” He can’t think straight. “Obviously he can’t stay on… working, like this. I just mean, what else is there for him to do?”
“I thought you met with Doctor Keller.” Sam’s watching him, carefully, gauging him, he thinks. She knows he did. And now he’s betting she and Keller talked about it, before and after.
“She did,” he confirms, just as carefully. “And I still think it’s risky. I think putting him on medical leave is going to make it harder for him to come back. I mean…” he gestures bitterly with one hand, trying to invoke the SGC, Earth, everything that encompasses their little world from light-years away without every seeing them up-close. “…even the SGC is going to hesitate about sending somebody back here who…”
He glares balefully at the darkened screen of the tablet, looks up at Sam through lowered eyelashes. “We both know what that kind of report can do to someone’s career.”
“I’m not filing a report!” she says sharply, and she actually sounds a little indignant about it. “I’m not… look, as far as the SGC is concerned, this is accumulated leave. It’s not he’s taken time off in the last four years for anything outside of an emergency, and now that we’ve got the bridge working, we can take advantage of leave allowances.”
“You’re assuming he’ll go peacefully,” John notes, wryly, and gets a wry smile back.
“I’m assuming he’ll kick and scream and complain, but eventually listen to reason. I’m hoping he will,” she corrects herself, with a frown, like she hadn’t thought of that.
But then she says: “I think you should go with him.”
John’s head snaps up, takes in her closed, cautious expression, how she has her hands folded together on her knees.
It’s a fucking city-wide conspiracy. He honest-to-god can’t decide whether he’s offended or flattered.
John feels his mouth twist, feels something else twist in the general area of his stomach, feels the chill settling over him. But even as he opens his mouth to say something he’ll probably regret, she adds: “It wasn’t a question,” with delicate, serious emphasis and his mouth just snaps shut of its own accord. She’s talking again as he fights down the surge of panic that was creeping up his throat.
“Look –” her voice sounds a little stretched, like she’s the one taking the leap, swinging over something deep and dangerous and important. “I’m going to be totally blunt with you, and later, if you want, you can pretend we never had this conversation. Okay?”
She must take his silence as assent, which is good, because he can’t think of a goddamn thing to say. “He needs to get away from here, for a while. He needs to get his bearings someplace relatively safe.”
It’s a phrase the counsellor in basic training used, John remembers it. After trauma, the first important step is to get your bearings. Re-orient yourself with familiar surroundings. Feel safe. But nothing’s grounding Rodney right now, and by no stretch of the imagination can Atlantis be called safe. Not even when it is.
“He’s not going to do that as long as he’s pretending nothing’s wrong. You know that.”
This time it is a question, and he glances up again to be surprised by the earnestness on her face.
“Yeah,” he agrees, quietly.
“But the problem with a safe place is… it does absolutely no good if you’re living where he is right now.”
Her voice actually cracks, just on the last syllable, and for the fraction of a second he thinks she’s going to cry or something, but of course she doesn’t, she’s Samantha Carter, she blew up a sun once. Instead, she looks grave, and as if right now she doesn’t give a flying fuck about the regs, she just wants things to be okay.
There were rumours about SG-1, he remembers. All kinds of rumours, ranging up and down the scale like they were prone to do on a closed base. That they were too close. That they’d flouted the regs for what amounted to personal reasons more times than could be counted, but never been called on it because they were SG-1, for fuck’s sake. So at least… at least maybe she understands that part of it, the part where the people on your team are your whole world, where you’d do anything for them, where nothing was too much, too close. Maybe.
He remembers the first time Elizabeth handed him the keys to Atlantis; he waited until the door to his quarters had shut behind him, and then slid down the wall to shake for an hour and a half because holy Christ, it was all up to him now. He remembers all over again that this is her first real command, remembers thinking in the beginning she was in way over her head but not showing it.
For a second, she’s showing it, and he remembers hearing it in her voice, tinny but fierce through the radio, as he stood at Ava’s Stargate. Our people.
“I can’t make you go, John, but I can make Rodney, and so can Doctor Keller, for that matter. But I would rather - both of us would rather - keep it from getting official. I assumed you would, too.”
John fidgets, but keeps his mouth shut, because of course he would. And Rodney will go quieter if he’s not alone. If they can pretend it’s nothing. They’re good at pretending.
“And I think… look, write it off however you want, I don’t care, I understand. But we both know you need to go with him.” Her voice is hesitant, but firm and incongruously gentle. Don’t be an idiot. I don’t care.
He wants to hate her but he can’t help feeling pathetically grateful. He doesn’t say yes, not out loud, but she hears him anyway.
“Tomorrow, then?” he asks her, wiping sweaty palms on the knees of his BDUs.
She nods, relieved. “Probably best to get it over with.”
“Yeah, probably,” he agrees, and glances at his watch. It’s after 0400. They’ve been talking for almost an hour. He gets up.
He’s halfway to the door when he stops, turns back, exhausted but gripped by a need to say something. When somebody opens themselves up like that you’re supposed to say something.
She looks up from her tablet, already back at work, probably hurriedly arranging schedules and replacements and shuffling duty rosters. “Yeah?”
“You’re doing a good job.”
She doesn’t blush - she never does - but her eyes flash surprised, her mouth opening and closing once or twice before she actually says anything. For a second – not even quite that long – she looks shy. But it passes.
“Thank you, John,” she says, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips but not quite winning out. “Good night.”
He rather doubts it, but he doesn’t say so. It’s a nice sentiment, anyway.
Go to Part 5b