They pounded through the forest and into the clearing. In the jumper they'd been following the broadcast from Colonel John Sheppard's subcutaneous transmitter, watching as the lifesigns of the Genii hunting him disappeared one by one by one. But now they knew where John was because of the sound of his screaming.
Ronon Dex got there first, in time to shoot the Wraith crouched over John and pressing his right hand to John's chest. The Wraith fell to the side then snapped around, snarling.
"No!" That was John's voice, but it was impossible to tell if he was shouting the denial at Ronon or the Wraith, and Ronon shot the Wraith twice more even as the word left John's straining mouth.
"Oh God, oh God, oh God." Rodney McKay was barely aware he was talking. He thudded to his knees at John's side. Carson Beckett was already there, frantically pawing through his knapsack though Rodney had no idea what he was looking for, what he might have in there that could possibly help this; that could in any way make this all right.
"John," he said, voice cracking with horror. He reached for John's arm, then hesitated. It looked so fragile--his wrist and hand were wrinkled like crumpled paper, wretchedly thin next to the glossy, sturdy leather of his black jacket. Rodney's fingers fluttered like insects, but he flinched them back before he could touch.
John's eyes darted between Rodney and Carson, never settling, as if he couldn't tell what he was looking at. His hair was almost white, shot through with dull streaks of brown. His face had become pouched and lined, eyes sunken and dark as holes in the earth. He was as pale as someone already dead.
His lips twitched, as if trying to grope for language. John's chest heaved through each wheezing breath, rattling in and out of seemingly overburdened lungs.
"Rodney," he said, his voice as rough as stone.
Oh, God, Rodney thought. But he forced himself to take John's hand, cupping it gently as an egg in both of his own. Maybe John couldn't see him. "I'm here," he said. John's hand was cold. The skin was loose and soft. It made Rodney think of his grandfather, which almost made him gag. He swallowed. "You're okay. You're going to be okay now," he babbled through his revulsion. "I'm here."
"Rodney," John said again. He took a deeper breath, winced like it hurt. The hollow of his throat above the round neckline of his shirt was red with blood, as stark against his skin as it would be against snow. "I said, 'No'," he whispered. His filmed eyes were alight with something like bewildered rage. "Wraith...was giving it back."
"What?" Carson looked up from what he was doing--sliding an IV line into John's helpless flesh. The area near the catheter was already swelling dark as it filled with blood, making Rodney grimace. He didn't know if Carson had screwed up his first attempt, or if John's veins were so frail now that it hadn't mattered.
"Giving it back," John insisted fiercely. "My life. Before Ronon killed him."
Rodney stared, blinking stupidly, his mind stuttering on incomprehension like a skipping CD. It didn't make any sense --Wraith didn't give life, they took it. They were Vampires. Vampires never gave back.
Ghouls, Rodney's mind supplied, more than a little hysterically. But those were stories, fiction. This, this was....
"He was draining you," Ronon said, flat with finality, anger making his eyes into coals. Anger at the Wraith; what it had done. Rodney could almost see Ronon burn.
"No," John said. He let out a too-soft breath and closed his eyes.
The continuing-care home had been freezing cold, and stank of antiseptic. The walls were light grey, looming out of stark white linoleum that reflected the fizzing fluorescent lights. Rodney would never forget how it felt, listening to the tiny, intrusive squeak of his footsteps down the long narrow hallways, the lights buzzing above him like flies. The place had been as quiet as a mausoleum, like no one had ever lived there.
At the end, when the cancer had gnawed him down to the bones, this was how Rodney's grandfather had looked: skin like paper folded over a body thin and dry as kindling, like it would take nothing--a touch, a breath--to shatter him, blast him apart. Nothing in his grandfather's room, not the fake wood of the door, not the jarringly homey wooden furniture, not the few photographs, perched like props on the bedside table and single windowsill, had made it feel anything more than a place you went because there was nothing left. No future, no hope, only the cruelty of too much time and too little illness to shorten it.
Rodney's grandfather had slept with his mouth open, laboring over each breath as he pulled it into his lungs. The one time he woke when Rodney was there, his eyes had been blank, filmed with morphine, recognizing nothing.
Rodney, fourteen and almost struck by lightning, allergic to citrus and bees, all-too aware of his own brittle mortality, had been forced to sit by the old man's bedside, watching him die by increments. And Rodney had felt death in every corner there; saw it spreading across the floor like the wan, warmth-less sunlight. He'd smelled its stench in the antiseptic and the air over his grandfather's body, felt it every time his mother had insisted he hold his grandfather's hand.
For years afterwards, Rodney had been terrified he had cancer himself, that it was lurking inside him patient and malicious as a time-bomb, waiting to wither him down to nothing. He would lie awake at night, paralyzed with terror, imagining dying alone in an overly bright room that reeked of Detol and sickness. How his mind would slip away as his body inexorably betrayed him, his eyes open and searching, always searching, but recognizing nothing.
John was sleeping again, even though it was the middle of the day. He was sleeping a lot now, which was good, Rodney supposed. It meant he was in less pain, less aware of his body's slow deterioration, contorted by the Wraith's draining into this hideous facsimile of the normal aging process. It was more like a disease, Carson had said, one that did worse, in less time, than true aging would.
John wasn't really old, but he was going to die of this all the same.
He was in the isolation room. Carson had put him there purposely, to keep him away from the other patients and their noise and pathogens. John needed rest right now, as much as possible Carson said, to protect organs abused nearly past endurance and an immune system collapsing under the weight of false time.
Rodney stood on the observation deck, looking down, and tried not to think of his grandfather: his thin, sallow grey flesh; his hair, grey and crumbling as slate; his lax, wet mouth sucking each shallow breath; the cancer that had destroyed him long before he actually died. John didn't look like the old man had--not that bad, not quite--but it was close enough. More than close enough. And his grandfather was all that Rodney could think about.
You should visit him, Teyla had told Rodney. Her slim hand was a soft pressure on his shoulder, gentle but dangerously insistent, and Rodney had to force himself not to move away. I am certain it will raise his spirits to see you. And Rodney had said that yes, yes of course he would. Anything to make her take her hand away, anything to take the soft pressure of pity out of her gentle brown eyes. And now he was standing looking down into the isolation room, and he wondered if Teyla had known that he wouldn't, if the only one he'd lied to was himself.
The isolation room was toned in grey with an almost red tinge, which always made it seem far more angry to Rodney than peaceful or calm. It was as if the Ancients had felt that they needed a constant, visual reminder of the urgency and fear that would make it necessary to keep someone in this place. Then again, maybe the Ancients had used this room for another purpose entirely. It was impossible to know.
From this vantage point it didn't really look like John at all, just an old man in a white hospital gown, slowly dying amidst the steady blips of the silenced monitoring machines. Occasionally the nurses and doctors would flit in and out like ghosts, sudden, alarming slashes of color in their expedition uniforms. Once or twice Carson would look up and see him, and his expression was always resigned, like he'd hoped Rodney would do better but hadn't expected it.
And Rodney told himself he'd go in later, when John was awake, when there weren't so many medical staff around, when he had enough time to really speak to him. When John had slept more, and looked more like himself, so Rodney could recognize him again.
Later. Later would be better. Carson had specifically said John needed to rest, after all. Stress might make things worse, and nobody wanted to do that.
Rodney took one last glance at the still form down below, then turned and walked away. His back was stiff from staying in one place for so long. Normally he'd go to Carson about it, but he didn't want to bother him. Carson had more important things to worry about.
Rodney hated himself for the relief he felt, every time he left that stark, stricken place behind him. But then again, he hated himself for a lot of things.
And John slept most of the time, these days. It wasn't like he'd miss Rodney, anyway.
Dr. Rodney McKay saw Major John Sheppard the first time he'd taken a helicopter from McMurdo to the Ancient outpost that had been dug out of the Antarctic ice. Rodney hadn't known who he was at the time, of course, and with the brutal honesty of hindsight Rodney knew he hadn't cared. He was just a pilot. The beginning and ending of his importance came with his ability to get Rodney where he needed to go. Rodney couldn't even think of what he might have said to John, when he first clambered into his helicopter, if he'd said anything at all. But he was fairly sure it hadn't been nice.
The first time Rodney McKay actually met John Sheppard was when he told him to use the control chair at the outpost to project an image of where they were in the solar system. He remembered the expression on John's face--part confusion, part alarm--as he did what Rodney wanted. The Ancient technology responded to John with an alacrity that Rodney had never seen before. It awed him, and made him envious, but it was impossible to forget John, after that.
Rodney didn't see John for weeks, not until they were in the gate room of the SGC, preparing to go to Atlantis and possibly their deaths, or at least to never see Earth again. Rodney hadn't known he was actually searching for the Major until he spotted the unruly tufts of hair at the front of the crowd in the gate room. But the relief, the inexplicable pleasure he felt knowing John was coming with them, was like finding something he hadn't realized was missing until it clicked into place somewhere inside.
At the time, Rodney had dismissed what he was feeling as simple gratitude for one less thing to worry about, now that they finally had someone who could really use the Ancient technology. He had just ensured their passage to an entirely different galaxy, and he had much bigger things on his mind.
It took a full year, and John seconds away from becoming scattered atoms before Rodney would admit to himself what his feeling about John--his feelings for John--really meant.
It hadn't been too late, then. The Daedalus came in time. Rodney had another chance.
Now, he watched the wizened, half-empty husk of John sleep, and Rodney was sure his chances were gone.
"I'll find another Wraith," Ronon said, relentless. "Bring him back. Make him fix what the first Wraith did." He had his arms crossed, standing leaning against the glass wall of Elizabeth Weir's office. His eyes were black with guilt and rage.
Elizabeth closed her eyes, rubbing the space between them with two fingers. She looked pale, Rodney thought. "I can't let you compromise the safety of this city, you know that, Ronon," she said. Her voice was weary and sad, and for a moment Rodney resented her for it--for her obvious anguish when she said 'no' to them every single time. She took a breath. "Not even for John."
"We can transfer Sheppard to the Alpha site, then," Rodney insisted. He didn't bother to hide the anger in his voice, the exasperation verging on fury. This would work. He knew it would work. But Elizabeth wouldn't let them. "Stun the Wraith to take him there--he won't even have to know where we're from!"
Elizabeth dropped her hand and opened her eyes, and there were shadows underneath them, like she hadn't been sleeping well. Join the club, Rodney thought bitterly. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept for more than an hour or two at a time, hadn't awoken from nightmares of pale grey walls and the antiseptic stench of a lingering, death, carefully-monitored.
He wondered if Elizabeth looked in the mirror these days and imagined herself old, like the Weir they'd found in stasis, preserved for ten thousand years. He wondered if every small pain, every new twinge of discomfort whispered Cancer to her, hissed out death the way it did for him. He wondered how she could bear the thought of John dying like this: prolonged and helplessly and with all dignity gone, sleeping until his lungs and heart and brain failed him, unable to fight.
Because Rodney couldn't bear that, couldn't bear that at all.
"Rodney," she said, slicing through his thoughts. "There's no reason to assume the Wraith won't just kill him!"
"Not if he wants to live," Ronon said.
"Elizabeth," Teyla said. Only the slight tension in her voice projected her strain. "If we do nothing, he will surely die."
"You think I don't know that, Teyla?" Elizabeth snapped. "I want him to survive this as much as you do! But I also have to consider the safety of everyone in this city."
"Sheppard is vital to the safety of this city!" Rodney exploded. His fist crashed onto Elizabeth's desk, and he felt vicious satisfaction when she jumped. "Have you considered how the city will be affected if he dies, Elizabeth? The blow to morale alone? How many of the military contingent do you think we'll even be able to keep here, if he's gone? Or the civilians? Do you think that I'd want to stay here if the Colonel wasn't?"
It wasn't until he saw the shock on Elizabeth's face that Rodney truly realized what he'd said, how deeply he meant it. For a moment he felt as staggered as Elizabeth looked.
He loved Atlantis. He would die for this place, these people--not gladly, not willingly, but without question if that was the only way to save them. But the idea of Atlantis without John....
Rodney thought of lifeless, steel-grey rooms, lonely corridors even with other people in them, an off-world team with a different leader, joyless discoveries with no one to share them. An empty heart and life.
"Are you threatening me, Rodney?" Elizabeth asked. The incredulous anger in her eyes couldn't entirely mask the hurt.
"No," Rodney said gruffly. He swallowed. "I just...." He blinked quickly, realizing he was embarrassingly close to losing it right there in her office. He ran his hands over his face, scrubbed impatiently at his eyelids. "He deserves better than this, Elizabeth," he said quietly. "He's dying. He's dying and we can do something, we can stop it." He swallowed again, felt the water pooling humiliatingly in his eyes. "We have to stop it."
Elizabeth took a breath. She looked like she was fighting for her composure as fiercely as Rodney was. "I know," she said simply. "But after what happened with Michael...I can't risk the city like that again. Not even the Alpha site. And what would we do with the Wraith?" she asked, her eyes on Ronon. "Just let him go? Even if we could--how do we convince the Wraith to help us? What if he's willing to sacrifice his life as long as he's able to kill John first?"
"Even if that were to happen," Teyla said, "I do not believe that would be worse than it is now."
"John would be dead!" Elizabeth said, almost shouting.
"He is already dying," Teyla said flatly.
"How is he?" Elizabeth asked softly. They were outside the isolation room, where Carson had been while Rodney, Teyla and Ronon tried to convince Elizabeth to let them capture a Wraith.
There was no need to speak so quietly--even if the sound could travel through the metal walls, John had lost most of his hearing. There was no way the small group could disturb him. But Rodney understood the unconscious need for quiet. He doubted vigils such as this had ever been loud.
Carson took a breath, let it out in near-silence. He had a face mask hanging by its strap around his neck, and he stripped off the protective gloves he was wearing, then rubbed the skin underneath one of his eyes. Carson was as pale as Elizabeth, as pale as Rodney was sure his own face was. Carson's eyes looked especially brilliant blue against it, like a clear sky.
"I won't lie," Carson said. "It's not good." He voice, though as quiet as Elizabeth's had been, still rang with defeat. Rodney felt his jaw clench. It was already aching. "His body is breaking down. His organs are beginning to fail. We've got him on dialysis now, and we've had to defibrillate him twice already to get his heart back on rhythm. All of which you already know, of course." Rodney nodded, because yes, Carson had already told them this. He glanced at Teyla and Ronon when Ronon moved. Teyla had her hands clenched together in front of her, her face tight with grief. Ronon put his hand on the wall, as if he could feel what remained of John's life through it. His head was hanging down, so that his hair obscured his face.
Carson grimaced. "To tell you the truth, I wanted to give him a cardiac-resynchronisation therapy pacemaker, but I didn't think John would survive the surgery."
That made Ronon raise his head. Rodney was certain he had no idea what even a standard pacemaker was, but Ronon knew what surgery meant. "He's tough," Ronon said challengingly, as if anyone would try to dispute that.
"Aye," Carson said, nodding a little. "And he's got a fierce will to live. But I fear that's not enough." He turned to Elizabeth. "To be blunt, if we can't find some way to cure this, I'm not sure how long he has." Carson put his hands into the pockets of his lab coat, as if steeling himself for their reactions.
"I see," Elizabeth said. She sounded numb, which Rodney thought was a little ridiculous, because it wasn't like she hadn't been at all the other briefings, it wasn't like this could possibly be a surprise. He was tempted to say something like that, spit out some of his hopeless, directionless anger. But it new that would achieve nothing, wouldn't even help him, really, and for once he kept himself silent.
Elizabeth made a small gesture that took in the three of them. "Ronon wants to capture a Wraith, and force him to finish the process the original Wraith had already started."
"Give his life back," Ronon said.
Carson nodded slowly. His smile wasn't really anything like one at all. "That could work." He made a face, flat lips and raised eyebrows. "Actually, I'd say it's the only chance he's got." He glanced back at the closed door to the room, as if he could see through it, check on his patient yet again. "Otherwise, I was going to recommend putting him in the stasis chamber, to give us more time to find something."
"Would he even survive that?" Rodney blurted. Elizabeth's double had, of course, but she hadn't been...hadn't been like this.
Carson shook his head. "I can't even say for sure. I know he'd survive going in...."
"But perhaps not being removed," Teyla said. She took a slow breath herself.
"Aye," Carson said quietly.
"I don't want to bring a Wraith into the city again," Elizabeth told Carson, repeating what she'd said in her office. Carson nodded, and for a moment he looked haunted, obviously thinking of Michael, how close they'd come to losing Teyla because of him, and then all of Earth, because they'd trusted Michael's Hive.
"I can understand that," Carson said heavily. Rodney knew he had his own burden of guilt and shame about Michael, just like they all did. In retrospect, it had been a clusterfuck of unbelievable proportions, but they didn't have time for it now. "But we may not have a choice." He sounded like he hated having the words in his mouth. "I don't know if his body could take a trip through a wormhole, the condition it's in now."
"Don't be stupid!" Rodney snapped, the desperate, automatic denial sharp and hot on his tongue. Everyone's gaze swung to him, and he saw the surprise and anger flit through Carson's eyes. "It's near-instantaneous molecular disintegration and reintegration. He'd arrive in the exact same state he was when he went through!"
"Yes he would!" Carson barked in return. "But it's a shock to the system all the same, Rodney! Even the momentary cold you feel when you arrive might be too much for him! Not to mention the sudden change in climate."
"He is that weak?" Teyla asked before Rodney could say anything else. He could easily hear the horror in her voice.
Carson nodded miserably. "Aye," he said.
"So we bring the Wraith here," Ronon said. He looked at Elizabeth, glowering as if he expected to cow her out of arguing with him. "We'll blindfold him, chain him up, whatever. We've had Wraith in the city before."
"I'm sorry, Ronon," Elizabeth said. "But I can't allow it. The risk is too great." She sounded stricken, but Rodney knew her well enough to know there was no backing down on this, she'd made her decision. The city over John.
Rodney could understand it; he could even guess how difficult it had been for her. And he had no idea what he'd do if he were in her position, but he could imagine how his decision might be the same.
That did nothing to ease the sudden fury boiling out of him.
Ronon made a wordless noise of rage, like an animal's snarl, then hit the wall so hard Rodney was sure he'd broken his hand. "You can't do this to him!" he shouted, and for a moment he looked so angry Rodney was frightened he'd pick Elizabeth up, shake her like a doll. He realized he was unconsciously moving between them to prevent it, much as part of him wanted to do the same.
"Ronon, stop!" Teyla said sharply, and the command in her voice made Ronon quiet. He glared at her, but he didn't move.
"Doctor," Teyla said, looking at Carson. "Would the Colonel survive a trip in a Jumper?"
Rodney stared at her, instantly comprehending. "She means fifteen hours in a Jumper, Carson--could he take that?" It was the planet where they'd found the crashed Wraith transport ship, where they had lost two scientists and John had almost died. The planet was harsh desert, but they wouldn't need a wormhole to get there. "Teyla, you're a genius!" He didn't smile, not yet, but the hope was already in him, the thought that this could work, this might save him, heavy as a stone on his chest.
Carson's eyes widened as he considered it. "I'd practically have to make over one of the Jumpers into a flying isolation room, but yes, I think he'd be all right."
"Elizabeth?" Rodney asked. Everyone was looking at her. The tension was so thick it felt hard to breathe.
But she just nodded, looking somber and sad as if she didn't dare hope at all. "Okay, you have a go," she said.
They'd only ever kissed once.
It probably wasn't really a kiss, or at least nothing that could be safely categorized as one, beyond the mouth-on-mouth and mutual slide and lick of tongues. It was after they'd been captured by Ford and his posse of drugged-up, wannabe heroes. Rodney had been high on Enzyme for days, so strung-out he could barely think, let alone concentrate, and it had felt like John's presence had filled the entire cavern they'd been stuffed into. The warmth of John's body had touched against Rodney's wherever he went, soft and alluring as naked skin, and Rodney could smell John everywhere, sweat and musk and something almost metallic and sweet, sweet as candy, a rush like every new shot of Enzyme. Rodney had been perpetually half-hard, so overcome with desire, need, that he couldn't think of anything else. Not the Wraith Dart he was trying to modify, not if Ronon or Teyla were okay, not if John was okay, though Rodney knew he'd kill Ford or any of his boys, without hesitation or remorse, if they hurt him.
He'd finally snapped after one more fruitless afternoon trying to make the Dart do anything he wanted to do. He'd been able to speak to John, finally, complaining to him miserably about how he couldn't think, how he was worried he couldn't do this, and John had promised he'd make Ford lower the Enzyme dose. And he'd held Rodney's arm for a moment, before they'd walked back to their prison.
It was just a show of support, Rodney knew that, even as drug-addled as he was. But he also knew how often they had meals together, or played ten-thousand year old computer games. How often, when the team split, that John chose Rodney to go with him.
And Rodney also knew--or, he thought he knew, with the Enzyme rocketing through him and making everything too sharp and bright but clear, clear and perfect--how John relied on him, depended on him, trusted him, even after Doranda. And he thought he knew how John looked at him, sometimes, when he thought Rodney wasn't watching. The second, less than a second, of longing on his face before it was gone.
So on the way back to Ford's hideout, Rodney had grabbed John by his arms to hold him still, exhilaratingly easy with the Enzyme in him, and kissed him.
At first it had been more like a fight. Their teeth had clacked together painfully and Rodney had mashed John's nose, and he'd tasted blood when he moved his lips and thought it may have been his, though it could have been John's. The idea that it could have been John's blood, that he was sharing something that precious, even inadvertently, sent a bolt of lust through him that made his entire body tremble. But when John tried to move back, push him away, Rodney let him go. But not before he'd felt that tiny, tentative touch of John's tongue against his own, and that was worth everything.
John stared at him for what seemed like a long while to Rodney's distorted sense of time. "That...that was probably a bad idea," John said. He had his hands on Rodney's shoulders, beautiful heat and weight.
Rodney blinked at him, confused. "No it wasn't." John's lips were a little red on the bottom, probably from blood, but he pushed Rodney back when Rodney tried to lean in again.
"You're high on Enzyme," John said, and Rodney had no idea what his expression meant.
Rodney blinked again. "So?"
John sighed. He looked...sad, Rodney thought. Maybe that's what it was. Or resigned? Angry? All three of them? It was so hard to tell, so hard to concentrate when John was right there, with his warmth and his musk surrounding them. "So, this isn't...right. Not to either of us." He let go of Rodney and stepped back, and the sudden cold made Rodney shiver. "I don't want this."
"Oh," Rodney said. He wanted this, wanted it so much it was like pain, but he wasn't so far gone that he would force himself on anyone. He was lucid enough to know he'd never forgive himself for that. And he was lucid enough to know when he was being rejected.
"I'm sorry," John said.
He thought it might hurt more, if he were clean, but right then it was mostly okay. Rodney was able to smile, albeit awkwardly, and he said something that was too stupid to be a joke. But John had laughed anyway, which was nice of him. And they'd walked back to the cave, side by side, and had never mentioned the kiss again. Later, Rodney realized the blood he'd tasted had been his own.
Rodney still thought about kissing John sometimes, how much he wanted it. He didn't know if John did, but once in awhile he still caught John looking at him, and maybe that was longing there. Maybe.
"Rodney," Teyla said. "I need to speak with you."
"What?" Rodney replied absently. He had his head tilted up, staring at the large Ancient screen, reading the information as it scrolled up, up, up in an endless procession of information. He'd already regulated Teyla to a bare portion of his consciousness, the rest of him completely focused on what he was reading, trying to find. "Can it wait? I'm kind of busy here."
"No," Teyla said. "It can not."
It was the tone of her voice--like her temper had already frayed past holding--that made Rodney click the information to a halt and turn around. Teyla had more patience than anyone Rodney had ever known. He didn't think he'd ever heard her like this, as if she were over the edge and barely hanging on.
"All right," he said, not bothering to make his voice kind, since Teyla wouldn't need it or care. "What is it?"
Teyla took a quick glance right and left, obviously checking for other people though this laboratory was otherwise empty so early in the morning. Teyla would usually have been sleeping, Rodney knew, but it didn't surprise him much that she wasn't. He wondered if her dreams were anything like his own.
"As you are aware," she said, "Ronon and I will leave in a few hours' time, to find a Wraith."
Normally Rodney might have snapped something at her about wasting his time with the obvious, but things hadn't been anywhere near normal since Ronon had shot the Wraith in the clearing. Rodney just nodded.
"I'm staying here," he said.
"So you said." Teyla looked at the screen, her eyes fastening on the Ancient symbols. "What is this?"
"Research," Rodney said. He went on before Teyla would assume he was just being sarcastic. "I'm trying...I think there might be a way to fix John, if capturing a Wraith doesn't work."
"What way is this?" she asked.
Rodney hesitated, opening his mouth then closing it again. He lowered his voice, despite the fact they were alone. "You have to promise me you won't tell anyone," he said.
Teyla nodded. "I promise I will not."
"Anyone," Rodney insisted. "Well," he amended, "you can tell Ronon. But no one else. You understand?"
"I understand," she said seriously. She looked at the screen again, her face confused, as if she was expecting to see something astounding and didn't know why she wasn't. "What are you seeking?"
"Well," Rodney began. He took a breath. "I found something, a mention of a...device that might help him. Heal him."
Teyla looked at him, her face alight with shock and sudden hope. "You have found a machine that will undo the damage of the Wraith?"
"Well, no," Rodney said, then rushed on when Teyla's face fell. "I mean, yes!" He huffed in annoyance at himself. "It won't just reverse what the Wraith did, but it could...it might heal him."
Teyla's face split into a beautiful smile, the joy and amazement plain in her dark eyes. "This will solve everything, Rodney!" she exclaimed, delighted. "We must tell Dr. Weir!"
Rodney shook his head quickly. "No! No, we can't!" he said. "Look." He rubbed his fingers over one eye, feeling suddenly infinitely weary, thinking he probably shouldn't have brought it up at all. "I'm sorry to get your hopes up. But, this is a, a back-up plan. In case the Wraith capture doesn't go so well." He knew his face was apologetic when he looked at her again. "I have no idea if it'll even work."
"I see," Teyla said. She looked away from him, down at the console. She sounded so disappointed that Rodney almost blurted out that he was kidding, that he really was certain it would work. Anything to make her eyes shine again.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Maybe, maybe I shouldn't have mentioned it."
"No," Teyla said. She shook her head, lifted her eyes to him again. She gave him a smile that was obviously forced, but welcome all the same. "You did nothing wrong. It is an excellent idea, to have a back-up plan."
"Yeah, well." Rodney waved a hand dismissively. "Like I said, it's a long-shot at best. It probably won't even work."
"Still," Teyla said, "it is a possible alternative, and that counts for much." She put her hand on his arm, squeezing with gentle warmth. "Thank you, Rodney."
Rodney nodded awkwardly. He never knew what to do when people thanked him--not when they really meant it. "Ah, you're welcome."
Teyla smiled again, and inclined her head. Then she inhaled deeply and her pleasant expression fell away like it had never existed. "Ronon and I may be gone several hours," she said. "Possibly days." She was looking steadily at Rodney. "I came here this morning because I want you to visit John in my absence."
The twist of fear in his gut wasn't anything new, but that didn't make it any easier to deal with. Rodney turned to the computer screen, set the search program in motion again, as much to have somewhere else to look as to continue his work. "Of course," he said, knowing that his voice was too thin, too tight, that his refusal to look at Teyla when he spoke only telegraphed the lie. "As soon as I get finished here."
"Rodney," Teyla said. She put her hand on his arm again, less gentle this time, pushing until he was forced to turn and see her. "It is not pleasant for any of us, to see him like this." Her voice was cutting, the more so because Rodney could still hear the compassion in it, and see the sympathy in Teyla's eyes. "I look at him and I see everyone I have ever loved who was taken by the Wraith. Ronon sees his failure to protect him, and I know it is eating up his soul. I do not know what it is you see when you look at John's face, but you must remember--it is John. He is still there, inside the old man he has become. And he needs us now more than he ever has." She let her hand slide down to Rodney's wrist, still holding him. Rodney was sure her grip was meant to be kind, encouraging, but all he could feel was trapped, like a boy in a white and grey room with the dead.
He swallowed, heart hammering so painfully it felt like he couldn't breathe. "He's sleeping most of the time," he said, too quietly, voice faltering like a child's. "He can't...he doesn't...."
"Rodney," Teyla said.
"I can't," Rodney said. There was sweat on his forehead; he wiped it away with the side of his hand. "You don't understand. You say it's still John, but...I mean, I know it is..." His chest was painful, his lungs failing to keep up with his terrified heart. "But I can't, Teyla! I can't go in there and see him like that and, and touch him and--" He cut himself off, realizing he was dangerously close to hyperventilating. He forced himself to gulp air, shaking his head mutely when Teyla tried to steer him towards a stool.
"I can't," he said again. His eyes were stinging, but he knew it wasn't sweat in them. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. But you don't understand."
He wasn't looking at Teyla. He couldn't. The humiliation was like a weight, pulling his head down, away from her. But he still knew when she purposely stepped back from him, how she was fighting to stay calm.
"I have been with people who are dying, Rodney," she said.
Rodney nodded: fast jerks of his chin. "I know," he said. "I know, and you're right, and I'm sorry. But that--it doesn't change anything. I can't go see him. I can't do it."
The data on the screen scrolled by, unhurried and unread, and Rodney cursed himself at how much information he'd missed. He froze the screen again by slapping at a crystal, wincing inwardly for how much time he'd lost, having to go back to where he last remembered reading.
"Rodney," Teyla said, and her voice held a note of command in it, enough that he turned back to her, startled at his own compliance. "You're right, I don't understand this. I don't understand why you are staying away from him now, when he needs you." She was determined now, even angry, and Rodney had to resist the urge to look away again. "But you must ask yourself this--what will you regret most, if he dies? Having to face what has happened to him? Or not saying goodbye?"
Rodney closed his eyes. "Don't do that," he said. "That's not...he's not going to die."
"As you say," Teyla said. She sounded like she didn't believe it any more than Rodney did. "He asks after you," she added softly. "Often. You name is the first one he mentions when he wakes."
"Oh, God," Rodney said. He didn't open his eyes.
"Go see him, Rodney," Teyla said.
Rodney pulled his head up with an effort. He blinked his eyes open, nodded.
"Yeah," he whispered. "Yeah, okay."
The isolation room was dimmer than he thought it would be, especially considering it was barely afternoon. But maybe it was just that the room seemed brighter when you weren't actually inside.
He was inside now, and it was probably his own fear that made it feel like he was creeping into a cave. The sound from the monitoring machines had been turned off, and the jagged line of John's heartbeat kept snatching Rodney's attention. It looked weak and somehow tentative, even to Rodney's inexpert eye, and he found himself waiting for each new spike of yellow with the terrified certainty that it wouldn't come.
One of Carson's assistants had been there when he entered, and she'd smiled at him behind her facemask, and her brown eyes were full of sympathy and resignation. She'd finished what she was doing--changing John's I.V., it looked like, though Rodney tried not to watch--then left them alone. Rodney was standing so near to the door that she had to duck around him to leave.
It was a long time before Rodney could make himself move from that spot. John was asleep again, of course, and the door could be opened so easily. Rodney could turn around and leave and no one but the pretty medical assistant would know he'd even been there. Teyla would ask, but he could lie. Rodney knew how to lie. Sometimes he was even good at it.
He swallowed, imagining the cool, open hallways, the relief of escaping this again, being trapped with nothing but his conscience. But he thought about what Teyla had asked him: What will you regret most, if he dies? And Rodney had insisted that John wouldn't die, but they both knew better. And Rodney knew exactly how very, very much he would regret.
There was a chair already placed next to John's bed, plastic and cold. Rodney sank down into it and looked at his friend, the man he might have fallen in love with, and what was left of him.
John looked the same as he had when they'd first found him, maybe a little worse: thinner, greyer, as if it was color and not life that was leeching out of him. He had an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, and Rodney could see that his lips were slack through the clear plastic, hear the quiet rush of air as John breathed.
Rodney sat with his shoulders hunched and his hands in his lap, clenched so tightly that it made his fingers hurt. His facemask itched. John's hands were palm-down on his stomach, and Rodney thought about taking the nearer one, how tightly he could hold it without giving John more bruises, but he didn't move.
He swallowed, cleared his throat, both hoping that John would wake and that he wouldn't. Teyla had said that John asked about him, but Rodney didn't know how much of that was true, and how much wishful thinking on Teyla's part or just John's own delusions. It was possible John didn't even know where he was, who he was speaking to. Rodney's grandfather hadn't.
Rodney could leave now, and he could tell Teyla he'd come to visit and mean it. Maybe she'd even leave him alone.
And he almost did it, almost stood, except that John shifted in his sleep, coughed, and then opened his eyes. And then John was looking right at him. The whites of his eyes had yellowed, but the brown and green of John's irises were exactly the same, and Rodney stared back and was so afraid that it was like his own heart had stopped.
John blinked at him slowly, as if dragging his mind back from a great distance, and then broke into a huge, beautiful smile behind his oxygen mask.
"Rodney," he said, with deep, obvious satisfaction. His voice had the wrong pitch, and it trembled. An old-man's voice, weak and thin. But at least he knew Rodney's name.
Rodney swallowed. He tried to smile back, hoping John would see it in his eyes, since his mouth was hidden with the mask covering it. He tried to speak through the terror that felt like lead, filling up his lungs. "Hi, Sheppard," he said. Too quietly, he knew, even before John's face screwed up, not hearing him. "Hi!" he said more loudly, falsely cheerful. The facemask made his voice strange and hollow.
John scowled. "Where the hell have you been?"
Rodney froze, knew his mouth was moving dumbly, stuttering over all the words crowding his brain, all the responses he could give that wouldn't be selfish, thoughtless, terrible. He had never wanted to hurt John, never intended to abandon him. But he knew he couldn't explain in a way John or anyone would understand.
Rodney finally settled on, "I've been finding a way to save you!" Automatically belligerent, the way he always got when he was frightened, but he knew it probably came out sounding far more pathetic than that.
John blinked again. He still looked angry, and somehow that was comforting. Rodney knew John's anger, was as familiar with it as his own. "Finding another Wraith was Ronon's idea," John said.
"Not that one!" Rodney snapped, defensive. "It's different. Something to try if the Wraith...thing doesn't work."
John's anger faded. His eyebrows arched, just as thick though now completely white. He looked interested, hopeful, exactly like himself. "What is it? An anti-aging device?"
Rodney tried not to look away. "Something like that," he said. He didn't want to talk about it, not where he might be overheard. "It's just, um, backup," he said.
"Backup...." John repeated, and for a moment Rodney thought John was going to call him on his vague answer, force him to admit exactly what he'd found, and why he hadn't already used it. And then he saw the emptiness slide into John's eyes.
"...John?" Rodney asked, voice hushed. One of his hands darted out automatically, nearly touched the back of John's pale, crinkled wrist before he yanked it back. "Are you...are you all right?" But John only blinked at him, not answering. It was as if his soul had been pushed away, replaced with nothing.
"John?" Rodney gritted his teeth and touched John's shoulder. "Are you all right?" He almost laughed at the absurdity of the question, swallowing back the tight hysteria bubbling into his mouth. As if there was any way at all John could possibly be all right.
Rodney jostled John's shoulder so minutely that it was nothing more than rubbing the cloth of John's hospital gown, but it might have done something anyway, because he saw, numb with relief, as John's awareness slowly seeped back, animating John's face again.
"Hey, buddy," John said distantly. "Could you do me a favor? Get this weight off my stomach?"
Rodney blinked, confused. "You don't have--Oh," he finished softly. "Of course." Then he had to steel himself again before he gently lifted John's hands, one at a time, and placed them at his sides. John's skin felt overly-soft and cool, just like Rodney remembered, but he just clenched his jaw harder and kept his hand wrapped around John's closer one, thinking of Teyla, and regret. He didn't know if John could feel it.
"Thanks," John sighed in contentment. "I missed you," he said.
"I'm sorry," Rodney said. He felt sick. He could see the vagueness in John's face, and he wasn't even sure John knew who he was anymore. Rodney couldn't stand to think about that, so he ignored it, pretended there was nothing but bright recognition in John's eyes. "I miss you, too," he said, and he didn't know if that was ever going to stop.
"S'okay," John said, and then for a long time there was nothing but the sound of the oxygen, feeding into John's failing lungs, while Rodney desperately searched for something to say that wasn't, 'I'm sorry,' over and over and over again. Sorry I didn't understand you, in the clearing. Sorry I didn't stop Ronon. Sorry I'm too much of a coward to have come before. Sorry for everything.
"Is Rodney coming?" John asked suddenly. He sounded lost.
Rodney fought back a rush of nausea so strong he had to clamp his hand over his mouth, pressing the mask against his lips. He swallowed convulsively until he felt more-or-less in control. "I'm here, John," he said. "I'm holding your hand. I'm right here."
John's hand twitched. He looked faintly puzzled. "I can't see you," he said.
"What?" Rodney asked, gaping. He was blind? But no one had told him that. And John had been looking at him, just moments ago. Rodney stood, making the chair screech as his legs shoved it back. He waved his free hand in front of John's eyes, but they didn't track, and John didn't blink, just staring. "John?" Rodney said, when John didn't answer him. He squeezed John's hand, which was lax in his, like a weight, but John didn't respond. "John?" Rodney snapped his fingers in front of John's eyes. It was all he could do not to shake John, not to scream.
John said something, or tried to, but his mouth had gone slack and whatever spilled over his lips didn't sound like words at all.
The yellow blip on the heart monitor stumbled once, twice, then flattened into a thick, unchanging line.
Rodney screamed John's name, started chest compressions, his body working automatically through the panic. It felt like he were underwater, or in a nightmare, where everything goes too slowly and you can't run, can't move, can't do anything to escape the monster behind you. But the monster was already here.
He didn't even notice Carson and his team in the room until someone grabbed him, pulled him away, shouted at him until Rodney could hear it that it was all right, John's heart was beating again. He was alive. He was still alive.
They had almost had sex, once. Would have, if Rodney hadn't stopped it. It was after that asshole Lucius Luvin had been kicked out of the city, and everyone had been given the antidote to his charm. Everyone except John Sheppard, because he hadn't needed it.
And Rodney had felt humiliated at how he'd fawned all over Lucius, and pissed-off because John had left him alone in an enthralled city while he went off-world, and John was so smugly superior in the aftermath, mocking everyone for their false infatuation as if he hadn't been spared because he'd simply had a cold.
So, Rodney drank some of Lucius' herb potion himself. Just a little bit. Just enough so that his next conversation with John finished with the Colonel being happily willing to do anything for him. Rodney had told himself it was just to give John a taste of his own medicine.
But he hadn't thought about what the 'anything' meant, not really. Not until Rodney was alone with John in his room, admiring how well John had cleaned it for him. Rodney had seen the joy in John's eyes at the compliment, seen the way John had smiled at him, as if Rodney were everything, and Rodney had the sudden, stunning realization that if he just asked, just suggested it....
John would do anything for him. Anything, and Rodney made some stupid excuse to leave and all but ran to the infirmary, demanded that Carson give him the cure for the herb again. And then told him to give it to John.
And then Rodney had gone to the pier farthest from the main part of the city, and sat there on the edge for a long time, with his feet dangling over the water. And he thought about how badly he wanted John, so badly that he'd almost asked, back there in his quarters. Because John wouldn't have refused him.
But John didn't want him, Rodney knew that. And using a drug to make John think that he did was tantamount to rape.
Rodney supposed it said something about his character--something good, maybe--that he hadn't done it. But that didn't mitigate how he'd drunk some of the herb in the first place, knowing exactly what it would do. And for the first time he wondered how John could ever forgive him for this, especially after Doranda, when Rodney had already betrayed John's trust so badly once.
And it was there, sitting on the pier and staring out at the endless, lonely blue of the sky, that Rodney finally admitted to himself that the herb hadn't been about a taste of John's own medicine, or curiosity, despite what he'd told Elizabeth, or even revenge.
No. None of that. For a little while, John had been his. Not for real, not even knowingly, but his all the same.
"He's had a massive hemorrhagic stroke," Carson said. He gestured at his head, moving his palm back and forth over the crown, as if that could possibly mean anything. "I don't know if this was a birth defect that was exacerbated by the sudden aging, or a by-product of the Wraith's attack itself, but one of the blood vessels in his brain ruptured, causing extensive damage." Carson dropped his hand, shaking his head a little. He looked sick with defeat, beaten. He let out a heavy breath. "He's in a coma, and we had to resuscitate him, as you know." Carson said that part to Rodney, who barely nodded. His attention was mostly fixed on John, down in the isolation room. He was on a ventilator now. The Velcro-covered cloth holding it in place was a slash of bright blue over his mouth, incongruous next to the white of his hair, the grey of his skin.
"What's his prognosis?" Elizabeth asked. Her voice was as tight as her body, her thin arms crossed rigidly over her chest. Rodney wondered if she'd snap, imagining a brief spatter of guilt and blood. This is your fault, he thought, but there wasn't any satisfaction in it.
Carson rubbed his eyes with his fingers. "It's bad," he said quietly. "Even if I thought a Wraith might still be able to reverse this, he's far too fragile to be taken out of the infirmary." He took another breath, as if steeling himself. "The truth of the matter is, he's dying. And there's not a damned thing I can do about it."
"So we'll bring the Wraith here anyway," Ronon said, as belligerent as ever, as if all he had to do was bully Carson enough and it would mean John will be all right. Ronon turned to Elizabeth. "We'll bring the Wraith here. It could still work."
Elizabeth just shook her head mutely, looking like each movement hurt. "My decision still stands," she said, and Rodney could hear how much each word cost her as it scraped out of her throat. Not that he cared.
"I'm afraid that I really don't even think having a Wraith restore his life to him would make a difference at this point," Carson said to Ronon. Rodney glanced at him, saw the layer of red in his eyes, knew it came from both exhaustion and unshed tears. Carson was always unabashedly emotional. Rodney clenched his jaw a little harder. "All the damage that's been done since...since the Wraith had him, is a by-product, not a direct result. Making his organs younger would help, aye, but it would only ensure--possibly ensure--that he wouldn't have another stroke. It wouldn't heal the injury that's already been done to his brain."
"You don't know that," Ronon ground out.
"Of course he does," Rodney snapped. It felt automatic, somehow. He wasn't really angry. Down below John slept. Rodney wondered if he was dreaming, hoped he wasn't. "Nothing's going to fix this. Unless we find some way of healing him, it's over. He's gone.
"He's already gone," Rodney added a moment later, when his words had tumbled into the stunned, anguished silence.
"He's still alive," Ronon snarled. "I'm not going to give up on him."
"No one is giving up on the Colonel, Ronon," Teyla said, as if saying it out loud made it actually true, when Carson had all but told them that they were just marking time. And even Teyla had the carefully calm expression of someone who was too familiar with this kind of pain.
Nobody gives up in Atlantis, Rodney thought with a viciousness that surprised him, especially given what he knew he was going to do now.
"We've done all we can," Carson said. He took another breath, like even getting out the words was an effort. Rodney tried not to resent him for it. He knew, intellectually, that they all had to be as devastated by this as he was. He didn't have any more right than they did to the grief gutting him. "But...." Carson shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said at last, to all of them. "I wish I had something better to tell you."
"The Daedalus is due to leave the Milky Way soon," Elizabeth said quickly. "I can request that they bring Colonel Carter, or Vala Mal Doran here with a Goa'uld healing device."
It was a brilliant suggestion. Rodney had already thought of it himself and dismissed it, but he turned towards Carson anyway, wondering what he was going to say.
"You don't understand," Carson said with terrible gentleness. He pointed down into the isolation room, at the machines currently keeping John alive. "He's clinically brain dead, Elizabeth. Without the respirator, he wouldn't be breathing. And his organs are failing rapidly now. He's got days, at best." He shook his head. "I don't think he'll live long enough for the Daedalus to arrive." He sighed. "And before you ask, yes, putting him in stasis would surely kill him now."
"So that's it, then?" Ronon demanded. "You're just giving up?"
"Ronon," Elizabeth said warningly.
Ronon glared at her, then turned and stalked away.
Elizabeth took a long, silent breath. "Thank you, Carson," she said.
He nodded dully. "I should get back to my patient," he said. No one stopped him from leaving.
"You should think about saying goodbye," Elizabeth said, once Carson had left.
Rodney turned away from the glass finally. "I've got work to do," he said, and left the way Ronon had, with Elizabeth staring after him.
He was almost at the nearest transporter when he heard Teyla calling his name, running towards. "Rodney! Rodney!"
He stopped, waiting for her. "Is this the back-up plan?" she asked him when they were close enough that she could keep her voice lowered. She wasn't panting.
Rodney nodded. "Yes," he said. He had his hands in his jacket pockets so she wouldn't see them shaking.
"Will it work?" Teyla asked.
Rodney thought about lying, but there was no point. It wasn't as if he wouldn't do it anyway. "I don't know."
Teyla nodded slowly, thinking. She took in his face, his body, and Rodney wondered what she could see there, how much he telegraphed. "Is it dangerous?" she asked him.
"Yes," he said. It was probably going to kill him; he knew that much.
"I see," Teyla said soberly. "Can I help?"
"No," Rodney said. "But thank you." He didn't smile--he couldn't--but she smiled for him so it didn't matter. It was wan, and strangely old in her unlined face, and infinitely sad. But it warmed him a little, and Rodney was grateful for it.
He took another step towards the transporter, then paused. He turned. Teyla was still standing quietly, waiting for him.
"Actually," he said slowly, "you probably can help me. Later."
She inclined her head in that solemnly graceful way she had. "I will be happy to do so."
Rodney didn't really think she would, but now definitely wasn't the time to talk about it.
In the end it was almost hilariously anticlimactic, except for the small explosions. He stood next to the console, pressed a button, and a light came down from the ceiling and twined around him like a persistent cat. That was it. He'd actually been expecting robotic arms to snap out of the wall and grab his head, then bright lights and excruciating pain. The entire room had apparently shorted out afterwards, but that didn't matter. It had worked.
Rodney took a huge, heaving breath. At least, he thought it had worked. He wasn't dead, anyway. That was something.
He carefully flexed his fingers at his sides, noticing absently that they were trembling. He couldn't tell if it had started changing him yet, or how long it would take until it did. He really hoped it wouldn't hurt, though he supposed there was no way he'd be able to escape that, later on.
He swallowed. Best not to think about it. Think about John. John, who only had days to live, if that. Rodney would...Rodney would figure out something to save himself afterwards, or he wouldn't. That was all. Dwelling on the ramifications of what he'd just done to himself it wouldn't do either of them any good.
All the same, he couldn't escape the irony that for the moment, he and John had approximately the same life expectancy. He wondered if that insight meant the machine was working, or if the morbid humor was all his own.
Rodney never knew if John ever actually forgave him for drinking the herbs or not, but it was John who grabbed Rodney after that stupid kid had shot an arrow into his ass, and John who had half-carried him all the way to the gate. And later it was John who came to check on him when the Marines had managed to get John and Teyla back from the stupid, insane villagers. And John had joked with him, and encouraged him in his search for Ronon, and for the first time in months Rodney felt like he could really breathe again.
They rescued Ronon as well, of course, and things went on as they normally did--careening from one disaster to another with nothing but John's insane ideas and his own brilliance to save them. Once in a while it was even possible for Rodney to forget how he felt: that horrible, unassuaged wanting, like a hole inside that could never be filled. And once in a while Rodney looked at John in a soft, unguarded moment, and it felt as if the wanting would consume him. Those were the times he tried hardest to avoid John's eyes, for fear of what John would find if he looked back at him.
Sometimes, though, when he looked at John, he saw--he thought he saw--the same want reflected on John's face. But it was always gone so quickly Rodney was mostly certain he'd never seen it at all. And he never asked, and John never told him.
It wasn't quite so hard to go into the isolation room, this time.
The same nurse was there, smiling sweetly at him, cheeks curved around her facemask, and Rodney was grateful for the shields he'd put up around his mind, because she looked so sad he didn't want to know what she was thinking.
It had been less than a day since Rodney had gone to the deserted lab and used the machine to accelerate his physiology, and he scarcely felt human anymore. Part of that, he supposed--no he knew; it felt like he knew everything--was due to his meditation with Teyla. He'd sped up the process until he could barely speak, his mind so full of images and equations and ideas and knowledge (beautiful, so beautiful), that he couldn't articulate any of it. And the slow, plodding mental grinding of the ordinary people around him was almost more than he could bear.
He was quite aware that he was dying, could feel his lower brain shutting down molecule by molecule, crushed as his mind was soaring, and he didn't want to die but he'd accepted it. It didn't frighten him so much anymore.
He was so tired of being frightened.
So he wasn't terrified anymore, as he walked the rest of the way to John's bed. He didn't need the monitor to know how John's heart was faltering, since he could hear it through the brittle walls of his chest, just like he could hear his labored breathing, or the weak, dangerous fluttering of his pulse. He could predict to the nanosecond exactly how little time John had left to live.
But he could do something about it, now.
Rodney gently slid his palms around the sides of John's face, until he was holding John's head in his hands, looking at the withered skin of his closed eyelids. John didn't move, and Rodney pulled his mental shields in tighter. He didn't want to accidentally read John's mind, and find it blank and lifeless as an empty room.
With a thought Rodney shut off the ventilator, then gently pulled the tubes from John's throat and tossed them across the room. John didn't react to any of it.
Then, "Okay," Rodney said softly. "Okay, here we go." He closed his eyes, and thought about how much he wanted John alive, strong, healed. He thought about John's mocking smiles and his infrequent real ones, and John's laugh and the power in his body, and the fierce, wild intelligence behind his guarded eyes. Rodney thought about how much he loved this man, how he would die for him--not gladly, not willingly, but without question. How he was dying for him, and how it didn't matter, so long as John did not.
And then, finally, he felt John move. And when Rodney opened his eyes, John was looking into them.
He coughed, raising his head. "Rodney?" He lifted a hand and rubbed his face--golden-skinned, faintly lined, the way it had always been--and blinked eyes that were confused but fully aware. John sat up, easy and strong, and Rodney moved back, suddenly feeling awkward and oddly ashamed, as if he'd been caught doing something unspeakable.
John absently plucked the leads from his temples, looking at them curiously before he dropped them on the floor. He grimaced when he saw the I.V. catheter in his arm, then ran his hand down the front of his hospital gown, feeling the leads for the heart monitor stuck to his chest. "Rodney?" he asked again. "What happened? I remember, I--"
And that's when Carson rushed in, and Rodney was forced to explain.
They were too busy with John to notice him slipping out of the room.
Rodney had no problem with that. Later, he knew, hopefully a long time later, he'd have to explain what he'd done, and how, and what it meant. They would probably be angry with him.
Rodney could live with that--and then half-way to his quarters he bent over laughing, because he wouldn't be living with anything anymore. He wouldn't be alive.
And then he fell to his knees, shoulder to the solid flank of the city, and quietly came apart. Not dying, not yet, but feeling like he was all the same. Trembling on his knees like an old man, face clenched and red as he sobbed like the boy he had never really been. All-too aware of his brittle mortality, and what he had accomplished, and what it had cost him. And that John was alive. He was alive.
Rodney was lying on his back on the floor in John's quarters. He had his eyes closed, trying to meditate. The smell of the candle wax permeated the room, making Rodney think of formal dinners with his parents, or going to church with his grandmother. He hated those memories, but John had got the candles for him, to help him, so Rodney didn't say anything.
It was incredibly hard to relax.
The headband from the machine he'd stupidly called the 'Ascend-o-Meter' itched, and his back hurt from the floor, and Rodney wished he had just sprawled on John's bed in the first place. But John was sitting there: young and vital and inviolate, lean lines and long grace and as perfect as he had ever been...and Rodney couldn't. He just couldn't.
"You need to relax, Rodney," John said. His voice had never been beautiful, but it was his, again. Young, real. The way it was supposed to be.
Rodney snapped his eyes open.
John sighed. He rubbed over one eye with the fingers of his hand. "You need to try, Rodney."
"I am trying!" Rodney protested. He sat up, back creaking with it, and glanced at the monitor on the machine. Still too high. Always too high.
"The number isn't important," John said. He sounded tired, exasperated. But Rodney had perfect hearing now, and he didn't miss the fear there, in John's voice.
"I don't think this is going to work," Rodney said. He pulled the headband off to twist it in his hands. "Look." He pulled in a breath, tried not to think about it, how very few were left to him. "I think, in the grand scheme of things, we're...we're good, aren't we?" He made himself look up at John's face.
John looked started, almost horrified. "Of course," he said, like there could be no other answer, and Rodney was grateful for it.
"Right." Rodney smiled, tentative. "So...you're not angry anymore?"
"What?" John's surprise changed almost instantly, darkening. "Yeah, I'm still angry! I'm incredibly angry! I'm angry that Kolya caught me with a God-damned harpoon gun! I'm angry that Ronon didn't know the Wraith was helping me! And yeah." He clenched his fists, glowering down at Rodney. "I'm pretty fucking angry that my friend threw his life away to save me!" But the redness in John's eyes wasn't anger at all.
"Jesus, Rodney," he said a moment later, softly now. He put his face in his hands. "Why'd you have to go and do that? What the hell were you thinking?"
"I was thinking it was the only way to save you!" Rodney said, not for the first time. They'd been circling this like snarling dogs. "And it was worth it, all right? I mean, I don't want to die--I really don't want to die--but it was worth it."
John dropped his hands so that his arms dangled down between his knees. He didn't lift his head. "Fuck you," he said, no heat in it. "It wasn't."
Rodney took another breath. It felt a little like he was rationing them. "I really don't think you get it," he said. "I knew what was going to happen, okay? I stepped up to the machine, and I turned it on, and I knew it was most likely going to end up just like this, with me trying and failing miserably to Ascend before it kills me."
"You made it to seventeen Herz," John said dully.
"--Which is not nearly low enough," Rodney snapped. "Are you listening? Because unlike you, some of us don't have an incredible luxury of time, here."
John didn't say anything.
"Fine," Rodney huffed. "The thing is...." He hesitated, because John had said 'I don't want this', and because John was still angry at him, and had so many, many reasons to be angry at him. But Elizabeth had told him to do this, in so many words, when she'd asked him to try Ascending. She'd said that he had to make peace with himself, that this was one of his burdens, like fear. And he didn't want to carry it around anymore.
"The thing is," he began again, more strongly, but he kept his eyes on the headband he was turning gently in his hands. It felt safer. "The thing is, I'm in love with you. I think I have been for a long time."
John raised his head. Rodney could see it out of the corner of his eye, but he didn't look at him.
"So, I'm in love with you," Rodney repeated. "And I couldn't take seeing you like that, when you were old and sick because of what the Wraith did to you, because.... Well, it's complicated. But I couldn't take it, couldn't stand it, knowing you were dying like that. So I had to do it, to bring you back."
John was silent for so long that Rodney finally forced himself to look up.
"I'm sorry," Rodney said, because John's face was blank, schooled so carefully it indicated nothing. "I know you don't want...that you didn't want to know that. I'm sorry."
"No," John said. His voice creaked, and he swallowed. His eyes were still red. He blinked, like they were hurting him. "No, it's all right." He sniffed like a little kid, rubbed the edge of one eye with the heel of his hand. "I mean, I do want it. This. I want this." The sound he made was only a little bit like a laugh. "It's just...this is a hell of a time to tell me."
Rodney's smirk didn't sound much better. "Yeah, well. Releasing my burdens, and all that."
"Come here," John said.
John held out his hand, and Rodney took it, and then he was on his back on the bed and it was so much better than the floor. And John kissed him: light, sweet, and so full of denial for what would happen that Rodney could taste it, and the sadness flowing underneath, like silver on his tongue. And oh, God, he hadn't wanted to die so soon, hadn't wanted to die at all, but it could happen like this. This would be okay.
And then the pain started.
He fell unconscious with John calling his name.
"Rodney, you're a good person," Elizabeth said, before he died and came back. "Know that we love you."
"You love me? Really?" Rodney asked. "All of you?"
And John said, "In a way a friend feels about another friend."
But Rodney already knew John's answer.