Prompt: #026 Teammates
Word Count: 4,410
Rating: PG-13 for angst
Warning: Character death
Spoilers: Home, Lifeline/Adrift, Outcast
Summary: 'They say Eskimos have a hundred words for snow...'
John looked around the apartment; it was almost exactly like the one from the fake Earth except that the fridge wasn't stocked with beer - a flaw he intended to fix as soon as possible.
It had everything he could possibly want. Flat-screen plasma TV, brand new computer, leather couch, football memorabilia, fully out-fitted kitchen, even a jacuzzi tub.
A thank you present, they said, for all your years of hard work.
He swallowed over the knot in the back of his throat, and ran his hand across the buttery black leather. It felt real enough.
His cell phone rang.
'My apartment is too big,' complained Rodney. John's heart beat a little faster; he'd missed that voice. 'I can't find anything. It echoes. I could fit my entire lab back home in here.'
Back home. Of course Rodney still thought that way. He didn't know. John was the one who had to live with a broken heart.
'Sheppard? John? You there?'
John said, 'You want to move in with me?'
The first time John brought a woman home was uncomfortable, mostly because he didn't know he was going to bring her home until he did, and he didn't call to warn Rodney about it because he wasn't used to having a roommate and didn't know he was supposed to.
When John and the woman he'd met in Home Depot (where she mistook him for an employee and asked him where the screwdrivers were) walked into the apartment, they found Rodney lounging on the sofa in blue striped boxers, scrawling across physics papers with a red pen while Monty Python and the Holy Grail played in the background.
Rodney had promptly turned a shade of raspberry, threw his papers in the air and grabbed for a blanket.
John just sort of smacked himself in the face and introduced them. The woman took it in stride, was very polite. Desperate as he was to take his mind off Atlantis, he slept with her, though John felt incredibly self-conscious, like Rodney was listening through the wall. It was possibly the worst sex he'd ever had.
Later, after the woman had gone home (without waiting for a breakfast invitation), when John and Rodney were sitting side-by-side on the couch, bodies tensed like springs, John said:
'You know, I think all those years in Pegasus damaged my sex drive.'
Rodney snorted, but his muscles relaxed. 'Sure.'
'No, I mean it,' said John, like a lightbulb went off over his head. 'In the movies, the threat of impending death always makes people horny, but it just made me tired. I think I'm done with sex. Too much effort to find somebody to connect with.'
Rodney was quiet, and there was a hint of blush to his cheeks. John thought that the price of celibacy was worth it.
He expected Rodney to call him names, or start the litany of his past conquests. Then Rodney said, 'Well. More for me then. With you out of the picture I might stand a chance.'
John tried to smile.
The first time Rodney brought a woman back to the apartment, John wasn't there. He figured that the number of times Rodney mentioned having a date with one of his coworkers was his way of hinting to John that he hoped to get lucky.
So John went to a bar, and thought about calling Mitchell for a night of football on ESPN or women in bikinis, and then remembered he couldn't see anyone from the SGC. He was cut off - and he had no one to blame but himself.
By the time he got home it was three a.m. and he figured that he'd given Rodney plenty of time to score, so it was something of a surprise to find Rodney sleeping on the couch with his laptop open on the coffee table. His desktop wallpaper was from Batman.
John smiled at the picture - so familiar even in the foreign setting - and nudged Rodney awake. He would have let the scientist sleep, but knew from experience Rodney woke up cranky if he wasn't sleeping on his prescription mattress. Of course, Rodney woke up cranky most mornings, but at least he didn't yell at John about sciatica if he slept in his own bed.
'Hey, buddy,' said John when Rodney yawned and covered his mouth with a fist. 'What happened to Dr. Wainscott?'
'I couldn't...' Rodney looked both embarrassed and miserable. 'I couldn't do it.'
Then he added, with slightly more of his usual attitude, 'I was waiting for you. Where have you been?'
'Giving you space,' John replied, perched on the edge of the sofa. 'What do you mean you couldn't do it? Did she have an STD or something?'
'No, of course not, you think I don't screen my dates? I mean I couldn't...you know...' Rodney rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and John suddenly got the picture. He tried very hard not to laugh, but his shoulders were shaking, and Rodney's blue eyes narrowed.
'God damn you, Sheppard,' said Rodney, covering his face with his hands. John pulled them away.
'I'm sorry, really. What went wrong?'
Rodney blinked. He still looked sleepy, and grumpy, like a bear someone woke in the middle of hibernation. 'You, of course.'
'Me? What did I do?'
Gesturing around the room, Rodney said, 'All of this is yours. Your couch, your TV, your apartment. It just felt...strange.'
'You live here too, McKay,' John pointed out, unable to see the problem. 'Have your own room and everything.'
'I know.' Rodney scowled. 'I didn't say it was logical. Look, it's just not the same. I can't have sex in this apartment, it's creepy.'
'Having sex surrounded by your stuff!'
'So what are you saying?' The lump in his throat, the one that had started to shrink the day Rodney moved in, was suddenly back full force. 'You want to move out?'
Rodney looked as horrified by the suggestion as John felt. 'No! I just think we should make contingency plans for sex. Like, in the future, we don't have it in the apartment. I mean, if it happens to happen in the apartment, that's fine, because it would be pretty awkward to have to stop in the middle and say, "Let's take this outside."'
'Rodney,' John interrupted, disturbed on many levels, 'enough. If you don't want to bring women here to sleep with them, I really don't care. Do what you want to do.'
Somehow, even though it was probably the least comforting thing John had ever said, Rodney looked mollified. He got off the couch and went to sleep in his own room. John just shook his head.
They didn't talk about it again, and John noticed that once Rodney got a girlfriend, a petite nurse named Deirdre, he ended up making breakfast for three a lot.
At first after he gave up sex, John thought about it every second. He wasn't missing it, exactly, but he wondered why he didn't. Until about his second year in Atlantis, he had a healthy, normal sex drive. Then staying alive became more important than getting laid, and pretty soon he'd gone months without it. When he came back to Earth he had his hormone levels tested, just as a part of a routine physical, but the doctor didn't find anything wrong with him.
After a year he stopped thinking about it, right around the time he enrolled in a graduate program at Stanford for Aerospace Engineering. Rodney talked him into it, though he didn't really need much convincing, and it turned out to be plenty of work since his math skills were at least ten years out of date.
Rodney, despite his own busy lecturing schedule, became his in-home tutor, and they spent most weeknights at the dining room table, strewn with pizza boxes and beer bottles, heads bent over books while Rodney thought up demonically hard pop quizzes and John tried to keep his brains from leaking out of his ears.
'I'm too dumb for this,' said John, taking a face plant in one of the largest and heaviest text books.
'Don't be an idiot,' said Rodney automatically. John grinned into the pages. He loved it when Rodney contradicted himself.
'I'm about twenty-five years older than the average student,' John pointed out, lifting his head, watching as Rodney frowned and made another 'x' on the paper. 'My old brain can't process things like theirs can.'
'Your "old brain" qualified for MENSA, or so you like to tell me,' said Rodney, and John could tell he was multi-tasking. His voice sounded distant when he was both arguing out loud and cutting John's work to shreds. 'Geez, you're usually not so self-effacing. It's annoying.'
John rolled his eyes. 'Excuse me, Mr. Fantastic. I have a midterm tomorrow and I need to pass if I want to continue in the program.'
He sighed and put his head on his arms. 'How's Deirdre?'
'Huh? Fine,' Rodney replied without looking up. 'Don't change the subject. You're never going to pass astronomy if you keep insisting Pluto is a planet.'
They had been living in the same apartment for five years when John got the call that Rodney was in the hospital. It had been so long since either one of them was hospitalized that John forgot how much he worried, how many times he went through the list of Rodney's allergies, how many times he checked his car for a medical field kit.
He thought, This isn't supposed to happen, not here. That was the deal.
When he got to the hospital, Deirdre, in her uniform, was waiting for him at the nurse's station on Rodney's floor.
'What happened?' John asked. He didn't even realize that his hands were clenched into fists. He wanted someone to punish.
Deirdre noticed, and she was angry. 'A car accident. Some idiot ran a red light.'
John was too busy with his own emotions, which were exploding like fireworks, to notice hers. Car crash, that was code for system malfunction. 'Is he all right?'
Her lips were pressed together so tightly they went white. 'They won't let me see him. He's not my patient and I'm not a relative. You're listed as his emergency contact.'
Finally John realized Deirdre was pissed - and for good reason. She and Rodney had been dating for almost four years.
'It's just because we're roommates, D,' he said, though he knew she wasn't going to be placated. One reason Deirdre had lasted so long was that she was kind of a bitch.
'Just go see him, John,' she said, and she looked so unhappy that John felt guilty.
He was still glad he was the only one who got to see Rodney.
How many times had he seen his best friend hooked up to machines? It tore him up inside in a way no weapon ever could. The last time, with the ventilator, and the Ancient version of a hyperbolic chamber, and the agonizing debate over the use of nanites...
Rodney's eyes fluttered open. They were unfocused, his pupils dilated. 'John?'
'I'm here, buddy.' John took his hand, carefully avoiding the IV, and gave it a squeeze. Once, even that much had been awkward because John never knew how to give or receive physical comfort. But they had all worn down his barriers with time and patience. Rodney, Teyla, even Ronon. He'd give anything to feel them again.
'What happened?' Rodney rasped. 'Hurts.'
'Deirdre said it was car accident. The doc wouldn't give her any details because she's not family. She said I'm your emergency contact.'
John didn't think it was possible, under all those wires and all that medication, for Rodney to blush, but he sure gave it a try.
'Yeah, well, in the event that I'm unable to make my own judgments where my medical care is concerned, I gave you power of attorney...'
John spared him the trouble of trying to justify himself. 'Rodney, you've been mine since day one.'
Despite the bruising and the puffiness, Rodney's smile told John everything would be okay, and he went to ask the doctors when it would be alright to take the patient home.
John stared into the mirror. When did he get so old? There were so many lines in his face, so much grey in his hair, though it still stuck up at odd angles. He was fairly fit for a man of his age, but every single scar seemed to shine white in the mirror. He turned, trying to examine his torso from the back.
'When was the last time you had sex?'
John jumped. Rodney was standing in the bathroom doorway, looking upset about something, God knew what.
'A long, long time ago,' John replied, once his heart rate returned to normal.
'And you don't miss it?'
John looked over his shoulder. 'No.'
It was strange. He knew it was strange. Women just didn't hold any interest for him anymore, though there was no shortage of them trying to get into his pants. Learning how to build airplanes, now that got his attention. Sometimes he wondered if he was punishing himself - but thought there were much better ways to go about it.
'What's with the twenty questions, Rodney?'
Sighing, Rodney said, 'I just broke up with Deirdre, so I'm probably not going to have sex for a very long time.'
He took another step into the bathroom, invading John's personal space without a a second thought.
'Don't you ever just want to be close to somebody?' asked Rodney, with a sort of hopelessness that made John's chest ache.
John turned, and leaned against the sink, tilting his head to the side. 'I am.'
It took a minute for the meaning to sink in, but when it did, Rodney smiled.
When John finally got his Masters, Rodney was in the front row at his commencement. He clapped the loudest, and even managed an impressive whistle.
After the ceremony, several of John's classmates asked if Rodney was his boyfriend.
John smiled and said, 'We're more like the Odd Couple.'
To which they said, 'The what?'
Then Rodney came up, a force of nature, scattering the television neophytes, and John really beamed. He felt a little guilty because the Masters had been self-indulgence, but it was hard to feel bad about it when Rodney was so proud of him, even if he was trying to take the credit.
Later, back at the apartment, Rodney made John close his eyes and stand in the middle of the living room. When John was given permission to open them, a brand-new telescope was standing there, tied with a red ribbon.
'It's the best I could get from a civilian store,' said Rodney, sounding nervous. 'It's not as powerful as I'd like, though I've made some adjustments. And, of course, the sky isn't very clear from here, but I thought maybe we could take it up in the mountains sometime, you know, if you wanted. Um, happy graduation.'
John drank it in, all sleek and white, the key to the mysteries of the universe. It wasn't a Stargate, or a spaceship, or Atlantis, but John knew that Rodney had gone to a lot of trouble to put those days behind him, that this was a gift from the heart.
'It's perfect,' said John.
When Sam showed up at his door, John was floored. He hadn't seen anyone from the old days in years. He hadn't laid eyes on Sam Carter since the day he left Atlantis. She looked exactly the same, except she wasn't in uniform.
'We need you, John,' she said. Her face didn't match her words. She seemed sorry that she had to be there. 'Please come back.'
It was the 'please' more than anything that nearly broke him.
'What about Rodney?' He hoped, he prayed.
Sam just shook her head. 'I'm sorry.'
John knew it was a long shot. 'Then I'm sorry too, but you know what my answer is.'
Sam wasn't surprised, or disappointed, or angry. She knew.
'Do you want to see him?' John asked, because Sam and Rodney were many things to each other, and at one point they were friends.
'I better not,' she said. Without warning, she wrapped John in a hug. Caught off guard, as usual, he didn't know what to do with his hands, and by the time he had an idea, she had let go. 'Good luck.'
Sam disappeared. John didn't mention the visit to Rodney.
They were on their way to a movie when Rodney had his first heart attack. The world dropped out from under John.
I'm losing him.
He sat by Rodney's bed all night long, feeling the weight of Deja vu sitting on his shoulders. He'd left Atlantis to escape this. He didn't want any more waiting.
To his surprise, Deirdre was on duty that night. She came in while Rodney was sleeping, normal sleep, thankfully, and brought John a pillow.
'Have you told him yet?' she asked, while they both watched his chest rise and fall.
'Told him what?'
'That you love him. Wasn't that the whole point?'
John looked at Rodney, looked at the way his mouth frowned even when he was asleep, looked at his long lashes, his receding hairline, and said, 'I think he already knows.'
Deirdre just shrugged. 'He might like to hear it anyway.'
When John took Rodney home, and helped him into bed, John took off his shoes and slid in next to him. Rodney looked surprised at first, and John was stiff, but once they wriggled around a bit, and John turned on the TV, they both relaxed, and Rodney let his head fall on John's shoulder.
It was enough for John.
Rodney slowly got better, and even let John take him hiking after his doctor said he needed regular exercise. On sabbatical from work, he didn't really have an excuse, especially when John said they'd go at night to look at the stars.
'You know, it gets harder to remember why we left,' said Rodney when they were sitting on a green fleece blanket, necks craned at odd angles. Even though they both knew it was too far away, they liked to pretend they could see the planets they'd visited.
John said nothing. He would never forget, even if sometimes he let himself get distracted.
'I miss them,' sighed Rodney, pressing up against John without any self-consciousness. 'Teyla and Ronon most. And I know we said we'd never communicate with the SGC bastards again, but sometimes I wish I knew what Carter and Zelenka were up to.'
'Busy being brilliant, I suppose,' said John, concentrating especially hard on Orion's belt.
'Sam maybe, but Zelenka? He's probably trying to breed a faster carrier pigeon.'
John put one arm across Rodney's chest, and thought that maybe, if he stayed perfectly still, the night would go on forever.
'Check,' said John, moving his bishop. Rodney scowled at the chessboard.
They were in the park, surrounded by other chess fiends, and John was kicking Rodney's ass.
'That move is illegal in four states,' said Rodney, eyeing the board for his next move.
'Talk is cheap, McKay,' said John.
He never, ever, in a million years, would have pictured himself as one of those old men who sat in the park playing chess until Judgement Day. He also never thought that he'd be the kind of man who enjoyed the peace and serenity.
'Aha!' shouted Rodney, sweeping aside one of John's rooks. 'Gotcha!'
Well, the weather was nice anyway.
Suddenly Rodney froze, grabbing his arm, then his chest. John practically flew off the stone bench to his side.
'Rodney? Rodney, what's the matter? Talk to me?'
Through lips already turning purple, Rodney gasped, 'Can't...breathe.'
People had gathered, several had their cell phones out. John shouted, 'Call 911!' He would remember the birds that scattered into the air, and the smell of hotdogs from the garbage can near where Rodney lay.
'Hang in there, buddy, just hold on, you can't leave me yet.'
Then Rodney went still. And after a minute, John disappeared.
The lid to the virtual reality pod lifted away, and John blinked against the sudden glare. Hands were on his shoulders, and a familiar voice told him to lie still, though it sounded as if it were coming from far away.
Someone was shining a specific light in his eyes, then others helped him sit up. His legs were numb, stiff, and his body hurt, every muscle, every nerve.
It was Teyla. She had her hand against his cheek. 'John, can you hear us?'
He nodded, then said, 'Rodney?'
It was Ronon, on John's other side, who replied. 'He went ten minutes ago.'
'We almost lost you too,' said Dr. Keller, who was taking his blood pressure. 'Your vitals went haywire.'
They sounded calm, clinical. John didn't understand; Rodney was dead.
'How long?' he asked.
'A month,' said Teyla. 'We were starting to worry. Colonel Carter went in to check - How long was it for you?'
John tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. 'A lifetime.'
Keller finished her exam and helped him to an infirmary bed. Once he was settled, too woozy to fight, she put her hand on his wrist.
'He never really got better, Colonel. I'm so sorry.'
John didn't say anything. Keller left, but Teyla and Ronon sat down in chairs surrounding the bed.
'We will wait until you are better,' said Teyla, in the voice John knew better than to argue with. He closed his eyes, and drifted off to sleep.
'What happened?' John demanded as Ronon and a Marine brought Rodney in on a stretcher. He wasn't complaining which meant he was unconscious.
'Wraith,' said Ronon. 'Tortured, fed upon, don't know what else. He's a mess.'
Everything went very cold and very still, until Dr. Keller pushed him out of the way and went to work.
'I need space,' she said, and shut him out.
'...could try nanites,' she was saying to Sam when John came to check on Rodney.
'What?' That feeling of cold swept over him again. 'No.'
Sam tried to pacify him. "John, hear her out.'
'No.' He glared at Keller, who, under ordinary circumstances, he liked. 'You and Rodney got your way with Weir, but I will not let you do it to Rodney. No.'
Keller was haggard, brittle. 'Colonel, I think it's his only chance.'
John was immovable. 'Find another way.'
'There isn't one. I can't tell how much brain damage has been done already, but if he stays in this coma for too long, well, if I were McKay I wouldn't want to wake up at all.'
John thought of Ava, the Replicator. 'Can you store his consciousness? Just, protect it until his body repairs itself?'
Keller looked at him like he was crazy. 'He's not a Replicator, Colonel, and you don't want him to become one!'
'Wait,' said Sam, 'I think he's onto something. We have to stimulate his brain somehow, keep it from deteriorating.'
'Can the technology do that with a human brain?' asked Keller.
'Humans have interfaced with the virtual reality systems a number of times, and we have a map of Rodney's brain from that ascension incident. It has to be worth a try. We don't have a VR of Atlantis set up yet, so he'll think he's been sent back to Earth.'
John nodded, his jaw set like iron. 'And I'm going in with him.'
The two women had argued that point for what seemed like hours, but John remained firm. He was not leaving Rodney alone in there. Besides, he needed to do it. He couldn't handle a world without Rodney McKay. He couldn't just sit in the infirmary and watch and wait. He had to do something, even if it meant leaving everyone else behind.
They put up a marker for Rodney next to Carson's; his body they sent back to Canada. John went to the funeral, hugged Jeannie, kissed Madison, shook hands with Kaleb and didn't cry.
His face reflected in the shiny marble; John still wasn't used to seeing such a young reflection. The wind on the west pier ruffled his once-again dark hair; he found himself missing the grey.
A month, Teyla said. A month ago they mourned Rodney, giving him up for dead. That they had left him on life support for so long was a gift to John, Teyla said. So he could say goodbye.
Except that he didn't say goodbye. He didn't say anything that he should have. He had years on that pretend Earth with Rodney, who didn't know any better, and no one to judge, and he still didn't say anything.
'They say Eskimos have a hundred words for snow,' John said, his throat raw. 'I guess that's how I feel about, well, us.
'I didn't want to sleep with you. I guess, if I had to explain it, I'd say I wasn't physically in love with you, so much as emotionally. That sounds dumb, but it's the best I can do. You were, are, my best friend. I liked that no matter who you were sleeping with, at the end of the day you always came home to me. I've never been close to anyone before. You changed that, and I don't think you meant to, which is probably why it worked.'
He understood now what Rodney had felt when he and Keller reactivated the nanites in Weir. He understood the agony of that choice, and he made the wrong one. He killed Rodney.
Sam came up behind him. She didn't say anything right away, just stood there, staring at the markers.
'I shouldn't have let you go in there,' she said.
John felt like saying she wouldn't have been able to stop him, but instead said, 'Rodney would have been suspicious. He'd have figured out it wasn't real and would have tried to escape, not knowing about the coma. It was weird enough that he didn't remember reconciling with Jeannie.'
She said, 'Was it worth it?'
'I missed Atlantis, and my team,' said John, still not making eye contact, 'but I'd do it again if you'd let me. The world doesn't feel right without Rodney.'
Sam put her hand on his shoulder, and then walked away. John shuddered, and began the process of adjusting to a life without Rodney McKay.
'His instructions were very specific,' said the doctor, a young man John vaguely recognized as one of the first generation born in Atlantis. 'Is everything prepared?'
'Yes, doctor,' said the computer technician. 'System is in place. He won't notice the difference.'
John couldn't move his body, couldn't do anything other than blink. He felt frozen, but was kept warm by the temperature of the room. Pieces were missing from his mind; he'd forgotten speech, forgotten faces. His body had finally failed him. When the pod enclosed him in darkness, he wanted to cry out, to struggle, to fight, but couldn't even twitch.
He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he was back in Atlantis, just outside the mess hall. A familiar face was striding towards him.
'There you are,' said Rodney. He looked irritated. 'I've been waiting for you. Where have you been?'