Beast of Burden
After a year and a half of living among the Earth people, it had taken a death to finally bring me to their home world.
Stargate Command set my nerves on edge as soon as we passed through the gate. The lack of sunlight, the recycled air, the rooms that seemed smaller than they really were… it had the feel of a spacecraft even though it was buried deep under the ground. Not quite as menacing as a Hive ship, but close. And I felt my hackles rise when I laid eyes on the armed men pointing their weapons at us. Sheppard and McKay were in the lead, what I assumed was a place of honor for those closest to the dead in this Earth ceremony I had been asked to participate in, and they were unarmed. Even though I knew the men with guns were just fulfilling their duty, that they meant us no harm, the losses over the past few days had me on edge. Beckett dead, Teyla injured, and now Sheppard and McKay at gunpoint– who could blame the snarl that came to my face?
But Landry stepped easily in front of them, even as they lowered the weapons. “Colonel Sheppard, welcome back to Earth. I only wish it were under more pleasant circumstances.”
“Thank you, General. So do I.”
A cart was brought forward then so that we could rest the casket on it, but Sheppard hesitated. I didn’t mind. It was amazing how light such a heavy burden could be. Burdens. We all had them to one degree or another– the death of a friend, the guilt that accompanied it, the worry that it would happen again. And I had one other burden of friendship that had been laid on my shoulders… trying to alleviate the other burdens being carried by my team.
“Thank you, Sir,” Sheppard responded to the sight of the cart, “but I think we’d rather see this through to the end.”
“This is the end, Colonel. We have an honor guard set up down the hall with the other bodies that are awaiting transport home.” Landry took a step forward then, a faint sympathetic smile curling his lips. “You’ve done your duty, son. We’ll take him from here.”
Sheppard gave a single nod then moved forward to lower the casket to the cart. We all watched as it was wheeled from the room, Major Lorne offering a handkerchief to Dr. Cole as she drew in a stuttering breath when the doors shut behind it. McKay moved as if he was going to follow, but Sheppard put a hand on his arm. After a silent exchange between the two men, Rodney stepped back and ducked his head. And of all the unusual and disturbing things that had happened since the explosions, that was probably the one that worried me most.
In all the time that I had known them, Sheppard and McKay were never silent around one another. Rodney was rarely silent, period, but the two of them never stopped talking. But since Beckett’s death, I had barely heard them exchange two sentences. Teyla had warned me, charged me to look after them since she couldn’t.
“They mourn differently,” she had told me from her bed in the infirmary, a place that was stifling in the sorrow that filled the space. Carson’s absence was as big a presence in the hospital as the physician ever had been.
At first, I honestly didn’t know if she meant Sheppard and McKay or the Earth expedition in general. As a people, they hadn’t grown up under the constant dangers of the Wraith, they didn’t accept the vulnerability of life. It was expected that a person would live to old age, not a cause for celebration when they did. Unfortunately for them, they were learning.
But then she clarified. “John will do anything not to think about what has happened and Rodney will do nothing but. I do not believe they will be able to help one another as of yet.”
I nodded in what I thought was understanding but realized she was looking at me expectantly. “What?” I asked, leaning back in my seat as she tilted her head with a smile that brought it all home for me. “Me? You want me to help them?”
“Ronon, I am here in the infirmary. But you are out there with them.”
“But you know how I handle stuff.” I produced a knife and twirled it menacingly.
Brown eyes rolled at my demonstration. “You are one of the most compassionate people I have ever known.” When I snorted, she bobbled her head. “You just have your own… unique way of showing it.” She leaned in a little closer. “I am not asking you to talk, just try to find a way to get the two of them to talk.”
“They always talk. It’s getting them to shut up that’s the hard part.”
Her smile became pained. “Not now.”
She was right. I found that out not long after leaving her when I ran into Sheppard in the hall. “Sheppard, wait up.” I jogged to catch up to where he had stopped in his tracks at my hail. He carried an electronic pad and seemed to be checking over information as he walked.
“Hey. I’m just trying to finish up a few things about the structural damage before we… you know.”
“Yeah, about that. McKay asked me to be a pallbearer and I’m not sure exactly what that means.”
He blinked in surprise. “Oh. Well, it means you help carry the casket. It’s a way of showing respect for the deceased and it’s usually something close friends or family do.”
Rodney had already explained that to me, adding Carson had a soft spot for furry things and he would have been honored to have me participate. I didn’t mind the comment, it was the first attempt at humor I had heard from the man in days. But the responsibilities of a pallbearer weren’t what I was asking Sheppard about.
“Do I have to wear anything special?” I winced at the thought. “I saw McKay earlier and he was wearing a tie. Do I have to wear one? Because, I don’t have one; I don’t even have a collar to tie one around.”
He gave me a small smile. “No tie required. Just something… somber.”
He started to go and I remembered what Teyla had said and called after him. “McKay was going into Carson’s room.”
Sheppard stopped, took a second before turning to address me. “He’s probably packing up his personal belongings.”
“Do you think he might need some help?” I tried to make it as much a suggestion as a question.
“Maybe. Why don’t you go check and see?”
“What about you?”
He tapped the electronic pad and started walking backward as if to get away from me and the topic in general. “Need to finish this up then go change myself and I wanted to stop by and see Teyla before the services.”
So, I went instead of the one person that should have gone. It had been odd enough seeing Sheppard, a man who took on anything headfirst that came his way, dodging the issue. And then McKay, who could find an excuse for not blaming himself for blowing up a solar system, taking all the responsibility for this. I understood losing someone close. I understood blame. And I definitely understood how the two can become so knotted up together that I could hack my way through a swarm of Wraith and still not stand a chance of hacking my way through the bindings I’d placed on myself. But that didn’t mean I thought Rodney should do the same.
I tried to tell him that. I don’t know if it helped any. I kind of doubt it. But I tried.
General Landry waited until the casket left the room before telling McKay, “We’re expecting the Jumper with all the personal effects from Atlantis within the hour. We’ve arranged your transport to Scotland at fifteen hundred hours, so you’ll have a few hours to grab a bite to eat and rest up before then.”
Rodney nodded in understanding, giving the General a slightly shell-shocked expression now that he was genuinely faced with facing Carson’s family. “Thanks,” he mumbled even as stood a bit behind Sheppard’s shoulder, like he did when faced with a hostile adversary on a mission. Zelenka moved up to place a hand on his shoulder. None of us envied his task.
“The rest of you that are returning to Atlantis on the Jumper will have the opportunity to phone family, if you want.” Landry’s announcement had the rest of the pallbearers smiling in gratitude at the chance to talk directly to those they usually only communicated with in letters or emails. Especially after a loss of a friend, those others that you care for seem all the further away. “Colonel, Walter can show you and your people the way to the phones.” A cheerful man with white hair and glasses raised his hand in introduction.
“That won’t be necessary for me, Sir. But I’m sure the others will appreciate it.”
Landry didn’t question, simply nodded. “Very well, Colonel. You know your way around. You and Ronon can hit the commissary if you want.”
The others started after the man that was to be their guide, McKay hesitating long enough to tell us with a slow hitch of his thumb. “I think I’m going to go give Jeannie a call.”
“Good idea,” Sheppard agreed, waving a hand between the two of us. “Tell her we said, hi.”
“So, I’ll see you guys before you take off?”
“Yeah. We’ll meet you in the mess when you’re done,” John assured him lightly.
“Okay, see you then.”
He seemed almost reluctant to go but finally did and when we followed a few second later along the same path Rodney had taken, I had to wonder why we hadn’t all left at the same time. But I knew. Sheppard would have denied it, but Teyla was right– he was avoiding the situation. And the way McKay was a walking ball of grief, the best way to avoid the situation was to avoid McKay.
The hallways of the facility were even darker and more closed in than the gateroom had been and I decided I’d be glad when the Jumper finally got there and we could go back to Atlantis. Sheppard walked the corridors with a familiarity I knew he wished he didn’t have. He’d been stationed here during the six weeks the Ancestors had kicked us out of the city and I knew those memories weren’t exactly the best. It wasn’t that something horribly bad had happened, in fact, just the opposite. He’d been banished to the mundane in comparison to what we did on Atlantis and after several years of doing anything but, that in itself was a type of punishment. I’d felt it among the Athosians and I had no doubt Sheppard had felt it at the SGC.
We hadn’t gone far when a young lieutenant stopped us in the hall with a friendly smile. Sheppard introduced him as one of the members of his team when he had been stationed here, and the two started to chat. Small talk, base news, stuff I was sure Sheppard cared about almost as little as I did, but he was having trouble removing himself from the conversation. I drifted down the hall after a few minutes, hearing a familiar voice in one of the rooms.
“Hello, Caleb? It’s Rodney. I’m back on…” Rodney caught himself and corrected, “I’m near a phone and thought I’d give you guys a call. Is Jeannie around?” He waited a few second while his sister’s husband found her before he tried for a cheerful voice. “Hey, Jeannie, how are you guys doing?” Evidently his sister didn’t buy the tone. “No, actually everything isn’t all right… There was an accident, an explosion. Two to be precise…. No, no, I wasn’t injured and neither were Sheppard or Ronon, they say, hi, by the way, but some others were... Teyla was hurt in the first explosion, but she’s going to be fine. Carson fixed her right up.” He paused then, trying to regain his composure before continuing. “Yeah, I’m still here. Sorry. It’s just, well, Carson was caught in the second explosion and he… he didn’t make it.” Rodney’s back was turned to the door, but I could see the way he rubbed at his forehead as he sat on the edge of the desk and listened to his sister talk. “We brought the bod… we brought him back today. And I’m going to take him back to Scotland.” He pulled in a ragged breath, exhaling in frustration. “I have to tell his mother, Jeannie. What the hell am I supposed to tell her?”
Sheppard reached around me then, pulling the door all the way closed to protect Rodney’s privacy. “Let’s go grab some lunch.”
“You should talk to him,” I told him simply as we walked down the hall.
“You haven’t yet,” I challenged.
“If you haven’t noticed, things have been a little busy.” When I just frowned in disbelief of his answer, he frowned back. “I’ll talk to him. Christ, who assigned you as team mom?”
“Teyla,” I smirked.
He rolled his eyes as we entered the cafeteria. “I should have known.”
And I should have known he was lying. When Rodney joined us in the cafeteria, he had changed into more casual clothes. “Lucky bastard,” Sheppard mumbled, tugging uncomfortably at his collar before he pushed a tall glass of red jell-o toward him. “Sit, eat, it’s your favorite.”
McKay took up a spoon and poked at the whipped cream on top before finally taking a bite. “Jeannie says hi back. And that she’s glad you two weren’t hurt. And that she’s sorry for… what happened.” He stuffed a cube of gelatin in his mouth and chewed as if he couldn’t taste it. “And wanted to let Teyla know she hopes she’s back on her feet soon. Could you pass that along?”
“Sure. No problem,” Sheppard promised. “She and the family doing okay?”
I frowned at Sheppard. More small talk. It was as useless as the conversation he had had with the lieutenant in the hall. But I figured it was a start.
“She’s enrolling Madison in preschool next week to get her ready for kindergarten. Something about social development.” He took another bite almost more out of habit than hunger. “Personally, I think it’s a waste of time and will probably set her intellectual development back a couple of years if she intermingles with a bunch of snot-nosed thumb-suckers that can barely count to ten.”
“Interpersonal skills are so highly overrated,” Sheppard shrugged.
“Exactly.” He dug another cube out of the bowl just as two members of SG-1 walked up.
Mitchell nodded a greeting in my direction before he moved around the table to shake hands with Sheppard. “I’d ask how things had been going, but seeing as I know why you’re here I’ll skip it and just say how sorry I was to hear about the accident. Carson was a hell of doctor and an even nicer guy.”
“He sure was,” Sheppard agreed.
Carter placed a hand on McKay’s shoulder and squeezed. “I know it’s kind of cliché to say it’ll get easier, but speaking from personal experience, it will. It just doesn’t seem like it now.”
“Thanks, Sam. I guess this is kind of like how you guys lost Dr. Frasier. Maybe I could stop by and talk to you before I leave to visit his family.”
Carter looked a little panicked by the idea but Sheppard caught her eye and gave her an almost pleading look and she forced a smile. “Ah, sure. You know where my lab is. I’ll be there all afternoon.”
“You guys care to join us?”
At John’s offer, Mitchell shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Actually, we would, but General Landry sent us to deliver a message that the Jumper just arrived and you’ll be heading back to Atlantis soon.”
“I guess that’s our cue to leave, then.” When Rodney stood to join us, Sheppard waved him back down. “Finish your jell-o. In fact, you should eat a real meal. I doubt you’ve had one in two days.”
McKay seemed torn but finally sat again. “So, I’ll see you guys next week when I get back?”
“Yeah. Next week,” Sheppard confirmed. When I cleared my throat meaningfully, he asked awkwardly. “You going to be okay?”
“Well, let see. I’m about to go do what is probably the most horrific thing I can imagine. I’ll be peachy.”
“You’ll do fine, Rodney,” John dismissed.
“Yes, because I’m so good with people that delivering the news of the death of her beloved son to an elderly woman should be right up my alley.”
“You’ll do fine,” Sheppard told him again, and this time it was almost an order.
“You knew him better than anyone, McKay,” I reiterated but I started to think my reassurance kind of backfired.
“Yeah,” he answered hoarsely, “I know.”
Mitchell and Carter looked around the cafeteria uncomfortably and I could tell Sheppard was thinking the same thing I was… we were deserting McKay in hostile territory. With a sigh, John offered, “Look, your flight leaves in a little over three hours. What say I talk to Landry about delaying the Jumper returning to Atlantis for a few hours…?”
Rodney shook his head rapidly. “No, you guys should head back. There’s still a lot to do back there with the repairs. Besides, this is my responsibility; I need to face up to it.”
As if realizing for the first time that McKay was blaming himself, Sheppard furrowed his brow in concern. “Rodney, this isn’t your fault.”
“Thanks, Sheppard,” he answered briskly, “I appreciate the thought.”
But the scientist cut him off by standing abruptly. “You know, I think I’ll go try to take a nap. I never can sleep on airplanes and it’s a long flight, so I better take advantage of a real bed, or at least as close to one as they have here in the visitor’s quarters. I’ll see you guys back on Atlantis.”
Sheppard watched him dart from the room, shifting his weight in frustration. “Listen,” he addressed Carter. “I know he’s not the easiest guy to deal with…”
Understanding exactly what was being asked of her, she shook her head and held up a halting hand. “Don’t worry, I’ll check on him here in a little bit. He’ll be okay. I promise.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
After we said our goodbyes, Sheppard led me back toward where the Jumper would be parked. He kept his eyes forward, but was finally unable to ignore my sideways glances any longer. “What? I talked to him,” he defended.
I just shook my head, thinking Teyla wasn’t going to be happy with my results and I sure wasn’t cut out for this team mom crap.
McKay had been right about one thing, the repairs had kept everyone busy. But they moved along at a steady pace so that when he returned six days later, they were almost complete. Sheppard had gone to pick him up at the SGC… all I can say is Teyla is better at coercion than I am, especially when she wouldn’t let me pull a gun on him and Sheppard had refused to work out in the gym with me ever since I beat him into the mats with one hand and one leg literally behind my back.
I joined Weir when she met them in the control room, Rodney with his duffle bag slung over his shoulder and Sheppard carrying a second bag that still had the price tag attached. When Weir raised her eyebrows at the extra luggage, McKay simply shrugged. “I had a layover in New York so I spent some time in the duty free shop.”
Sheppard shifted the bag to his other hand. “He swears there’s something good in here for me, else he’d be carrying it himself.”
“How about for me?” I asked, pleased to see they both seemed to be in better moods than the last time we had been together.
“There is. For all of you, actually.”
At McKay’s guarantee, Sheppard hefted the bag into my arms and rolled his shoulder. “Good, he can carry the damn thing for a while.”
Elizabeth smiled and told him. “Well, you can hand the gifts out in the staff meeting. Radek is briefing us on the repairs and I thought you might like to hear it, so I put it off until after lunch.”
Later that afternoon I sat in the briefing room with a bottle of an Earth alcohol known as tequila sitting in front of me. “You seem like a worm-eating sort of guy,” McKay explained when he handed it to me.
I tipped the bottle, watching the small white grub float lazily to the top. “Hmmm. Dinner and drinks in one handy bottle. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. I would have brought you limes, too. But seeing as they tend to kill me, I’m sure you’ll understand why I didn’t.”
“I’ll make due without,” I assured him, taking one of the chocolates Teyla offered me from her newly opened box.
Sheppard set aside the two large boxes of an Earth product called Apple Jacks. Evidently they don’t sell those in this market known as Duty Free because Rodney had told Sheppard he’d had to pay an airport porter a hundred bucks to run to the nearest store and buy them and some Lucky Charms. “Seems like a worthwhile investment,” John had grinned appreciatively.
Zelenka then briefed us on the status of the repairs, Rodney breaking in now and again to ask very detailed questions which turned into very boring explanations. I’d kind of tuned out, looking over to the empty seat where Carson used to sit. I tended to use him as a measure of how truly dull the conversation was. If he seemed to be zoning out, then I figured it was safe for me to catch a little shuteye while the discussion droned on and on and on. Dr. Cole had stepped in until a permanent replacement could be assigned, but she was sitting in a different seat. It was funny how sitting in a particular chair could become habit and how expecting someone to be in that chair could be the same. But that was one habit we would all have to break, myself included.
Carson had been a good person to everyone. And I knew I wasn’t the only one that felt I had a special bond with him, because what he had done for me… given me my freedom from the Wraith… it saved me in a way even removing a bullet from my belly couldn’t compare with. It was easy to dismiss it as it simply being his job, but it wasn’t. His job was to patch us up, not put himself in danger doing it. But he had. Time and time again he had– for me, for Sheppard, for McKay, for Teyla, for all of us and many, many other people. Some he knew, some he didn’t. It didn’t matter to him. It just didn’t matter. That was too damn bad because it ended up mattering a great deal to those of us that knew him and respected him and sat staring at an empty chair in a conference room wishing he was there.
Teyla must have noticed what I was doing because she placed a gentle hand on my arm, smiling and offering me another piece of candy. I shook my head, turning my attention back to the discussion taking place between the two scientists. I’d kind of lost track of what they were talking about, but evidently Sheppard hadn’t.
“The hell you are,” he announced to something McKay had suggested.
“Colonel, I told you I was planning on going back to that lab.” And suddenly I understood why Sheppard was up in arms.
“You asked if it was secured like you had ordered. I said yes. You told me you wanted to check it out. You never said you planned to go back in there and reinventory the equipment. Equipment that killed people.”
McKay crossed his arms at the argument. “Yes, I am well aware of that fact. Six people dead and over a dozen injured, all because a couple of inexperienced scientists were assigned the job. And until I’ve checked that lab out myself, I can’t assure anyone that it’s safe.”
“We know it’s not safe. I say we just leave it sealed,” Sheppard countered.
“And what if they didn’t turn the machine off properly? What if it’s still emitting radiation? What if there is something worse down there?”
“All the more reason to not go back down there.”
Rodney shook his head. “It’s too much of a risk. We need to be sure…”
“Fine. I’ll send an EOD crew down and they can blow the room. That should fix any remaining problems.”
“Sheppard, you can’t be serious…”
Weir chose then to step in. “Gentlemen, enough. You both make very compelling cases. However, we are not going to intentionally blow up a room in the city if we can avoid it, nor are we going to haphazardly reenter that lab…” When McKay’s gloating smile turned to a frown and he started to argue, Weir stopped him with a raised hand and addendum to her statement. “… not without further discussion. We’ll talk about this more tomorrow.”
With that, the meeting came to an end. McKay was the first person out in the hall and Sheppard stormed after him. I lingered behind to help Teyla along. She had been allowed to leave the infirmary but was still on restricted duty because of her injuries. But I could hear the two men when Sheppard stopped the scientist.
“I know you think this was somehow you’re fault, but getting yourself killed isn’t going to change anything.”
“This has nothing to do with whether or not this was my fault. This is my job, Sheppard. Everything tech falls into my domain and it is my responsibility to make sure that…”
“It’s a weapon. And weapons fall under the jurisdiction of the military…”
“Oh, so you plan to put this weapon to use? Because I may have something to say about that little scheme if you do.”
“Of course I’m not planning to use the damn thing.”
“Then you don’t have a say in the matter, Colonel.”
“That is bullshit, McKay. And you are not going back in that lab. End of story.”
“Not according to Elizabeth.” Rodney raised his chin triumphantly before stepping around the man blocking his path. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have things to take care of.”
Sheppard scowled after the back of our teammate before heading off toward his own office. Teyla’s expression mirrored my own… surprise and a little worry. “Well, at least they’re talking again like you wanted.”
“You should keep an eye on them,” she told me.
But I’d already come to that conclusion.
I convinced Sheppard to join me on my late afternoon run. It wasn’t hard to do. He was pissed at McKay and anytime he was angry he was up for a workout. The air was cool during this time of year, which was why I had taken to jogging late in the day instead of in the harsher cold first thing in the morning. What can I say? Atlantis was making me soft. With the sun setting a little earlier each day, it was well on the horizon by the time we reached the southwest pier. This was the furthest pier from the city, jutting out past all the spires and structures so that when you stood on the edge, there was nothing in front of you but open ocean butting up against the spread of sky. But today that view was obscured by a lone figure looking off into that distant intersection of water with air. It wasn’t hard to tell it was McKay, even from behind. And Sheppard came to a stop as soon as we saw him.
“What’s he doing all the way out here?”
“I guess he wanted to be alone.” I shrugged at the question. “It’s been a busy week. Maybe he just wanted some peace and quiet.”
“Maybe,” he relented but didn’t seem too convinced. “Come on, I have some stuff to do and I could use your help.”
His stuff ended up with me standing at McKay’s door several hours later and evidently waking him.
Before he even opened the door I could hear him complaining loudly. “I have one of the worst cases of jetlag known to mankind, so unless you come bearing vats of melatonin, this better be pretty damn important.” The door opened and he impatiently demanded, “What?” before he ever saw that it was me. When he did see it was me, and that I was carrying a first aid kit, his expression changed instantly to dread. “Oh, God, what’s happened?”
“You need to come with me.”
Tying his robe around him, he trailed along after me, shuffling quickly in his slippers. “Is it Teyla? Did she reopen her wound?”
“Teyla’s fine,” I promised, heading for the nearest transporter.
“Shepppard? What did he do? Should we call Cars…” he blinked rapidly even as he snapped his mouth shut.
“We can’t, and I think that’s part of the problem.” I triggered the doors open and entered the transporter.
When he saw where in the city I was taking us and realized what was located there, he moaned. “What the hell is he doing in there?”
“The best I can figure, he’s trying to keep you alive.”
He waved a hand at the medical kit. “Well, obviously things didn’t go as well as he had planned.”
“No, they didn’t.”
Sheppard sat on the floor in the lab where I had left him, a bandana wrapped around the gash in his hand. “What the hell is he doing here?”
My lips twitched at how similar the two men sounded. “I ran into him on my way back.”
“Roaming the halls in his pajamas?”
“Yes, I was sleep walking, still am.” McKay took the first aid kit from me and squatted in front of Sheppard. “Finding you bleeding in the one of the most dangerous rooms in the city is a goddamn dream come true.” He reached for the injured hand only to have it tucked away from him. “As you always like to tell me, don’t make me break out the Pampers. Let me see.”
Rodney grimaced, paled slightly and shook his head at the cut. “We should go to the infirmary.”
“NO!” When McKay received the same response I had, his brow furrowed much like my own had. Sheppard tried the same justification with him. “It’s not the bad. I just needed some bandages… without the nursemaid.”
That last was directed at me. I simply raised an eyebrow and crossed my arms as I leaned back against the lab table.
“You need stitches,” McKay countered.
“No, I don’t. Just wrap it up and I’ll be fine.”
Rodney snorted but dug in the kit. “So you think, but you’re wrong.”
“Who died and made you the team medical expert?” Sheppard blanched as soon as the words left his mouth and I looked between the two of them, fearful of McKay’s reaction.
He paused just a second before pulling out a piece of gauze and placing it over the cut. “Carson died, that’s who. And it’s time you accepted that because it’s not going to change. And you can’t avoid the infirmary just because he’s not there to fix things.”
“I’m not avoiding the infirmary. It’s just a cut…”
Rodney wrapped the bindings around the wound with a sharp warning. “Save the bullshit excuses, Sheppard. No one’s buying it. Not Ronon and especially not me.”
When John looked to me for confirmation, I shrugged. “Neither does Teyla.”
He slumped then, deflated, back against the wall with a sigh. Once he finished with the first aid, McKay moved to sit beside him in a similar stance. “But for what it’s worth, I don’t blame you. I dread the first time I have to go and be treated by someone else. But it’s going to happen eventually and there’s not a damn thing any of us can do about it.”
Sheppard chuckled sadly at a thought. “What are you going to do if you can’t insult your doctor with sheep jokes?”
Rodney mimicked the sound. “I may go into withdrawal. Especially after actually visiting Scotland. Because there are sheep every damn where.”
I couldn’t help but join in the soft laughter. Finally, Sheppard asked with a bit of his own dread, “How was it?”
“It sucked out loud,” Rodney told him, rubbing at eyes red from more than just lack of sleep, closing them as he started to recollect. “But it was also really amazing. His family, his friends, people he grew up with and used to work with and went to school with. Everyone showed up for the services and had these wonderful stories about him. And then we went back to his mother’s house and sat and visited. He has a niece that has his eyes exactly. And a brother that you would swear was him when he speaks. And a sister who has got to be one the lewdest, funniest people I’ve every met in my life. And his mother… God, she’s a sweetheart. He wasn’t exaggerating when he talked about how wonderful she is. She cooked me every type of boiled meat imaginable.” His smile changed slightly, from amused to melancholy. “All those people, Sheppard. All of them loved him as much as we did. All of them are going to miss him as much as we do. But just knowing that… it kind of makes it a little easier. A little less lonely. You know?”
Blue eyes opened to meet hazel and Sheppard nodded before clearing his throat to speak. “I think I do. But it doesn’t make it okay.”
“Nothing will make it okay. But someone told me once that I had to release my burdens.” He bumped against the shoulder next to his. “It was pretty good advice.”
“Yeah, well, easier said than done.”
“Blue skies, Sheppard. Blue skies.”
“I’m having a little trouble seeing the blue skies, Rodney.”
“How?” And the question was genuinely one of how to do it.
“Maybe you just need to say goodbye.”
“A month ago I was standing next to your deathbed. Literally, your deathbed. And I couldn’t even say it to you then when I had the chance. It’s a little late now for Carson.”
“Believe me, it’s never too late.” He smiled reassuringly before pointing at the bandage. “Just like it’s never too late to go to the infirmary.”
John shook his head. “For that, I think it might be a little too early.”
“How about we get one of the marine medics to look at it? See what they think?”
“After I finish up in here.” Pushing to his feet using his good hand, Sheppard went back to the device.
“What the hell are you doing anyway?”
“Destroying this piece of shit so it can’t hurt anyone else.”
“Now, that it is too late for,” Rodney pointed out with a glance at his injured hand.
“The screwdriver I was using to pry it up slipped.”
McKay just shook his head in exasperation. “That’s just typical of the two of you. Use brute force when a little finesse is all you need.” The scientist looked under the cabinet the machine was attached to and then reached back, stretching his arm to the maximum extent. “I’m surprised you didn’t just take a crowbar to it and bash it into oblivion.”
Sheppard looked back at me guiltily and I used my foot to scoot the tool that was to be our last resort under the table I was leaning against. There was a clunk as McKay evidently triggered something before straightening. “Most of the equipment is stabilized with a type of magnetic lock. But I wouldn’t expect you to know that seeing as it’s my area of expertise, not yours.”
John sighed dramatically under the scathing glare he was receiving. “Yeah, okay, I get it.”
“No, I don’t think you do. You seem to think you’re the only one around here allowed to take risks.”
“I don’t take risks,” he defended and McKay and I both snorted. “When?”
Arms in a blue bathrobe crossed in challenge. “Oh, let’s see. Does a disintegrating moon ring a bell?”
“Hey, I piloted that shuttle down just fine.”
“That wasn’t piloting, that was plummeting with panache.”
“Maybe, but it at least had panache.” He gave a cocky grin even as he shrugged. “Okay, it was a risk, but it was a calculated risk.”
“And so was what Carson did. Only it ended a lot worse… a whole hell of a lot worse. And one day I’m afraid one of yours will, too.” Rodney shook his head even as he snapped his fingers impatiently. “Give me your detector. I want to make sure this thing isn’t emitting any radiation while I complete the disconnect.”
Sheppard handed it over. “That’s what made Carson the man that he was. He always put others before himself.”
“And I always put myself before others,” Rodney grumbled. “It’s selfish of me, I know, but I prefer to have my friends living and breathing when given the choice.” Evidently satisfied with the results of his scan, he handed the detector back to Sheppard. “Watch that reading there. If it starts to increase, run.”
“What about you?”
McKay gave a grin. “There’s a secret that anyone that has ever worked around radiation knows. If your monitors are running, you do the same.”
“I meant what about you taking calculated risks,” Sheppard clarified.
“All I can say is that my calculations are better than yours.”
“So you’ve never made a bad decision?” Sheppard’s stance indicated he wasn’t going to believe that even if McKay said he hadn’t.
But Rodney stopped working long enough to look him in the eyes. “I’ve made plenty of bad decisions. I recently made one of the worst in my life and now Carson is gone.”
“McKay, you can’t…”
Rodney turned back to the equipment even as he finished Sheppard’s sentence. “Blame myself? Sure I can. It’s pretty damn easy, actually, to think about the good things that would have happened if only I had done things differently. But it’s harder to think about the bad things that could’ve resulted from that good. If I’d just gone fishing with him, Carson would be alive right now. But would Teyla? Or you? Or half the medical staff?”
He leaned over the machine and shook his head. “It’s like a math problem, Sheppard. You modify one variable and everything changes. If Carson and I had been on the Mainland, chances are no one would have figured out the connection between Hewston and Watson being in this very lab the night before the explosion. Without that clue, no one would have thought to investigate the work that was being done here and figured out the deal with the tumors, and Watson would have exploded in the middle of the infirmary… where Teyla was recovering from surgery along with all the other injured, where the medical staff were working, where you two could have easily been checking on Teyla or tracking down a lead there with Radek instead of listening to me explain what happened. So, instead of losing one close friend, I could have lost three different ones. Instead of six fatalities we could have had dozens. And that calculation would have had me blaming myself for not being here to prevent all those deaths.”
“But it’s not your fault, Rodney,” Sheppard assured him gently. “Either way, it wouldn’t be your fault.”
“Maybe.” Straightening, he assessed his work before taking the scanner back from Sheppard and checking the reading once again. “But I still wish I’d gone fishing with Carson. And that’s a burden I’ll always have to bear.” He stuck the scanner in the pocket of his bathrobe. “There, it’s disconnected. What did you have in mind now?”
“I thought we’d chuck it in the ocean,” Sheppard told him.
“Yes, because fish with exploding tumors swimming around the city is such a pleasant thought. Our own little school of volatile Nemos forming a finned minefield. How exciting.”
“Do you have a better idea?”
John’s challenge had the scientist considering. “Well, since you’re obviously not going to rest without this thing completely destroyed or gone from Atlantis, I can only think of one other option.”
“Dial an address to a space gate and throw it through from our side,” I suggested.
McKay’s smug grin vanished. “Okay, so maybe there are two options.”
“Take it up in the Jumper and dump it in orbit,” Sheppard offered.
“All right, there’s obviously several different ways we can get rid of it,” the physicist conceded grumpily. “But my idea will destroy it once and for all.”
“Put it in front of the gate and let the whoosh take it out?”
My second suggestion had Rodney looking at me glumly. “That’s not what I was thinking but actually I like that idea better than mine.” He waved a despondent hand toward the device. “Grab it and let’s go.”
Rodney started out the door without a look back and Sheppard showed me his injured hand as an excuse, so I picked up the damn thing. “Ronon Dex, beast of burden, at your service,” I grumbled under my breath as I followed along.
We walked silently for a few minutes before John finally asked, “So, saying goodbye?” McKay nodded and it only made Sheppard wince more. “I’m not so good at that.”
“It helps knowing there are people that’ll be there to say hello when it’s all said and done.”
And really, when you get down to the bare bones of it, that’s what life was all about. Leaving some behind, meeting others. Trying to figure out which ones were worth keeping, which ones were worth taking the effort to let go. But in the end it was all just a series of hellos and goodbyes, some forced on you, some you luck out with, some you look forward to and others… you don’t.
As I stood behind Sheppard as he dialed the gate, I also understood that sometimes you have to take care of some lingering business before you can say a final goodbye. Mine was destroying every living Wraith in the galaxy. What can I say? I set big goals for myself. For Sheppard, it was a little easier… destroying the machine that had killed so many including a very dear friend.
McKay was standing just off the platform where the device sat, monitor in hand, checking for any residual radiation that might occur during the destruction. Twirling his finger above his head, he called, “Okay, dial her up.”
John pushed in the tiles, pausing after he dialed the sixth glyph. He took a deep breath, and murmured, “So long, Carson,” as he punched in the final one. The gate blossomed to life, liquid silver shooting forward and enveloping the device that had caused so much pain and grief in the city. Rodney moved forward once the surface stabilized and I took that as a good sign seeing as he wasn’t running in the opposite direction.
I moved forward a few steps as well, draping an arm around the shoulder of my commanding officer, my teammate, my friend. “Hey, Sheppard.”
He let a small smirk accompany the slightly embarrassed roll of his eyes that came because I had overheard him. But he said, “Hey, Ronon,” in return.
I gave him a good-natured shake as Rodney called up from below. “Hey.” The simple greeting had us both snickering down at him, which just had the man in his pajamas looking up at us in confusion. “Everything looks good down here so you can go ahead and shut her down.”
“You got it,” John told him even as he elbowed me in the ribs before doing as he was directed. McKay turned toward the stairs with a bewildered mumble about never knowing what’s going on around here and Sheppard called to him, “Hey, McKay. Thanks.”
Rodney flung a dismissive hand over his shoulder as he shuffled toward the stairs. “Eh. It’s what I do. The affliction of genius and the burdens of intellect, they’re never ending.”
Burdens. We all had them to one degree or another– death, guilt, worry. But the burdens of friendship, I decided, were ones I’d take any day. As we headed out into the hallway, Sheppard and McKay started arguing over whose stash of breakfast cereal we should eat in recognition of the destruction of the device and I just followed along silently. They wouldn’t shut up long enough for me to get a word in anyway, so why bother trying? But I didn’t really mind, that just meant I’d accomplished what Teyla had asked me to do. She better watch out, I thought with self-satisfaction. I was actually starting to catch on to this whole team mom gig.
Besides, if I said anything they might remember that I had the bottle with the worm in it and want to drink that instead. And this friendship thing… it only extends so far.