Genre: Gen and old school h/c
Characters: John and Rodney and team
Word count: ~ 7,000
Spoilers: anything up through season 5
Author Notes: This fic was written for the Jumper 4 zine from 2011 (and expired months ago, but I forgot to post it). Thanks to Brate and her wonderful crew of editors and proof readers for making this fic so much better!
Summary: Attacked by "allies" off-world, Sheppard struggles to keep Rodney alive.
Yes, I'm still in the land of the living...the very busy, no free time land of the living. Keep any eye out, though, as I'll be posting a new Sherlock fic shortly (sequel to Bedtime Stories). In the meantime, bide your time with this expired zine fic from SGA!
With a grunt, Ronon and I dig our boots into the polished marble floor and push the massive dining table across the length of the banquet hall. Without a second thought for the elegant place settings and remnants of the feast still resting on top of the table, we tip it over and ram it against the double doors leading into the room. Ronon has managed to wedge a broken chair leg between the elaborately carved handles of the door, but I’m not sure how long it will hold against the men trying to get back into the room, and I figure we might as well put this big-ass table to use as a barricade. It doesn’t seem possible that such delicate china and ornate silverware could make as loud of a crash as it does, but the immediate destruction of all the finery has my lips curling in a malicious grin. If I had my way, I’d smash every goddamned serving plate and finger bowl in this place for what they’ve done to McKay.
As the sound of breaking dinnerware fades, I turn my attention to other heavy furniture in the room even as I call to Teyla, "How’s he doing?"
She is kneeling on the floor beside McKay with his bulletproof vest, useless piece of shit that it has turned out to be, splayed open. "It appears the bullet has entered his lung," she reports gravely.
Rodney’s strangled, "Oh, God," pretty much sums up my thoughts on the matter, as well.
But I can’t give into the urge to panic. Instead, I step around the body of a dead Ardellin soldier and help Ronon heft a gilded china hutch on its side and slide it through the glass and porcelain remnants of what the cabinet once contained.
"How’s his breathing?" I ask as soon as the hutch is in place by the door.
Teyla is lifting her head from Rodney's chest by the time Ronon and I reach them. "Good…considering. It does not appear that the lung has collapsed." She presses a napkin against the side of his ribcage. Red quickly blossoms through the white linen.
I drop to a squat beside McKay as his eyes blink in an attempt to stay open. "Can’t take …you two… anywhere nice," he slurs with a glance toward the destruction by the doors then at me and Ronon.
Ronon shrugs beside me. "They had too many forks and spoons to choose from."
"One’s… too many… for you," Rodney points out.
Ronon doesn’t argue; in fact, he uses it to prove a point. "Which is why I don’t trust anyone who puts six on the table for a single meal."
Too many dining utensils-- not exactly a red flag to most people, but there had been plenty of others with the Ardellins, and I had missed them all. In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t completely my fault for missing them, seeing as they were supposed to be our allies. But things had changed in Pegasus while Atlantis had been stuck on Earth, and we were just starting to truly come to terms with the fallout since our return. We had been away less than a year, but that had been enough time for the power structure in the galaxy to shift. Todd’s ruse to maintain control over a Wraith alliance had slipped thanks to his "queen" being in an entirely different galaxy. I guess there were only so many times the guy could say she was in the bathroom when other Hives wanted to talk to her. As a result, another queen had made a play for his alliance, and in response, the Coalition of Worlds had gained more members to stand against the Wraith. Unfortunately, as is typical with any political alliance, the more worlds that joined up, the more ideas on how to deal with the Wraith arose, so there were now splinter groups forming within the Coalition.
And one of those splinters has gotten us but good.
"He needs to return to Atlantis for medical attention," Teyla notes needlessly.
I look around the room helplessly. With its windows letting in beams of moonlight a good ten feet up the stone walls and a large fireplace smoldering at the end of the room opposite the only doors, it doesn’t look like there’s an easy way out of this place.
Ronon pulls the gun from his holster. "I’ll make a path; you two get McKay through it."
Teyla speaks before I can. "Ronon, there are at least twenty men out there."
They’d had more men, but we had the better weapons, even with our P90s stored politely outside the banquet hall. Once three of their men went down to our sidearms, it had been enough to chase the remaining guards and dinner guests out of the room. It wouldn’t be enough to get us out of the building and safely to the gate.
"She’s right," I agree, "a frontal assault isn’t going to get us anywhere but in a grave."
"Then how do we get out of here?" Ronon demands.
My attention turns reluctantly to the wall of the room again. "If Teyla stands on your shoulders, she could reach one of the windows and lower a rope or something down to climb out. That should access the roof and a way down."
"John," Teyla says quietly, brown eyes flicking meaningfully to McKay. She doesn’t have to say it out loud, I’d already thought of it. There is no way Rodney will be able to climb up to that window. Hell, even without a hole in his chest, I doubt he could climb a rope without having a debilitating flashback to junior high school gym class. Even if we could hoist him up there, scaling walls and scampering along rooftops was not something an injured man would be able to pull off.
Rodney understands his limitations, as well; his eyes widen, dark pupils growing larger as shock is starting to set in. "I know… this is where… supposed to be… heroic… say save yourselves…leave me…" His gaze locks on mine. "But please… don’t leave me."
I almost laugh at the desperation I see in his pleading expression. Not because he doesn’t have a reason to be scared shitless-- hell, I’m right there with him-- but because it’s me we’re talking about here, and him, and I will always be right there with him. Jesus, I’m John Sheppard, the man who risked his entire career to go after a buddy who was presumed dead at the time. After what I did for Holland, did he really think I would leave someone I knew was still breathing behind? After what I went through to find Teyla when Michael had her, or Ronon when the Wraith had him, did he really think I would leave anyone on my team behind?
"We’re not going anywhere," I assure him. "We’re going to stay here and relax while Teyla and Ronon go for backup. Let them do all the heavy lifting for a change."
Ronon and Teyla speak over one another, but I stop their protests with a shake of my head. "We can’t go out the front door, and Rodney can’t go out the back. Our best chance is bringing help from Atlantis. The gate is in the town center a few blocks from here; you won’t even break a sweat, and you’ll be there and back in a few minutes."
That was if they could get past the guards stationed around the manor house where we were trapped, which were sure to number in the shitloads. They may have thought me staying behind with McKay was the suicide mission; I wasn’t convinced I was asking anything less from them. But at least out there they would be moving targets. Targets all the same, but not stationary ones.
Neither looks happy, but I focus my attention on Teyla, the most reasonable and quietly logical of our group, and when she finally, reluctantly nods, Ronon does the same.
"If we cut away the trim at the bottom of the tapestries," Teyla suggests, "we can tie them together to make a rope."
I pull my own knife to start cutting. "Good idea."
I’m only halfway through my second tapestry when Rodney calls weakly, "Sheppard?"
I move back to where he lies on the floor. "Hey, buddy. How’re you doing?"
"Hard…to… breathe." He struggles to puff out each word.
My stomach rolls at the news, but I mask my fears and place my ear to his chest. His heart is racing madly, kind of like my own, and the whoosh of air filling his lung isn’t as comforting as it could be. It means his labored breathing is probably a result of blood pooling in it instead of it collapsing, but either one will kill him if we don’t get help soon.
"Let’s see what we can do about that," I tell him casually. "Ronon, can you give me a hand?"
Between the two of us, we manage to maneuver him across the floor to prop him against the stone wall. Funny how he can be so much lighter than the table we moved a few minutes before across a similar stretch of marble, and yet the trail of red we leave in our wake weighs like a lead brick in my gut. It just goes to remind me how excruciatingly delicate human beings can be, how they can splinter and break like the shards of china spilled across the same polished floor as Rodney’s blood.
"How’s that?" I ask hopefully. "Better?"
With a lick of his lips, McKay gives up on trying to keep his eyes open, but manages a half nod. "Better," he assures breathlessly.
Looking back at the smear of red on the floor has me checking his bandage. Just as I suspected, the napkin is soaked through with blood. I toss it away even as I pull a field dressing from one of my pockets and press it against the wound that sits in that vulnerable soft spot where the front and back of the tac vest meet.
Rodney’s skin glistens in the flickering lamp light, and I swipe the back of my hand across my own forehead to wipe away sweat.
McKay waves a hand haphazardly at me. "You have a little… me on you."
My brow furrows in confusion until I notice the red staining the hand I just used to touch my face. When he smirks drunkenly at me, his teeth are tinted an unnerving shade of pink, and I can’t stop my grimace. "So do you."
His smile wavers and he pulls in a ragged breath. "John…maybe I…was wrong…"
I realize then it’s not pain but him screwing up his courage that had the air stuttering into his lungs, and I stop him before he can try to be the bigger man and talk me into leaving, too. "You? The infallible Dr. Rodney McKay wrong? Never. And even if you were, you would never in a million years admit it."
He sucks in another breath, but before he can speak again, I squeeze his ankle and stand abruptly, dropping all pretense of calm with Ronon as I move out of earshot of McKay. "You and Teyla need to bring back the cavalry, and do it fast."
The way Ronon frowns, I can tell he’s more than aware of our need for speed at the moment. "That’s long enough," he tells Teyla of her work on the rope. "Let’s go."
Teyla loops her improvised rope over her arm and I help her up onto Ronon’s shoulders. It’s a stretch, but she’s able to reach the crossbars of the large window, pull herself up, and climb out. A few seconds later she appears once more and sets to tying off the rope of golden fringe and lowering it to Ronon. "There is a ledge that leads to a drain pipe. We can use it to climb down into the gardens. From there we can access the alleyway and make our way to the gate."
The rope ends a little short of Ronon’s reach, but with a boost from me, he is able to grasp it and start scaling the wall. The two of them barely glance back before disappearing into the night. In the banquet hall, the lamps lining the walls provide more than enough light to see easily, which could be a bad thing if the men outside break through the door. Darkness could be our best defense, so I go on the offense and make my way around the room extinguishing them all except the one closest to where McKay slumps against the wall. Halfway around the room, Ronon’s voice whispers in my earpiece that they ran into two guards in the garden but easily took care of them.
When I reach Rodney, he looks up at me with a hitched eyebrow. "Setting…the mood?"
The renewed banging at the doors sounds like they are using something large to try to ram their way in. Even in the low light, I can see the door bulge outward from the force, like a person taking a deep breath before blowing out the candles on their birthday cake.
"Nothing like a little ambiance during a siege," I comment even as I check my gun. I swap out my magazine for a full one before I press it into Rodney’s hand and wrap his fingers around it. When he looks at it with a bit of confusion I explain, "Just in case company comes early."
"Oh…good," he practically pants, slumping into me a little more. "For a minute…there…thought we were…in trouble."
I can’t stop the way my lips quirk at the quote, even though that final scene with Butch and Sundance is disturbingly familiar at the moment, especially as I pull his sidearm from its holster and check it like I had my own, before clicking off the safety and gripping it tightly when the door heaves again.
I use my shoulder to push Rodney up enough that I can stand to quickly extinguish the last lamp above our heads. As I do, I catch sight of the blood-soaked napkin I had tossed aside a few minutes early. It had snagged on the remnants of the chair Ronon had smashed to jam the door and now hangs limply like a sodden red flag. On the firing range, a red flag signifies live ammo exercises are underway. As I douse the lamp and slide back down to sit shoulder to shoulder with McKay, I can’t help but think it’s somehow appropriate I’ve made that connection.
In the U.S. military, Red Flag is also an aerial combat training exercise, often involving allied countries and their aircraft. It lets a pilot train against actual enemy aircraft and weaponry in a staged battlefield situation. In theory it’s a damn fine idea, but after spending some time in Pegasus I’ve started to wonder. After all, how many "allies" have we had that turned against us once they had a taste of what our weapons could do? Since our time away from Pegasus, the situation has been made even worse by the discord in the Coalition of Worlds.
If anything, the return of Atlantis has just exacerbated the situation. Some factions in the Coalition believe Atlantis is their saving grace against the Wraith, others want nothing to do with the returning city, while a growing number believe Atlantis is good for just one thing--her extensive collection of Ancient and Earth-based technology, and they don’t need the expedition members to use it if they can learn to use it themselves. It seems our hosts for the evening’s feast fall firmly in the third category. The irony is that their target to kidnap tonight, the man who can tell them everything they need to know about both Ancient and Earth weapons, has been the one to get caught in the crossfire.
"I swear to God, every time I think we can trust somebody, they bite us in the ass," I grumble.
"Can trust…me," Rodney assures. "Got…your…back."
"Wasn’t talking about you," I clarify. Although the increasing weight against my side makes me think he’d be lucky to raise the gun, much less fire it with any accuracy at the moment. "Meant the bastards here in Pegasus."
"Oh." He slides down a little farther beside me. "They…all suck."
"Yeah," I sigh, "they all seriously do."
"Think they…think…same…about us?"
His hand comes up and I can feel him swipe at his mouth, and I can picture the red tint to the spittle even though I can’t actually see it.
I cover my concern with a snort. "Well, seeing as they shot you, I’d have to say yes, they think we suck. Then again, seeing as you were the only one shot, maybe they think it’s just you who sucks."
"Yeah," I droll, and flex my hand around the grip of Rodney’s gun. "Never had it so easy in my life."
"Now what?" The words come out in a rush, blown out in a warm huff against my neck.
"Well, we could analyze your personality and see if we can figure out why you piss off people with guns so much that they want to shoot you," I suggest dryly.
"You mean…smartasses…like you?"
"Hey," I protest, "I was under the influence of a Wraith brain-fucking device, same as you. Besides, I said I was sorry."
I can just imagine the rolled eyes. "Thanks…Meant…the world." Only Rodney McKay could embed so much derision into a few gasped words.
"Fine," I grumble, "we can just sit here and wait in silence."
McKay flinches against me when the men in the hallway ram into the door again. "Wait…for them…break down…door?"
I shrug and feel Rodney slump into me even more. "Or for Atlantis to show up; whichever comes first."
"Point your gun in that direction and shoot, and keep shooting until I tell you to stop or you need to reload."
"Oh…shoot blindly." I feel his head nod weakly. "One of my…strong… suits."
"You’ve practically made a career of it," I agree with only a hint of sarcasm--shooting blindly has managed to keep him alive more times than I care to give the technique credit. Hell, it’s kept me alive a few times, too.
There’s no smartass comeback and I give him a jostle with my shoulder. "Stay alert, McKay."
He rouses slightly and slurs, "'M awake."
"Good, stay that way." It’s a futile order since I can already feel his head bob against my shoulder once more.
I haven’t heard that lost tone in his voice since he had that damn space amoeba in his brain, and it twists a knot in my stomach as all the fear and dread and helplessness I’d felt over those weeks of his illness comes rushing back to me.
With a pat to his leg I assure, "Right here, Rodney."
I don’t have time to figure out if that’s a rhetorical question in general or one meant just for me in this situation, as another barrage against the door has the wood groaning against the pressure. It holds, but Rodney doesn’t even lift his head this time.
In the distance, I hear gunfire, and I can’t tell if it is ours or theirs. It ends as abruptly as it began, and I key my radio. "Teyla? Ronon? Do you copy?"
There’s no answer.
"Teyla, Ronon, respond."
The only sound through my radio is silence. Beside me, Rodney’s head has come to rest heavily on my shoulder.
"McKay?" I clear my throat when my voice cracks slightly on his name.
His rasping inhalation of breath fills the darkness, followed by an exhausted exhalation. In…out. In….out. It’s not the smartass conversation I was hoping for, but at least it’s a response, and I cling to it desperately.
"They probably went through the gate," I tell him in a whisper, which is all I’m capable of at the moment. "That’s why they aren’t responding on the radio."
I do my best to block out the sound of banging on the door so I can concentrate on a much more important sound at the moment.
"Yeah, I’m sure that’s why they didn’t respond. They went through the gate and will be bringing back help any minute now." I rest my chin on top of his head and close my eyes. "So we’ll just wait here for them."
I can hear the door splinter. Not all the way, but enough that a few more blows will have them in the room. I still don’t open my eyes. I’m not even sure why I have them closed given how dark it is in here now.
Holland died in the daylight, the blinding desert sun bleaching the color from the sky, blistering our skin, burning the very life out him, and searing that image into my brain for the rest of my goddamn life. I used to think that if he had died at night, it wouldn’t have been so bad--at least I wouldn’t have seen it happen. But here in the dark, I can feel it; I can feel the weight of Rodney limp against my shoulder, feel the way his breathing is becoming more labored with each inhalation. Hell, I can even feel the ache in his chest grow with each passing second.
Then again, maybe that pain is all my own.
Back on Atlantis, there’s a storage closet that contains a flag for every member of the expedition. It’s kind of morbid when you stop to think about it, but it’s there for a reason. Every person that dies is sent back to Earth in a coffin draped with the flag of the country they represent. There are stacks of stars and stripes, including one meant for me. There are flags from Japan, Germany, Switzerland, India, the Czech Republic, and Scotland, just to name a few. And yeah, there are even a few red and white ones emblazoned with a maple leaf.
That closet is my responsibility, because every time I have to pull out a flag, it means I fucked up. I’m the head of military operations on Atlantis; ultimately, it’s my job to keep them safe. It’s my job to see the red flags when they show up so the flags in that closet never see the light of day. It’s my job to stop the trouble before it even starts, and when I don’t….
Well, here we are. Here we fucking are.
I honestly don’t know if I can pull a Canadian flag from that damn storeroom. That’s one red flag I can’t bear to see.
Maybe that’s why I don’t lift my gun when the wooden chair leg holding the door closed finally snaps under the pressure of the ram, and Aldellin voices echo through the banquet hall over the sound of furniture being pushed aside. However, my eyes snap open at the sound of a more familiar voice in my ear.
"Colonel Sheppard, do you copy?"
"Lorne!" I exclaim over the excited voices clambering over the debris at the doorway. "Where the hell are you?"
"In a jumper outside the house. Teyla says you’re on the other side of this chimney. Can you take cover?"
I know exactly what he has in mind, but even if there was some place to hide from the rubble of the wall he’s planning to blow, the first soldiers are entering the room.
"No time. Fire now!" I order, doing my best to cover Rodney’s head with my arms.
I am more than aware of what a drone can do. I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and now I am going to experience it. Here’s hoping I survive it. For a split second, the room is ablaze in light as the fireplace and the flames inside race from one end of the room to the other along with the drone, a small sun all its own. I squeeze my eyes closed tight against its brilliance, then the debris rains down. A sharp pain explodes in my temple, and I find I no longer need to worry about blocking out the light.
Teyla’s voice cuts through the darkness.
"John, can you hear me?"
It also feels like it’s cutting through my skull.
I crack one eye open enough to see the small smile on her face, then close it quickly with a groan at the way the room is spinning. It takes me a second to realize my hands are fisted around sheets and that I’m lying on a mattress and not a stone floor. I attempt to open my eyes again to confirm that I am, in fact, back on Atlantis, but if anything, that just increases the speed of the bed spins. My relief at recognizing the infirmary is short-lived, cut off by the sudden need to puke my guts up.
Teyla must have anticipated what was coming, as I suddenly find a bedpan in my hands and cling to it for dear life.
Large hands brace me, then rub my back in an awkwardly soothing motion while I finish emptying my stomach. No matter how long I know Ronon, I will always be amazed at how brutality and gentleness can reside in one person so easily.
"Carson says you have a bad concussion," Ronon explains.
Teyla elaborates, "You were struck on the head by a brick during the explosion."
I give up on any attempt to focus on them and close my eyes as my stomach rolls again. The explosion? Things were hazy, but I did vaguely remember an explosion and doing my best to cover McKay…McKay who had been shot.
"Rodney?" I manage to croak out.
"In surgery," Teyla tells me.
I don’t need to open my eyes again to see her worry; I can hear it plain enough in her voice. If anything, it makes my nausea even worse.
Draping an arm across my eyes does nothing to slow the spinning. I swallow down bile and ask, "How long?"
"A little over an hour," she says and squeezes my arm. "You should rest, John. I promise we will wake you if we hear anything about Rodney."
I don’t remember drifting off again, but I must have, seeing as they do wake me twice more-- not with any news on McKay, but to make sure my brain hasn’t turned to complete mush from the explosion. The thing about concussions is that they are suspiciously like being a prisoner of war--you’re continually providing mundane information like your name, rank, and serial number.
The medical staff’s answer to my repetitive question about how Rodney’s doing is met with a similarly rote response. "As soon as we know something, we’ll tell you, Colonel."
The queasiness has subsided enough that I’m able to stay awake, although the pounding in my head has me once more draping my arm across my eyes to block out even the low light in the infirmary. It’s another half-hour before Carson finally comes out to talk to us.
"He did well through the surgery." His head bobbles slightly. "Considering."
"Considering?" I ask. Although considering where he was shot, considering how long it took to get him medical help, considering how we were blown up by a drone, considering all that, it’s kind of a stupid question.
"I won’t lie to you, Colonel," Carson admits, "it was very touch and go in there and he’s not out of the woods yet, but he’s stable now. More than that, he’s Rodney-- I’ve never met a man more intent on staying alive than him."
I manage to force a small curve of my lips for the encouragement and concentrate on the fact that he survived surgery. That has to count for something… hell, a lot.
Teyla stands and asks, "When can we see him?"
"He’s going to be out for the rest of the night," Carson explains with a shake of his head. "He’s sedated; he has a chest tube to keep his lung inflated properly… the best thing you can do is go home and get some rest and wait until tomorrow."
"You’re going to be keeping me here overnight. Right?" I’m never one for stays in the infirmary, but when it serves my purpose, I’m not going to turn down the opportunity. "You know, for observation. After all, I have a concussion. And since I’m going to be here anyway…."
Carson sighs. "Give us a little time to get him settled, Colonel, and I’ll work something out."
A few hours later, Carson leads me to the post-op room. The nurse looks up from checking Rodney’s chest tube and gives me a smile before adjusting the leads to one of his monitors. McKay is pale and out for the count, but at least his breathing seems to be easier than before.
Carson snags my arm before I can move too close to Rodney’s bed, and steers me toward another bed against the wall. "This one’s for you," he tells me firmly. "As long as you stay here, you can stay in the room."
"Wouldn’t think of leaving this bed," I promise, sitting on the edge of the mattress.
Carson narrows his eyes threateningly. It’s in line with having a toothless basset hound growl at me, but I do my best to look sincere in my intentions to stay in the bed. And I do…for a whole twelve minutes.
It’s not really my fault, though, seeing as Rodney’s eyes sliver open and he looks dazedly over to where I’m lying in my bed.
"Hey." I push up and steady myself from the head rush before dragging a chair over to sit next to him. "How’re you feeling?" I whisper with a quick glance over my shoulder to make sure Carson isn’t coming.
"You’re still here," he mumbles in a sleepy voice.
"So are you," I note.
"Yay, us." The less than enthusiastic thumbs-up he gives droops, as do his eyelids, and within seconds he’s out again.
I consider going back to my bed, but he could wake up again at any minute and I’d just be coming back over to the chair, so I decide it’s probably best to stay where I am. When he doesn’t rouse after a few more minutes, I let my own eyes close against the pounding in my head.
A shake to my shoulder has my eyes flying open to find Carson standing beside my chair with a disapproving glower on his face and a blanket draped over his arm.
"Can you give me your name?"
With a sigh I tell him, "John Sheppard, and you’re Carson Beckett, and he’s Rodney McKay."
The frown doesn’t leave his face. "Do you remember how you got here?"
"We were on a mission on Ardelli, things went…bad." I intentionally skim over those bad details even though my eyes flick toward Rodney’s bed. "I was hit in the head by a piece of the wall when Lorne blew it with the Jumper."
"Do you remember my explicit instructions not to get out of your bed to sit here in this chair?"
"Well, technically, you never mentioned anything about this chair." His deepening scowl has me rolling my eyes but admitting, "Yes, I remember your instructions."
He studies me a few seconds before dropping the blanket across my legs. "At least your injuries haven’t scrambled your brain enough to affect your memories, and unfortunately, I can’t blame your blatant disregard for my medical instructions on your concussion."
"Thanks, Carson," I tell him in genuine relief because he’s letting me stay.
He doesn’t pause on his way to the door. "You can tell me that again when I’m back in an hour to check on you."
I don’t mind being awakened every hour; it lets me see that McKay is still holding his own. By the next day when Carson sends me back to my quarters, Rodney is already bitching about the chest tube restricting his ability to roll over, while simultaneously milking it for sympathy from everyone who stops by to see him. After three days, they remove the tube and he has to find something else to complain about, but with him, that wasn’t a problem. And after a week, he is trying to talk Carson into releasing him, at least to his quarters so he can keep a closer eye on the science staff.
So, I’m not too surprised when he walks in on me in the storage closet with all the flags.
"Hey." His bathrobe is hanging open over his sleep pants and t-shirt, and he shuffles when he walks, but it’s a huge improvement over lying unresponsive in a hospital bed.
I quickly shove the package in my hand onto a shelf and turn around with a frown. "Hey. What’re you doing here? Carson finally boot your ass or did you make a run for it?"
"Let’s just call it a mutual parting of ways and leave it at that," he grumbles. "If he doesn’t want me raising my voice in the infirmary, he shouldn’t keep me from overseeing the latest gate diagnostic."
I raise eyebrows at the explanation. "So why are you down here instead of helping Zelenka with the gate?"
He looks around the store room and mumbles, "Let’s call that a mutual parting of the ways, as well. But I will not be held responsible if the gate explodes and vaporizes half this planet in the next hour."
"Kind of hard to play the blame game if we’re all cosmic dust." I seriously doubt we’re in any danger whatsoever, else nothing would keep McKay away from the control room, even a bossy Czech.
"The only reason I hope there is an afterlife is precisely so I can say, ‘I told you so,’ to whoever is to blame. Because, obviously, it won’t be me." He peers curiously at the shelves. "What’s the point of eternity if I can’t have eternal vindication?"
"You should start your own religion-- The Rodney McKay Church of Perpetual Exoneration and Everlasting Dinner Buffet."
"Hmm," he concludes with a crinkle of his nose at the flags he’s been studying. "Speaking of the hereafter and food, are you almost done? I was thinking of grabbing something in the cafeteria; might as well have a last meal if Radek is going to kill us all before lunch is served. That is unless something happened I wasn’t aware of and you need to…." Hands twirl awkwardly toward the shelves.
"No, nothing happened." I pull a parcel out of the box at my feet. "These are for the new arrivals that came in on the Daedalus last month. This is the first chance I’ve had to unpack them." I show him the neatly folded flag in my hand. "Paraguay. I think that’s a first for Atlantis."
"Did you know the emblem on the front of their flag is different than the one on the back? And their primary exports are soybeans and cotton? Sixth grade world history report." McKay’s smug grin is replaced by a slight grimace and hand to his side when he starts to rock back on his heels.
"Hmm," I answer distractedly as I place the flag carefully on the shelf, "I wonder which side faces up when it’s draped over a casket?" Catching myself, I backpedal. "I mean if, if it’s draped over a casket."
Rodney pauses as if trying to decide if he wants to say something or not. Finally he speaks. "Sheppard, we all knew when we walked through the gate that first time this could be a one-way trip. All of us, even the scientists. The people today know the risks even better than we did, and they still come. Hell, they fight for the privilege to come."
I give a humorless chuckle. "Kind of makes you wonder about the quality of the psych evals the SGC is doing, doesn’t it?"
McKay has a frown on his face when I look back over my shoulder. It’s not anger or irritation, but puzzlement.
"When I was in college, I always went home for the holidays," he tells me, seemingly out of the blue. "Even though I knew my parents would argue, Jeannie and I would fight, my grandfather would get drunk, and someone would always be reduced to tears."
I have no idea where he’s going with this conversation, but I can’t help but grin. "It was you, wasn’t? You were reduced to tears."
His frown deepens and now there is the glint of annoyance in his eyes. "The point is, even though I knew it was going to suck, I went anyway because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You go home for Christmas, you suck it up, and you take it like a man until the winter break was over and you could go back to school."
"Except when you were crying like a little girl."
He rolls his eyes at the jab. "Sheppard, why do you have to be like this?"
"Why are you telling me this story?" I demand in equal exasperation.
"I’m trying to make a point!"
"Then make it!"
He waves the arm on his good side. "I went home because I had to; I didn’t have any place else to go. That’s what going back to Earth felt like. Yes, it was going home, but it was the home I was obligated to visit when I’d rather have been here."
We’d been given a choice when Atlantis was ready to leave Earth—stay on Earth or return to Pegasus. Some had stayed, and I didn’t blame a single one who did. Pegasus is dangerous and merciless. If the Wraith aren’t trying to eat you, the city is on the verge of self-destruction, or your supposed allies are holding you at gunpoint. But despite all that, Rodney and I had been two of the most vocal about returning it to Pegasus in the first place.
"And maybe you’re right," Rodney admits with a flutter of fingers around his temple, "maybe wanting to come back here should be a huge red flag to the psychiatrist evaluating my fitness for duty, but it’s the truth."
"Red flags shouldn’t be ignored, McKay." He thinks I’m deflecting his comment when I’m being brutally honest, maybe not about his mental state, but about the importance of red flags in general.
His shoulders slump and he shakes his head. "You never answered my question." He shrugs. "Well, maybe you did and I just didn’t hear it thanks to being shot and on the verge of death, but since I’m not dead, I’d like to hear it now. Do you ever wish you weren’t here?"
"Depends," I prevaricate, preferring to be a smartass over thinking about the first time he asked me that question. "Are you going to cry like you did at your family reunions when you hear my answer?"
He throws an arm up and turns to leave. "I swear to God, I might as well have stayed in the infirmary and had a conversation with a bedpan. At least it has a legitimate reason for being full of shit."
He pauses just outside the door and I take a deep breath. How do I answer a question like that? Do I ever wish I wasn’t here? When my best friend’s lungs are filling with his own blood and I can’t do a damn thing to stop it? When the bad guys are beating down a door so they can kill us? How could I not wish I wasn’t there? Then again, if I wasn’t there, who would have been with McKay?
"No, I’ve never wished I wasn’t here."
The only thing I can think of worse than Rodney dying is the thought of him dying alone. As long as I’m here, that will never happen.
"Well…good." He responds awkwardly from the hallway. "I never wished I wasn’t here either."
"Good," I tell him in return.
"Good," he affirms.
"Good," I repeat.
"Okay, I think we’ve firmly established the goodness of the whole situation," he snaps in feigned irritation. "Now let's go to the cafeteria; I need you to carry my tray for me."
It’s my turn to roll my eyes. "Plus you can’t get enough of my magnetic personality and captivating dinner conversation. Right?"
"Yeah, if you say so." His voice is already fading down the corridor. "Chop, chop, I’m hungry."
"Give me a second," I call, then pull out the flag I’d been looking at before he came in.
Red and white and emblazoned with a maple leaf, I heft its weight in my hand-- so much lighter than it could have been if things had gone differently. McKay didn’t dodge a literal bullet, but I’m well aware that I dodged an emotional one. Red flags are everywhere. Sometimes we see them, sometimes we don’t. Normally, that’s a bad thing when we miss them, because bad things happen when we do. Really bad things. But as I place it back on its proper shelf with the other Canadian banners, I’m so damn grateful this red flag will stay hidden a while longer that I won’t miss seeing it one bit. As long as it’s in this storeroom, it means McKay’s here in Atlantis, and that isn’t bad at all. In fact, as we’ve already established, it’s good. It’s all good, and that goes a long way in making me glad I’m here, too. Because here is Atlantis, here is home—the real kind, not the obligatory one.
And I’d hate to wish I wasn’t here.