When John finally tracked Rodney down, the scientist was back in his lab staring out the window Sheppard had busted to make his ascent to the control room.
“You really climbed up the side of the tower?” McKay didn’t look back from where he was gingerly leaning out and back to try to make out the path Sheppard had taken.
“Free climbed.” John gave a quick flick of his eyebrows as he crammed his hands in his pockets to rock back smugly.
The appalled look on Rodney’s face just made Sheppard’s grin spread. “Christ. You were climbing the tower, Radek was crawling through the duct work to save the city, and I was lying on the floor in the botany lab.”
“Really?” John asked with a hint of approval at just exactly what Rodney and Katie had been doing during their time in lockup.
“No, nothing like that… unfortunately.”
McKay’s answer had the bawdy smile on Sheppard’s face replaced with a confused frown. “Well, you asked her, didn’t you?”
“Not in so many words, no.” Ducking his head and crossing back over to his workstation, Rodney seemed to want to end the conversation there. But John trailed on his heels.
“Then what are you doing here? Go ask her already. I’d hate to see that spectacular rock weighting down your pocket go to waste.”
“She’s aware of the ring,” Rodney mumbled, not looking up from the computer screen.
“And?” John persisted.
McKay raised his chin defensively, which answered Sheppard’s question before the man told him, “We came to the mutual conclusion that I… we aren’t ready for the next step, after all.”
“So you blew it?”
“Look, marriage is a big step for me…” Rodney started in frustration before sighing and trying to find the right words.
“It’s a big step for anybody,” John supplied and McKay pointed in agreement.
“Exactly! It’s a big step, and before you take that sort of step you have make sure you know the person you’re going to take that step with and after today I realized that Katie… didn’t know me as well as I thought she did and today, under duress and in a stressful situation, I let her see a part of me she hadn’t experienced yet and… I… blew it.”
Rodney sat heavily in his seat and John slapped his shoulder. “Good.”
“What?” McKay demanded in confusion.
The fact was, John had never really gotten the whole Katie Brown thing. Sure she was cute and sweet and friendly and upbeat, but that wasn’t Rodney. It may have been what he thought he wanted, but in the long run it was the last thing he needed. The problem was, that wasn’t something John could exactly point out to Rodney, because that was another thing about McKay‒ he had to learn things for himself, often the hard way.
“Aren’t you glad you found this out now instead of a few years down the line when you were married with kids and in-laws and lawyers involve?”
“I suppose,” he mumbled morosely.
“Believe me, I know it. You should look at this as a… a tactical retreat.” John was rather pleased with his phrasing. “It’s best just to have a clean break and get on with your life.”
“We didn’t break up,” Rodney informed him and John blinked in surprise. The reaction had Rodney’s eyes widening in a panic. “Oh my God, we broke up, didn’t we?”
“I don’t know,” Sheppard stammered, kind of wishing he’d quit while he was ahead. “I wasn’t there. But, usually, in this sort of situation…” John grimaced at what the typical result was. “Look, if it really is meant to be with Katie, then nothing will keep it from happening. But if it wasn’t, then… good riddance, I say. She doesn’t know what she’s missing.”
Rodney managed a sad little smile at the attempt John was making. “I really tried with her. I really did try.”
Sitting in the chair beside his friend, John assured him, “I know you did.”
“During that whole ascension machine ordeal, I came to the conclusion that I’m not always as nice to people as I could be and I’ve been trying to do better, you know?”
“I know you have, but, listen, you can’t change who you are and you shouldn’t have to. If you weren’t arrogant and brash and demanding, I don’t think we’d still be alive right now.”
“Radek’s none of those things and he contributed greatly to saving the day today. Sam’s not like that and she’s kept the entire Milky Way intact for years.”
“Yeah, but Zelanka and Colonel Carter aren’t on my team and, the truth is, I wouldn’t want them on my team because I doubt Carter would play video games with me and I’d never stand a chance of beating Radek at chess.”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “So that’s what you look for in a teammate? Someone who plays games with you and lets you win occasionally?”
“You don’t let me win,” Sheppard frowned. “I beat you fair and square. And you want to know how I know that? Because you sulk when you lose. You sulk and rant and find excuses for your blood sugar being low or radio calls distracting you or my aftershave causing you to sneeze. And when you win, you gloat.”
“So what you’re saying is that I didn’t learn anything from the ascend-or-die trauma?”
“What I’m saying is that I learned something from that mess, too. I can’t always climb a tower or detonate a bomb or shoot the bad guys to keep my team safe. I’m not good at just sitting and waiting and I suck at standing around a deathbed.”
“If it’s any consolation, you didn’t suck with the deathbed thing. It was nice… well, nice isn’t exactly the right word seeing as I was dying and that truly did suck out loud. But if I had to be in that situation, it ends up that’s exactly how I wanted it to be. It was comforting to have you guys there like that.”
John couldn’t stop the pleased quirk of his lips at the news because at the time, all he had felt was helpless and useless and… just plain less. He’d felt the same way when he thought Rodney had been killed by the crystal entity in his dream, and the fact that that son of a bitch had dug down into John’s subconscious and found that fear to prey on only went to prove the point he was trying to make with McKay.
“I guess what I’m trying to get across here is that I have to face up to the fact that I can’t always stop things from happening and given the world that we live in here, chances are, one day, I’m not going to get as lucky as I have in the past. So, I can’t take things… people for granted. And if that means overlooking some of the more superficial, less than flattering traits that person has in favor of the deeper-seated, positive ones, then so be it. And if Katie Brown can’t take the time to do the same, then she’s the one who’s missing out.”
“You know, she thought playing video games was a waste of time.”
“And pruning house plants isn’t?” John scoffed.
“And she didn’t understand why I still had all my old comic books.”
“Some people just don’t appreciate the finer things in life.”
“And she doesn’t think Monty Python is that funny and she’s never read a single Douglas Adam’s book.”
“You, my friend, just dodged a serious bullet,” John told him earnestly as he sat back in his seat and crossed his arms.
Rodney shrugged one shoulder and seemed to be contemplating the truth of that statement. “So I guess I’m single again, huh?”
“Eh, being single isn’t that bad. I mean, look what being in a relationship got Teyla… puking, grounded, and a distinct waddle when she walks.”
“Yeah,” he sighed, and John realized a little too late that that was something McKay had been looking forward to with Katie. He’d seen his sister with a family, a life filled with domesticated bliss, and while that seemed to work great for Jeannie, he couldn’t picture Rodney settling into suburbia so easily.
“Hey, if it makes you feel better, you can help me raise Teyla’s baby if anything happens to her.”
All ruminations about the family he’d never have with Katie disappeared. “What?”
“Nothing,” John dismissed with an awkward scratch at his hair as he mumbled hurriedly. “I just promised Teyla we’d look after the baby if something were to happen to her on a mission after he’s born.”
“You volunteered the two of us by name?”
“No! Jesus. I just told her there would always be a family here for her kid if he needed it. Was I lying?”
“Of course not, it’s just… you’re going to keep an extra eye out for her in the field when she goes back out. Right?”
“Oh, hell yes. There is no way I’m going to be responsible for leaving her child an orphan. Besides, Teyla’s more than capable of taking care of herself when she’s not literally taking the baby itself in the field with her.”
Rodney let out an amazed little snort with a shake of his head. “I still can’t believe that Teyla’s going to have a baby. I mean, obviously, she is.” McKay put his hands out in front of himself in mimic of her bulging stomach to prove the point. “But it’s just… wow, a baby.”
“Yeah, wow about covers it.”
Teyla on the verge of motherhood, Rodney contemplating marriage, Ronon seeming rather suspiciously defensive about sitting beside Keller, and John… evidently losing his touch since he couldn’t even get Laryn’s damn number. Things were changing, shifting, and, honestly, scaring the shit out of him. He’d spent years trying not to let himself get comfortable in any one place, with any group of people, because it always seemed to come to an end. That was a hard lesson that he’s swore he wouldn’t repeat. But that had been before Atlantis, and now that he’d let down his guard and done it here, there was a part of him that was afraid it was going to happen again.
Then, again, here it felt different. Here it felt more solid, like the world he knew may be moving on in a direction he hadn’t expected but it was making sure he came along, too. Teyla had gone from hiding her pregnancy to talking to him about every damn fear she had, had let him feel the baby move, and that had been thrilling and sickening all at the same time because it had just gone to prove how right he’d been about pulling her from active duty and how lucky they’d been nothing had happened those three months before. Rodney had planned to propose to Katie, but he’d shown John the ring first, shared the excitement, hell, shared the anxiety. And as long as he kept Ronon in a supply of Earth-produced creature features, John was pretty sure the Big Guy wasn’t going anywhere no matter who he might be secretly dating.
“It’s big,” Rodney went on. “Huge. Almost as huge as she is.” The grin vanished. “Don’t tell her I said that because even in her delicate condition I still think she could kick my ass.”
Sheppard snorted. “I know she can.”
McKay nodded in agreement before becoming a little more melancholy. “A lot has changed around here over the past year or so. Teyla with the baby, Keller taking over in the infirmary, Sam taking over command. Hell, we’re even on a different planet and made friends with a Wraith… sort of.”
John could read the unspoken part of Rodney’s observation easily enough. The Athosians were missing, Carson and Elizabeth were dead, they’d nearly been destroyed by the Replicators and Rodney would have lost his sister if not for Todd, not to mention what Sheppard had done to make sure the Wraith didn’t starve to death. In a lot of ways, the last year and a half had been horrific and downright shitty. But it had also proven that old saying about the things that don’t kill you making you stronger. Every time he’d felt like he couldn’t go on, John felt the strength of his team pushing him on. And he’d done more than his share of pushing when one of the others needed it. When all was said and done, it was a good feeling to have that solid support at his back and made the shitty parts of the last year and a half bearable.
“Yeah, it’s been one wild ride. But one thing’s stayed the same; we’ve always managed to dust ourselves off and keep the city in one relatively whole piece.”
“I think my window may beg to differ,” McKay countered as he hitched his head toward the opening in his wall.
“The maintenance team will be here to fix it in a little bit, Rodney. No need to worry about coming down with a cold because of a draft.”
“Good. One deadly virus a day is more than enough for me… even if it was just an allergic reaction.”
John fought to maintain a straight face at the thought of Rodney having a total hypochondriac freak out in the botany lab. “I’m sure that’s all it was.” But to be fair, with no radio, no computer, and nothing but his rampant imagination and a woman who coddled instead of cajoled to keep him company, Sheppard wasn’t the least bit surprised that had been McKay’s reaction.
“I mean, I was surrounded by several dozen different species of alien plant life, any of which could have triggered the allergic response. That’s why when I go to see Katie I’m usually in and out as quick as possible.”
“Maybe that was half your problem, Rodney.”
McKay glared at the smartass grin and innuendo behind Sheppard’s comment. “Well, if she’d spent half as much time on me as she evidently did my namesake, her results might have been the same.” When John just gave him a raised eyebrow of confusion in response, Rodney shook his head. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter anymore anyway. I have a feeling those cultivating days are over.” Reaching into his pocket, McKay took the ring box out and looked at it with a sigh before putting it down on the desk. “I just wanted… Jeannie seems so happy and secure and she’ll never be alone. You know?”
“You planning on leaving Atlantis anytime soon, McKay?”
Rodney’s brow furrowed as he told John, “No.”
“Then you don’t have anything to worry about, do you?” Rodney just stared at him in some bizarre expression of disbelief and relief that had John feeling like he’d finally hit the right button. That was the thing about Rodney, he had a ton of buttons, and sometimes you had to try a couple before you found the right one to spur him on. Luckily, Sheppard had taken the time to learn them over the years, to understand them, to make sense of them, and, just like with Rodney’s password, they kind of stuck with you once you managed to do that.
Placing his hand on McKay’s shoulder, Sheppard ushered him toward the door. “Come on, I’ll buy you that beer I promised.”
“I don’t exactly have anything to celebrate, Sheppard,” he reminded.
“Then we’ll commiserate like you said.”
Rodney stopped at the door. “I’m starting to think I don’t have too much to commiserate over either.”
John’s smile changed from pleased to wicked as he headed out into the hall. “You will when we come back here and I hand your ass to you when I beat you thoroughly at PGA Tournament again.”
Rodney followed after him quickly. “Hand me my ass? You got completely lucky when you boogied on that last hole.”
“Bogied, McKay. It’s a golf course; not a disco. Although the way you were flailing about when I did it, it was kind of hard to tell the difference.”
“The only dancing you’re going to see is my victory dance, Colonel. Prepared to be dazzled.”
“Careful, McKay, with a threat of torture like that, there’s no way I’ll go easy on you.”
“Easy? I don’t need you to go easy…”
As Rodney continued to rant about his skills at computer golf, John just became more sure of the conclusion he’d come to as soon as he heard about his aborted proposal. Katie Brown would probably be happier in the long run without Rodney but she’d also never learn to appreciate what McKay had to offer. There was no doubt McKay was selfish, proud, possessive and protective of his belongings, his genius, and his reputation. But he also applied those same personality traits to his friends and his team with the same bullheaded arrogance that turned most people off and made those who understood him feel lucky that they did.
Yeah, chances were good Katie would go on to find someone just as cheerfully optimistic as she was, and John hoped she did. But is was kind of sad that she’d never know what she really missed out on in Rodney, that she’d go her whole life never realizing the lesson she never learned could have been one of the best. Sure, learning it had been a major pain in the ass, but John had never regretted it for a second.
In fact, it was one of the most valuable lessons he’d ever learned in his life.