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Tag to 4x17: "Midway."
Upon beaming down to Atlantis, they were welcomed back by a two solid hours of debriefing, followed by Lorne presenting John with three weeks' worth of paperwork conscientiously put aside for him. It took John a few hours to deal with the most urgent of that, after which he forwent dinner in the mess in favor of an MRE from the private stash in his quarters. After their stay in the jumper, he hardly noticed the aftertaste anymore, and the privacy was worth it: blessed silence, no muffled voices raised in argument or snoring sounding through the walls.
He opened the windows wide, breathed deeply of fresh, unprocessed sea air, then stretched out on his bed, and it didn't matter if his feet hung off the end; he was entirely horizontal, and could spread his arms without barking his knuckles on metal walls, and it was glorious.
For the two minutes it lasted, and then his door chimed. John didn't sit up until the second chime, and another immediately after, a hasty impatience indicating whoever it was wouldn't stop any time soon. He glanced at his radio, but it hadn't beeped.
Sighing, John got up and swiped his hand over the panel to release the lock. The door snicked open, and he found himself facing no one.
Dropping his eyes, he saw the fluffy brown of Rodney's receding hairline, angled in distinctive irritation as McKay crouched in front of the door's control panel. He glanced up at John, then went back to frowning at the stripe of blue lights. "Something's wrong with your door."
"I locked it," John said, blinking sleepily. He had left Rodney babbling at Colonel Carter and Zelenka after the debriefing, and had expected that would last long into the night, what with all the brilliant brainstorms of the last few weeks that McKay hadn't considered Dr. Lee or Kavanagh worthy of hearing.
"Yeah, but it didn't let me in." Rodney was prising off the casing to poke at the crystals within.
"I locked it," John repeated. "'I was going to bed."
Rodney's frown remained, but he clicked the casing back in place, pushed himself to his feet. "But it's barely past 23:00."
"Early to bed, early to rise—"
"Makes a man stupid, and blind in the eyes. Besides, we got enough R&R in the last three weeks to last us a year."
"That'd be true if the rest had been at all relaxing. You should know, you've tried to sleep in the jumper cockpit."
"Hey, still more legroom than first class," Rodney said. "Well, on an American airline, anyway. And you weren't stuck with Siskel and Ebert and the Bullets over Broadway Revue. Did you know Lieutenant Tinger knows the entire libretto of Into the Woods? And Gregors has a surprisingly decent falsetto, but his Cinderella is horrifically off-key. Good Little Red Riding Hood, though."
"Oh, thank you," John muttered, "I do have to work with the man. What's up, Rodney? Because I really was—"
"Going to bed, yeah, I know you were. Your boots are off." Rodney pointed to his white socks. "But we need to talk."
John propped one shoulder against the doorframe and didn't bother hiding his yawn. "We just had a week and a half of downtime on the Daedalus to talk," he pointed out. But every time he had stopped by the engineering station to propose a game of chess or golf, Rodney had been too busy to spit out more than a couple words, busy testing or implementing one of innovations he had come up with during their stay in the jumper. John had ended up spending the trip to Atlantis hanging out with Ronon, which was fine except for the few tricks picked up from Teal'c that Ronon had been so eager to try out. John respected his teammate's taste in mentors or coaches or whatever, and was sure he would appreciate it even more when they were out on missions, and he wasn't the punching bag. He wouldn't necessarily say that hanging out with Rodney was less stressful, but it did tend to leave less visible bruises.
Rodney shrugged. "I wanted to wait until we were. You know. Home."
Rodney's jaw was squared, chin tilted up, and whatever bone he had to pick wasn't going to wait until morning. John scrubbed his hand through his hair, backed away from the doorway enough for Rodney to come in. "Yeah?"
The door closing behind Rodney seemed to cut him off from whatever impetus had driven him this far. Unstrung, he passed John to circle the room in his usual restless circuit, hands fluttering in incomplete gestures. "So, uh, this—you have latest issue of Batman?"
"And The Fantastic Four, a few others. Ronon picked them up for me." John watched Rodney pace another lap. "You can borrow them later, if you want," he offered, as if the comics lending library wasn't a long established tradition. Radek might reserve the Marvel titles, but Rodney always had first dibs on the Batman.
"Yeah, thanks." Rodney waved unintelligibly, then stopped and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Bet you missed having those on the jumper," he said. "What were you doing, anyway, locked in there all by yourself—never mind," he said hastily as John raised an eyebrow. "I don't want to know, I bet you found all kinds of things to get up to—um, that is, to keep yourself busy—um, I mean—no, really, don't want to know."
"Probably not, no." John felt his lips quirk in spite of himself. "Let's just say, you're never gonna beat my expert time on Minesweeper now."
"So that's what that cheering was." Rodney rolled his eyes. "Guess I should be glad you didn't have a copy of Links Ultimate. Oh well, at least we got rescued before you started having conversations with the Word Paperclip."
"Rodney, I was in the jumper cockpit, not solitary confinement. And it wasn't like I stayed in there the whole time, I had dinner with you guys."
"After the first twenty-four hours, you ate with us four times. In eleven days."
"Really?" John hadn't bothered keeping track of time. The laptop had been a convenient distraction, but he'd spent most of the hours catching up on four years of sleep deprivation, as best he could in the jumper seats. At least there had been enough room to exercise. Still, he wouldn't mind if the next couple months' missions were on foot and preferably outside. He missed sunlight and sky, and weather.
"Really," Rodney said, and maybe he was pissed. He'd certainly been pissed back in the jumper, not talking to John when he had emerged, but making snippy comments about being lonely at the top and the burden of command, mostly to the Marines, who had nodded with surprising sympathy. They'd endured prolonged McKay exposure with fortitude, partly because as old Atlantis hands they had already built up a tolerance, and partly because little else could make Rodney look good as the company of Lee and Kavanagh.
John sat down on his bed, picked up one of the comics and curled it into a tube that would have the collectors in the city up in arms. "Look, Rodney, in the jumper, it wasn't, you know, personal..."
Rodney snorted. "Of course it wasn't, what do I look like, a ten year old girl sulking about my best friend shunning me? I'm not the one with the personal space issues, Sheppard. How'd you survive having a roommate at college? Or bunking in basic training?"
John grimaced. "Not great, actually." And his marriage hadn't gone much smoother, for that matter.
"Right," Rodney said, and pointed at him. "But don't think that me being so uncharacteristically understanding about you wimping out means that you don't owe me, big time."
"Sure," John easily agreed. "You want to read the Batman first?"
"For starters. And you can write up the main mission reports instead of fobbing them off on me, none of that 'I'm too airheaded to remember the big science words', you certainly understand everything well enough to dumb it down for the IOA."
"But what if I get it wrong?" John asked with wide-eyed innocence.
"I'll read them over and tell you when you're being moronic, and you can edit them yourself. And you can start taking the time to actually read my preliminary write-ups before mission briefings, too."
"Okay, sure, whatever."
"And you can never ask me to kill you again."
John blinked. "What, now?"
Rodney had come to a full stop, standing in front of John and looking straight ahead, over John's head, out the open window. "Don't make me kill you again," he said, and the way his jaw worked as he swallowed made it not a joke at all.
"Rodney," John said carefully, putting down the comic, "you didn't kill me."
Rodney swallowed again. His gaze was atypically steady, not twitching down to meet John's for even a moment. "Not for lack of trying."
"What the hell are you—"
"Vent the atmosphere? When there wasn't really time for you to get to safety, and you knew it and I knew it, and in a universe where you weren't the luckiest son of a bitch to ever fly away with a nuclear bomb—"
"But I am," John said. "It worked out. And it wasn't like we had a lot of other options."
"We didn't need a lot of options. We needed one other option, the one that didn't involve you suffocating, and if you'd just shut up and given me time to think—"
"We didn't have time," John told him, determined to cut him off. Crap, he should have just talked to McKay in the damn jumper. He'd been a passenger on Rodney's guilt trips before; they were the one fast ride in the universe that he hated unreservedly, and Rodney never hit the brakes on his own. "If we'd had time, you could've come up with something brilliant, but we didn't, and that's not your fault. Besides, I was the one who gave the order. You just carried it out."
"Great. So it was assisted suicide instead of cold-blooded homicide. Do you know how much better that doesn't make me feel?"
"It wasn't—no one died, Rodney!" Except for the Marines he'd brought onto Midway, almost the entire strike team he had personally chosen—if any of them had been stunned, but not fed on, when the oxygen had been vented...but that was his burden, not Rodney's. Not the first time he'd ordered people to their deaths and it wouldn't be the last, and maybe someday he'd figure out how to come to terms with that.
Now, though, Rodney still hadn't met his eyes. John stood up, deliberately intersected Rodney's line of vision with his still-breathing self. "I'm still alive," he said quietly. "You didn't kill me. We all would have died anyway, when Midway blew, if you hadn't followed my orders. It's thanks to you we survived—but if we hadn't, if I hadn't, it wouldn't have been your fault. You can't blame yourself."
"As a matter of fact, as a being with intelligent free will, I can," Rodney said, finally looking at John, "but I didn't come here to pit my conscience against your impressively flawed logic, Sheppard—I came because I'm pissed off, and I figured if talking with you for more than two minutes induced me to punch you out, better to do it here than in public."
He wasn't joking; McKay ranted and exploded in a range of decibels and two octaves of pitches, but that particular low, even snarl was reserved for true fury.
John put his hands in his pockets and kept himself from glancing down at Rodney's fists. "So, are you?" he asked lightly.
"I don't know yet," Rodney said.
"Okay. One punch," John told him.
Rodney grinded his teeth, jaw shifting. "I'm serious."
"I'm serious," John said right back, calm and steady, not bracing himself. The bed was right behind him; keep himself loose and it wouldn't hurt that much. He had no doubt that Rodney could leave a mark with the power in his broad shoulders, but it wouldn't be worse than he'd gotten from Ronon all week. A single hit wouldn't be likely to break his jaw, and Rodney had enough defense training to know to keep his thumb on the outside of his fist and not damage his hand. "You deserve it. It was a lousy deal and a hard order to take, and I'm sorry I put you in that situation, and if this will make you feel better about it—do it."
He waited, not closing his eyes, because that would make it harder for Rodney, even though he didn't really want to see Rodney's expression, the white-faced anger tightening his features into an unrecognizably empty look.
He waited for a good long minute as Rodney stared back at him unmoving, and then Rodney released a breath so deep his shoulders slumped with it, sat down on the bed and dropped his head. "Take the fun out of it, you masochist," he muttered. "Make me feel better—what am I, a caveman? Do I look like Ronon to you? I'd just hurt my hand anyway, and you'd get a black eye and I'd feel like an abusive husband every time I looked at it."
"I'd just tell people I walked into a door," John said brightly, and sat down next to him, their shoulders not quite bumping.
"We're not cool," Rodney said. "I still want to hit you. Even if it wouldn't help."
"Hey, you can join the club. Why do you think Teyla and Ronon are always wanting to spar with me? I've just got one of those faces, I guess."
"Did you not hear me just now?" Rodney asked him irritably. "We're not cool. I'm not going to sit here and do the kidding thing with you."
"Fine, then," John said. "No kidding around. You did good out there, McKay. You made the right call, following my orders, and maybe it took some luck, but it worked out for all of us."
"I've been on your team for going on four years," Rodney said. He wasn't looking at John but down at his hands, not moving for once, clasping them together to keep them still, fingers locked tight enough to dig in and whiten the skin. "And I'm supposed to be a genius, so maybe it's just that I wasn't educated in the correct military frame of reference, that I didn't realize how terrible a leader you are."
Rodney might have hit him then, even with his fists stilled in his lap, a blow below the belt and hard enough that John couldn't breathe for a second, couldn't speak.
Rodney didn't even look angry; looked almost in pain himself, lips pressed over his teeth and his brows furrowed. "I'm not talking about an officer's decorum, or proper adherence to protocol, or whatever insanely pointless standards the academy attempts to instill. You're more intelligent than any soldier I've ever met, excepting Sam, of course; they'd do best to put you in charge of the entire Air Force, if you were idiotic enough to accept the position, which you're too smart to."
"Um. If you say so," John said, feeling whiplash. Rodney's adeptness at insults was proportional to his ability to compliment, but John had little experience being on the receiving end of the latter.
"But, leadership—I guess what it comes down to is how I don't think of you as my leader, per se, not most of the time," Rodney said. "Your style is more like a partnership, a team of equals, up until the point you give the orders, and then I follow them because they tend to be the best course of action at the time—because you're smart enough to know how to make the right choices, and strong enough to make the hard ones."
"Rodney," John said, pleading, not sure how to word a protest but he couldn't take being vivisected like this, flayed open. Rodney's words usually were blunt-force weapons, smashing opponents into the dust, but his voice now was a scalpel, a blade sharp enough that you didn't realize you were bleeding.
"The thing is," Rodney went on, merciless, "I always believed that one of the most important traits of a leader is that they have a sense of honor—a basic, fundamental respect for those who follow them. A good leader knows how to delegate, but they won't tell anyone under them to do something they wouldn't do themselves."
"So what did you want me to do back on Midway?" John demanded. "Push the button to vent the air myself? I would have, if you could've given me remote control. You think I wouldn't have been, what, strong enough? I knew exactly what I was asking you to do, McKay, I knew how far I was from the jumper, and I knew how much time we had left—I told you to do it before it was too late for you and the others. I'd have done it myself, if I could have."
"Yes," Rodney said, "and you wouldn't have waited, either, if you'd had a remote control; you would've vented the atmosphere without hesitating a second."
"Well, yeah," John said, blinking. "I would have. It was the best chance you guys had of making it to the escape pod in time."
"And if it had been you in the control room, and one of us on the station, too far away to make it to the jumper in time?"
John froze. "What do you mean?"
"What if it had been me on the station? Or Ronon was still there, or Teyla had come with us? If one of us, one of your team, had been trapped, would you still have vented the atmosphere? Or would you have waited, given us a chance to get to safety—maybe waited too long, even—"
"That wasn't a choice," John said, ignoring the ice-cold snake coiling around his guts. "There wasn't time, and there were five of you. This wasn't just the team, there were other lives at stake—"
"There were other lives at stake before—there was my own sister's life!"
"Wait, what?" John asked, breathless like the oxygen had been sucked from the room, like he could still hear the whistle of impending vacuum in his ears.
He should have been watching Rodney more closely, should have recognized the look on his face, that desperation pushed so far beyond panic or fear that only resolution was left. "'I can't,' John—you told me I couldn't, that you couldn't—that I was invaluable. And then you order me to push the button to kill you. Because, why, because you're replaceable, even if I'm not? Because you could figure out a way to save both me and Jeannie, but I'm not good enough to save not only myself and Lee and the others but you, too?"
"Then why? Leave no one behind—it's what you live by, you've made it the fucking motto of this team from the beginning, but you never mention the fine print, the one exception, that it's a-okay if the man left behind is Colonel Sheppard. He'll give you the order himself. Because he's a suicidal bastard, and he'll have you conditioned into pulling the trigger when he says fire—"
"I'm not suicidal, Rodney," John said. "I'm not a masochist, and I sure as hell didn't want to blow up on that damn station. If I'd wanted to die, it would've been easy—dragging myself to that spacesuit, past a really pissed off Wraith, that was the hard part."
"You could've given yourself a better chance of escaping."
"I gave myself fighting odds," John said. "Best we could afford. If we'd waited any longer, time would've been up for you guys. Me waiting for you in the jumper, having it warmed up and ready to go when you got there, that would've been the preferred strategy, but it wasn't an option. I took the best chance we had, for all of us. Myself included. And we won."
Rodney had twisted around on the bed to face him. John turned his head to meet his gaze squarely, not trying to smile, not going for reassuring, but honest, because Rodney would respond to that, and because he deserved it. "And I would've pushed the button," John said. "If it had been you, any of you, on the station. I'd have trusted you to get to safety in time—because Teyla would be fast enough, and Ronon's too stubborn to die that easily, and you'd figure out a way to save yourself somehow."
He lifted his shoulders, let them drop in a shrug and made his voice light, over the cold hard lump lodged in his stomach. "So I guess you're right, McKay, I am a pretty shitty leader, if you can't even trust me to save my own skin."
Rodney didn't rise to that bait. His voice stayed way too calm. "And if you hadn't been close enough to the escape pod, with no chance of making it when the air was vented? Would you have given me the same order then?"
John looked at him. "Yeah," he said finally. "I'd have had to. All of you alive, and a chance to keep you that way—if it was the only way, I'd have to tell you to do it. I would've tried my damndest to get to the jumper anyway, but if I couldn't—the order would stand. That's what makes a leader, too, making the tough calls. And that was my call, and I'd expect you to obey it. You and Teyla and Ronon, all of you."
"And if it's one of us out there, too far away to make it in time—if we're asking you—"
"It's my call."
"Because sacrifice is your specialty?" Rodney demanded. "Because not bearing the burden of command means we're somehow exempt from the guilt of leaving you behind?"
Because you're stronger than me, John thought. Because he'd picked the best of the best to be his team, all more skilled than him, smarter and faster and stronger and better, and every day he asked and expected them to do what he could not. Rodney wouldn't expect John to be able to reprogram a gate DHD, or fix the hyperspace engines on a spaceship, and yet when John told him to work a miracle of engineering or physics, he'd grumble, yeah, sure, don't ask much, do you, only the impossible, and do it.
Vent the atmosphere, he'd said, and he'd known how terrible an order it was, and he had been as confident that Rodney would obey as he was when he told Rodney to dial Atlantis at the end of an off-world mission. Four years on his team and he trusted Rodney, like he trusted Teyla and Ronon, more than any soldier under his command. Could trust Rodney not to obey an order if it was pointless or shortsighted or uninformed, and to know when to obey without question when it was essential.
"Because you're part of my team," John said. "And I'm the team leader."
"Dictator, you mean," Rodney muttered.
"Yeah, and if you don't like it, McKay, you can quit anytime."
They weren't cool, and that wasn't kidding, and the words hung in the air after he said them like a raised guillotine blade, but John didn't take them back. Couldn't, because he couldn't trust Rodney if Rodney couldn't trust him, and he didn't give a flying fuck about the proper chain of command but it was too dangerous to go off-world with someone he didn't have one hundred percent confidence in, who didn't have that same confidence in him.
"I'm not quitting," Rodney said quietly, after about twenty seconds in which John lived out and died the course of several lifetimes. "After all, I can't just leave Teyla and Ronon to handle you alone. You'll drive them insane trying to get them to play electronic golf, and Teyla shouldn't have that kind of stress now, and Ronon would smash all our computers in a preemptive strike."
John wasn't up for smiling, not yet, but he let himself take a breath, another one, relaxed into the bliss of oxygen in his lungs. So simplistic a pleasure it was rare to realize it at all, but he could remember the hissing draft of the air flowing out around him, the empty pressure of vacuum. "So we're good?"
"I'm fine, you're cool," Rodney corrected. "And no, not yet. But getting there."
"Good enough for me." John stretched, slapped Rodney on the back and stood up. "You want to get something to eat?"
"Weren't you going to bed?"
"Atlantean midnight isn't for another two and a half hours. And you'd have to put your boots back on."
"S'okay, it'll give Ronon and Teyla time to get there."
"Thought you'd had enough of eating in crowds," Rodney said, getting up from the bed. "You only went to the Daedalus mess during crew shifts when no one was there."
"Four isn't a crowd," John said, "it's a team."
Rodney radioed their teammates as John wrestled on his right boot, then tossed him his left boot. He took it and dragged it onto his foot, did up the laces and said, "Rodney. Thanks."
"For the boot?"
"For the jumper," John said, because it was easier than Thank you for saving my life and your own or I'm sorry or I wish I could promise that I won't give you another order like that again.
"You abandoned me," Rodney said. "To Bill Lee, and two musical Marines, and Kavanagh. You owe me so big your grandchildren are still going to be paying me back."
"By reading your pre-mission reports?"
"Aloud, to you, when you've gotten too far-sighted to read them yourself," Rodney said, and followed John out of his room.
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