Title: Where We Ought to Be (Parts 1-5 - complete)
Fandom: SGA, McKay/Sheppard
Spoilers: Through "Sunday"
Author's Notes: This fic was born the first time I saw this ep, on a bet/dare/whim/IM conversation with omglawdork. Then it exploded. Now it's finally done, and I'm still standing around looking confused as to what, exactly, happened. omglawdork stuck with this from brainstorm to beta and refused to let me cheat. raisintorte and smittywing, whom I had not met when I started this nonsense, graciously agreed to pick it to bits and listen to me flail as it got put back together. It is what it is because of these three. Title is from the hymn "Simple Gifts".
Where We Ought to Be
They went through the wormhole on a Monday evening, six of them plus one who wasn't anymore, the drone of bagpipes blending gently into the rush of the space-time continuum. It was Monday, and the SGC waited in somber formation, men standing ready to take the casket and prepare it for transport. Six of them offered muted, perfunctory greetings and stepped aside as two Marines came through, pushing a cart laden with samples and reports and potentially useful artifacts, because even in mourning, Atlantis had to be frugal. Sheppard stayed, and Rodney, watching as the gate dialed and the chevrons locked, as the other four filed through without looking back. The connection broke, the gate stood empty and silent, and they grabbed their bags from atop the case of specimens from MX8-865. Rodney rummaged through his laptop case and pulled out a stack of files. Houston's was on top, his own handwriting scrawled rough across the page. The folders shifted in his grasp and Elizabeth's copperplate script curled out over a fluttering page, loops and arcs resolving into a k, an e, two ts. He thrust the stack into Carter's waiting hands.
Rodney said something, then, some sort of hello, and looked her in the eye; next to him, Sheppard said something to Landry about the next day. Carter blinked first, a painful half-smile on her lips, and cleared her throat. "C'mon, McKay," she said, "we've got quarters for you." He watched the pages in her arms shift as she turned, followed her down the hallway to a neat, clean, utterly unremarkable room exactly like the one he'd used before his assignment to Area 51, bare months ago. Bed, check; desk, check; chair capable of committing aggravated assault via the pseudo-science of ergonomics, check. He dropped his duffel on the floor, loosened his tie, and stood by the corner of the bed. He didn't have anything to say, but the silence made him uncomfortable, so he scrounged up a "Thanks" to fill the space.
Carter dropped a thin, unlabeled manila envelope on the desk, where it glowed in the light from the lamp. "Itineraries," she said, "and the files we have on his family. From his security clearance. So you're not going in cold."
This time, he was the one to blink. "Ah. Yes. Well. Thanks," he said again, and mostly meant it.
She nodded. "Colonel Sheppard's three doors down. You know where the mess is. I'll stop by for you in the morning when the car's ready." Carter made to leave, and he sat down, palms flat against the desktop. He heard her turn in the doorway, but didn't look around, just hunched his shoulders against what was coming. "For what it's worth, McKay," she murmured, "we're all sorry." He said nothing, just sat there, staring at his hands, pale and white against the deep brown of the wood, on either side of the yellow envelope. Eventually Carter shut the door and walked away; when he couldn't hear her footsteps any longer, Rodney shoved the envelope in his laptop case, turned off the lamp, and went to bed.
The next morning Rodney was up early. He ate in the mess, quickly and alone. When he was finished, he went back to his rooms, grabbed his bags, and headed back down the hall, too impatient to wait for Carter. He was halfway to the elevator when Sheppard's voice trailed down the corridor, and Rodney stopped. "-preciate your concern, sir, but Doctor Weir's given the go-ahead, and it'll only be for a few weeks."
"As recent events should have proven, Colonel," Landry rasped, "anything can happen in Atlantis in the course of a few days, let alone a few weeks. Doctor Weir needs her top staff in place, particularly now."
"With all due respect, sir," Sheppard said in a careful, neutral voice, and Rodney rolled his eyes so hard they hurt, "Doctor Beckett's gone and and nobody's questioning that the medical team will be able to cope. Major Lorne's a damn good officer, and Doctor Zelenka knows more about the city than anyone except Doctor McKay, which is the whole reason you decided to borrow the ZPM from Antarctica to send them back right away, rather than sending them home on the Daedalus with us next week. It's Doctor Weir's call, sir, and she knows what she needs better than anyone else. Atlantis can spare us for a week or three - it's not like it hasn't had to before. The long-range scanners aren't showing anything. Doctor Weir's suspending off-world missions for a couple of days on Doctor Heightmeyer's advice - and on Doctor McKay's - people need time, and the city needs fixing." He paused. "But more importantly, sir, Doctor McKay's walking headlong into the worst possible duty you can throw at a guy and he's pretty much entirely unprepared, and sending him out on this one alone may be the worst PR call in the history of civilian-military relations. And I think you probably know all that, sir, or you'd've sent me home through the gate yesterday."
Rodney turned around and walked back to his room - he didn't hear Landry's response. When Carter finally knocked, he was sitting on the bed, staring at, but not actually processing, the itinerary in his hands. He wasn't sure whether he was angrier at Sheppard or at Landry, or why, really, he was angry at all, but he didn't much care. He walked with Carter as far as the guard station at the gate, where the taillights on the waiting government sedan glowed a hazy red, tinting the plume of exhaust in the cold, pre-dawn air, the driver little more than a dark shape through the window. Since it was Sheppard who sat down next to him, tossing aside the manila envelope on the seat, Rodney elected to vent his irritation at the closest, and therefore most satisfying, target. "Took your sweet time, didn't you? Do I need to remind you that if we miss this flight, we won't make it there before the casket? You know, the one the family doesn't know anything about? I'm sure the SGC would just love to explain that - 'Baggage handlers find renowned geneticist's coffin in unclaimed luggage.'"
Sheppard didn't bite back, just reached his arm up and out, and smacked the top of the car twice. As the driver pulled away, he flicked the button to roll up the window and slumped down into the seat. "Relax, McKay. They've got us on the VIP list - the plane won't leave without us. The casket won't get there till Thursday anyway." He picked up the envelope, pulled out the family profiles, and started shuffling through them.
Annoyed, Rodney snatched them back, leaving Sheppard sucking on a paper cut and scowling. "Do you mind? Apparently this is going to tell me everything I never needed to know about a family not my own in the few remaining hours before we reach Scotland, and I don't need you setting them all out of order."
"Right, Rodney, because it's incredibly likely you're going to confuse Carson's mother with his thirty-five year-old younger sister." Sheppard sighed and ran a hand through his hair, looking nowhere near awake enough to have had the conversation Rodney had just overheard. "Never mind. Just... wake me up when we get to the airport if you're not going to sleep." With that, he pulled up the collar of his jacket, leaned his head against the window, and closed his eyes. Rodney, left staring yet again at the papers in his hands, figured he might as well read them.
Mary Buchanan Beckett (b.1934) - pensioner, seventy-two. Married George Carson Beckett (b.1930-d.1977) in 1953. Seven children: George (b.1954-d.1973), Elizabeth (b.1960), Katherine (b.1961), Maire (b.1963), Carson (b.1967), Margaret (b.1970), Anna (b.1971). Current residence: Endrick Cottage, Drumnall Farm, Killearn, Scotland.
Curious, he flipped forward a few pages.
George Alexander Beckett (b.1954-1973) - RAOC/REME Apprentice College, Deepcut, Surrey (1970-1972); stationed Belfast, Northern Ireland (Captain, bomb disposal) (1972-1973); died Jul. 1973, Belfast.
Rodney stopped, put the sheets away, leaned his head against the side of the car, and let his eyes slide closed as the car sped along.
The next time he opened them, they were at the airport, the sun was streaming in the window, and Sheppard was punching Rodney's shoulder harder than was absolutely necessary, because for god's sake, he was awake already. Slightly groggy, he grabbed the laptop case from Sheppard's precarious hold and followed in his wake as they navigated the insanity of the security lines. They'd just found the gate when the smell of overpriced espresso assaulted Rodney's nose and certain priorities asserted themselves. Returning to the gate, he thrust the coffee at Sheppard with a curt "Hold this," and rummaged for his boarding pass. Panicking slightly when it wasn't in any of the eleven possible places he could've shoved it after security, Rodney looked up to see Sheppard sitting with coffee in one hand, piece of paper in the other, face a studied blank. "You left it on the seat when you were putting your shoes back on."
"Give me that. And that," Rodney snapped, reclaiming coffee and pass in one fell swoop, annoyed all over again. "It never occurred to you that maybe you could have just, oh, I don't know, mentioned it?"
Sheppard just raised an eyebrow, said, "Nope," and went back to his sudoku.
The nearly four-hour flight to Newark was an easy one. The U.S. government had learned long ago that if it was putting Rodney McKay on a plane, it would be putting him in first class, and they'd scored the front row of seats. Sheppard settled in next to the window, charmed the flight attendants - at least one of whom was old enough to be the man's mother and therefore should have known better - merely by asking for another blanket, jammed headphones into the jack and fell asleep as soon as he stopped watching the ground fall away beneath them. Rodney, edgy and still annoyed, fidgeted all the way through takeoff, earning him glares from the woman across the aisle. As soon as they reached cruising altitude, he pulled out the laptop and tried to distract himself with the latest results from the new telemetry project.
He spent a relatively pleasant hour that way, but eventually the lure of the data paled and his attention wandered. Rodney shut the computer, stood up and put it away, and pulled out the envelope again. Sheppard stirred as Rodney closed the overhead bin. Rodney glanced down and started to speak, thinking he was awake, but paused, caught, as Sheppard turned his face away from the sunlight streaming through the window. He was still asleep, mouth curling downward at the corners, circles bruise-dark under his eyes. Rodney stared, all of the prickliness of the last few hours running out of him like water. He stood there, fighting a bizarre impulse to reach out, to touch, until the flight attendant brushed past him on her way down the aisle. Rodney scrubbed at his face and sat back down to plod through the rest of the file.
George Carson Beckett had been a comfortably successful country doctor until he died of an aneurysm at forty-seven. His wife, Mary, never remarried, despite having three children aged ten or younger at the time he died. She'd simply gone back to working in and for her family's store in Alexandria - by that time run by her oldest brother - either behind the counter, or keeping the accounts from her house in Killearn. She'd only recently stopped working the counter; even now she kept her eye on the books. Carson-the-younger was fifth of seven siblings, eldest of these the unlucky George, who'd been followed by several miscarriages until the birth of the next oldest, Elizabeth; the others had followed in relatively steady succession. Elizabeth had married Andrew MacFarlane and had several children; they'd taken over something called Drumnall Farm from his father in the 1980s. Mary had moved out to join them and help run the business. Katherine lived down in Glasgow, having trained in nursing and then married a doctor - more children. Maire was in Stirling, also happily married - no children, but at least two small dogs - and teaching primary school. Margaret was divorced, having left off French study at university in Aberdeen in favor of marrying a lecturer in French Romantic poetry who proved better at teaching romance than actual poetry. She now lived in Killearn with her daughter Lise and split her time between teaching French and assisting the local photographer. Anna, the youngest, was a barrister over in Edinburgh, having entered the University just shy of seventeen and had been engaged at the time the report was compiled.
All of which, Rodney thought, shuffling the papers back into order, told him pretty much nothing about what the next few days were going to be like. He stood, put the envelope back, sat down, and tried to sleep.
Sheppard woke when the plane started to descend. His sudden stretch startled the hell out of Rodney, earning him a lecture, by the end of which the plane had touched down and they were at the gate. They emerged into the alarming bustle of Newark Terminal C with five hours to waste. The pursuit of food took an hour, mostly due to lines, indecision, and a spectacular temper tantrum by a three-year-old girl who, Rodney thought, would've put a much younger Jeanie to shame. Frazzled around the edges, he wandered through the nearby bookstore and found absolutely nothing of value, then met Sheppard by the in-flight DVD rental store, at which point the utter incongruity of the situation broadsided him. Carson was dead, and Rodney was 1) on Earth 2) shopping 3) in an airport 4) in New Jersey 5) with Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard.
That mild epiphany explained why, when Sheppard came out of the store, Rodney put his foot down and announced that he was joining the President's Club for a day and commandeering a conference room. Sheppard just blinked and nodded, ponying up the fee and following him through the doors. Rodney set himself up with coffee and laptop while Sheppard poked around on the Internet on the available workstation; after awhile, he told Rodney he was bored and he'd be back later and disappeared. By that point, Rodney'd distracted himself with the latest translations from the database on the city's power systems; he'd just grunted and flapped a hand. About an hour before boarding, Sheppard reappeared, slouching into one of the conference table chairs. Rodney looked up when Sheppard sat down, but said nothing; a few minutes later, he tossed the manila envelope across the table.
"Here," he said. "It's the stuff I was reading in the car. On Carson's family. Carter brought it by last night. She thought it might help if I - we - knew something about them first."
"Did it?" John said. Rodney glanced up at the question. Sheppard was eyeing the envelope almost warily.
"Yes. No. Not really. Does it usually?"
They were quiet for awhile, then. Rodney busied himself packing up the computer while Sheppard sat at the table, turning the envelope in his hands. The silence pooled, then curdled, and Rodney opened his mouth to say something - anything - to break it. "Look, Sheppard, I -"
"I'll just - " They both stopped. Sheppard cleared his throat, eyes flicking sideways. "I'll just stick it in my pack and read it later, if that's okay."
"Fine, yes. Fine. That's fine." Rodney paused, said, "Look. I heard what you told Landry this morning. And it's not like I don't appreciate it, I guess. Because while your confidence in my interpersonal skills is entirely underwhelming, it's still sort of a relief to know someone else is going to be around when things go horribly, horribly awry, except..."
"Except... I don't know," he concluded, miserable, drumming his fingers on the tabletop. "Never mind."
"Come on, McKay," John said equably, still fidgeting with the envelope, "or you're going to sit there jittering for the whole flight, thinking about it."
"Who are you, Doctor Phil?" Rodney grumbled, coiling a cable and refusing to look in Sheppard's direction.
"No, I've just spent a lot of time in a jumper with you." Sheppard said, beginning to sound annoyed. "Spit it out."
"Oh, yes, because I'm a disobedient puppy," Rodney snapped.
"McKay." Sheppard growled. They glared at each other for a minute, then Sheppard shrugged and looked away. "Fine." He shoved the envelope in his pack, picked the bag up, and headed for the door.
"Why?" Rodney asked, despite himself.
Sheppard stopped, doorknob in hand, and turned around slowly. "Why?" When Rodney didn't answer, he said, "Why as is 'why is the sky blue?' Or something a little more specific?"
Rodney looked around the room, hunting for words, gesturing helplessly. "Why... this? Why me? Why would anyone think I'm a good choice for this job? I don't like most people, I'm not exactly noted for my tact, and oh, by the way, I've never even met these people. I mean, why not send Elizabeth? Or you - at least you've done this before."
Sheppard leaned back against the door. "Because it's your job, Rodney. Yours or Elizabeth's, as ranking civilian personnel. And mostly because Carson asked for you."
"Well, bully for him. If you hadn't noticed, he's dead, so it's not like he can cast a vote in the matter. What if I don't want to?" Rodney's chest felt too tight. His palms were sweating.
"Nobody ever wants to." Sheppard's face was hard. "Doesn't make the job any less yours."
"But I don't want it!" Rodney exploded. "I don't want to have to meet his mother and make awkward conversation and try to come up with something to make the fact that he's dead sound any better."
"Don't worry, McKay. In my experience," Sheppard's mouth twisted around the word, "nothing makes it sound any better." He looked at the wall clock, straightened, and opened the door. "Come on. Ten minutes till boarding."
"Oh yes, thanks," Rodney muttered at his retreating back, as the tension into a lump in the pit of his stomach. "Thanks a lot."
They boarded the plane to Glasgow in awkward silence. It lasted until the captain announced they'd reached cruising altitude, at which point Sheppard elbowed Rodney in the ribs.
"Ooof. What are you, twelve? And also, do you sharpen those? Because ow." Rodney complained, rubbing an elbow. "What?"
"What?" Rodney demanded again, frustrated.
"2,147,483,647." Sheppard cocked an eyebrow and it clicked.
"Oh. Please. Prime. Tenth Mersenne prime, to be precise, discovered by Euclid. 1,079."
"Not prime. It is, however, the smallest n where either n or n plus or minus one are divisible by all of the numbers 1-15. 3,121," and with that, they were off and running as if the earlier conversation hadn't happened.
They left off when dinner arrived, diverted into a carefully coded discussion of the relative merits of airline food (coach and first class) vs. Atlantean food (particularly MREs and other staples). They each had a beer or two, and eventually Rodney pulled out his eyeshades. Shortly thereafter, he stuck in his earplugs, tuning out Sheppard's lazy mockery. Alcohol and exhaustion worked wonders; he was asleep in no time.
An hour or two later, Rodney woke with a start, shedding his paraphernalia. Sheppard was slouched next to him, forehead resting against the wall, his breathing even. The plane was still relatively dark, the pale pink of dawn only just starting to creep in through the few unshaded windows. Rodney stood, stretched, winced, and stumbled up the aisle toward the bathroom. It was occupied, so he leaned against the wall to wait - the flight attendants weren't nearby to care. The rows of seats looked faintly surreal, full of heads bent over at various awkward angles, the occasional arm or leg slipping into the aisle, bursts of overhead light scattered here and there. Half-awake and half-aware, he didn't realize he was looking at his own row until stubble and cheekbone and ridiculous hair resolved themselves into something recognizably Sheppard. Who was awake, Rodney realized, and staring at him, eyes dark, face weirdly open, almost vulnerable. Then the lavatory door banged open, startling him, and Rodney took his turn. By the time he made it back down the aisle and sat down, Sheppard's eyes were closed and his head turned back toward the window. His fingers were gripping the armrest a little more tightly than was likely for someone deeply asleep, but Rodney wasn't going to mention it. Still groggy, he slid back under easily. He didn't dream.
Rodney woke again when they landed, scrubbing at his face and feeling like mice had toilet-papered the inside of his mouth and then held an orgy. He grouched at Sheppard about not waking him for breakfast, or more critically, coffee, as they shambled through the passport control lines. Finally, they emerged into the baggage claim area, where a short man in a rumpled brown suit was holding a placard with Rodney's name on it. Handing over a sheaf of papers, the man then shook Rodney's hand somberly, said something completely unintelligible, and started to walk away. Completely at a loss, Rodney looked at Sheppard, who told him that he was going to grab their bags and hit the National counter, and he'd meet Rodney outside of the baggage claim after Rodney finished talking to the nice man who had all the paperwork for tomorrow. Rodney grimaced, nodded, and followed said small brown-suited man, who'd produced the promised forms. After signing his way through at least eight pounds of documentation, Rodney stumbled outside to find Sheppard double-parked, the car's engine idling.
Sheppard was fiddling with various knobs and buttons when Rodney got in and said, incredulous, "The U.S. military gave you a Saab 9-5?"
"Nah. Upgraded." He shifted into gear and pulled out.
"Of course you did."
"Like you can talk. We're staying in the corner suite at the Radisson SAS. I don't really think that's affordable under standard government rates either."
Rodney started to protest, and then it registered. "Wait a minute. 'We'?" Rodney tore his horrified gaze away from the road. Sheppard squirmed and looked at him sidelong. "Eyes on the road! And remember that in Scotland, they drive on the left. That's the hand that makes the 'L'. What do you mean, 'we'?"
"Landry ordered them to cancel my reservations. He, um, changed his mind before they'd gotten in touch with the airline and the car company, but they'd already canceled the hotel. There's a conference at the University and everything's booked solid - even the room I had was gone by the time they called again, and I called later to double check. So, 'we.'"
"What? What? But it's a single bed suite! And when did you do all of this?" Rodney spluttered.
"McKay, we had a five-hour layover in Newark. I had enough time to make some phone calls. Besides, there's a couch. Your virtue's safe." Rodney wasn't even going to try to field a response to that.
Not long after, they pulled up to the hotel. Sheppard handed the keys off to the valet and helped the bellhop unload. Checking in took almost no time, so only minutes passed before Rodney fell face first onto a lovely, lovely bed.
"Dibs on the first shower," Sheppard called from the sitting area. "Don't fall asleep, McKay - it just makes the jet lag worse." Rodney just groaned into the pillow.
He woke up, confused, when Sheppard dropped a stack of towels onto his head. "Mwhuhzat?"
"Shower, McKay. Now. It's almost noon. I let you sleep, but we need to grab lunch and head out."
Dragging himself into a sitting position, Rodney felt the weight of reality settling back onto his shoulders. "Mmph. Coffee. And food. Yes. Room service." He flapped a hand vaguely in the direction of the telephone as he stumbled toward the bathroom, towels under his arm. "No citrus."
He turned his face into the almost-scalding water, eyes tight shut, hoping to keep his thoughts at bay for a few minutes longer. He'd managed thus far by keeping everything as discrete as possible: get through security, get coffee, get on plane, get off plane, get in car. Sleep, stand, walk, shower. As long as he focused on what he was doing at that precise moment, he was fine. He was waking up, though, and the rest of his brain was starting to weigh in on the matter. He could feel the cogs turning, feel himself starting to consider the what and who and how of the visit ahead of him. But he'd be fine, Rodney told himself, as long as he could keep concentrating on the task at hand. "Shampoo," he said out loud, thinking about the foam under his fingertips, the pressure on his scalp. "Soap." "Razor." He vaguely heard room service knock; Sheppard's low rumble and the waiter's lighter tenor. "Towel." "Toothbrush." "Mouthwash."
Shortly thereafter, Sheppard rapped on the bathroom door. "McKay. Food's here, whenever you finish inventorying the bathroom."
Rodney hadn't realized he'd been quite so loud. Or that he'd forgotten to bring clean clothes in with him. Scowling, he wrapped a towel around his hips, grabbed his dirty clothing, opened the door, and paused. Sheppard was standing with his back to the window, dress shirt on but not buttoned and hanging loose over a white shirt, balancing awkwardly on one foot as he pulled on a sock. The light through the sheer curtains turned the blue cotton translucent and outlined the mass of cowlicks Sheppard called a haircut. Rodney felt his brain momentarily derail.
Rodney, whose sexuality ran to "yes, please," was hardly blind to the fact that John Sheppard had struck some sort of deal with the devil when it came to the sheer aesthetic potential of the human body. In other circumstances, Rodney might have found it problematic, but even sheer aesthetic potential faded when covered in mud or turned into a giant bug or just generally running for one's life. So up till this particular moment, Rodney had simply acknowledged it as one of the many, many ways in which life was massively unfair, and as a result, had never before found so much reason to be extremely grateful for the camouflaging properties of a heap of clothing. He forced his feet to carry him into the bedroom, away from the urge to touch, focusing on other, safer, topics, like Kavanagh in swim trunks and whether or not breakfast would include real bacon. By the time he pulled on his suit jacket, Rodney was more or less fine.
Emerging from the bedroom, he swiped the last piece of toast and devoted all conscious thought to mainlining as much coffee as possible. Sheppard just smirked, at least until Rodney had achieved quasi-coherence, at which point he amused them both by reading off headlines from the Herald's equivalent of an arts and living section. Then, somehow, it was an hour later, and he was in the car, George Jones playing through the speakers and Sheppard at the wheel. Rodney stared out the window, watching the city give way to towns, towns to fields, the envelope containing Elizabeth's formal letter and the SGC paperwork heavy in his lap. His mind ran in circles, winding tighter and tighter, replaying the moment when the car would stop and he'd get out and pull on his jacket, do up the buttons. He'd knock on the door and his mother, Carson's mother, Mrs. Beckett would answer. He'd open his mouth and start to speak and at that point, Rodney's imagination just... ran out, and the cycle started again. Rodney was well on the way to panicking when when the radio blared, "He said, 'I'll love you...,'" and Sheppard reached over and hit the power button, saying, "Twenty minutes."
Rodney hauled in a breath. "Ah. Right. I think - can we - would you just pull over for a couple of seconds?"
Sheppard quirked an eyebrow, but obliged without comment. When they stopped moving, Rodney scrabbled at his seat-belt and fumbled with the door, dumping his jacket on the seat, and finally he was out, standing at the edge of the road in his shirtsleeves, lifting his face into the chilly air. Behind him he heard Sheppard's door slam shut and footsteps crunch their way around to the front of the car, heard the car shift and the hood creak as Sheppard leaned against it.
They stood in silence for a while, the quiet broken only by the noise of passing cars. Rodney crossed his arms, stamped his feet. Looking out over the fields, he cleared his throat and said, "I don't even know what to say to them." Sheppard said nothing, and eventually Rodney continued. "I mean, I know what the official version is, what I can and can't say, and probably that's a good thing, because I'm not sure exploding tumors sound anything but terminally stupid on any planet. But I'm going to knock on that door - and then what?" He didn't really expect a response, so when Sheppard started to answer, Rodney was sufficiently surprised that he turned around.
"I am Colonel John Sheppard, United States Air Force, from Colorado Springs, Colorado. I have an important message to deliver. The Commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to inform you that your grandson has been reported as Missing in Action during heavy fighting on assignment. Upon receipt of additional information, you will be promptly notified. The Commandant extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family during this time."
"SOP for notification. It's what they'd have told Ford's family. Well. More or less. The official script. Not that you have it to read from." Sheppard's voice revealed absolutely nothing. He was still leaning on the car, body still relaxed, staring off down the road.
"What? That's... what?" Rodney stared in disbelief.
"People die in action, Rodney. It's a fact like any other."
"That doesn't make it any easier! All Carson could tell his family was that he was going somewhere classified! That could be dangerous! He wasn't a member of the military!"
"I know. Ford was, and we still couldn't tell his folks. That's why they don't want people going out on notification calls alone. Even in the SGC." Sheppard paused. "You'll figure it out, McKay, when it comes to it. Just like every other time we're counting on you." He sounded so calmly certain that Rodney managed to believe him, just like every other time. The wind kicked up sharply and Rodney shivered. "Come on," Sheppard said, pushing himself away from the car. "Let's go."
They'd been about to get back in when Rodney looked at Sheppard over the top of the car. "Sheppard."
"About Ford. You did."
"Did what, Rodney?"
"You went alone."
Sheppard went still, looking at a point somewhere over Rodney's shoulder. Eventually he said, "Yeah. I did." He got in the car and closed the door. Rodney paused, considering, then sat down and slammed the door and they were away down the road.
Twenty minutes later, they pulled up in front of a gray stone cottage with smoke burbling out the chimney; another, larger house of the same gray rock lay not far distant. As they got out of the car, buttoning their jackets, Rodney saw the starched, white curtain twitch, caught the barest suggestion of a face. He looked at Sheppard, who nodded, face unreadable, and Rodney knew his own hid absolutely nothing. He squared his shoulders, checked his jacket pocket for the papers, and walked to the door, Sheppard just behind him. At my six, Rodney thought, bizarrely reassured. He'd raised his hand to knock when the door opened and a small, fine-boned older woman looked up at him from behind thick bifocals.
He cleared his throat. "Ah - hello," Rodney offered. "Mrs. Beckett?"
"You'll be here about Carson." It wasn't a question. Rodney nodded anyway. Her mouth went flat and she wrapped her arms around herself. "Ah. I couldn't think why else I'd have that uniform on my doorstep. Emma," she called, "Run get your mother and tell her to come straight away. Something's happened to your uncle." Somewhere in the house a girl shouted, "Yes, Gran," and a door slammed. "Well. Come in. I'll put the kettle on."
They followed her in, into a small, bright room with a picture window looking out over the farm. A fire crackled; a vase of greens stood on the mantle, filling the air with a piney, woody smell. She pointed briskly at two well-worn, overstuffed chairs and said, "Sit yourselves down. Wherever you've come from, it's clear you've had a long trip. Your news will keep till Beth comes, and it only needs telling once today, I think." She left. A moment later, they heard the sound of a tap running.
Bewildered, Rodney sat. Sheppard joined him for a minute or two, then stood, clearly restless, and walked over to the window. Rodney looked at him, was about to speak, when there came the sound of a door opening and closing and a woman's voice called, "Mother? Emma said there's two men come about Carson? And something about a uniform? Oh - " The speaker, a lean, middle-aged woman with a bright, pleasant face and graying hair, trailed off as she came into the room and caught sight of them. Rodney stood abruptly, barking his shin on the coffee table and making it rattle. They stared at each other a moment. Then she said, in a rather different tone, "Oh. Hello, then. I'm Beth MacFarlane - Carson's sister. Emma's my oldest. You must be who she meant."
Rodney had started to introduce himself when Mrs. Beckett called from down the hall. "Beth? I'm in the kitchen. Come and give me a hand with the tea things."
She smiled at them uncertainly and said, "Excuse me," hurrying away down the hall. No sooner had Rodney sat back down than a tall, sandy haired man came through the door and stopped, taken aback, as Rodney jumped up again. "You... are not Beth," he said, flashing a grin and reaching forward to shake their hands. "Andrew MacFarlane. Husband of the woman you're not. Jack said Emma said we were wanted at the cottage - I take it you're the cause."
"Ah, Andrew." said Mrs. Beckett's voice from somewhere behind him. "Shift out of the doorway, you, and let us pass." The two women clattered into the room, passing around mugs and setting a plate of cookies on the table. Andrew's smile faltered as he caught his wife's expression; he leaned on the couch behind her, as she and her mother settled themselves. Sheppard moved away from the window and sat back down.
Rodney shifted, leaned forward, clasped his hands together to keep from fidgeting. "Ah. Right. I'm Doctor Rodney McKay - this is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard. I - we work on the same project as your son, Carson. I'm afraid I have some bad news." He picked his mug up, set it back down. Beth's hand crept up to hold her husband's. Rodney took a breath, and started talking.
Beth stood after the first, clumsy set of non-explanations, clearly struggling to keep her composure. They'd all shot to their feet, Sheppard catching Rodney's upper arm to steady him when he almost overbalanced. She and Andrew had thanked them - thanked them, Rodney thought, mildly appalled - and left, Andrew's arm tight around Beth's shoulders, and Rodney found himself staring at the vase on the mantel, at the curtains, at the couch - at anything - to avoid meeting Beth's eyes as he shook her hand. Mrs. Beckett, eyes bright but otherwise composed, had looked at him sharply and ordered him and Sheppard to stay put. They heard her walk her daughter to the door, instructing her to call the family, ordering Andrew to come back down once he'd gotten Beth settled and the children in line, and Rodney was pretty sure no one was going to disobey the brisk, no-nonsense tone of her voice. He certainly wasn't, he thought, as she came back in with a fresh plate of tea cookies. Then they sat down again and Rodney realized all that claptrap about things only needing telling once today was a filthy, filthy lie as Mary Beckett raked him over the coals more thoroughly than Elizabeth, Jeanie, and both of his doctoral defense panels combined.
An hour later, his voice was raspy, his eyes felt gritty, and his hands were wrapped so tightly around the tea mug he was starting to get cramps. Rodney was pretty sure his brain hurt. Even the starch in Sheppard's blues had wilted a little, although, Rodney thought grumpily, the Colonel had gotten off much more lightly - and that dynamic was something Rodney hadn't been able to follow. Mrs. Beckett had grilled Sheppard just as thoroughly, at first, and Sheppard had answered calmly, one hand resting lightly on his knee, the other holding his tea, back straight. Rodney couldn't read Sheppard's face, but that was hardly anything new; there was a reason only Ronon and Teyla regularly beat John at poker. Mrs. Beckett, however, had looked at him oddly at one point, just after Sheppard had described Carson's refusal to leave his patient, and after that had directed the full force of her questioning at Rodney.
Round three was delayed - but not completely forestalled - when Andrew reappeared in the doorway. "Beth's on the phone, and Emma's running herd over her siblings." he said quietly. "What needs doing?"
"You're a good lad, Andrew MacFarlane," she said, and smiled, and it hit Rodney like a fist, to see Carson's smile on someone else's face. He looked away, stared at the floor, and he knew he wasn't fooling anyone when Mrs. Beckett said, "I've a few more things to ask Doctor McKay, so I'll ask you to do the washing up. Colonel," she said, turning to Sheppard. "Would you be so kind as to lend him a hand while I finish with Doctor McKay?"
Sheppard stood. "Yes, ma'am."
She looked him over carefully. "Go on with you, then. Andrew," she added, "bring him back when you're done." Sheppard left, following MacFarlane down the hall, completely ignoring Rodney's hand-flapping of panic. Then Mary Beckett turned back around and considered Rodney, and under that gaze Rodney felt small, and miserable, and inadequate to the task, and he hated it. "Well?" she said, in a brisk voice at odds with the tired lines of her face. "Where are these papers you said need reading and signing and I don't know what?'
"Yes. Ah - " Rodney reached into his pocket for the envelope. "Yes. This is his, um, will, and these here are the release forms, and we'll see to it that it... he... the casket gets to wherever you need it to, if you'll give us the information. You don't have to, I mean, but we're, um, I mean - we'll be glad to help," he concluded lamely, staring at his hands. He heard the rustle of paper as Mrs. Beckett flipped the pages, then a pause and a slight catch in her breathing.
"And who, exactly," she said, voice a little unsteady, "is this Doctor Elizabeth Weir, that she's written me such a letter?"
"She's the head of our, um, mission," Rodney answered, fumbling for an innocuous description. "Carson answered to her. She would've come herself - she wanted to, almost did - but her... supervisors wouldn't let her. Said she was needed where she was. She's so sorry she couldn't - frankly," Rodney found himself confessing, "so am I. Because while I'm really grateful you haven't, you know, fainted, or thrown things, or - or - I don't know, collapsed, I'm pretty sure she'd be doing a better job, since I haven't, well, I haven't ever done this before, and the Colonel's not exactly, um, known for his communications skills either."
Mary Beckett leaned forward, catching his attention. "You're doing fine, Doctor McKay, and though I could never convince my boy otherwise, I'm not some helpless old biddy about to fall to pieces at bad news. Carson always did worry too much; comes of being the only man around after his father and brother died, I suppose. We knew he was going somewhere risky; sat us all down and told us he was, asked us, even, if we thought he should go - not that we could say much, given the precious little he could tell us. It was the same as his brother did, when he found out he was headed to Belfast - Carson was that worried about how we'd take the news. And even once we gave our blessing, he still worried."
Rodney smiled a little. "He never stopped worrying. And really, sometimes I never understood why he'd signed up in the first place, except..."
"Except he loved his work," Mrs. Beckett finished for him. "That he did. Why d'you think we didn't try to talk him out of going?"
"He could've stayed here - gone to another research facility, to a university, somewhere less, I don't know - life-threatening." And why on earth, Rodney thought, was he arguing with her?
"You and I both know that would've been a poor second, and Carson would no more have considered it than you. He worked his whole life for that kind of opportunity - what kind of selfish would I have to be to keep him behind, knowing that?"
"He would've stayed, you know," Rodney said, staring intently at his knees. "He... cared about you that much. He worried about you - how you were doing, what you were doing, when he'd get the chance to write next. He wouldn't have come at all, if there were any other way, I don't think. He missed you - all of his family - terribly. He never was happy being so far away."
"All the more reason for us not to keep him. And from what I know of it, Mister McKay," Rodney looked up, and the automatic Doctor! died unspoken at the fierce look on her face, "after that first year he had the option to come home, and he didn't. Now that says to me he found something to keep him there, and his messages home tell me it wasn't just the work. He spoke so highly of you, of all the people he worked with, and he worried about you just as much as ever he did about us. More, maybe, since he knew we were safe, and he couldn't pen you all up to keep you from running headlong into trouble. He might have missed his family here, but he'd found one with the lot of you, and he took just as much pride in keeping you all patched up as he did in his research. Wherever you all are, he wanted to be there. So you can stop blaming yourself for the fact he's not here now."
"I - ," Somehow, Rodney thought, shifting uncomfortably in his chair, this was not the conversation he'd expected.
"Rubbish. It's been written all over your face since you walked to my door. Carson made his choices and he was happy in them, and from what you told me, he knew exactly what he was doing, when he saved that man's life. And that's the best sort of life - and death - you can wish a man."
"Stop saying that," Rodney burst out, standing up with the force of it. "Do you really think that helps?" He swung away, staring out the window. "Do you really think that knowing he wanted to be there - that he chose it - makes it any less stupid that he died? That he's dead? That we couldn't do anything to stop it?"
"No," she sighed, and when he turned back to look at her, he saw, for the first time, a little old woman who looked tired and sad and just a bit frail. "No, I don't, at all, and I'd move heaven and earth itself if I thought it'd change anything. But you see a few things, lad, when you're a doctor's wife, and I've seen enough death in my time to know he could've found it just as easily walking down the road in Glasgow. At least he had a chance to make it count for something - and that's something can be said of a rare few on this earth. So I'll just hold to that minor comfort, if you don't mind too terribly, and I thought I'd offer it to someone who looked like they needed to hear it. I mean you, Doctor McKay," she finished, with more of her former energy. "I'd offer it to that Colonel of yours as well, but he's not ready. And he's not ready to tell me anything other than the bare facts, either, but I think you might. Tell me about my boy. I'm not asking for what you can't tell me about where or who or what or such nonsense. I just want you to tell me about him."
Which was when, of course, they heard a phone ring and Andrew stuck his head back in the room, Sheppard peering over his shoulder, saying he had the minister on the line about the service, and did Mother Beckett want to speak to him. From there everything got a bit blurry, with Mrs. Beckett signing off the forms and hustling them into their coats and instructing Andrew to call them with details for tomorrow and then they were out the door and back in the car and realizing that somehow they'd promised to come back tomorrow night and stay at the cottage until the funeral.
Rodney looked at Sheppard. Sheppard looked at Rodney. "Well," Rodney said, "that was - she was - Um."
"Yes," Sheppard said, and pulled off down the drive. "Yes, it was. So was she."
They were well into the city when Rodney spoke again. "She wants to know about Carson. I mean, eyes on the road," he snapped, as Sheppard turned, "I mean, she wants to know about him. What kind of person he was, in Atlantis." He glanced over, and Sheppard's lips were tight and the corners turned down, his eyes squinted against the glare of oncoming traffic.
As they pulled up in front of the hotel, Sheppard said, "He was a good one, Rodney. One of the better ones." Then they were getting out of the car, and Sheppard was handing off the keys to the valet, and Rodney never had a chance to ask him what in the hell he meant by that.
Upstairs, the phone was blinking with a message from Andrew MacFarlane, about the details for the casket and the service, which was apparently set for Saturday. By the time Rodney was done dealing with that, Sheppard had disappeared, scrawling a note that Rodney was pretty sure read, "Gone running. - JS". Rodney shrugged, and went to order room service.
Two and a half hours, a sandwich, three phone calls and one very annoyed concierge later, Sheppard had yet to rematerialize and Rodney was 1) not amused; 2) more-than-slightly alarmed; and 3) extremely irritated about numbers one and two. When Sheppard finally blew in, smelling of cold air and sweat, Rodney was about six seconds, by conservative estimate, from calling out the local police. "Oh my god," he absolutely did not shriek, "are you clinically insane? At what point did you decide it was a good idea to go running in the middle of winter in the dark in an unfamiliar city? I realize the American military doesn't offer the world's best pay package, but have you never heard of a gym?"
Sheppard rolled his eyes. "Right, Rodney, because the mean city streets are so much more dangerous than, I don't know, life-sucking space invaders." Ignoring Rodney's frantic shushing motions, Sheppard shouldered past him, heading for his duffel. "No one was going to mess with me," he said, pulling out clean sweats and a t-shirt.
Rodney spared a moment to consider that Sheppard was probably right, because even tired and sweaty, he was still giving off a barely repressed energy that Rodney didn't quite understand and wouldn't have wanted to meet in a dark alley. Still, that was not the point, because it wasn't like gun-toting crack addicts were known for things like common sense. That train of thought only made him more annoyed, and it had been a long, long, horrible day even without missing Air Force officers factored into the mix and Rodney was pointedly not thinking about why, precisely, he was so alarmed, which might have been the reason, he would later admit, he was something less than careful in what he said next. "Isn't that great. I'll be sure to mention it when I have to explain how we lost another of her command staff to sheer idiocy in the space of a week. 'I'm sorry, Elizabeth, he said no one was going to mess with him, and it wasn't like I could order him to stand down.'"
"Rodney." Sheppard's voice was low. "I just went for a run. I'm fine. Let it go."
"What? Let it go? Have you forgotten that we spent today telling Carson's family he died saving a patient, and that it might rank in the top five worst life experiences ever? And that at least one of us has to do it again tomorrow, because they weren't done asking questions?" Contrary to carefully fostered belief, Rodney McKay was not a violent man, but right now all he wanted to do was grab hold of Sheppard and shake him. "Maybe it all slipped out of your mind while you were up to your elbows in dish soap, but it's not an experience I really want to repeat, least of all if you die because you can't use a treadmill."
"Rodney - ," Sheppard said, the tone of his voice a warning, and under other circumstances, Rodney might have backed off. Maybe. But he was about forty-five minutes into a pretty impressive set of near-apocalyptic visions involving Atlantis without Sheppard and the look on Elizabeth's - and Teyla's and Ronon's and Lorne's and Zelenka's - faces and damn it, there was enough going on without the man's own apparent death wish to deal with.
"Look, okay, fine, whatever, you have guilt issues, I have guilt issues, so many people in Atlantis have guilt issues that it's a wonder Heightmeyer hasn't demanded a replacement, or reinforcements, or at least a raise. But if it means you're going to go flinging yourself into stupid situations as some sort of atonement, you just need to get over it, already." Rodney stopped for breath, vaguely aware that he'd started pacing the width of the room. Also, it was possible there was spit on his bottom lip, but he was too worked up to care, since all Sheppard was doing was standing there, wearing that stupid, neutral expression on his face, like Rodney had turned into some kind of crazy person. "I know this may be unfamiliar ground, but if you'd gone running in there to get to Carson, you'd be just as dead as he is, and while that might be comforting to you, while that might make you feel like you'd done your damn duty, the rest of us would've been twice as screwed. Losing one person like Carson is bad enough that I'm not really anxious to find out what it's like to lose another, particularly not you, not again. So just stop whatever the hell it is you're trying to do and get used to the fact that you're alive and he's not - "
"Enough." The word hit Rodney like a blow, and he flinched. Somehow Sheppard had gone from across the room to right smack in front of him, his hands fisted, so close that Rodney could see the tendons clenching along the side of his neck. "That's enough, McKay. You don't - " Sheppard said, low and dangerous, as Rodney tried to back up and found himself hard up against the suite's dividing wall, "you do not get to tell me what I'm thinking right now."
Rodney raised a hand in front of him, then dropped it when he realized he was about two seconds from actually touching the man in front of him, which did not, at the moment, seem like a good idea. "Sheppard - "
Sheppard went still. "I went," he said carefully, "for a run. I'm back now." He took a step back. "Go to bed, Rodney," Sheppard managed to say, and walked away. Rodney swallowed, closing his eyes, and heard the bathroom door click shut. By the time Sheppard came out, Rodney was in bed, the lights in the bedroom turned off. He didn't sleep much. He doubted Sheppard did either - the lamp in the sitting room stayed on most of the night.
Thursday morning dawned rainy and cold and far too busy for either of them to do anything but ignore the previous night, which was pretty much just fine with Rodney. Fortunately, Rodney's notes were a reasonably good reconstruction of the information in MacFarlane's phone message, because they both overslept and then had to dash madly for the door, and only that little piece of hotel stationery kept them from being totally screwed. Sheppard burned rubber all the way to the airport, where they arrived just in time for Rodney to go find the little man in the rumpled brown suit and his stack of papers while Sheppard went looking for the undertaker. Eventually hearse, airplane, and airport golf cart met on the tarmac, and Rodney and Sheppard stood shivering under the wing while more papers were signed and the casket changed hands. Then it was back to the golf cart for both of them, and then back to their car, where they waited for the hearse so that Sheppard and the driver could discuss directions. From there, they rushed back to the hotel to shower and change and pack and grab something for lunch. Sheppard stopped at the desk to confirm they'd be back in the suite on Saturday night, and then, finally, they got back in the car and headed for the funeral home.
They got stuck in traffic on the M8, and Rodney had to turn his head away from the sight of the distant Necropolis, the crowded hillside a dark smudge, outline blurred by the late afternoon rain. Sheppard glanced at him as he shifted, glanced past him and out the window, but said nothing, turning his attention back to the road as the cars started to move again. At the crematorium, they both went in and waited awkwardly in a small viewing room, where they took delivery of Carson's ashes surrounded by inoffensive, pale blue walls and meek watercolor paintings of improbably pastoral landscapes.
Back in the car again, they didn't speak; it wasn't an unpleasant silence, although for Rodney the sensation of sitting still next to anyone, even Sheppard, without any need to converse was something less than normal. He let the small box rest gently in his lap, trying not to clutch at the simple, polished wood with its brass fittings, trying not to think about how oddly heavy it felt. All the same, when they finally made it to Killearn it was difficult to pass it into Mrs. Beckett's waiting hands.
In their absence, apparently, the family had started to gather - another daughter (Margaret, Rodney was pretty sure, although the introduction had flown by so quickly he almost missed it) had whisked them upstairs to a room with bunk beds, a dresser, and a desk, a long, fringed shawl trailing in her wake. She kept talking the entire time, thanking them for coming and apologizing for the shared quarters at a mile a minute, hands accompanying her speech at much the same speed - at least once Rodney was forced to back up onto Sheppard's foot to avoid an accidental blow to the solar plexus. Sheppard, damn him, just tightened his jaw and dislodged Rodney, smiling and making the right noises at the right times, which was fortunate, because Rodney, by that point, had totally lost the thread of the conversation. Eventually, however, Margaret stopped rattling on, dabbed at her eyes with the end of her shawl and smiled up at Sheppard, then slipped out the door, turning one last time to - "Was she ogling you?" Rodney leveled an accusatory glare at Sheppard.
"Do you think, possibly, just this once, you could try not to woo every woman who enters the room? This whole thing is complicated enough without you creating some sort of soap opera in your wake."
"Whatever," Sheppard said, pulling his blues out of his duffel to hang them on the end of the bed. "I was being polite. You might want to try it, since we're here till Saturday." He considered the beds. "Top or bottom?"
Rodney blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"Top or bottom bunk, McKay. Get with the program. Dinner's in half an hour."
"Wait, what? Dinner? How do you know that?"
"Rodney," Sheppard growled, "the nice lady with the shawl, who happens to be Carson's sister, in case you also missed that newsflash, has invited us down to eat with Carson's mom and the members of his family that are already in town. That means we need to be downstairs in half an hour - more like twenty-six minutes - which means that sometime before then, that genius brain of yours needs to decide if you are sleeping in the top or bottom bunk."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Bottom, clearly, because I don't particularly need to fall out of bed and add a concussion to my list of things to survive this week." Sheppard didn't deign to answer, just tossed his bag behind the bed, hauled himself up to the top, and stretched out as best he could. "What are you doing?" Rodney demanded.
"Catching up on my beauty sleep, McKay. How else am I supposed to keep my reputation?" Sheppard flung an arm across his eyes. "Wake me up in fifteen minutes."
Rodney huffed, but didn't refuse. Fifteen minutes later, he'd tested the bed, found the bathroom, brushed his teeth and scrubbed at his face, and wandered back into the bedroom to hassle Sheppard into a vertical position. Two minutes after that, Rodney was sitting on the bottom bunk with his head in his hands. He'd been walking over to the bunk when Sheppard had shifted in his sleep, turning his head toward the wall, and Rodney had stopped dead, caught by the vulnerable line of Sheppard's throat and his own completely traitorous body.
What the hell was going on? Five days ago he'd accidentally pseudo-proposed to Katie Brown in front of an audience of ferns, and suddenly he was having an attack of manly swooning at the sight of Sheppard asleep. Yes, fine, Rodney wasn't exactly unfamiliar with the idea that he could find other men attractive, but this was Sheppard, who was sarcastic and uncommunicative and impossible and hairy and sixteen on the best of days and basically everything Katie wasn't, including the whole completely-out-of-his-league component on which Rodney didn't care to dwell.
But when he'd glanced over at the bed, all Rodney had been able to do was stare at the plane of Sheppard's cheek, at the pale curve of an ear against dark, unruly hair, at the arc of his lip and the small lines starting to etch into the corners of his eyes, at the faint silvery scars where that damn bug had nearly gotten him, and every cell in Rodney's body leaped to attention and wanted. After forty-five wide-eyed seconds of forever, during which this minor epiphany emerged, shrieking, from of the darker corners of his brain, Rodney had stepped back, stepped forward, reached out, looked away, and then simply sat down hard on the bottom bunk before he sprained something.
Back in Antarctica, Rodney admitted, he had, of course, entertained the extremely interesting possibilities posited by the existence of Major John Sheppard. His considerations hadn't exactly been limited to Sheppard's apparent affinity for Ancient technology, either - there had been at least one very interesting scenario involving the command chair, which Rodney had regretfully nixed given that they still hadn't figured out why Grodin's drone had suddenly activated. Even with John Sheppard involved, the potential reward was not worth the risk of having to explain an accidental repeat to Elizabeth. Then the SGC had given the go-ahead for Atlantis, and while Rodney was human, he also had priorities, so all such questions had gotten shoved to the back of his head in favor of traveling to a new galaxy. Then, of course, the realization that they'd awakened the Wraith had been enough to put a damper on anyone's libido. One crisis followed another with alarming regularity in Pegasus, and so by the time Rodney had thought to resurrect those many, many possibilities, they'd lost a little bit of their allure, because somewhere along the way he'd become a part of a team, and it was actually sort of nice to just relax and enjoy being among something remarkably like friends when not frantically trying to stave off certain doom.
Then, of course, there'd been Chaya, which Rodney had read as a definitive statement of Sheppard's heterosexuality. Since Rodney wasn't into masochism, he'd pretty much just let the whole line of thought die off without too much regret. There really hadn't been time for anything else, in the end, given that shortly thereafter, Elizabeth's elderly twin had given them leads on ZedPMs and then the Wraith had been coming in earnest. When the dust finally settled, there'd been the unexpected possibility of Katie, who was nice, and attractive, and remarkably interesting for a botanist, and whom, moreover, had seen something interesting in Rodney beyond his obvious intelligence. The novelty of the combination had been worth further investigation. In the end, he'd found far more than he could have predicted, even if it took a year, an intergalactic visit from Jeanie, and his own even-nearer-than-normal near-demise for Rodney to actually admit to himself that he might want something like that. The existence of Katie, at least, suggested that it was neither an utter impossibility nor an unattractive proposition.
Except, Rodney thought, dropping his head into his hands, it hadn't been Katie he'd turned to when he was heading for Ascension-or-bust, and maybe that should have been a clue. Even more damning, he supposed, was the knowledge that he'd actually meant what he'd said last night, about "not Sheppard, not again," even if it had slipped out mid-tirade. Because as they'd stood in front of the gate on Atlantis for the memorial, it had dawned on Rodney that ever since that first "So long, Rodney," he'd found himself watching Sheppard for the first sign that he was going to do something stupid like run headlong into danger, which actually happened an ridiculous amount of the time. Maybe, Rodney conceded, he should've given a little more weight to the realization that if it came down to it, he'd rather be running headlong into danger with Sheppard rather than wringing his hands back at the fort. At least then he - and Rodney was honest enough to admit that he wasn't really sure if "he" meant himself, or Sheppard, or both of them - wouldn't be alone.
That, of course, was part of the problem, because the whole time they'd been worrying about Carson, part of Rodney had been watching Sheppard and making sure he didn't off, or to at least follow him when he did. Even now, sitting in Carson's mother's house, his family gathering downstairs, a large part of Rodney was relieved that it hadn't been Sheppard. The sum total of the situation left Rodney experiencing multiple flavors of guilt, because he'd failed in the first place for preferring sleep to immediate problem-solving and anything to fishing, and then because he couldn't fix it, and then because he still felt grateful that the person who'd suffered for it hadn't been the one currently sleeping just above his head. All of which compelled the conclusion that maybe Rodney hadn't been as good at the whole initial "no pining after the impossible" decision as he'd thought. Somehow, apparently, he'd ended up doing it anyway.
It was while Rodney was still turning that realization over in his head that Sheppard woke up, looked at his watch, and snapped, "What the hell, Rodney, we were supposed to be downstairs ten minutes ago," at which outburst Rodney jerked upright. Since the bunk beds had clearly been built for midgets, this meant Rodney immediately smacked his head into solid oak. Score one for concussion, apparently, even without sleeping six feet above the ground. Sheppard, annoyed, scrambled to make himself look slightly less rumpled and slightly more alert, while Rodney comforted himself with painkillers and the knowledge that avoiding problematically affectionate thoughts about Sheppard became much, much easier when the man was awake.
They hurried down the stairs to find Carson's family assembled around the dining room table, talking quietly, only to fall into complete silence when Rodney stumbled into the room courtesy of a surreptitious and entirely unnecessary shove. Recovering from that inauspicious beginning, he looked across the room to see a petite woman in a dark suit glaring at him malevolently, and he wasn't sure if it was the venom in her eyes or the fact that it was like looking at a feminine version of Carson that rendered him speechless. Sheppard was still behind him in the hallway, muttering completely unhelpful, not-nearly silent enough imprecations at Rodney's back, when Anna Buchanan Beckett, Carson's youngest sister and far more like him in appearance than the picture in her file would suggest, stood up and smiled tightly. "Ah," she said, in a voice that Rodney knew, from long experience, boded no good, "our guests have found their way here - shall we start dinner?" She stalked off through the far door to what Rodney presumed was the kitchen.
For the space of a few seconds, no one spoke as the sound of Anna's heels on the hardwood faded away. Then Beth pushed her chair back and said something about going to lend a hand, and Andrew rose to join her, and Mary Beckett just looked at them both from the head of the table and said, "Well? Come and sit."
Rodney ended up at Mrs. Beckett's right hand; Sheppard sat down on Rodney's left. Across from Sheppard was Margaret; on his left was a sister Rodney hadn't yet met but who looked a lot like Katherine's picture. Sheppard offered the two sisters his patented "aw, shucks" smile and started in on some vague apology to the gathered company. Mrs. Beckett had only just pinned him with a skeptical look when the explanations were interrupted by Anna, Beth, and Andrew, carrying plates and bowls of real, honest-to-god, home-cooked food. Just as Rodney was about to erupt into paroxysms of joy at the thought, Mrs. Beckett turned to him.
"Doctor McKay," she said, "would you care to say grace?"
Rodney stared at her. "Oh. Ah, well, yes - that is...." That was, Rodney thought frantically, a terrible idea, and he had no idea how to say so without risking permanent offense, but some primitive warning system was telling him that, in fact, offending Carson's mother was, at this point, the worst of many, many bad options. "You see...," he started, and paused again, because the only grace Rodney could ever remember saying was Johnny Appleseed, which came with a series of terrible summer camp memories he had no desire to resurrect. "I...."
Sheppard kicked his ankle, hard. "What Doctor McKay's trying to say," Sheppard interjected, looking like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, "is that he's a Quaker."
"A... Quaker?" said probably-Katherine, clearly confused.
"Yes ma'am." Sheppard answered, smiling. Anna narrowed her eyes. "They don't so much say grace as they have a period of silence, waiting for the spirit to move them." Rodney was beginning to understand just how Sheppard had managed to get hold of a multi-million dollar helicopter in direct opposition to orders. "Isn't that right, Rodney?" Sheppard said, and stepped on Rodney's toe.
"What?" Rodney yelped, "Yes, right, of course, I - we - you only -"
"Oh," said Margaret, and Rodney offered fervent thanks to whatever deity was listening, "Oh, yes - your church services are the same, aren't they?"
Before Rodney could answer, Sheppard was leaning in slightly, smiling at her. "That's it exactly. Quietest you'll ever see Doctor McKay," and a tentative laugh went around the table, skipping Anna, whose lips were now pinched so thin they looked bloodless. "But since dinner smells great, and much, much better than what we usually get, maybe you could let him off the hook for tonight?" Margaret blushed - unbelievable, Rodney thought - and smiled back.
"All right, then," Mary Beckett intruded, "Less talking, more praying, or we'll never eat. Beth, would you please?"
Rodney sagged in relief. Mrs. Beckett eyed him sharply, but she was smiling, so he figured he'd dodged the bullet. This gave him, he felt, every right to kick Sheppard back. Sheppard, damn him, didn't so much as flinch. The knot on the back of Rodney's head chose that moment to throb, and he winced, but by then Beth was praying and everyone had their heads bowed, so it went, he thought, relatively unnoticed.
Grace over, the ten minutes were something of a blur. Beth and Andrew made belated introductions around the table; Rodney frantically trying to match faces with the information in the SGC file while Beth explained that Katherine's (and score one for deduction, Rodney gloated) husband and children would be coming in the next day, as would Maire and her spouse. As Sheppard passed a beautiful, beautiful bowl of steaming mashed potatoes, Rodney was sufficiently distracted by the smell of melting butter that he forgot his instinctive caution and, vaguely recalling something about a fiancÚ, asked Anna when her husband was coming in.
In his lifetime, Rodney had been the cause of many, many awkward silences. The one that fell over the table as soon as the question left his mouth definitely ranked in the top five. Maybe the top three, given the fact that the saccharine smile on the face of the woman across the table from him looked a great deal like the one Carter had sported when he'd been sent off to Siberia.
"I am not," Anna said, "married. Nor am I engaged, Doctor McKay, although I admit to a brief moment of insanity in that regard several years ago. I am afraid," she said, too sweetly, "that what you see is what you get."
"Well," he said, attempting a conciliatory smile, "What I see looks just fine to me. I mean, obviously," he stammered as her eyes narrowed dangerously, "you are a lovely woman and, ah, clearly, in this day and age it's not... that is to say, there are all sorts of reasons a woman like you wouldn't choose to marry and, of course, one's lifestyle is, um, a very personal choice," he paused for breath. "I'm not married either, which isn't to say that I mean to compare the two of us because of course we're nothing alike and what I mean to say is that I'm sure you've made the right decision for you and your life." He put down the fork he'd been gesturing with. Margaret stared. Andrew's lips were twitching. Sheppard's eyes were closed. Rodney was not about to look at Mrs. Beckett. "I hope," Rodney faltered, "I hope that it makes you very happy."
"My lifestyle." Anna's voice was carefully mild, and a little piece of Rodney curled up and died of pure dread. "I see. So because I am single and childless and over the age of thirty, I must, of necessity, be a lesbian - is that it, Doctor McKay?"
"Ah, that's - well - no, that's not...," Rodney stammered, over Mrs. Beckett's stern "Anna," as he tried and utterly failed to follow Anna's thought processes.
"Isn't that just typical," Anna snorted. "Keep the little woman at home to take care of her man, and heaven forbid she shouldn't have one. And if she doesn't want a man, or children, well clearly, then, she's a lesbian. Whereas a man can stay single as long as he pleases - after all, there's nothing like a 'swingin' bachelor,' is there? Unless, of course, he's homosexual. You hide-bound Americans, so busy worrying about your moral imperative that you won't let one of your own fight for his country if he happens to be gay, but you're happy to kill off a Scottish civilian in his stead."
"Anna, enough." This time the warning was Beth's. Rodney gaped, staring at Anna. Next to him, Sheppard was so tense Rodney was amazed he wasn't vibrating.
"Hardly." Anna's hands were gripping the table so hard her knuckles were white. "For god's sake, they're just sitting here at our dinner table, like they're not the ones responsible for the fact Carson's dead. Not that they'd ever admit it, mind, they'll just have their military step all over anyone who dares to think differently. Yes-men and grunts, all of them, good for nothing except following orders, and," her voice cracked, "Carson was worth twenty of them. I want to know what no one else here has the balls to ask," Anna demanded, tone strident. "Tell me why it is you're here, sitting in front of us and stuffing your faces, and why the pair of you weren't out protecting Carson from whatever it was that killed him. How dare you come here and smirk and smile and sit with us? He was a doctor, for Christ's sake - he was never supposed to be in the thick of things." She glared at Sheppard. "Did you even bother to try and save him? How many men did you lose, trying to protect him?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Rodney saw Sheppard twitch - a tiny motion he wouldn't even have caught if he hadn't seen Sheppard after too many missions gone wrong. It was enough, however, to jolt Rodney out of complete disbelief and mild terror and into a state of profound irritation usually associated with the newest batch of scientists. "I'm sorry," he interrupted, plowing over whatever piece of idiocy was about to come out of Anna's mouth. "Have you always been this stupid?"
"Excuse me?" Anna's head went back like she'd been slapped, her jaw dropping.
Rodney didn't really care. "No, really, because Carson was absolutely brilliant, and you look exactly like him, but I'm really not certain that you aren't swimming in the short end of your genetic pool. Clearly, however, you share the same complete and utter lack of any common sense that made him think it was a good plan to shut himself away in a room with a ticking time bomb because he had to try and -"
"Rodney," John muttered, "drop it."
"I will not," Rodney spat, turning to him. "I will not just drop it. You lost men too, men under your command, not just Carson," and oh, he hadn't meant to say that, and wasn't that just one more thing that arrogant, finger-pointing, lawyer across the table from him was going to have to answer for. Rodney whirled back to point at Anna, "and you're just sitting there, just as smug and self-certain as you're accusing us of being, without even the beginning of an idea of what actually happened. No, no, you just figure your stereotypes are perfectly applicable, because, of course, they're yours, and sure, why not tar them all with the same brush, because, you know, they're only the people whose job it is to die horribly and do it first. You have no idea what they have to do - and they signed up knowing it, and oh, by the way, so did your brother, and everyone else in your family seems to get that, so perhaps you need to reevaluate those conclusions of yours, Miss High-and-Mighty, because if you have to blame somebody, you should be blaming Carson -"
"That's enough, McKay," Sheppard snapped, and the tone of his voice was well past I am not kidding.
Anna was on her feet, and, Rodney realized, somewhere along the way he must have stood as well, because she was leaning across the table, asking him how he dared to say something like that, in this house, at this time. Then Beth was grabbing Anna by the arm and saying something, and Sheppard was manhandling Rodney out into the hallway, releasing him with a shove.
"What the hell, Sheppard?" Rodney snapped, rubbing his upper arm.
"Upstairs, McKay," Sheppard hissed. "You are done for tonight."
"Hardly! Damn it, she was just as out of line, Sheppard, and you know it."
"She also just found out her brother's dead, McKay, and I'm pretty sure if you stay in there much longer, Carson's siblings are going to band together and kill you in cold blood in front of his dear, sweet mother, and I really don't want to have to explain that to Elizabeth. You need," Sheppard ground out, "to go cool off."
"Please, they weren't exactly leaping to defend her -" Rodney tried to move past him, down the hall, but Sheppard wasn't budging.
"I'm not kidding, Rodney. Pack it in."
Rodney snorted. "What am I, twelve? You may be Atlantis's golden boy and Kirk to half the galaxy, but I'm pretty sure you're not my mother, which means you can't exactly send me to my room without supper, Colonel."
"I will make you a goddamn plate, McKay, but you are not going back in that room tonight. We're here till Saturday, and this is going to be hard enough without you and Carson's younger sister trying to throttle each other. Go. Up. Stairs." Sheppard was biting the words off so hard Rodney could see the muscles in his jaw twitch. From down the hall, he could hear Anna's voice, raised in furious protest, and suddenly Rodney just didn't want to deal with it any more.
"Fine." Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm right. You know I'm right, and oh, by the way, you're welcome. But fine. I'm going. And you'd damn well better send up food."
Sheppard just looked at him. "Sure, Rodney, whatever. If they don't tell me they're kicking us out when I walk back in the room. Just go." Rodney plodded upstairs as Sheppard turned and headed back to the dining room. Flopping onto the lower bunk, he realized that somehow he'd ended up grounded because he'd decided to defend the United States military, which was, really, just the latest episode of insanity attributable to this whole, miserable trip.
An hour later, he was sitting on the floor, back against the bed, hunched over the computer and promising himself that he'd find some way to make Sheppard vilely uncomfortable back in Atlantis if dinner didn't materialize soon. He'd managed to focus on work with moderate success when someone knocked on the door. Rodney hoped it wasn't Sheppard bearing dinner and not bad news, because if it was, and they had to go back to Glasgow, today was only going to get infinitely worse. Irritated, he set the computer aside, heaved himself up, and went to answer it.
Anna Beckett stood on the other side. Rodney found himself rapidly revising his concept of infinity.
"My mother," she gritted out, thrusting a laden plate at him, "suggested that you might be hungry, since you had to leave so abruptly. She also suggested," and Rodney wondered if the muscle in her cheek always jumped like that, "that perhaps I owe you an apology for my comments at dinner."
Cradling the plate tenderly, Rodney looked at her, caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, she'd just blatantly attacked him in front of complete strangers. On the other hand, dinner. And also, he admitted, looking at tired, red eyes that still seemed far-too-familiar, Carson. Well. The absence of Carson, anyway. "Ah," he stammered. "Yes. Well. Perhaps I was a little, ah, that is, my choice of words may not have been the most, um, opportune, given the circumstances -"
Anna snorted and pushed past him before he could finish the sentence. "For heaven's sake. Apology accepted. For now," she amended, eyeing him. Rodney bristled and started to protest, but she cut him off again. "Don't. I'm not - " She stopped, clenching her hands at her sides. Rodney took a careful step away, setting the plate on the nearby dresser. "It has been pointed out to me," she said with an obvious effort, "that I am not well-suited to dealing with most people, and that perhaps I have not given either you or Colonel Sheppard sufficient credit. Certainly," she paused, considering, "certainly the Colonel is more upset than his initial demeanor would suggest, although he covers it well. And perhaps I was rather distraught when I, ah, provoked you at dinner."
Rodney stared at her, dumbfounded. "And so you're telling me this why, exactly?" He considered that statement and backtracked. "I mean, not that you shouldn't express what you're thinking, and I'm glad you've gotten it off your chest, but - why are you telling it to me and not, I don't know, someone you're related to? Or your, um, therapist?" She glared, and he hurried to cover, "Or, you know, someone... else?"
"Because, you great idiot, I'm trying to apologize!" she snapped, throwing up her hands.
"Oh," Rodney said, confused. "I thought we'd done that already."
"I've been in the room all of two minutes, Doctor McKay. Exactly when did we do that?"
"I don't know," he said. "Possibly when I opened the door and you said 'I owe you an apology' and then I said sorry and then you said 'Apology accepted'? I'm sorry if I misinterpreted what I thought was a pretty direct statement, but those of us who haven't had our minds polluted by legal education tend to take words like that at face value."
Anna boggled. Then she frowned. Then she brought a hand up to rub her forehead. "Point to you, Doctor McKay, she said. "Never let it be said I used my education against an unarmed civilian." She winced. "I mean -"
"Please," Rodney snorted, "Superior knowledge is meant to be deployed against the less fortunate. Clearly you've never taught graduate students."
"No," she allowed. "But there's a reason I have the record I do against opposing counsel."
"Yes, yes," he said, waving a hand dismissively, "but that's hardly the same being as paid to impart knowledge to the terminally incompetent."
"True." Anna cracked a small smile. "But then, I never had any desire to become a solicitor. I am not particularly fond of the hoi polloi."
"Nor the military, apparently," and why, Rodney wondered, was he constitutionally incapable of quitting while he was ahead.
"Ah." She shifted uncomfortably and paused. "No, I'm not," she said at last, "least of all when it's American, and the Colonel, perhaps, pushed a few buttons too many with that nonsense over grace." Anna fixed him with a considering stare, and Rodney was acutely aware that she was her mother's daughter. "You'll forgive me if I'm wrong, of course, but you hardly strike me as a Quaker. I don't," she continued, "much enjoy being lied to, or kept in the dark, and there's a great deal I'd dearly love to know that all of your paperwork simply doesn't tell me." She swallowed, swung away to look out the window as Rodney started to speak. "Don't." Her voice was suddenly ragged, and he recognized the set of her shoulders. "I am a barrister, after all, and I wouldn't want to tempt you to violate your confidentiality agreements." Anna hugged herself, holding on to her elbows. "I am a barrister," she repeated, "but I'm also his sister, and for all the good he may have been doing, he was my brother, and now he's gone." She lifted her chin. "It may have been what he wanted, but that doesn't mean a damn thing at the moment, except that I'd kill to tell him to his face what an utterly stupid justification I find that statement." Rodney just stood there, helpless and unexpectedly sympathetic, staring at the unforgiving lines of her back. "And then you lot blunder in to dinner," she continued, and Rodney made a heroic and mostly successful effort not to take umbrage at that remark, "running late and full of excuses and no explanations and perhaps," she shrugged, "as I said, you simply caught the edge of my temper." Rodney suppressed a shudder at the thought that he'd only seen the edge. "He was my older brother - my only brother, for all intents and purposes - and I miss him."
"So do I," he muttered, surprising himself. "I mean," he backtracked, "we all do, all of us on - on the - on this mission. It's just - we haven't - it's been so busy that - I know," he fumbled miserably, "about the stupidity, because yes, well, get in line. And it's not like I haven't spent the last few days asking myself the same questions," he said, sitting down on the bottom bunk and forcing the words out. "Only, you know, I was there, and all I can do now is second guess, because it's not even like I have someone else's incompetence to blame."
"I'm no priest, Doctor McKay. I can't grant you absolution," she said, voice flat, still looking out the window.
"I'm sorry," Rodney snapped, unreasonably irritated. "I wasn't asking for it. And you're kind of the wrong gender anyway, even if I didn't have too many misgivings to number about the plausibility of the propaganda put forth by the Catholic Church." Anna's shoulders hunched, and her hand flew to her face. A moment later, her shoulders started to shake.
Rodney shot to his feet, only to freeze, uncertain, debating the wisdom of flight in the face of a tearful Anna Beckett. "Oh god. Please - um, I mean, you're not, ah -" She quivered, and then - was that a snort? "I'm sorry?"
She turned around, her hand entirely failing to either 1) cover the smile on her face or 2) muffle her laughter, although her eyes were red - redder - and suspiciously damp. "You are a piece of work, aren't you?" she said. "Carson did say so, in his letters home, although he also warned me that if we ever met, he wasn't inclined to bet on the outcome. Still," she said, extending a hand as Rodney looked at her with extreme suspicion. "I think I could come to like you, Doctor McKay. Over time. A long time. If we didn't kill each other first. For now," she raised an eyebrow, "shall we call it a truce?"
"Oh yes," Rodney grumbled, but clasped her hand and shook it, "and next we can spit in our palms and do the secret handshake." Of course, that was when Sheppard showed up.
"So," he drawled, leaning against the doorframe and startling them both, "I guess I don't have to threaten you with detention after all, McKay." Rodney scowled. "I hate to break up the party, kids," Sheppard continued, and Rodney and Anna shared a completely sympathetic look of irritation, "but Mrs. Beckett asked me to send Anna down to her, if you two are finished making nice."
"Quite finished," Anna said crisply - and really, Rodney thought, she didn't need to dust off her hands. "Besides, it's getting late, and Doctor McKay's dinner will be going cold." Rodney's head swiveled to look at the dresser in alarm; when he looked back, Anna had crossed to the door and was standing in front of Sheppard. "I believe," she said quietly, "that I owe you an apology as well."
Sheppard smiled - the slow, lazy one he used all the time on local leaders from other planets, just before asking Teyla to invent some reason to avoid the local welcome ritual. "No harm, no foul," he said, and then grew serious. "I know this is a difficult time - "
Anna cut him off, rolling her eyes. "Indeed. And not all of us are quite so good at bluffing," she said sharply, and Sheppard's face froze. "I wonder," she said, and poked him in the chest with a finger, to Rodney's utter disbelief, "just how deep that mask goes, Colonel." She slipped past him and into the hallway. "Good night, gentlemen."
Her footsteps receded even as Rodney managed a half-hearted reply. Sheppard hadn't moved, propped up against the door jamb, eyes hooded, arms crossed. Rodney looked at the floor, tapped his fingers gently against the bed frame. He found himself reluctant to break the silence - at least, until his stomach growled and he remembered dinner, cooling rapidly on the dresser. He retrieved it, then settled himself on the floor, back to the bed, and tucked in with a will, because homemade roast chicken and mashed potatoes were homemade roast chicken and mashed potatoes, and rather harder to come by on Atlantis, where dinner was mess-hall processed at best. Feeling the beginnings of carbohydrate-induced bliss, Rodney looked up to find Sheppard still in the doorway, staring at him. "Hungry, McKay?" he drawled.
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, ha, very funny," he grumbled, savoring the carrots. "Stop lurking and sit down, or whatever. You're ruining my appetite."
Sheppard smirked, but withheld comment, for which Rodney was grateful, because the chicken was demanding all available system resources. Crossing to the desk, he grabbed the chair and swung it around, straddled the back, and hooked an ankle around one of the legs, resting his chin on the chair back and closing his eyes. Rodney reminded himself that he was more interested in the food than the slump of Sheppard's shoulders. For awhile, no one said much; Rodney actually thought Sheppard had fallen asleep sitting up, when the man in question cracked open an eye and said, "So. You and the youngest Beckett called a truce?"
"More or less." Rodney applied himself to the mashed potatoes.
"McKay." John's voice was equal parts tired and annoyed.
"What?" Rodney looked up, irritated. "Yes. I apologized, she apologized, we shook on it. End of story."
Sheppard opened the other eye. "Right." Rodney started to protest, but Sheppard cut him off. "We've got two more days here, Rodney. You have got to pull it together. I can't spend the whole time running interference."
"Look," Rodney said, setting the regrettably empty plate aside, "what more do you want me to say?"
"Trust me," Sheppard answered, sitting up and glaring, "I don't want you to say anything. I just spent forty-five minutes coping with what you did say."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Rodney snapped. "Next time I'll just leave you to be slandered where you sit."
"Damn right you will, if it means you won't try and take a piece out of someone's hide two days before her brother's funeral!" Rodney told himself he was imagining the way Sheppard's voice shook on the last word.
"I told you I'm no good at this," Rodney reminded him. "I told you that. I told you this was a bad idea. And frankly," he said angrily, getting to his feet, and matching John's glare, "I've had about enough of the 'oh poor Anna' line, Colonel. Yes, fine. She lost her brother. But we lost Carson - " his voice cracked. He swallowed and looked away, tried again. "We lost Carson. That counts for something." Sheppard said nothing. Rodney glanced over - Sheppard's head was down, forehead resting on his crossed arms. "Ah," Rodney muttered, picking up the empty plate, "I'll just... take this downstairs."
"Yeah," Sheppard said, voice low, not moving. "You do that. Just..." Sheppard paused, "'come back when you're done. You know."
"Yes," Rodney stammered, slightly confused and a little taken aback, "um, okay. Yes. I will." That, he thought as he made his way downstairs, had been a supremely odd conversation. Coming from Sheppard, it was practically a request for company, given that the man could've been the poster child for Stoicism as a life philosophy. Not for the first time, Rodney wished like hell they were back in Atlantis, because honest to god, if Sheppard decided to have a breakdown now, the whole week was only going to end in complete disaster - as opposed, Rodney conceded, to the minor catastrophe already in progress.
Beth was in the kitchen when he finally found it. She started into an apology, and Rodney, awkward, fumbled through his own version, and got the hell back out of there as fast as he possibly could, only to realize, halfway up the stairs, that he was about to walk back in on a possibly unstable Sheppard. Faced with the prospect, he clung wholeheartedly to the one tactic that had served him beautifully in two galaxies: sheer, single-minded avoidance.
"Right," he said, opening the door. "I need you to - what are you doing?" he finished, distracted. Sheppard had, in the interim, changed into sweats and a t-shirt, and was looking up in surprise from his new seat on the floor, where he was tapping idly away at Rodney's laptop.
"Minesweeper," he confessed, scrubbing a hand over his face, and Rodney was content to ignore the fact that Sheppard's eyes were slightly red, or, at least, to chalk it up to allergies.
Rodney scowled. "You do realize that resetting my high scores does not mean that you've actually beaten them, right?" Sheppard raised an eyebrow. "Yes, yes, silence means assent. Look," he continued before Sheppard could respond, rummaging through his own bag for his own pair of sweats, "Zelenka left me with the latest data from the jumper runs and some new sims, based on the changes we thought up after we all didn't die from that bizarre, whale-related manifestation of the Gaia hypothesis. He dragged Lorne out a few days ago and he needs to know where you think we ought to start tweaking, since the damn things would follow you around like puppies if they were any closer to sentient. They're the newest file on the desktop," Rodney directed, as he headed for the bathroom, "so stop playing around and go take a look."
By the time he got back, Sheppard was, as Rodney had hoped, several windows deep in the most-recent mock-ups, comparing them against Lorne's run and complaining about the fact that he could've gotten better results. Rodney acknowledged that this was probably so, given that Sheppard pretty much knew how to get the jumper to roll over and beg. At that point Sheppard inquired as to how Jinto was doing after Rodney nearly ran him over on the last trip to the mainland. Clearly, that remark deserved no kind of response, and besides, Rodney had simply been testing the boy's reflexes to make sure he hadn't been developmentally stunted by over-reliance on tuttle root, and, furthermore, Sheppard needed to be paying more attention to the proposed changes to the jumper's shield design the new Greek aerospace engineer had come up with. What with one thing and another and the fact that the laptop screen simply wasn't big enough to be seen from across the room, they ended up side-by-side on the floor, passing the computer back and forth as need be.
"No, no, no, look," Rodney jabbed a finger at the screen. "If we rewire the shield generator like this," he said, tugging the laptop away and entering a few commands, "so the shape of the shield is less blunt," Rodney thrust the laptop over at Sheppard, "and use the naquadah to boost it, you should be able to get even farther down." Sheppard frowned, scanning the results, and Rodney allowed himself to think that perhaps, just perhaps, his face looked a little less drawn than when he'd first come upstairs, which meant that Operation Dear-God-Please-Save-The-Meltdown-For-Atlantis was, for the moment, succeeding.
"I don't know, McKay," Sheppard said, pointing at the screen. "Those results just look wrong. These damn things are fast, and the resistance isn't a problem in space - or, hell, even in the air, mostly - but underwater it's like maneuvering a Tootsie Roll. A really, really big Tootsie Roll."
"Yes, well," Rodney grumbled, snatching the computer back, "bumblebees aren't supposed to be aerodynamically feasible either. Let me look. Where?" Sheppard leaned over, pointed at the screen, and wow, Rodney thought, the man gave off heat like a radiator. "Okay, okay, right, I see." He batted Sheppard's hand away and started reading, mildly distracted by the fact that the Colonel hadn't shifted but was, in fact, still pressed against him. "Huh."
"Huh, I'm right, or huh, you're going to kill Papadopoulos?" Sheppard drawled, tipping his head back to rest it on the edge of the mattress.
"Huh, both, probably, and I will never say that again - the first part, anyway - so enjoy it. Now, stop talking, busy here," Rodney muttered.
He should have been more annoyed, he thought as he resurfaced two hours later, eyes watering from the glare of the screen, at finding out that the results were useless because Papadopoulos hadn't proofread the simulation's equations well enough. It was just that irritation was somewhat harder to maintain when Rodney was kind of wrapped up in the unexpected sensation of Sheppard's body, leaning warm and heavy against his right side. The man himself, Rodney realized somewhere along the way, had actually fallen asleep. It was only because Rodney was starting to lose feeling in his right hand that he was contemplating waking Sheppard up at all, which was also the point at which Rodney realized that he was walking very close to a very carefully drawn line. For tonight, however, he was too damn tired to care, and gave himself another minute to just enjoy it, until his back started to protest. He nudged Sheppard carefully as he stood up. "Sheppard."
Hazy almost-green eyes peered up at him. Rodney's breath caught in his throat. He blamed it on the pins and needles attacking his right arm. "McKay?"
"Wake up," he forced out. "I found the errors, and the whole simulation needs to be entirely rewritten, only I'm not going to deal with it now, because it's Papadopoulos's problem and, more importantly, it's midnight and we have an entire day of Carson's family ahead."
"What?" Sheppard blinked at him muzzily.
"It is time," Rodney pronounced, "for all good little lieutenant colonels to stop coming between a tired genius and his extremely well-earned bed. Get up, Sheppard," he said, insistent. "You're in the way."
Sheppard grunted, stumbling to his feet and clambering, with visible effort, into the top bunk. "Nigh', Ro'ney," he mumbled, as Rodney hit the lights and fumbled his way under his own covers.
"Yes, yes. Sweet dreams, whatever," he yawned. If Sheppard said anything more, Rodney never heard it.
The next morning, Sheppard was up and moving long before Rodney, showered and out the bedroom door before Rodney had attained anything remotely like coherence. He'd slept a reasonable amount, he supposed, but it didn't seem to have helped - the world was still sort of fuzzy around the edges, and the heavy grey clouds just outside the window didn't help, tinting the landscape oddly and giving him a headache. When he finally headed downstairs sometime around nine, he was only quasi-functional and desperate for caffeine.
Three cups of coffee later, he had conquered breakfast and was sitting at the table, talking quietly with Sheppard and Mrs. Beckett about the schedule for Saturday, when the front door opened and a veritable horde of children poured into the house. Skirting the chaos, Katherine snagged a chair and joined the conversation; Margaret and Beth came in shortly thereafter, dodging child-shaped projectile objects on their way to the table. Clutching his mug, Rodney tried not to grind his teeth too obviously. Anna was the last of the sisters to appear, and by that point he and Sheppard had been almost entirely forgotten. Elizabeth, he thought, had nothing on these women for sheer organizational skill. Names and times and other random data flew about at lightning speed, which Rodney found slightly alarming, since he was absorbing maybe a quarter of it. Across the table, Sheppard shifted restlessly, and Rodney wondered if everyone else was simply too polite to mention the fact that the two of them were practically insane from the enforced inactivity. Probably not, Rodney allowed, as two of too many small children pounded down the hallway and into the room, demanded something Rodney couldn't follow of Katherine and Beth, and raced back out, shrieking.
He was considering the viability of several potential excuses for leaving the table when Andrew MacFarlane walked in. He had a cell phone in his hand, holding it gingerly some distance from his ear; somewhere on the other end, a chipmunk was in severe distress. "Maire's called," he announced. "Edward's running late, and they won't be in till the afternoon. She's a bit upset at the delay," he added, passing the phone over to Mrs. Beckett, who sighed, and took the call out to the kitchen.
"She's bringing the dogs," Andrew said to Beth, who let out an "oh, bloody hell," but he raised his hands. "We'll manage. I also waylaid Jim," he said, nodding to Katherine, "and we're going to see if we can't get the kids out from under foot. I thought I'd see if the Colonel and Doctor McKay had any interest in a game of football - that'll be soccer, to you Yanks," he finished with a smile.
Rodney jumped up so fast his head spun. "Sounds great," he chirped, and smothered the remark that Canada was not, in fact, the same country as the United States. "I love soccer!"
Across the table, Sheppard stared. Rodney hoped like hell he wouldn't say anything - a forlorn hope, apparently, because no sooner had it crossed his mind than Sheppard stood, somewhat more slowly, and eyed him dubiously. "Really? I -"
"Oh, absolutely," Rodney said, cutting the rest of that sentence off ruthlessly and moving toward the door before anyone could suggest otherwise. Faced with the prospect of freedom, he took the only possible course: he lied. "Could've played it as a career, if I wanted to - won the Sears Recruiters' Award and everything, but then, of course, I found a higher calling in physics. The college coaches were so disappointed."
"Really," said MacFarlane. "I've never heard of that - is that big, over there?" he asked, looking at Sheppard.
Sheppard looked at Rodney, eyebrow raised. Rodney looked at Sheppard, hoping that he'd understand the expression on Rodney's face to mean "if you do not back me up on this I will make your life a living hell, but I cannot say that in present company." Sheppard shrugged, turning back to Andrew. "Sure," he said, stepping back from the table. "Of course, Rodney never mentioned it till now, but he's a pretty modest guy. I can't wait to see him on the field." Rodney smothered a groan. "If you'll excuse us?" Andrew asked of Mrs. Beckett, who had reappeared in the doorway. She nodded.
"Brilliant," said Andrew. "We'll meet you outside - you might want something a bit warmer than what you've got on."
Fortunately, Sheppard waited until they were both in the bedroom, door closed, to mutter, "Sears Recruiters' Award?"
"Oh, shut up," Rodney said crankily, although the effect was somewhat spoiled by the sweater he was yanking over his head. "It got us out of the Junior League meeting, didn't it?"
"Rodney," Sheppard drawled, "take it from someone who knows. If that bunch ever met the Junior League, they'd terrify them out of their twinsets. Or take over Earth in some kind of unholy alliance. I'm not sure which."
"The point is," Rodney huffed, "that at least now we're not stuck in the dining room. Let's go," he finished, heading for the door, only to find Sheppard grabbing at his arm.
"Hang on, buddy," he said, a very peculiar grin on his face.
Rodney, baffled, was about to ask if he had something stuck in his teeth, or on his chin, or what, when Sheppard swiped at his hair. Rodney ducked. "Ow, hey!"
"You looked a little ruffled," Sheppard explained, still wearing that slightly lopsided grin. "Don't want to give anyone a bad impression."
Rodney stared, flushed, and looked away. "Please," he managed, opening the door, "you just don't want any competition." They bickered companionably down the stairs and down the hall, and Rodney told himself he was imagining the lingering heat of Sheppard's palm. As they walked out the front door, Rodney stopped mid-sentence, swallowing a pithy comparison between steroid use and Sheppard's addiction to styling products. Andrew was standing a few steps down the drive. In the middle distance, another, slightly shorter man was dividing a pack of children into teams. Mrs. Beckett stood next to Andrew, talking to a lanky man with wispy grey hair and a clerical collar. Beside Rodney, Sheppard, too, had gone quiet - glancing at him, Rodney saw that the grin had disappeared, and his eyes had gone flat and unexpressive.
"Ah," Mary Beckett said, turning to the pair of them, "Doctor McKay. I'm sorry to take you away from your soccer game, but Reverend MacGinnis just arrived. We've a few questions about the service that need your input, if you don't mind."
"Um," Rodney stalled. "That is to say - ow." He glared at Sheppard, who smiled as if his elbow hadn't just intentionally caused permanent damage to Rodney's kidney. "That is to say, no, that would be fine," he managed. Sheppard didn't look at him.
Mrs. Beckett cleared her throat. "Well, then. If you'll come inside, I'll see about tea."
Forty-five minutes later, after introductions and pleasantries and a minor near-catastrophe over the Reverend's preference for lemon in his tea, Mrs. Beckett dropped the first bombshell. "He wants his ashes scattered where?" Rodney sputtered, nearly dropping the mug. "But - but - this was his home. All he ever talked about was coming back." And what in the hell were the customs regulations for something like that, he wondered as Mrs. Beckett repeated, slowly, that Carson wanted Rodney to take some of his ashes back to wherever it was they were living, and scatter them there. He forced his attention back to the task at hand - Reverend MacGinnis was intoning something about "the importance of the family you make from friends." Which, yes, fine, but, as Rodney opened his mouth to point out, he hadn't been very good at family the first time around and even though, yes, Atlantis had basically turned into his family, complete with the weird cousins no one wanted to talk about, he had a whole host of doubts about exactly how well he'd done by most of them, including Carson. He subsided, however, after catching the look on Mrs. Beckett's face, which looked eerily like the one Elizabeth wore when arguing with her was a really bad idea.
MacGinnis was still talking. It wasn't so much that he was unpleasant - Rodney actually liked him more than most clergy, which might be considered damning with faint praise. It was just that - he just kept talking about Carson, and loss, and how difficult it must be, and really, Rodney would be fine if everyone would just stop talking about it. He started to fidget. Mrs. Beckett raised an eyebrow, but didn't call him on it; frankly, Rodney thought, she was looking a little tense herself. Out the window, he could see the soccer game rambling back and forth on the grass, Sheppard distinguishable only by virtue of his height and hair, tumbling easily along with the pack of children, body language more relaxed than it'd been since - well, since that morning, anyway. A knock at the door jolted him back to the room. Katherine came in bearing sandwiches and another pot of tea. She sat down with them, and then she and Mrs. Beckett took advantage of the reverend's full mouth to ask more practical questions about the order of service. If the ham sandwich hadn't tasted so very, very good, Rodney would have tried to invent a reason to leave.
Ten minutes later, Rodney had a full stomach, an empty plate, and deep misgivings about whether the sandwich had been worth it. "Speak?" he squawked. "I - um. But. The thing is - I'm not - you want me to speak? At the funeral? Tomorrow?"
Katherine and Reverend MacGinnis were looking at him in sympathy, which, he thought, irritated, he wished they would stop, because he was pretty sure whatever they were thinking he was thinking, they were wrong. Mrs. Beckett's mouth was set in a firm line. "Yes, Doctor McKay, we would. After all, you knew him best, these last few years. Unless, of course, it's an imposition." Rodney had a feeling that short of anaphylactic shock, he wasn't going to be able to invent something of sufficient magnitude for Mary Beckett to consider it an imposition.
Not that he wasn't going to try. "It's just - I'm not the best at - I'm a very poor public speaker," he finished lamely.
"Come now, Doctor," Mrs. Beckett smiled thinly. "You're a good Quaker, after all - if nothing else, I'm sure you can just let the spirit move you."
Rodney was going to kill Sheppard. And possibly Anna Beckett. He wasn't particular about the order. He was also, he realized, in a rare and fortuitous moment of sensitivity, treading very close to Mrs. Beckett's line. "Well," he caved miserably, "since you put it that way."
"Good," Mrs. Beckett, and started to say something else, except then the front door opened and two small what the hell were those and why were they wearing bows streaked into the room, yapping querulously. "Bollocks," she muttered, and MacGinnis's eyebrows hit his hairline. "Sorry, Reverend," she said perfunctorily. "Katherine, corral those two hellhounds in the kitchen before they destroy my furniture again. Maire?" she called, as Katherine sighed and stood. "We're in here."
A harried-looking man was heading past the window in the direction of the soccer game. The adults paused, and a small child smacked into the back of Sheppard's knees, taking him out. Rodney swallowed a laugh, then jerked in surprise as another dark-haired woman barged into the room and flung herself at Mrs. Beckett. "Mama," she said, accent on the second a, and if Katherine hadn't chosen that precise moment to look up from where she was coaxing a dog out from under the table, Rodney would never have caught the violent eyeroll. "Mama," she wavered, "it's so - I can't believe - oh, Carson."
Katherine stood, holding up the dog, its legs scrabbling at the air. "I'll just go find the other one of these, then, shall I?" she asked, dryly, and left.
"Ah, my girl," Mrs. Beckett said, her voice muffled by a shoulder. "There you go. You're home now." She patted Maire's back, extricating herself and reaching up to push a curl out of her daughter's face and tuck it behind her ear. "But there's company, love, so chin up a bit."
Maire nodded, applying a handkerchief to her brilliantly red nose and peering at Rodney and Reverend MacGinnis. She smiled jerkily and collected herself with an effort. "Reverend," she quavered, dabbing at her eyes as he nodded in reply. She turned to Rodney. "I'm so sorry," she said, "we haven't even met. I don't know what you must think of me." She held out a hand, which Rodney took with no little trepidation. "I'm Carson's sister, Maire."
"Doctor Rodney McKay," he said, shaking hands gently. "I - Carson is- was- a colleague of mine. And, um, a friend. A good friend," he amended.
Maire tightened her grip, and Rodney felt he should earn karmic points for not flinching. "Oh," she breathed, reddened eyes going wide. "Oh," she said again, still holding Rodney's hand, and he was beginning to worry about his circulation, because his hands were kind of critical to intergalactic security. "How kind of you to come, Doctor. I'm sure this must be very difficult for you. We saw so little of Carson, these last few years - there's so much you can tell us, I hope," and Elizabeth, Rodney thought, trying not to panic, would be appalled at the rampant use of italics.
"Ah," he hedged, weighing the theoretical concept of "classified" and the personal preference for not talking about it, ever, particularly not with strangers, against the very real possibility of hysterical female, "that is, I'll - "
"We all hope so, Maire," supplied Reverend MacGinnis, with the air of one trying to pour oil on troubled waters. "After all, Doctor McKay's agreed to speak tomorrow."
"Oh my," Maire said, hands flying to her mouth, and Rodney seized the opportunity to clasp his own safely behind his back, surreptitiously checking for any damage to the nerve endings in his fingertips. He wasn't so distracted, however, that he missed the look of moderate exasperation that Mrs. Beckett directed towards the oblivious cleric, so he had at least a little warning when Maire suddenly hurled herself at him, wrapping her arms around his chest and squeezing in clear violation of every introductory rule of personal space Rodney had ever encountered. She was crying again, and possibly talking, but her mouth was uncomfortably close to his armpit and he really couldn't make out the words.
"Um," Rodney said, achieving restraint only due to the presence of Carson's mother, "I'm sorry, I really -" he managed to get a hand against her shoulder, aware of Reverend MacGinnis gawping in the background, " - I have to -" and then, mercifully, Mrs. Beckett was at Maire's other side.
"Maire Louise Beckett Brown," she rapped out, "get a hold of yourself. You're a woman of forty-three, and you're scaring Doctor McKay half to death."
Maire looked up, hiccuped, and took a step back. "Oh, Doctor," she managed, "I am so sorry. I've gone and cried all over your shirt," she said, and moved as if to brush him off. Rodney jumped.
Fortunately, Katherine chose that moment to reappear in the doorway, a squirming mass of fur under each arm. "Maire," she said, "if you do not come this instant and help me feed these mongrels, I'm going to set the barn cats on them."
"Oh, Katherine," Maire sniffled, turning to her sister, and Rodney allowed himself to relax. A little. "You always say that." She advanced on Katherine, holding out her arms for the dogs. Gathering them up, she buried her face in their fur. "They're not mongrels. They're practically human. They know when something's wrong - they've been so worried, this whole week..." she trailed off, eyes growing alarmingly moist yet again.
"Maire," Mrs. Beckett warned.
"Yes, Mama," she replied, sighing. "I'll take them to the kitchen."
Katherine let her pass, patting her shoulder as she swept through the doorway, dogs in her arms. "I'll be there to help in just a tick," she called after her sister. "First, though - Mother, I thought I'd offer Doctor McKay the study. Emma helped me clear away some of the clutter this morning. It isn't much," she said, looking to Rodney, "but it's more space than you have upstairs, and it's quiet, so you could work there, if you wanted."
"That," Rodney said fervently, "would be wonderful."
"You're a marvel, Katherine," Mrs. Beckett said with a tired smile. "Off with you, then - I'll finish up with Reverend MacGinnis."
Rodney fled, hurrying upstairs to collect his computer.
"Um," he said, two minutes later, as Katherine stood watching him stretch to reach the power adapter, which was stuck in the plug behind the desk, "thanks."
"No trouble at all," she said. Rodney straightened, adapter in hand, grabbed his bag, and followed her down the stairs and past the parlor, around the corner to a door at the end of the hall. "Maire's a handful," Katherine offered, her tone not-quite-apologetic, "always has been. Still," she said with a smile, "she's a good egg, at bottom - and she's family. You know how it is."
"Sure," said Rodney, setting his bag on the desk, and realizing, with a peculiar stab of regret, that he didn't, not really, and might never, given the whole other galaxy thing. What's more, he thought, as he sat down in the desk chair and booted up, he sort of wished he had Jeanie around right now, because she, at least, would just tell him when he screwed up - and that, possibly, might be what felt so familiar about Mrs. Beckett. And maybe Katherine as well, he realized, looking up from the login screen to find her still leaning in the doorway, watching him with a tolerant look on her face. "Thank you," he said again, and meant it.
"Like I said," Katherine replied, "no trouble at all. Enjoy the quiet while it lasts, though," she warned. "They're calling for rain, and what with the dogs and the kiddies and the rest of you men, things could get busy in here, since Beth's kicked us all out of the big house while she cooks for tomorrow. Speaking of which," she said, straightening, "I'll leave you to it. No time to waste," she said, closing the door behind her, utterly unaware of Rodney's sudden paralysis.
"No time to waste, then," Carson had said, and then, "Making the first incision."
"The man is already dead," Rodney'd protested, and he could still taste the words, heavy and sour and useless on his tongue.
"Like hell he is," Carson had snapped, and Rodney could still hear it, hear Carson's voice in his sister's tone, and it kept hitting him, in this house full of people who looked and smiled and sounded like Beckett, that Carson was gone. God damn it, Rodney thought, he'd known there was no way out of that situation - what the hell had Carson been thinking? He leaned forward, pushing the heels of his hands into his eyes so hard he saw stars. He could still feel the pressure of Maire's grip, curled his fingers to banish the memory of that relentless clutching. His chest felt tight - too tight - and he fought for air, trying to call up images of clear blue skies, but that just made him think of Carson, worried and helpless in the face of Rodney's impending demise. It made him think of Sheppard, of the look on Sheppard's face as he acknowledged he couldn't order Carson to safety, as Carson - bull-headed, knight-errant Carson - said "That's right, you can't." It was the same frustration and anger and well-hidden something else that Rodney'd seen when he'd quit trying to ascend and asked Sheppard to give his eulogy.
"Stop thinking," Elizabeth had told Rodney then, and he wished he understood how to do that now, sitting at the desk, but he'd never managed to explain to her that not thinking, for him, was as plausible a solution as not breathing. And yes, fine, here in Scotland, Carson's family had been so utterly unpredictable that Rodney had spent a lot of time thinking what the hell and oh, god, please, no, but really, there was only so long that it was going to serve as a plausible distraction. What he wanted, Rodney admitted, was to be back on Atlantis, repairing the damage to his city, there in the thick of things, where he could be busy and useful and invent excuses to check on people - on Sheppard, his brain insinuated - at all hours of the day just to make sure that they were still there.
His eyes were starting to hurt from the pressure. He didn't really care. His eyes hurt, his head hurt, his lungs hurt, his throat hurt. He was probably on the verge of a stress-induced breakdown, stuck in a cottage in the middle of Scotland and Carson wasn't even around to blame for it. He strangled the noise that tried to tear out of his chest - only, about ten seconds later, to let out a shout of absolute panic as the study door thudded open and the room flooded with very, very small people.
"Oh my God, who are you?" he protested, which, it turned out, was a very bad idea, because their leader, distinguishable by his particularly high mud-to-skin ratio, promptly looked at Rodney, pointed, and yelled "HOME BASE!" Which is why, when Andrew MacFarlane materialized in the doorway three minutes later, Rodney was standing with his back against the bookshelf, clutching his laptop bag like a shield, yelling, "Not IT. I am NOT IT."
"Boys," Andrew shouted, and the room went quiet as they froze. "Apologize to Doctor McKay."
"No, no," Rodney said, edging around the desk in a desperate bid for the door before they started moving again, "no apologies. I was just, ah, heading upstairs anyway. Go right ahead." He slipped past Andrew without waiting for a response, making it halfway to the stairs before he had to flatten himself against a wall to avoid the second oncoming herd.
Once upstairs, he closed the bedroom door, leaning against it with a sigh of relief. When he looked up, it was to see Sheppard staring at him from across the room, dripping wet and covered in mud, one hand propped on the dresser, the other mid-way through tugging off an extremely foul-looking sock. "What happened to you?" Rodney demanded. Sheppard sighed, pulled the sock all the way off, and reached for the hem of his shirt. Rodney averted his eyes, mentally reciting the Fibonacci sequence in sheer desperation.
"Soccer, mostly," Sheppard said, muffled by fabric.
Crossing to drop the laptop bag on the bed, Rodney snorted and sat. "Nice try," he said, pulling the computer back out and booting yet again, "MacFarlane doesn't look nearly as bad as you do."
"Yeah, well," Sheppard muttered, rummaging in his bag for a t-shirt. "MacFarlane didn't run back outside when one of those weird little dog things got out in the rain. You sure they're from Earth?"
"I'm sure. Otherwise I'd have a good excuse for having them forcibly removed," Rodney answered, opening up a new document.
Sheppard ambled over, clean jeans in hand. "You escaped them pretty well," he said, "although I'm not sure how you got mud on your knees talking to the minister."
"Very funny. Have I mentioned that I hate kids?"
"Yeah, well. Try not to kill any while I'm in the shower. What're you doing up here anyway? They turn you loose?"
"Finally," Rodney grumbled. "I know more about floral arrangements than I ever hoped to learn. But yes," he continued, staring down at the screen, "I left after they asked me to give Carson's eulogy. I, ah, don't suppose you'd, um. You know. Have any suggestions," he finished, carefully not looking at Sheppard.
"Rodney." Sheppard's voice was low. He cleared his throat, shifted, then sat down on the bunk abruptly, muddy ass and all, right next to Rodney, who looked over, about to complain. He would have, except - Sheppard looked so wrung out, Rodney thought, and with all the damn people staying the night, Mrs. Beckett probably had spare blankets somewhere. Sheppard leaned forward on his elbows, dropped his head in his hands - which were shaking, Rodney realized with no little alarm. Sheppard's hands didn't shake. That was like - like Teyla crying. In public.
"Rodney," Sheppard said again, sounding like he'd swallowed glass, and the screen in front of Rodney's eyes blurred so badly he had to set it aside.
"You should know," he blurted, "that I'm kind of beginning to realize what a lousy thing that is to ask of someone. And, ah, I'm sorry I -"
"Don't," Sheppard cut him off, still hunched over. "Just - don't."
They sat there for a moment, Rodney studying the curve of Sheppard's spine, listening to the nearly inaudible hitch in his breathing.
"I hate this, you know," Rodney finally said, conversationally, like they were sitting in the mess, not huddled on a bunk bed. Sheppard didn't respond. Rodney waved a hand. "All of this. The people. The complete lack of personal space. The responsibility. The children," he added, and possibly Sheppard might have chuckled. "Even if - and I am not at all certain about this - but if I make through tomorrow without committing manslaughter, there's still the problem of getting Carson's ashes back to Colorado so we can take them back to Atlantis, assuming we can manage that without something happening, because," Rodney finished, "somehow, I am certain that we exhibit a statistically anomalous degree of attraction to situations in which Murphy's Law comes into play."
"Back up, McKay," Sheppard lifted his head slightly, turning to look at Rodney through his fingers. "So we can what?"
"Oh. Yes. It was in his will, apparently. He wanted some of his ashes scattered here, some in Atlantis." Rodney fidgeted with the covers. Sheppard just stared at him. "Look, it's not my choice. You were out reenacting the World Cup with midgets and I didn't know what to say."
Sheppard closed his eyes, dropped his head back down. His shoulders started to shake and Rodney realized Sheppard was laughing. "That's going to be damn difficult on Judgment Day," Rodney heard him say, and saw his lips twist into a grin. "Oh, hey, my ulna's over in another galaxy - let me just grab it and get back in line." It was Rodney's turn to stare. After several moments in which Rodney considered and discarded a number of possible responses and ultimately failed to say anything at all, Sheppard glanced over. "It was a joke, McKay," he said, the amusement in his tone underlaid with something bleaker.
"I don't get it," Rodney managed to say, and then forestalled Sheppard's explanation by raising his hand and saying, "No, wait, I mean - I know this is your way of whistling in the dark, or whatever, but how are you so calm about all of this? I mean, yes, you've had a moment or two, and for the record, if you are going to fall apart, I'd really appreciate it if you'd save it for Heightmeyer, but mostly you've been so - so - normal, like this whole week hasn't been some bizarre episode of the Twilight Zone. How do you do that?"
Sheppard looked away, stood up, grabbed the clean jeans from the floor. "I don't know what you're talking about, McKay," he said. "I'm coping, same as you, till we're done here. It's a mission. Same as any other. This one just sucks more than most."
"No, see - there - that!" Rodney pointed. "That's exactly what I'm talking about. Do you actually have an off switch? Because I'm pretty sure most humans don't come with one."
Sheppard was frozen in the middle of the room. "It - it isn't like that."
Rodney snorted in disbelief.
"Yeah, well," Sheppard muttered, ducking his head, "maybe it is, a little."
"Just - look," Rodney said, scrubbing a hand through his hair. "If you learned it somewhere," he continued, "can you teach me how?" He paused, took a breath. "I'm not complaining. I just want to know. Because it's exhausting for the rest of us."
Sheppard didn't move for a long time. Rodney didn't either. He was starting to worry about needing to breathe when Sheppard looked up, face twisted. "Believe me, McKay. You don't want to know." Sheppard looked away, and the spell broke. "I'm going to shower," he said, and was gone.
Rodney considered the closed door, his throat oddly constricted. He coughed, picked up the laptop, and shifted to the floor. The cursor blinked back at him innocently. He shrugged, restless, and set his fingers to the keys, typed Carson's name, erased it, typed it again. Erased it. Spent five minutes composing a screed to the carpet manufacturer about the extremely scratchy synthetics they were using these days. Typed, "I met Carson when,". Moved up to sit on the bed. Beat Sheppard's minesweeper score. Erased the phrase. He was still staring at the screen, seeing the expression on Sheppard's face, when one of the roving bands of children ran down the upstairs hallway, and suddenly he'd had enough. Enough of the house, enough of the family, enough of Scotland. He wanted Atlantis, her corridors, her ocean, her sky, even her people. Since intergalactic travel wasn't exactly an option at the moment, out would have to suffice. He glanced at the window as he stood up and grabbed his coat. Somewhere along the way, it had grown dark, but Rodney didn't care. He needed out, now, and he wasn't picky about how he got there. At least it had stopped raining.
Zipping up his coat, he headed down the stairs and hurried past the very, very high-pitched voices shrieking over a game of Go Fish in the parlor. Someone older was talking in the kitchen, and he paused, common sense asserting itself. The need to flee was all very well and good, Rodney reasoned, but it would be totally in keeping with the spirit of the week if he went out without so much as a flashlight and then contracted hypothermia when he fell and broke his leg. Possibly he needed gloves. Or a scarf. Or both. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all, he thought, and was about to retreat to the bedroom when a particularly ear-piercing squeal echoed down the stairs, accompanied by annoyed barking. He ducked into the kitchen.
Anna Beckett was sitting at the small table and talking into a cell phone as she tapped a pencil on a notepad. "- don't care, Arthur, I'm not coming in tomorrow - you'll have to do it without me." She looked up and saw Rodney, and frowned, but beckoned to him when he started to leave. "No. You're the least incompetent to handle it, and it's my brother's funeral. I'll call in the evening, if I must, but you're going to have to cope on your own till then. Talk to Malcolm. Then do the opposite of what he tells you. No. No. If absolutely no one else can take it, it will wait till Sunday. Yes. No. No, and that's the end of it, unless you'd like me to schedule a highly unpleasant performance review for Monday morning. Yes. Good. Do try not to muck tomorrow up too badly. Good night. Well," she said, looking up at Rodney as she closed the phone. "Don't you look a wreck."
"Um," Rodney said, and flinched as one of the card-playing children stormed past the kitchen door, yelling something about cheaters never winning. "I thought -"
The set of her mouth shifted, curling into an expression of uncomfortable empathy. "That maybe you needed to get out for a bit?"
"Yes," he answered, fervent in his relief, "only then I was thinking that it was dark, and kind of cold, and that I didn't really want to die an untimely death in a ditch," he stopped, brain catching up. "Um."
Anna tapped the pencil against her chin and pursed her lips. "You are something, Doctor McKay. Still, Carson liked you, and that's worth something. Mind you," she added slyly, "Maire's apparently convinced you were his secret lover - something about you being 'good friends'. That's Maire, for you, though," she continued, as Rodney sputtered. "Of course, she wasn't at dinner yesterday, or her money'd be with mine, given the way your Colonel defended you, after you left." Rodney stared. Anna put the pencil down, and looked him, eyebrow raised. "Margaret's heartbroken."
Rodney was rapidly rethinking his entire plan. If he sounded panicked enough, he might be able to convince the SGC to let him beam aboard the Daedalus right now. "Gloves," he choked. "And a light. Maybe a scarf? Please?"
Anna grinned and stood. "Grab a scarf off the coat rack," she said, opening a drawer and pulling out a flashlight. "There should be a pair of gloves in the blue coat pocket. Here's a torch," she added, handing it to him. "Most of the family's up at Beth's, helping finish up for tomorrow. Dinner's catch-as-catch-can once they're done. I'll make a plate and leave it for you," she offered, as he pulled on the gloves, and he nearly forgave her. "Mind where you walk," she cautioned as he made for the kitchen door. "If you follow the drive down past the barn to the road, stick to the footpath. Town's to the right." Rodney opened the door, and paused, torn. It was cold. And damp. Before he could back away, however, a small child with grubby hands chased one of Maire's dogs into the kitchen and Anna's phone rang.
"I swear to God," she hollered, grabbing both dog and child by the scruff of their necks. "If whomever owns these godforsaken hairy beasties does not make them behave I will sell them both to the gypsies." The phone rang again, and she swore, then caught sight of Rodney. "Well?" she demanded. "Go, if you're going."
Half an hour later, ankle-deep in a puddle, he came to his senses. It was a testament to Pegasus, really, and the attendant cardiovascular benefits of continual fleeing for one's life, he considered, that he made it as far as he did before realizing how insanely stupid an idea this had been. He wiggled numb toes, felt his socks squelch. His jacket was completely failing to keep out the cold, he was fairly sure he was developing hives in reaction to the wool scarf, and he'd dropped the flashlight tripping over a crack in the path. To top it off, he was alone, completely alone, free of distractions and thus entirely susceptible to stray thoughts about Carson, and it hurt, a physical pain, cramping and insidious, that stopped him in his tracks. Which was the reason he was currently standing in muddy water, hands on his knees and bent nearly double, fighting the urge to do something, even if he didn't know precisely what.
It passed, eventually, ebbing away by degrees to be replaced by a mortifying awareness of how ridiculous he must look. Not that he was expecting to encounter anyone in the dark on a footpath by the side of a country road in the middle of Scotland, but still. Straightening slowly, he turned around and started back along the path, achy and disgruntled and unhappier than he'd been when he'd left the house in the first place.
When the cottage came into view, lights shining warm and far-too-distant, he relaxed. By the time he'd made it as far as the barn, the wind had kicked up vehemently, and he kept close to the wall, using it as a not-entirely-effective windbreak. His steps slowed as he reached the corner of the building, as he considered Carson and the family Beckett and the warning signs of frostbite and wondered if he wouldn't be better off trying to slip in the front door so he could just go directly upstairs. Thus distracted, he didn't notice he had company until someone grabbed him by his collar and shoved him none-too-gently up against the barn wall.
There was a second in which Rodney's world narrowed to the thudding of his pulse, the cold stone against his back, and the vivid pinpoints of heat against his throat where the person's knuckles had shoved aside his scarf. The next second, Rodney's brain was focused on the sublime injustice of being killed by a crazy person on a farm in Scotland after the last almost three years of frequent and increasingly bizarre near-death experiences. In the third second, he opened his mouth to shout for help, only to be cut off when Sheppard's voice snarled "God damn it, McKay, where the hell have you been?"
Rodney relaxed, but only slightly, because Sheppard was breathing heavily, and the hands in his jacket were fisted very tightly, and there was something in Sheppard's tone that spoke to something primitive in Rodney's hindbrain, telling him to stay very, very still. Sheppard's face was backlit by the lights from the house; the shadows made it impossible to read. "What?" Rodney blurted out, splitting the difference between extreme terror and monumental irritation.
"Where the hell were you?" Sheppard demanded. "And why the hell didn't you tell someone where you were going?" he almost-shouted.
Rodney stared, then recovered. "What?" he said again. "First of all, I went for a walk. Second, and far more importantly, Anna Beckett pretty much shoved me out the door, so what do you mean, why didn't I tell someone?"
"Anna wasn't around," Sheppard growled, "and what kind of idiot takes a hike in the cold, wet dark without a flashlight?" He still had Rodney pinned against the wall, but his hands had shifted to Rodney's shoulders, grasping hard enough to telegraph the fine tremor in their grip. "It's not like I've got a god damn lifesigns detector."
"Oh, right," Rodney snapped, irritation winning out, "because going running at night in Glasgow is the pinnacle of brilliance. In the toss-up between crazed drug addict muggers and, and, I don't know, killer sheep, I think you win in the 'most likely to die of stupidity' category."
"Fuck, Rodney," Sheppard swore, punctuating his words with a shake. He leaned in, close enough for Rodney to finally see his eyes, pupils blown wide and full of something Rodney had never seen there before. "You are my responsibility," Sheppard said, low and intense, pinning Rodney with that look. "I am not losing you, too. Not tonight. Not now. Not ever." Sheppard's expression shifted, and it was as if he was looking through Rodney, not just at him. "Not ever," he said again, fingers holding Rodney so tight they hurt. "Not you," he whispered, like the words choked him, and Rodney suddenly understood.
"Oh," he said, eyes flying wide. "Oh." Sheppard's eyes refocused, went inscrutable, only this part Rodney had seen before, so he knew enough to stop Sheppard as he pulled back a fraction. "No," Rodney struggled for the right words. "No, wait," he managed, and brought a hand up to cup Sheppard's neck and tug him back in. "Wait," he repeated, drawing Sheppard down so his forehead rested hot against Rodney's own.
"Rodney," Sheppard muttered, closing his eyes, breathing ragged, body stiff.
"No, look," Rodney said, still fumbling. "Sheppard - John." Sheppard's eyes flew open. "I get it. I get it. I know."
Sheppard's hands clenched again as he stared at Rodney. This close, Rodney could see it, see the struggle, naked and open like Sheppard never was. He watched as control fought grief and fear and desire and lost, as Sheppard tried to speak. Rodney was barely breathing, caught up in the implosion, watching as Sheppard tried again, his breath scalding against Rodney's cheek, as Sheppard groaned, "Rodney," and then it was so easy, simpler than calculus, than gravity, to pull John's mouth down to his.
Rodney didn't push, or tried not to, at least, John's lips soft and dry and slightly chapped and dizzyingly warm on his. He waited, threading gloved fingers through the thick, short hair at the nape of John's neck, bringing his other hand up to John's shoulder, reading the tension in the muscles coiled there. Finally, impatient, Rodney allowed himself the luxury of taste, the flavors of salt and clean skin, and at the touch of Rodney's tongue to his bottom lip, John broke with a shudder, sighing into Rodney's mouth. His hands relaxed, slid up to sketch hot patterns on Rodney's neck, to read the lines of his jaw and cup his the back of his head as the two of them met and shifted. Then John turned desperate, nipping demands into the corner of Rodney's lips, pressing into his mouth with awkward kisses that made their noses bump and their teeth clack.
John took, and took, stubble scraping over stubble, almost-brutal kisses tasting of disbelief and anger and tears. He wrapped an arm around Rodney, the other hand slipping up and under the jacket to palm Rodney's hip, scorching heat that made Rodney stiffen in shock, need racing through him. He fisted a hand in John's coat, dragged him closer so that John had to bring a hand up next to Rodney's head, leaning against the barn for support, his chest a wall of warmth against Rodney's front, cold, unyielding stone at his back. John's hips jerked forward, and Rodney's head spun even as his fingers mapped the small of John's back, sliding down to trace the hollow at the base of his spine. John's head went back as he gasped, then fell forward until their foreheads pressed together again, and they stood there, eyes closed, barely moving but for the slow slide of hip against hip, breathing each other in.
Eventually, reality intruded. A particularly vicious gust of wind had them both shivering. Rodney opened his eyes warily as Sheppard shifted to lean more on the wall and less on Rodney; John looked almost lost, regarding Rodney with bemusement. "Hey," John finally offered, and Rodney snorted, because for all of the hesitation in his voice, the pressure against Rodney's hip was nothing if not insistent.
"Yes, hey," Rodney replied, "and now that we've reaffirmed our inherent masculinity, can we please postpone whatever freaking out is about to occur until we've made it inside, because I am approximately four minutes from losing a toe to frostbite." His heart wasn't in it, though, which Rodney blamed entirely on the ridiculous grin slowly spreading across Sheppard's face.
"Sorry," John drawled, with an edge that crept along Rodney's nerves and made his pulse stutter. "Although, you know, I'm pretty sure you did just fine in Antarctica."
"In Antarctica," Rodney groused, pushing Sheppard off and starting for the cottage, "I didn't have to flee the base to avoid armies of small children and rodent-like dogs capable of subduing subcontinents."
"We could always take them back with us," Sheppard said, following. "Sic 'em on the Wraith."
Rodney considered. "I'm not sure I think even the Wraith deserve that. Although I'm certainly open to persuasion." When Sheppard didn't answer, Rodney looked back to see him smiling oddly. "Oh, no," he said hastily. "Freaking out indoors. Those are the rules."
Sheppard rolled his eyes and reached out, hauled Rodney back against him. "McKay. I've liked guys since I was sixteen. I'm not panicking," he said, which Rodney was pretty sure was a lie, even if the panic involved wasn't heteronormative in nature, because Sheppard's voice shook a little on the "not". "Just," Sheppard continued, dropping his head to Rodney's shoulder. "Jesus, Rodney."
"Whoa. Hey," Rodney said, hands coming up to wrap around John's back. "Hey."
John sighed and straightened, ran a hand over his face, the other still clutching Rodney's side. The light spilling onto his face wasn't kind, picking out the lines, the sag at the edge of his eyes, the tight set of his mouth. Rodney lifted a hand to cup his jaw and marveled at the possibility that he could do it again, and again, and again. "You're an idiot," he murmured. "Do you know how many chances at this we've missed?" The expression that flashed across John's face made his heart do something strange. "I will never believe you could've been in MENSA."
Sheppard smirked, bumping his shoulder against Rodney's as he let go. "Right. According to the man who took a hike without a flashlight."
Rodney scowled. "I had a flashlight," he said, offended. Sheppard looked at him skeptically. "I did. I dropped it."
"You dropped it." Sheppard raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, yes, very amusing, I'm sure," Rodney huffed, turning away to head for the house, because really, what part of cold wasn't Sheppard registering. "I'd just like to point out," he called out, hearing Sheppard moving behind him, "that I'm not the one that felt like it was necessary to send out a search party. Why the hell didn't you try to find Anna?" he demanded, his steps slowing.
"Because," Sheppard shoved Rodney gently as he caught up, "it seemed important. You'd missed a meal, McKay."
"Ha, ha, ha," Rodney said, opening the front door, distracted from proper pique by the weight of Sheppard's hand between his shoulders. It stayed there all the way up the stairs.
The bedroom door safely closed, Rodney stepped away, almost unwillingly, heading for his bag and the possibility of dry clothing. Behind him, he heard Sheppard shedding his jacket, heard the snick of the door opening. "Be right back," Sheppard said, and closed it again. Rodney shrugged, shucking off his sodden clothes and tugging on something warmer and cleaner, only to find that he was still cold. Snagging a notepad from his bag, he wrote, "S. - Went to take a shower. Do not call in the Marines. - R." and headed for the bathroom.
Fifteen minutes later, he emerged in a cloud of steam, bundled into sweats and slightly reassured as to the function in his extremities. Sheppard was sitting on the floor, sandwich in hand. He looked up when Rodney entered and said, "Dinner," gesturing lazily at a plate on the floor next to him.
"Oh, thank god." Rodney sat down and applied himself to the task at hand. Five minutes later, he became aware that Sheppard, food finished, was looking at him strangely. "What?" he said, swallowing the last bite. Sheppard just smiled, tightly, and stood, picking up their plates. Setting them on the dresser, he turned toward the bed. Rodney's mouth went dry when Sheppard pulled the hem of his shirt over his head, and Rodney realized, getting to his feet, that he wasn't stuck just looking anymore.
"Um," he said, slipping his arms around John from behind, feeling him tense. "Thanks," he said, pressing his forehead to John's back. "For, you know," he paused, as John's hands covered his, "looking." The muscles in John's back jumped, then relaxed. "And, um, dinner."
John chuffed out a breath, turning in Rodney's arms and resting his temple against Rodney's. "Any time, Rodney," he drawled, and when Rodney drew back and looked at him, uncertain, he wrapped a hand around Rodney's neck and reeled him in, murmuring, "any time," before kissing him deep and slow and sure.
Time spun out around them, measured in heartbeats and touches and breaths, until John was down to boxers and bare skin and Rodney had lost his shirt and the laptop was on the floor, until they were wrapped around each other in the narrow bottom bunk, almost afraid to let go, to stop touching, each brush of skin on skin a slow, careful promise. "You should know," Rodney said, as John's hands glided down his back, "that for the record, the entire Beckett family is downstairs, and, and -" he said, as John drew back slightly, "although I really, really would like to revisit this moment, I just - "
"I know," John said, voice rough. "Me either."
They lay there, tangled, for a moment, chest to chest, until Rodney's joints started to protest and his calf threatened to cramp and he reluctantly tried to pull away. "I should probably -"
"McKay," John muttered, tightening his hold, and Rodney couldn't pretend he didn't hear the unwilling plea. "Don't."
"I - no." Rodney agreed, and subsided, and gradually, still trading reassurances, between one touch and the next, they faded into sleep.
Somewhere around midnight Rodney woke with a start, the lights in the room still burning, and nearly fell out of the bunk. John muttered an unintelligible complaint, as he extricated himself, wide awake with the realization that he had nothing written for the morning. Cross-legged next to the bed, John's arm resting against his shoulder, he grabbed the laptop and stared at the screen. As his thoughts settled, he began to type.
He woke the second time to John crouched in front of him, shaking his shoulders, and clutched instinctively for the laptop before he even opened his eyes - only to panic when it wasn't there. "Hey, hey, relax," John murmured. Grey light filtered in the window, rendering John's face in monochrome; he must've turned off the lights, Rodney realized. "Computer's on the desk. You finished," he said, and tugged a protesting Rodney up just enough to wrangle him into the bunk. "C'mon, get some real sleep."
The third time Rodney woke was almost a repeat of the second, except that he was horizontal, John was in his blues, and the light through the window, while still grey, was substantially brighter. "McKay," John said quietly. "We've got to be at the church in forty-five minutes." Rodney blinked, scrubbed at his eyes, and sat up as best he could, swinging his legs over the side as John stood. Groggy, he pulled on a shirt and made his way to the bathroom, returning showered, clean-shaven, and a little panicked. "The speech - that document - it's not -"
"It is," John said evenly, his back to Rodney as he looked out the window. "I was up early. So was Anna. She got it taken care of," he said, pointing at the desk. "She's going to take another copy to the church, just in case."
Rodney walked up behind him, put a hand on his shoulder. "Thanks," he said, and Sheppard turned to look at him.
He flashed Rodney a painful grin. "Welcome. Not quite as good as a ham sandwich," he shrugged.
"Yeah, but what is?" Rodney tried to joke, but his voice cracked, and he looked away. He felt the brief pressure of Sheppard's hand on his. When he glanced back over, though, Sheppard's eyes were shuttered.
"Twenty minutes," Sheppard said, heading for the door, Rodney's hand falling back to his side. "I'll meet you downstairs."
Fifteen minutes later, dressed and incredibly reluctant, Rodney headed downstairs. Sheppard met him at the door, car keys in hand, and they left for the church. Cars were starting to line the streets; at the entrance, Andrew was helping Mrs. Beckett out of their car. Beth was framed in the doorway, her arm around Margaret; Katherine and Maire were wending their way up the path. "Good, you're here," came a voice behind them, and Rodney jumped. Anna looked tired but composed, the black suit she wore leaching the color from her eyes. "Reverend MacGinnis has seats reserved, and your part's marked in the order of service - don't talk to anyone you haven't already met," she said with a flash of humor, "and you should be fine. Now, if you'll excuse me," she said, and strode off.
Rodney looked at John. John looked at Rodney. They went into the church.
From there, Rodney's world narrowed, his attention focusing in on sight and sound and smell in a futile attempt to tamp down the ache in his chest. He absorbed the heavy smell of lilies and roses and candlewax, saw the sheer number of people in the pews, the burnished wood of the box of ashes, sitting on a table full of pictures of Carson. He was aware of John's shoulder next to his, blue and solid and still, of the sound of voices, raised in songs whose lyrics in the hymnal blurred too badly in front of his eyes for him to read. He heard the drone of the organ, MacGinnis's clear tones ringing out over the pews. He registered the touch of John's hand, nudging him to his feet, the look on John's face, calm and blank, as he stepped up to the pulpit. He saw John's eyes, deep and dark and constant, as he read words he didn't remember writing, as his voice, ragged and uncertain, struggled with the idea of Carson, and the weight of forever and ever. Then, again, John's hand, risking the briefest touch on his as he took his seat, and John's breathing, deep and even and steadying as the service ended and the piper took up the hymn.
Notes wreathed and skirled around them as the procession walked to the open commons, to the wide stretch of green under the slate-colored sky, and Rodney couldn't look away from the burnished wood box in Anna's hands, from wind whipping the grey, swirling ash to disappear against the clouds. John stood next to him, head bowed, neck bent, hands laced. He didn't look up when Anna approached them, met Rodney's eyes and handed him the box without a word, nor when she turned and took her oldest nephew's offered arm and walked away. Rodney bent his own head, ran his thumb over the brass latch, and promised himself - promised Carson - he'd take care of it. The attendant crowd was disappearing back toward the church, the piper's final stanza faded, and all that was left was Rodney and John and a small wooden container, in an empty field, under the grey sky.
Slowly, the world returned to focus. Rodney shifted, took a breath, looked around the empty field. John still hadn't moved; the line of his shoulders made Rodney's ache in sympathy. Cradling the box carefully against his side, he laid his palm against John's neck, let it rest there long enough to feel him tremble. "John?" he asked, his voice gravelled.
Sheppard lifted his head, looked at Rodney with reddened eyes, a muscle working in his cheek. "Let's go," he answered, and together, slowly, they walked back to the car.
Beth was waiting when they arrived at the MacFarlane's farmhouse, the front door open behind her and a key in her hands. "My mother wanted to give this to you. In case you couldn't stay - or didn't want to," she added with a wan smile as a small child raced past in the hallway behind her, yelling, and Rodney blanched at the thought of smiling and shaking hands and sidestepping major social blunders.
"Thanks," Sheppard managed; Rodney nodded in agreement. "We'll leave it under the mat."
"No need," Beth smiled again. "If ever you come back from wherever it is you are, you've a standing invitation. No warning necessary - although Doctor McKay might call, to see if Anna's there first. And if you'd ever care to write," she said, "she wouldn't mind the letter."
"Ah," Rodney gestured, somewhat overwhelmed.
"No promises necessary," she assured him. "Mother just wanted to thank you, for bringing Carson home," her voice trailed off. Somewhere in the house, someone called her name. "I have to go," she said, and they briefly shook hands. "Thank you." As he turned to go, Rodney caught sight of Mary Beckett coming down the hall stairs, holding tight to a toddler's hand. She paused, and they simply looked at each other, saying nothing. She nodded once, slowly, holding his gaze, and then the child asked a question and she looked down, and Rodney walked away.
He and Sheppard didn't speak as they pulled up to the cottage. Sheppard just turned off the car and they let themselves in, packing their bags and straightening the room as best they could. They didn't speak when they left, just slung their luggage in the trunk and placed the box of ashes on the floor of the back seat, hemming it in with their coats to keep it from shifting. They didn't speak as they drove back to Glasgow, as they carried their bags up to the suite they'd reserved two days ago, a small eternity, just set the ashes gently on the coffee table. Then Rodney looked at John, and John looked at Rodney, and there weren't words enough.
Rodney was tired, and he could feel the weight of John's stare on his skin, almost bruising, and he had to leave, walking into the bedroom and shrugging out of his jacket, struggling with his tie and collar and cuffs and listening to Sheppard moving next door. Rodney sat down on the bed, yanking off shoes and socks, looking up in confusion when the noises stopped. John stood there, barefoot, sans jacket and tie, leaning against the doorframe. Rodney forgot to breathe as John popped open his collar, eyes dark and focused on Rodney's face. John's hands traveled down the line of buttons, slipping them open, pausing to yank the shirttails out from behind; they were reaching for his belt by the time Rodney's brain caught up with him and he stood.
He reached out, cupped John's cheek and nearly dropped his hand when John almost flinched from the touch, at least until John turned his face into Rodney's palm, eyes falling closed. It only made sense, then, to curve that hand over Sheppard's jaw, to run it down between them until Rodney had both hands on his belt, working it open and popping the button at the top of the fly, skimming his fingers under the white cotton undershirt, rucking up the hem. John groaned at the touch of fingers to skin, reaching for Rodney, fumbling his way down another set of buttons, running his hands along Rodney's waist to pull the edges free, sliding it off as Rodney dropped his head into the crook of John's shoulder.
Rodney hauled in a breath, then another, pressed his lips to John's neck and tasted, nipping at the steady pulse pounding under fragile, fragile skin, hands shaking as they mapped the jut of John's hip and the curve of John's side, through cotton and wool. Then John turned his head, brought his mouth to Rodney's, and Rodney forgot everything but the hot, lush sweep of John's mouth on his, trailing fire along his nerves, making him grind his hips against John's, seeking heat, and pressure, and oh yes, that.
They broke apart, breathing hard, and the scrape of fabric over too-aware skin was too much and not enough, and Rodney broke away, hauling his shirt over his head, skimming out of pants and boxers, looking over to see John doing the same. Rodney couldn't wait, couldn't stop to look, pushing John against the wall as John floundered out of his shirt. He couldn't, he needed - he couldn't put a name to it, but it was bound up in John's fingers splayed against Rodney's shoulder, the heave of John's chest under his, the rough curl of hair and the smooth lines of scars resonating down Rodney's fingers. It was in the spread of John's legs as he pulled Rodney in, the sweet, hot throb of John's erection against Rodney's hip, the unashamedly greedy noise John made as Rodney wrapped his hands around John's sides and thrust forward. He needed all of that, and more than that, and Rodney couldn't even think straight as John's arms wrapped around him, as they stumbled backward to the bed.
He couldn't focus, caught up in the living pressure of John's body over his, in the wild look in Sheppard's eyes before he closed them, before he leaned down for a kiss that started out almost angry and took them both by surprise, turning into something that made Rodney's chest ache. John's hips rolled against his own, but slower, less desperate, a reassurance that built and built and had Rodney about to climb out of his skin with sheer arousal so that when John's hand wrapped around both of them, the world started to blur for the second time that day. Rodney couldn't breathe, couldn't focus on anything but that slow, slick slide, on the tension rocketing up his spine and curling his fingers, driving his body up against John, until John breathed out, "Rodney," curse and plea and benediction. Sheppard's hips stuttered, his body jerked, and heat bloomed between them and it was too much, sizzling along Rodney's nerves until he broke, coming hard, eyes wide and staring at the look on John Sheppard's face.
Eventually, someone had to move. Sheppard shifted, rolling over onto his back and snagging a discarded t-shirt from the chaos on the floor. He tossed it at Rodney, who scrubbed it over his chest and then, acting on an impulse he didn't want to examine too closely, did the same to John. Still avoiding actual thought, Rodney tossed the shirt back on the floor and just went back to touching, his hands tracing patterns undefined by any equation beyond the steadying beat of Sheppard's pulse under his fingertips. He was studying the curve of a shoulder when his brain kicked back into gear, which was how he ended up gripping Sheppard's arm tight enough to bruise, trying to brand the shape and weight and life of it into his sense memory. And wasn't a panic attack just a wonderful conclusion to the day, he thought dimly around the rising panic, aware that his face was pretty much giving the entire game away. He pulled away and tried to convince his fingers to relax their hold, until Sheppard did it for him, pulling gently on his wrist.
"Hey," John said, and Rodney had to look, because he'd never heard that tone of voice before. Sheppard's face told him little. Rodney would have that fact found superbly unfair, except that then John was pulling him down and rolling them over, stubble rasping against Rodney's shoulder as he flung an arm across Rodney's chest.
"Yeah," Rodney said back, answering a question he couldn't frame in words, shifting to let John's leg settle between his. When John just shuddered, hard, Rodney understood, and even as exhaustion caught up with him, he hung on.
It was much later when he woke and realized the lights were still on and that he'd lost feeling in his right arm. Shifting out from under John, Rodney clambered out of bed and hit the lights; the light from the street bled through the privacy curtains, dappling Sheppard's back. Rodney watched, lost in the play of light and shadow and skin, until John shifted restlessly, curving around the space Rodney had occupied. Cold - and tired - Rodney headed back to bed, insinuating himself back under the sprawl of John's body. He dragged the covers up and over them both, and then sleep dragged him down.
It was much, much too early when their wakeup call arrived. Rodney stumbled into the shower, Sheppard in his wake, trading soapy, quiet touches out of a deep-seated need that Rodney didn't know how else to acknowledge. As they dressed, Rodney slipped Mrs. Beckett's house key into his pocket, and it was, a day later, a comfort and a promise. If John noticed it at the airport as they dumped out their pockets on the way through security, he simply adjusted his grip on the small wooden box and said nothing.
Three weeks later, they stood on the northwest pier, the box open in Rodney's hands, watching as the ocean breeze carried off a small pile of fine grey ash in the light of the setting sun. John still said nothing, only stood by until Rodney shrugged jerkily, closing the empty container. John reached over, plucked it out of Rodney's unresisting hands, tucking it under his arm. He turned to go, shoulders bowed, and Rodney reached out, wrapped his hand around John's shoulder, fingers brushing his collarbone in a careful caress. "Thanks," Rodney said simply, and a hand came up to cover his, echo of that Saturday three weeks gone. "Don't stay long," came the answer, and then Sheppard was gone, and Rodney turned his face to the sun and the sea and thought of John and Carson and family and home.