So of course, fic.
They're tagged Strangerverse. Earlier stories: The Stranger's Always You, Lessons, First Watch, and Corner. Picks up two weeks later.
Thanks to svmadelyn for the petting and cooing in between life altering horror.
by jenn seperis
He tracks Sheppard through Atlantis the old-fashioned way, life-sign detector absent, feeling his way through abandoned corridors and silent rooms, trusting in six months of something less than friendship, far more than colleagues. He knew John inside and out, but he knows Sheppard too, in ways that surprise him, making it easy to walk out of the lab hours early, leaving a quiet, guilty Zelenka and a silent, unhappy staff behind.
Whatever had happened during those two weeks on the mainland, it had changed everything and nothing at all.
John wrote his thesis after the phone call that severed his relationship with his father, vanished into the Rockies at his father's death, played guitar at cheap coffeehouses on campus during finals, went skydiving when he didn't join the Air Force. The ways John dealt aren't the ways Sheppard deals, but Rodney can feel the echoes in his quiet, intense enough to fill a room, the curve of his smile, and the way his eyes fix on the walls, looking for an escape he can't find. Rodney remembers breaking into the conversation with Weir, feeling John's relief like something tangible before he vanished out the door.
It's been ten hours and nineteen silent, remorseful scientists since then, but Rodney's not sure the price of their acceptance is worth Sheppard's peace of mind.
Touching the ipod in his pocket, Rodney wonders what they said to him, two long weeks of outdoor living, wild game, and grueling misery, and thinks that maybe he already knows.
He also thinks eighteen hours in the lab running the most monotonous tests Rodney can devise will remind them exactly who should get the full force of their anger.
The balcony he finds is the one John liked, too, viewing the long piers of Atlantis sliding like fingers into dark water, beautiful and eerily silent. Pausing, Rodney thinks of John standing here, soft and awed, and almost forgets to ache.
Sheppard turns around. There are black smudges beneath his eyes, and the shower that left his hair wet did nothing to ease the exhaustion written into every line of his body, the slump of his shoulders.
A soldier faces him, too thin and too pale, armed even on Atlantis, in the safest part of the city. The clean lines of his fresh uniform and the way he straightens, like Rodney's a stranger when he'll never be anything close.
"Rodney--" Sheppard starts, but he isn't even trying, and God, is Rodney tired of polite, of careful, of Sheppard making it easy for Rodney. Hates him a little for it, because while John martyred himself on occasion, he never made it his life's work, and Rodney doesn't need the protection. Doesn't want it, if it costs Sheppard this much.
"You look like shit."
Sheppard blinks, an unwilling smile curving up the corner of his mouth. "Way to say hi, McKay," he says, leaning casually into the railing. Reaching into his pocket, Rodney grabs the ipod, thrusting it toward Sheppard.
Sheppard takes it warily, turning the screen up and running a slow finger over the front as the display lights. For a second, no expression crosses his face, then the green eyes come up, wide and startled. "This is--"
"In a shocking turn of events," Rodney says, feeling a little smug, "there's more than one difference between universes." Hours of scouring the limited earth databases, paying off bored Daedalus crewmembers, coming back with everything he'd ever wanted to know about Johnny Cash and the one thing he'd needed to be sure of. The ipod possesses two albums that had never existed in this universe.
And for the life of him, staring at the neat stack of print-outs tracing the career of Johnny Cash, he'd had no idea why it was so important.
Sheppard slowly lowers the ipod, something rough and raw flickering awake in his face, rubbed open by two weeks in the company of people who could never forget the man they lost.
"I--," Sheppard says, then stops. Rodney can see his thumb running restlessly over the cover before he realizes what he's doing, shoving it into his pocket. Shaking his head, he forces a smile. "Thanks."
This close, Rodney can smell the ocean that's drenched him in scent, the faintest trace of soap from a hot shower, and something sharper, more bitter, familiar because Rodney's coped in similar ways, at similar times, and when Sheppard turns away, Rodney can see the bottle at his feet.
Sheppard touches the bottle with one foot, as if he knows that Rodney can see. "It's been six months," he says without turning around, and Rodney breathes out, coming up beside him to lean against the balcony rail, stare down at the sea shifting slowly far beneath him, deceptively calm at a distance, rapid water and rough waves skimming the edges of the piers.
Reaching down, Rodney takes the bottle, swallowing a mouthful of something bitterly raw, cutting painfully into his tongue, the back of his throat, burning down his throat and settling uncomfortably in his belly. For a second, he's not sure he can keep it down.
Then Sheppard's shoulder brushes his, and Rodney turns enough to see the dark eyes fix on him, grief as new and raw as if it had happened yesterday, an hour ago, seconds. Taking another drink, Rodney gives up on pretending he's going to have anything like balance, sinking down with his back against the rails as Sheppard slumps down beside him. Rodney watches the balcony doors close and opaque, the click of a lock over the roar of the ocean.
It's dark tonight.
"I wasn't there," Sheppard says, voice too slow and too careful, the hand around the bottle too tight.
Rodney takes the bottle after Sheppard's next swallow, cradled loosely in both hands. "Neither was I."
They'd never seen it coming, their quiet, boring little outpost in the middle of a small, insignificant galaxy, where Rodney went days without seeing his husband or the sun, waking up to new discoveries with every dawning morning.
They'd never seen it coming, waking to an unscheduled activation and beams--culling beams, he was told here, later, when he could think again. He remembers John coming up beside him, pale and blood-speckled, a gun from a fallen Marine in one shaking hand.
He remembers the gateroom and the shot that ended Dr. Weir's life before the Wraith could pull one last year from her body, the shots that killed Grodin, Zelenka, Simpson.
He remembers that John pushed him into a transporter with a smile. A brush of lips that was how John Sheppard said goodbye. A punch to the jaw that was how John Sheppard let go.
"I wasn't there," Rodney says numbly.
He woke up hours later, days later, alone and aching and there's not much he remembers after that.
"Take it," Sheppard says roughly, and Rodney takes another drink, burn soft compared to the coiling pain. Sheppard leans into him, and Rodney wonders distantly how many drinks he's had, because John was a lightweight and fell asleep after a martini.
"I don't like martinis," Sheppard whispers against his shoulder.
Rodney turns his head, enough for too-short hair to brush his nose, absorbing the scent of salt and damp Atlantis wind.
"I was offworld," Sheppard says, and Rodney feels him shift, body limp and soft against Rodney's side. "They called us back. They--" Sheppard stops short, breath catching. Rodney shoves the bottle into his hand. "It was too late."
Rodney McKay died fast, a pathogen that spread so quickly that the quarantine barely caught it short, barely time for McKay to set the protocols to purify the lab, barely time for McKay to find a way to say goodbye.
He died fast, too fast for his team to come home, too fast for Carson to discover a cure, too fast for even Sheppard to override Atlantis with a terror strong enough to make Atlantis ignore its own protocols, stumbling into a purified lab with a still-warm body and a dead friend.
Fast like John had died, shooting everyone in the locked gateroom before pressing the gun to his own temple, denying the Wraith a single second of his life.
Rodney closes his eyes, breathing Sheppard in. "The son of a bitch broke the fucking transporter so I couldn't get back," Rodney whispers, and eases Sheppard down, dark head warm in his lap. Closing his eyes, he leans his head back into the rails. "He knew--"
"--that I'd do anything to get in there," Sheppard whispers. "Anything I had to. He fucking rewired the doors, unhooked them from the ATA. I had to blow them up to get inside."
When Rodney looks down, Sheppard's staring up at the sky, face tracked in silver, eyes huge and unseeing. Reaching with a numb hand, Rodney runs his thumb over one high cheekbone, feeling the damp skin and rough stubble.
"I wasn't ready to let go," Sheppard whispers into the dark, a secret that's been written on his face for as long as Rodney's known him. "I don't think I ever will be."
Beneath the alcohol and the buzz of shared pain, Rodney can still taste John's last goodbye. "I know."