Airlock (part 2) (updated 01/19/10)
Several days later, back on Atlantis…
Carson sat behind his desk, his chair tipped back against the wall, as he rubbed tired hands over a days worth of stubble on his chin. Although it was good to be back on Atlantis, work had unfortunately piled up during his absence and he figured it would take at least a week, if not more, to get caught up on the mundane task of paperwork alone. With a sigh of resignation that he really needed to get moving, he slid forward and grabbed his mug to swallow the last few dregs of cold coffee only to find it empty with a dried brown ring marking the bottom of the cup. He must have been daydreaming of home longer than he thought.
Well, he pondered, he had two options. One, go without and attempt to plow through a few more forms, or two, head down to the mess and see if any of the scientists had been about to make a pot of late night brew. It was almost a given every evening now that there was fresh blood to work the night shift, most senior scientists retired for much needed rest, the junior staff lived on the stuff until their bodies finally acclimated to life on the station.
With mug in hand, he tiredly decided to take his chances and slipped out of the empty infirmary in search of sustenance and much needed caffeine. If Rodney could only see him now, he mused. It was no secret the chief scientist practically lived on no sleep and coffee beans. But ever since they'd returned from Earth, Rodney'd made an odd habit of being scarce and it was rumored that a smuggled percolator and personal supply of Columbian Dark was to blame. Other than a few treatments for peeling skin to the scientist's face in which Carson finally just handed over a tube of moisturizer, Rodney hadn't been back to the infirmary. Not a hangnail or singed hair to be seen in days. Now that he thought about it, Carson realized, something didn't feel right.
His mental wanderings kept pace with his feet and he soon found himself standing outside the mess doors with empty mug still in hand. When the panels silently slid open, he beelined to the large shiny urns situated in the corner of the room and cautiously touched one to see if it was hot. Success! Dark ambrosia poured into his cup and he inhaled deeply with eyes closed, allowing the intoxicating smell to hit his taste buds and start his mouth to water. The first sip hot on the tip of his tongue, he sighed as if in heaven. Yes, one more reason to be thankful for the new Zed PM and the Daedalus.
Although delicious, he knew the burning liquid wouldn't satisfy the growling hunger pains angrily making themselves know in his gut and turned to see if perchance there might be a bagel or danish available. That's when he saw him.
Seated in a far corner of the room, with bowed head resting on folded arms, a discarded mug set aside on an otherwise empty table, was McKay.
Food forgotten, Carson made his way over and set his own mug down carefully so as not to startle the sleeping scientist. Pulling out an adjacent chair, he took a seat before placing a hand of Rodney's arm, giving a gentle shake.
Surprisingly, "Go away," was the muffled reply from within the tucked arms.
"Rodney, you need to sleep in a bed. If you stay this way, you'll get a bloody crick in your neck."
"I'm not sleeping, now go away," McKay reiterated with little emotion.
Carson scowled and reached out to retrieve Rodney's mug, finding it cool to the touch and only half empty. Setting it back down, he picked up his own mug and pressed the warm ceramic against the tightly folded arms. "How about a fresh cup then?" he asked, knowing Rodney rarely ever would turn that down.
"No thank you," the scientist mumbled before shifting slightly away.
Not to be ignored, Carson reached out to touch the back of Rodney's head before pressing fingertips against the exposed side of McKay's face. "Do you feel alright?" The only response, a large sigh and a hand to swat away his ministrations.
"Rodney…" he started to say but the scientist abruptly stood up and shoved his chair under the table.
"Carson, leave me alone," he said quietly before leaving the mess hall, abandoning his half full cup on the table.
It might have been the deep dark bags beneath McKay's eyes or the unfamiliar slump to the shoulders and shuffled steps that had Carson instantly on his feet. He'd been right, something was eating at the man, and before things got too far out of hand and Rodney ended up making himself sick, it was time for the physician to take action. Grabbing his own mug and a quick dump of the cold cup in the sink, he quickly followed down the hallway leading away from the science labs.
If Rodney was aware that he was being followed, he didn't let on. He continued past the gateroom and appeared to be heading towards one of the outer balconies. When he disappeared behind a pair of exterior doors, Carson gave the scientist a moment before he activated the panels and silently tagged along.
It was a moonless night and Beckett found the balcony to be bathed in almost complete darkness except for the ambient stars filling the night horizon. Stepping up to the railing he was surprised to find no sign of the scientist. For just one second his heart began to race as he peered over the railing to the gentle surf below but the irritated snort from somewhere behind him let him know his fear was unnecessary.
"Do you honestly think I'd throw myself over?" permeated the missing man's voice from the darkness.
Carson turned around and glanced in the direction he thought Rodney might be. "You've been scarce lately."
"I've had a lot on my mind."
Taking a sip of his coffee, Beckett waited a moment before asking the obvious. "Care to talk about what's been bothering you?"
"Lindstrom," came a surprising snap filled with raw anger.
"Rodney there was nothing you could have done. That Wraith virus caused the airlock to open…"
"Gaul," Rodney interrupted.
This time Carson waited.
The balcony grew quiet once more.
The physician closed his eyes and mentally kicked himself. These were all men, colleagues, scientists that Rodney worked with, that McKay had witnessed die in the last few months in front of his very eyes and had been unable to help.
"Rodney," he tried again as he leaned his back against the railing and finally made the outline of his friend seated against the wall with his head resting on his knees. With his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, he watched the head turn away from him. "When's the last time you slept?"
"What does it matter?"
"Because it's obvious that you haven't been sleeping, and since we just got back from leave, it's not good for you to wear yourself out already."
The dark shape shifted to stare in the opposite direction. "Again, what does it matter?"
With slow steady steps, the physician made his way over to the scientist's side, careful that he didn't spook the man and have him start walking away once more. His own back pressed against the damp wall of Atlantis, he slid down to rest on the balcony floor mere inches away from Rodney. The cold from the structure permeated through his uniform and he was grateful to have the extra warmth of a lab coat to pull tight around him, until he realized Rodney was sitting in just a short sleeved shirt. The mug of hot liquid still firmly ensconced in his own hands, he leaned sideways and bumped shoulders to get McKay's attention. "I want you to drink this."
Rodney shifted, his head lifted off his knees as he eyed the mug offered out to him. "No, I don't want it."
"It wasn't an offer, it was an order. It's too bloody cold out here and you need to warm up." When the scientist refused to take the mug, Carson reached over and pulled free one of the bent arms draped over the scientist's knees, forcing the drink into the resisting hand. "Drink it," he repeated in a no-nonsense tone of voice.
Cold fingers curled reluctantly around the heat of the mug and Rodney pulled himself to sit up straight before taking a small sip.
Carson watched every movement, not missing a thing, and when he saw a glimmer of enjoyment reach his friend's face, he relaxed minutely. "Nectar of the god's, I always say." He only received a grunt in response while Rodney took a deeper gulp from the mug. Within minutes, the hot liquid was completely gone and now McKay's warmed breath misted in front of them in the night air as they sat in companionable silence.
A coffee scented sigh eventually broke the moment and Rodney pulled himself to his feet to go stare back over the balcony railing. "I'd never seen someone die in front of me before I came to Atlantis."
"It's not something you can ever get used to seeing."
The scientist leaned forward on his forearms to rest on the railing, the empty mug still in his grip. "I don't know how you do it.
"It's an aspect of my job that is expected," Carson said thoughtfully from his position on the floor.
Rodney spun around angrily . "Not mine! Nowhere was I ever taught that a scientist would watch friends die needlessly from horrible deaths right in front of their faces! I'm so damn sick of this! I'm tired of watching people die!" With that he flung the mug with all his might at Atlantis and it shattered into a million pieces.
Carson glanced over to where he figured the glass shards to be and was careful to avoid them as he made his way over to Rodney's side. "What else?"
"What do you mean 'what else'? Isn't that enough?" The scientist's voice cracked as he turned his back to his friend.
"How many times have you watched Colonel Sheppard almost die? There was the iratus bug in the jumper when you were stuck in the gate. When he left to attack the hive ship..."
Rodney refused to be baited and remained quiet, speaking only when he was finally ready, "He didn't say good-bye. None of them did."
"He's still here."
"For how long? What about the next crisis? Do you know that I was glad to be in the ship with him going after the one with the virus? Do you want to know why?" Not giving the physician a chance to answer, Rodney continued, "Because if he got killed out there trying to stop the damned thing, I would have died also."
"But he didn't die, Rodney. Neither of you did. And I'm bloody grateful because this place would be damned unbearable without either of you to make my life miserable on a daily basis."
Rodney shook his head and then dropped it once more to rest on folded arms. "I never had a family or real friends to care about." His feet shifted restlessly. "I don't know how to do this."
"Yes, you do. You've been doing it for over a year now and you're getting better at it all the time."
"Like when I almost killed you? I couldn't even wait two minutes! And watching that crazed Koyla threaten to kill Elizabeth right in front of me. He had a gun pointed at her!"
"From what she's told me, Rodney, you stepped between her and the gun. You climbed into that ship with Sheppard, you waited the two minutes until Teyla and I were safe, you stayed with Gaul, and you've saved every single life onboard Atlantis since the moment we got here! You are one of the strongest, most incorrigible individuals I've ever met. Yes, it hurts to lose, to see a friend die before you. But you go on, you become stronger and wiser, and maybe, when there is a next time, god forbid, you will be there when one of them will need you again. Everyone dies, you can't escape it. "
"He's right, Rodney," Sheppard said quietly from behind them, momentarily startling both doctors. He'd been notified by one of the early morning security patrols of seeing the two men heading in this direction. Joining the pair along the railing, he stood on the opposite side of McKay. "While we are here, there are going to be good days and bad days, successes and failures, we'll win and we'll lose, and unfortunately, yes, some more will die. It's all part of the Atlantis package. And I quote, 'to boldly go where no one has gone before'."
McKay snorted as he stared off towards the horizon, the sun just beginning to spread color across the darkened night sky. "I'm having a melt down and you decide to quote Star Trek."
"Whatever works. That should be our motto out here, don't you think, Doc?" The colonel asked over Rodney's head to the physician.
"It does seem to be appropriate."
The trio grew silent, each lost in their own thoughts and memories, as they watched the sunrise spill blazing colors out across the ocean, eventually causing Atlantis to glow a dazzling golden orange.
Sheppard was first to break the silence. "They didn't die in vain, Rodney, so don't hold their deaths against them."
The scientist's usually pointed chin fell to rest on his chest, his eyes closed, and his shoulders drooped a little further. "I'm not sure how to do that," he admitted quietly.
Carson reached up and placed a comforting hand on Rodney's shoulder, giving his friend a reassuring pat. "Then let us show you."
Pale blue eyes cracked open to stare at the physician and not seeing any judgment, Rodney turned to stare at Sheppard when the colonel's hand came to rest on his other shoulder. The tired scientist found only more of the same. Simple compassion. Humanity at it's best.
Gripping the railing tightly, he pulled himself up to his full height and stood between his two friends, letting the weight of failure and loss wash away like a phantom shadow. They wouldn't let him down, and he would do his damnedest to make sure that they could count on him, no matter what came their way in the future, for that is the true price of friendship.