Invisible Angels

By Ellex

Rating: G

Category: gen, but could be pre-slash McKay/Sheppard, and you won't even have to squint

Season/Episode: Tag for episode 2.14 Grace Under Pressure

Feedback: is always appreciated

Disclaimer: Stargate: Atlantis is not owned by me, nor do I make any material profit from this story.

Summary: Rodney stood in my doorway, pale and haggard and looking wearier than I'd ever seen him.

A/N: This could be considered the third story in a series that includes First Aid for Sleeping Scientists and Do Not Disturb (also on this site). Since each story stands alone, I'm not going to group them, but they do share a common theme.

So many invisible angels work to keep

Us from drowning; so many hands reach

Down to pull the swimmer from the water.

--from "The Eel in the Cave", by Robert Bly

Rodney stood in my doorway, pale and haggard and looking wearier than I'd ever seen him. On top of a concussion, mild hypothermia and the subsequent bout of pneumonia, he'd been profoundly depressed since Zelenka and I had rescued him from near drowning in a sunken PuddleJumper.

It didn't take much to make me vividly recall standing beside Rodney's bed in the infirmary while Beckett allowed me, Elizabeth, and Zelenka five minutes to see that he was going to be okay. Beckett intended to keep Rodney in bed for a solid week, limiting his laptop use to a few hours a day and allowing him only a half hour twice a day to consult with the various section heads of the science department. To everyone's surprise, Rodney had made no objections, proclaiming that if Radek wanted his position badly enough to sabotage his PuddleJumper, then he could take charge while McKay was ill and find out exactly what it was like. The sarcasm was automatic, but I had heaved a sigh of relief to hear it. Rodney flushed and started to mumble an apology to Zelenka, then started coughing. The harsh, wet rattle startled all of us except Beckett, who slipped a hand behind Rodney's back to help him sit up farther.

The bout of coughing clearly left him exhausted. He waved us away irritably, lying back and pulling a corner of the blanket over his head.

I ended up with Zelenka in the hallway outside the infirmary. The smaller man was grinning from ear to ear and bouncing on his toes in a manner that reminded me of McKay. I couldn't hold back a smile in return, and asked, "What's got you so chipper?"

"Rodney has put me in charge until he recovers," he explained. "It means he does not blame me for PuddleJumper failure."

I nodded in comprehension and watched him practically skip down the hall,

Rodney hadn't bounced like that in months, I thought, my mood taking a sudden downward turn. So much had happened over the last year, and we had all been through a lot. I'd had a few unpleasant experiences of my own, but lately it seemed like the universe had it in for Rodney.

He spent the first few days of his recovery in the infirmary where Carson could keep an eye on him, the rest in his own quarters where, apart from visits from Carson, Elizabeth, and Zelenka, he insisted on being left alone. I stopped by a few times, but he seldom stirred from his bed and tired quickly.

By the end of the week, Rodney was still pale and coughing, but well enough to be allowed light duty. At his urgent and repeated request, we had delayed Griffin's funeral until he was well enough to attend. There was no rush – neither the downed PuddleJumper nor Griffin's body were going anywhere any time soon. If, in future, we figured out a way to retrieve them, we would do so, but it wasn't a high priority project. The living, of necessity, came before the dead.

Rodney looked almost horrified when Elizabeth asked if he wanted to say a few words at the funeral. He just shook his head, lost and bewildered as I'd never seen him before, and told us that he wouldn't know what to say.

He showed up at my quarters the evening after the funeral, looking nervous and weary.

"I – I wanted to thank you – for coming to rescue me," he said, twisting a handkerchief in his hands.

"You're welcome, buddy," I told him. The term of friendly affection made him brighten a little. "But you know we wouldn't have left you down there without at least trying to get to you."

"I still appreciate it," his voice was hoarse with more than just the lingering cough, "I didn't think – I thought you'd try, but I didn't think you'd succeed. I thought the only person who could get me out of there was me, and I was stuck on the bottom of the ocean in a broken PuddleJumper."

"Well, maybe you'll have a little more faith in us in the future," I said gently. I felt kind of hurt by his admission, but he really had been in a pretty bad situation. It wasn't hard to understand how, alone and hurt and facing the prospect of an unpleasant death, he might have found it difficult to be hopeful.

"I wasn't sure you were real," he said suddenly. "When I heard your voice – I'd been hallucinating most of the time I was down there, and I thought – well, that you must be another hallucination. Wishful thinking, you know? Hearing what I wanted to hear. I'm – I may be a genius, but I wasn't exactly thinking clearly."

"You had a concussion," I tried to sound reassuring. "And that was just the tip of the iceberg."

His mouth twisted into something almost like a smile. "I don't think anything that happened down there was of Titanic-sized proportions except that whale."

We stood there in silence for a moment, Rodney shifting to lean against the wall.

"So," I asked, curious, "what did you hallucinate?"

He twitched, startled, and began to cough, swaying as the paroxysms wracked his body. I reached out for him, guiding him to the chair at my desk. He dropped into it as if his legs wouldn't hold him up any longer, gasping for breath between convulsive bouts of coughing.

"Do you want me to call Carson?" I asked, concerned by how difficult it was for him to catch his breath.

He shook his head, rasping, "Water," before another flurry of coughs shook him. I grabbed my water bottle – still half full from my morning run – and helped him take a sip, putting a hand on his back to steady him.

He managed to still the cough, but he looked even paler and more tired than when he'd first shown up at my door. He leaned back against my hand, so I left it there, rubbing the stiff, knotted muscles of his back. I could hear the lingering rattle in his lungs as he sucked in careful breaths.

"Samantha Carter," he said softly, his voice vibrating through his skin to my hand.

"Huh?" I said intelligently.

"I hallucinated Samantha Carter. Lieutenant Colonel at the SGC? Blonde, gorgeous, brilliant? I can't remember if you met her –"

"Yeah," I answered. "I met her when we went back to Earth. She didn't say much, just 'hi, what's it like living in Atlantis, what's it like working with McKay…'"

"Oh. What – um, what did you say?"

I shrugged. "I like living here. I like working with you. You're a good friend."

"Oh. Oh, that's – thank you." He seemed both pleased and surprised. I remembered that Carter had been surprised, too. It always surprised me that so many people seemed to have trouble seeing past his surface snark and ego to the very vulnerable and awkward man underneath.

"I wish it had been you," Rodney said suddenly.

I frowned, feeling like I'd lost the thread of the conversation – not an unusual feeling around McKay. "You wish what had been me?"

"My hallucination," he sounded incredibly weary. I looked down and saw that his eyes had closed, the skin of his eyelids delicate and bruised. "I wish it had been you. You're not – you may not be as smart as Colonel Carter, and you're definitely not as pretty, but – well. It's nice, you know? The – the friends thing."

His speech was starting to slur, his voice fading. I thought briefly about rousing him and making him go back to his own quarters, but he looked so tired…

I coaxed him to his feet and led him over to my own bed. He shuffled slowly across the room, going with me trustingly, not even opening his eyes when I turned him around to sit on the bed. Lying back obediently, he rolled onto his side and drew up his feet. I pulled off his shoes, tugged the blankets out from under him, and covered him up. I heard a small sigh of contentment from him as he relaxed into sleep.

I glanced at my watch and found it was already later than I'd thought. Well, Rodney and I had shared a tent or a bed plenty of times before on off-world missions. Doing it here, on Atlantis, was different…and yet, it was the same. There was room for both of us, Rodney was already sound asleep, and I just didn't feel right about waking him…or sending him off alone in this state.

I stripped down to T-shirt and shorts, dimmed the lights with a thought, switched on the lamp beside the bed and slipped under the covers, hefting 'War and Peace' into my lap for a little not-so-light reading before bed.

As soon as I stretched out my legs, Rodney sighed deeply and pressed his back against them, warm and familiar and reassuring. I patted his shoulder, and said quietly, "You're right, Rodney. The friends thing? It is nice."