A/N: Episode tag for Quarantine. Massive S4 spoilers.
The Lies We Tell
"Where is McKay?" Sam asked. "After we got all the systems up and running he vanished from the control room. I expected to find him here."
John was suddenly enraptured with the leftovers on his plate. "Haven't seen him lately."
"Nor have I." Radek was still glowing from Carter's earlier praise.
"I released him from the infirmary about twenty minutes ago," Keller offered. "I thought he'd be here too."
"I have not seen Dr. McKay since we passed as he left his lab earlier. He said he did not have time to talk. He was on his way…" Teyla trailed off as Sheppard cleared his throat. "…elsewhere." She arched a brow at him.
Ronon grunted. "No idea."
Sam's gaze settled on John, and he tried to not squirm under it. "I see."
John could tell she didn't buy his the lie; he was definitely losing his touch. He had seen Rodney briefly as the physicist had barreled past him on the way to the control room. The scientists had spent hours combing through the quarantine code to isolate the glaring errors – like broadcasting an alert beacon – while the techs painstakingly ran diagnostics on all primary and secondary systems. But one glance was all it took for Sheppard to know that the time with Katie in the botany lab had not gone well.
Standing, he retrieved his tray. "I need to check on a few things."
Teyla smiled. "Like the windows you broke?"
"And the doors you blew apart?" Sam added.
"You got to blew up some doors?" Ronon asked. "I tried to blast out of the infirmary, but it didn't work."
Sheppard smirked at him. "Next time, keep your gun with you."
"I think we need to hide some C4 in the infirmary."
Jennifer scoffed. "No way. Not the armory, remember?"
"We could have used it though. How can you not keep any weapons in there?"
John chuckled at the continued bickering as dumped his tray and headed to the transporter. He'd seen the expression on his Satedan teammate's face when the pretty lady doctor had approached. Maybe Ronon was finally ready. Speaking of being ready….
He had been shocked when McKay had shown him the engagement ring earlier. He had known the Canadian had been dating Dr. Brown for a while though he didn't mention her often. Chalking it up to a need for privacy, Sheppard hadn't pushed for details; in retrospect however, perhaps he should have. They had all been running on fumes for quite a while, but especially Rodney. So many blows in such a short time, too many for someone who had little experience dealing with loss. Carson's death, activating Weir's nanites then leaving her behind, almost being killed by that damn crystal entity, offering himself to save Jeannie, discovering Elizabeth was really dead, seconds away from being fed on by a Wraith queen…. And that didn't include the crushing pressure of continually trying to save Atlantis. John had wondered briefly if marrying Katie was simply a stab at a bit of normalcy in the midst of the chaos, but instead of questioning the decision, he had encouraged it, even though he had heard the uncertainty in the man's voice.
Rounding the corner to the lab, he discovered two of the facility staff repairing the window. "Have you seen Dr. McKay, George?" he asked.
The older man shook his head. "Not for some time, Colonel. Sorry."
Sheppard searched all of the physicist's normal haunts but came up empty, and a call on the radio went unanswered. Surrendering to the inevitable, he used a local workstation to locate Rodney's sub-cu transmitter. The sensor displayed a flashing dot on the northern pier – the place the scientist went to hide. He'd spent a lot of time there after Carson died and again when Elizabeth was lost. John stared at the indicator for a moment before retreating to his quarters. He wouldn't force McKay to tell him; the man would talk when he was ready.
Only he never did. Several days passed as Rodney continued his disappearing act. He rarely left his lab, immersing himself in work. With the exception of occasional staff meetings, neither Ronon nor Teyla had seen him since the lockdown. The kitchen staff reported someone raiding their stores at odd hours, and Keller said, in an amazed tone, that he hadn't been to the infirmary once. Radek was haggard, and Carter looked worried. Sheppard sat in her office as she leaned back in her chair, eyeing him speculatively.
"Do you want to tell me what's going on?"
"I'm not exactly sure. I think it's a personal issue."
"You think? He's a member of your team. Are you telling me you haven't spoken to him in a week?"
He sighed. "I've been trying to give him some space, allow him to talk when he's ready."
"You have a mission tomorrow. You've already benched one member of your team, and I'm not going to let you and Ronon go exploring by yourselves. Will he be ready to go, or do you need to find a replacement?"
"A replacement? For Rodney?" John stared at Sam, letting the ire blaze enough for her to see.
"Temporarily," she appeased. "Until he's ready. The Wraith are an unencumbered threat again. You need to get back out there."
Dropping his head, he nodded. She was right. They had already handed off two missions, minor trips that could be handled easily by another team. But the next one wasn't. "He'll be in the gateroom on time tomorrow." He thought for a moment. "Can you pull us from today's duty roster?"
"Done." Carter steepled her hands. "I know things have been rough for him, for all of you. If whatever is bothering him…. If he needs more time…."
"If he isn't one hundred percent, I'll bench him too."
Sheppard hated the thought of fracturing his team more than it was already, but he wouldn't take chances with their lives. He left Sam's office and stopped in the control room to locate McKay. The lab.
After grabbing a few items from his quarters, the pilot made his way to the science section and through the lab doors. He spotted a lone figure at a worktable, fingers flying over his keyboard, with his shoulders hunched all the way to his ears and both knees bouncing. Sheppard paused in the doorway at the sight of the frenetic scientist. McKay was many things – sarcastic, arrogant, egotistical, brave, socially inept, dependable, loyal – but he was never still.
"Are you going to stand there all day?" Definitely sarcastic.
"Maybe." John pushed away from the door and ambled next to Rodney. "Whatcha doin'?"
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
"Ah, there's that Mensa intelligence at work."
"Want to talk about it?"
"No." The scientist's eyes never wavered from the monitor.
Sheppard leaned his elbows on the table and sneaked a glance at McKay. The man looked like hell – unshaven, wrinkled uniform, dark smudges under bloodshot eyes. "I think I owe you a beer."
Rodney's hands paused for a second, trembling then clenching into fists before continuing. "Not now."
"When was the last time you had more than a PowerBar and a gallon of coffee?"
"I said not now," McKay growled between gritted teeth.
This was worse than John had thought. Squeezing the man's shoulder, he said with gentle firmness, "Now, Rodney."
The air around the physicist hummed with tension, and for a moment John thought McKay would fight him on it. Instead, he slumped bonelessly forward, his chin drooping to his chest as he rubbed his temples with the heels of his palms.
"I really screwed up this time." The quiet comment was laced with pain.
"Come on. Let's get some food into you."
Sheppard led the way to the mess hall, and Rodney followed silently, gazing blindly at the floor. To be honest, that freaked John out more than anything else had. He tucked a few sandwiches, some chips, two bottles of water, and the left-over chocolate chip cookies in the bag he'd brought and steered McKay away from a table and out the doors.
"Thought we were going to eat," the scientist muttered.
"We are, just not here."
Heading to the transporter, John pressed the location he wanted on the map. When the doors slid open, Rodney hesitated for a moment before stepping out onto the northern pier. They walked to the far edge and took a seat, legs dangling over the long drop to the ocean. Sheppard handed McKay half of the food and a bottle of Evian then unwrapped his own turkey sandwich. They ate in silence, the crash of the waves and a gentle mid-afternoon breeze making for a pleasant backdrop.
Ever so slightly, the stress lines around Rodney's eyes began to ease. John reached into the bag and pulled out a couple of beers, offering one to McKay. Twisting off the top, the scientist guzzled half the bottle and made a face.
"Lite beer? Are you serious?"
Sheppard shot him a wry grin. "I'm not twenty-five anymore."
That got a snort out of Rodney. "You're not twelve either, but that hasn't stopped you from acting like it."
"Oh, yes, and you're the model of maturity, McKay."
The Canadian flinched at the comment and turned to stare at the water. "Yeah."
The tension crept back into Rodney's features before they hardened into self-loathing. He sucked down the rest of the beer. "What else do you have in there?"
John smiled and pulled out the mostly full fifth of Jack Daniels and a couple of cups.
McKay raised a brow. "On duty?"
"Nope," the pilot answered as he poured them both a shot. "Carter gave us the rest of the day off." He handed one to Rodney and took a sip of his own.
McKay stared into the brown liquid, swirling the cup and seeming to lose himself in it. Then, tossing back the drink, he downed it in one gulp and poured another.
"Easy there. It would be embarrassing for Ronon to have to carry you back."
"Don't care," Rodney mumbled as he finished the drink and refilled the cup.
Taking the whiskey, Sheppard added a splash to his mug and capped the bottle. "Tell me what happened."
A mutinous expression crossed the scientist's face but was quickly replaced by a sadness that surprised John. And suddenly the story came spilling out – the lockdown, the lack of communication, the hypochondria, the fatalism, the final goodbye.
"Are you sure? Maybe after a few days-"
"I'm sure," McKay retorted bitterly. "She was just telling me what I wanted to hear. I didn't get it until I was out the door. If you'd seen the look on her face, the way she said 'bye'…."
"Have you tried talking to her?"
"Yes. I've asked her to lunch every day since then, but she finds an excuse not to come. The thing is – I know I'm right. I'm not ready. I told myself I was, but I'm not. It was just one more lie, like 'time heals all wounds' and 'words will never hurt me.' Rodney McKay ready for marriage. What a joke. If we'd married I would have made her hate me. You know how I am."
"You'll be ready one day. Besides, it's better to find out now than after a few years of marriage."
"Trust me, it is."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Right, the voice of experience speaks. Exactly how many times have you been married?"
Jaw dropping, McKay gaped at him. "Really?"
John fished in the bag for the final item. Pulling out the picture, he glanced at it before handing it to his friend. Hard to believe he'd been that young and happy once. Nancy was radiant in her gown as she posed with him in his dress blues. He wasn't sentimental, but he had kept a few photos of his life as reminders.
Rodney blinked in amazement as he handed it back. "I- I don't know what to say."
"It was a long time ago."
He thought of all the answers he could give, the long list of things gone wrong, but decided to go with the simplest and most accurate. "I wasn't ready." He could see the mental wheels turning as McKay processed the information.
"Love isn't always enough, is it?"
"No," the colonel replied as he put the picture back in the bag.
"I should have waited. Jeannie asked me when I was going to marry Katie, and I couldn't get it out of my head. If I hadn't taken the ring with me, if I'd kept in my pocket, if I hadn't acted like it didn't matter…."
"Berating yourself over something you can't change won't do any good. You can't know what would have happened. If you'd continued dating, she might have gotten tired of waiting for you to pop the question."
"How many women are going to be willing to put up with me? Jeannie said-"
"Rodney, stop focusing on what your sister told you in the middle of being kidnapped. You've already said you know you need to work on your shortcomings. Focus on that."
"It won't bring Katie back."
"Maybe not, but you caught her before you even knew you had shortcomings. Imagine what could happen with the next girl."
McKay contemplated his cup before swallowing the last sip and handing it back to his team leader. "You know, you're right. Fix a couple of things, and I'll have women everywhere adoring me."
"Easy there, Don Juan. One step at a time." John packed away the leftovers and the trash then stood.
The brittleness wasn't quite gone from Rodney's eyes, but it had faded a bit. "Right. What now?"
"Now, you go get some sleep. We have a mission tomorrow."
They headed back to the city as the first of the moons began to rise.
"I don't know why I was paying attention to what Jeannie said. She was obviously under a lot of stress. After all, she thinks you're better looking than I am."
"I never said she didn't have good taste."
"There's another lie, you know: 'it's better to have loved and lost' and all that."
"Yeah, I know."
"Does it get better?"
What was one more lie?
Written for the Quarantine ep tag challenge on the shepsatlantis LJ comm.