"I didn't even know that you two were toge…," though Rodney was trying to hide it, his hurt feelings came through unmistakably in his voice.
"We weren't," John sighed, looking at his friend, then turning to gaze across the room through the glass doors, where a solitary figure was huddling against the balcony railing. "We aren't," he added with a slight shake of his head.
"Then how come you want to…?"
John winced. "They're not going to let her stay, Rodney. And I can't let her go," the headshake was more violent this time. "Not again. Not this time."
The two men were standing in the control room, absentmindedly picking up and setting down different gadgets and artifacts on the desk in front them to hide the fact that almost all of their attention was consumed by the pale woman wrapped in a black shawl. Elizabeth worried Rodney but he was sure that his concern was nothing compared to the anguish his friend felt. She had been back for a few weeks now, cleared by the doctors, no longer considered a security risk by those that knew her and knew Atlantis. But the pain of losing her, not once but over and over again, had divested them all of so much innocence, so much of their stubborn faith in Good winning our over Evil in the end that even Rodney wasn't sure how much of the balance was retrievable.
He had watched his friends carefully over these past weeks, more carefully than ever before. Elizabeth was tired and confused, she was pale and weak and even her most brilliant smiles were somehow permeated with sadness but she seemed to breathe easier with John around, relax a bit. And John had been so relieved, almost fidgety from the moment they had retrieved her and now maintaining a constant contact with her was consuming so much of his attention that he didn't even bother to cover the fact she was part of him, part of every move he made and had been even when he had thought she was dead.
Their need for each other, this palpable impression that they'd both just scatter to pieces if they were taken away from each other again was another thing that had worried Rodney. Elizabeth's removal from Atlantis was pretty much inevitable. Not only had she no role to play there anymore, she would almost certainly be considered a security risk. And wherever she'd be going, he doubted they'd let John tag along.
And still, what John was telling him now had nearly knocked him off his feet. It seemed that every victory in this galaxy came with a brand new set of losses. They were leaving, pulling a Ford, disappearing through the blue horizon, and he couldn't even fault them for it – John wasn't saying it, and Elizabeth wasn't saying much anything, but Earth, and their friends, and the ideals that they had fought and sacrificed themselves for, were failing them.
"When?" McKay asked, certain that his friend would understand what he was referring to.
He did. "Tomorrow night when Chuck is on the graveyard shift…" He couldn't quite look at Rodney and though the scientist missed him, missed them, already, he wished he'd have the words to tell his friend that by taking care of Elizabeth John was also fulfilling his duty to Rodney.
Now, in a familiar yet strange recognition of the need to raise to the occasion, Rodney felt he had to fulfill his own duty to his friends.
"You'll have to take a Jumper," he announced, trying to picture what their future would be like.
"We can't. It would be too conspicuous," John said, obviously having given the idea some consideration already, but then quickly recognized the disappointment on Rodney's face for what it was. "Besides, we wouldn't know the first thing about fixing it, should something break down," he went on to alleviate Rodney's helplessness. "But if you think you have some smaller, simpler stuff that you can spare and you think we could use…"
"Yeah," Rodney perked up visibly, "yeah, there's… I'll go…," he tilted his head, pointing over his shoulder toward his lab. "I'm going to put something together for you…"
"Thanks," John smiled. Then his gaze drifted to Elizabeth again, and though the smile stayed on his lips, his eyes grew serious, shoulders slumping slightly.
"What will you do?" Rodney asked after a few silent moments.
John shrugged, "Probably, hopefully, the things that we're good at. The lady is good with languages and cultures. So that's handy." Rodney tried to smile, knowing that this attempt to lighten the mood could not have come easy to his friend. "I'm mostly good at making stuff glow and hum and vibrate and fortunately my forefathers really went to great lengths to sprinkle the whole galaxy with doohickeys I can do that to." John snorted, "Maybe I'll become a magician."
He touched his fingers to a few crystals on the table in front of him, making them light up in different colors, then idly swept his hand down the tabletop, his gaze turning skywards to the majestic vaults of the tower, eyes running up and down the metal poles supporting the whole structure. He's saying goodbye, Rodney realized. For a fleeting, uncharacteristic moment the scientist attempted to put himself in the position of his friend, just to grasp what an enormous, impossible choice he had had to make. John must have started letting go of everything that he had come to consider home from the moment he'd made up his mind. Rodney knew how fiercely loyal John was to the people and the ideals that he considered worth his loyalty – for the longest time Atlantis and Elizabeth had meant the same thing so he hadn't had to choose. Now the two had suddenly become polar opposites. In his heart Rodney never doubted that when push came to shove, John would pick Elizabeth over the city every time. Just as he had no doubt that for John, even after he had already made up his mind, the decision could never be as straightforward and easy as that.
"Could you do me one more favor?" he heard John asking, and lifted his head to look up at him. "Could you give this to the boss?" Sheppard handed Rodney a plain white envelope. Picking it up carefully, the scientist lifted a questioning eyebrow. "After we're gone," John elaborated.
"What is it?" Rodney asked, though by then he thought he knew already.
"It's my letter of resignation." John smirked, as if he was actually drawing secret pleasure out of the idea, "I'm still going to get court-martialed for desertion. But I'd like to think that at least this time I did everything I could for this to go by the book." Suddenly he grew more serious again. "I'd like to be able to tell her that…"
As if on cue, they watched Elizabeth turn around, the breeze from the sea billowing up her shawl and her wavy dark hair. For a moment her eyes caught John's and even though that familiar comforting determination was still visible in her stance, the smile that she gave him was filled with infinite sadness and resignation. Rodney suddenly felt an almost violent resentment towards change and that particular feeling was also new to him – his whole life and career was about adapting to change and staying one step ahead of it. Now he couldn't help but think wistfully about the time, seemingly just a moment ago, when his friends had been happy and excited and confident that this was all worth it. That they were building something that would last and make them all stronger. They hadn't given up, he realized, neither John nor Elizabeth; they'd just come to see that in order for it all to mean something, they had to find a way not to give up each other.
Rodney noted a tense twitch, almost a jolt going through his friend, as if his whole being was drawn to the woman on the other side of the glass. It took him a moment to understand what was going on.
"John," he tilted his head, leaning closer to Sheppard, "she doesn't know, does she?"
For a moment it appeared as if John had opted for playing dumb to win time, but then he seemed to remember how scarce a resource time had become.
"No," he admitted, shaking his head. "She thinks she's going alone. She thinks I'm just going to help her get out."
"She wouldn't allow you to go if she knew," Rodney realized.
"No, she wouldn't." Taking a deep breath, John muttered, "I hope to God we can find a way to break ourselves out of this circle of guilt." His voice became firmer, "We used to be able to save each other constantly, come through at the nick of time, be the heroes… Now it just seems to be about who has failed the other one more – she feels guilty for even being here."
That sounded just ridiculous. "Why?"
"Because she's Elizabeth," John sounded exasperated, almost angry. "She thinks she's responsible for everything and everybody. She thinks that I have compromised myself and my position in Atlantis because of her…" His anger dissipated as suddenly as it had risen, concern pressing all the air out of it. "I told her that I would have never forgiven her if she had had a chance to come home and she didn't because of some warped sense of responsibility."
The games people played, the emphasis they put of words and emotions, had always exhausted Rodney. He considered those things fickle and unquantifiable and tried to turn as little attention to them as possible. But now he couldn't help thinking that Elizabeth's willingness to sacrifice herself for John was just as warped as John's decision to leave it all behind for her. And it all might just be the right kind of warped because it couldn't have possibly been worse for either of them than the past year when she'd been missing.
John seemed to be following his line of thought. "I didn't even realize it," he said, "but I guess it must have become about just getting through the days and the weeks and the months for me; just getting through the Now. Looking at her is the only time I see the future…"
Rodney didn't know what to say to that. They never talked about those deep, dark undercurrents of John even though he'd gotten glimpses of them at times, when he had lifted his head up from his research too suddenly for them both to shut it out. He didn't know what to do with them, how to help his friend; and John never seemed interested in picking himself apart in front of other people. He hoped that once they were on their own, once they didn't have anybody else, his friends would be able to help each other – they had always seemed to have this innate ability to sense what the other one really needed – whether they needed to be pushed or left alone; whether they needed to be let go or held back. They had known even without the other one having to say anything; sometimes, it seemed, even before the one in need was aware of it oneself. He hoped that the time and the hardship hadn't taken that radar away from them.
Musing about help and the two of them alone out there brought another thought to Rodney.
"You do have…?" he began, "I mean, if you need to… if you run into trouble, like, really, really big trouble…"
"Yeah," John patted his shoulder, "I talked to Teyla. We can get in contact through the Athosian trading network."
"But… I mean, if something should happen, not that it would, but… If the Athosians…"
"There's a backup link through Ronon," John assured him. "But, Rodney," he now waited for his friend to really look at him, "we probably won't be using them. Any of the routes. It's too dangerous, for us and for you."
"Hey," Rodney's voice was deeper than usual, looking for a tone that would sufficiently convey how serious he was in his statement, "it's just like what you said to Elizabeth – if there's something we can help you with and you won't even try to reach us, we'll never forgive you."
"After the mess we're going to create here, you might never forgive us anyway," John gave a bitter smirk but it seemed to Rodney that his point had gotten across. They were family, no matter how far apart and even if they thought they'd lost each other for good.
Elizabeth had turned back towards the sea on the balcony and even from across the room it was obvious that she was shivering. Rodney knew that this conversation they were having was John's way of saying goodbye to him, but he didn't want to make his friend choose between himself and Elizabeth. So he decided to let him off the hook.
"Look, I'll go down to the lab and see what I can put together for you. Can I tell Radek?"
John seemed to give it a moment's thought. "Yeah, I guess. But other than that…"
"No, of course…"
"Right," John took a deep breath. "I'm going to…," he indicated towards the balcony with his hand. Rodney nodded.
Having reached the end of the table, John turned back around, a deep frown furrowing his brow.
"Do you think I am giving up?" he asked. "Abandoning you?"
Rodney didn't even have to think about it. "No."
"No?" That seemed to take John somewhat by surprise.
"You love her, don't you?"
The frown dissipated, and warmth seeped into John's expression. "More than anything," he nodded.
"I think this is the first time in a really long time that you're not giving up." Rodney gave a small sideways smirk, attempting to lighten the mood, "Atlantis will be fine – I'm still here, aren't I?"
John grinned back, bowing his head in quiet gratitude, then turned and walked to the balcony. As he opened the door, Rodney could see Elizabeth turning around, tilting her head and the smile that slowly appeared on her face soon consumed her, seeming to light her up.
Pegasus, blinking in the evening sky behind the windows, gave rise to conflicting feelings in him – the next evening it was poised to swallow up his friends, take them from him, maybe for good; and at the same time it would offer them refuge, keep them safe and together, which was so much more than what he himself, or Earth, or even the mighty Atlantis could do at the moment.