Rodney thinks that the Ancients may have truly believed that they were Gods: seeding entire galaxies with their bastard offspring, manipulating the genome of entire species and making monsters in the process, creating and destroying worlds and smashing their way (elegantly, for the most part, it has to be admitted) through the laws of physics.
Before the Ancients, he had thought those laws were immutable, that matter and anti-matter, gravity, light, atoms, particles, strange quarks, left-handed quarks, bosuns, hadrons, leptons... if it was out there in the cosmos, it obeyed. No choices, no exceptions.
The birth and death of stars; the formation and deformation (and occasional un-formation) of matter; particles colliding, atoms combining and splitting and combining again; light bending and ions spinning through gravitational fields; one concatenation of atoms learning to live, to breathe, to grow and think, and dazzle the cosmos, and others dying back into the primordial slime unnoticed... all these things he'd once thought blindly obeyed the natural laws that, with his brilliance, he would one day fully understand and master.
Now he knows that mastery isn't about understanding. Mastery, as the Ancients thought about it, is about control.
He's come to learn a lot about the Ancients, working in their space, decoding their database, deconstructing their great city, his hands and brain mapping out both Atlantis and her creators. He's come to think that beneath their terrible and terrifying ambition (and even more terrifying ability) to warp the universe to do their bidding, lay a deep uncertainty, an insecurity, a dissatisfaction. Surprisingly, they seemed to be constantly reassuring themselves, overreaching to prove their brilliance, their overweening arrogance maybe compensating for doubt. He's come to fear what they were capable of.
And he's come to wonder what he's capable of, himself.
He told Major Sheppard once that the Ancients showed every sign of short man syndrome, and the Major, eyeing the uncomfortably short bed the entire team was perched upon to watch one of the smuggled DVDs, agreed. Napoleon was probably an Ancient, he said, and then spent an unprofitable ten minutes trying to explain the Little Corsican to a bewildered Teyla. She had trouble with cultural references even when the Major wasn't impersonating Inspector Clouseau. Badly.
Sometimes Rodney thinks the Major does it on purpose, making him laugh like that when really, inside he's shaking.
Rodney thinks that Atlantis has always been a besieged, precarious place.
Atlantis has always been a dangerous place, a perilous place. It's a place of wonder and delight and risk and terror. There's a silence in its deep places that shouts of the weight of years and knowledge and arrogant power. It's sublime. He loves it and is frightened by it. Much, he suspects, as the Ancients themselves loved it and were frightened by it. For the Ancients, as well as the expedition, Atlantis is a place of death as well as a place of dizzyingly exciting discovery.
The marines have their shrine down in Little Tripoli, a row of photographs on a wall above a long table with, here and there, the remains of a candle burnt in memoriam. Dog tags hang beside each photograph, the usual memorials to the military dead, lives etched into little rectangles of base metal that take the place of tombstones. The first one there had been put there by Sheppard. He'd pinned up Colonel Sumner's photograph and hung the dogtags, and then Sheppard had stood back with Rodney and Elizabeth and Carson, and let the marines lead in the remembrances.
Semper Fi, and all that.
The scientists aren't as sentimental as the marines. There are no shrines here in the laboratories. Instead Rodney has a laptop that once belonged to Brendan Gaul, and a set of papers scribbled over in red with a silent acknowledgement he's just inked carefully into the margin—You weren't completely right, Peter, but you weren't completely wrong—and that has to be enough.
"Elizabeth's back," says Sheppard from the doorway.
"Radek just called me." Rodney nods. "He said the Genii gave her two."
"I saw them when she came back though the Gate. They look like something from Jules Verne. You know, with steam and brass pipes and dials the size of clocks." Sheppard starts wandering aimlessly around the lab, picking up bits of Ancient tech, putting them back down again. One or two glow into faint life in his hands and he looks at them quizzically. "I thought you'd be up there, waiting."
"I was just clearing stuff up," says Rodney. "Radek can handle this bit."
"He's taking them down to Engineering. He says the shielding on them isn't great and you'll have to work fast."
"Yes. I'm on my way."
But he doesn't move a for a minute, and Sheppard watches him.
"It wasn't your fault, McKay," he says at last, after Rodney's almost given up hope that he'll offer absolution. "We had to take the chance to get the hive ships."
"It barely slowed them down," says Rodney, putting the papers carefully down onto his desk.
"You got one of them," says Sheppard.
"One out of three. And lost the Legrangian satellite doing it."
Rodney logs out of Gaul's old laptop and softly closes the lid. He stands up after another awkward pause. "I'd better go and start work. We're almost out of time."
Sheppard comes up to him.
"I've got Kavanagh and Simpson working on the installing remote control on the Puddlejumpers," says Rodney.
"It'll be good," says Sheppard. "We have to try."
"It's all we've got," says Rodney, and suddenly he laughs, although it strains in his throat. "It has to be good."
Sheppard comes closer, so close now that Rodney can almost hear his heart beat. He puts his hands on Rodney's shoulders, heavy and warm through the thin science uniform shirt.
Rodney almost forgets to breathe.
Sheppard's eyes aren't quite green, he realises; they're hazel, flecked with gold. They're looking at him as quizzically as they'd looked at the bits of Ancient Tech.
Sheppard smiles, and, slowly, Rodney smiles back, a little bemused. Still slowly, a little hesitantly, he raises his arms to close his hands on Sheppard's upper arm. Rodney's head bows a little under the weight and fear and hope. Sheppard rests his face against Rodney's hair for an instant and Rodney can feel and hear the deep breath he takes.
"You'll do it, Rodney," says Sheppard. "You'll save us."
He seems to mean it.
Rodney straightens up. "Huh," he says, suddenly feeling lighter, less ponderous; more resolute. "You're talking to the man who built his first nuke in sixth grade. Of course, I'll do it!"
Sheppard's fingers squeeze and relax, squeeze and relax on Rodney's shoulders. His arms are hard and muscular under Rodney's clutching hands—he's stronger than he looks, Rodney knows. The pressure of Sheppard's fingers is almost, but not quite, pain.
Sheppard hesitates only an instant before leaning in, and his mouth brushes against Rodney's, a soft touch of lips to lips. His lips are full and moist, and his breath is hot against the side of Rodney's face. He holds his lips there for a moment, and Rodney can feel them moving. Not in passionate working, not in demanding entreaty. This is a little close-mouthed kiss, that's all, and Rodney thinks that Sheppard is saying something against Rodney's mouth. If he concentrates, Rodney will know what it is.
It might be I know you will. It might be I trust you. It might be I have faith in you. It may even be I love you.
Who can tell?
The kiss isn't sexy. It's not hot. But it's so profound that Rodney thinks it's like Atlantis itself: mysterious and perilous and as right, as inevitable and immutable, as one of those natural laws.
"John," he says.
"I'm here," says John. "We're still here. And we'll be here, after. And if we aren't—" He stops and his hands on Rodney's shoulders tighten, and once against his head dips and his mouth meets Rodney's.
And Rodney, curiously happy, thinks that it's enough, for now.