Sometime...Somehow... Part VIII
Beckett, the one trained in the physical art of people care (those living and those just on the cusp of living), was the first to get his head clear enough to start thinking like a doctor again, and he barked at his help mates. "More thermal blankets!"
It was enough to stir both Zelenka and Sheppard from their shock and get them moving with a purpose. Once every blanket in the surrounding offices was commandeered to their logical use, Beckett took one kind physician's finger and ever-so-gently opened Rodney's left eyelid. Using a physician's pen-light he shone it into one eye then the other. "Pupils are equal, round, reactive. That's good." Beckett said, falling into his habitual doctor-speak.
Sheppard recognised the medical lingo. "That means his brain is functioning properly, doesn't it?"
Beckett nodded. "As far as I can tell so far, yes. Whether or not the higher brain functions have survived this long..."
Beckett's cautionary words sent an icy slush directly to his guts and Sheppard bit down hard on his bottom lip. Suppose they had just awakened Rodney to a life of a younger-looking vegetable? Suppose it was only his body and the autonomic functions of his lizard brain that was awake while the rest of him was still dead in a millennial, and now, eternal slumber? Instead of being blessed with a resurrection to be spent among his friends and family, they may have just cursed him to a blank slate of a life to be spent among indifferent strangers, pap feeding tubes and adult diapers. "Doc..."
Becket could hear Sheppard's fear inside the word. "His temperature is almost normal. Give him some time, Colonel. He's still a bloody long hike from being well." Beckett checked the pulse at the sleeping man's throat and was busy listening to his chest. "Lungs sound clear. Heart rate is steady and strong. We're not out of tha' woods yet but maybe we can see tha' edge of it."
Rodney gave a small cough and they all nearly jumped out of their skins. "I think he's waking up." Beckett said helpfully.
Sheppard's entire nervous system was dancing on the edge of hysteria. "Yeah, doc' - thanks."
Then, to their collective astonishment, Rodney McKay opened his eyes.
No one dared breathe.
Beckett looked over his shoulder to Sheppard, whispering "Colonel. You're his closest friend; I think it should be your face he sees first."
Sheppard nodded, having to force his feet to walk over to the bed. One boot at a time, come on boys, you've walked lots of places before, no problem. But he was terrified. Was this really Rodney or his warmed-over flesh that had no idea nor cared whether its brain was there with it? That would be infinitely worse. "Rodney?"
Those eyes! Those baby blue eyes of Rodney looked around at the ceiling tiles, and then drifted over to where John stood next to the right side of the bed.
Sheppard leaned over a little so it would be easier for his friend to get a clear view of his face. "Rodney? It's John."
The tension in the room might have cracked the place in two; such was the fear that they had just brought back to life a mindless lump of organs and tissue.
Sheppard held his breath. Does he even hear me at all? Why the hell won't he answer? "Rodn-?"
The voice - still recognizable. Those golden chords, though weak with hunger and sleep, were also thick with surprise, gladness and the sweet, sweet sound of a child's hope.
"Yeah." John laid one hand on his friend's bony shoulder. "Yeah, it's me, Sheppard. Beckett's here, too, and Radek."
Rodney continued to stare into Sheppard's eyes unblinkingly. The intensity of that gaze was...uncomfortable. Looking down into the dual portals of his eyes was like trying to see into a secret world of visions that only Rodney knew about, but the glass itself still clouded, the secrets still hidden.
"How ya' doin'? " Stupid question, idiot! "Are you feeling all right?" Better. Sheppard managed to hold his tongue. Give the man a minute, he's been gone a while.
Then Rodney actually chuckled very softly, and said in a voice so thin with dehydration and ill use it physically hurt to hear it. "Sure. Wha' appen' t'you John? Y-you used t'come 'round 'ere all-a-time."
"I don't know quite what's going on yet." Beckett said to them. Teyla and Ronan had joined them and the tangled group of old friends were huddled together in a nearby room while Rodney slept off some of his nine thousand year coma.
Sheppard felt like a man gut-shot. It seemed Rodney was back...but only sort of. At least this room had stuffed chairs, heat and a substance euphemistically called coffee. With lots of sugar and powdered milk, it tasted almost passable. With a sinking heart Sheppard remembered how after his first and only words Rodney's eyes drifted away from them and from everything else. After that he refused to acknowledge their presence in the room at all. "Well, what do you think is wrong with him?"
Beckett scratched fingers through his thick mane of buzzed hair. "Well, physically he seems to be recovering, but mentally he seems confused or frightened – probably both. I'm not sure if it's because he doesn't believe his own eyes or because he doesn't believe we're real or doesn't believe he's real."
Sheppard knew it was too soon to expect miracles but he couldn't help himself. "That's helpful."
Beckett snapped, his own nerves worn to a frazzle. "Look, the man has just woken up from what was essentially a dead state. I have no idea how this has happened although it's reasonable to assume it was the preservative fluid of the planet and the extreme cold his body was subjected to. But this is an entirely new physical phenomenon, Colonel, and without being able to directly read his thoughts, I'm afraid we may just have to wait it out. Rodney may become more lucid as time goes by or, I am sorry ta' say, he may not. The only thing I do know for sure is that I have no idea at this point."
Sheppard looked suitable contrite. "Sorry, Doc'." He strolled around the room, unable to sit for more than a few minutes at a time without getting restless. He patted Beckett on the shoulder. "Is there anything we can do for him?"
Beckett nodded, having already laid out his plans in his head. "We can isolate him from everyone except for maybe you, me and his closest friends." He glanced at each one of them. "I think interaction with each of you, a little at a time, may spark some recognition and draw him out of...where-ever he is. It's my hope that the more he experiences being here with us should will a catalyst to his own good memories and build in him a desire to return to his old life."
Beckett poured himself this third cup of the dark mystery beverage, adding a generous amount of sugar, and stirring it noisily. "What I'd like to do is get him the professional psychological help that he needs, but the problem is, in order to get that, we'd have to reveal where he is to someone."
Ronan shook his head. "There's no way. Even with Teyla's people protecting him...they'd come arrest all of us. Even if we didn't lose Rodney, we'd never see him again. I don't know about you guys, but I'm not willing to let that happen." It appeared to Ronan that calling in an outsider was no option. He had just gotten his friend back, and the big Satedan wasn't willing to lose him again without a fight.
Teyla spoke. "On that point, Ronan, I think we are all in agreement." And then she offered her friends an alternative. "In this village there is a man with skills in the art of healing. He has certain mental abilities much like mine only stronger. We may be able to link to Rodney and bring him out of...hiding – if that is what he is doing."
Beckett asked "But are you sure he will help us without revealing it to anyone?"
Teyla nodded once. "He is a distant cousin and since Rodney is my brother I know he would assist me if I asked. Plus he is an honorable man. In order to be trusted by the people, he must keep confidences, therefore I do not believe he would ever reveal what we are doing here."
Sheppard asked "What do you think he can do for Rodney?"
Teyla shook her head. "I am not sure, but at the very least if he is able to reveal to us what is going on in Rodney's mind, then we may be better able to help him ourselves."
Though not entirely sanguine about Teyla's metaphysical-sounding interventions, Beckett said. "In the meantime I'll do a complete physical on him, take some blood and other fluids and see if I can't pinpoint a physical reason behind his...disconnectedness." Beckett said to Ronan. "Um, I'll probably need your help to, er, hold him."
Ronan accompanied Beckett to the locked room where they had left Rodney sipping from a cup of broth – which was all Beckett dared give him in such a condition of starvation – and sitting on the floor in a corner, softly talking to himself.
Beckett was privately impressed by how Ronan handled McKay. The big man who had always towered over Rodney both physically and in sheer in-your-face temperament, coaxed him gently from the floor with words spoken too softly for Beckett to hear, and then lifted him in his arms with ease, like he weighed nothing at all, carrying him to the examination table and setting him down just as easily in a seated position.
Beckett nodded his thanks. "Ronan, would ya' mind staying while I take some blood and urine in case he...spooks or something?"
Ronan looked at Rodney. "How are you going to get it?"
Beckett knew he wasn't referring to the blood. Ronan had seen plenty of blood in his lifespan and Beckett knew it didn't bother him. But witnessing a far more private test on a friend, like urine collection, was a different matter. Ronan was an intensely private individual and the last he wanted to do was intrude on the privacy of his friend, even if his friend wasn't exactly all there.
Beckett said. "With the state he's in tha' only way I can get it is from his kidney. He's so dehydrated he's not producing any urine yet, so I'll have ta' give him a mild sedative – I don't dare give him anything stronger in his condition – and then draw some out."
"You need me to hold him down."
Beckett felt bad that it was necessary. "I don't like ta' hurt him any more than I have ta' but even with tha' sedative this will hurt him –so yes."
Rodney did what he was encouraged to do without struggle. He seemed not to be aware or even care what was happening to him. Beckett encouraged his patient to lie down on his stomach and he did so without complaining. He was like a victim of a terrible car accident or a plane crash; alive, walking around but dazed and virtually silent; in a perpetual mental and physical shock.
Becket showed Ronan where on Rodney's back and legs to place his massive hands, then readied his needle. As soon as it pierced the flesh Rodney cried out. It was soft and weak, like the yowl of something newborn, but then he lay silent and still as Beckett finished. "Okay, I got enough."
But Ronan did not think to remove his hands until Beckett gently suggested it. The big man seemed to come back to his full senses then and stood back, his brown eyes darker than usual, black with sorrow for his friend. "I didn't know Rodney could get that thin."
There wasn't a hint of scorn in his words and an understanding Beckett merely nodded. "Thank you, Ronan."
Ronan, not one for words where they weren't needed, nodded and left. Once out in the hall he stopped and paced in one spot, turning circles as though looking for an escape for his emotions. Finally he gave way to the hours of built up frustration and the unaccustomed feelings of powerlessness for what was happening to Rodney by pounding his iron fist into the wall One! Two! Three! times until the plaster gave beneath his fist, cracking in a dozen directions.
Then he shook if off and rejoined the others.
Beckett stood back. Here his skills were not needed though he remained near-by, as did Ronan, in case Rodney should react violently and possibly injure himself. That in his frail condition he could cause harm to anyone else was not at present a worry.
Teyla was kneeling beside Rodney who was once again seated in his corner, staring at the floor and his own hands as they idly rubbed his feet. All wondered at it. Teyla however, and her friend who had come at her request, placed themselves within touching distance of Rodney. Teyla was the first to reach out a hand and lightly brushed the sleeve of the light blue, thin cotton scrubs Beckett had found and that he and Ronan had dressed Rodney in shortly ago.
Ronan had proved himself the most capable of nursing assistants simply for his strength to lift Rodney up and turn him any which way that Beckett required in order to examine him or, in this case, dress him in something clean.
Teyla spoke softly to him, keeping her voice steady and oh-so kind. "Rodney? Please don't be startled. This man is my friend Farren, and he is here to help us talk to you. Is that all right?"
Rodney continued to rub at his feet, the motions of his hands getting a bit faster, the rubbing slightly more intense.
"Rodney, I am going to touch my forehead to yours, and the Farren is going to touch his mind to my mind so that we can talk to you. Please do not worry. This will not hurt you in any way."
Rubbing, rubbing, more pressure, faster, faster. A tiny whine emanated from deep in Rodney's throat, so softly pitched only Teyla heard it. "Rodney, we are going to start now." Teyla glanced back at Sheppard.
Everyone was standing back near the walls, everyone's nerves walking a crazy high wire. Sheppard nodded.
Teyla leaned in and so gently as to not be believed, touched her forehead to Rodney's.
Rodney's endless rubbing of his feet suddenly stopped for a second, and then he resumed his frantic action, seeming not to notice her at all.
Farren had his own head bowed and was concentrating so hard he began to sweat.
After a moment he spoke. "Rodney has retreated into himself. McKay...is here, too. Both are trapped in a fear of their own making, and of the sleep, and the years of big sky...empty place...hunger, always hunger and thirst..." Farren spoke in a monotone and a jumble of words tumbled out like a small rock slide, a steady serving of what he was seeing through Rodney's tired eyes, a tunnel of memories, out of order but clear enough to comprehend most as he walked through a nearly barren land of contrasts.
Farren/Rodney continued. "Need water again, the shells pile up, the G-goliath's are dead now, so cold, so tired. No one came, no one came but the p-prong?...he was eaten..." Farren suddenly shouted "Ow my back! Ow-ow-ow! Run, Rodney, run! Hurry...ow...ow...it hurts so much...blood...ow...ow..." Tears began to leak from beneath Farren's lids while his voice got louder and his speech frantic. "Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow-ow...c-can't do...I'm going to die here...die...die...die...die...they're n-not coming...tired...I'm so tired...so hungry...so thirsty...why didn't they come...couldn't...they couldn't..."
Suddenly Farren shouted with cruelty: "Shut-up Rodney! You're always talking to yourself...you're nuts...you loser...you goddamn loser! That's why...that's why even I can't stand you."
Then in a voice of anguish and despair: "Stop it McKay! Stop it! You're the one who put us here. All brain and no brains! Stupid, selfish, arrogant bastard. An-and John's my friend. Not yours - mine!"
"He's only your friend 'cause he has to be, moron. You're useful but secretly he hates you."
"You're wrong. H-h-he l-likes me. Maybe...maybe...maybe even loves me. He's my friend, th-they're a-all my friends. It's all your fault I'm stuck here. Your fault! Your fault! I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-hate-you!"
Suddenly Teyla screamed and was thrown back from Rodney as though an invisible hand reached out and shoved her away.
Farren passed out and Beckett hurried to check the man's vitals. He said to them all with relief. "He's fine. He just fainted."
Then the room went totally silent.
Except for Rodney who had not moved or spoken, but who still rubbed at his feet with a steadily increasing pressure like a man possessed, as though he were trying to rub the very skin from the flesh, while from deep in his throat came a barely audible whine that remained constant. Like the squealing hiss of a tiny air leak under pressure.
Ronan helped Teyla to her feet. She gathered together her nerves while Beckett insisted on checking her eyes and pulse. He asked her "Are you all right?"
Nodding - "It was an extremely disturbing experience but I am fine." Then looking at Beckett she immediately added "Rodney is in terrible pain."
Beckett covered him with a blanket and dimmed the lights in the room. Rodney had been sedated and tucked under thick quilts on a mat in a tiny room next door. Beckett and Ronan locked the door from the outside and rejoined the others in the room that had become their own sort of informal meeting room.
Everyone was exhausted and lounged around on the stuffed chairs and lounges. Two soft lights burned in the ceiling. Farren had regained his senses and left and Teyla had food and drink brought in for all. No one had much of an appetite however.
Sheppard forced down a few mouth-full's and then abandoned the attempt. He listened to Beckett with half his thoughts while the other half of his mind went over the words that Farren had screamed at them all, Rodney's terrible words of his own suffering.
Beckett said "He's sleeping for now. We inserted a feeding tube into his stomach ta' get some calories in him. Getting some weight back on him is tha' first order, and once tha' blood and urine tests come back, I might know more about what's causing his pain."
Sheppard asked Teyla "What can you tell us about what you heard...or I guess saw while Farren was, you know, working his magic there?"
Teyla had seen so much. "There is so much. It is difficult to sort through all the images. I fear they may not be in order or even accurate but I will try. If my telling is a little sporadic, please be patient. Not all that I saw made complete sense to me, and my recollections of the events may be disorganised, but please do not interrupt."
She gathered herself a little, closing her eyes to better relate the scenes in her mind without the distraction of the room. For her all she really knew for certain was that the images were real and for the most part fermented with sorrow and pain.
"What I see is a reality of time. Rodney...three years...there...alone. He was alone. He kept count of the days: fifty hours, three-hundred and five days, three years and counting...Big Red in the sky, the Mountain of Rodney M-McKay...no Rodney, just Rodney...The Plant...food...he is eating...he hunts...not always successful, not lately. It tastes sour, odd. But it tastes sweet. There is a duality to him...in his mind and he is injured...more than once – the last injury is serious. It hurts terribly, he is in so much pain...suffering here...always suffering...his feet ache every day, all day; all the time. His hands I think too. Poison perhaps...but he is suffering greatly. John sometimes comes to him."
Teyla's voice registers pleasant surprise and across the room Sheppard straightens up a little, startled by it.
Teyla continued. "And Radek comes and I as well, to comfort I think. He speaks to us...he is now watching himself lose his mind. He is fearful but the fear does not..." she frowned trying to make sense of what she was seeing. "The fear is with Rodney, and it is hatred. Now the sky is darker and it is very cold. McKay see's death and Rodney is... tired...very tired. So tired of pain. He...misses us." Teyla's voice broke slightly. "He...so lonely...painful feet...always rubbing...hating...tired...tired...want to sleep...pain tells him to sleep..."
The images broke apart in her mind and sank out of sight as she came to the end of the malignant snarl of sights, sounds and feelings Farren's link had generated for her. Teyla opened her eyes and took a deep, cleansing breath. She said "I believe Rodney is terrified of us, not because he thinks we will hurt him but because he sees us as only images within that place. We are still illusions to him. That is where we dwell with him, and that is where I believe he believes he still is."
Radek, who had been silent for a while asked rhetorically "I guess the question is - how do we get him out of that place and back here with us?"
"Via your friends and the Stargate," Becket explained to Teyla and the others, "I made a call to a respected psychopathologist I know. I explained to her Doctor McKay's condition and our observations so far of his behavior and besides ensuring that we give him the proper food and care, all we can do is try and bring Rodney out of his delusional state. She suggested doing our best to interact with him as much as possible, be ourselves, be his friends-" He held up a hand of restraint, "but one at a time of course. We don't want to overwhelm him."
Ronan asked "But won't he just see us a more delusions?"
Teyla explained. "Rodney does not truly see us as delusions, as though we are an invention of his own mind. As far as I was able to determine while in contact with his memories, he is confused about where he is, and so he believes we are hallucinations, no different than those he experienced on the planet. In his mind he is still trapped there, and so he believes that we cannot be real."
Radek asked the group. "So how do we convince him otherwise?"
Teyla wished she had an answer. "I am not sure."
Ronan said. "Maybe we just need to talk to him more."
Beckett was seated on the arm of a chair, elbows on his knees, hands clasped tightly together. No one felt relaxed. "It's worth a try. Who wants to go first?"
Radek ran fingers through his hair. "I can't imagine he'd want to see me. It's my fault that he's going through all this in the first place."
Teyla reassured him "I did not get the sense that Rodney was blaming anyone – other than himself – for some perceived weakness within himself, but merely that he was saddened that we did not find him. I also think he felt at least some satisfaction in his heart that his actions may have saved all of our lives."
Sheppard stood up, ending the debate. "Me. It should be me." He looked at them all. "He's my best friend." It was perhaps the first time he had verbally spoken the words. Sheppard wondered at himself that he had never openly admitted so before. "I should go."
Teyla asked "John – are you sure?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"No one's doubting your wanting ta' help, lad, but tha' last time you spoke ta' him, he disappeared on us." Beckett reminded him. "Maybe I should try first."
"The last time you were near him, you stuck a needle in his back." Ronan said. "For all we know it sent him deeper into himself."
Sheppard listened to them toss it back and forth for minutes and minutes until he saw himself as though in a dream walk over to the door and kick it with his steel toed boot. He had needed to do it without knowing exactly why, only that it was either kick the door or burst from his skin.
But at least it shut them up. "I'm going." He said, ending the debate.
Abashed, Teyla then spoke for the group. "Perhaps John is right. We all love Rodney but John was closest to him."
Memories of drinking beers with him, go fishing, go flying, arguing, apologizing, watching movies and laughing at the ridiculous dialogue, working together to avert the latest disaster, seeing each other get injured, or ill on the job, going on missions both boring and dangerous as hell, and just sitting together out on the walls of Atlantis looking at the ocean. All times he had spent with Rodney. John did things with other people but never as closely nor as often as he had with Rodney McKay. In build, in temperament, in talents, in just about every way, Rodney was his polar opposite, and yet Sheppard could not now imagine anyone else in that niche. Rodney was his best friend, it was true, but he was more than that. He was cherished.
One memory, more stark than all the rest, loomed in his memory. Rodney telling John that he wished to die for his sister. Rodney explaining it, asking for it, insisting on it, and then begging John to give him the go-ahead and let a Wraith scientist drain him to death in order for the Wraith to gain the needed strength so to cure so his sister. So she would live.
John recalled the horribly cold shaking that had erupted in his innards at the idea. Stunned at heart, he had stared back into Rodney's pleading eyes and told him no. He had said "No, I'm sorry, but no." Unflinching and unyielding in his decision, even as his mouth had said it calmly and with military propriety about Rodney being a "valuable member of my team", in his human mind and from the heart-erected foundation of him - the stalwart roots of his very soul – he had screamed No, Rodney, you may NOT die today! I will not lose you. I refuse your decision to sacrifice yourself. Not even for her. Not for anyone.
"I'm going." Sheppard repeated so they would not be mistaken, and then asked Beckett "Do you have the key?"
Beckett stood. "I'll open the door for you."
Sheppard, hands on his hips, turned and walked away, muttering something about "sorry" and "dent", leaving with the doctor.
Rodney was awake and even active now, slowly wandering the bare room in shuffling steps. Beckett's pain killers had given him some ease from his painful feet and now Rodney went here and there, not really looking at much except his hands and fingering his clean shirt. It seemed to puzzle him, give him a measure of concern, that it was clean, because he could not explain it.
Except for a simple bed on four feet fastened to the floor, the room was empty. Beckett did not want Rodney injuring himself.
"Rodney?" Sheppard had removed all of his military accoutrements and wore only his fatigues. He was in socks.
On hearing John's voice Rodney stopped his wandering and sat down in one corner again, not looking at John but neither looking away exactly. Rodney was trying to gauge him, Sheppard decide. To his surprise Rodney spoke "John, you're back."
"Yeah." John decided the best course was to sit down opposite Rodney and by talking see where they could get. "Yeah, I thought we should talk for a while if that's all right."
"Sure, sure, talk. We can talk. Talk is good."
The scientist almost sounded like the old Rodney, his voice a ghosting of Rodney's nervous chatter. "Are your feet okay now?"
"Yeah, the stuff works pretty well. I extracted it, remember?"
Sheppard had the weird impression that although Rodney was now looking directly at him, he was not actually being seen, and Rodney was speaking as though John already knew what he was talking about. "Sure. Um, we brought a Puddle Jumper."
Rodney suddenly took in a deep breath as though the news surprised him. Or scared him. "Really?"
"Yup. I could take you to it. Maybe let you fly it. How's that sound?"
Rodney settled back again. "You're just...you're just teasing me, John, like always. John's always teasing." Rodney laughed but the sound was more like an artificial recording of enjoyment. Nothing they exchanged was making it all the way to his eyes.
Sheppard frowned. "What do you...see Rodney?"
Rodney answered like it was John who was crazy. "I see you of course. Who...who do you think? I mean, you always come to see me. Always me, not McKay. He is so jealous." Rodney chuckled. "It's great."
For over an hour Sheppard sat and just talked with Rodney. Talked at Rodney, Rodney responding with recorded emotions and words just for himself alone and those only told within his world of heat in a barren landscape under a ripe red sun.
Sheppard finally said goodbye and Rodney waved him away like it was just another visit and nothing special.
Beckett knew it had not been successful when he saw Sheppard's face in the hall.
"I don't know how to get through to him." He said to the others. "I'm his friend but it doesn't seem to be enough. He doesn't believe his own eyes or he does but I guess somehow he still sees me in his world instead of in this one."
Ronan shrugged. "Then don't be yourself."
Sheppard thought for a moment. It was simplistic but "I don't know how to not be myself."
Beckett said "I think I get Ronan's meaning. If Rodney's supplying your responses in his mind, then he's supplying only those responses he knows you would normally provide. You've got to step outside yourself somehow, and be a John other than the one he's familiar with."
It made some sort of sense. "Okay but how do I do that?" He was a soldier not an actor.
Teyla provided the simple solution "Act other than the way you normally would."
Sheppard thought what – dance?
Teyla added "After three years alone Rodney must have needed to make up a John of his own, so he controls that John. You must show Rodney that you decide for yourself how to act; that what you say and do does not originate with him. Perhaps the only way to demonstrate that to him is to act in a way contrary to what is usual."
Beckett said "Aye, it's a good idea. It could help shake apart this delusion that he's put himself under."
Sheppard had an idea. Quickly he took Beckett aside and whispered "I have an idea but I need to be alone with him."
Beckett raised his eyes to Ronan and the Satedan joined them. Beckett assured Sheppard "We'll be just outside the door if you need us."
"Um...there might be some yelling involved...or possibly screaming." Sheppard warned and then at their worried faces added "Cut me some slack, guys, I'm not gonna' hit the guy."
Beckett inclined his head agreement. Ronan did the same but warned "You hit him, I hit you."
Sheppard said not without humor "Settle down "cave-man". Look, I don't know how long this is gonna' take so just cool your heels out here. But if, you know, hear some crashing around or if I yell for you to come in, then come in."
"Okay." Ronan said.
Sheppard returned to the room where their broken friend waited.
"Hey buddy." Sheppard said quietly.
Rodney had not moved from his place in the corner. He had his legs tucked up to his chest and his chin resting on them. He reminded Sheppard of a mangy fox, wary of all strangers.
Sheppard approached him slowly. Outside the room it had seemed like a good idea but now he wasn't so sure. However he had nothing else so he went forward.
"Hi, Rodney. I'm just going to sit down beside you, okay? That, um, doesn't scare you does it? 'Cause it's me, John."
Rodney said "No."
Sheppard wasn't positive if he meant no, he couldn't sit down or no he wasn't scared. Sheppard muttered under his breath "Screw it." and took a seat on the floor right next to Rodney.
He waited to see if Rodney was going to spook, but he hardly seemed to notice Sheppard's close proximity.
Sheppard took a breath to prepare himself for the worst, reaching one arm over and around Rodney's upper back, and then carefully, without exerting too much pressure, let it rest across his friend's sharp shoulders.
Rodney didn't react for a few seconds and the turned his head to look at him, frowning suspiciously. "Hey. I don't think you should do that."
Sheppard asked "Why not?"
"Because...because..." It appeared Rodney was having trouble finding a reason. "Um, because John doesn't do that. John doesn't touch me...a-almost never...almost never. He doesn't like to do that. So...so you sh-should stop now."
"No. I'm John and I want to touch my best friend." He knew he was risking Rodney having some sort of melt-down but he had to do this all the way or not at all. Half-way would tell them nothing. Sheppard swivelled on his backside and put his other arm around Rodney so his arms were now in the position of a hug. He was now hugging Rodney. It was a loose one, but it was definitely a hug.
Rodney shifted his own position now, trying to sidle away, but Sheppard linked his hands together and prevented him from going more than an inch or two. "You should s-stop, John doesn't like that. Please...please stop."
"No Rodney. I decide if I like to touch you or not. I'm John and I've decided I want to hug my best friend."
Rodney began to struggle, trying to push him away with wasted muscles. "Please...please...I don't understand why you won't stop that. John would stop if I asked him to."
"The John you've known for the last three years would never have hugged you either, but I'm the real John and I am going to hug you whether you like it or not, Rodney."
Rodney stopped struggling and stared at him nose to nose. Sheppard could see the stubborn anger building behind the baby blues, like thunder clouds of charcoal grey in a clear sky that signal the start of something unpleasant, and it was a little bit frightening.
Rodney of three years ago could have kicked John's ass all over the planet if he'd had the mind, and the combat training, to do so. Because despite his shorter stature and other than the handful of extra fat on his frame, in sheer muscle bulk Rodney out-weighed him by thirty pounds at least. He was a man who spent many hours sitting down by necessity of his chosen career. However in creating Rodney the good Lord had also granted him a square strong frame upon which he had hung some natural-born thick muscle. Rodney's legs alone were something to be envied. Thighs that Rodney had been given by design, John wistfully sought by pumping iron every day.
And it seemed that behind Rodney's eyes was a man suddenly intent on ass-kicking. Sheppard just pulled him in as tightly as he dared and linked his fingers together when the man suddenly erupted in a flailing of arms and legs, bucking his hips and trying to dislodge the uninvited intruder who had folded his false self into the sorted, comfortable desert of his delusion.
Sheppard however held on as though both their lives depended on it. It was a good thing Rodney was weak with hunger and sickness (with the added benefit that at his heart he was not a violent man), because if he had not been so frail, Sheppard knew he would already be across the room in an undignified heap against the far wall.
'Rodney! Stop. I'm John and I'm not letting you go!" Rodney was thus far unrelenting in his struggle to get free. "I don't care how long we have to do this, buddy, but tough shit! You're stuck with the real me."
For many minutes Rodney fought the fleshly John and screamed for John's shadow self who did nothing unexpected like hold him tight against his will, or talk in his ear when he wasn't supposed to. Rodney fought until he was breathless and his heart raced, until he suddenly stopped altogether and hung loose in John's arms like a ragdoll, spent to his core with fighting.
John did not let his arms drop until he knew for certain Rodney was finished. "You all done now? Can we stop fighting and be friends again?"
Rodney lifted his head and on a rubbery neck, looked Sheppard in the eye, and John gasped at the sight of Rodney staring at him with recognition. Out of the glazed look from a moment before clarity was shining, and from the sickly mute of a wasteland, the mouth of the reborn spoke. "John? Jesus...John...is that really you?"
The words from his lips were as frail as he was, but they spoke with surety. "You're really here, aren't you? And-" Rodney felt his chest and saw that his hands and feet freely existing in a space that was not a rock cave or a desert floor. Above were only ceiling lights and not a burnt sun. "...I'm-I'm really here, too, aren't I?"
John, arms still wrapped around his friend, assured him "Yes, Rodney. You really are." And what a good thing this was. Sheppard could feel his own breath bouncing off Rodney's sallow cheek and coming back to fall upon his own. He was that close to him, and it was a fine, fine place to be.
Rodney rubbed one hand across his own cheek to see if his face was as much there as the rest of him. And then John, to keep his friend in the here and now, reached out one hand and did the same to the other. "You are really home now, Rodney. And I've got you, buddy, I've got you."
For Sheppard it was as difficult to believe as it was for his friend. And he did not move from the floor or relinquish his hold on him. Not for a minute. He sat there with Doctor Rodney McKay, his hands around him, keeping him as close to himself as was possible and it did not feel the least bit un-macho or uncomfortable upon his feelings in any way. It seemed normal and right and the very thing he should have done other times and wanted to do now. He felt a fool for ever shunning the simple gestures of touch and physical comfort for someone who needed it –whoever they were.
But especially for this man, for his friend who had undergone such a barrenness of life for so long, and who had been so walled off from human touch that he had been unwilling to come out of the isolation without a promise of something more. Well now Rodney McKay had something more and he would always have it as far as Sheppard could ever assure it. "I've got you, buddy. You're home, you're home and you're safe with me, pal."
John pressed his own robust cheek to Rodney's underfed one and stayed by him, kept him there on the floor for many more minutes. It was not yet time to share him with the others. John decided. He was not yet willing to, not quite yet. "You're safe, Rodney, you're back."
And here you will damn well stay!
XXX Part IX soon.