"What the hell did Kate prescribe for Rodney?"
Elizabeth saved the document she was working on -- a report for the IOA on the latest trade negotiations with the Taranans for a share of their crops when they ripened -- and looked up. "Good afternoon, John. What are you talking about?"
John was leaning against her doorframe, his posture tense and his hands shoved into his pockets. "He's a fucking zombie, Elizabeth. I don't know what she's been giving him --"
"What makes you think Kate gave him something?"
"He said he's taking antidepressants; what's he doing, prescribing them for himself?"
Elizabeth frowned, taking in John's rumpled clothes, his spikier-than-usual hair, his pallor. And he thought Rodney looked bad? Pot, kettle... A spike in her ever-present headache stabbed at her temples, and she rubbed them; the nightmares had been worse than usual lately, and she was halfway to asking Keller for something to help her sleep. "I saw Rodney in the cafeteria at dinner last night, John; I said hello, he said hello right back."
"And he didn't seem strange to you in any way?"
Giving John the benefit of the doubt, she cast her mind back. "Tired, that's all. Vague in that way he gets when he's been working a long time. I understand he's been throwing himself into his work since Carson -- for the last couple of weeks," she amended. They both knew the reason; no need to say it out loud. "Spending a lot of time in the labs." She was just guessing, but it seemed reasonable. After all, surely she would have heard about it if he wasn't. And the idea of Rodney doing anything else just didn't make sense; she hadn't seen him around Atlantis and he hadn't gone offworld, so what would he be doing, laying around in his quarters? It just wasn't him.
"Spending a lot of time in the labs," John repeated. "And ... he's doing all right? No problems doing his job, or anything like that?"
The very idea was laughable. "John, it's Rodney. The ultimate, consummate workaholic. I haven't had a single complaint ... well, beyond the usual, of course." There'd been a spate of annoyed emails a week or so ago from some of the more sensitive lab techs, but she was more or less used to that.
"I think I might talk to Heightmeyer," John said after a moment.
About damn time, was Elizabeth's thought, but she managed not to let it escape. As John turned away, she caught a glimpse of white on his hand: a bandage. For an instant she was tempted to call him back and ask what he'd done to himself, but she bit back on it. He wasn't a child, and she didn't need to follow him around. They were all dealing with the situation in their own way.
Time and distance is all we need, she thought as she bent back over her paperwork. Time and distance.
When Kate's door opened, John said, "Is Rodney taking antidepressants?" without even bothering with pleasantries.
Kate, her hands curled around a cup of tea, raised an eyebrow. "Hello to you too, Colonel. I was wondering how long it would take you to come and see me."
"I'm not here to see you," he said, and then stopped, rewinding the conversation. Hmm. Little hostile there, John. "I mean, I came to ask about Rodney."
"Come in, please." Kate stepped back, allowing him room to enter her quarters.
A bit uncomfortably, he did so. Even as long as he'd lived on Atlantis, with the much more relaxed atmosphere here, he'd never quite gotten past the deep-seated conditioning from his years in the military: never put yourself in a compromising position with a fellow soldier or anyone under your command. Kate was neither, but somehow his brain hadn't gotten the memo.
Kate's quarters smelled of incense and her musky perfume. She gestured him to one of the soft, comfortable chairs scattered around the room. Feeling awkward, he sat as indicated.
"Coffee," he agreed. He couldn't seem to find anything to do with his hands -- started to clasp them between his knees, but his bruised, swollen knuckles panged when he tried to wrap his left hand around his right.
Kate paused in the act of handing him the cup of coffee, and frowned at the makeshift bandage around his knuckles. Self-conscious, he took the cup with his left hand instead.
"That looks painful."
"Just an accident in the gym." He fought off the urge to stuff his hand into his pocket or tuck it under his leg, instead laying it self-consciously at his side, like a piece of deadwood dangling on the end of his arm. The bruises on his left set of knuckles -- not bad enough to need a bandage, but evident all the same -- seemed all too obvious, a badge of shame he couldn't hide. "Not bad enough to go to the infirmary," he added, and took a too-hot swallow of coffee that burned all the way down.
"I didn't ask."
Okay, going to see Heightmeyer? Really bad idea. He'd known it would be a bad idea, and yet, here he was. "You know, I just came to ask about Rodney."
She nodded, holding her tea against her chest as if to warm herself. "So you said. And while I do make exceptions for doctor-patient confidentiality when the safety of the city is threatened, or in private consultations with Elizabeth, otherwise --"
"Doc, he's walking around looking like he's been lobotomized." Seeing her eyes widen, John leaned forward, pressing his advantage. "I don't need details. I don't want details. That's Rodney's business. I just want to ask you to ease up on the meds. You said you made exceptions for citywide security, and Elizabeth doesn't seem to believe me, but after talking to Rodney tonight I'd sure consider it a ..."
He trailed off; Kate was shaking her head slowly. "John, I don't think it's a violation of protocol to tell you that, if Rodney is taking medication, he's not getting it from me. I haven't given him anything. In fact, I haven't had a session with him in months."
John's first, cynical thought was that she was lying to him; he'd been so sure. But her gaze was sincere. "Not since Carson ...?"
"No," she said, holding his eyes with her own, and he could see the pain and exhaustion that she tried so hard to hide. Oddly, it didn't draw him under, the way he'd been afraid that it might; it only made her seem more human. "Not since Carson."
For a few moments, neither of them spoke. John drank his slowly cooling coffee while he tried to figure out what the hell was going on. "Look, Doc, as one department head to another, something's wrong with McKay. He looks like he's zoned out of his mind on tranks. I can't believe I'm the only one who's noticed."
Kate set her teacup down on an end table. "Have you asked Keller? Even if I had prescribed antidepressants for Rodney, they'd still come out of the infirmary stores. She signs off on everything."
Keller. It wasn't fair to her -- from what little he'd seen, Doctor Jennifer Keller was a nice girl, doing her best in a tough situation -- but the name still hit him like a knife in the gut. His silence must have been answer enough, because Kate nodded, and stood up. She held out a slim hand.
"Colonel, would you care to take a walk to the infirmary? Maybe we can get that hand looked at, while we're there."
No, was his automatic answer, the answer he'd been allowing himself to hide behind for weeks. And once again, he heard the voice of that long-ago counselor: You try to avoid pain by avoiding situations that cause you to feel pain.
He'd been hiding, he realized -- running, and hiding, and dealing the way he always had: by avoiding the topic and distracting himself with physical pain until he had enough distance from it that he could push it down into a corner of his subconscious. It had worked all his life, but it didn't work here, because the ties that bound him to everyone around him could not be severed so easily. Here, avoiding pain meant shirking his duties, letting friends suffer because he couldn't face the fact he'd lost one of them.
Reach out a hand for the other swimmers, John, another counselor had said. Together you can pull yourselves to shore. Apart, you'll drift endlessly, alone.
"Sure, Doc," he said, and took her offered hand with his injured right one, the bandage stark and white against her skin. "Let's take a walk."
The infirmary was dim and quiet, mostly deserted. John had a moment to hope that someone other than Keller might be on duty, at least allowing him to persist in denial for a little longer, when she appeared from behind a privacy screen.
"Oh! Colonel, Dr. Heightmeyer ... hello. I'm sorry. I didn't see you." She brushed down the front of her uniform, an apparently unconscious gesture, and John was surprised to realize she looked as uncomfortable and awkward as he himself felt.
"The Colonel had an accident in the gym," Kate said, and John found himself being subtly steered to an examination bed. Giving up on fighting the inevitable, he leaned against the edge of the bed and proffered his knuckles for examination.
Keller unwound the bandage with small, deft hands. Once she focused on her task, her nervousness dropped away and her movements became swift and sure. "Oh, Colonel, how long has it been this way? It looks like you've picked up an infection."
His knuckles looked even worse than they felt -- swollen and oozing small amounts of pus. He hadn't looked under the bandage; he'd been expecting pain, and hadn't thought it might have gotten worse. And yet, despite himself, a flippant answer rose to the surface. "Am I gonna live, Doc?"
She looked blank for an instant, then, hesitantly, returned his smile as she realized that he was joking. "Oh yes, and I think you'll even keep your hand." Her tone went lighter, matching his. "But you might not play the violin again."
"How 'bout piano?"
"Oh," she said, "you might be able to manage piano."
"You must be pretty good, then, 'cause I couldn't even play the piano before."
That startled a laugh out of her, and she shot a quick look at Kate, as if to say, Is he always like this?
Kate's returned, commiserating shrug said more than words could have. "That's a very old joke, Colonel," she added.
"Well, it's new to me," Keller said, briskly cleaning the cuts; the gauze pad and disinfectant felt more like steel wool and sulfuric acid. John realized that he was staring at her cleavage to distract himself from the discomfort, and hastily shifted his gaze to her face. Okay, yes, he could maybe deal with the fact that she wasn't Carson, but this whole female-doctor thing still might take a little getting used to.
"So, Doc," he said, and her eyes came up to his face; she paused for a moment in the torture session on his hand. "I'm not really sure how to ask you this, so I'll just come right out with it. Has Rodney been getting any drugs from you lately?"
"Rodney?" she repeated. "Which one?"
That left him utterly floored for a minute, until he remembered that they currently had a Sgt. Rodney Flores in Supply and a male nurse named Rodney something-or-other ... or had that one gone back on the Daedalus? He was just used to saying "Rodney" and having everyone around him know exactly who he was talking about. "Rodney McKay. Er, Dr. Rodney McKay."
Keller went back to her attentions to his knuckles. "To answer your question, no, not to the best of my knowledge. What sort of drugs were you wondering about?"
"Antidepressants. Maybe sleep aids or tranquilizers, something like that."
Her smooth forehead creased in a frown, and she looked up at him again. "I can check the records, but we keep a very close eye on our supplies of anything that might enter circulation on the black market, and I'm pretty sure that Dr. McKay is not among my patients who are currently taking those sorts of drugs. Why? Do you have reason to believe he might be getting them from somewhere else?"
John half-expected Kate to jump in, but she didn't say anything, merely left the ball in his court. He appreciated that; damn these people, anyway, rewarding his trust at every turn rather than snatching it away! They made themselves frustratingly difficult to dislike. He felt vaguely disloyal to Rodney, talking about him behind his back, but both women were professionals, and he was more than just a little worried now. He told them about the conversation in the cafeteria.
"Perhaps he's tired," Keller said. "You said he looked exhausted. It just sounds like fatigue to me."
First Elizabeth, now Keller ... and yeah, maybe he was the one who was wrong, but his Something is wrong with my team alarm was still jangling in the back of his head. "Look, I know what Rodney looks and acts like when he's tired, okay? This didn't feel right. Maybe if we'd been in the middle of an emergency for the last week, but we haven't."
"Well, I'll check my records and make sure the supplies match up to what we ought to have." Keller finished taping up his right hand and turned her attention to the left. "I'm also going to give you a short course of antibiotics, Colonel."
"Yeah, okay." John's mind was already turning over the "what's wrong with Rodney?" problem, and he wasn't liking any of the answers he came up with. Rodney had looked bad in the cafeteria -- gray-skinned and worn out, with a manic light in his eyes that John hadn't liked at all.
Granted, he himself hadn't looked all that fantastic in the mirror lately. Shit, John thought, looking ruefully down at his bandaged hands. We're a real messed-up bunch, aren't we?
Kate waited with him while Keller checked on the infirmary supplies. Coming back, she shook her head. "No, I even did a quick count. Nothing is missing and nothing's been given out." She handed John a bottle that presumably contained antibiotics; he took it without looking at it.
"John," Kate said, as he turned to leave, already plotting his itinerary in his head. "Where are you going?"
He looked over his shoulder, waffling between filing her under "ally" or "enemy" in his head. "To see Rodney," he said. "You gonna try to stop me?"
"No," she said. "I want to come with you."
Keller looked back and forth between them. "If this is a medical matter, maybe I'd better come, too."
John had not exactly intended to turn into the Pied Piper of the medical division; however, thinking about it, he had absolutely zero idea of what he was going to say to Rodney if he barged into his quarters, and maybe it would be a good idea having a couple of people along who were trained for dealing with this sort of thing.
They swung by the labs first. What John wanted to find was Rodney working late, wearing himself down in a fever of scientific discovery; it wasn't precisely healthy, but it was him. However, the labs were as deserted as the infirmary had been. The only people John saw were a couple of botanists working in the corner.
"Hey, either of you guys seen Rodney?"
They looked up; the short one (Dr. Gottstein, he was pretty sure) shook her head. "He hasn't been in here very much lately, Colonel. In fact, I don't recall seeing him today."
That didn't sound like Rodney at all. John's alarm bells jangled louder.
"Just today?" Kate asked. "Or has he had a lot of absences lately?"
"I hadn't really noticed..." Dr. Gottstein looked at her companion, who shrugged.
"The last week or two, I guess he's been in the labs a lot less than usual," the other woman added. "I couldn't tell you exactly how long, but I've certainly noticed. It's much easier to get work done without the boss looking over my shoulder."
As they left, John said, "Either one of you guys tell Rodney to stand down for medical reasons?"
Kate shook her head, and Keller said, "Nope."
"Rodney is the clinical definition of a workaholic," Kate said after a moment. "I'm not aware that he's ever missed work when he hasn't been out on a mission with your team or in the infirmary."
"And no one mentioned this?" That was what really pissed John off. Of course, he hadn't noticed a thing himself -- and right there, right there was the crux of it. He'd thought space was what Rodney needed. He'd thought space was what he needed. Now he wondered if he'd been wrong.
Rodney's quarters were only a few doors down from the labs, so there wasn't far to go. John touched Rodney's door chime a couple of times; there was no answer. Looking at the two women, he shrugged. "We go in? Doc, or Docs, I guess this is your area of expertise."
"I think there's adequate reason to suspect a medical emergency," Kate said, and looked at Keller, who got a moment's deer-in-the-headlights look before she nodded. The part of John that assessed people for combat readiness thought, She's got a lot of growing up to do out here, before he turned back to the door and squared his shoulders, hoping that this wouldn't turn out to be one of those growing-up experiences for her. Or any of them.
The door wasn't locked. It slid back on a dark room -- the lights were off, the room illuminated only by moonlight streaming through an open window, picking out a figure sprawled motionless and fully clothed on top of the bedcovers.
John's heart skipped a beat and he turned on the lights with a quick handwave. Keller actually beat him across the room and was kneeling next to Rodney on the bed before John got there.
"He's breathing," Keller said, and John's knees went weak with relief. She lightly slapped Rodney's cheeks before looking up at John. "He won't wake up."
"What's wrong with him?" John sat down on the edge of the bed. He was aware of Kate bending over him, but most of his attention was focused on Rodney.
"I'm not sure." Keller started to unzip the collar of Rodney's uniform shirt, and paused, startled. She slid her hand down the inside of his shirt and touched something attached to his neck. A cold lump froze the pit of John's stomach. He thought at first that there was some kind of organic creature burrowing into the soft skin under Rodney's collarbone, and a pulse of sympathetic pain went through the puckered scar on his own neck.
"What the hell is that thing?"
"It's some kind of Ancient technology." Keller pulled down Rodney's shirt collar as far as it would go, and then drew a small pair of scissors, hesitating only an instant before she snipped a jagged tear and peeled back the fabric. Now John could see an object not unlike a large iPod, taped to a shaved patch on the side of Rodney's chest, practically in his armpit. The wires were not directly connected to his neck, but rather to small attachment points that resembled earphone buds, enhancing the overall iPod impression.
"Have you ever seen anything like that, Colonel?"
John just shook his head, thinking What the hell? and How long has he been like this? and How could I not have NOTICED? But Teyla and Ronon and Elizabeth hadn't seen anything either. They'd all been lost in their own worlds, dealing with the damage in silence, oblivious to each other.
Carson was the glue holding us together, he thought, reaching out to touch the device without really thinking about it. Now we have to put ourselves back together.
Rodney didn't do a whole lot of talking in Sunset Atlantis anymore. He just liked to sit on the pier, or lie gazing up at the sky. His brain used to be a whirling, jagged maelstrom of thoughts, millions of thoughts bouncing off each other, probabilities calculated and discarded in an instant. Now it was just soft and fuzzy and kind of pleasant.
"I doubt this is healthy for you," Carson said, somewhere out of his line of sight.
"I'm not suicidal, if that's what you're worried about," Rodney said absently, staring up at the sky. He'd stopped wondering about the omnipresent lighting; in fact, he'd stopped wondering about much of anything.
"I know you're not, but if you spend too much time in here, your body might come to harm."
"I'm not worried." Rodney propped himself up on one elbow. "What about a chess game? Where's the chess set?"
"Over there." Carson pointed at their last half-finished game; they'd abandoned it in mid-game when they both lost interest. Some of the pieces had been knocked over and scattered, lying willy-nilly on the pier.
"Oh." Too far away to bother with. He thought about lying back down, but even that seemed like too much effort, so he just stayed propped on his elbow and let his gaze rest on the horizon.
"There's nothing in my programming to handle the situation of a person staying in the simulation as long as you have," Carson said, sounding concerned. "I think you should leave now."
With an effort, Rodney wrenched his gaze from the horizon to Carson. "I prefer it here. Think I'll stay."
"You've said you aren't suicidal, and my original scan indicates the truth of that, but without your attention, your body will waste away and die."
Rodney contemplated this, or tried to. He couldn't really get a grip on the thought; it kept slipping away. "I don't care," he said finally, and was a little surprised to find that it was true.
John yanked his hand back from the device, but not before his fingertips skimmed its surface, warm from Rodney's body heat. "What? Why?"
Keller was shaking her head. "We don't know what it does or how it works. If you accidentally disconnect him, you might hurt him."
John waved a half-frantic hand at Rodney: sallow-skinned and limp, the shallow movements of his chest the only indication that he was alive. "And it's not hurting him now?"
"It doesn't seem to be." Keller brushed a hand over Rodney's forehead. "His pulse is steady, breathing is good, temperature doesn't seem to be elevated. He's just deeply asleep."
"So how can disconnecting him hurt him?"
Keller looked helplessly at Kate, who lifted her shoulders in a little shrug. "Actually, I agree with the Colonel. It doesn't seem to be doing him any harm, and you said that his physical condition is normal, so I'm not sure what harm it could possibly do to unhook him."
Keller took a deep breath. "Well, I suppose you two have a lot more experience at dealing with the Pegasus Galaxy than I do. But I'd rather transfer him to the infirmary first, just in case something goes wrong."
Sunset Atlantis Carson had turned into a regular pest, Scottish accent and all. Rodney thought he probably should have been annoyed, but he couldn't seem to make the effort.
"Your friends will worry about you."
"Don't care," Rodney said, and whistled a tuneless melody, lying on his stomach with his chin on his arms.
"They will be hurt by your death."
"Don't care." Idly he poked at a chess piece and sent it rolling away until it turned a slow circle and stopped. Pretty, he thought.
Carson started pacing; his faint, omnidirectional shadow brushed Rodney as he walked back and forth. "I'm not programmed for this."
Carson stopped pacing and looked down at him. "I feel as if I've done you a great disservice."
"You didn't sound much like Carson that time," Rodney said, and giggled; it seemed funny, but he wasn't sure why.
The Carson simulation sat down so that it could look him in the eyes. "Rodney, nothing in my programming on Alteran culture indicates that anyone using this device should become dependent upon it the way you've done."
"I'm not Alteran."
"I've noticed," the simulation said dryly, and after a moment's pause, it went on in a thoughtful voice, the Scottish accent having all but vanished. "I believe that your people, for all their superficial similarities to us, are not much like my people -- that is, the ones who built me."
"Do tell," Rodney said, picking up a chess piece and toying with it for a moment before he lost interest and dropped it.
"Alterans prize emotional detachment as our highest value. We set great store on serving the community and the greater good before serving oneself -- or those that one loves, if it compromises the greater good. Love," he added, "is not an Alteran value."
Rodney snorted, folding his arms comfortably under his chin. "Hate to agree with the Ancients on anything, but I never thought much of it myself, either.."
The Carson simulation looked at him for a moment before saying, "I don't mean to imply that it was unknown to the Alterans, simply that we -- they -- do not uphold it as a virtue. Obviously it isn't unknown. My purpose is to cope with grief, and grief is usually a consquence of love."
This was treading too close to territory Rodney didn't want to think about. Luckily, he didn't care. "Blah blah blah," he said absently, rolling onto his back, and then suddenly he was looking at the ceiling of the infirmary; the shock was like having a dump truck of ice cubes dropped on top of him. For a minute, all he could do was gasp for air.
"Rodney?" said a voice he thought he ought to recognize, and somewhere an electronic beeping noise was going crazy. Then hands closed over his shoulders, and blond hair brushed his face. A woman's face hovered above his own, and he had no idea who she was.
"Dr. McKay, just calm down."
"Give it back," he gasped, as the steel bands around his chest relaxed enough that he could draw in a lungful of air. He wasn't entirely sure what was going on, but all he knew was that he'd been happy, and these people had taken it away. "Where is it? Give it back!"
"Settle down, Rodney," said the other voice, the male one, and a man's hands joined the woman's in holding him down.
Not listening, he closed his eyes, trying desperately to get back into Sunset Atlantis -- but it was gone. His eyes snapped open, and he glared at both of them, as if sheer hate could force them to bend to his will. He didn't know what was happening, couldn't get a grip on any of his thoughts -- everything was disjointed, blurred, and he couldn't seem to put together a coherent sentence to explain why he needed the device, needed it now. All he could manage was a childish "Give it to me!"
"We might need to restrain him," the woman said, and suddenly the words hit home, along with her name: Keller. And the other one: Sheppard. Colonel. John. The world made sense again; he just wished it didn't.
"No," he said, "no, no, I'm okay, don't do that, I'm fine," and the hands withdrew, though he could still feel the too-invasive touches like brands burned on his skin. He wrapped his arms around himself, becoming aware that he was shivering with cold. Someone tucked a blanket around his shoulders. He burrowed into it, not looking at them.
"What the hell is that thing, Rodney?" Sheppard's voice was wound tighter than a steel spring.
He dared to open his eyes, and the first thing he saw was the Ancient device, across the room, sitting on a table where someone had carelessly dropped it. His eyes were drawn to it as if it was the most important thing in the room; he wanted it desperately, and because of that, he was terrified of it.
"Take it away, get rid of it," he said, rapidly, his voice cracking because in a minute, if it stayed there, he knew he was going to reach for it and then they'd all see, they'd all know, how far he'd fallen, how dependent he'd become.
Someone else moved, the first time he'd realized that the three of them weren't the only people in the room. It was Kate Heightmeyer. She picked up the device and vanished out the door.
Blinking and looking around, Rodney saw that they were in the isolation room. He took a quick look up at the observation area, but as far as he could tell, they were not being watched.
"Your bloodwork showed highly elevated levels of endorphins and dopamine when we brought you in," Keller said, and he risked a glance at her -- she had her eyes on a tablet computer. Sheppard, however, was watching him; Rodney could see that out of the corner of his eye, but he couldn't return Sheppard's stare, not right now. "Right now, you're crashing from the ... for lack of a better word, the high you've been on."
"So this thing is ... what?" Sheppard said. "Some kind of fucked-up Ancient ... drug, or something?"
Rodney's face flamed and he looked back down at his hands. His thoughts were still jumbled and sluggish, his emotions ragged; he felt on the verge of bursting into tears and couldn't even articulate why.
"Dr. McKay told you he was taking antidepressants, didn't he, Colonel? I think that's exactly what this is," Keller said, her voice soft and gentle. "Dr. McKay, is that right?"
For some reason it felt wrong that she should be using his title, not his name. He was her patient, wasn't he? Desperately, he longed for Carson, but Carson was gone, dead -- that was the whole cause of the mess, after all. "Yes," Rodney said shortly, not wanting to strip himself bare in front of them by telling them what else it did. All he could think was that he'd been a fool -- he wasn't even sure how long he'd been hooked up to the device; the past few days were a blur of vague, squirm-inducing memories.
"But it didn't work as advertised," Sheppard said, and fury curled under the words. Rodney wasn't sure if it was directed at him or at the Ancients who'd built it, or both.
"Apparently not." One of Keller's small hands rested on his back. He couldn't stifle a flinch. "Is there anything you need? Are you hungry? Thirsty?"
His stomach twisted at the thought of food, but his throat was so dry that swallowing hurt. "Water," he said.
Something sloshed, and her warm hand curled around his cold one, settling his fingers on a paper cup. He sipped from it as the door opened and closed again quietly. Risking a peek, he saw that Kate Heightmeyer had come back into the room.
But Kate walked briskly over to Keller, and tapped her lightly on the shoulder. "Jennifer, I'd like to talk to you outside for a minute, if I could?"
Keller looked surprised, then glanced at Sheppard and Rodney, and nodded. As she started to follow the psychiatrist out of the room, Rodney suddenly realized that this meant she was about to leave him alone with a pissed-off Sheppard. "Hey, wait --" he began, but the door closed behind them, cutting off his protests.
Silence fell. Rodney finished the paper cup of water, only then noticing that he had some sort of monitor clipped to one of his fingers, and some sticky little pads with wires on them tugged annoyingly on his chest hair. Also, his shirt had been slit down the front. Stupid doctors, no regard for personal space at all. He unclipped himself and yanked off the sticky pads with tiny, oddly satisfying twinges of pain.
He couldn't ever remember being this depressed in his life. It was like someone had stripped out all his internal organs and replaced them with a yawning black pit. Intellectually, he knew that he'd been high on various chemicals for weeks, and this was probably the physical effect of dopamine withdrawal. But he'd been depressed even before; he had no idea how the hell he was going to get over this, or how long it was going to take him (not very long, he imagined) before he went back to Keller and Heightmeyer, and begged to know where they'd taken the Ancient device.
Sheppard cleared his throat. "Rodney," he began.
And the last thing he needed was a lecture from Colonel "Cool as an Icecube" Sheppard. "Yes, yes, I'll save you the trouble," he snapped, yanking off the last monitor lead and crumpling it into a sticky wad. "I screwed up, I violated procedure in about fifteen different ways, and I'm about as fucked up at the moment as it's possible to get --" damn it, the conversation wasn't supposed to go in that direction; his voice wavered "-- and no, I probably haven't learned my lesson, and, let's see, what else --" but his throat had closed up, so he pretended to take a drink from the empty cup to avoid having to say anything else, because he was pretty sure that if he opened his mouth, the only thing that would come out would be a sob. He wanted to be alone.
Sheppard moved so quietly that Rodney didn't even know he'd done so until the bed dipped under his weight. Then, to Rodney's shock, all that happened was that Sheppard leaned gently into him -- a hard, pointy shoulder making contact with his, and pressing lightly. Sheppard was warm. After sitting for a moment in stiff-frozen surprise, Rodney very slowly, very cautiously leaned a little of his own weight against Sheppard.
After a moment or two of this, when Sheppard didn't say anything, Rodney risked a sideways glance at him. Sheppard was staring down at his hands, resting on his lap -- both of them bandaged with fresh white gauze. Oh. Right. Rodney had forgotten about that -- he'd forgotten a lot -- and he looked slowly from the bandaged knuckles, telling their own silent story, to the bruised-looking skin around Sheppard's eyes, the fine lines of fatigue creasing his mouth. And Rodney felt like crap for a whole different reason.
The thought had never even occurred to him that he might not be the only person having trouble dealing with Carson's death.
He cleared his throat softly, saw Sheppard's eyes flicker towards him and away. "That device, um ..." Shame still squirmed in the pit of his belly; he forced the words out. "It was supposed to ... to help a person, um, get over grief, by -- by letting them talk to dead people."
He wasn't sure what he expected -- surprise or anger or mocking laughter. Instead, Sheppard just kept staring at his hands. Finally he said, very quietly, "Did it?"
Rodney felt his mouth twist in a small unhappy smile. "No," he said. "It only made me think it did."
Sheppard's head moved a little, inclining in a slow nod. Then he reached over, one of his bandaged hands closing over Rodney's and giving it a small squeeze; and while Rodney was still processing this, Sheppard slid forward off the bed and stood up. When he turned to meet Rodney's eyes, he was smiling -- a pallid shadow of his usual smile, but a genuine smile nonetheless. "Keller probably needs to clear you to leave," he said, "but you want to get a bite to eat when she's done?"
Rodney turned that over with his still-sluggish brain. He could tell he was hungry, but mostly he was just achingly, deeply tired, physically and emotionally. All he really wanted to do was curl up in a ball in the dark and shut the world away.
Which was basically what he'd done for the last few weeks, and look how that had worked out.
He raised his head, looking up at Sheppard: an exhausted and uncharacteristically wilted Sheppard, with his bandaged hands, and his boyish face marred by grief and pain.
"I think maybe ..." he said, picking over his words with more care than he normally took. "I think I heard the new season of Doctor Who is up on the science department server. Maybe we could pick up something from the cafeteria, see if one of the rec rooms is free."
Something in Sheppard lit up just a little; he looked less beaten down, and Rodney didn't know why, but that made a little of the darkness inside him evaporate, too. Maybe he could beat this, after all, without recourse to drugs or alien technology.
"Should I call Teyla and Ronon?" Sheppard asked, and it was a genuine question, if obliquely phrased -- can you handle the company, or just me?
Again, Rodney had to let his glacial brain mull the thought over for a minute before he could dredge up a response; he wondered offhandedly if this was what it felt like when other people tried to think. "Maybe tomorrow?" he offered. He could only give so much at once.
Sheppard's smile turned sly. "Well, if it's just going to be us, I've been dying to see the Simpsons movie, and I know who's got the bootleg. This way we won't have to explain most of the jokes to Ronon and Teyla."
Rodney's jaw dropped. This was the thanks he got for being unselfish? "I can't believe you want to watch that drivel! More to the point, I can't believe you want to make me watch that drivel."
The tenseness in Sheppard's shoulders relaxed a little more; he was almost back to his usual slouch. "Says the guy who made me sit through all the seasons of Batman."
"It's a classic," Rodney protested.
"So is Homer Simpson."
"Philistine," Rodney muttered, sliding down off the bed. He staggered a little, getting his feet under him; a hand to his elbow steadied him. Sheppard kept his hand there as they went to find Keller, and for once in his life, Rodney didn't try to pull away.
The plot for this story came about in a series of LJ comments with susnn about "Sunday". I still owed her a ficathon story, but was having trouble with the prompt she'd given me. I can't find the discussion at the moment to get the exact wording, but she'd brought up the idea that the strangeness of the Carson/Rodney goodbye scene at the end was due to it taking place in VR, and that perhaps Rodney finds a device that allows him to talk to Carson, and then gets addicted to it. So I asked if I could write that one instead of the other one, and I've been working on it for *cough* well, when did "Sunday" air, anyway? A long darn time.
The line I borrowed from NotTasha is from her wonderful story Bee in the Bonnet -- "God, this must be what normal people feel like when they try to think" is the original. I have loved that line to bits ever since I read it; it's just such an utterly brilliant Rodney line, and when I was writing that final scene I asked her if she minded if I used it. Her phrasing is better; mine's just a pallid imitation, but it felt *right* for Rodney in that scene. Thank you, NT!