Title: What Lies Beneath - posted Dec. 8, 2005
Author: Lacey McBain
Fandom:  Stargate Atlantis
Pairing: PG.  Sheppard/McKay (just a hint)
Word Count: ~4800
Summary: John realizes he doesn't have all the information about what happened to Rodney.
Notes: Spoilers through "The Hive" including some dialogue from the episode.   Follow-up to Tell Me Lies.

What Lies Beneath

“You lied to me.”

Rodney’s barely awake, but he can still make out Sheppard’s outline against the moon-bright window. He doesn’t remember hearing the door open, is positive he’d set the privacy lock to avoid exactly this kind of thing, and silently curses Sheppard’s Ancient gene that lets him go anywhere and do anything he pleases. Atlantis opens up for him quicker than a ten-dollar whore.

Rodney rolls onto his back and thinks about surrender. He would never have been one of those guys fighting to the death at the Alamo—no, he would’ve been the one waving the white flag as soon as he could dig out a handkerchief, because last stands aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Rodney thinks John grew up watching too many westerns and war movies, and he’s sick of watching him die, but he doesn’t know how to tell him that without giving everything away.

“You lied to me. You stood there and lied, and I want to know why.”

He thinks he sees Sheppard’s hand stray towards the light, and Rodney says “no” and “please” like he thinks Sheppard will listen to him. He’s been living with the lights off since he got back. Too long underground in Ford’s secret lair, away from sunlight and warmth, and he doesn’t want anyone to look too closely. See him clearly.

He’s happier hiding, at least for a while, and he’ll take every moment he can get. He’s said and done too many things he can’t quite remember and can’t honestly forget, and he’s got a bad feeling they’re all about to catch-up with him like a pack of starving dogs. He can hear the angry howls, shards of sentences that scrape away his skin and leave him raw. Exposed. There’s a pain in his head that just won’t go away.

Sheppard leaves the light off. “You owe me an explanation.”

Rodney thought he’d have more time to sort this out. To lick his wounds. To put his monstrous ego back together and pretend it doesn’t sting that none of what he did mattered. To anyone. He’s heard Carson and Elizabeth murmuring about him in quiet, concerned tones. Even Caldwell kept looking at him like he was going to drop any moment on the Daedelus, and Major Lorne had stood beside him and laid a hand on his arm when it was clear nothing had survived the hive ships’ explosion. He isn’t ready to talk about this with John who’s just back from the dead and high on his own immortality. Rodney’s still digging his way out from underground.

A thin finger prods his chest, and Rodney doesn’t remember seeing John move, but he’s dog-tired and he’s sure that’s all there is to it. Besides, John’s always perfectly silent when he wants to be, black and sleek as a stealth fighter, and Rodney appreciates it on missions, but not so much when it’s the middle of the night and he’s the object of surveillance.

“Get the hell out of my room,” he says, going for righteously put-upon and ending up with sleep-deprived and cranky, and John’s face is lost in shadow and the too-pale hand against Rodney’s chest looks strange in the moonlight. Fingers too long and the nails feel sharp, as if John’s been honing them to a point. Rodney’s breath stutters in his chest at the tiny press of pain that blossoms in his lungs.

“Tell me why you lied.”

“Tell me why it matters.”

Rodney’s always given back as much as he gets from Sheppard, has never needed to mince words or work at being polite. John’s never cared that he isn’t polished or politically correct, as long as he’s honest. That’s been the cornerstone of this friendship so far, and Rodney’s always known he’d be the one to screw it up. It’s just the way he is.

But he can’t tell the truth about this one, not yet, and really it wouldn’t make any difference. No one really needs to hear about his twenty-four hour marathon of humiliation, his slide from insane to idiotic and everything in between, and the worst of it was that he didn’t even have anything coherent to offer, nothing to get the rescue underway any sooner. A wasted effort.

“You’re a liar, McKay. I can see it in your eyes. But you’re going to tell me what you did, and I’m not leaving till you do.”

Rodney’s hands tremble whenever he thinks about it: the way his blood hummed with unimagined strength. He saw it in Teyla and Ronon’s faces too—desire for something they never knew they wanted until it was taken away—and he’s the same. He still wants it. Would take it if it were offered because it was good to be strong, unafraid, if only for a moment. He wonders if that’s what it feels like to be Sheppard. Alive and humming and so goddamned brave there’s no room for doubt. The universe kneeling at your feet, galaxies moving aside like the Red Sea for Moses, and Death stepping out for a coffee break because he knows there’s no point in even trying. You’re invulnerable and the universe wouldn’t dare try to prove otherwise.

Rodney thought he knew what it felt like to be invulnerable, but he supposes that was just a lie too.

He feels the bed dip beside him. The pressure on his chest is still there, but Rodney closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to look. He wishes Sheppard would get the hell out of his room. Or say something that doesn’t sound like an accusation, an interrogation. But then, maybe that’s not a good idea either, and Rodney wonders how long Sheppard will stay there, touching him, watching him, waiting for him to break.

This is fun for you, isn’t it? Watching me like this?

Rodney isn’t sure which of them has said the words, but they’re there. In his mind, in the room, they’re as clear as if they’re written on the wall. He doesn’t remember a lot about that night, but he can recall in perfect detail the moment Carson’s eyes went wide with hurt. Accent heavier than normal, the way it gets when he’s flustered or caught off-guard. Rodney wants to forget those long hours when he said God-only-knows-what while the enzyme was pulsing through his body. He knows the room wasn’t bathed in red light, but somehow that’s the way he remembers it. Hazy and breathless, the orange-red glow of a perfect sunset washing over everything. He tries to forget the enzyme in the bottle was that same beautiful colour.

He feels ashamed although he doesn’t remember what he said. Mostly.

“Carson shouldn’t have told you anything, Colonel. It’s not his place. It was—my mistake. My decision.”

“And the world always revolves around you, doesn’t it? Maybe Carson didn’t tell me anything at all.”

Rodney wishes Carson would get angry at him. Tell him he was wrong, wrong, wrong, and a fucking bastard to boot, but Carson’s being careful with him, too gentle, and Rodney can’t stand it any more. No one’s ever treated him like that before. Like he did something worth being proud of. Like they’re afraid he’s going to break.

You’re jealous of how I get to go off-world and you get stuck in this stupid, pathetic excuse for a hospital. Jealous because I get all the women and you don’t.

Rodney hasn’t been with a woman—with anyone—in months and he’s damn sure Carson knows it. Even though Rodney makes a show of pestering Carson for condoms just to see him blush, Beckett was there for the disastrous date with Katie Brown, and it doesn’t take a genius to see Rodney’s not Atlantis’s answer to Casanova, even with Lieutenant Cadman feeding him lines. He’s kissed exactly two people since stepping through the stargate to Atlantis and he doesn’t remember either kiss except as a second-hand observer in his own body. The unfairness of it seems oddly appropriate.

“If Carson didn’t tell you—”

“There are other ways, McKay.”

The fingers on his chest are massaging now, a heartbeat rhythm, and Rodney doesn’t know why but it’s right that it hurts a little, that Sheppard’s hurting him. Rodney’s tried to keep things from him, but it never works, and this is the proof. The burning in his chest, the certainty that Sheppard knows everything he’s done. Every lie he’s told—even the ones Rodney’s never admitted out loud.

Well, almost never.

“There’s no point lying anymore. You think I don’t know what you are?”

Words come back to him in small bursts like the unexpected tang of candies on his tongue, but every one is lemon and he feels his throat swell and his eyes start to water with the memories. He chokes them back, but the bitter aftertaste remains. Words he can’t deny are his, although he wishes he could pretend.

You’re jealous, jealous of how vital I am to this mission. Vital, vital.

Rodney’s never felt less vital in his life than when he walked into the infirmary to find Sheppard and the others alive and well. He’s happy, thrilled, obscenely grateful, but the reality is they didn’t need him—not at all—and every sacrifice he made was for nothing.

“So vital,” Sheppard whispers. “So vital we didn’t need you. Didn’t even notice you weren’t along. We rescued ourselves—no thanks to you.”

Oh, God, just kill me.

He remembers saying it, remembers the whine of his own voice: pathetic and desperate. Carson told him it would pass, it would get better, but Carson’s a worse liar than Rodney and he’d known it was going to get worse. If Rodney could’ve reached the surgical instruments, he would’ve done it himself—sliced open his wrists and watched the blood pour out, red as enzyme. He knows this. He finally understands Gaul’s bullet to the head. The reason someone would end it all. And he gets why Carson tied him down. He isn’t entirely sure that he’s grateful, but he supposes he ought to be.

“Always taking the easy way out, McKay. Lying to save yourself.”

Rodney knows there isn’t a damn thing that’s easy about lying. To anyone.

“Do you think I don’t know you’re lying?”

Rodney’s breakdowns have always been incremental. The result of too little food or too little sleep, and everyone’s more or less used to watching frustration ratchet up to anger, anger giving way to panic and something closer to mania. But this time was no slow loss of control, pieces breaking and falling off a crumbling foundation. The enzyme was implosion and explosion and Rodney’s own personal Big Bang.

He only has vague recollections of marine-green and hospital-white and his own helpless laughter that was so far from appropriate he’s pretty sure he made the marines blush. He’s grateful Carson shuffled him off to a private room, kept everyone out, including Elizabeth. Carson sent them all away at some point. Sometime after Rodney started screaming like the victim in an old-fashioned horror movie, and hopefully before he started offering blowjobs in exchange for the enzyme. He remembers leering in Carson’s blush-bright face, promising he could make it worthwhile. That he knew exactly what he was doing. Maybe it isn’t a lie, but Carson doesn’t need to know that. Not ever.

“A liar and a slut. Take the edge off. I hear you were begging for it. Begging.”

The hand squeezes tighter, and Rodney gets that he’s being punished for having these thoughts. For wanting something he can never have. Someone he doesn’t deserve. He understands how the universe works, why galaxies are born and die, how there are immutable laws that can be depended upon.

Everybody lies. Love hurts. There are no happy endings.

“Just give me a little enzyme. Just enough to take the edge off. I’m dying here.”

Only Carson is supposed to know the dirty secrets he spilled, the pleading, the way he cried like he hasn’t in years. The promises of dirty, desperate sex in exchange for just a tiny taste, and Rodney can almost remember the stream of filthy things he said. He isn’t sure he’s ever talked like that in his life—not drunk, not high, not ever, but he would’ve done anything, anything at that moment, and he’d wanted Carson to be absolutely clear on that. There’d been no mistaking exactly what Rodney was prepared to do.

He wishes he could wipe his mind clean. He feels dirty, like the shame’s so deep he’ll never be able to wash it away. It’s under his skin. In his blood. The nails poking through his skin can feel it, Rodney thinks. Somehow John knows exactly what he is.

He would’ve sold his soul for a break in the pain, would’ve grabbed the needle he imagined he saw Carson hiding from him, bright with the addictive orange glow. He would’ve pushed it into his arm without hesitation, if he could’ve gotten his hands free.

But Carson wasn’t naïve or stupid and the restraints hadn’t been there for show. Rodney has the blue-black bruises around his wrists and ankles as proof. Every time he sees them, he wants to apologize. Again. But there are only so many times he can do that, and Rodney’s not the only one who wants to pretend nothing happened.

“You can’t pretend forever, McKay. There are records. Evidence. Cameras. Medical reports. I’ll see it all. I’ll know what you are. What you want. What you did.”

Sheppard’s like a dog on a scent, and Rodney can feel him pushing, pushing, the pressure on his chest making it hard to draw a breath. But Rodney can’t take it back. Any of it. The total humiliation, the willingness to prostitute himself for drugs, isn’t even the worst part. After the pain had become a constant red-burn and the tremors made him throw-up and throw-up until he was empty and gaping, Rodney remembers being stripped to his core. Helpless and lonely and hurting, too wounded to try to hide anything, and the only way he got through the night was by rolling one word over and over in his mouth.

One secret he promised he’d never tell. And Carson was there to hear it, but thank God he was the only one.

John. John. John. John. John.

“And finally, the truth.”

Rodney’s aware that Sheppard’s hand is crushing his chest and it hurts. Christ, it hurts, long fingers piercing his t-shirt like knives. John’s grip tightens painfully, and Rodney thinks there are claws tearing through his skin, cupping his pulsing heart. The pounding in his ears is the loudest it’s ever been and he knows if he opens his eyes again, he’ll see his heart in Sheppard’s hand, blood dripping from his fingers.

And it makes perfect sense. He deserves this.

This is the truth.


“What the hell happened?” Carson says, already shoving his stethoscope in his ears and listening for a heartbeat as John hoists Rodney onto the nearest bed. He’d thrown Rodney over his shoulder and into the nearest transporter, radioing for Carson to meet him in the infirmary.

“I went to his quarters to see how he was doing, and when there was no answer, I got worried.” John doesn’t explain that it was the privacy lock that did it. Rodney hasn’t locked him out in the entire time they’ve been friends, and John took it as a sign that something was seriously wrong. He doesn’t say that he could hear Rodney calling his name. “By the time I got past the privacy lock, he was totally non-responsive. It was as if he didn’t even see me.”

“Aye, he probably didn’t.” Carson’s flashing a penlight in front of Rodney’s pupils and even John can see there’s no dilation.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Could be a delayed reaction to the enzyme in his system. Or one of the other drugs I gave him to counteract it.”

Carson’s night staff is scurrying around, getting Rodney on oxygen, cutting open his t-shirt and setting up the heart monitor. Even a few feet away, John can tell Rodney’s breathing is shaky. His skin was clammy when John found him, his shirt damp with sweat.

John feels helpless. This isn’t his area, and he doesn’t want to get in Carson’s way, but he needs to help. To do something.

“Should I check on Ronon and Teyla? Could they be having some kind of—”

“Not likely. Rodney’s got allergies that complicate his recovery, not to mention the enzyme dose he took was nearly fatal.” Carson’s drawing blood and ordering someone to bring him an injection of something with a lot of syllables, and John doesn’t quite catch the name. He’s too busy processing what Carson said.

“What? What do you mean? He was taking way less than Ronon and Teyla on the planet. He shouldn’t have—”

Carson’s pushing a needle into Rodney’s vein, pressing the stethoscope against Rodney’s chest again and gesturing at John to sit. Over there. Out of the way. He’ll get an explanation when Carson has one to give.

John sits back and it takes every ounce of patience to be quiet until Carson’s got a moment. He concentrates on what he knows. Assessing the situation like he would for battle, and it suddenly occurs to him he’s missing a lot of vital information. He’d been so concerned about the troops on the board—Ronan and Teyla and Ford. The Wraith and their hive ships and the new knowledge that they had humans who were willing to work for them. Worship them. He’d been caught up with the thrill of being alive, walking back into Atlantis with the sun shining on the water and the news that McKay was home too. They’d all made it back—unscathed—and that felt like victory. He was so busy bringing everyone up to speed on things, he hadn’t really thought about what anyone else had been doing. What Rodney had gone through.

Rodney looks terrible, pale and trembling, and he’s muttering into the oxygen mask, a constant stream of words that don’t make any sense. When John was carrying him, he’d been babbling too, but nothing more than a few words and if John thought he heard his name, it might’ve just been his ears playing tricks on him.

He wishes he’d pushed him to talk earlier. In the corridor. He’d known Rodney was avoiding something, and John was riding high on pulling another miracle out of his ass, and he’d known McKay would be around later. Hell, they all would. There would be time to get out of him whatever he was hiding. Time to tease it out slowly with coffee and chocolate and a lazy evening of doing nothing much. Elizabeth would make sure they got some downtime—they’d damn well earned it. John had already thought about what he’d do. Planned it in his head while he’d stretched out on the cold floor of the hive ship, when he’d woken from dreams of clowns with pale blue skin.

He’d stop by Rodney’s room and invite himself in, just as he’d done a hundred times. They had a sort of come-and-go freedom with each other’s quarters, and though they didn’t have that much free time, somehow they seemed to end up spending it together. He’d have to take McKay’s laptop away, kick it under the bed when Rodney wasn’t looking, or else he’d keep drifting back to it. Poking at some equation or other all evening. John would bring out the cards or maybe they’d just talk, but it would be easy and he wouldn’t have to think about what he said. The words would tumble out the way they always did. He could turn off his own filter with McKay. It was kind of liberating to be able to say whatever he wanted, knowing it would be heard in the spirit it was meant.

It made him brave. And maybe more than a little foolish.

Rodney’s heart rate spikes suddenly, the high-pitched beeps cutting through John’s thoughts, and he’s on his feet and beside the bed before he can think. One of the nurses tugs him back, but not before John gets a hand on Rodney’s trembling arm. He squeezes and says, “Come on, McKay. Hang in there,” before he’s jostled aside and Carson’s setting up an IV drip.

“Carson, what’s wrong with him?” John asks when Rodney seems stable, nurses drifting off to keep an eye on other patients in the infirmary.

Carson looks tired, and he rubs at his eyes before he considers an answer. “I really wish he would’ve told you. I know you’ve probably not had much time to talk, but—”

“What did he do?”

The missing pieces are falling into place and it occurs to John that no one’s told him anything about Rodney’s return. No details, anyway, and if he’d been paying attention, he would’ve realized that sooner. Even Rodney let him supply the story. Let him build it around his own—incorrect—assumptions.

Carson falls into the chair beside John and shakes his head. “Gave us a hell of a fright, is what he did.”

John knows how careful Carson is about confidentiality, but they’ve been living in a war zone for a year and Carson’s learned how to give information without giving things away. So when he says “Rodney took a wee bit of enzyme to fortify his courage,” John knows Rodney’s blood was racing with it, and he wonders what happened to the guards left behind. He frowns when he realizes he can see bruises on Rodney’s knuckles, ugly bands of mottled purple around his wrists, and he knows those marks because he’s had them himself—when the retrovirus was turning his body against him, and the doctor had no choice but to tie him down for his own good. Carson doesn’t use them unless he absolutely has to.

John sits back and lets him talk, and for the first time he realizes Carson deals with a hell of a lot from all of them. More than mending their bones and their bodies. Maybe John hasn’t been paying enough attention to anyone.

“It was a wee bit like being in The Exorcist,” Carson says, and John knows exactly what that means. Hours and hours of Rodney, unfiltered, unable to stop from saying every stupid, paranoid, insecure, hurtful, painful thing that crossed his confused mind. No wonder Carson sent everyone away. John wonders if he would’ve been strong enough to be there for Rodney. To listen to every thought usually buried deep inside. To take it all and let it go, pretend it was just the enzyme talking and not Rodney’s fear. Insecurity. Pain.

“It was touch and go,” Carson says, and John knows they probably came close to losing Rodney more than once. “I think he kept going on sheer force of will to be honest.”

If there’s one thing John knows for certain, it’s that Rodney McKay’s personality is just as overwhelming as the man’s brain. There isn’t anything about him that isn’t larger than life, and John’s learned to roll with the tidal wave that is McKay. John’s always been good at catching the waves and staying afloat. He’s always liked the challenge. The danger inherent with that kind of force of nature.

“He was afraid for you, John. For all of you, and he couldn’t stand by and do nothing while you might be dying.”

“He could’ve died.”

“Aye, but I think he considered you,” Carson meets his eyes and doesn’t look away, “worth the risk.” A big hand claps John on the shoulder and Carson tells him to get some sleep.

John stays in the infirmary long after Rodney’s breathing has evened out and his blood pressure has settled. The chair scrapes along the tile floor as he drags it closer to the bed, and he reaches out to touch Rodney’s arm. There’s bruising in the soft skin of his elbow from previous injections and John wishes it wasn’t insane to place a kiss right there. A wish to make the hurt go away.

John traces the bruises on Rodney’s wrist, letting his fingers linger against the rapidly beating pulse. It tells him Rodney’s alive. Battered, but alive, and it’s another kind of miracle. One John didn’t know he needed to be grateful for, but he is.

“You should have told me the truth,” he whispers, letting one hand reach up to brush a wisp of hair off Rodney’s forehead, and he can’t help but smile at the irony of it all because he’s got his own secrets. The truths he hasn’t told. Rodney would call him a hypocrite if he knew.

There’s a sound beneath the oxygen mask, and John’s looking up into blue eyes, a little wild and still not quite focused, but better. Closer to Rodney.

“John.” It’s a wet murmur, but it’s recognizable, and John tugs at the oxygen mask because Carson had said Rodney could take it off whenever he woke up. It’s only now that John realizes Carson knew he wouldn’t leave. That he’d still be here when Rodney woke up. Carson knows them both surprisingly well. Or maybe it shouldn’t be surprising at all.

Rodney takes a deep breath and another, and John doesn’t say anything, but he wraps his fingers around Rodney’s hand and waits for him to speak. Rodney’s looking at him like he isn’t quite sure John’s real, so he gives him a small squeeze and the blue eyes look confused, but not unhappy, and it’s enough to give John hope.

“You scared me,” John says. It’s a whisper and it wasn’t at all what he planned to say—something carefree and smart-ass that would let Rodney know everything was the same as usual. Except it isn’t because they’ve never sat like this before, never touched like this, and John can feel the need for it whispering under his skin.

“You scared me too.” A raw almost-laugh and John knows he doesn’t quite get the joke, but Rodney blinks it away like it’s a dream and the blue eyes look clearer and more alert. Rodney looks at him like he doesn’t quite understand what John’s doing here, and John unfolds Rodney’s fingers and brings the hand up to his cheek. Lays Rodney’s fingers flat against his face.

“I’m real. I’m not going anywhere.” John doesn’t know why, but it seems important because Rodney was moaning like someone was ripping his heart out when John found him, and he wants Rodney to know there’s no chance of that happening here. Not if he can stop it.


John smiles at that. Everything’s an argument with McKay, and it’s strange to have him give in this easily, but maybe John’s actually gotten through his thick skull or maybe he’s just too tired to fight. John shadows Rodney’s hand, the one against his face, and presses a kiss lightly into his palm.

“No more lies. Even if you think it’s what I want to hear.”

“Everybody lies.” Rodney looks away, tries to tug his hand back, but John’s not letting go. He’s gone this far.

“You don’t have to. Not anymore. Not with me.”

"But none of it matters," and Rodney's voice is devastatingly soft, and John feels his heart breaking a little. "It didn't make a difference."

"It matters. It makes a difference. To me."

Rodney’s eyes are wide. This is uncharted territory. Things they’re not supposed to talk about—like the way they sometimes sit closer than absolutely necessary, sprawled on Rodney’s bed, or that John is surprisingly ticklish behind his knees and on the bottom of his feet, and that Rodney wrestled in high school and can still pin John to the mat without a lot of trouble. Of course, John doesn’t resist that much.

“There are things you don’t know. Secrets.”

“You suck at lying,” John says, and it’s the truth. Rodney’s mouth lifts at the corners. Slightly.

“John, there are things about me, things you might not want to—”

“I want it all.”

It’s a small movement to rise out of the chair, though John’s legs are shaking like he’s run a marathon. He leans in and kisses Rodney, presses him back against the pillow with a kiss that’s firm, but not demanding. John’s just telling it like it is. He’s here and he wants this—secrets and lies and all the dead weight they’re both carrying inside. He’s not hesitating anymore. He’s 37 years old and for the first time in a long time he knows exactly what he wants. This doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be the simplest thing they’ve ever done.

He puts all of that into kissing Rodney and when he pulls back he thinks, just maybe, he’s made his point.


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