What Really Matters

by darsynia

Notes: First posted for the 'not dead yet' challenge at sga_flashfic. Written 3/15/08.

They were almost to the stairs that led to the gate when McKay's hologram stopped, looking behind them for a moment as though he'd forgotten something, or maybe looking for an audience that wasn't, couldn't be there.

"Hey, um..." Rodney twisted his hands in front of him as he spoke, and John had an odd moment of seeing 'his' Rodney reflected in the older version. It wasn't as comforting as he'd thought it would be. It just looked wrong, and it struck John again that this whole plan was completely unfair to Rodney, who'd gone through hell but had managed to have a whole life away from the Wraith. He'd gotten the girl, he'd gotten out—even though he'd taken it all with him, essentially—but he looked like he'd had a chance to live his life untouched by fear. This older version of McKay had a calmness to him that Rodney never had, and it really kind of hurt to think of taking that away.

"Look, Rodney," John started, looking down, his throat dry from more than just the knowledge that they were a bubble of atmosphere in a wrongly topaz sea.

Rodney nodded at him with a weak smile and reached out an old hand to hover just above John's shoulder, as if he'd have squeezed it if he could. It felt like goodbye, and John pulled his head up to look into McKay's eyes, seeing the resignation there and wondering just how much of himself Rodney had poured into this program. How much of that self would he destroy by walking back through the gate?

"I know—you don't have much time," McKay said—and, no, no, he thought John was in a hurry. John opened his mouth to object that, no, in fact he was having more second thoughts, but Rodney's next words cut him off. "This is... okay, really stupid, and totally not mission report worthy, but if you could tell me—that is, the younger version of myself—that I don't actually..." he broke off and brushed a hand over his face. "I keep worrying I'm going to lose my hair," he finally said, a hint of the brilliant smile John hadn't even realized he'd missed so much peeking out through the wrinkles. "It'd be nice to stop fussing over that."

It was exactly the motivation he'd needed to say goodbye, a perfect reminder of who he was trying to save, and why. John grinned back, and said, 'C'mon' as he started down the stairs.

"No time." McKay shook his head. "You should run."

"I won't say 'so long' this time, Rodney," John shouted over his shoulder as he started to do just that, taking the stairs two at a time.

"You just did!" Rodney shot back, but he was laughing, and that was the last thing John heard before he skidded through the event horizon.

The awful briefing was over, and as much as John wanted to sleep—as much as Keller wanted him back in the infirmary—he really, really needed this. He'd avoided looking out the windows in order to make it that much more meaningful, and the fact that they were gloriously not tinged with reflected gold from miles of sand in every direction had helped stave off the impulse to look anyway. Colonel Carter was under the impression he'd run off to brood, Ronon had seemed to understand, and McKay—well, he didn't know what he thought, as he hadn't glanced at Rodney before he'd left the room and started jogging toward the south pier. Rodney hadn't called out to stop him, though, which meant that when he rounded a corner and ran into McKay leaning against the wall trying to look casual, he wasn't all that surprised. He was thirsty, and he was kind of wishing he'd taken the doc up on her offer of painkillers—but he wasn't surprised.

"I would have thought your stroll through a sandstorm might have filled your quota of self-inflicted physical abuse for the week," Rodney said, though his voice held more concern than sarcasm.

"Should I even ask how you knew where I'd be?" John managed, back bowed, hands on his thighs as he panted for breath. It was possible that his dash down the corridors was a bit much after what he'd been through... He was grateful when Rodney (who remained every bit the genius John had always known he was) handed him a bottle of water he pulled from a pocket.

"Your fanatical avoidance of the windows coupled with your descriptions of the city surrounded by sand dunes, perhaps? As well as your headlong run in the direction of—oh, look, a pier." Rodney said, gesturing to the nearby door. He tipped his head to the side and looked at John strangely. "Though, I have to say, you never struck me as the type to go for delayed gratification." Hearing that from someone who saw it as his god-given right to drink eleven cups of coffee a day was a little much for John.

"Rodney, you wouldn't know delayed gratification if it—" He broke off when the other man started glaring; John's grin faltered a little. "You know what? Never mind."

"Hmm, yes. Well, don't let me keep you." Rodney moved away from the door that led outside and gestured toward it as he backed up.

"Come with me," John said impulsively. "Are there whales on this planet?" He wanted to see the smile he'd glimpsed on the older McKay, the one that had persuaded him that coming back was the right choice.

"We're not sure, yet," Rodney began, and John recognized the tone of voice as 'the beginning of a long, one-sided conversation,' but McKay had fallen silent, and John's attention was drawn elsewhere.

The water sparkled, sinfully blue and lush and everything the desert of its possible future was not. They walked out very near to the edge of the pier and John turned in a tight circle, taking in the rich blue expanse, not even bothering to shade his eyes from the flashes of sunlight reflected off of the city itself. John felt thirsty, yet at the same time, completely sated for one blissful moment before he remembered that their work wasn't finished. Still, the ocean lent him a kind of certainty, as if getting it back was part of a package deal that included Teyla and her baby and the refutation of those depressing events that he was not. Going. To. Let. Happen. He was right, he'd needed this—not just because he wanted to wipe away all memory of his precious city abandoned and eaten by the elements, either. He'd needed to be grounded in what was real, in what mattered. In everything that mattered.

"You're right, Rodney," John said, feeling the momentary peace he'd felt in walking outside start to drift away, replaced by a sense of purpose. "I never was one for delayed gratification." He looked over at McKay, feeling his own muscles draw up in preparation and smiling tightly when he saw his companion square his shoulders and lift his chin. Rodney got it, Rodney got him, always had, and thanks to him, John was going to save Teyla, save Atlantis—save Pegasus, if he could. "Delayed gratification isn't worth it. Let's go find her."

Rodney's grin was everything he'd remembered, and if McKay's grumbling convinced him to take the transporter back instead of running, it was all the more perfect for being annoying and familiar and home.