"It's okay, it's okay," he says, over and over, because he can't reach any of those other words in his overblown vocabulary, and it's better than nothing at all.
John is shaking and cold. His skin is drained so white Rodney can see the blue lines of blood underneath the surface. He tries not to look too closely; biology was never really his thing. He always thought it would be kind of cool to be an android, all spinning gears and wires and none of that messy blood stuff, with pumping hearts and breakable veins and too many weaknesses.
He wouldn't admit to it even under pain of death, but he's always thought Robocop was at least as cool as Batman.
He couldn't afford to lose it, too.
"You know I almost didn't come," John says, conversationally. The dark circles under his eyes seem to be growing wider and darker by the minute, and Rodney hates that he can't stop it, not any of it.
John is a total slacker but he can do it, easy. Think up some crazy Hail Mary in the knick of time and pull it off with a charming grin, somehow keeping his hairstyle all the while. Rodney's still not sure how John never manages to get as mud splattered as the rest of them.
"You shouldn't talk," he says. He doesn't even really know if that's true. Maybe he's supposed to keep him talking. Keep him awake, wasn't that the routine? Falling asleep is supposed to be peaceful but you don't come back when you do it in a place like this. "I mean, talk."
John slides his head back to try and look at him, and the whites of his eyes are edging blue and nearly crystallized. It takes a minute to realize it's just a reflection of the ice. "I thought you were all a bunch of lunatics."
"Well, you weren't wrong, now were you?" Rodney asks.
John snorts. "No, guess not. But you're a different kind of crazy than I thought."
Rodney closes his eyes and thinks, maybe that would have been better. The rest of them would probably be dead but John would be safe on Earth, oblivious and happy in Antarctica. It never took much, Rodney suspects. John smiles pretty easily, and he's almost sure it's genuine at least half the time.
"Almost doesn't matter," Rodney says.
"What?" John asks.
"Some other Sheppard didn't come, in some other reality. You did. That's what counts." Rodney kind of wishes he didn't know that. It's one thing to imagine there are other people in other realities living out the choices you passed up and it's another to know that it's true, that every wrong decision you make someone else that looks just like you has made right.
It made all the possibilities obsolete in your own reality. Someone else already had the rights to it. He thinks that might be why he hates Rod so much, for no real reason at all.
"I know that," John says finally. "Did you think I regretted it?"
"I think any sane person in your position would," Rodney says.
"Which I guess just goes to prove that I'm as crazy as the rest of you," John tells him.
Rodney can't really disagree with that. John's always been at least as crazy as the rest of them. Rodney pulls John closer, wraps his arms a little tighter around his chest, trying to share his warmth. He'd give it all to him, if he could, and the realization sneaks in under his radar, like it's as obvious as breathing or walking or talking in his sleep--like it's been there all the time, and he's just never noticed until now.
Of course, he thinks. Of course he'd die for him.
"I like you, Rodney," John tells him.
Rodney closes his eyes, breathes in, breathes out. Steady. "I like you too," he says.
"I just wanted you to know," John continues, almost shyly. "You know, in case you thought I didn't."
John's shirt has a hole under one sleeve, and Rodney can feel the fading heat of that little patch of skin resting against his arm. They left their jackets back in the puddle jumper. It was so hot and beautiful and bright they decided they didn't need them.
It wasn't every day you found paradise, John had said. Rodney had just rummaged through the packs demanding to know who had stolen his sunscreen, because he knows there's no such thing.
"Do you see them yet?" John asks.
"No, they're probably back at the puddle jumper by now," Rodney tells him. "They didn't fall through the floor of the universe, so let's worry about us, okay?"
"It's a little odd, though, don't you think?" John asks. "I mean, what the hell kind of end is this anyway?"
"It's not exactly how I planned it either," Rodney says, and the cold catches in his throat, freezing its way down to his lungs and stealing his voice for a moment. He has to take a breath and let it fog the air, swirl and disappear, before he can speak again. "Which is why I'm getting us out of this."
"I thought that was my line," John says.
"Yeah well, you're lying down on the job," Rodney tells him.
Rodney looks up. There is a three-foot wide slant of sunlight streaming in from above them, so far away it might as well have closed up after them like some kind of wound. He still remembers the feel of the ground shifting beneath his feet. He remembers John catching him before he fell. Then after.
Rodney's still not sure how John ended up hitting the ground first.
The ice is melting above their heads. Rodney wonders if they're not on a planet after all. Maybe this is just another Pluto in disguise, all an elaborate masquerade; no magma core, no heat or fire or lava leaking out like blood. Maybe it's all ice, spinning away in the orbit of a sun, getting smaller every year.
It looks so ordinary when you first step out into it, all white sand and crisp blue water, with no way to know what lay beneath.
As if there ever was.
Still, it had been terra-formed by the Ancients at the very least. There were probably at least another dozen assembly line planets just like it--rest stops for refugees. Working just fine as long as you didn't look too close.
"You know what's funny?" John asks.
"What?" Rodney says, very quietly.
"I almost didn't come," John tells him, like he hasn't said it already.
Rodney presses his eyes shut. "We're getting out of here," he says.
"Maybe," John says. "But what about next time? I'm not complaining. It's just the way it is. One time we won't."
"They're coming back," Rodney says. "They've probably brought Lorne."
"Did you know we have a graveyard?" John asks. "There's a stasis room where they put the bodies until they go to Earth and they always leave the names on the wall."
"I know," Rodney says. "Carson thought of that."
John bites his lip to keep the coming scream in his throat. He feels dizzy, like he's floating away, and there are creeping lines of red trailing out across the ice. "It was a nice idea," he says. "They won't last forever but they'll last awhile, and we can't really hope for more than that."
"You're not getting your name on that wall anytime soon," Rodney tells him. "They'll be here soon."
John grabs onto his hand and shuts his eyes, breathing in, breathing out. "I know," he says. "I know."
They come down on ropes and Rodney watches them through blurry eyes, strangely detached, and he realizes, in some part of him he doesn't want to acknowledge, that he hadn't actually expected them to come.
"They're here," he tells John, but John says nothing and still says nothing as they strap him on a yellow gurney and raise him up alone. Lorne stays with Rodney just to hold him back, telling him 'it's okay' and 'it's okay' because there is nothing else to say.
Rodney claws his own way back to the surface. They're pulling him up but he's got his hands on the wall, holding tight enough his fingers start to bleed. Ronon grabs him by the wrist when he's close enough and drags him right up over the edge.
John is pushing the medic away and looking for him. He smiles when Rodney steps close, determined to walk on his own--but the bones of his right leg grind together as he moves, in a way they're not supposed to. He's screamed for all he's worth for less pain than this.
"You saved me," John tells him. "I need you to know that, Rodney, okay?"
"Ronon and Teyla got the help," he says, and looks away, because John was the one that caught him like always, and he would never have fallen on his own.
John shakes his head. "No, not from that."
Rodney watches them take John away and Teyla is talking to him by his side, tugging at his sleeve, her fingers warm like match tips against his freezing skin. She is saying something like 'Rodney, we have to leave,' or 'are you alright?' and Rodney can't move.
John's blood is covering him from his stomach down to his feet and he can still hear him breathing, remembers having to listen so desperately just to make sure he didn't stop, and all he can think is what about the next time.
Because he still remembers the sand stuck in his shoes and John's laugh just before, the way everything always seems brightest right before you fall.
to pull her inseparable rack of bones and wasted flesh to its feet, to put in order her disordered mind,
and to set her once more safely in the road that would lead her again to death
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter