There was probably a time when the Metropolitan Museum of Art would've made an impression on John, but after Atlantis, it hardly registers. He's vaguely aware of a big blank greyish-white fa¨cade and wide shallow stairs leading to the entrance. There are colorful banners fluttering above the doors which he doesn't bother to decipher. A few tourists turn to stare as he strides up the steps—in his uniform and cap, he doesn't exactly look like one of them—but he ignores them. It feels like a lot of people have been staring at him since he came back to Earth.
He has to ask the guards for directions four different times. As he wanders through the labyrinth of the museum, his frustration rises; this is just another version of the endless paperwork, the pointless briefings, the utterly useless conversations with senior staff he's been subjected to since his arrival two days ago. But when he spots the nameplate next to the open door, and the blonde head beyond it, he wishes he could have been lost for longer.
Then he gets a grip on himself. This is his damn job, he asked for it, demanded it, and the least he can do is do it.
He steps forward into the doorway. "Doct—" It actually sticks in his throat, and he has to swallow, push it out. "Doctor McKay?"
Jeannie McKay barely looks up from her book. "Yes?"
He'd been afraid she'd look more like Rodney. She's thinner, shorter, with close-cropped hair, and her posture is better than a Marine's. But her mouth, her mouth is just as wide and mobile, and her eyes are the same bright blue.
She narrows her eyes, and he realizes he's been staring. "I'm a working member of the staff here, officer, not one of the exhibits you paid to gawk at uncomprehendingly."
"I'm sorry. My name is Lt. Colonel John Sheppard, and I've got some bad news." He glances at the door. "Can I?"
She frowns. "Yes, of course."
He closes the door and stands in front of the desk, holding his cap. "Doctor McKay, I regret to inform you that your brother, Rodney McKay, was killed while working on a project for the United States government. He died performing duties vital to the future of this country, and we all feel his loss."
He pauses, waiting to see how she takes it. He's practiced this speech, given it over and over in his head, but the words don't even make sense now. She regards him, unblinking, as if he hadn't just been spouting gibberish. "My brother is dead."
"I'm sorry. He was a valued colleague, and we all held him in the highest regard. I had the privilege of working with him for some—"
She raises a hand brusquely and picks up the phone. He hears her tell someone that she's leaving for the day. "I'm sorry, Colonel...?"
"I can't have this conversation here. Do you mind?"
"Of course not."
He holds her coat for her, and she leads him through the maze of the museum without hesitation or a backwards glance to make sure he's keeping up.
It must have snowed a few days earlier; dirty snowbanks edge the paths in Central Park. The sky above is very bright and clear and remote. Joggers and dogwalkers and nannies with small children move past him with the occasional curious glance. Jeannie McKay walks next to him, wrapped carefully in her coat, hands in her pockets, staring straight ahead. The wind reddens her cheeks faintly.
He wishes he could tell her, but he doesn't know. All he knows is that one minute you can be grousing at a guy, come on, Rodney, stop bitching and just fix the damn thing, and he can be complaining that it's musty down there, okay, it's probably full of mold and he doesn't want to breathe that air any longer than he has to himself, his lungs will seize up completely, and then there's a slight whump over the comm and..."I'm sorry, that's classified."
He's expecting her to react badly to that, but she doesn't blink. "I see. When did he die?"
"Twenty-three days ago." Two days to persuade Elizabeth and SGC to let him make the notification. One day to wait for the ship. Two days of debriefings. Eighteen days staring at the ceiling of his quarters on the Daedalus.
"Twenty-three days," she repeats.
"He didn't have anyone listed as his next-of-kin," John says, wincing. Trust Rodney to leave him with an excuse that's almost harder to cope with than the truth. "It took a while to find you. And I wanted to come and notify you in person."
She nods. "What do I—is there someone I should contact about having the body released for the funeral?"
"We couldn't—his body wasn't recovered." There had been nothing to recover for two full blocks of Atlantis. Just open space where there had never been open space before.
"Did he leave a will?"
"I think DoD counsel will contact you about that."
"I'm sure it's very detailed," she says to herself. "Full of important lessons for posterity."
"Probably," he agrees. Rodney could never have resisted an opportunity like that.
She starts a little, as if she's surprised he heard her. "There's not really a whole lot more you can tell me, is there, Colonel?"
She nods, brisk and practical. "Right. Then I think I'll go home now."
"Let me walk you there," he says immediately. "Please. You've just heard some really bad news."
Jeannie McKay doesn't actually look shellshocked. In fact, she looks ready to take on a Genii or three without blinking. But he can't bear the thought of parting from her here, right now—of this being all there is to it, just small talk about what will happen to Rodney's stuff.
"Thank you. I'm fine." She offers him her hand mechanically. "Of course, I appreciate your coming all this way—"
He touches her shoulder. She flinches. "Please, Doctor McKay. Can I at least take you to dinner tonight?"
"You're very kind, but it's really not necessary, Colonel."
He's aware he sounds much too urgent, clutching at her coat. He forces himself to relax his fingers. She studies him, expressionless, then relents. "All right."
He accepts the restaurant she suggests and watches her as she walks off, a splash of pale color amidst the black and grey of the winter landscape. She has a short, quick, determined step. Not like Rodney's tilting lope at all.
John spends the rest of the afternoon on the phone with SGC. He's dimly aware that Rodney's death has had political repercussions, and he knows he should be standing up for Zelenka, who deserves the appointment as his replacement and fuck his nationality, but he doesn't have the energy. Elizabeth is good at these things. She'll have to handle it.
At least he's not in Atlantis, he thinks, as he hangs up on the last call. He couldn't have spent another day there. He had actually started thinking of the city as home. It lit up, pulsed and purred for him, let him do things he wouldn't have imagined were possible a year and a half ago. The view from its highest point took his breath away. And it had killed Rodney without warning or explanation, just a side effect of some remorseless Ancient technology that didn't care if they understood what it needed or not. Even this place is better. New York City is strange and disturbing, but at least it doesn't pretend to be friendly.
The restaurant Jeannie McKay had chosen is quiet and low-key, but even the dim light gleaming off the silverware seems too bright. He gets there too early, picks the seat that puts his back to the wall and lets him keep an eye on the door. He watches the happy, clean, well-fed faces of the people around him, talking business, flirting, arguing, and he can hardly believe that they actually exist. It reminds him so much of the leave after his court-martial that he has to look down at his sleeve to remind himself what year it is. There's no McMurdo for him to escape to this time. It probably wouldn't help if there was.
She looks tired when she arrives, but her posture is still straight. He gets up to pull out her chair, but she freezes him with a look and does it for herself. She picks up the menu immediately and scans it critically without saying a word.
John offers, "How are you?"
She lifts her eyes just enough to give him a cold glance and goes back to the menu. John is actually relieved when the waiter arrives. They place their orders, and she sits back and looks at John. "So."
He fishes for something to say. "So. You work in the museum, Doctor McKay?"
"I'm on a year's fellowship there," she says. "I spend the rest of my time teaching art history at Bard, trying to layer a veneer of culture over the undergrads. Mostly without success, of course."
He suddenly pictures Rodney, all tweed coat and chalk on his hands, terrifying some coed. That version of Rodney would never have experienced any danger bigger than student protests against his insane curve. "What do you study?" he asks, trying to cover his thoughts.
"You won't have heard of it," she says dismissively. "Suprematism. It's—"
"No, wait," he says, stirring his memory. "The black square guy. The Russian."
She tilts her head a little and looks at him more closely. "That's right. Malevich."
"I did go to college," he says gently.
She gives him the ghost of a smile. "So I see. And actually paid attention. That's uncommon."
Their dinner comes. They don't talk much during the meal. Jeannie eats slowly, precisely, as if she's not really there. John doesn't have any appetite at all, but he's used to shovelling meals down mechanically. The food is heavy and tasteless in his mouth.
He tries hard not to watch her for things that can't be there, things it wouldn't even be fair to look for. He wants to get her to talk to him about Rodney, but he knows he shouldn't push. It's not her job to make him feel better. That's no one's job. He and Elizabeth had had a horribly awkward conversation the night before he left that ended with him walking out of the room so he didn't have to hit something, and Teyla had touched her forehead to his just as he was about to be transported up, and...and there doesn't need to be any more of that.
When she finishes, she pushes her plate away, staring into it for a minute, and then looks up at him. "There are some parts of your story that I still don't understand."
He braces himself. "Oh?"
"It's not exactly normal for an astrophysicist to be killed in the line of duty, now, is it?" She eyes him hard. "I always thought Rodney might accidentally invent a black hole and fall into it, but I never expected a colonel in the United States Air Force to turn up and give me that speech."
"He was a civilian contractor with DARPA, working on a highly-classified project," John says. "There were...certain risks involved."
"Is that so." She laces her fingers together and leans forward. "I got a message from him a few months ago. We hadn't spoken in seven years, but this tape turned up in the mail one day. He was in a strange lab, wearing some kind of uniform shirt. I could see the matching jacket on the table behind him. From the way he spoke, I don't think he expected he would ever see me again. He was involved in something unusual, Colonel. What was it?"
He's disconcerted. He hadn't really expected to face interrogation from an art historian, not even a McKay. "I can't discuss the details of his assignment."
"Was it some kind of weapons research? Some special project so dangerous you had to strand it in the middle of nowhere? Did something go wrong?"
"I'm sorry," John says lamely. "You don't have the necessary clearance."
"So my brother, who used to spend all of his time thinking about what makes the stars shine, mysteriously dies one day, and the U.S. military considerately shows up to let me know that he died a good death, and I'm supposed to just, what, take your word for it?" She jerks her hand up disgustedly. "Has a single word you've told me been the truth, Colonel Sheppard? Or are you just the pretty errand-boy they sent to pacify the inconvenient relative?"
She's glaring at him, the corners of her mouth turned down, and he's done this once too many times. He's doing his best, and if his best isn't good enough for this woman who hasn't given a damn about Rodney in years—He stares straight back into her eyes. "If I was going to lie to you, Doctor McKay, I would've come up with a better story."
There's a short silence. Then the waiter's voice intrudes. "Dessert menu, ma'am?"
"No, thank you. Just the check, please," she says. She fumbles in her purse and drops some bills on the table. "That should cover me."
She leaves, and already he's regretting it. Of course she's angry. Of course she doesn't understand. He doesn't understand, and he was there. And, God, he should be glad that there's someone out here who's angry for Rodney—not just the people of Atlantis, trapped on the wrong side of a wormhole and national security. It should make some difference in this weird world he can hardly remember he ever belonged to that Rodney is gone. He throws some more money on the table and follows her out of the restaurant.
He catches up with her a block later. "Doctor McKay!"
She's deadly pale, her mouth clenched in a tight line. She keeps walking, fast.
"Look, you have every right to be angry. I didn't come here to fight with you—"
She stops, mid-sidewalk, and he almost collides with her. "This is my building, Colonel. Good night."
The doorman has opened the door, and she starts to turn in to the building.
"Doctor McKay—" His own voice sounds so strange to him that he has to stop. She glances back at him, hesitating, and her eyes widen a little. She presses her hand to her face and lets out a harsh sigh. When she takes her hand away, her expression is—changed. Still wary, but softened.
Very quietly, she says, "I'm sorry. I've been terribly rude." She tries to smile. "You must have liked my brother a great deal, to put up with me this evening."
"I..." he says, and suddenly, beneath the harsh glittering lights, amongst the grimy heaps of snow and the passing strangers pursuing their incomprehensible lives, in front of a woman who carries Rodney's name but is only familiar enough to hurt, not to comfort, John is weeping. Because he went to the Pegasus Galaxy carrying nothing, looking for nothing, and there, despite it all, he found a friend.
The feeling rips through him so powerfully that for a minute he can do nothing but let it—can't even get his hand up to hide his face, as much as he wants to. Then he can, and turns away, muffling his tears in his coat sleeve, trying to strangle the sounds, terrifyingly raw, in his throat.
"Colonel, you should—Colonel?" He shakes his head helplessly, and she gently lays a hand on his shoulder. "You should come upstairs."
The apartment is dark. She touches a lamp, spilling a low circle of light into the living room. "Sit down. I'll get you a drink."
She goes into the kitchen, and John drops down onto the couch, waiting for the feeling that the world is about to fall away beneath his feet to subside. When he gets his breathing back under control, he looks blearily around the room. There are pictures on one wall, and he's irresistibly drawn to them, getting up to scan them for the familiar face.
"Here," she says, reappearing and handing him a glass of whiskey. He swallows it down in one gulp, closing his eyes momentarily against the stinging burn. "Please, sit down."
He's gladder to do it than he should be. His nerves are still trembling, worse than after a firefight. "Doctor McKay, I didn't mean to—"
"Jeanette," she says, sitting in a chair across from him, cradling her own drink. "And...I don't have any pictures of him."
She cocks her head. "Did he ever tell you about his childhood, John?"
"Not a whole lot." Amazing, how long you could work with someone who talked so much without ever learning such basic things.
"Our parents were not happily married. They fought constantly. I usually retreated into my room, into a book. Rodney...Rodney kept trying to get them to notice him. The allergies, the injuries, blowing things up..."
John smiles faintly. "He did tell me about an incident with a nuke in the sixth grade."
"Exactly," she says. "And I imagine he complained about it, but the truth is, he wanted the attention so badly..." She frowns. "Do you have any idea how disruptive it is, having American intelligence agents questioning your family, searching your house?"
"I can take a guess." But what's really on his mind is the image of Rodney as a kid, obviously struggling, but already so determined to be something more.
"I got out as fast as I could. I went to Harvard straight from grade twelve, and then graduate school, and my career here. Rodney...did his own thing, the way only Rodney would. The last time I saw him was at our parents' funeral. It didn't go well." She takes a long swallow from her glass. "Since then, sometimes I've wondered. He was just trying to cope with a difficult situation, the same way I was. I thought about contacting him, but I didn't have an address and..." She shakes her head. "I suppose I thought there would always be time."
"Everyone thinks that." John had pretended to himself that Atlantis would last forever. He leans forward, putting his hand on hers. "I don't think he was angry at you."
She looks down into her glass and says nothing for a while. Then she looks back up. "Whatever—whatever happened to him. Do you blame yourself?"
It's too disconcerting, to have those eyes so close. He straightens, looks away into the middle distance, exhales shakily. "Of course I'm responsible. For all of them."
"Oh." She breathes in like it hurts her. "Oh."
The room is very still. Then it starts to swim around him. He tries to get up. "I'm sorry. I should go—"
"Wait," she says, catching his sleeve. "Rodney didn't have many friends growing up, you know. Or any friends, really."
He waits, powerless to pull away.
"But you. You were his friend. That's obvious."
"I was," John says. "But I don't...I don't even know if he knew that."
He squints at her. "What?"
She visibly makes a decision. "My tape, John. The one Rodney sent. You haven't seen it?"
"I think...I think you should."
The tape's already cued in the VCR. Jeanette sits next to him with the remote. John flinches back as Rodney appears on the screen, but forgets the shock a second later, absorbed in the image. Rodney's obviously exhausted. John only has to look at his heavy-lidded eyes, the stubble on his face, to remember the panic and desperation of the siege. And still that time had been easier than this.
"This is your brother, Rodney, obviously. I wanna say...I wanna say something. Uh...family is important. I've come to realise that because the people here have become a sort of a...kind of a surrogate family to me."
Rodney smiles. "Now, I know what you're thinking, I've never really been the poster child for that kind of sentiment but when...when one's contemplating one's own demise, one tends to see things more clearly..."
Jeanette pauses the tape, freezing Rodney mid-word. "I think he must have been talking about you, John."
He squeezes his eyes shut, feeling the tightness in his chest slip just a little. Rodney had never said...but he did. He had found something in the Pegasus Galaxy, too.
"I admit, I was a little irritated when I first saw that," she says quietly, "but now, given what's happened, I'm grateful." She puts her hand on his. "Thank you, John."
"No, thank you," he says. He knows when he's been forgiven, more than he deserves to be. He turns to look at her, and he means just to kiss her on the cheek, but his head moves wrong, or hers does, and his lips land half on her mouth, Rodney's mouth, the kiss messier and slower than it should be. After a while, she pulls away, laughing a little nervously. There are tears in her eyes.
"I'm sorry, John. I'm exhausted."
"Yeah." He clears his throat. "Me, too."
They sit in silence for a moment, and then she rubs her eyes. "I can't stay awake a minute longer. If you'd like to sleep on the couch..."
"No, I've got a room."
"Will you be all right getting home?"
"Of course," he says, rising. It's a lie, but he'll get there somehow. He thinks he might even, finally, sleep.
She accompanies him back to the door. While she gets his coat, he lingers at a painting in the foyer, something he hadn't even noticed on the way, just a black circle on a white background. "Is this your Suprematist guy?"
He looks at it for a minute. "I admit, I don't get it."
"After he painted it, he said, 'I felt only night within me,'" she says. "It's very abstract, very esoteric, but to me...very beautiful."
Like a whiteboard full of equations. "You know, I think Rodney would've liked getting to know you again."
She only smiles, her eyes still glistening. He squeezes her hand and leaves the apartment. Down on the sidewalk, he turns his head and looks up at the building. One of the lights gleaming in the windows is hers, and beyond that, there are all the stars.