Face to Face
by Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23)
Spoilers: Vegas. Stop reading now if you've not seen the episode.
Summary: The truth seen in flames and mirrors. This is a Vegas tag. Please read the warning.
Warning: Character death within the Vegas AU. This is not a happy Vegas tag in which Sheppard is rescued. In canon, I can see the ending going either way, but in this story, he dies. Despite this, I have tried to keep hold of some hope and optimism in the story, but he still dies. Don't read it if you don't like things like that.
They say your life flashes before you eyes as you lie dying.
There were no flashes, just a long, slow drifting. In flames, he saw his father turn away. He saw doors slam shut, each one made from orange fire. He saw faces crafted from disdain and disapproval. Dishonourable discharge, he heard in the crackle of burning things.
He saw dead faces made from billowing smoke. He saw body bags and lolling hands. Did it to save a life, he heard. Did it to save…
Twelve dead. Twelve dead because of you.
He could hear it now; could hear the thud thud thud of his helicopter as he had tried to... He shifted in the sands, and fuck, it hurt! He'd been shot before. Too many times, they said. Incompetent. Rash. Stupid. Others said differently, though, whispering around water coolers. A liability. A death wish. Didn't much care if he lived or died. No-one wanted to get close. No-one wanted a partner like that. It suited him, working alone. A solit-- solitary man. That's how it had to be. That's how…
God! The pain was fire and ice. A silver chain was warm at his throat. Why had he put that on? Dimly remembered childhood mornings in a still, cold church, and a tall, beautiful mother telling him that he had to be good, Johnny, you have to be good, and everything will be all right.
He remembered the night the police had knocked on his door to tell him that his parents had been murdered. He remembered identifying their bodies, fighting the urge to say, "No, no, I don't know them at all."
Ash rained from the sky; he felt it crack on his face when he moved. He felt chasms opening up on his cheeks. "It's okay to cry, John." Who had said that? Some girlfriend, long gone, her hair as bright as the flames. A hand in his as he stood by a pair of graves in the rain. He had been the only one without an umbrella, his face turned up towards the sky.
The helicopter grew louder. The glare of flames was too great, too bright to let him see the sky. He remembered the first time he had gone up, the first time he had taken the controls. He had danced on clouds, wide open to the stars and the sun. Even in a foreign desert, the moon was silver and the stars were the same, and beautiful.
Aliens, distant galaxies, and heroes who fought to save the world. What a petty world! What a tiny life! He'd gone up against an alien when armed only with a handgun. What had he been thinking? That he was the fucking hero in an action movie? He was nothing. McKay's buddies had swept in, taken out their target, and left him here. He was a speck of sand in the desert. He was nothing, just nothing.
Got to make a difference, Johnny. Hands on his shoulders, and perfume – not acrid, like smoke and flame and dying things, but sweet, like flowers.
He remembered gripping the railing of a bridge after they'd kicked him out, staring into the blackness far below. He remembered the smell of iron, and the ache of claw-like hands, hours later in the cold. He remembered hearing sirens, and he remembering closing his eyes. Make a difference. Stop the bad guys. Find answers for people whose loved ones had been killed. Pick yourself up. Keep on walking, one step at a time, trying to find meaning, trying to sleep at night.
The thudding filled the whole world now, as rapid as his dying heart. He wanted to see the sky. He wanted… God, he wanted…
On the road with a fortune. He would drive until a place called out to him, and start again. He could become anyone he liked. But he'd turned back. You did the right thing. Stupid thing. Stupid thing. A handgun against an alien. A solitary man against an enemy in good cover. He'd been swatted away like a gnat. Hadn't made a difference. Hadn't made a difference at all.
But you did it. Who… What? God! Were those voices? He tried to strain towards them, but he was spread out on the desert floor, pinned there with stakes. Intentions didn't mean a thing. He'd disobeyed orders to save a life, but that didn't bring back the dead. I'd have done it for anyone. It wasn't just because she and I were…because we were... Didn't make a difference, though. Can't live with yourself if you didn't try; can't live with yourself if you tried, and failed.
Can't live with yourself if you didn't try…
The flames were fading now, but perhaps that was just his hearing. When he blinked, ash dislodged from his eyelids. He remembered stepping away from the edge of the bridge. He remembered the cases he had solved. He thought of himself driving away from all that, with a bag of stolen money and a lump of ice where his heart had once been.
Smoke drifted above him, fading, fading. He couldn't see the sky. He wanted to remove his sunglasses, to see it clearly, but then he remembered that he had already done that. For years, he had clung to shadows, and hidden behind shades. He didn't like to look in mirrors. He didn't like…
"He's here!" he heard. "Tell Beckett to--"
He blinked. Smoke was a mirror. Flame showed you truth.
"You did it," a voice said. "I mean… God, I didn't think… You found him, and if you hadn't…"
He tried to speak, but there was nothing in his mouth but blood and ashes.
"Uh, there there," the voice said. "Lie still. You'll be fine. You'll get the best treatment in two galaxies. After all, you did just save the world."
Save the world, he thought. It wasn't real. It couldn't be real. It happened in movies and stupid books.
"I mean it," the voice said. "Listen, I'm sorry for what I said back then – reminding you about the, uh, thing with the helicopter. I had to, you know? But you did good."
Did good, John thought, and he felt a strange and amazing impossible thing: a hand squeezing his arm. I did good.
"Of course, going alone against a desperate Wraith ranks fairly high on the all-time list of foolhardy decisions, but…"
"Move aside, please, Doctor McKay," another voice said.
"You did good," McKay said again, a little desperately, but John could no longer see him; could just see a blur of a face with smears for eyes.
He saw the stars beyond him, though, and he flew. Through stars, he flew.
"He's dead, you know." Rodney didn't turn away from the window. "John Sheppard died two minutes after we found him. I was…" He swallowed. "I was holding his hand, or as good as. I mean, not in…" He let out breath; still didn't turn away from the mirror of cold glass. "I felt him die."
Behind him, he heard Woolsey clear his throat, doubtless to tell him how stupid it was to be mourning someone he didn't know – how unprofessional it was to stand here when there were duties to be done.
"I sent him to his death," Rodney said. Distant figures moved outside – faceless soldiers in harsh uniforms. "I laid on the guilt. I reminded him of people who'd died because of him, and I told him that in another universe he was a hero. I killed him."
"And allowed us to eliminate our target before any damage was done," Woolsey said.
"He had a fortune in his car, you know?" Rodney turned round at last. "He'd quit his job and was driving off into the sunset and instead he…" He scraped his hand across his face, and wished that he was back in Atlantis, that he had never come here. "He would have died alone," he said quietly.
"But he didn't." The way Woolsey said it told Rodney that he had entirely failed to understand.
"I know." Rodney turned back to the window. "And, yes, I did what was necessary. The world's safe again – our world, anyway – and if I hadn't guilted John Sheppard into offering himself up like a sacrificial goat, then it wouldn't be. End of story. Job done. Pat ourselves on the back and get back to our work."
"Indeed," Woolsey said, cold, so cold, but then he let out a breath, and said, "For what it's worth, I'll pull some strings and get him a good funeral. A suitably convincing cover story will be sent to the media, painting him in a good light. His dishonourable discharge can be posthumously rescinded."
"But he's still dead."
Rodney pressed his hand against the glass. After a while, he heard Woolsey leave, the door closing behind him. A man Rodney didn't know had died, and the world had been saved again. Acceptable losses, not even one of their own.
His own reflection stared back at him. In how many other universes had things been different? In how many universes did the Wraith now know about Earth? In how many universes was John Sheppard still dead?
Your whole life could change on a single roll of a die. What was Rodney McKay like in these other universes? John Sheppard was the mirror. In other universes, perhaps Rodney McKay was the broken man and John Sheppard was the puppeteer who pulled his strings. In other worlds, perhaps Rodney McKay had died alone in a desert, thinking that he had failed.
There but for the grace…, he thought, as he pressed his brow against the window, and let the reflections and possibilities swirl around him. There but for the grace…
They say your life flashes before you eyes as you lie dying.
The sky is a mirror. You dance on clouds, and, small in your mother's embrace, at last you learn how to weep. You have a brother and you have a sister and you are an only child. You marry a thousand women and sometimes you have children, and sometimes you have none. You fly helicopters and fighters and darts and puddlejumpers and gleaming streaks of silver and crystal chariots crafted from light.
In a gleaming city in a silver ocean, you sit laughing with your special three. A general in the desert, you issue orders that will save a hundred lives. You fly planes for private hire. You solve crimes. You save lives. You raise children. You run with your dogs in the park at dawn. When your father dies, you are at his side, and you are far away. You receive another medal. You drown yourself in drink. Your body is scarred and smooth. You falter over words and you are eloquent.
You never stop walking. Even in the worst of worlds, you step away from the brink; you walk away from the dark river and try to save lives.
You step through a circle of blue with your team at your side. You fight beside them in the desert. You banter with them in the staff room and in the locker room and on the way to school. A large man with dreadlocks is your partner, your colleague, your foster brother, your golf buddy, your lieutenant, your boss, your lover, your mirror, your rock. A beautiful woman with tawny hair is your step-sister, your best friend, your wife, your work-mate, your doctor, your sergeant, your conscience, your heart. A shorter man, bright and clever, is your room-mate, your neighbour, your childhood friend, your soul-mate, your rival, your wingman, your foil, your spark, your soul.
In many worlds you find them, and in some you do not, but in all the worlds, when the end comes, you fly.
Note: The title is the second half of the quotation I used for the story I posted a few weeks ago: Through a Glass, Darkly. Since the two stories deal with broadly similar issues, the title suggested itself. This is not in any way a sequel to that story, though.