Spoilers: For Season 1 Brotherhood and the episode before that.
Summary: We all make mistakes, but some take them to heart harder than others. McKay/Weir friendship (or more if you want to see it).
A/N: Thanks to Littleknux and Fanwoman for betareading this.
The mess hall is warm and dry and safe, but the mug shakes in his hand, his right hand. He averts his eyes as he feels his gaze creeping morbidly up to the silver slither, the scar that marks that first time. And he tries to forget the feel of the knife in his hand, the pressure of the plaster against the force he applied to get to the centre stone. He knows it isn't the same knife and it's no where near the same as cutting into skin, but a small part of him was fascinated by the irony. Both times, the result has been him handing the secret over to his enemy. This time, he was too blinded by the enemy he knew to see who was the real threat.
Allina, with her dark hair, long and curly, and a smile lit up for him. She was so smart; he would never have suspected she would be so stupid as to believe the myth of those they were studying. He can’t quite believe she has betrayed him either. But she did, apologetically, but still she wrenched the ZPM away, taking their hope along with his pride.
He gulps the hot coffee, his meager ration of it for the day. He's not sure he deserves it, but perhaps the scalding heat on his tongue and down his throat makes up for it. He feels like he needs punishment, but there is only one person above him to award it. Sheppard's already dropped it, figuring wrongly that it's best left unsaid. The issue was skimmed over in the briefing, Sheppard forcing silence, focusing on what could be done now that the Wraith are upon them. Funny that. They need the ZPM more than ever, and everyone suffers because of his failure.
He'll always think of it as such, a failure, a loss. He had it right there in his hands, hard and cold and solid. It had been a dream come true, a dream that rapidly turned into a nightmare for the second time that day, as if Kolya appearing hadn't been enough of a trial. Now it seems like Kolya's cameo is adding insult to injury. He's lost the ZPM, but all he can think of is how he failed before, giving in to Kolya as the knife dug into his arm, secrets spilling out as his blood did. It almost doesn't matter that is was Allina who ended up taking it away because it feels like Kolya has beaten him all over again.
He shivers at the memory of hearing Kolya's voice, back from the dead, or rather never actually dead. They were ignorant to presume so, and they paid for it. He paid for it, a penance for his earlier mistakes but committing more in the process. He stood right under the man, looking up with no fear in his eyes, best arm forward despite the mark there – trying to overcome the past. It seemed so simple when it was all happening, but now he cringes at how he stepped into line, choosing to brave Kolya's company. The mug wobbles in his unsteady hand, spilling coffee slightly before he hides that symptom, covers it by holding his cup with both of them.
That's when Elizabeth sneaks up on him, her own coffee held exactly the same way. He wonders why, if she, too, has demons that plague her and make her feel out of odds, like she's flailing for a grip on a situation far above her experience. But how could she? She's not the one who fails everyone at every turn. He looks up to her shamefully, the exact opposite of what he let show on Dagan. Here, he's vulnerable in a way he could never be to anyone else, least of all Kolya. Even if the man did get to him, he'd never let him know.
Elizabeth usually sees right through him. It's unnerving for a man like him, but he's come to expect it. She didn't get the full story, but she'll surely know there's more to it when she studies him. She's the master negotiator, and he has an atrocious poker face, and that's when he's trying to hide everything. Tonight he doesn't bother; he wants it over with.
She doesn't smile, but he can't tell why. Her eyes seem blank to him, but then he's not always good at reading her, certainly not as good as she is at reading him. They sit in silence, drinking up what little is left in the cups, just enough to keep them awake for the long night ahead of them. Elizabeth has more meetings scheduled, planning for the battle to come. Everyone with ideas is encouraged to present them for consideration.
He's only just managed to finish cleaning up post-mission. The dirt from the digs seemed to have gotten everywhere, and no matter how hard he scrubbed, he still felt dirty. But he has plenty of meetings to attend to himself. First thing on his agenda is seeing Zelenka about the newfound deep space sensors. Then there's department brainstorming, just in case anyone's inane comments might inspire some way to power the gate or the shield even. It's all long shot stuff, but they have to try, they have to find the answers. He owes it to them; he's the one who makes this stuff happen. Finally, she says something, breaking the silence that was unusually uncomfortable for them.
“It doesn't matter; we'll keep looking. We'll find a way; we always do.”
She never speaks of the ZPM, and she says 'we' like it's not his fault, as if it won't be him on which this rests. He glances at her over his raised coffee cup and sees she's looking at him. Green eyes scan his face, concerned, trying to read how he's feeling.
Without a further word he gets up, leaving her the rest of his ration. He's changed his mind; he doesn't deserve any of this. It is his fault, and he will fix it or die trying, die defending what they shouldn't have to because they should have a shield right about now. He just hopes she doesn't die before he does, if he fails yet again.
Twenty-five hours later, he retires to his quarters for a few hours of sleep away from the ongoing work in lab 4. They have a big board with ideas on it, but it seems like every hour another bundle of theories are crossed off as impossible or impractical. He hasn't talked to anyone apart from scientists for all that time, ordering them to bring lunch and dinner to him. He's barely left that room. Maybe that's why she comes to see him now.
There's the same concern on her face as she stands, waiting for him to invite her in. He wants to send her away, to some one who needs her more, but is there anyone? She never gets her answer, just his hand held out, motioning to the single chair. Instead she sits on the bed next to where he was intending to sit. He doesn't want to be doing this, not now, not ever. She doesn't realise he’s only let her in because it's clearly important to her that she do this. She wants to try, and he doesn't want to tell her upfront that she won't succeed in making him feel better. After all, what will help him? ...short of finding a solution.
He paces, simultaneously avoiding sitting down or looking her directly in the eye.
“Why are you here? Don't you have something to be doing? Something important.”
He briefly turns to see she raises an eyebrow at that, catching the self-deprecation in the sentence. When it becomes obvious he won't sit, she stands, moving closer to him briefly, but not following his movements back and forth. That's when he decides not to return, ending his pacing with him furthest away from her, by his desk, where he has an excuse to fiddle with files, his laptop or any one of the multitude of things resting there.
“What will it take for you to believe it isn't your fault, to stop you from berating yourself?”
The question catches him off balance. She usually engages in some light hearted banter or chit chat before getting to the point; it surprises him that she has abandoned subtly today of all days. He answers, after taking a moment to compose himself, to control what comes out of his brutally honest mouth. She already has a good idea what's bothering him, and he doesn't feel like giving her more ammunition.
“For it to be not true, as if that's possible, or for me to find the solution.”
“And you will -”
He's still not facing her, but he feels her step closer to him as she replies, sounding ever hopeful. Her voice is enviably steady, and she sounds certain of what she says.
“ - but there's no use in punishing yourself about it in the meantime.”
There it is. The caveat. She likes to appeal to his sense of logic, but she doesn't realise this is one of the few times nothing feels ordered or controllable. Time after time, this galaxy has thrown situations and people at him that he hasn't been able to deal with using reason or facts. They needed that ZPM; Atlantis needed it, and yet nothing would convince Allina that the ZPM was best anywhere other than with their new order, the refounded Brotherhood. He should have known better than to think the best of the Daganians because nothing is ever simple here. He hasn't learnt his lesson yet. How many times does he have to find out the hard way before maybe he remembers and no one has to die because of him?
“Isn't there? Would you really prefer me to not care I'd done this? Do you expect me to be able to forget?”
It's the kind of angry, indignant outburst he wanted to avoid. Still, he's grateful she stays where she is, leaving him staring at the wall, contemplating where this is going and how he can get her to leave him to his misery.
“No, I don't, and I'm sure forgetting would be the last thing you'd want to do. After all, it's better to learn from your mistakes than to ignore them, but maybe you can manage forgiveness.”
He wonders how much of what she declares is a carefully worded reply designed to get him to open up. Sometimes, he thinks she knows people too well, that he's being handled rather than spoken to.
“Do you forgive me?”
He asks it weakly, unsure if he wants an answer from her.
“It's not your fault. There's nothing to forgive. But if there was, I would, in an instant. You're a good man Rodney.”
It's exactly the answer he expected, and he figures it's what she thinks he needs to hear . It's probably what she thinks, as well, but it isn't what he wants to hear this time.
He spins around just in time to see her sit down quickly, shocked by his question. He doesn't allow her time to recover before vaulting into an explanation of why she can't solve this one with kind condolences.
He postures angrily to her, “Maybe that's the problem. You believe that I am, like I can do no wrong. But you know I can; I have plenty of times. I'm no angel, but you still act like I deserve the benefit of the doubt or forgiveness automatically, and maybe you're wrong!”
The latter part he pronounces spitefully, because surely the woman who's always right about people and has him figured out before he, himself, does should have seen what she was doing to him. She sits there quietly, no longer looking at him as he speaks to her.
He just wants her to see the fault to how she's handling him, that she's handling him at all. He knows he's a difficult man, that he merits management because of that, but more and more he isn't sure when he's speaking to his friend or his leader. Right now, it's time batten down the hatches and prep the troops, and maybe in reality, she's only thinking of him as one of her men, someone to patch up and send back off to battle. Somewhat mercilessly he hopes she'll leave after this, if only to rethink the situation and come up with another 'strategy'. So he forces out the conclusion of what he has to say, no matter that it feels too personal to admit, too vicious a thing to say to her however much he despises being patronised by her.
“Just giving me forgiveness doesn't help. I'd rather you hated me; it would mean more.”
It comes out filled with more emotion than he realised he had in him. To his ears it sounds callous and uncaring, and he's scared he's gone too far and she'll leave but not for the reason he was hoping.
He doesn't expect her response. How she almost immediately snaps to face him once more, face hard but full of a rarely seen anger. Her expression is accusing, and her words match everything on her face.
“Like you hate yourself?”
If he could have put more distance between them, he would have, because for once, she scares him, and he's sure this is what her wrath feels like when she unleashes it. Thankfully, that was just a taster, a flare up in reply to his equally hurtful taunt. But she's still in full force as she tells him what she really thinks of his admission, getting up off the bed and moving to meet him.
“What good would that do? You want me to lie now, is that it? You want someone to validate how you feel. Well I won't!”
She stares into his eyes as she states it, making absolutely sure he understands her resolve.
“Even good people make mistakes, and guilt isn't always the best way to deal with them. I don't see your guilt helping you come up with a solution. But if you really want to sit in your room and sulk every night and work yourself to death the rest of the time - then feel free. Maybe by the time you're finished, I won't think the same of you. I admit, I do tend to think the best of people, but usually that's because they've somehow shown me they deserve it. And it isn't impossible to prove me wrong.”
Then Elizabeth softens, expressing a certain melancholy as she continues speaking, “If you really want to try...” Then she averts her eyes, as though suddenly the closeness is uncalled for but she doesn't quite feel the need to stop there and is left waiting for his reaction.
That's when he realises he has underestimated her. All she needed was a chance, and she's broken down everything to get to the core of him. She didn't leave when she could have; she took all his abuse. But for a minute, he's worried he has succeeded once more in pushing away one of the few people who has managed to care for him despite all his faults. He feels his breathing stricken as he tries not to break down in front of her.
He has to sit. He tries to breathe right but can't, breaths coming in deep and desperate until he realises she hasn't left him there like the problem is suddenly solved and up to him to mend on his own time – like all the professionals who had tried to deal with him in his life so far. Her weight shifts towards him on the bed, and he realises he was moronic for thinking he could be just another task on a list of things to do. He has forgiveness, for all the good it does him, but it's really Elizabeth that he needs, not her well meant words. She can mean everything she says, but words can't help him today. As he closes his eyes in an attempt to calm down, he feels her arms around him, and he succumbs to her embrace, burying his head against her neck in a sea of soft, wonderful smelling hair. She murmurs reassurances, but he isn't listening, and for once it doesn’t matter. The words blur into a sweet song of whispers, and the ache in his heart melts away for a short time, long enough to forget very briefly and not need the forgiveness he refused to give himself.