Title: The Last Word (or when you see with my eyes)
Characters: John, Rodney, Jennifer
Spoilers: Possible spoilers for Last Man
Beta: velocitygrass beta'd this even though she doesn't usually read this type of fic. Your thoughts and approval really meant a lot to me, hon, thank you so very much. Updated version beta'd by em_kellesvig - all remaining errors are mine.
AN/Warnings: This story is loosely based on the film, The Final Cut, written and directed by Omar Naim. Character death is mentioned but the death does not occur in the fic.
Summary: He's already late, yet he still sits there, kneading the steering wheel until it warms his palms. John Sheppard, big damn hero. Able to face countless enemies without flinching, but not his own fears or the ghosts of his past.
ETA: See the brilliant fic cover by pixiequeen10thk HERE
The Last Word (when you see with my eyes)
John cants his arm, allowing the day's mail to cascade onto the coffee table. Juggling a sandwich in one hand, a bottle of beer and the remote in the other, he sits down. A dark, navy blue envelope, magically separated from the bills and circulars, catches his eye, begging to be opened first.
He puts his sandwich back on the plate and takes a long pull from the beer. Wiping his hands over his thighs, he picks up the envelope, turning it over carefully. It's not the first one he's received over the years but, this time, he suspects he knows the name he'll find inside. And it makes opening it that much harder.
The distinctive black and white logo on the return address is easily recognizable. Lyrres Systems, Ltd. These days, you'd have to be from another planet not to know about Lyrres and the DigiChron implant. Touted as one of the largest socio-technological advancements in history, second only to personal computing, the company has manufactured personal memory chips for human implantation for over twenty years. Tiny electronic wonders that record and store every thought, every action, every word… every second of an individual's life.
John slides a finger just underneath the flap, then backs off.
Rodney had done some consulting work for Lyrres after leaving the Atlantis "mission" —as it had come to be known near the end. John hasn't thought of that in years, but he vividly recalls the day Rodney and Jennifer left the city. They were the only ones from his original team who remained after the scientists were ordered back to Earth. They'd both received special dispensation from the SGC to stay but, like Teyla and some of the others, they'd quickly become disillusioned with the new thrust of the expedition as a purely military operation. Ronon, who would only swear allegiance to John and to Atlantis, was forced out by the SGC and had left the city some time earlier. Afterward, whenever he and John fought alongside one another, it was as allies instead of teammates.
John had stayed on longer, of course. At first, just to wrap things up and turn over command, but there'd been a little snafu in that plan with the rumblings coming from the Arkturans and rumors of their takeover of neighboring planets. By the time that situation had been diffused, he'd learned of Rodney's marriage to Jennifer.
He'd stayed on, then, at least until the colonization and "nation building," rife in the wake of the Wraith's demise, had become too much for even him to stomach.
When John did return to Earth, he was happy to resume old friendships and settled down in Weston, Washington, the same town where Rodney and Jennifer had made their home. It hadn't taken long; he and Rodney had fallen back into an easy and familiar routine, and John soon realized just how much he'd missed that companionship.
Rodney seemed happier than John ever remembered. He'd put that down to Rodney's life with Jennifer. It certainly wasn't their morning jogs. Even through all the huffing and bitching, John was proud to have finally convinced Rodney to pay more attention to his health.
They would spend hours at a time talking about what Atlantis had become and bemoaning the fate of the Pegasus Galaxy. Both agreed that those whose job it was to combat the enemy had become the enemy in the end, and neither of them were surprised to learn of the eventual closure and declassification of the Pegasus project.
It was during one of those discussions that Rodney had confided to John about his DigiChron implant. Rodney told of his participation in the prototype testing during his early affiliation with the Air Force. His consulting contract with Lyrres, the company that later took over the program for use in the private sector, was limited to the development of the process used to recover and sort the recorded memories.
John rips through the dark blue seal. As expected, the name printed in Lyrres' distinctive, block print on the white cardstock invitation reads: M. Rodney McKay, PhD, PhD.
Even though he can't suppress his grin – Rodney never let anyone forget about that second distinction – John feels unsettled at seeing the words. For obvious reasons and because he hasn't called Jennifer since the funeral.
Scanning the invitation, he notes the date, time, and location of the Remembrance. God, he hates that term, it's so damned pretentious. The worldwide cultural fascination with the DigiChip may be phenomenal but John abhors the concept of the implant, always has.
Parents even fit their newborns with the implants now – The Lifetime Plan they call it – sometimes going into debt to do so. So proud, yet never thinking of their child's reaction once they've reached the age of consent – the age Lyrres recommends they be told about their chip – to the violation of their privacy and the privacy of others, recorded and cataloged without their permission. It's not surprising that the latest statistics reference a marked increase in the suicide rate among chip owners between the ages of twenty-one to twenty-eight. A fact John's sure Lyrres doesn't publicize in its prospectus or the annual reports to its stockholders.
Though one thing puzzles John about the invitation, both Rodney and Jennifer were aware of his views. He can understand Jennifer holding a Remembrance, but inviting him? These rituals are mental scrapbooks, party favors for the grieving and the hangers on. They're celebrations of the events and moments of a person's life quickly forcing the standard funeral service into the realm of the passé.
Customarily celebrated as lavish social events by the more affluent, in recent years the costs of the implant and cutting, as the process of digitizing the data is known, have been reduced to provide the service to as many people as want it. And a lot of people want it.
Rodney had once explained the process of what happens after death, and the recovery of the implant. John takes another pull from his beer and tries not to think of it in relation to his friend. After extraction, the data is read and digitally processed by what is known in the trade as a Cutter. That person's job is to sort and sift through a person's processed memories – everything neatly categorized into subfiles: hygiene, personal interaction, sleep, dreams, thoughts, sex – and painstakingly select those memories that most reflect and represent the deceased person's life (or the life the family wishes to remember). This selection process, the Cutter's choice of memories to work from, is normally accomplished through interviews with family and friends, but can also be done by bequest of the individual, not unlike the making of a will. In the past, families had carefully and lovingly selected a casket or burial plot for their loved one. Now, they select a good Cutter.
Cutters vary in talent, experience, and affordability, with a few reaching god-like acclaim for their skills. There are those who specialize in the rich and famous, and those who cut for the masses. A good Cutter can earn a decent living, but a truly talented one can earn a fortune for the skilled crafting and presentation of a person's life remembered.
John stares at the invitation. He's already thinking up reasons that will prevent him from attending when the postscript grabs his attention: As a final wish, Dr. McKay personally requests your presence at this event. John snorts at the idea of Rodney arranging his own Remembrance, though somehow that really doesn't surprise him. He can just imagine the guest list and what they'll all be in for, a parade of Rodney's brilliance mixed with images and memories of his life with Jennifer and the kids.
John closes his eyes. Another swallow of beer chases down the lump in his throat. The last thing he wants right now is to sit through their life, but those words echo in his head, almost as if they were uttered in Rodney's own high-tensile like voice: final wish. John takes a long cleansing breath. He'd never denied Rodney anything in life… he isn't about to start now.
The Remembrance Hall at Stone Station is a large, modern, single-story stucco building at the end of a wending, tree-lined drive. The grounds are meticulously landscaped and groomed. Lyrres, a company that could likely buy and sell the Earth several times over, had spared no expense on this location.
The parking lot is jammed but then this hall boasts four Viewing Rooms. Spying an empty space, John wheels in and checks his watch. He's already late, yet he still sits there, kneading the steering wheel until it warms his palms. John Sheppard, big damn hero. Able to face countless enemies without flinching, but not his own fears or the ghosts of his past.
Viewing Room 2 is already dark and he slips into a seat at the back. By his thinking, he's already satisfied Rodney's wishes: he's here, he's just not promising for how long. The only other Remembrance he'd ever attended left him creeped out for days and he wants a clear shot to bolt if he has to.
The rooms are something of a cross between high-tech digital theaters and chapels. They're modernly ornate, but equipped with every technological advancement in digital entertainment: floor-to-ceiling high definition LCD screens and surround sound so real it's like having the departed back with you. The showing has already begun and the screen is filled with early memories of Rodney's life. His life as a child, his parents and Jeannie. Good to know there was never a time when Rodney was not bossy, there's some kind of cosmic order there somewhere. The scenes move by in succession and John's really not absorbing it all until—
Startled by his own voice, he looks up to see the gateroom of Atlantis. Seven hundred and twenty... Yes. I knew that of course. I'm just surprised you did… Take away the coordinates you can't get a lock on, and that's your one. He grins, remembering how satisfying that little exchange had been.
For the next few minutes, John sits through Rodney's hand-picked memories of his life in Atlantis, interspersed with those from his life afterward. Rodney must have paid the Cutter a fortune. The progression is swift but seamless, and after watching a few more moments, it occurs to John how many times his own face appears on the screen and how often he hears his own voice.
He winces at seeing himself bound to a chair, being fed upon by Todd, then stares into his own frightened eyes as Rodney begs permission to sacrifice himself to the very same Wraith. His heart races at Rodney's words, just as if it was happening all over again.
A succession of small, innocuous moments flash by, memories of Rodney's 'family' in Atlantis: laughter, tears, and oh, wow, Torren John! He huffs a laugh at Rodney's grating consternation that his brain is not a new deck on the back of John's house, at the same time recalling the pain of almost losing Rodney. So serious at the time, and yet brains and power tools became a running joke for them after a few years.
The screen flickers dark then brightens again with Jennifer's face, dancing with Rodney at their wedding. She looks so happy. Then a cut to a very small, wrinkled, and red face screaming up at him as Rodney holds his son in his arms for the first time. John swallows hard as Rodney's awe-filled voice showers him with chills. Welcome to the world, John Graham McKay.
Again, the memories start to move quickly: a flurry of baby John taking his first steps, his first words, Jennifer pregnant, John again, a diaper-clad computer genius in the making, the birth of another child, Rodney's daughter Jeannie.
An empty knot twists itself inside John's stomach as the memories start to slow down. Black screen and then—
Another younger version of himself. They're clearly off-world and he appears to be sleeping. The location might be familiar but for all the planets in Pegasus looking pretty much the same at night. It must be Rodney's watch. He mumbles something but John can't make it out, just sits frozen in place, barely breathing as Rodney reaches down to smooth the hair back from the younger John's face.
He feels the pinch of his shirt collar and fingernails mark his palms with tiny crescents as Rodney bends closer and closer. Another low mumble and then the soft whisper of Rodney's lips against that John's temple.
He doesn't even try to blink the sting from the corners of his eyes. Just stares helplessly, chest heavy from lack of air. Finally, John struggles to take a breath. If he's going to run, now's the time, but he can't. It feels as if the floor is falling away beneath him, threatening to drop him into the abyss below if he moves. Still reeling, he takes another blow as the next memory, one more recent, hits him hard.
What do you mean you're not happy, Rodney? Look at you – you've got a decent job, couldn't ask for a better family. How long have you felt like this?
A long time. I don't know, it's just this feeling of wishing I'd done things differently—
That's just you getting old, buddy. Hey, the Nobel Committee is going to wise up one of these—
It's—it's more than that. I—there's something that I should have done a long time ago, things I should have said that I didn't and now, well, now I—
Don't do that. Hell, we all have regrets. They'll eat your ass alive if you let them. Look, go home, hug the kids, and try again with Jennifer. She loves you and I'm sure when you come out of this funk you're in, you'll see that you love her, too.
But, John, I… never mind. Of course, you're right. Of course.
The words may as well be painted in red behind his eyelids... of course, you're right.
He doesn't watch the next sequence of scenes, but he can tell they're soccer games and debates, prom dates and driving lessons, arguments and advice. He just wants it over, wants the blood to stop pounding in his ears.
When everything goes quiet again, he opens his eyes. The knot in his stomach pulls tighter as Rodney stares back at him, or rather, Rodney's reflection. John always thought he'd aged better than the hologram version but the same deep wrinkles from years of stress and concentration lined Rodney's handsome face. His hair, most of which was still there, distinguished by streaks of silver.
The shock of looking into those blue eyes again catches John's breath. Eyes he could always read so well, or so he thought. How was it he missed the sadness he sees there now?
On the screen, Rodney enters the bedroom and takes a box from his closet. As the lid comes off, John's looking into it along with Rodney. It seems full of the last remnants of Atlantis, things the sentimental soul in Rodney had squirreled away.
Among the items crowded in the box are the patches belonging to Grodin, Dumais, Gaul, Abrahms, and other scientists who died during the expedition; the tattered photograph of Rodney and Carson, curled and creased out of its frame; the Wraith necklace Ronon had given him the day he'd left Atlantis; a picture drawn by Torren with the words for Uncle Rodney scrawled at the top. A tight smile breaks through when he recognizes the Czech to English translation manual. He'd always suspected it.
He watches as Rodney takes something from the box. John's confused for a moment but then… he remembers, now, and that sets his heart pounding again. He'd given Rodney some personal items to take back to Earth, thinking he'd follow them soon.
The memory seems to slow down as Rodney's thumb strokes the small face of a boy, all smiles, standing beside his hero. He utters one last word before the screen goes dark for good: John.
As the lights start to come up, John's finally able to move. He stands, blinking rapidly, turning to get out quickly before anyone notices him. It's only then he realizes there's only one other person in the room besides the Cutter. Jennifer rises slowly as the man walks over and hands her something. They speak but John can't hear what they're saying. Whatever it is, Jennifer shakes her head, and then she sees him. They stare at one another for a moment before she turns back to the Cutter, takes the object from his hand, and walks up the aisle.
He tries not to look into her red-rimmed eyes. "Jennifer, I—I didn't…"
The soft shushing noise quiets him. "I know that. If you had known, my children and I might not have been a part of this."
"I refuse to believe that," he said, pointing emphatically. "Rodney loved you." Oh God, he did… didn't he?
"Maybe. I believe he loved the kids." Bright, unshed tears well in the corners of her eyes. "I think it's obvious he loved you," she adds, slowly meeting John's gaze again. She tries to hand him what the Cutter had given her. It's a small, clear plastic square about the size of his palm.
"The replicate. It's a copy of the original cut, what they use for the showings."
John shakes his head and pushes it back toward her.
"Don't you see, John? This is more than memories. It's a love letter, only it's not for me."
He opens his mouth to say something then closes it, tugging at his collar instead.
"But it does answer a few questions I've had over the years and I'm sure that's why it was his wish that only you and I see it."
"Jennifer, I really don't—"
She takes John's hand and presses the small square firmly into it. "No, this is for you. You know how he always liked to have the last word." She offers a passable smile. "This is him saying... in case you missed it, moron."
John trembles a little, but Jennifer's hand is warm. He tries to smile back, but then she gathers him into a hug. "Take care of yourself."
"I'm sorry." They're hollow words spoken into her hair while he thinks through the haze whether to pat her shoulder, and though he means it, he ends up just standing there.
"Don't be." She pulls back, her face serious again. "I always knew something was missing, that after a while he wasn't happy. I believed it was my fault even though he always denied it. This was Rodney's way of finally making me see it had nothing to do with me." She lets go of him and takes a step back, pressing a tissue to her nose. "Don't be a stranger, huh? The kids would be thrilled to see you and John's asked more than once about those flying lessons you promised to set up."
He nods absently.
She kisses his cheek. "Good-bye, John."
When the door closes, he takes a deep breath and stares at the plastic square. In his hand, he holds everything in the world that was important to Rodney, with himself front and center. He wonders how many other times Rodney had tried in his own way to tell him. He starts to think back but catches himself – thinking of his own chances to tell Rodney how he felt, what he wanted. Chances he'd chosen not to take.
Settling, instead, for something he knew he already had and something he could never do without, Rodney's friendship. While Rodney and Jennifer's relationship hadn't happened exactly as the hologram Rodney had described, John had made sure in the end that they would get together, always thinking it was what Rodney had wanted, never saying anything to either of them about what he'd learned from that sad-faced old man in the future.
He makes his way down to the front of the room where the Cutter, a lanky gentleman dressed in a custom-cut suit and smelling of cigars, stands awaiting instruction. After a moment, John hands him the replicate. "Would you mind running this again, please?"
Stone-faced, the Cutter takes the silicone repository. His accent is thick and elegant. "Certainly, sir," he replies before making his way back to the console.
John takes a seat in the front row, hands curling around the arms of the chair as the room drips dark around him. Seconds later, the screen brightens with Rodney's life flickering before him. Now, it's just the two of them again. One last time.
In a rush of emotion that seems to consume him and liberate him all at once, John realizes there was something he had denied Rodney, something he had denied himself and, with that, he lets go. His whole body limp as he closes his eyes and lets Rodney embrace him with the sound of his voice.
Now, read the sequel: Past Perfect