Title: One Step
Pairing: McWeir (because you know it makes sense)
Summary: An expansion of the scene at the end of Trinity. Elizabeth's anger at Rodney was caused by something far more personal than she cared to admit….
Elizabeth glanced up from her desk in a mildly startled manner as she heard the short, impatient knock at her door. It was only with the interruption that she realised that she hadn’t been reading the paper in front of her at all. Or if she had, she hadn’t committed any of it to memory. She couldn’t recall a single word of the report concerning the ongoing project to map Atlantis and the realisation made her frown in annoyance. She didn’t like being distracted in this way. She had far too many things to do to be able to afford it. Important things. People who were relying on her. That was why she had insisted upon having this meeting so soon. Partially so she could get on with her job without distraction, and partially so she could get her concerns off of her chest before she exploded. She never was one for letting things stew.
As soon as they had arrived back she had ordered Sheppard and McKay straight off to the infirmary. She didn’t care how fine they felt, they’d been playing around with experimental Ancient technology. God knows what kind of radiation they’d been exposed to. Besides, she’d heard the words ‘destroyed’ and ‘three-quarters of a solar system’ and decided they were best off out of her sight until she had formulated some kind of measured response to that.
The time hadn’t seemed to help at all though. The growing twisting feeling inside that had first begun when they had lost contact with them hadn’t dissipated like she would have hoped, and now it was steadily growing as Rodney stood at her doorway, waiting to be invited in.
He didn’t look particularly contrite for a man who, despite his insistance, had been very, very wrong indeed.
She motioned for him to enter with a perfunctory nod, pushing the papers to one side, promising herself she would take them with her when she went to dinner and read them properly this time.
“You wanted to see me,” he said, remarkably innocently, as though he had no clue as to what this was about. It seemed the man could certainly play dumb if he needed to.
She gestured towards the chair opposite her. “Sit down,” she offered, in a civil, if slightly cool tone.
“No, I’d rather stand.”
Of course he would. It was basic psychology. He didn’t feel comfortable, he knew he was in trouble and some subconscious part of him dictated that standing was good. That standing made it easier to escape.
“Fine,” she said evenly, standing also. A good diplomat always put herself on the same level as those she was in discussion with. It showed neither superiority nor weakness.
She looked at him for the briefest moment, wondering where to begin, before letting out a small sigh and turning to fix her eyes upon the gate below her. Teyla and Ronon were due back soon. She hoped that their last few days had been more successful than the ones here had been.
Unbidden, her arms folded themselves defensively across her chest as her mind carefully gathered her thoughts before she dared to speak. Rodney was a difficult customer to deal with at the best of times and this certainly wasn’t one of those. She’d actually begun to think she had it down to an art form by now – knew how to speak and what to say to get the best out of him - but this was different. She was trying desperately hard to put up a barrier between the woman who led the Atlantis exhibition with common sense and careful thought, and the one who was disturbed that she had nearly lost a very dear friend. Between the one who needed to discuss this calmly and find out what had happened, and the one who wanted to shout at him for being so stupid and risking his life simply for the sake of being right.
And Sheppard’s life of course. She almost kept forgetting that he’d been there too.
She supposed he was almost as guilty as she was in a way. After all, he had done nothing to stop McKay either. But he hadn’t been the one who’d agreed to this. In the end it was her decision and she’d allowed Rodney to continue when others were telling her otherwise. When her own head was telling her otherwise. She’d let her gut feeling win through. Maybe, despite his assurances to the contrary, she had come to think of him as a sort of superman and perhaps she was guilty of trusting him too much. But when else had he been wrong about something like this? When else had he let her down?
Boy, when this man messed up he certainly didn’t go about it half-heartedly.
Pushing her own uncertainties and worries aside, deciding that this was not the appropriate forum for them, she slipped a mask of thoughtful detachment onto her face and turned back to him. The leader of Atlantis would want to know the whys and wherefores of the situation. Her personal feelings had to defer to that.
He was still standing there expectantly, just a few feet inside the door, his hands clasped behind his back. He looked rather like a school boy standing before the headmistress - knowing he’d done something wrong but expecting to get away with a mild scolding and a ‘don’t do that again’. After all, his intentions had been in the right place. Sort of.
Elizabeth was painfully aware that the glass walls of her office offered them no privacy, and whilst she suspected that everyone was too busy with their own work to pay much attention to what was going on in here, she also felt glaringly on show. She probably had been a bit to soft on McKay. Let him get away with too much, let his enthusiasm and persuasive manner cloud her judgement. She should have put her foot down much sooner.
She took a subtle, calming breath before speaking.
“What went wrong out there, Rodney?”
The mildest flutter of a frown flickered over his features, as though whatever he had been expecting from her, it wasn’t that. But this was how things were meant to be done. When broaching a difficult issue with someone, you eased into things gently. You made people see you were open to both sides of the story and you wanted to take a measured view. You phrased your questions so they could respond on terms that they were most comfortable with.
“Nothing went wrong, as such,” he began a little dismissively, “I just wasn’t fully aware of all the-“
“Rodney,” she warned softly. It had been a long day, she’d been thinking far too much and she did not have the patience to bear his attempts to belittle this.
He held her gaze for a moment then sighed with a short nod of acknowledgement.
“I went over Zelenka’s data before I came up here,” he said, and Elizabeth decided to ignore the fact that she had told him to come straight here after the medical bay in favour of getting to the more important issues, “It’s impossible to tell for certain since all my equipment was destroyed in the explosion, but from the readings I was getting and what happened down there it’s likely he was right.”
She watched as his hands flickered around in front of him, punctuating each word, demonstrating what he was describing. He was possibly the only person she knew who would lose the ability to speak if he broke his arm.
“Creating a vacuum energy with our own space-time in our own space-time throws the laws of physics as we know them completely out the window,” he continued, “It’s fascinating stuff actually. I should imagine they designed that chamber so it was like a super version of the ZPM casing, to keep inside all the stray particles. The reaction was so powerful though that the particles created broke free of the-“
Elizabeth held up her hand to stop him and he instantly stilled.
“Why didn’t you pick this up before?”
The air in the room seemed to chill.
He looked very odd when he spoke without his usual amount of animation. It made her feel rather uncomfortable but she continued on regardless.
“Why did Doctor Zelenka work this out when you didn’t?” she elaborated gently, knowing he certainly wouldn’t like the implication there but needing to push her point.
Predictably Rodney bristled at that, going straight on the defensive, his face setting in a hard scowl.
“Well in case you hadn’t noticed I was a little busy trying to perfect a ten thousand year old power source that could wipe out the Wraith fleet the next time they come knocking,” he ranted, glaring fiercely at her, “What do you want me to do, Elizabeth? I can’t be expected to look at every little calculation and piece of data. And as much as I’m sure everyone would love me to be checking and double checking every little thing, there’s some stuff I have to give to other people in order to look at the bigger picture.”
“Yes, and that’s just my point.”
“The bigger picture, Rodney,” she said, in a calm tone that didn’t betray what was going on inside, “As dedicated as I know you are, sometimes I think you lack that perspective.”
He was looking at her with a frown of incomprehension.
“You can’t see the woods for the trees,” she explained, with a small sigh, “You got so caught up in your goal of getting a viable energy source that you ignored facts that, in a more rational state of mind, you would have taken heed of.”
“Oh so you’re saying I’m irrational now, hmm?” he snapped, folding his arms firmly across his chest.
“No, I’m not,” she insisted, his attitude making her unable to avoid a hint of anger tainting her tone, “I’m just saying that in future you need to take a step back every now and again. And you need to listen to what other people say. What’s the point of having a team of top scientists at your disposal if you ignore their findings?”
He rolled his eyes. He didn’t have to say it but she knew what he was thinking. He never was very good at hiding his opinions. He firmly believed that however top the scientists were, they weren’t as smart as him. That they didn’t have his capacity for understanding the physics involved here. What was the point of listening to them when he knew better?
Elizabeth hadn’t realised before now how fine a line there was between arrogance and abject stupidity.
“Fine, okay,” he huffed, clearly not having taken heed of a word she had said, “Can I go now?”
“No you cannot!” she snapped, his flippant manner and unwillingness to admit what had happened getting the better of her self control, “Rodney, do you not understand? You nearly died out there today! It’s only through an extreme piece of good fortune that you’re here now. Next time you might not be so lucky.”
“There won’t be a next time,” he reminded her in bitter tones, “The Ancient records we found said that was a prototype, they didn’t build any others. And I don’t have the materials to make something like that from scratch.”
“Nor the permission,” she said incredulously, “If you even think that I’d let you try that again after what happened then you’re-“
She stopped abruptly, pursing her lips together to stop herself from saying what she was thinking. Wondering if he realised how much she hated him right now.
“I’m what?” he challenged caustically, but Elizabeth refused to rise to that.
“I understand you’re passionate about your work, Rodney,” she said a tight but calmer tone, “And I admire that. It’s saved our lives more than once. But…”
She trailed off, shaking her head in frustration.
“Rodney,” she said in deep concern, getting to one of the many things that had been really bothering her about all this, “Did you see yourself? Did you see the way you were behaving? The way you spoke to Zelenka, your refusal to listen…”
He held her gaze firmly.
“In case you hadn’t noticed I’m always like that, Elizabeth,” he scoffed, “I thought you’d be used to by now.”
“No,” she insisted with a concerned frown, shaking her head, “You were obsessed. You were so fixated with trying to make it work, you didn’t stop to consider if you could do it safely. Don’t you see how much of a problem that is?”
He rolled his eyes again, as though he thought she was being ridiculous. Irrational. Making a mountain out of a mole hill.
“It’s not like I got up this morning and thought ‘I know what’ll be fun to do today….’”
“No,” she snapped back, getting angry again, “You didn’t think at all. You just ploughed ahead, regardless of what anyone else said because you couldn’t comprehend that anyone but you could be right!”
He looked a little hurt at that, casting his eyes down to the carpet. Good, it was about time something got through to him.
“What is really the point of being a leader of a science team, if you don’t listen to their advice?” she said sharply, stepping up to stand less than a foot in front of him, the words tumbling out of her mouth as though she had opened a flood gate, “We have enough problems here as it is, Rodney. I don’t need you dying on me just because your ego got the better of you!”
“This is not about that,” he said, a little too firmly.
“Rodney!” she barked, irritated by his unwillingness to admit that this had been more than a simple scientific error, “It is possible for you to be half-honest, for one second?”
He glanced at her, an uncomfortable look in his eye. Obviously he didn’t like the implication there, nor how personal this discussion was becoming.
“I had it under control,” he muttered, trying to force the conversation back on track.
Elizabeth sighed a little.
“Everybody on this base trusts you,” she began, almost in exasperation.
“Oh well thank you but-“
“You are the smartest man we have,” she interrupted, trying to show him that she was on his side. That she was well aware of his capabilities and it wasn’t them which were in question here. Trying to stress to him how important it was that, in his position, he made good decisions.
“But,” she insisted firmly, “ I have to question what you do when you put your life and other people’s lives at risk.”
McKay scowled at that, giving her a look again that suggested he thought she was completely off the mark.
“What are you-“
“You destroyed three quarters of a solar system!” she cried in a mixture of frustration and annoyance, bringing up the matter she had avoided until now. She didn’t imagine he needed reminding of it and she certainly didn’t want to think about it more than necessary. But if that’s what it took to make him see sense…
“Well,” he mumbled, his considerable need to be right getting the better of him once again, “Five sixths, but it’s not an exact science so-“
“Rodney!” she cried, almost shouting now, genuinely angry, “Can you give your ego a rest for one second?!”
His mouth snapped shut almost audibly, his body visibly stiffening. She may have on occasions thought he was egotistical. He was likely well aware that he came off like that. But the fact that she would say it to his face seemed to wound him deeply. It showed in his expression for a moment as he looked her in surprise. Then he swallowed hard, tempering his response, unwilling to react in case he said something he regretted.
Elizabeth sighed deeply feeling a pang of conscience that she had let her own personal feelings come into this. She hadn’t wanted this to become an in-depth psychological examination of his character. He’d been through quite enough for one day. She just needed to make sure he didn’t do anything like this again, because the thought that she easily could be sitting here now thinking of something to say to his next of kin…..She took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to quash the feeling of utter dread that clawed through her at that.
“You blew up an nearly an entire solar system,” she said firmly, pressing the point now that she was getting somewhere, “That’s big, Rodney, you know that. You can’t pretend it didn’t happen. You can’t pretend you didn’t make a mistake.”
“I have a reputation to-“ he began, his face stony, his eyes fixed on her shoulder rather than her face.
“Screw your reputation!” she interrupted fiercely, resisting the sudden urge to throttle him, “Five sixths of a solar system. A solar system, Rodney! How many planets is that? How people could have been living there?”
Now he did look at her, his gaze snapping up, wide-eyed and pale. She could almost see him trembling slightly, the sickening realisation spreading through him.
“No,” he said, softly shaking his head in denial, “It was uninhabited. It was empty ….wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was,” she reassured, feeling only the slightly bad she had stooped that low. He needed to feel that. If that guilt, that dreadful sense of what could have been made him think next time then it was worth it. She just prayed she wasn’t denting his confidence too much. After all, they needed him and his sometimes outlandish ideas.
He cast his eyes away again, tucking his hands in his pocket, shaking his head.
“No one’s going to think less of you for making a mistake, Rodney,” she said delicately, unable to resist placing her hand gently on his arm in comfort. Yes, she was doing this for the greater good, but it didn’t mean she had to like it.
“Although,” she added with a light, mildly teasing smile, “They might think you’re more human and less superman if you do.”
He glanced up at that, clearly not entirely sure from her tone whether she was joking or not. He met her smile with a half hearted one of his own.
That should have been reassuring she supposed, but for some reason it only served to make her feel oddly ill at ease. Her own grin faded and she caught the almost hurt look in his eyes before she turned and walked back behind her desk.
Putting a physical barrier between them? How much more obvious could she be? Although she doubted Rodney paid much heed to psychology. Not if his attitude to Doctor Heightmeyer was anything to go by.
She ran her hands back through her hair, feeling suddenly uncomfortable. There was an awkward moment of silence as she kept her eyes firmly fixed on her desk, her hands pretending they were organising the small bunch of files awaiting her attention, although she was certainly not putting them in any recognisable order.
What was she doing? She should be thanking him for coming to see her and sending him on his way with assurances that she still trusted him but a warning to think more carefully next time. Yet, here she was, doing exactly what had gotten them here in the first place and listening to her gut again. And whilst her head was telling her she had said all she needed to say, her gut was telling her otherwise. Elizabeth was old enough and wise enough to keep her emotions in check, to know what was best to say when. But she also knew herself well enough that she realised if she didn’t say something it would play on her mind for weeks. And she couldn’t afford that.
“You scared me half to death today, do you know that?” Elizabeth admitted, her tone far more serious than she had intended, her voice much more quiet. She was not sure why she wanted to make doubly sure that no one but him heard. It wasn’t as if she was ashamed that she cared about him.
His eyes went a little wide at that, his mouth flailing for some appropriate words in response. His less than smooth reaction made her smile just a little.
“Oh,” he mumbled, looking as though he was caught somewhere between nervous and shocked, “I didn’t think you…I mean….Sorry.”
Elizabeth looked at him in mild surprise. The one thing she hadn’t expected from him was an apology. She hadn’t been trying to get one and she certain didn’t think he was in the habit of giving them. But what was he apologising for? For what he had done? Or for making her worry?
Was it really a bad thing that she hoped it was the latter?
“I’m sorry, Elizabeth,” he said, far softer than she could ever remember hearing him speak. A bitter, self deprecating smile slipped onto his lips. “I really screwed up, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” she agreed solemnly, “you did.”
“I was only trying to help.”
There was another long, thoughtful silence.
“Tell you what,” he said with a forced, pained looking smile, “Next time I get ahead of myself like that, will you just make sure you say ‘no’?”
He was clearly trying to lighten the tone, to make it so they parted on reasonably good terms. How was he to know he had touched on one of the very things that had bothered her so much about this? It still bothered her that she hadn’t told him to stop when Zelenka had voiced his concerns. She’d told herself at the time that she had allowed Rodney to continue because she trusted his judgement and ability. She couldn’t help but remember though the small moment when she had thought that she didn’t want to see Rodney disappointed. Whilst a large part of her decision was based on her trust in him there was a small part that was due to her not wanting to be the one to upset him. Which alarmed her more than she liked.
“Yes,” she agreed distantly, her voice sounding oddly strained.
Rodney frowned at her reaction but avoided questioning it. She doubted he had the confidence to do so.
“Do you….er….wanna come and get dinner?” he asked hopefully, “They’re doing that weird vegetarian mix thing again. Personally I need a bit more protein in my food but-“
“But you’ll eat anything,” she said with a fond smile.
“Well, yeah…….you coming down then?”
“No,” she said, although she was still smiling, “Thanks. I have some work to do first.”
As much as she would have liked to spend some time with him today without hollering at him, she needed some time to think. To sort herself out. Besides, she wasn’t particularly hungry right now. She was better off finding a quiet, soothing spot on a balcony somewhere and trying to get through this report.
Rodney’s face fell and he did a terrible job of hiding his disappointment.
“Oh…okay….I’ll….er….see you later then.”
“Sure,” she said with a brief smile, glancing up from behind her desk as she collected the report.
She heard him walk away and felt a twinge of guilt and also a sense of uneasiness. Elizabeth trusted her senses most of the time, and they were screaming at her not to leave it like this. Hurriedly picking up the file, she let her instinct guide her into following him. She caught up with him in the corridor just outside the control room.
He stopped, turning quickly on his heels, his surprise at seeing her clear on his face, “Elizabeth…..did you….er….want something?”
“Yes, would you do me a favour?”
She smiled warmly, “Don’t go out there and die on me any time soon, hmm?”
He grinned slightly in return.
“I’ll…er…do my best,” he promised with a quick nod.
She reached out and squeezed his arm lightly and then decided to go for broke. Leaning over she planted a quick, gentle kiss on his cheek. Then she left him standing there, her mind clear once more and ready to get back to work. The matter wasn’t over. She still wasn’t sure what was going on with them, but she was happy that whatever it was it was for the best.
If she had turned back she would have been pleased to see him standing there prodding him cheek experimentally with a particularly dumbstruck grin on his face.