The city was quiet. It was well into the small hours of the morning; and while there was a skeleton crew in the control room and in the medical centre in case of emergencies, everyone else was in bed. Bed was where John desperately wanted to be right now, but he had one last job to do before he could seek the oblivion of sleep.
McKay had called him down to the lab hours ago to touch some Ancient devices and push some Ancient buttons. One of the city exploration teams had found an enormous hydroponics room, quickly christened The Greenhouse, with a number of little labs and a few control rooms lining the walls. McKay had headed straight there, up and out of his chair before John had even finished asking Weir if they could go check it out. And when he got down there, his eyes had lit up like a kid in a candy store as he began to explore the new labs and instruments.
One of the gizmos had garnered more excitement than the rest. John had made the mistake of asking what it did and McKay had started with, "Well, I'm not really sure," and then proceeded to babble at him a great deal, theorising all over the place and often stopping mid-sentence and starting on a different line of thought altogether as another idea occurred to him. It was quite something to behold, if a little difficult to follow. John had wondered if he really needed to be present for the discussion since McKay seemed to be doing quite well by himself and had eventually walked off to find Ford so that they could make fun of scientists. McKay hadn't said anything to him, then or since, so John guessed that he hadn't noticed.
The gadget had been taken back to the main science labs where McKay had prodded and poked and analysed and run a myriad of tests before trying to turn it on. When it hadn't worked, he'd called John and asked him to try instead. It had been largely unsuccessful and the astrophysicist had expressed his displeasure at some length, directing his caustic comments mostly at John, as if it was his fault that the device was broken or didn't do what McKay wanted it to do.
Finally, McKay had told him that his services were no longer required and to get the hell out of his lab.
Grateful for the reprieve, John had leapt up before McKay could ask to him to do anything else.
"I'm for bed," he declared to the irascible man who'd been using him as a verbal punching bag for the past few hours. "Unless, of course, there's anything else I can do for you," he added with a healthy load of sarcasm.
McKay had hmmmed at him in an offhand, 'I'm not really paying attention' kind of way, then suddenly his head had jerked up.
"Coffee would be good," he had said, gesturing in the vague direction of the empty coffee pot, a clever bit of Ancient technology that kept hot things hot and cold things cold better than any flask, but sadly even that could not replenish itself. "And maybe a little something to eat." He'd paused and reconsidered that. "No, wait, make that a lot to eat. I'm starving."
John didn't like to point out that the man had been drinking coffee almost non-stop the entire time John had been down there, which was why the pot was now empty; and that he'd eaten more food in the past hour that John did in a day.
Too tired to argue, John had cursed himself for even speaking at all. "Sure," he had said with a wan smile. "I'll be back soon."
He looked down at the tray he was carrying; another flask of coffee, a couple of energy bars, a few Athosian rice cakes and some fruit from the mainland. He hoped that it would be enough.
The lab was quiet as he approached. He wondered if maybe McKay had fallen asleep. He hadn't slept for a good 20 hours now, not unusual for McKay when he had a new project, but they'd been so busy lately and everyone was tired. John didn't want to wake him if he had; a couple of hours of sleep would work wonders.
Years of military training kicked in, he moved light on his feet and poked his head around the door, expecting to see the scientist sprawled across the desk absolutely out of it.
What he saw shocked him; McKay was hunched over the desk, his elbows on the work-top, head cradled in his hands. The desk was littered with printouts of graphs and technical data, and pieces of paper filled with scribbles and hasty calculations in his cramped, angular scrawl; he was just staring at the mess scattered in front of him without really seeing anything at all. His whole posture spoke of defeat and lacked that certain, brash, self-confidence that characterised everything the man said and did. His face, what little John could see of it, was pale and drawn.
He watched as McKay closed his eyes, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out slowly. He opened his eyes and took another steady breath; it seemed to centre him.
"You can do this," he said. The words were softly spoken, but firm and full of conviction. He straightened and lifted his chin, as if daring any of the instruments in the otherwise empty room to argue. His usual mask of casual arrogance fell into place like shield; whether its purpose was to keep Rodney in or to keep people out, John was not sure. "You can do this," he said again, a little louder this time, and he nodded curtly to the laptop that sat just off to the side.
"Right then," he said, reaching for the device and calling up some data on the computer screen, "Let's try this again."
John leaned back as Rodney began to tap away at the keyboard and crept on silent feet a little way back down the corridor. He wondered how many people had ever been allowed to see that side of McKay, how many people even suspected that such naked vulnerability and insecurity hovered beneath that egotistical fašade. He found it comforting to think that perhaps the man was only human after all.
Pausing for a moment, he then turned and walked once more in the direction of the lab, making every effort to make as much noise as possible.
"How's it going?" he asked as he entered the room.
McKay ignored him and continued to stare at the computer screen, occasionally typing in commands or calling up a different program; John wondered if the other man had even heard him.
He set the tray down on the desk, just out of reach so that McKay couldn't knock it over accidentally if he didn't realise it was there, and then turned to leave.
He had reached the door of the lab again when McKay spoke. "Thanks."
John turned and looked back, but McKay had returned his attention to his work, if he'd ever looked away at all.
"You should get some sleep you know, it's 4 am," he said.
"Hmmm?" McKay was lost to his project again.
"Never mind," John said. "I'm going to bed. Goodnight."
He didn't get a reply, but then he hadn't really expected one.
After a few precious hours of sleep, he detoured via the lab on the way to breakfast and found McKay sprawled over the desk fast asleep.
The tray was littered with empty wrappers and dirty cutlery, the coffee pot was empty and one of the lights on the little device was blinking.