John’s gotten used to McKay saying things that have no obvious connection to the current topic of conversation, so when Rodney suddenly snaps his fingers twice, says “Fish!” and practically runs away from the table, John takes another bite of his meatloaf and thinks nothing of it.
Teyla pauses with a piece of bread poised delicately in front of her mouth. “I do not believe there is fish today. Or any day. My people have had no luck catching anything.”
“Huh,” John says, and maybe he can’t always keep up with Rodney’s rapidly firing synapses, but he’s quick to catch up and he knows enough to follow. He grabs the untouched pudding cup off Rodney’s tray, pockets a spoon, and heads after him.
McKay moves surprisingly fast when he’s got something on his mind.
“Rodney, where the hell are you?” John says into his radio after the monitoring system helpfully informs him that Dr. McKay is underneath Atlantis. Someone needs to configure the system to work properly in three dimensions.
“A little busy right now,” comes the answer, and John swears under his breath loudly enough for the mic to catch, and proceeds to pick his way down into the lowest part of the city where they haven’t even remotely begun to explore and where McKay should really not be. There’s water on the floor from previous flooding and no lights to speak of, even when John thinks “on” at every possible turn. He’s glad he brought his P-90 with him, and wonders how the hell McKay navigated his way through here without leaving a trace.
“Unable to engage in pointless chatter,” McKay returns instantly, and John can hear him breathing heavily as if he’s struggling with something. Or someone. John picks up his pace.
“Busy as in on the edge of a new scientific discovery or busy as in running for your life and now would be a good time for me to save your sorry—”
“Busy, Major!” There’s the sound of beeping and a triumphant cackle from McKay. “Yes! Yes, I knew it. It just makes sense that they would … of course, they would, and it has to be here, there’s no other place …” and Sheppard can read the delight in McKay’s voice even if he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about.
“Care to share what you’ve found?”
But McKay’s still babbling to himself, something about lazy marine biologists and an unfortunate incident involving a cat and a pet fish, and Sheppard’s suddenly got a clear image of an eight-year-old Rodney chastising a wet cat while one good flush sends Goldberg to that place all dead goldfish go.
John stops. “You had a goldfish named Goldberg?” He can almost see McKay waving a hand in the air, brushing it off.
“Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Maybe you’ve heard of them? I—I played the piano. I had a goldfish. It all made perfect symmetrical sense at the time.”
“You play the piano?” John thinks it’s interesting how Rodney parcels out little bits of his life like this. Never too much at once, but small insights doled out patiently over time, letting John build a more complete picture. He likes what he sees.
“Used to. I wanted to be a pianist.”
Except John doesn’t hear pianist and he chokes into his microphone, and he can hear McKay’s angry, flustered tone when he comes back with “Why the hell does everyone do that? That’s the correct term. Pianist! Pianist!” and John wishes like hell McKay would stop saying it before John ruptures a lung trying not to laugh because maybe it’s the Canadian accent or the too-fast delivery, but it really doesn’t sound like pianist at all.
“Well, the fish and the music both ended up in the toilet, so it seems fitting,” McKay mumbles almost too softly to be heard, and something in his tone sobers John up enough to stop laughing.
When he catches his breath, he says, “McKay, I still don’t know where the hell you are.”
“Yes, yes.” Rodney’s voice is all impatience, and then he’s spouting directions that sound like he should’ve left John a ball of string to follow because chances are good they’re going to have a hell of a time finding their way back out. John didn’t even realize these corridors were down here, and it occurs to him he should ask how the hell McKay knew.
“Because I know everything,” comes the answer that’s so not a surprise, and John gives up and concentrates on following McKay’s convoluted directions. It doesn’t take long before he’s completely turned around, and he knows there’s a damn good reason he likes GPS. He likes knowing exactly where he is.
“McKay? I’m in an octagonal room with some sort of pillar in the middle.”
“You turned right at the mural of the dolphins, didn’t you?” John can almost hear Rodney rolling his eyes.
“You said go right.”
“I did not!”
“You did,” John protests, although he’s doing it more out of habit than any real conviction that McKay actually said it. There were a hell of a lot of directions spouted at him in a rapid-fire burst of lefts and rights, and it’s conceivable that he might’ve made a mistake. But he’s not about to let Rodney know that.
“All right, this isn’t getting you any closer to being less lost than you are now, so go back out to the mural and this time turn left.”
“And by ‘left’ you mean—”
“I mean left, you idiot! Left. You really have no sense of direction whatsoever, do you, Major. Let me spell it out for you. Left. That’s the opposite side to where you carry your sidearm, the side you wear your earpiece on, the side you dress to—”
“Whoa, getting a little personal, McKay!”
“Doesn’t make it less true.” The smugness in McKay’s voice is triumphant and John can feel the heat rising in his cheeks until it occurs to him to wonder why McKay knows he dresses to the left.
“And you’re paying attention because …”
A momentary stutter, then silence, and John thinks the unthinkable’s happened and he’s actually left Rodney speechless, but it turns out to be too good to be true.
“Because—because I’d have to be blind not to notice the way you swagger whenever there’s an alien babe within the vicinity.” It’s not Rodney’s best come-back ever, and the Captain Kirk stuff is getting really old, and “Hey, I do not swagger!” John says feeling mildly offended.
“Do too.” It’s barely a whisper, but John still feels defensive and can’t stop himself from saying, “It’s the holster. It pulls to the side,” and yeah, there’s no way Rodney’s going to believe that and the snort of laughter, sharp in his ear, confirms it.
“You can shut up now. I’m still armed,” John says. “And I’m holding your pudding cup hostage.”
He makes his way back out to the mural with the dolphins frolicking happily in the surf, and he’s sure McKay said “right” before, but of course, there’s no way to prove that, so he turns left and follows the mad scientist sounds of clunking and rattling. Sheppard’s got a weird stereo effect going on, so he knows he’s getting closer. He shoulders his P-90 and heads toward the lighted doorway.
“You said something about pudding?” McKay asks, not even bothering to turn around.
“Sorry, you must’ve heard wrong.” The scowl that’s tossed in John’s direction is the same one that makes grown scientists cry on a regular basis.
“Sure, taunt the hypoglycemic scientist. If I pass out from manly hunger, it’s on your head.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
McKay’s standing in a small room that looks like it might’ve been a lab once, tearing apart a door panel, and John has a nasty flashback to haz-mat suits and alien nano-viruses, and he wishes to hell Rodney wouldn’t just do these things without thinking about the consequences. Life in the Pegasus galaxy is dangerous enough without deliberately searching out trouble.
“Everything’s clean, and I’m not about to open anything that might be deadly,” Rodney says as if reading his mind, and John knows Rodney feels the loss of his scientists as much as John feels the loss of every soldier under his command. Possibly more because Rodney never trained for this. Never wanted this kind of responsibility for other people’s lives.
“Says the man trying to open the door by force.”
John walks in carefully, not swaggering at all, and McKay’s mouth quirks up at the corner just a little as his eyes follow him. John suddenly finds himself shifting his P-90 in front of him. He could shoot McKay and nobody would ever find the body. Nobody would blame him either.
“The door’s not dangerous, Major. In fact, if I’m right—which I usually am—the door’s going to provide more than a few answers to one of the mysteries of the Pegasus galaxy.” Rodney shifts a couple of crystals around, loops the wiring over in a manoeuvre that looks like it should require an extra hand, and grumbles when nothing happens.
“Well, what’s on the other side of the door,” McKay says irritably, continuing to shift wires around like a man who doesn’t appear to fear electrocution.
“And which mystery of the Pegasus galaxy are we solving today?” John asks, although he’s pretty sure he’s figured out the question if not the answer.
“Why there aren’t any fish.”
“Maybe they’re shy.” John says, rewarded by a snort from beside the door. “Or maybe …” John pauses dramatically, and Rodney’s looking over his shoulder at him with narrowed eyes, begging him to please not go there, but John grins recklessly and does it anyway, “maybe they’re all in schools.”
Rodney lets his head fall against the side of the door panel and thumps it lightly. “You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?”
“What do you call a fish with no eyes?”
“Fsh. What sits at the bottom of the ocean and shakes?”
“You had a very lonely childhood, didn’t you?” Rodney asks, turning around to stare at him.
“A nervous wreck! What day of the week do fish hate?”
“Maybe I was wrong.” Rodney looks almost thoughtful. “ Maybe there’s some kind of mind-altering agent—”
“Fry-day. Get it? Friday?”
“—that’s causing you to Lose. Your. Mind. And seriously, Major, I don’t think you can afford to lose any—”
“What lives in the ocean, is grouchy, and doesn’t like neighbours?”
Rodney stops and crosses his arms over his chest. “If the answer has anything to do with a certain physicist, I’m throwing you into the damn ocean when we get back up top.”
“A hermit crab.” John laughs. “But somebody’s touchy. Technically you live on the ocean, Rodney, not in it. What’s the difference between a piano and a fish?”
“Oh, for the love of God—”
“You can tune a piano, but—”
“You can’t tuna fish. Yes, I get it.” Rodney steps away from the door and puts his hands on John’s shoulders, then reconsiders and slaps one over John’s mouth, and John doesn’t even mind because it’s Rodney’s warm flesh pressed against his and Rodney’s laughing in spite of himself. John thinks he doesn’t see Rodney laugh nearly enough. “Now, you really need to stop this, or I’m not going to be held responsible for my actions. You can help me get the door open—without benefit of fish jokes—or I can knock you unconscious with a blunt object. Your choice.”
John nods his head to indicate he’ll behave and makes his eyes look innocent. Rodney snorts and says, “does that look actually work on anyone?,” but he lets him go and there’s only a faintly exasperated sound when Rodney wishes for a helper monkey and John suggests a “tuna helper” instead. The two of them spend another ten minutes working on the control panel before John remembers he’s got a gene that’s supposed to do this sort of stuff, and when he puts his hand on the centre of the door it slides open with a soft whoosh.
“I would’ve thought of that,” Rodney mutters, but then they’re stepping through the door into a cavernous room that looks like a holding pen for Sea World, and as far as the eye can see there are tanks containing specimens of every kind of fish John could ever imagine, and a lot that he couldn’t. Rainbow-striped fish with luminous eyes and silver bellies, dainty dark tendrils that look like lace but blink at him through glass, fish mouths making endless streams of bubbles that rise upwards out of sight.
“That one,” Rodney says, pointing to a blue fish with black spikes on top of its head. “We’re calling that the Sheppard fish.”
John pokes him in the side. They wander through the room that doesn’t seem to have an end, and John wonders if the Atlanteans knew something about the kind of mystical engineering that created Snoopy’s dog house or Oscar the Grouch’s garbage can, places where the inside is ten times larger than the outside. He knows Rodney’s thinking the exact same thing when he hears him whisper “It’s like the TARDIS” under his breath, and John reminds himself to put Dr. Who on the list of DVDs he needs to see if they ever get back to earth.
There are pink and brown starfish clustered against the side of a tank like a brand-new constellation and in the long dark room John thinks he hears whale song and the skittering laughter of dolphins. It’s like stepping into an aquatic Noah’s Ark, and John’s never been much for religion, but he can’t help but think this is some kind of miracle, a perfectly preserved collection of every aquatic life-form this planet could sustain.
Rodney’s staring at a tank full of dull grey flatfish with something akin to lust, and John rolls his eyes. “You’re picturing them sautéed with butter and a hint of dill, am I right?”
Rodney blinks, his cheeks brightening at being caught, and he says haughtily, “I was thinking no such thing.”
“Sure.” Rodney’s stomach growls in protest, and John almost digs out the pudding cup, but doesn’t. He still hasn’t decided what to do with the knowledge that Rodney’s been paying attention to his groin, and he might need the pudding to barter an answer out of him later. They keep walking.
Rodney says it first. “I knew it was wrong—that there weren’t any fish. Even when we were underwater, there was no sign of life anywhere. The planet’s mostly ocean, and there was nothing. No sea life whatsoever, and I thought maybe the Wraith had done something, poisoned the waters and killed them all, and maybe they did. Maybe that’s why this is here.”
“To save them,” John adds. “To keep them safe until the Ancients could come back and set them free.”
“Yeah.” Rodney’s voice is a reverent whisper and it feels right, like they’re talking in church and neither of them wants to break that sense of wonder. A giant turtle stares at them as it swims lazily past.
“But it’s been years, Rodney,” John says. “Thousands of years. They couldn’t have—”
The brain that’s as big as the ocean is already racing ahead, and John can almost see the possibilities forming in Rodney’s mind. It’s kind of intoxicating to watch Rodney think and John braces himself for a tidal wave of speculations and theories.
“The Ancients were experimenting with time travel. It’s possible they did something to this room, shifted the time here in a way that would let the animals live until they were released. They would’ve had to have automatic feeding systems, cleaning systems, something to keep the populations in check. I don’t know—I haven’t figured it all out yet.”
“But you will,” John says confidently, and the smile that Rodney beams back at him is enough to make him flush. Yeah, sometimes being around Rodney’s a bit like getting hit with a tsunami. But in a good way.
“Of course I will. We will.” Rodney gestures towards the giant aquariums surrounding them. “And maybe now my ichthyologist can start doing something useful instead of hanging out in the biology labs mooning over Dr. Morioka’s cell cultures. Whole planet of water and the marine biologists can’t find a damn thing to do without being told.”
John can already hear the tirade that the biologists are going to get, but underneath it is still that sense of wonder, and John thinks this is what it feels like to discover a new world. It’s better than when they walked through the stargate the first time. Then they already knew there was something beyond it, but this room was completely unexpected and John isn’t quite ready to share it with anyone else. Anyone who isn’t Rodney.
McKay’s making strides towards the door, mouth rambling off a to-do list that starts with telling Elizabeth and ends with the biologists working down here for the rest of their miserable lives, never seeing the light of day. John runs after him and grabs him by the arm.
“What?” Rodney says, and John just looks at him for a moment. He doesn’t know how to say it, doesn’t want to have to, and thankfully Rodney gets it, brain faster and smarter than anyone else’s, and sometimes it’s nice not having to spell everything out. Rodney swallows and looks around and nods. “Yeah, okay,” he says as if they’ve actually had a conversation, come to a decision together.
They walk through the room in silence, the faint smell of sea-water permeating the air even though the tanks are all sealed. John considers how nice it is to find something that hasn’t resulted in hideous injury or death, and doesn’t seem likely to. Something that’s going to be a good thing for all of them—for Atlantis—and not just because they might get to put fillet of sole on the menu.
When they come to the dolphins, they stand side-by-side and watch. A half-dozen silvered backs shimmering through the water, eyes alert and playful, and John wonders if the dolphins have any idea how happy they’ve made them just by being here. One of them seems to nod enthusiastically in their direction, and it takes John a moment to realize Rodney’s hand has slipped into his. It feels nice.
John squeezes the hand in his. Rodney makes a startled sound as if he hadn’t realized he’d taken John’s hand, but John refuses to let him slip away. They’re Lewis and Clark, Admiral Bird, and Jacques Cousteau all rolled into one. Well, two.
John tugs at Rodney’s hand and they make their way past angelfish and elegant rays, and John doesn’t even flinch when they pass the clown fish. They stand at the doorway and there’s a moment when John wishes they didn’t have to tell anyone, even if he knows that’s foolish, not to mention impossible.
“I kind of wish we could keep it to ourselves,” Rodney says almost shyly, and John nods.
“Yeah, it’s not every day we discover something so amazing.”
The blue eyes looking into his are the colour of the ocean, and it’s a small movement to lean down and kiss Rodney gently. His lips are softer than John had imagined, but it’s not surprising for a man who makes his own sunblock. He’s probably laid in a supply of lip balm too, and John can’t help but smile as he closes his eyes and lets the kiss go on. Slow, almost chaste, maybe a little surprised. He waits for Rodney to pull away.
John feels Rodney’s hand slip out of his grip, and then it’s there against his cheek, pulling him even closer, and suddenly Rodney’s opening himself up under John’s mouth. He tastes a little like coffee and yes, there’s cherry-flavoured lip balm as his tongue traces Rodney’s lips. John feels warm and a little dizzy, but he doesn’t want to stop and he doesn’t want it to end, and Rodney’s making a deep murmuring sound like he’s happy. John kisses him harder and makes him do it again.
They’re a tangle of arms wrapping around broad shoulders and Rodney gets his fingers in John’s hair and tugs him, reels him in so their lips are landing hard against one another, tongues darting and licking and the world is hot and wet and a little bit desperate, but it feels more and more right every moment that passes, and when Rodney murmurs, “what took you so long,” John doesn’t have an answer that makes any sense because of course, this is where they’ve always been headed.
John’s hands slip down Rodney’s back, fingers curving towards the roundness of his ass, and Rodney’s still kissing him like he invented the word, and John’s not in any position to offer an argument. He manoeuvres them against the wall and presses a thigh between Rodney’s legs, winning him a grunt and a grab at his ass. When there’s a sharp bite at his neck, John doesn’t so much jump as thrust against Rodney’s hip, and Rodney makes a triumphant sound that’s maybe a little too breathless to be considered smug. John’s hard and this is Rodney, and he’s perfectly willing to admit to more than a little repressed sexual tension between them the last few months, and he just doesn’t think the thrill of discovery is going to wear off any time soon. He finds Rodney’s mouth and kisses him again, and when Rodney grabs him and clutches him closer, neither of them is expecting the cool burst of liquid between them.
“Jesus, John!” Rodney says, and “Fuck, Rodney,” John says, and they stare at each other wide-eyed until John realizes they’re both still hard, neither of them has come, and the front of his vest is sticky with something that looks suspiciously like butterscotch pudding. Rodney reaches out a finger and swirls it in the mess, slides his finger into his mouth and pulls off with a satisfying pop that shouldn’t be sexy, but really, really is.
“Butterscotch,” Rodney confirms, but he’s grinning wildly and John leans in and kisses him until he can taste butterscotch on his own tongue.
“We should probably get back,” Rodney murmurs after a moment, and John nods reluctantly, wiping ineffectually at the mess on his vest.
“Big day. Lots of new discoveries.”
“Huge discoveries,” Rodney agrees, and nudges John with his shoulder. They make their way through the dark, damp corridors, past the dolphin mural and the fountain in the shape of a wave. Rodney’s got one hand on the transporter when John leans in and whispers, “Rodney.”
Rodney steps closer, wetting his lips with his tongue. “Yes?”
“Why did the dolphin cross the road?”
“He did it on porpoise!” John kisses him on the nose and laughs at the scowl on Rodney’s face. Oh, yeah, some jokes never get old.
John’s never been one for doing what he’s told, and he knows he’s taking a big chance, but he can’t help it. It’s like a disease. “Why is it so easy to weigh fish?”
“They come with scales.”
Rodney steps backwards into the transporter and says “help” in a kind of desperate tone that Atlantis seems to take seriously because before John can open his mouth again, they’re being whisked back upstairs. Just before the transporter doors open, Rodney kisses John hard and fast, and this is so new and dangerous John can’t help but ask, “what was that for?” although he’s pretty sure the answer is “to shut you up.”
“For the halibut,” Rodney says with a wink, and steps into the bright hallway heading towards the control room. Just for that John decides he’s not going to remind McKay he’s got pudding smeared across the front of his shirt. John turns and heads for his quarters, taste of butterscotch still sweet as discovery in his mouth.