John pockets his change and picks up the two paper bags, pretending not to notice the guy behind the counter flinch with every movement John makes in his direction. He got used to that some time ago, and has long stopped bothering to hide his claws. It never made any difference, anyway.
Stepping out of the small store is like stepping out of confinement, and John allows his shoulders to relax a little. It's dark, street lamps smothering the light of the stars, but he knows they're up there. The sky has been cloudless for almost a week now.
He walks along the quiet sidewalk, from shadow to light and back into shadow. The few people who are out on the street at this hour stare at him, some openly, some from the corners of their eyes. He doesn't care.
The air is cooler outside the town, the stored heat of the pavement giving way to a fresh breeze stirring the dry grass beside the road. It smells of dust and hay, and John takes a deep breath as he passes the last street lamp, trading neon light for the comfort of relative darkness. The waning moon and countless stars are more than enough to guide his steps. John's eyes show him the way as clearly as if it were noon.
He walks along the road for a while, past barns and wooden fence posts that still crackle faintly from the heat of day. He counts the small sheds - three, four - and turns to the right, walks through rustling wheat that barely reaches his hips toward a small cluster of trees. They stand in a loose circle, dark shapes before a starlit sky, swaying slightly in the breeze.
There's a figure standing in the middle of the small clearing, face tilted upward to watch the stars. John's eyes, so well-adapted to the dark, can make out every detail: the shabby jeans, the faded t-shirt, the dusty boots; all much like John's own clothes, except John's shirt is long-sleeved, black. But in the dark, there is no colour, not even for him. Still, he can see the smooth, almost featureless face just fine; the thin cables running down the side of a neck that isn't covered with skin, instead revealing glinting metal and artificial muscle.
The android doesn't react as John steps into the clearing, nor to the crinkle of paper as John sets the bags down next to their backpacks. His fingers brush against the grass, and the dry stalks catch on the scales with an unpleasant rasp. John grimaces.
"Rodney," he says, "some help?" The provisions he bought won't move from the bags to their packs all on their own.
Rodney looks at the stars for a moment longer, then he turns his face to John, slightly crooked lips turning into a smile.
"Sure," he says, and John smiles back.
John signed up for the Earth Force when he was sixteen, barely old enough to join. The War had been going on less than a year, all patriotic music and high spirits, and John had fallen in love with the images of sleek, fast space ships stabbing holes into the enemy's ranks like knives, sharp and deadly.
He wanted to fly so bad.
He didn't know, back then, that the time of human reflexes being considered fast enough to fly anything but passenger planes was over, that the pictures of hotshot pilots climbing into their X-307s were nothing more than propaganda. He didn't know that technology had already far surpassed his imagination. The moment he passed muster, they turned him over to the ground troops.
They turned him.
Another small town, whitewashed bungalows standing in neat rows, front lawns carefully kept straight and green. So far, John has counted two churches, three supermarkets, one shopping mall and two gas stations. Plenty of cars line the sidewalks; there are flowers in the streets, ruffled curtains in the windows. The War has never reached this place.
The only difference from the last town they passed through is that here the whispers are a little louder, the hostility a little less concealed. No one's following them, not yet, but the stares make the little hairs on the back of John's neck prickle. Rodney's ranting a little about ungrateful idiots, thankfully under his breath, but John can tell that his heart's not in it. That's good; much as John likes Rodney's newfound appreciation for sarcasm, he doesn't have time to deal with it right now. He only wants them to get out of there, because he knows what humans can be like.
He used to be one, once.
John left the Earth Force when he was thirty-six, the War won and Earth under a shiny new government that swore it only wanted the best for its people. All of them.
John, one of the few survivors of his company, wasn't inclined to believe it, but they gave him a medal and his papers and enough money to buy a house and settle down, if that was what he wanted. What they didn't give him was his life back.
They didn't give him a handshake, either.
John is restless as the adrenaline leaves him. They're a good way away from the town, nothing around them but gently sloping hills and fields of golden wheat, but the peace of the scenery can't touch him now. He's pacing, clenching and unclenching his fists, claws not quite breaking the skin where they're digging into his palms.
Rodney's standing next to where their backpacks are lying on the dry grass. He's watching John. He's always watching, analysing, learning, and usually John likes being the one to teach him stuff, to show him the things he wasn't programmed to know. Not now, though. Now his scales are itching, every ridge and bump feeling alien on his skin, the urge to punch something twitching in his fingers.
He wonders, in a small, dark corner of his mind, how many others there are like him, strangers on their own planet. It can't be many. The ground troops were always the first to be sent in, the last to be pulled out. Expendable, canon fodder, and eventually just not replaced anymore.
He wonders, with that same dark interest, if any of the survivors have killed a human yet. If, for any of them, the pull of that familiar, mindless haze has proven irresistible. They've purged whole worlds of Priors, Wraith, by ripping them to shreds. Killing a human would be so easy.
A hand on his arm stops him mid-pace, and John wants to jerk away, except Rodney's already pulling him in, smooth and cool and unafraid. John is already breathing hard as he hides his face in Rodney's neck, a warm cable resting against his cheek as he shudders through the restlessness. Rodney holds him, steady and tight and smelling faintly of ozone. Familiar. John swallows, gasps as Rodney cups a hand over the bulge at the front of his pants and squeezes, pleasure bordering just shy of pain. He pants, trembles, as Rodney rubs and pulls and strokes, the itch beneath his scales turning into a sharp, painful burn.
"John. Let it out," Rodney whispers, and John does, aching and hollow and lost.
The android didn't have a name when John met him. He barely had a personality, standing still and bewildered in the small, snow-covered backyard as the teenagers circled him, five boys about the same age as John had been when his life had been changed irrevocably. They all had sticks, one of them a baseball bat, half-frozen muck squelching around their feet as they moved. The android had nothing but his bare hands, half-raised in a gesture of surrender.
John wanted to walk by, he really did. This was none of his business; he was just there for provisions. And this smooth-skinned machine had gotten to fly an X-307 when all John had gotten was blue skin and weird eyes and to watch his friends die by fire. When all he'd gotten was to watch the expression on his father's face as he had taken one look at him and thrown him out again, ashamed and fearing for his reputation. No, he'd just leave the thing to fend for itself.
So John went his way and didn't look back. And then he heard the sound of something hard striking something soft and turned back after all, because that android might be walking proof of all that had gone wrong for him, but it was still a survivor of the War. It didn't deserve this shit.
John's approach was enough to make the boys run, as he himself might have run, twenty years ago, if he'd encountered something that looked the way John did now. The android hadn't moved, still standing with its hands raised and its eyes wide. Some of the pale skin had been torn from its neck, but the damage looked to be nothing more than superficial. It would take a lot more than that to damage an android.
"Thank you," it said, in a voice as smooth and featureless as its face. John shook his head.
"You'll need to learn to take care of yourself," he said, and turned to go.
He meant it as a general advice, something to rid himself of the responsibility he'd just shouldered without meaning to.
He never expected the android to tag along.
The sky is still cloudless and the air still warm, so John doesn't bother putting up a tent for the night. They spread their blankets next to a small shed away from the road, beside a stack of freshly-mown hay. Rodney doesn't sleep so he will keep watch, but John isn't tired yet, and so they lie on their backs, breathing in the late-summer scents and stargazing, Rodney pointing out the constellations. He knows them all, the knowledge programmed into him along with how to calculate velocity vectors, how to repair an X-307 in space, how to program a drone.
By now, John can tell the stars apart himself, but he likes listening to the soft cadence of Rodney's voice. Rodney has picked the Canadian manner of inflection as part of his kludgy personality, god knows why, and ever since he figured out that John doesn't really like his own helpless silence, he's been talking enough for both of them.
"... and that is Cygnus, the Swan. A swan is a bird that-"
"I know what a swan is, Rodney," John drawls, keeping his gaze on the stars.
"Yes, of course you do." Rodney's tone is patronising, and John likes that, too. He'll never get the basic innocence out of Rodney - doesn't want to - but he's always preferred snappy to meek. Rodney's picked up on that as well. "So tell me, Mr. Know-it-all, what does a swan look like?"
John doesn't point out that, technically, it's Lieutenant Colonel Know-it-all; that he'd climbed the ranks as high as a ground soldier could reach. Instead, he says, "Pretty."
Rodney's self-righteous rant about certain people and their fondness of insufficient data carries him into sleep.
"I need a name," the android said one day while they were waiting out the rain beneath a tree. The road had turned into a shallow river, muddy-brown water coming up to their ankles while bubbles slowly drifted on the current. Every now and then, a car splashed by. Fat drops of water kept dripping into John's neck no matter how he shifted, and the rain didn't look to be letting up any time soon. It was irritating.
"So pick one," he told the android, blowing out an exasperated breath as he brushed a wet strand of hair from his forehead. Again.
"I can't," the android said earnestly, "all the facts I've gathered so far indicate that, traditionally, one's first name is chosen by another."
John glanced at the android. It wasn't always easy to tell one expression on its smooth face from another, but now it was looking hopeful, open, raindrops caught in its weirdly long eyelashes.
"Your mouth is kind of crooked, you know," John observed absently. Did all androids have blue eyes?
"Manufacturing error." The android blinked. "Will you give me a name?"
John blew out another breath and looked out into the rain like it might give him inspirations. There was a road sign right across from their tree, half-obscured by the sheets of falling water. "Meredith's Nail & Spa 1.3 Miles" it said in huge, garishly pink letters and for a moment, John was tempted.
"Rodney," he said.
Rodney's Bar and Grill back home - back when he'd still had a home - used to have the best damn chicken wings one could imagine. It was a good memory.
"Rodney," the android repeated. "Thank you."
John shrugged. "You're welcome."
It must have rained here, because the fallows they're walking through are a lush green, dotted with red and white and yellow. The grass is high, easily reaching up to John's waist and higher, and even though the air doesn't move he can smell the sweetness of the flowers. A small bird scolds them as they step too close to its nest, and the buzz of insects is so loud it's almost deafening.
Or maybe that's just John's own bug-gene-enhanced hearing.
"Look. Butterflies." John points at the brightly-coloured flutter of wings, and Rodney scoffs. He usually tries to pretend that he doesn't like nature, but John knows that he loves its little everyday wonders: butterflies, rainbows, a snail creeping up a stalk of grass. As much as Rodney can love anything, that is; John admittedly has no idea what's really going on in that human-built brain of his.
He wonders if Rodney sees him as a marvel of nature too, or if to him John is more like himself, artificial and potentially deadly. He wonders, sometimes, though he tries not to, why Rodney stays with him. John is damaged; not like Rodney with the torn skin over his neck, but inside, where no one can see it. He's a bad influence. Already he has changed Rodney's personality, although how much of that is real is anyone's guess. Privately, John thinks that the only thing about Rodney that isn't human is his blood. Rodney doesn't bleed, at all, and the scratches on his skin don't heal unless John smears them closed with silicone and watches as it gets absorbed into Rodney, leaving unblemished skin behind. Apart from that, he thinks that Rodney is as human as they come, slowly learning what it means to feel, but that doesn't explain what tethers him to John. It won't be the same need that makes John nervous when he's out of sight, that's for sure.
Maybe Rodney only stays because he knows he makes John feel grounded. Maybe he-
"John! What's that?"
John turns from where he'd been staring sightlessly across the fallow. Rodney's crouched down before something hidden in the grass, carefully not touching as he points. John steps up behind him and squints down, finally spotting a tiny black head attached to a slender brown body. The whole thing's not longer than an earthworm, smooth scales catching the sun.
"Snake," he says, and smiles at the expression on Rodney's face, the light of discovery.
Rodney once told John that he killed people, too. John replied that no, John had killed people.
All Rodney had done was press a button.
They make it almost into autumn before the shit finally hits the fan. Rodney is waiting in front of the store while John buys their provisions from a smiling young shopkeeper. His provisions, really, because apart from the thing with the scratches, Rodney's pretty much self-sustaining. The shopkeeper's smiling at him, bright and honest in a way that makes her cheeks dimple, and twenty years ago he might have tried flirting with her. She's pretty, petite, with dark eyes, brown skin and brown hair. She's also way out of his league and Rodney's waiting outside, so John smiles back, takes the paper bags she hands him, and leaves.
He knows they've run out of luck the moment he sets foot out of the store. Rodney stands with his hands shoved into his jeans pockets, staring at the small group of people who have gathered on the street. He's tense, and with good reason.
The leader - there's always a leader - steps forward. He's just a regular guy in his lumberjack shirt, jeans and leather boots; no one special, really. He's also dangerous.
"We don't want your kind 'round here," he says, and yeah, that's kind of obvious.
"What, the kind that defended your planet?" Rodney snaps, and for a moment, John is proud of him. "Yes, I can see how that would be off-putting."
"Rodney." He grabs Rodney's arm and pulls him along, picking up speed as he nods at the guy who just spoke. "Just passing through."
There's no acknowledgement of his words, just a low murmur, an angry buzz that grows in volume the further they walk into the town, just as the group following them is growing in number. John curses himself for not walking back the way they came at the first sign of trouble. They could have taken the long way around; god knows they have the time, but it's too late to turn around now. He can only hope they'll make it out of here with nothing more than scratches.
The first stone misses him by an arm's length. The second one hits his thigh and he stumbles, but he keeps walking, dragging Rodney along because the moment they stop they will have to fight and these are bigots, not the enemy. He doesn't want to hurt them.
Except the stones are flying now, the buzz rising to a hateful cheer, and John gives up any pretence that this might turn out well.
"Run!" he yells, and Rodney does. Behind them, the crowd roars, but it's okay; Rodney is fast, they both are fast, they can outrun-
Something hits the back of his head, black blooming across his vision as he falls. He tries to catch himself, but the pavement swims out of focus, tilting sideways to be replaced by the sky. The rush in his ears drowns out everything else, but he still thinks he hears a horrible keening noise, or maybe it's his own whimper.
Then the world tilts again, sky to black, and all the noise is gone.
Later, Teyla - the pretty shopkeeper - will tell him how Rodney caught him when he fell, how the sound from his throat made the mob falter. How people had stared in silence as Rodney hunched over John's motionless body, the anguish on his face making him appear no less human than any of them.
She'll tell him how Rodney broke Teyla's friend Ronon's arm with an almost careless gesture when he stooped to pick John up, and how he refused to let go of him even after they had convinced him that they were going to see a doctor.
And John will wonder.
They leave the town a few days later, John with a pocket full of pain meds and a lingering headache. It's early afternoon, the air is cool but still carrying the scents of late summer, and he thinks they'll make it a few miles yet before they'll have to put up their tent.
Or they would, if Rodney didn't keep slowing them down.
"Doctor Beckett mended the fracture in your skull," he says earnestly, "but he said you still have a light concussion. A concussion is when-"
John sighs. "I know what a concussion is, Rodney."
Rodney smirks, and John thinks he's maybe pulling his leg.
"I think we could have stayed there, for a while," Rodney says after a pause. "Ronon didn't seem to be holding the thing with his arm against me, and that guy, Jervis, he even apologised, though to be honest I think Teyla made him. And Doctor Beckett, he said a lot of interesting things."
John throws him a glance. Rodney's just walking, not looking particularly weary, but-
"Did you want to stay?" He tries to act like it's no big deal.
"What? No. Not particularly." Another pause. Rodney knots and unknots his fingers, then he shrugs. "I thought perhaps you wanted to. You know. Get that home you were talking about."
Something inside John relaxes.
"Nah. I've got everything I need."
"Oh. Okay." Rodney smiles, quick and crooked and almost pleased, and that seems to be the end of that particular discussion.
It starts to drizzle a little, fine raindrops that barely deserve the name clinging to his scales. John doesn't mind. The water isn't cold, and he missed the fresh air during the days he was cooped up in the small hospital, whitewashed walls and windows that wouldn't open. The leaves have already started to change their colour, and he regrets that he missed the beginning of it.
"Hmm?" John walks a few steps before he realises that Rodney's stopped in the middle of the road. He turns. "What?"
Rodney looks oddly hesitant. Fine droplets of water cling to his long lashes. John wants to brush them away. "I... Can I kiss you?"
John's heart shouldn't be beating faster at this. Rodney's held him after each shaky adrenaline high, has touched and let himself be touched in return. There's not an inch of his pale, cool skin that John doesn't know. He's familiar, and they've done almost everything they can with one of them being an android. A small thing like a kiss shouldn't send John's pulse racing.
Looks like his heart didn't get the message.
"Oh, uh." He clears his throat, reaching desperately for nonchalance and not finding it. "Okay."
Rodney's face lights up and he steps close again. Close enough to touch. Close enough to kiss.
John licks his lips.
Rodney's gaze flickers to his mouth and stays there.
John holds his breath.
Rodney leans in, slowly, like he's not quite sure what to do. John's eyes flutter closed and he waits, breathlessly, but the next touch he feels isn't Rodney's lips on his. It's Rodney's hand on his cheek, soft and smooth against the scales, on his skin as Rodney's thumb brushes along his cheekbone. Rodney's other hand rests on the back of his neck, cooler even than the rain, and his finger tangle with the soft hairs in John's nape.
John lets out his breath because it's that or faint, and he inhales again, sharply, when he realises that this own hands are resting lightly on Rodney's hips.
He thought they'd touched in almost every way, but he was wrong. They never did anything even remotely like this.
"I'm going to kiss you now," Rodney whispers against his lips, and John nods, his eyes still closed.
Rodney's mouth is as smooth as the rest of him, cool and soft against John's own. The kiss is chaste, just a lingering touch of lips on lips, but it feels like the most intimate thing John has ever done. And he presses into it, lets the contact linger for an endless moment while the rain slowly soaks them. His heart is pumping fast, and he thinks if Rodney opened his lips he could drown in them.
Then Rodney pulls back, and John slowly opens his eyes. Rodney's face is inches from his own, his gaze searching, questioning. For a long moment, John doesn't understand what he's looking for.
"That was... nice," he croaks, and Rodney's expression breaks into a smile.
"It was, wasn't it?" He looks utterly self-satisfied as he steps back. "Can we do it again?"
"Tonight," John says quickly, because the last thing he needs is an erection on the open road. Rodney nods agreeably enough, and they resume their walking, side by side, except now their shoulders bump together every few steps, and they keep throwing each other little grins. John feels like a schoolboy looking forward to his birthday party.
Then Rodney frowns.
"What now?" It's not another kissing-related question, is it? Because John honestly can't deal with anything kissing-related right now; not and retain his dignity. But Rodney's question turns out to be something else altogether.
"What's a 'daft bugger'?"
John grins. "Someone like you," he says, and lets Rodney's splutter be the counterpoint to their footsteps.
He's feeling pretty damn good.