I should get off this crazy show. – Josh Gates, Destination Truth
The job had come via a friend of a friend, and at just the right time. John had been at loose ends since his discharge from the Air Force, bouncing from place to place trying to find something to do with himself. He’d never expected that something to be operating a camera for a cable show with the ridiculous name of The Mysterious Unknown.
“This is a very competitive field.” Kyle Dorsey, the charismatic face of the show, explained. “There are a lot of groups out there right now exploring the same phenomena we are, with varying levels of seriousness. But we have the best tech, the most far-flung locations, and our secret weapon.”
“Secret weapon?” John followed Kyle through a maze of equipment boxes and shelving units at the MU headquarters. He was easily a couple inches taller than John, who was six foot, and very solidly built.
“Rodney. He’s kind of a jerk, but for some reason the fans love him. He’s our tech guy.”
“How big is your crew?”
They came to a door and Kyle held it open for him to pass through. On the other side was a conference room with a long table and a large flat screen TV on the wall. All the chairs were empty.
“Well, there’s me. Lead investigator, host and co-producer,” he said. “Rodney McKay, tech specialist. Laura Cadman and Ronon Dex, field investigators. Ronon is our field medic as well. Evan Lorne, our primary cameraman. And Teyla Emmagan. She’s our cultural go-between and case manager. Have a seat.”
John plunked himself down in the nearest chair, letting himself sprawl. It was becoming less of a conscious choice the more distance he put between himself and the Air Force. “And you hunt ghosts and monsters.”
Kyle sat opposite him, elbows on the table. He had a very open expression, which probably translated well on camera, and a lot of laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. “Something like that. I know, it sounds stupid, right? But you wouldn’t believe how people eat this shit up. They want to believe.”
“Do you believe in it?” John couldn’t help being skeptical, which he’d been told wasn’t a deal breaker during his interview. In his experience there was enough real-world terror out there without needing to go searching for ghosts.
Kyle grinned, shrugging. “Our job is to show that the paranormal is a possibility. As long as people keep having creature sightings or brushes with the otherworldly, there’s always a chance of making a discovery. We’re not out to debunk or provide definitive proof, just help people keep open minds. It’s the looking, not the finding.”
“That doesn’t really answer my question.”
Kyle gave him an appraising look. “No, it doesn’t. Let’s just say that I’ve had some experiences since doing this show that I can’t explain away.”
It all sounded pretty hokey to John, but it was a paying job with the added benefit of free travel. And as the camera man he didn’t need to be a believer; no-one was going to see his face, or ask his opinion.
“So what do you want me to do first?”
“I’m gonna have you train with Evan for a couple of days, get you used to the equipment. He’ll also give you a crash course in how we work in the field.” Kyle leaned forward, a gleam in his eye. “We leave in four days for Ohio.”
“What’s in Ohio?”
“Lake monster. I hope you know how to swim.”
“You signed all the waivers?” she asked, quickly scanning his file.
“Yeah. In triplicate.” John sat on the edge of her desk, one leg dangling. “Do I need to sign over my first born too?”
Teyla grinned. “You will fit in just fine, John. Kyle says you did well with the camera during your interview.”
He shrugged. “I’m handy with electronics.”
“And how do you work under pressure? It can be very stressful out in the field.”
John just looked at her, one eyebrow raised. He knew the file she was reading made mention of his military service. Teyla just stared back at him until he looked away.
“Your file tells me nothing of your reactions.”
“I’m fine. I can do the job.” It wasn’t like running a camera was particularly dangerous, not like flying an Apache into a hot zone.
“It was not my intention to upset you.” Teyla closed the folder and clasped her hands together over it. “There are unique challenges associated with this job. You will often be in harsh foreign environments, traversing unfamiliar ground in the dark. If there is anything I need to know about you that would negatively affect your ability to work under those conditions you need to tell me now.”
“I can do the job,” John reiterated.
“We shall see how you handle Ohio. And Rodney.” There was a tinge of amusement in Teyla’s voice.
“Is he a hardass or something?” John relaxed a bit now that the focus was off his ability to wield a camera.
“He can be…difficult. He is a perfectionist, and expects others to be as well. It can lead to conflict.” Teyla tipped her head towards the bookshelves along one wall of her office; they were lined with DVDs. “Perhaps you should watch some of our old episodes.”
“No thanks. I’d rather make first impressions in person.”
“Fair enough.” Teyla held out one slim hand. “Welcome to the team.”
“Is that what happened to the last guy?” John asked.
“Nah. He was chicken shit.” Evan snorted. “Dude was afraid of his own shadow.”
They got the last of the cameras safely stowed, and then sat side by side drinking bottled waters. Evan had turned out to be a pretty decent guy, cute in a wholesome kind of way that had never really been John’s thing. He’d walked John through the basics of all the cameras they regularly used – trap cameras, infrared cameras, underwater cameras, surveillance cameras, POV cameras, and one specialty camera that Rodney had created that recorded thermal signatures, ambient temperatures and EMF readings.
“Can I ask you something?” John capped his empty bottle and picked at the label.
“How bad is Rodney? Kyle said he was a jerk.”
Evan made a face. “Kyle and McKay don’t get along too well. Strong personalities, you know? But McKay’s not such a bad guy. He’s had a rough go of things, but he’s a freakin’ genius.”
“Rough go?” John normally didn’t bother with gossip, but he was throwing himself in with a bunch of strangers and the more information he could gather the better he could navigate his new job without stepping on any toes.
“I don’t know all the details. But he used to be a pretty big deal. Scientist. He was working on something, alternative energy sources I think, and the government basically co-opted all his research and made a weapon out of it. He had a nervous breakdown after that.” Evan gave him long look. “I wouldn’t mention that you’re former military.”
John wondered what had given him away. His hair had grown out and he’d finally stopped wearing his tags, though most days he still felt undressed without them. “Kyle tell you?”
Evan shook his head. “Takes one to know one. Lieutenant Evan Lorne, Air Force Reserves.”
“Ah. Former Major myself.” He waited for Evan to ask about it, but the kid just sat there looking pensive. It had been a less than honorable discharge, though not quite a Big Chicken Dinner, and he really didn’t want to talk about it.
“You want to grab some lunch?”
“Lunch sounds good,” John said agreeably.
“Great. When we get back we can go out to the barn and practice with the infrared cameras.” Evan clapped him on the shoulder. “You’ll get the hang of this in no time.”
For all of his size, Ronon turned out to have a very gentle touch. He was an LPN and, while John’s physical had been done at his doctor’s office, Ronon was putting him through his paces with a variety of stress tests to see how he’d react to high elevation, extreme temperatures and uneven footing.
Laura seemed to be there for the sole purpose of heckling him, and occasionally acting as an elusive creature for him to try and track with a dummy camera while being hit with water from a hose or paper blown by a high-powered fan. John was pretty sure he didn’t embarrass himself too badly, though he wasn’t sure the job was worth all this trouble. By the time he’d been tested to Ronon’s satisfaction he was soaked to the skin and covered with dirt and bits of soggy paper.
“Gee, thanks.” John sat on an overturned bucket and let Ronon take his blood pressure and check his lung sounds. “Does everyone have to do this?”
“All the field investigators do,” Laura said, perched on a crate with her elbows on her knees. She had long, reddish-blonde hair in two braids and a one-of-the-guys disposition that had put John at ease almost right away. She was wearing a shirt with the MU logo on it.
“McKay refused,” Ronon said. He pulled the pressure cuff off John’s arm with a rip of Velcro, and rolled it up to stuff back in his medical bag.
“I hear he’s difficult to work with.”
Laura sputtered out a laugh. “Rodney? Difficult? Yeah, that’s an understatement.”
“He’s not so bad,” Ronon said. “All bark, not so much bite.”
“He’s like the king of base camp. That’s his thing. He watches the monitors, makes sure everything records properly, and likes to be left alone.” Laura shrugged. “Personally, I wouldn’t want to sit out alone most of the places we go, but he seems to prefer it.”
John nodded, adding that to his mental picture of Rodney McKay. “So what made you two take jobs as field investigators?”
Ronon produced a couple beers from his medical bag – a practice John whole-heartedly approved of – and passed them around before he answered. “Saw an ad in the paper. They were looking for someone with medical experience, and I was looking to get out of the nursing homes. Too depressing.”
“Kyle found me,” Laura said. “I was doing amateur ghost hunts, posting them on YouTube. He said he liked my refreshingly spunky attitude.”
That pulled a laugh out of Ronon, and John grinned. So far the whole team seemed like a really cool group of people, and he was looking forward to getting to know them better. The only wildcard was Rodney.
“This is very delicate equipment, so tell those apes in baggage handling to be careful with it. Hello? Are you listening to me?”
The equipment cases were plentiful and stacked high by the check-in counter. Standing in the middle of them was a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing an orange fleece pullover, despite the fact that the weather outside the airport was a balmy eighty-six.
“Dr. McKay,” the man behind the counter said patiently. “We’ll take the utmost care with your equipment. As we always do.”
“That’s easy for you to say, you just stand out here and put tags on. I want those idiots in the back to be careful!”
He was talking so loud that the so-called idiots probably had no trouble hearing him. John just shook his head. Kyle might have been right, this guy sounded like a jerk. Ronon stayed behind with Rodney while John followed the rest of the team through security and along the concourse until they reached their gate; they had about two hours to kill before the flight left. He sat beside Evan, backpack between his feet, and pulled out his Sudoku book and a pen.
“You a numbers guy?” Evan asked.
“I guess.” John didn’t bother to mention his degree in mathematics; he’d always felt vaguely embarrassed by his own intelligence. He got through three puzzles before Rodney dropped heavily into the seat on his other side, jostling John with his elbow.
“Hey!” he protested, rubbing the spot on his arm that had just been brutally jabbed.
“Sorry.” Rodney settled himself and then turned to look John over. “You’re the new guy? What’s wrong with your hair?”
John refrained from reaching up to touch. “Nothing.” It wasn’t his fault he’d inherited the cowlicks from his mother’s side of the family. He’d had more than one person exclaim surprise that he didn’t put product in it to get it to stick up the way it did.
“Dr. Rodney McKay.” He thrust his hand out and John shook it.
“Do you believe in ghosts? The Loch Ness Monster? Little green men from outer space?” Rodney studied him intently. “Are you hoping to see Bessie on this little excursion?”
“No, no and I’m pretty sure they’re grey, not green.” John couldn’t help smirking. This guy was certainly right-to-the-point, which was kind of refreshing. “Who’s Bessie?”
“Bessie is a lake monster that’s supposed to live in Lake Erie. There’s no definitive proof now, nor will there be when we’re done. So whatever romantic notions you may have of capturing the creature you’d better let it go right now and save yourself the heartbreak.”
“Geez, McKay, it’s his first field op. Don’t ruin it for him,” Evan protested, leaning around John to glare at Rodney.
“I’m not ruining it. Just injecting a little reality check, or have you already forgotten about Tran and the chupacabra?”
“Let it go,” Ronon said in his deep, rumbling voice from his seat opposite them. John wasn’t sure who he was talking to, but both Evan and Rodney shut right up and sat back in their seats. John nodded at Ronon, who nodded back and then returned to the book he was reading.
John chuckled and turned his attention back to the math puzzles. Whatever else happened on this trip it was sure to be entertaining.
“I’ve got it, Rodney, relax,” Kyle said behind clenched teeth. He was using a wireless earpiece to communicate back to base camp, a nice little piece of tech that they all had which kept their hands free for other, more important pieces of equipment.
John kept the camera on Kyle, who was lowering the underwater cam off the side of the boat. They were in the middle of the lake, getting some daytime shots before they came back after dark for the more dramatic ones using the IR cameras. He was with Kyle and Laura, while Evan and Ronon were off filming some local color. That may or may not have been code for scoping out bars.
It was cool out on the lake, even in the middle of the day. John had already gotten some good establishing shots and a nice panned view of the lake shore. Laura was monitoring the sonar, looking for signs of life big enough to be of value to them; anything that could swim past the camera and perhaps be perceived as something other than it was. Not lying, really, she’d explained to John. Just helping the mythology along a bit.
“Rodney, are you getting a visual?”
Clear as mud, came the disgruntled reply. Visibility is crap, the water’s too dirty.
Kyle sighed, looking at the monitor himself to confirm that he was seeing the same images Rodney was getting remotely. “We’ll do the best we can and clean it up in post. Just keep recording.”
“Lighting is good,” Laura said from her perch near the front the boat. Her hair was up in a loose bun. “You should do the intro.”
“You rolling?” Kyle asked John.
“All set. Go ahead.”
Kyle moved to the railing, which afforded a partial view of the boat and the expanse of the lake behind him. John tried a couple of different positions and angles until he got one that he thought really worked, and gave his boss the high sign.
“The MU team is here on Lake Erie to investigate sightings of a lake monster known locally as Bessie. These sightings date back to the late 1700’s, when fisherman from Lower Sandusky reported seeing a large aquatic reptile in these waters. In the last three decades, sightings have increased in frequency. Wait…that’s right, isn’t it? Three decades?” Kyle looked over at Laura for confirmation but it was John that answered.
“Thirty years. Unless you mean three centuries, which is three hundred years.”
Kyle scowled and pulled some notes out of his pocket. “No, okay. It was right. The last three decades. Let’s start from the top.”
They got set up again. “The MU team is here on Lake Erie to investigate sightings of a lake monster known locally as Bessie. These sightings date –”
“We’ve got something!” Laura crowed, interrupting Kyle’s spiel. “Something big, I just saw it on the sonar.”
John pointed the camera at her, and then at Kyle who quickly came to look over her shoulder.
“What is that?”
“Uh, guys?” John kept the camera on them but craned his neck to look at the monitor showing the underwater view. “Something just went in front of the camera.”
What the hell was that? It was huge!
“Copy that, Rodney.” Kyle abandoned Laura for the other monitor. The picture was murky at best, but once again something very large swam in front of the camera and even knocked right into it.
Pull it up! Pull it up!
“I’m on it!” Kyle pulled at the rope tethering the camera to the boat. John’s heart was in his throat when something clearly tugged back, almost yanking it out of Kyle’s hands, and it looked for a minute like they might lose the camera. But then the resistance was gone and the pricey piece of equipment was safely hauled back on the deck of the boat.
“Tell me we got that, Rodney!”
We got it. Did your new camera man get the shots?
“Five by five,” John replied cheekily.
It was the most exciting part of the Ohio trip, aside from Rodney getting propositioned by a transvestite out at one of the local clubs that night, and John was disappointed when their underwater footage was analyzed and the report came back that they’d turned up nothing more interesting than a very large, disgruntled sturgeon.
John found himself once again sandwiched between Evan and Rodney, the latter tapping away at the laptop he’d brought with him. Ronon was the last one through the door and he came with a basket full of banana nut muffins.
“Citrus free,” he assured Rodney, who snatched the first one but then hesitated with the muffin halfway to his mouth.
“Not a fan of oranges?” John asked. He wondered if Ronon had baked the muffins himself; they were delicious, and still warm.
“I’m deathly allergic, if you must know.”
John made a mental note of that, and then couldn’t help staring as Rodney started to eat. He tore into the muffin like a starving man, but it was the pornographic noises he made that really captured John’s attention. He could feel himself blushing, his thoughts immediately going to very inappropriate places. Evan bumped him with his shoulder.
“You’ll get used to it,” he said. His face was alight in amusement. “McKay’s a food whore.”
“What?” Rodney sputtered, spraying crumbs in a fairly revolting fashion. John put a protective hand over his own muffin.
“Can we get down to business, please?” Teyla asked, one eyebrow quirked. Everyone quieted, except Rodney who had finished eating and was back to typing. “We have some stateside possibilities that seem promising.”
The TV screen behind her was turned on, displaying a Power Point presentation. John picked at his muffin while he watched the information interspersed with photographs cross the screen.
“Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, reportedly home to the spirit of Floyd Collins. He was trapped in the cave in 1925 and died before he could be rescued. The shaft was sealed off and the body left where it lay.”
“That sounds really good,” Kyle said. A photo of the dour looking Floyd popped up on the screen. “Is his body still there?”
“No. According to the records, Mr. Collins’ brother recovered his remains and had him buried on family property. Two years later the property was sold and the body was exhumed and displayed in a glass coffin.”
Rodney stopped typing. “That’s morbid. What the hell did they display him like that?”
“He was a celebrity in his day,” Teyla explained. “More for his failed rescue than his role as a pioneering cave explorer. The rescue attempt made national news. Collins was down there for fourteen days before he died.”
John couldn’t help but agree with Rodney’s assessment. He didn’t like open caskets in general, but a glass coffin after two years? That was just gross.
“So he’s still on display?” Kyle asked.
Teyla shook her head. “His body was stolen two years after he had been put on display in Crystal Cave. It was eventually recovered but they never found his leg, the one that had become injured and caused him to be trapped in the first place.”
“So where is he now?”
“Crystal Cave was closed to the public in the 60s, and at the family’s request Mr. Collins was reinterred in 1989.”
Evan nodded. “If there was ever a spirit who had a reason to roam, my money’s on Floyd.”
“Mammoth Cave is a national park,” Ronon said. “We’ll need special permission to film there.”
“I have that covered,” Teyla replied. “Rodney?”
“Won’t be our first time filming in tight quarters. It’ll be a challenge, but it’s not impossible.” Rodney nodded his head at John. “The new guy seems pretty bendy.”
“Hey!” John protested.
“That’s Rodney’s way of complimenting you,” Laura said with a smirk. “I happen to know he watched a lot of the raw footage from Ohio. He thinks you’ve got a good eye.”
“I’m perfectly capable of speaking for myself,” Rodney snapped at her.
“Moving on,” Teyla said forcefully. “Devil’s Gate, California.”
“Oh! Yes!” Laura was practically bouncing in her seat. “We have to do that one!”
“You are familiar with the story?”
“Yes! That’s where Bill Harvelle died.”
“Who’s Bill Harvelle?” Rodney asked.
Laura leaned over the table. “In Supernatural, he was helping teach John Winchester how to hunt demons.”
“Oh, for the…no. Not this again.” Rodney very deliberately turned his attention back to the laptop and John couldn’t help imagining him flipping a switch that would effectively block out all further conversation. He wasn’t the only one who didn’t like what Laura had to say, either. There was a lot of eye rolling going on around the table, and even the usually implacable Teyla was looking irritated.
“We’re not having this conversation again,” Kyle said. “They won’t do the show.”
“But last time it was just a random location. This is canon!”
“Is that another reality show?” John asked. It seemed like a reasonable question except for how everyone went silent and stared at him. Well, everyone except Rodney who was still staring at his laptop screen.
“Do you live under a rock?” Laura was aghast. “It’s only the best drama on television.”
“Yeah, four seasons ago,” Rodney muttered under his breath. John bit back a laugh.
“Laura’s been trying to get Ackles and Padalecki on the show since she started. They’ve politely refused, what? Like three times?” Evan made a show of counting off on his fingers. “You’re gonna get stalker cred pretty soon.”
“I’m not ashamed to be a fangirl,” Laura replied.
“No contacting Supernatural,” Kyle said. “Can we please get back to work? Teyla, how many more sites do you have for us to review?”
“Five. If you can keep your comments to a minimum we might get out of here in time for lunch.”
“Ever the optimist,” Ronon said.
John shifted in his seat, getting more comfortable. Clearly this was going to take a while.
Rodney refused to wear a POV rig, so the only way he got on camera was via a webcam on one of the laptops monitoring the four infrared cameras that were set up around the perimeter of the cemetery. He very nicely produced an equipment box for John to sit on, very ostentatiously not offering up his folding camp chair.
“Rookie move,” Rodney noted as John propped his foot up. “You have to learn to point the camera and still watch where you’re walking.”
“I appreciate the sympathy.” John’s ankle was throbbing. Ronon had given him a couple ibuprofens to take the edge off, which was the best he could do until they got back to Manaus.
“It’s just a sprained ankle, Sheppard. You’ll live.”
Kyle to base. Rodney, is there anything showing up on camera three?
“Nothing out of the ordinary. You see something?”
I’m getting an odd light reflection. Is Ronon’s team near our position?
“No, he’s nowhere near you. That whole area is clear.” Rodney leaned in close to the laptop showing camera three’s view, the picture tinged green. “I don’t see anything on the monitor.”
“So is this all you do?” John asked when Kyle broke off communications. “Just sit here and monitor? You’re missing all the fun.”
“I get plenty of fun. I’m not a kid, I don’t need to run around in the dark chasing ghosts and goblins.” Rodney didn’t take his eyes off the monitors, constantly scanning for anything of interest.
“Why do you work for these guys? It’s obvious you don’t believe in anything the show’s about.” John shifted, trying to find a comfortable position and failing. He wished he had a cushion; his ass was going numb.
“Same as you, I’d bet. It’s a steady paycheck. Added benefits, I get to play with all the tech I want and I don’t have my sister constantly coming around to check on me. It’s all win.” Rodney tapped at his ear piece. “Base to Laura, there’s something weird going on with camera one. It’s flickering in and out. You’re closest, can you check on it?”
Sure thing, Rodney.
Ronon and Laura were skirting the eastern edge of the cemetery, pausing every few minutes so Laura could try and get some EVP. John wasn’t too sure about that part of the process. Sitting in the dark and trying to get spirits to talk to you was a little out there.
He watched as Laura approached the camera, POV rig looped over her shoulder. She made some adjustments that they couldn’t see, and the camera stopped flickering. Laura gave them a thumbs up and then got back to her assignment.
“Not too glamorous, is it?” Rodney reached into the backpack set beside his chair and pulled out bug spray, which he used liberally. “I hate coming south of the equator. The bugs here are enormous.”
John scowled. He could taste the stupid bug spray in the back of his throat. “You complain a lot.”
“There’s plenty worth complaining about.”
“It wouldn’t kill you to enjoy yourself a little. I mean, here we are in Brazil, under a full moon. It’s nice.” And if John was being honest with himself, he’d have to admit that Rodney didn’t look half bad by moonlight. It softened his hard edges, gave him an almost ethereal glow. Of course that illusion was broken as soon as he opened his mouth.
“Is that some kind of come on?” Rodney pulled his gaze away from the monitors to frown at John, his mouth twisting a bit more on the one side. “I’m not here to entertain you, or hold your hand. I have more important –”
Kyle for base!
“This is base, go ahead.”
There’s something out here! Are you getting anything on the monitors?
“That’s a negative. I repeat, I don’t see anything unusual on the monitors.”
Laura for Kyle. Can you hear me?
I’ve got you Laura. What’s going on?
Are you hearing this? We’ve got some kind of high-pitched…humming, it sounds like.
“Do you hear anything?” John whispered.
Rodney waved him off and pulled out the parabolic microphone. He slipped on a pair of headphones, hit the recorder and swung the microphone in a slow arc from left to right. He must’ve heard something because he paused partway through and then moved a little back to the left. His eyes went wide.
“What is it?” John hissed.
Rodney pulled the headphones off and tossed them awkwardly in John’s direction; he had to lunge forward to catch them. When he put them on he caught his breath. He could hear it too, a strange, high-pitched humming sound that rose and fell in the still night air.
Kyle to base. Please tell me you’re getting this!
“This is base. I don’t know what the hell is making that noise, but I’m recording it.”
Rodney turned to look at John, and even in the semi-darkness his eyes shone with excitement, his lips lifted in the first real smile John had seen since they started working together. He looked…amazing.
“This is why,” he said.
As the unearthly sound faded out all John could do was nod. He got it, he really did. He shared a grin with Rodney. Whatever the source of that noise, Brazil was already beating the hell out of Ohio. Bugs and all.
The best evidence they gathered from the whole trip was the recording of the strange noise in the cemetery, and a cast of a partial footprint in the jungles outside of Cartegena that may or may not belong to a wild man. They’d brought back plenty of bug bites, too, and Evan had some kind of mystery rash on his leg.
When they got back to San Francisco John was nursing an impressive hangover – Columbian firewater was potent, potent stuff - as well as suffering jet lag, and paid little attention to the trip debrief with Teyla until his name came up.
“What?” He lifted his head, which had been pillowed on his arms, and blinked blearily across the table.
Teyla looked more bemused than upset at his current condition, which he supposed was a good thing. “I said, the clip of you and Rodney from Brazil has generated an incredible fan response on the website.”
“Can someone get him a cup of coffee?” Rodney asked. He turned his laptop so John could see the show’s website, complete with theme song playing in the background. There was a link to a video clip of John and Rodney’s conversation in Brazil.
“I don’t get it,” he said.
Is that some kind of come on? Rodney asked on the video.
“The fans seem to really like you,” Teyla explained. “After that clip went up traffic on the site almost doubled.”
“Well, look at him!” Rodney flung his hand out and nearly caught John in the throat.
“Hey!” John could feel his face heating up under the attention. Everyone’s eyes were on him and he hated being put on the spot.
“We can definitely work with that,” Kyle said. “We can do some meet-the-new-guy interviews and put them up every couple of days.”
“Wait, don’t I get a say in this?”
“No,” Kyle and Teyla said simultaneously.
John dropped his head back down on the table with a groan. He wasn’t feeling well enough to make a more heart-felt protest. Though he suspected it might be better to just be well and truly drunk if he had to submit to interviews.
“Would someone get him coffee already?” Rodney poked him in the shoulder. “Don’t fall asleep, Sheppard, you don’t want to miss the good stuff.”
“Send me an e-mail,” John grumbled, keeping his eyes firmly closed.
“This is the best you could do?” Rodney asked in dismay.
Laura glared at him. “Yes, Rodney, it is. You have four walls and a roof. The only other choice was a lean-to.”
“It’ll do,” Ronon said. He dumped his gear just inside the door and set about poking at the wood stove. The Adirondacks were unexpectedly cool once the sun went down.
“I’m taking this bed.” Laura claimed one and dragged it near the door.
“That only leaves four for the rest of us!” Rodney protested.
“Not a problem,” Kyle replied with forced cheer. “Evan, give me a hand.”
They pushed all four cots together, the far one against the wall. John shook his head. He really didn’t know these people well enough yet to join in a puppy pile with them. On the other hand, he wasn’t about to sleep on the floor – he’d already seen one smallish snake and something with too many legs go scuttling by.
“Look, we’re all adults here,” Kyle said. “And we need to sleep before the next leg of this trip starts. Just keep your pants on and it won’t get weird.”
“These mattresses are disgusting.”
“I’m just saying! Do we have anything to cover them with? I’m not too keen on getting fleas or bed bugs or something. Not to mention mold. You know what, maybe I’ll just sleep in the car.”
John bumped him with his shoulder. “Come on, Rodney. Didn’t you ever go camping as a kid?”
“No,” was the snappish reply.
“All the gear is in the car,” Evan pointed out. “But we can pull out the extra blankets to put on top of the mattresses, if that’ll make you feel better.”
“It would,” Rodney said, his tone grudging.
John helped them lay out the blankets, and Rodney layered some plastic as well, as an extra barrier against whatever might be infesting the mattresses. It had been a long night, and they only played seven rounds of Threes before calling it a night, Ronon the victor as usual. Rodney was the first one to crawl in, having chosen to sleep against the wall on the end. As soon as he was prone he made a disgusted face.
“Jesus, this is a deathtrap.” He pointed at the ceiling and John looked up, grimacing himself when he saw the thick, plentiful webs filling the space there. “Are those spider webs?”
Kyle sighed. “No, Rodney. They’re monkey webs. Can you please just go to sleep?”
“Why don’t we have any mosquito netting? That should be standard field equipment.”
“Add it to the list next time.” Kyle waited for John to crawl in, so that John was sandwiched between him and Rodney. Probably not the safest place to be.
“But…spiders! Hello! They could drop down on us in our sleep and bite us. Or lay eggs in our ears. Is that how you want to go out? Because spiders ate your brain?”
“That would be a good title for a horror movie,” Laura noted from across the room. “Spiders Ate Your Brain!”
“Goodnight everyone,” Kyle said.
“Goodnight, John-Boy,” Evan replied.
“I hate all of you,” Rodney grumbled.
The lamps were switched off, plunging the cabin into complete darkness. John lay as still as he could, the two warm bodies on either side of him making him nervous; no matter how he shifted, he’d end up bumping into one of them. Plus all of Rodney’s complaining about spiders was actually kind of terrifying. He imagined a brown recluse running across his face in the middle of the night and suddenly he couldn’t lay still.
“Hey, settle down,” Rodney hissed. “I’m trying to get some sleep before I get eaten.”
“Would they really lay eggs in our ears?” John whispered back. He could feel Kyle quietly laughing beside him, even though he didn’t think it was at all funny.
“Jeez. Here.” Rodney pressed something into his hand, after a bit of fumbling around. They were foam ear plugs, and really John supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that Rodney traveled with them. “Use my extra set.”
“Thanks.” John carefully pressed them into his ears, relieved not to have to worry about that at least.
The metal cots creaked as everyone tried to get comfortable. Rodney rolled up on his side, which gave John a little more room. He didn’t think he’d be able to get any sleep, but it really had been a long day. Once he got into a semi-comfortable position he drifted off to the muffled sounds of snoring and Rodney’s warm presence at his side.
In the morning John woke up to muffled laughter and camera flash. He was mortified to realize that he and Rodney were spooned up close together, John’s arm over his hip. He immediately rolled over to his back, flushing with embarrassment, while Kyle continued snapping pictures. He was never going to live this down. And he wasn’t likely to forget how nice it felt being curled up against Rodney’s back.
It turned out that Ronon was an avid jogger as well, and John started making regular dates with him to go running, sometimes through Golden Gate Park but more frequently at Land’s End where the terrain was a bit more challenging and the trails hugged the coastline. Ronon was pretty competitive, and John had to really focus so that he could keep up.
Today the view was a bit foggy, but the air was nice and clean. John and Ronon didn’t talk while they ran, there was no need for it, but John spent the majority of their run to Deadman’s Point thinking about the best way to broach a subject that had been on his mind since the Sasquatch investigation. In the end he decided the straightforward approach was best.
When they stopped to have some water under a stand of eucalyptus trees he said, as casually as he could manage, “So what’re the fraternization rules at MU?”
“I’m seeing someone,” Ronon said apologetically. John flushed, embarrassed, until he realized the big guy was just messing with him.
“Everyone’s a comedian.”
“You interested in someone?”
John shrugged non-committedly. “I want a clear understanding of the rules. You know. Just in case.”
Ronon snorted. “Right. No, there aren’t any rules. As long as your drama doesn’t affect production, nobody cares.”
“Oh, okay. Thanks.” John wasn’t sure if he was relieved or disappointed. If there weren’t any rules, he wouldn’t have an excuse for not pursuing a relationship. With someone. On the off chance that he ever wanted to, which he was pretty sure he didn’t.
“You ready to head back, old man?” Ronon poured some water over his head and shook it like a dog, dreadlocks swinging.
“I’m not that old,” John replied, though his knees disagreed.
“Let’s get to it, then.” With that, Ronon took off leaving John to catch up.
With a few episodes in the can, and a heavy travel schedule coming up, Kyle set up a barbeque at his house for everyone on the last free Saturday they’d have for a few weeks. He had a Craftsman-style bungalow in Outer Richmond, small but very cozy, and everyone gathered out on the back deck where Ronon was manning the grill. There was a tin tub full of ice and beer, and a nice array of finger foods and snacks.
John grabbed a cold beer and a handful of honey mustard pretzels, and made the rounds. Ronon’s girlfriend Amelia – a martial arts instructor – was playing dice with Evan. Ronon himself was apparently some kind of barbeque wizard, and it didn’t take long for him to start expounding on dry rubs versus sauce, and the proper cooking times for each cut of meat. He had a digital thermometer sticking out of his back pocket.
“Ronon, John does not care about the proper temperature for roasting a brisket.” Teyla came up the porch steps, dusting her hands off on her jeans. She’d been weeding Kyle’s flowerbed, and looked more relaxed than John had seen her in their short acquaintance.
“He’ll thank me someday,” Ronon grumbled back. He winked at John. “Save some room. After dinner we’re doing Jägerbombs.”
John had no idea why the big guy felt the need to keep getting him drunk and resolved to make sure he had a very full stomach before he started throwing Jägermeister into it. Teyla waved Ronon off.
“How are you enjoying the job?”
“It’s never boring.” John shrugged. “I can’t say you’ve all made a believer out of me, but I’m keeping an open mind.”
“That is good to hear. I know Kyle is very pleased with the job you are doing.”
Now that she’d mentioned him John cast around for his boss, but he wasn’t anywhere in the backyard or on the deck. “Speaking of Kyle, where is he? Shouldn’t he be out here presiding or something?”
“Right here.” The man himself came through the French doors from inside the house, bringing still more food out. John wondered who was supposed to eat all of it. “Glad you could make it, man.”
“Thanks. It was my grandmother’s.” Kyle seemed almost embarrassed by that admission, as if the furniture had been covered in doilies or cats.
“Where’s McKay?” Evan asked, tossing an empty beer bottle into a cardboard box lined with a garbage bag. “Isn’t he coming?
Kyle shrugged. “I called him. He said he’d be here, but you know what he’s like.”
John was a little disappointed; he’d been looking forward to seeing Rodney. That guy could be hilarious when he got on a tear. And after traveling with him John knew how unlikely it was for Rodney to miss out on free food; he loved to eat, even the weird stuff they encountered out in the field. Who else but Rodney would try deep fried scorpion?
Teyla took the tray out of Kyle’s hand and they exchanged a brief, chaste kiss. John hadn’t realized they were a couple; he’d never seen any indication of it at work. Kyle must’ve seen something on his face, because he grinned.
“Don’t look so surprised. Is it hard to believe Teyla would fall for a guy like me?”
“No! No, it’s just…I didn’t realize.”
Teyla returned, sans tray, and looped her arm through Kyle’s. “We met when Kyle was still finding himself. It was what? Five years ago?”
Kyle nodded. “About that. I was globe-trotting, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I’d been working at a Home Depot, which was less than fulfilling.”
“I was part of an archaeological dig in Israel, looking for remnants of the Canaanites. It was not love at first sight.” Teyla’s smile was full of affection. “He was like a big ox, bumbling around.”
“Kind of like he still does,” Evan remarked. Kyle took the ribbing good-naturedly and dropped a kiss on Teyla’s head before he went off in search of refreshment.
“Teyla used to travel with us,” Ronon put in. “We had less trouble when she did.”
Laura threw a cucumber at his head. “You better watch it or our next rental is going to be a rickshaw. And you can pull it.”
“Why don’t you go out anymore?” John asked. Teyla rubbed a hand over her belly.
“We are expecting our first child. Kyle is worried I will catch a bug, so for now I stay behind .” John didn’t know what to say to that. Pregnant woman made him vaguely uneasy. “What about you? Are you dating anyone?”
John shook his head. “Not at the moment.” Actually, it hadn’t been for a long while. He didn’t mention his short, ill-fated marriage, which had ended several years ago. There’d been some casual hook-ups since then but nothing serious.
“We will have to find you someone,” she said, and the glint in her eye made John very apprehensive. The last thing he needed was a series of horrible fix-ups, because in his experience there were no such things as good fix-ups. Particularly when his sexual orientation wasn’t exactly common knowledge.
“Oh, stop. Look at him – he won’t have any trouble meeting someone. Come on, John. You have to try this potato salad!” Laura grabbed his arm and dragged him away; he went gratefully.
He ate more than his fill, and let Ronon ply him with beer, until he was feeling nice and mellow. After a while he had to excuse himself and find the bathroom, before the Jägerbombs were brought out. John suspected he’d be spending the night on Kyle’s couch. Or possibly under it.
After he relieved himself, and chuckled over the little seashell soaps on the sink, he wandered back through the house. The furniture was nice, broken-in but comfortable looking. There were some family pictures on the shelves, and hanging on the walls, Kyle and Teyla in the majority of them.
As he was passing by the front windows John spied Rodney’s car parked out by the curb, a bright yellow Mini Cooper that looked like a diminutive taxi. He could see Rodney behind the wheel and though he waited a good five minutes, the man made no attempt to get out and come inside. So John went out and leaned against the side of the car, tapping on the window.
“Hey. Rodney.” He leaned down and looked in the window but Rodney just kept staring straight ahead, hands clenched on the steering wheel. His posture cut through John’s mellow beer buzz and he opened the door, sliding into the passenger seat and knocking his knees against the dash in the process.
“Everything okay, buddy?”
Everything was clearly not okay. Rodney was breathing too fast, and sweating even though the engine was still running and the AC was cranking. John had been around more than one panic attack in his day and he could see that Rodney was in the throes of a pretty good one. He didn’t know Rodney well enough to even begin to guess what might have set him off or how to talk him down, and so he just sat there for a long minute or two wondering what to say.
“I was hoping you’d stop by,” John said finally.
Rodney twitched, his shoulder coming up just a little. It wasn’t much but at least John knew his voice was getting through.
“A friend of mine used to have really bad panic attacks. In the work we did, we saw some pretty bad things.” He hesitated to mention the Air Force, remembering what Evan had said. “It’s normal, you know? I mean, people go through some bad shit sometimes. And it can be hard to deal with. But it can help to talk about it. If you want to.”
Rodney’s hands flexed on the steering wheel. “People died today,” he said, his voice choked.
“People die every day,” John replied.
“They died because of me.”
“No they didn’t.”
“Yes, they did!” Rodney finally disengaged from the steering wheel, turning on John with a murderous glare on his face. “They did! I built the fucking thing!”
“Did you build it to kill people?” John asked.
“No! No, it was supposed to be a good thing. It was supposed to be…it was to help people!” Frustration warred with anguish.
“They took it from you,” John said, remembering what Evan had told him. “And perverted it. What happens after isn’t on you, Rodney. It’s on them.”
Rodney shook his head in denial. John’s knees were getting sore and he didn’t know what to say. Didn’t know how to make things better for Rodney.
“Whenever I feel stressed I think of clear blue skies. I used to be a pilot, you know, and up there it’s like nothing can touch you. Everything else just falls away. You need to find a mental place like that, Rodney.” It only hurt a little to talk about flying, which had once been John’s entire world. “You’re in charge of your own mind, buddy. You can let this get to you or you can choose to let it roll right off.”
Rodney looked him, blue eyes wide. “That works for you? Just letting it roll off?”
John shrugged. “Sometimes.”
“Clear blue skies?”
“Clear blue skies.”
After another long moment Rodney closed his eyes, and took several deep breaths. John kept a close watch and let out a breath of his own when his teammate visibly relaxed his tense shoulders. When he opened his eyes again, Rodney looked down at his hands. He was clearly ill at ease that John had caught him in a weak moment.
“Happens to the best of us, pal.” John clapped him on the shoulder. “You ready to head in for some food?”
“Yeah. Food is good. I could eat.” Rodney scrambled out of the car without turning off the engine. John reached over and did it himself, and pulled the keys out. He extricated himself and stretched, knees popping.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he said when he caught up with Rodney on the front porch. “Why do you drive a clown car?”
That got him eye contact, and a scowl. “There’s nothing wrong with my car.”
“Are you kidding me? All it needs is big flowers painted on the side.”
Rodney’s mouth twitched and John could tell he was trying not to laugh. Mission accomplished.
“You’re an ass.”
“Yup. And in about half an hour I’ll be sloppy drunk if Ronon has his way. You’ll have plenty of blackmail material. Don’t waste it.” John handed Rodney back his keys and they went inside together.
“Can it, Rodney,” Kyle said crossly.
They were stranded on the side of the road, the rental car having broken down. John had learned that this wasn’t an unusual circumstance, which was probably due more to the chancy prospect of renting vehicles in obscure foreign locations and less with Richard Woolsey’s penny-pinching approach to the show’s production; after all, no money was spared on their field equipment.
“I have every right to express my opinion,” Rodney shot back. He was sitting in the back of the Jeep, arms crossed over his chest. “And in my opinion Richard thinks this kind of shit is good for ratings. It’s too coincidental that this happens every fucking time we’re out of the States.”
“Clear blue skies,” John said. He was leaning against the side of the Jeep, hands in his pockets. For a wonder that actually shut Rodney up and Kyle gave him a look full of gratitude.
“Ronon and Laura should be back soon with help,” Kyle said. “In the meantime, let’s go over the plan.”
John was more than familiar with the plan, since they’d already gone over it about a thousand times. They’d set up a night shoot at Oradour-sur-Glane – they’d gotten special permission from the local government to be in the bombed-out ghost town-turned-museum – and attempt to communicate with the spirits of the women and children who’d been murdered there by the Nazis during World War II. The whole thing gave John the skeeves; trying to talk to murdered kids was beyond creepy.
Kyle unfolded the map he had of the town, which already had camera locations marked off on it. John knew the procedure like the back of his hand, since it didn’t change much from location to location – infrared cameras in four key locations, and four trap cameras around the perimeter.
Rodney called Kyle a rude name in French and John smothered a grin in response. He could get by in the language but wasn’t nearly as proficient as Rodney, who’d grown up with French-speaking relatives in Canada. He’d been stuffing himself full of escargot at every opportunity since their plane landed, which John found disgusting.
“We already know the plan, Kyle.” Rodney pulled out a Power Bar. “We know how to do our jobs. Give it a rest.”
“This is John’s first significant ghost hunt –”
“And it’s no different from any other hunt. He follows you around with the camera and films everything you do. It’s not rocket science.”
“Hey!” John protested. “It’s not easy tromping around in the dark trying to film and watch where I’m going at the same time. You have it easy, just sitting around base camp.”
“I’m monitoring sensitive equipment and four cameras!”
“While you sit on your ass, safe and sound.”
Rodney balled up the now-empty wrapper and threw it at John’s head. “I’m out there alone. You at least have team members to watch your back.”
“I don’t know what you’re worried about,” John shot back. “You don’t believe in ghosts and goblins, remember?”
That seemed to stump Rodney, who glowered and turned red in the face. Even more so when Kyle turned to Evan and asked if he’d gotten the exchange on camera. Evan nodded and John resigned himself to yet another web post to join all of the interviews. Damn Evan and his ninja camera skills.
Luckily Ronon arrived with a replacement vehicle before Rodney could get physically violent, and they could finally get back on the hunt.
“Is there someone with me now?” Laura asked. “Can you make contact with me?”
John felt bad for the sound engineers, who would have to listen to all of the audio they captured and filter it out to see if they’d caught any ghostly sounds or communications. He wasn’t sure how he felt about the EVPs himself, though Kyle always got really excited about them. John never heard any actual words in the ambient sounds.
Base to Sheppard.
“What’s up, Rodney?” John kept his voice hushed. Hopefully he was far enough from Laura not to get caught on her digital recorder.
I’m getting some interference on camera one. Are you close by?
“Yeah. As soon as Laura wraps up we’ll –” John felt a hand on his arm and jerked in surprise. He turned to say something to Kyle…but there wasn’t anyone there. “Holy fuck!”
John? What’s wrong?
“John?” Kyle, who’d been about forty feet away supervising Laura’s session, hurried over.
“Something touched me! Something fucking touched me!” John’s skin was crawling and he barely managed to keep hold of the camera.
“Calm down. Tell me what happened.”
Laura took possession of the camera but John barely noticed. He pushed up his sleeve, certain there’d be a mark on his arm; nothing showed. “It felt like someone grabbed my arm. I swear to God, Kyle. I thought it was you.”
“Kyle for base camp.”
What the hell is going on? Is John okay?
“He’s fine. Is anything showing up on the IR cameras?”
There’s something wrong with camera one. John said he’d check it out.
“Okay. We’re going there now.” Kyle made John look him in the eye. “Are you okay? Do you want to sit the rest of this out?”
“No. I’m fine. I got this.” John reclaimed the camera, even though he was jittery and completely freaked out. “Let’s go.”
He followed Kyle and Laura to the location of camera one, all the while with that itchy feeling following him. It was the first field investigation he’d been on that had him so uncomfortable and he didn’t like it at all.
There was nothing wrong with camera one as far as they could tell when they got there, and John gave it a thorough once-over just to be sure, so they headed back to base camp to regroup with the others. While Ronon’s team reported in Rodney pulled John aside.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
John appreciated the concern but he was still a bit too edgy to want to talk about what had happened. “I’m fine.”
“You’re freaking out. I’ve seen this before, I know what it looks like.” Rodney put his hand on John’s shoulder, fingers squeezing gently. “It’s easy to get caught up in the spookiness, trust me. We’ve all experienced things, and I’m not saying they’re real because most likely it’s a form of hysteria brought on by the surroundings, the strange night sounds, and sometimes –”
“If you’re trying to make me feel better please stop.” But John had to admit that he did feel a little better. Rodney’s babble had some kind of magical calming effect, which had absolutely nothing to do with his solid, warm grip on John’s shoulder. That John was absolutely not leaning into.
“At least you didn’t get gnawed on by a chupacabra.”
“You know,” John said with a grin. “Someday you’re really going to have to tell me that story.”
“Stick around long enough and I just might,” Rodney countered. He gave John’s shoulder one last squeeze before he rejoined the others and they started playing back some of the camera feeds.
“I’m not a trained monkey, I won’t perform for you,” Rodney snapped. “You didn’t hire me for my on-screen charisma. I’m the tech guy, for God’s sake!”
“No! I’m not going to fake some banter just to get more traffic on the site.”
Kyle wasn’t happy, and he retaliated in the best way he possibly could. He pulled Rodney out of base camp on the next field expedition and strapped a POV rig on him. John felt bad for the guy; he wasn’t really cut out for field work and he hated having that camera constantly in his face.
“It’s not so bad,” John said. He kept the camera focused on Rodney’s back as they slogged through the swamp, the water cool even with the hip waders on. All he got in response was a sound of disgust.
They were in Florida, searching for some kind of monster snake in the Everglades. John was more concerned about gators. They’d seen a couple of them, medium-sized, but he knew there had to be some big boys out there somewhere. He just hoped they didn’t get too hungry.
There was a splash off to John’s left and he turned in that direction, IR camera picking up ripples in the water. He tensed up, waiting for signs of imminent death, but none were forthcoming.
“This is stupid!” Rodney hissed. “I have two PhDs! Why the fuck am I slogging around in a swamp in the middle of the night?”
“You can always go back to the lab,” Kyle said bitingly over his shoulder.
John scowled. That was a low blow and he didn’t like the way Rodney got all stiff and quiet. He knew it must be frustrating for Rodney, being unable to do the work he excelled at. How he’d stumbled on this job John had no idea, and figured it was best not to ask. Maybe they were all at Mysterious Unknown because something in their lives had gone horribly wrong.
When no further disturbances happened Kyle got them moving again. They skirted big cypress trees, the Spanish moss hanging from them waving in the light breeze just enough to make John all the more edgy; he kept seeing the movement out of the corner of his eye and attributing it to something far deadlier than moss.
“This would be a good place for a serial killer with a chainsaw,” John whispered. Rodney snorted.
“There’s a happy thought. My money’s on the inbred hillbillies.” He started humming Dueling Banjos and John took counterpoint until Kyle gave a shout and stumbled back into Rodney, who went down on his ass with a splash before John could catch him.
“Something banged against my leg!” Kyle turned to the camera, eyes wide. “It felt big!”
“We’re wading through a swamp, you asshole!” Rodney struggled to his feet, his shirt soaked through and clinging to his chest in a very distracting manner; John tried not to stare. “Of course something’s gonna bang into you! Alligators, loggerheads, bass…maybe even that stupid goddamn snake you’re looking for!”
“Rodney –” John said, trying to intervene.
“No. No clear blue skies. I’m wet, I probably have leeches all over me, and it’s possible I’m going to die of some obscure swamp fever that no-one has a name for yet. Maybe they’ll name it after me. My true legacy.”
There was a scream out in the darkness and all three of them jumped. John could swear the hair was standing up on his arms.
“What the hell was that?”
“Most likely a panther,” Rodney replied, though he didn’t sound particularly confident about it. John and Kyle exchanged a look.
“Back to base,” Kyle decided. He radioed Laura, who’d taken over Rodney’s shift, and let her know they were on their way back and to make sure the scream had been recorded.
“I hate this job,” Rodney grumbled. He shivered a bit in the cool night air, plucking at his wet shirt.
“Come on, buddy. In the morning we’ll get you a nice big breakfast and you’ll feel better.”
“I want the Waffle House this time.”
“Okay. It’s your turn to pick anyway.”
“Damn right it is,” Rodney muttered. He spent the whole walk back to base camp loudly cursing his ill fortune.
On the first day of filming, doing mostly establishing shots and witness interviews, they’d run into a group of bloggers who were following the same story. The guy in charge, Derek, was armed with a single hand-held digital camcorder, and Rodney had immediately dismissed them as amateurs and hacks. Kyle, though, had embraced them as versions of his younger self and allowed them to tag along.
Now John was on a boat in the middle of Lake Thunderbird, filming Rodney as he operated the ROVR – the remote controlled camera that was currently below the surface of the lake looking for signs of a fresh water octopus that may or may not be responsible for the drowning deaths of countless people over the years. Laura was on sonar, Kyle was watching the ROVR monitor, and Derek was moving all over the boat, filming everyone and everything with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that John found exhausting.
“I can’t believe all the equipment you guys have! Who funds this operation?”
Rodney snarled. “Get that damn camera out of my face!”
“Chill out, man. It’s all good. We’re after the same thing.”
“No, we’re not. You’re clearly in need of a bong hit, while we are serious investigators with a legitimate television show.” Rodney never looked away from the ROVR controls.
“I’m not high,” Derek protested. “Do I come off as high?”
John snorted, which called up an answering smirk from Rodney. Watching Derek zip around was making him feel old. How did he find anything to post on his blog when he couldn’t sit still for five minutes?
“Are you getting anything, Rodney?” Kyle asked, though he could clearly see there was nothing on the monitor.
“I told you this was a bullshit story,” Rodney replied. “Does anyone listen to the tech guy with the genius IQ? Of course not.”
“Would it kill you to keep an open mind just once?”
They kept at it for another forty-five minutes with nothing to show but some random fish. Derek did several monologues, flipping his camera around and holding it in one shaking hand. The film quality had to be terrible, something John never thought he’d care about. Turned out he had an affinity for professional camera work.
“Okay, Rodney,” Kyle said finally. “We’re not getting anything here. Let’s pull it up and head back to shore.”
“Finally,” Rodney grumbled. While he piloted the ROVR closer to the boat Derek pulled out his cell phone and called his friends who’d stayed behind.
“Yeah, we’re headin’ in. No, nothing happening. Tell Chloe we’re going to bag this octopus thing. I’ve got a good feeling about the Desert Squid, though, we’ll head that way next.”
John and Laura exchanged a look, biting back the laughter. Desert squid? John turned his attention back to Rodney, who was bent over the rail – and wasn’t that a compelling picture? – pulling up the camera when the boat suddenly rocked hard and Rodney went right over the side with a squawk and a splash.
“Rodney!” John tossed the camera to Laura and leaned over the rail himself. Rodney was sputtering and treading water a few feet away.
“What happened?” he called up.
Kyle was already checking the sonar. “I don’t see anything. What the hell hit us?”
“Hang on,” John called back to Rodney. It should only have been a simple matter of throwing him a line and towing him back in, but just then another boat came roaring up, a bunch of what looked like college kids watching them curiously. They were too close, and even Laura put the camera aside so she could wave them off.
“Turn off your engine!” she shouted at them. Kyle and Derek were shouting too, but John only had eyes for Rodney. Their tech specialist disappeared from view, then resurfaced, his face clearly showing his fear.
“Shut off your goddamn engine!” Kyle shouted. “We have a person in the water!”
John knew that the engine from the other boat would be creating an undertow, one that would be pulling at Rodney, pulling him down. The prospect of him drowning was suddenly very real and John didn’t wait. He took the cable for the ROVR in one hand, kicked off his shoes, and dropped off the side of the boat.
“John!” Rodney choked on lake water as he was pulled under again.
John kept the cable draped over his shoulder as he let the same sucking undertow pull him closer to Rodney. His heart was pounding so hard, blood rushing in his ears, that he didn’t realize at first when the other boat finally shut down their engine. Another two strokes and he was able to grab hold of Rodney’s flailing arm and pull him in close.
“Hold on to the cable!” he commanded, but Rodney held on to John instead, clutching at his free arm and spitting out water. “Kyle! Pull us in!”
Kyle and Derek worked together to tow John and Rodney back to the boat, and John sent Rodney up the ladder first, keeping one hand on him as long as possible in case he wasn’t steady enough for the climb. He quickly followed and then sprawled on the deck beside Rodney, who was still coughing up water.
“Are you guys okay?” Derek asked. “Did you see anything while you were down there?”
Laura pushed him out of the way and knelt beside Rodney, getting him in a better position to clear his lungs. “Get it all out, Rodney. That’s right. You okay John?”
John gave her a thumbs up, even though he was still a little shaky. They’d come perilously close to losing Rodney, and in such a stupid way, that he couldn’t really wrap his head around it. He told himself he’d feel the same about anyone on the MU team, but he wasn’t so sure about that anymore. He’d been trying to deny his pull towards Rodney, the attraction that had been there since Brazil, but he couldn’t do it anymore.
“Kyle to base. We’re coming in. Ronon, Rodney took an unexpected swim. He’ll need some attention when we get there.”
I’ll be waiting.
“I don’t care about ratings or web hits,” Rodney gasped, glaring at Kyle. “It’s base camp or nothing.”
“Okay, calm down. We’ll talk about this later. John, secure the equipment. Let’s get out of here.”
John nodded, glad for something to do. He gave Rodney’s arm a squeeze before getting to his feet. While he repacked the ROVR he took a moment to steady himself. Clear blue skies. If Kyle didn’t put Rodney back at base camp, he was going to have to insist on it himself. Nothing was worth putting Rodney at risk, especially something as stupid as web hits. If Kyle wanted to pander to the fans, he’d have to find some other way to do it.
The MU team was there investigating reports of some kind of demon pygmy mummies. So far he’d gotten scratched by the very aggressive foliage and bitten by some kind of freaky bug that Ronon was pretty sure wasn’t poisonous, though that spot on John’s arm was swollen and hot.
Laura was kicking back at base camp with Rodney, since Kyle seemed unusually insistent that everyone buddy up on this particular investigation. John wished he was back at base camp too, enjoying the portable fan that Rodney had packed.
“Hold up,” Kyle said, one hand in the air. “I heard something.”
John stopped walking and kept the camera on Kyle as he poked around in the underbrush. There were probably a zillion things in the jungle that could kill them, never mind murderous pygmies, and John wasn’t looking forward to meeting any of them. Rodney had warned him of jaguars, howler monkeys, poison dart frogs and no less than four deadly snakes; it wasn’t information he appreciated having.
“Look at this!”
John pushed through the leafy underbrush himself, night vision giving everything an odd cast. There were too many shadows but Kyle pointed his flashlight and John’s eyebrows went up.
“It’s some sort of shrine,” Kyle said, more to the camera than John. “Look here, we’ve got animal bones, dried flowers, and some kind of offering in this bowl.”
He picked up the earthenware bowl and held it next to his face, sniffing at the contents. John couldn’t see well from his vantage point but whatever was inside looked wet and viscous.
“Ugh. I’m pretty sure this is blood.” Kyle hastily returned the bowl to its resting place on the haphazard pile of stones. “I suddenly feel like Indiana Jones.”
“Right before something bad happens,” John muttered. He swiped at his forehead with his arm, trying to stop the sweat from running into his eyes.
“We don’t know who built this shrine,” Kyle said to the future viewing audience. “Or who they were worshipping. Is the blood animal or human? That, at least, we’ll be able to determine.”
He proceeded to fill a small plastic vial with some of the blood from the bowl; it looked black. John was pretty sure they couldn’t bring that back to the States, which meant Kyle knew someone in-country who could test it for him. As he was learning, Kyle knew people all over the globe.
Ronon for Kyle.
“This is Kyle. Hey, we found some blood at a little shrine here.”
I’ll see your shrine and raise you a big ass bat and a cave.
“You can keep the bat, but the cave sounds promising.”
“Do pygmy mummies live in caves?” John asked. He was trying to inject a little humor to the situation because the shrine was seriously creepy.
Bats are known rabies carriers, Rodney interjected through the ear piece.
“We’re not looking for bats,” Kyle reiterated. “Ronon, give me your coordinates. John and I will meet you at the cave.”
Don’t get bitten.
“Thanks for the helpful tip, Rodney. Sure you don’t want to come out here for a while?”
And die of heat stroke before the diseased vermin get me? I’ll pass.
John snickered, and followed Kyle back the way they’d come. Ronon and Evan were only a quarter of a mile or so away but it was slow going. The trail – if it could even be called that – was extremely rough. Kyle did his best to clear the way with his machete but John still caught branches and vines with his face.
Holy shit! Ronon bellowed, his voice so loud in the ear piece that John winced.
“Kyle for Ronon. What’s going on?”
Evan just killed a bat!
Kyle shared an incredulous look with John. He was very adamant about not harming indigenous wildlife while on location. It was sometimes difficult, when certain cultures had animal sacrifice as part of their religious rites; Kyle was frequently insisting that chickens not be sacrificed as a way to bestow luck upon the show.
“We’re nearly at your location. Don’t touch anything!”
They picked up the pace, hurrying as fast as they could given the limitations of the terrain and lighting. When they got close Ronon flagged them down with his flashlight. He had a huge grin on his face.
“What happened?” Kyle asked.
“You should’ve seen it. It was amazing.” Ronon gestured at Evan, who was sitting on the ground cradling his camera in his arms. That got Kyle’s ire up more than the dead bat.
“What the hell happened to the camera?”
Evan looked up, forlorn. “Broke the lens.”
“Huge bat,” Ronon said, holding his hands apart to approximate the size. “Comes at us out of nowhere. Evan swings the camera one-handed, smacks the bat right into a tree.”
He led them over to the bat in question and John had to admit, it was pretty big. Ronon picked it up – John could practically hear the outraged, sputtering response Rodney would have to that – and held it out by the tips of its wings.
Kyle whistled. “Whoa. What is that, a seventeen inch wingspan? Check out the fangs on this guy!”
“Yeah?” Ronon twisted, trying to see. “Vampire bat? Cool!”
“Real cool.” Kyle sighed. “We’ll have to bag the pygmy hunt.”
“Have to bag this guy, too,” Ronon replied.
“You can use the plastic camera cover.” Evan pulled it out of the bag he wore slung over his shoulder. “I’m not going to need it.”
“Rodney’s gonna kill you,” John said. He couldn’t wait for that particular explosion.
“Yeah. He really is.”
“It was life or death,” Ronon said. He bundled the bat into the plastic. “Just tell him about the rabies.”
John chuckled. “And why are we taking the bat with us?”
“We have to report it to the authorities,” Kyle said, looking longingly at the entrance to the cave. “With so many different species still uncatalogued in the Amazon basin they like to see every available specimen. Even the accidentally dead ones.”
Evan nodded in agreement. “We’ll probably have to pay a fine, too. Someone needs to call Richard.”
Ronon and Kyle eyed each other, and then started doing rapid fire Roshambo for the dubious pleasure of contacting Richard and telling him they screwed up. Evan grinned at John, who nodded back. Sometimes it was good just being the cameraman.
Instead of a fine and a slap on the wrist, there was a press conference that Kyle participated in. He looked a bit shell-shocked but carried on, relating their experience in the jungle and how the bat had come to be killed. Evan stayed as far away from the reporters and cameras as he could and John couldn’t blame him. Who knew one bat could be so newsworthy? Still, it was exciting that they’d actually found something even if it wasn’t a pygmy mummy
The real surprise for John was how excited Rodney was about the whole thing; he’d have expected just the opposite, to be honest. But as they stood together along the side of the room where the press conference was going on Rodney was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, crooked smile firmly in place.
“I really missed this, you know,” he said, eyes scanning the crowd.
Rodney bumped him with his shoulder. “No, idiot. Discovery. I used to be at the leading edge of it in my field. Before.”
John nodded his understanding. Before his work had been weaponized. “You know, I’ve never asked. How did you get on this team?”
That finally got Rodney’s gaze off the crowd and focused on John. “Ronon. He heard about the job, that they were putting a team together. And he knew I could handle the tech.”
There was more to that story, John could hear it in the undercurrents. How had Ronon and Rodney met? They weren’t likely to travel in the same social circles. But John could surmise easily enough. Ronon had been an LPN and maybe it wasn’t just nursing homes he’d worked at. Maybe he’d spent some time in hospitals or rehab facilities, because John felt pretty certain that after what happened Rodney might’ve not been in the best mental space.
“And you like it, even though you don’t believe.”
Rodney shrugged. “It’s not that I don’t believe. It’s just that I believe in the science more, what can be proven or disproven. This job…it’s too open-ended. Doesn’t mean I don’t find it challenging, or even fun sometimes. How about you? Why’d you leave the military?”
John didn’t bother asking how Rodney knew; he was the kind of guy who did research. He probably knew things about John that John himself didn’t even know. He wasn’t sure how much he wanted to reveal, but reminded himself that he’d seen Rodney in a weak moment. He supposed he owed the guy.
“I had a difference of opinion with my CO on the validity of saving lives,” he said after a long moment. “The Air Force decided we should part ways and I couldn’t help but agree.”
“Well, they were fools to lose you.” The expression on Rodney’s face was warm and almost soft, and John had to drop his eyes. He felt a little dizzy. For a moment the crowd disappeared – the noise and flashbulbs and incessant questions – and it was just the two of them. John thought maybe if the ambiance had been a little better he might’ve made a move, but then the noise level swelled again and Kyle was wrapping up the press conference.
Ronon gave them the high sign and they slipped out the side door while the photographers pushed forward to get more pictures of the bat, which was tastefully displayed behind glass.
“What do you say, team?” Kyle asked. “Ready to head back home?”
“God, yes,” Evan replied heartily. “I swear I’ll never kill another animal as long as I live.”
“Hey, don’t say that.” Laura looped an arm around his neck. “Maybe next time you’ll find a dodo bird.”
“He is a dodo bird,” Rodney said.
Everyone laughed together and headed for the hotel to pack. John let their good humor wash over him and thought that maybe this was where he was supposed to be. Maybe he could stop thinking of all he’d lost since his discharge and start considering what he’d gained.
“So what’s next?” he asked.
Kyle grinned. “Who wants to go Kathmandu and find a yeti?”
“Kyle is crazy. This whole trip is crazy.” Rodney’s teeth were chattering. “That plane today? I swear it was held together with chewing gum and twine.”
It was hard to disagree. Landing on the tiny, mountainside landing strip had been a special kind of terrifying, and John wasn’t looking forward to the flight back despite the rush of adrenalin that came along with the experience.
Rodney pressed closer, a warm presence along John’s back. It wasn’t often he was the little spoon but in this particular case he didn’t mind. Rodney’s arm was wrapped around his chest and the only complaint John had was that they had so many layers on between them.
“Can I ask you something?” Rodney asked, sounding hesitant.
“You…the banter and everything. Being so nice to me. Is that just for the camera?”
John wasn’t sure he was ready to have this conversation, but then he didn’t know if he’d ever have been. “No, Rodney. It’s not for the camera. None of it’s for the camera.”
He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. Some kissing, maybe? Something more than that one little word. And John decided that he was ready. They were in a tent on the side of a frozen mountain, but quite suddenly it was the perfect moment. He rolled onto his back, adjusting the sleeping bag they were sharing when it bunched up.
“I like you, Rodney.”
“I think you have hypothermia. Or brain freeze.” The words were joking but the way Rodney was studying John’s face was anything but funny. No, it was making things shift inside him, loosening tense muscles, tightening the desire that had lately been burning slow and deep in his belly.
“I think you’re the smartest, most obnoxious person in the world,” John said.
Rodney beamed at him, looking utterly goofy with his maple leaf knit cap pulled low over his forehead. John imagined he didn’t look much better. And it figured that this couldn’t have happened when they were someplace better suited to love declarations, like Greece or Spain. They were a pretty unlikely pair to start with, though, and so the surroundings seemed incredibly apropos.
“As soon as we’re somewhere a little less arctic, I’m so getting you naked.” With that promise Rodney moved in and they were kissing. Stiff, cold lips soon thawed, and it wasn’t long before John forgot he was cold. He forgot everything except the taste of Rodney in his mouth, all minty from his gum and salty from the jerky he’d eaten earlier. He poured all his heat into John, who was more than happy to share it.
“You know,” Rodney murmured against his skin as he moved from mouth to neck. “If you were a little less Stay Puft and I wasn’t so Michelin Man this would be really hot.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” John replied. He tipped his head to the side to give Rodney better access, pulling down on the collar of his jacket. “I’m feeling nice and toasty.”
“Just wait,” Rodney whispered in his ear.
John rolled them so that he was straddling Rodney and kissed him, hands cupping his face. It was good, so good, and he wanted more, needed more, but he knew it couldn’t happen. Not here, not now. But soon. Soon he’d have those broad shoulders and that wide chest, those muscular thighs that fairly bulged when Rodney squatted down to check on equipment. For now, he’d take what he could get – that endearingly twisted mouth and the choked, needy noises coming out of it.
They got tangled up in the sleeping bag and John ruthlessly shoved it down and away. He didn’t want anything restricting his movements, not when it was so amazing having Rodney arching up beneath him.
Rodney growled and John grinned, moving back in to kiss him. “You like that?”
Another growl and then Rodney was pushing at John’s chest, pushing him back, his eyes wide. “That wasn’t me,” he hissed.
They both froze in place, trying to hear above the wind that tugged at the tent. Was something moving out in the icy snow? Another growl and John was lunging for the camera and praying it had been wrapped tightly enough to keep the batteries from draining. He threw Rodney a look, and mouthed yeti.
Crazy, Rodney mouthed back and twirled his finger near his temple for further clarification.
“Kiss for luck?” John asked, one hand already on the tent’s zipper pull.
Rodney sighed. “I’ve fallen for a lunatic adrenalin junkie. How is this my life?”
That gave John pause, and made him as warm as all the kissing had. Rodney had fallen for him? He knew the attraction wasn’t one-sided but this was something else entirely. Without a second thought he abandoned the camera and tackled Rodney back onto the sleeping bag.
“The yeti!” Rodney protested.
John grinned down at him. “That’s just a story. This? This is real.” The bashful, pleased look he received in return made everything worthwhile.
Rodney surged up and heat flared between them again as he kissed John, his tongue doing decidedly dirty things that John whole-heartedly approved of. And if there was some hasty, fully-clothed cleanup needed later, well, that was no-one’s business.
The next morning Kyle was shouting about some unusual tracks that circled their small encampment. John and Rodney exchanged a wide-eyed look and then they both started laughing so hard John could barely keep hold of the camera.
“Now this is the life.” John stretched out on the bow of the boat, enjoying the sun-warmed wood against his back, the slap of the waves, and the fine mist in the air. It was warm here and he soaked up the sun, eyes closed behind his sunglasses.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” Rodney replied dryly. “As usual, I’m doing all the work.”
John rolled his head and opened his eyes, watching Rodney who was in turn watching the sonar. They were out in the middle of the Mediterranean on board a far nicer boat than Laura had ever procured for them. John didn’t want to guess how much it was costing to rent; Rodney had waved his concern away, saying that he had plenty of money to burn from his old life as a scientific innovator.
“You know, technically this is our vacation.”
“No rest for the wicked, John.”
John smirked. “I wasn’t the one being wicked an hour ago.”
Rodney flushed, but he gave John a look that was full of promise. It was enough to get John up, and he sauntered over to join his lover at the sonar. He wrapped his hand around the back of Rodney’s neck and pressed a kiss to his slightly sweaty temple.
“I’m nearly recovered. You want to get naked? Again?”
“Are you always this insatiable?” Rodney leaned into John’s touch. “Or is it just a new relationship thing? I might need vitamin supplements.”
“It’s a you thing.”
“Oh.” Rodney kissed him, looking incredibly smug. Things were starting to take a pleasant turn – John had Rodney’s shirt off and was making a play for his shorts – when the sonar pinged. He tried not to take it personally when the electronic device immediately had all of Rodney’s attention.
“Yes! I knew it!”
John looked at the screen with interest. “Are you sure?”
“Well, no. Of course I’m not sure.” Rodney huffed out an agitated breath. “Which, I’ll remind you, never bothers you when Kyle drags us off to hunt down one-eyed, glowing boogeymen in the deepest, darkest jungles.”
“You don’t believe in one-eyed glowing boogeymen,” John reminded him.
“No. But this…I do believe in this.”
John kissed him, quick and dirty. “And I believe in you. Let’s suit up.”
Rodney anchored the boat, and they pulled on wet suits and strapped on oxygen tanks. John grabbed the underwater camera and joined Rodney at the stern, where he was looking down into the dark blue waters.
“If this doesn’t pan out I expect lots of compensatory blow jobs,” he said.
“You’ll get them either way,” Rodney assured him. “Come on. The lost city of Atlantis awaits.”
Together they jumped off the boat and into the blue, ready for the next great mystery.