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fear

They went back for Teyla when she was captured on MZ3-338, of course, because it was what they did, and also, hello. But by the time Rodney figured out how to disable the shields, the goddamed Penrulians had already set her cage on fire, and there was still electricity arcing every which way from the collapsing frame of the shield dome, and Rodney had to pilot the Jumper while Ronon lowered Sheppard by the ankles to get hold of her, because she was too smoke-stunned and bruised and disoriented to get a good hold on the grappling rope they’d tried first, and for a few seconds there, Rodney had been sure he was going to lose all three of them, every single one.

It was, obviously, a bad feeling. There was no set of circumstances where that particular configuration of fire, electricity, cultists, gravity, and sociopolitical upheval was going to give anyone a good feeling, but worse this time than normal, because by that point Rodney had gotten used to all three of them and also kind of more or less fallen in love.

But in defiance of all laws of physics (as usual), they all fell upwards instead of down, and Rodney abandoned all pretense of clever piloting prowess and just made the damn thing go up, up, up, and he turned around and saw the sleeves of Sheppard’s jacket smouldering and yet he was still gripping Teyla by the shoulders, knocked back on his ass and she was on top of him gasping for air and her face sooty and tear-streaked, and he saw Sheppard put his burned hands on either side of her head and Teyla fist the front of his jacket clumsily and then they kissed and kissed until an explosion at ground level sent impact waves that made the Jumper rock side to side and pitched her off of him.

And then – Rodney didn’t really know. There must have been first-aid involved, and he was pretty sure he flew them home through the Stargate, but all of that blurred into every other time they ran like hell as yet another world blew up underneath them. Nothing that would stand out in Rodney’s mind, particularly. He knew that nobody said anything about the fact that Teyla and Sheppard had just sucked each other’s faces off, because that wasn’t what they did, and hello.

Except that it kind of was what Rodney did. "So...you and Teyla?" he said while Sheppard was safely confined to his hospital bed and doped up on muscle relaxants, because apparently the spirit was strong, but the spine was having none of it.

"No," Sheppard said. "Absolutely not. No."

"Oh," Rodney said, disappointed all of a sudden. Funny that – given all the options – this was the part that disappointed him. Rodney would have thought it would be...other parts altogether.

"Oh?" Sheppard repeated defensively. "What the fuck does that mean, oh? You want to say something, just say it."

"Nothing," Rodney said quickly. "Except – you know, what if – she’s your Edith Keeler? Only...alive?" Sheppard gave him as disbelieving and contemptuous a look as he could manage through the comfortable haze of medication. "Well, you know what I mean. The whole – side by side – once in a lifetime – you know, like your Scully, your Rose– or, wait, no!" he realized, snapping his fingers eagerly. "Delenn! She’d be your Delenn."

"Stop it," Sheppard said, but he sounded more tired than angry, and he turned his face away, the most thorough retreat he could manage in his current condition.

It was the second-most-awful moment of Rodney’s day, because he didn’t like to think of himself as a hopeless romantic, but he didn’t like to think of himself as dead inside either, and....

In the Pegasus galaxy, hope was a psychological necessity; too much grim reality and you couldn’t stand it, nobody could stand it. Rodney had come to terms with his share of bitter truths in the past few years, and in fact he took pride in his ability to assess probabilities and formulate likely outcomes without overly clouding his judgment with...wanting a lot of things, or hoping things would work themselves out...but even for him, there had to be an upper limit. Rodney would face a lot of truths that he didn’t want to face, but he really felt that there should be one or two, somewhere, that he didn’t have to.

And if John Sheppard couldn’t get the girl, then honestly, who the hell could?

By breakfast, Sheppard was still in the infirmary, and Teyla was...not at breakfast. "Now they’re going to act like it’s so awful and unprecedented," Rodney griped. "Like they’re the first people it’s ever happened to in the history of the universe. They’re not even the first people it’s happened to in the history of the Stargate program. They’re not even the first since Christmas."

"Sheppard’s gonna fuck it up," Ronon said.

"Well...."

"He’s already fucked it up," Ronon said, stabbing violently into his first pig-in-a-blanket and looking just the slightest bit like he might cry.

Rodney had a surprising number of friends on Atlantis; he even had a family again. He hadn’t had this much healthy and rewarding human contact in his life since leaving the womb, but Ronon was a different story altogether, and the mute, stubborn unhappiness on his face reminded Rodney quite uncomfortably of being seven years old and pretending he wasn’t a genius and didn’t know what his parents meant when they said divorce.

"No, he hasn’t," Rodney said, pushing his fruit cup across the table toward Ronon. "He has the luck of the damned; everything will work itself out for him, just like always."

Ronon ate all the pears out of his fruit cup and gave it back to Rodney without a word.

 

 

solitude

A thing must have happened, or more than one thing, or maybe being all stoic and martyred and heroic just got old even for two world-class champions of the art, because John Sheppard did finally get the girl. It was sometime after the mission with the lizard-bat-grasshopper things. Teyla had a fear of grasshoppers, which she called naymiyin and swore would lay eggs in your ear while you were asleep. It could have been true, but Rodney really thought it just sounded like something girls made up to get you to step on bugs for them.

Sheppard told him about it, awkward and slightly pissed-off over having to do it. "You were going to figure it out eventually," he grumbled. "So...now you know."

"Huh," Rodney said. He meant congratulations, of course, or well, about time, or possibly even you better not hurt her, or I’ll separate your molecules and store you in a baggie, but mostly he meant congratulations. He just couldn’t quite get it out past a strange sensation in his throat, some horrible, parasitic sort of jealousy-loneliness-envy-regret, as though he’d missed a chance he didn’t even realize he was still waiting for, as though he were forty years old and something amazing had just passed him by. "Are you going to get married?"

Sheppard turned a deeply unhealthy shade of gray and said, "Jesus, Rodney," feelingly, as if it were the worst breach of manners and morals he could imagine, rubbing a friend’s nose in the whole commitment thing. Like maybe he should treat it like some rather delicate medical condition instead, all euphemisms and false optimism.

Well, the hell with that. "You should get married," Rodney said. "My God, you’re middle aged, you’re not exactly in your Maverick years anymore. Get on with your life, would you?"

"Gee, thanks for the advice, Rodney," Sheppard said, possibly using up a lifetime’s quota of sarcasm. "You wanna pick the date, too?"

"She’s just really amazing," Rodney blurted out, and then froze, waiting to see if Sheppard would laugh at him, or maybe challenge him to a duel of some kind. Sheppard just knit his eyebrows together and stared. Rodney shrugged helplessly and said, "I know you’re probably – maybe it seems awfully soon, but – did you have a better plan? I mean, for the rest of your life? You had something better than her lined up?"

Eventually Sheppard rallied enough to roll his eyes, but for a moment in there he stood stock still, his expression cautious and intent, the one he always got when he was deciding not to stroke Rodney’s ego by saying yeah, I know, you’re right.

Rodney was happy for both of them, he really was.

They didn’t get married, not on paper, but there was an Athosian ritual where they knelt in front of each other in the fresh-plowed furrows at the spring planting festival and held each other’s hands and pushed them under the dirt and people threw seeds at them, and they did that instead. John looked nervous but tried to play it off as embarrassed and Teyla looked embarrassed but tried to play it off as dignified, and they were both more than a little drunk, and Sheppard only barely managed to carry her through the flap of their tent, both of them muddy with seeds stuck in their hair and laughing and unaware that anything else existed in the whole entire galaxy.

The party was still going strong, had been for two days with another left to go, and Rodney had moved past drunk half a day back and come out the other side. He found himself sitting alone by one of the smaller bonfires toward the settlement’s borderline, clumsily trying to roast s’mores made with Athosian brudda cake rather than graham crackers, of which there were none. He’d been wearing the same clothes for he couldn’t remember how long, and it was the dark of both moons and the sky was much too black for the small fire to compete with, and he was tired and sticky and a little overloaded with all the music and the dancing and the celebrating and the reflection and self-pity.

Ronon sat down on the log beside him, and after a minute watching Rodney try to flatten his s’more without the brudda cakes crumbling under his fingers, he said, "You okay?"

"Of course I am," Rodney said. "Why would you ask me that?"

"I don’t know," Ronon said. "You’re over here all by yourself."

"I’m making s’mores," Rodney explained, and then held up the remaining bite of his first almost-entirely successful version. Ronon ate it out of his hand, gave it due thought while he chewed and swallowed, then nodded sagely. "Another one?" Rodney said, reaching for the bag of marshmallows at his feet.

Ronon caught his wrist. Rodney looked up at him, baffled – who turned down s’mores? Their actual name came from how nobody ever did that – and Ronon put his hand on the back of Rodney’s head and hauled him closer while Rodney flailed briefly and ineffectually. Rodney closed his eyes, totally confused but also excited, held by the head and the arm and breathing in the hot, roast-beast-flavored air Ronon breathed out. "Later," Ronon said, and then kissed him, not on the mouth, but shockingly and gently, right at the corner of his eye.

Rodney felt himself sway dangerously and caught hold of Ronon’s shoulders sheerly so he didn’t fall off the log. He’d never thought – not in his wildest – he had no contingency plan for this, nothing – Ronon had never been a variable. Rodney had never realized that Ronon was a variable. "What are you doing?" he gasped.

Ronon kissed him again, a little lower, on the cheekbone. "I don’t fucking know," he said a little wildly, as if he’d thrown the dice and was busy telling himself he didn’t care anymore if it was a good idea or not. "I just – maybe I’m sick of being alone."

Well, that made sense. And it was a relief, more or less, even though Rodney had to wait until his heart finished the endless, high-speed drop down into his stomach before he could speak. He disentangled his arm from Ronon’s grip and put both hands against Ronon’s chest to hold him off slightly. "I’m sure there are plenty of people– " he began, but Ronon’s hard expression made him shut up. Even after all this time, he was a little bit afraid of Ronon. Just a little bit, and only sometimes, but still.

"What, for me to fuck?" he said bitterly. "Whatever, maybe so, but I’d still be alone, wouldn’t I?"

Would he? Reluctantly, Rodney nodded, remembering those terrible moments on MZ3-338, all of them hanging over a fire and Rodney thinking that without this woman and these two men, there would still be everything in the universe to live for, but at the same time absolutely nothing, nothing at all. That sort of thing always felt real to Rodney, fresh and vivid with every new crisis, even though for him the end of the world was mostly theoretical. He wondered if Ronon, who’d weathered the Apocalypse once before, felt like that every day. It would explain why he was grumpy so much of the time.

Maybe that was why Rodney let Ronon kiss him on the mouth, why he didn’t pull away and bring up the awkward fact that he was straight, flattered but straight, although very much there for Ronon in a straight sort of way – all the usual lies. Pity kiss, he thought as he took hold of Ronon’s hair and leaned closer and parted his lips at the first touch of Ronon’s tongue. That could be his cover story....

He’d stopped thinking about plausible deniability, or anything else, when Ronon led him by the hand back to his guest-tent, except how it could be that nobody seemed to notice or care about them, how Rodney’s whole world could be spinning like it was trying to generate its own gravitational field and it was only the most fascinating thing in the universe to him. And maybe to Ronon.

"It just makes sense, you know?" Ronon murmured in the pre-dawn light, wrapped protectively all the way around Rodney and back again. He kissed Rodney’s temple, and Rodney kept stroking the knuckles and the tendons on the back of his hand, incoherently amazed by them and everything they represented. "Sheppard and Teyla, and then – you and me. I mean, it just fits, doesn’t it?"

"Did you just propose to me?" Rodney said. Every time he thought he couldn’t be stunned by his life, ever again....

Ronon chortled sleepily and sprinkled a few more increasingly messy kisses over his face. "Maybe, but I’ll probably back out later. After sex that great, I don’t think you’re allowed to hold me to anything I say."

"And I get the same protection?"

"Sure, yeah," Ronon said through a giant yawn.

"Okay," Rodney whispered, feeling breathless and suspended, out of time and the world and his mind all at once, and he spent his free pass immediately and wantonly, closing his eyes and breathing I love you, I really do love you while Ronon nibbled his neck, because the sex really had been awfully great, and because he didn’t think he could possibly be this stupid for any reason but that one.

 

 

imprisonment

The contest was broadcast on live television, of course, because the Isvenidi were bastards, and reality tv was a plague on every galaxy. Rodney would never complain about The Apprentice again.

He and Teyla even got to watch the show in their cell, and the insanely jolly guard who brought them their water every three hours provided some context, although he only looked at them blankly when they broached the great philosophical questions, like why are you doing this to us? and what the hell is wrong with you people? He had some money riding on Ronon to win by a four-minute margin, and it made Rodney want to throw up. He settled for throwing his cup through the bars of their cell, bouncing it off the guard’s belly while yelling, "Get off my team!" in a voice that sounded insane even to his own ears, and cracked in half near the end.

Teyla only said, "And what will become of us – the one of us whose champion must lose?" The guard didn’t answer, just gave her a long look that was kindly and embarrassed and helpless all at once.

Teyla was stronger than Rodney in almost every conceivable way, except that he outweighed her, and things like vodka and sadistic alien poisons laid him low a bit slower. Rodney got nauseous and thirsty and terrified. Teyla got clammy and shaky and slightly delirious, and Rodney spent the second day of the contest cradling her as she sprawled across his chest and shuddered and watched the screen with glassy, fluttering eyes.

Sheppard was less than four minutes behind, but he was behind. He almost caught up on the bridge – Ronon didn’t exactly have a fear of heights, but he wasn’t Sheppard-level insane, either, and he tended to remember at all times that he couldn’t technically fly – but he lost all the time he gained once they got to the swampy parts, which relied on a lot of upper-body strength to pull yourself through with the vines that tried to struggle out of your grip.

It would’ve been a pretty exciting game show, if second prize was more antidote, rather than a shallow grave.

During the third day, he had to lift the cup for Teyla to drink, and hold her head up on his arm. She twined her fingers with the fingers of his other hand and said, "When you return home, you must.... John will need you. His inclination...will be to do himself harm." She smiled a little and added, "Even if he does not recognize that he is doing it."

"I can’t," Rodney said. He was sweating and dizzy, his vision blurring at odd intervals, and he crouched over her like he was trying to hide her from the world, from this. "I can’t – no, he needs you."

"He has always been strongest with you at his back," Teyla said dreamily, closing her eyes. "He loves you so much more than he would ever admit...or than you would let yourself believe...."

"Well, now, that’s peculiar," their guard said, and Rodney snapped back to consciousness out of a gray, half-sleeping space of indeterminate length. His back was killing him from sitting on the floor with Teyla’s weight across him, his head tilted back toward the screen. It sort of looked like Sheppard and Ronon were making out, which was maybe a fantasy that Rodney occasionally had, so he just assumed he was hallucinating.

He tried blinking very fast, but he still saw a kind of rough-hewn, stony pit, and Ronon pushing Sheppard’s hands against the rocks while they kissed fiercely. Then it looked like Sheppard did some slippery thing where he twisted his hands one way and brought his knee up from the other direction and knocked Ronon down in the sand, and then the part started that Rodney would’ve been fast-forwarding toward, if there was a remote-control to this thing, and if it also wasn’t airing live. Rodney whined a little before he could stop himself.

"What is happening?" Teyla asked.

"They have inhaled the ovin smoke," their friendly guard explained. "It strips away all sense of past and future, the higher functions, even the knowledge of self. Ovin smoke leaves behind nothing but the moment’s impulse. Most competitors have grown angry and frustrated, so late in the game, and they fall to fighting each other rather than achieving the goal. They do not normally...."

"Yes, well," Rodney said dryly. "Mine started out angry and frustrated, so maybe that explains it."

"I don’t think that does explain it," the guard said, tilting his head to watch in uncomfortable fascination.

"Well, if you knew them...." Rodney said, and then there didn’t seem to be much of anything to add.

When the Judges arrived, they had to haul Rodney up by each arm and pull him out of the cell. It was all he could do to turn his head and watch Teyla curl up on the floor, convulsing silently.

They waited til he was outside and blind from the first bright light he’d seen in days to inject him with the antidote, and then they set him in front of Ronon while the crowd cheered and, presumably, the cameras rolled. He tried to dig in his heels, his fury rushing back in as his strength returned, but obviously that wasn’t the heart-warming shot they wanted, and someone shoved him bodily into Ronon, who had no choice but to catch him. Rodney gave in and put an arm around Ronon’s neck and knotted his fingers in the back of Ronon’s shirt; Ronon was filthy, and he smelled like rot and sweat and the damn aftershave that Sheppard started wearing after Teyla nixed the Aqua Velva for good, and Rodney almost couldn’t breathe inside his arms and he almost didn’t want to, because unconsciousness would be much better than this – than being made a spectacle of on this hellish planet, than the mute, helpless guilt and misery in Ronon’s rigid muscles, than the awful and unjust and sickening relief he felt at being safe and loved and going home, without Teyla.

Sheppard was standing on the other side of the balcony, staring straight ahead, his face nightmarishly blank and unresponsive, and Rodney knew that Teyla wanted – would have wanted – had wanted him to do something to help Sheppard, but Rodney barely knew what to do with Sheppard’s blunt-force restraint at the best of times, let alone when it lapsed into clinical dissociation.

Awkwardly, Ronon kissed the top of his head and said, "I’m getting you home first. Then I come back here and kill everybody."

"Okay," Rodney said. "That works."

They didn’t actually kill everybody, partially because Elizabeth wouldn’t let them ("didn’t we talk about this being the year we bomb fewer of our neighbors?" she said curtly, and wouldn’t budge even when Sheppard growled, "they didn’t let the lawn get overgrown, Elizabeth,"), but mostly because what’s-his-face the fat guard had taken a liking to Teyla and slipped her a tranquilizer and some of the antidote and smuggled her out under pretext of disposing of the body. She was sleeping on the floor of the Jumper when the rest of them returned to it, her bare feet sticking adorably out from the bottom of her blanket.

Sheppard was taking her pulse when she opened her bloodshot eyes, blinked up into his stunned face, and said, "It is well that you did not win, John. I do not think Dorssen would have taken such pains for Rodney’s sake."

"Oh, yeah," Sheppard said, with a torn laugh that nevertheless hit a note of real, giddy amusement. "Yeah, that’s what I figured, too. I love it when a plan comes together."

 

 

convalescence

Botany promised there were no more spores, but Sheppard still had to spend seventy-two hours in quarantine, "just in case." If anyone in Rodney’s department had asked for seventy-two hours to figure out if they’d done their jobs correctly or not Rodney would have fired them, but apparently there were special rules for biologists.

He was being kept behind special sealed walls of translucent plastic, so that Rodney could just make out the shape of him, enough to tell if he was sitting, standing, or lying down. Eventually Rodney realized how pointless it was to monitor John’s sitting, standing, and lying down, so he stopped even paying enough attention to notice, just idly running through code on his laptop and listening to John’s voice.

"This sucks," John announced early on the third day, and Rodney didn’t take it personally, aware that John’s frustration was for the quarantine in general and not the specifics of Rodney’s company – Sheppard actually liked all the same games Rodney did, even Who’s Smarter?, and that was so rare and comfortable that Rodney didn’t even care how wrong, wrong, wrong Sheppard was about Dr. Frankenstein (clearly much smarter than Magneto).

"Mm, yes," Rodney said absently, paging down through redundant Ancient coding. All Ancient programming was chock-full of redundancies, which was very prudent of them and also showed they’d had a whole damn lot of time on their hands that Rodney could only dream of. "How are the welts?" It was the third day, so Rodney had gotten over feeling sorry for him on the first, and gotten bored with mocking his inability to wear clothes on the second. Now he was down to having to remind himself that there was anything unusual about Sheppard’s state of being at all, and that he wasn’t just being kept behind white plastic walls as part of some alien ritual or Botany’s science fair.

"They’re fine, they’re better," Sheppard said impatiently. "I just want to get out of here!"

"At least you’re finally getting that three-day waiting period between missions that you wanted, even if the circumstances are less than optimal."

"That I wanted?" Sheppard sounded shocked to the core – almost scandalized by the idea. "When did I ever say I wanted that?"

Rodney waved a hand nebulously. "At that meeting. I think it was Elizabeth’s idea, or maybe Lorne’s, but you signed off on it. It was supposed to be for – what? Reflection and integration. I don’t know, I just assumed it was code for ‘paperwork.’"

"I never agreed to that. And if I did, it’s because I wasn’t listening."

"Well, I’m certainly not ruling that out as a possibility. Still, it’s not the worst idea in the world, is it? Even a man of action such as yourself could surely benefit from taking a moment to think through the full ramifications of whatever stupid– "

"Shove it up your ass, Rodney," Sheppard said, but not at all in the tone he used when he was really angry. "You’re one to talk about thinking stuff through."

"Hello, me? I think all the time. I’m usually the only one thinking around here."

"Oh, yeah, you’re the fucking king of self-reflection. You’re not at all in denial, and nothing you do is pointless mental busywork to keep the jet-powered hamster wheel in your brain from going off in any direction except the nice, safe one you picked out in advance."

Rodney stared speechless for a moment at John’s outline, standing just on the other side of the plastic wall, his hands spread flat against it. "I don’t know what you’re talking about," he finally said.

"Rodney, I fucked your boyfriend on television. Were you ever even going to say anything to me about that?"

"I.... That was months ago," Rodney said stupidly. "I just thought we weren’t...." Thinking about it. Right. "What about you and Teyla, did you – talk about it?"

"I guess. I said, ‘They drugged me,’ and she said, ‘I know,’ and I said, ‘I’m really sorry,’ and she said, ‘I wasn’t as surprised as you’d think,’ and I said, ‘That’s really unfair, I normally never do things like that,’ and she said, ‘I never said you did,’ and I said, ‘He doesn’t really mean anything to me,’ and she said, ‘I think that’s the only thing you could say that would make me angry with you,’ and so at that point I decided to shut the fuck up before I apologized myself into another divorce."

If anyone could.... "If you want to apologize to me, please feel free," Rodney said stiffly.

For a minute he thought they’d keep on – fighting, or whatever they were doing. But then John said in an unexpectedly quiet voice, "Well, so...I’m sorry."

"It wasn’t your fault."

"I know it wasn’t my fault," Sheppard snapped. "But you can still get mad about it."

"Oh, can I? Can I please?"

Sheppard struck the heel of his hand against the plastic wall between them and yelled, "Would you just do it, already, would you just get it over with? Jesus!"

Now you sound like Ronon, Rodney thought. For a moment, he turned that around and around in his mind, evaluating his options. They were so much alike, so damn much alike, and Rodney had never been able to stay angry with either of them, no matter how hard they pulled his pigtails or how much it hurt when they performed their manly-male-bonding rituals and left him on the outside or what cowards they were for asking so much from him so much of the time with scarcely a please or a thank you, let alone a genuine expression of need. Even this was a demand – all about Sheppard’s need to make amends, hardly a thought spared for what would really undo the damage to Rodney’s life.

"You can’t fix this," Rodney said. "I got jealous, and whatever you say or I say – whatever happens now, I’m stuck with that. I was jealous. I tried...." He had tried, but Rodney had never been as tightly in control of his emotions as he felt a grown man should be, that the mature and experienced and important man he kept trying to become should be. "You can’t fix it," he said tiredly, rubbing his eyes and closing his laptop with his elbow. "Ignoring it was working just fine for me."

"Ronon is the kind of guy who’s always going to have opportunities, but it would be stupid– I mean, you have to know you can trust him. He’s crazy about you, and he’d never – well, barring the drug thing – he would never– "

"Oh, my God, you babbling idiot! I wasn’t jealous of you, all right? I was jealous of him." Sheppard probably couldn’t make out the expression on Rodney’s face through the plastic, but he leaned his back against the wall anyway, just in case. "I didn’t even know – that I had a chance. I didn’t know you liked...."

"Well, I didn’t know you did, either, until one day you turn up having sex with my best friend."

"Oh, yes, let me see, that would’ve been the day after your wedding , right? I can’t believe you’re going to have the gall to act like – to even imply that I’m not with you right now because I gave up too fast." Rodney could feel himself careening sideways, saying too much and maybe even things he didn’t mean, saying God knew what with the obsessive masochism of picking at a semi-healed wound. "You’re such an ass, you’re just so goddamn self-involved," Rodney said, staring to feel dizzy and strained and overwhelmed. "Why should I – why would any rational person have – how could I take a chance on someone like you? I’m not a computer game or a fucking spaceship, so how was I supposed to know you could ever feel...."

"Rodney." The plastic distorted his voice and it was too thick to transfer heat or pressure, but Rodney could tell, somehow – somehow he just knew that John was behind him, maybe with his hands up, resting where Rodney’s shoulders would be. "Rodney, I’m sorry, okay? I am. I thought you knew – I mean, I thought it was just something we never – because of who I am, because it wasn’t really – didn’t make sense, it was never really feasible. But I did think you knew. I thought we were just...over each other now."

Rodney snorted. "I am over you. Having sex with the younger, prettier iteration of you helps a lot, actually," he admitted.

Sheppard laughed, that one quick, startled haw of laughter that was in every possible way not sexy, except for that way in which it really was. His voice was as serious as Rodney had ever heard it, though, when he said, "I could have thrown my life away for you. I...thought about it. But I’m glad I didn’t. I like my life."

"It’s fine," Rodney said. "Did I ask you to apologize for your life? You do have sort of an anti-talent for this apology business, don’t you?"

"It’s weird," Sheppard said, sounding puzzled. "I really do."

 

 

 

delirium

"You’re not really here," Rodney said. His palms were filling up with blood and he felt inexplicably certain that he shouldn’t drop any of it on the rocks. That was his blood, he needed that blood....

Teyla looked at him strangely and said, "Then where am I?"

"With – with the others. Rescuing babies and puppies and things." The cave shook again from another blast at ground-level, and Teyla’s hands shot out to keep his head from smacking backwards against the cave wall again. Dust rained down from the ceiling, getting into Rodney’s mouth and leaving it gritty.

"We would not have left you," Teyla said reasonably. She pulled the jacket firmly out of Rodney’s hands and re-folded it, getting his blood on her own hands before she gave it back, pressing a clean section against his head wound.

No, they wouldn’t, would they? Rodney struggled to remember. "You wanted me to stay here, I was...bringing the geothermal main back online. You three went to evacuate – and I was staying here to – the reactor!"

He tried to sit up, but Teyla held him where he was. "There is no reactor. It was destroyed. Rodney, please, you will lose more blood, and you cannot afford it."

"You’re not here," he said again. His vision of Teyla was dressed in her BDUs, dirty and scratched up, but still so unbelievably beautiful. "I just think you’re here because...you would know what to do. You want me to wait, right? For Sheppard and Ronon to come save me?"

But Teyla frowned slightly at that. Too bad. Rodney had thought for sure he was getting the hang of this. "Am I not with John and Ronon?"

"Yes," he said. "Right."

"Then will I not save you as well?"

Her fingertips and the heel of her hand rested over his chest. Her nails were dirty now, as well as short and ragged. Not like a woman’s nails – not like most women’s. Like Sam Carter’s, maybe, although Rodney remembered hers as short but neat. Militarily tidy. "You’ll help," Rodney assured her.

Teyla sat back on her heels, her bronze hair half-loose around her smudged face, her expression grim and a little sad, but she only said, "Yes. I would...I will help them save you."

"I don’t like being underground," Rodney said. It was hard to enunciate properly, but he made the effort. "It isn’t a phobia, per se. I just like air a lot. At least there’s still a light."

"Most of the bunker appears to remain intact. I think we are safe enough for the moment."

"I wonder why I’m not seeing Ronon," he mused.

Sharply, Teyla said, "Do not close your eyes. Look up at the light fixture," she said more gently. "Or look at me."

"You’d think I’d.... Especially if I’m going to die down here. I’d like to have told him – at least in my mind – that I’m sorry for – using him."

"Using him?"

"I didn’t want to be alone. Of course...neither did he. So maybe it’s all right."

"He has seemed happy, these past two years. I cannot imagine he expects an apology."

"Do you think he loves Sheppard?"

Teyla wiped the grime off the inside of his bottom lip with a clean spot on the sleeve of her jacket, pulled down over her thumb. "I do not think about it, much."

"Do you...think he loves me?"

"John?"

"Ronon. Why, why did you say John?"

"Rodney," she said in something like her impatient voice, only more wistful, "if there is even the merest chance we may not survive this, I would hate to think my last hours were taken up by this. I have known the three of you for nearly five years now, and if we did not know this morning which of us loves whom and why, we will not work it out here and now. I loved you enough to try to reach you as the passageways collapsed. Everything else is speculation, but you have the evidence of this much, at least. Let it be enough for you, if you can."

She really looked awfully bedraggled for a hallucination.... But maybe that was exactly what he wanted – what he needed to see. Someone who would run through walls for him, someone who would get their hands dirty. "I know you wouldn’t leave me behind," Rodney said. "Part of me knows it, at least. Large parts of me – the vast majority, even."

"I am glad," she said wryly, peering under the jacket to see the cut on his head. "The bleeding has slowed."

"Thank God you’re here," he said, and he meant it.

At first he thought it was a trick of the light, but it wasn’t, and Rodney couldn’t for the life of him imagine why he would hallucinate Teyla – bright, wise, reliable Teyla – crying. She slipped one arm behind his neck and leaned down over him so that a tear actually fell on his face. He tried to pick his hand up and pat her back, but he couldn’t find either of his hands. "John is leaving Atlantis," she said. "I gave him my word he could tell you in his own way, but he puts it off and puts it off...."

"Leaving Atlantis?" It was hard to think; he didn’t know what he thought. It didn’t seem possible, somehow.

Teyla wiped at her eyes with her sleeve and said in a scratchy, childlike voice, "He has been promoted. It is a great honor."

"Well...you have to go with him," Rodney realized aloud. "He can’t...go alone, and I.... No job on Earth is a promotion for me." It sounded like a joke when he said it, but he meant it as a statement of literal fact. "You...you have to go with him."

"No," she said, "I do not have to. Although I may. I – I don’t know what to do."

Rodney finally got his hand to move, and he patted Teyla’s wrist clumsily. "You’ll – you’ll do – the right thing. Like always."

She leaned down and kissed him, fierce and sweet and smelling like iron and sweat and the last cranberry-nut powerbar. Rodney’s brain was always surprisingly kind to him, considering the trouble he put it through.

 

 

change

They all went to Colorado, and Rodney taught Teyla the noble art of skiing while John, of course, turned out to be a snowboarder, which meant Ronon was now also a snowboarder. They paid a godawful amount of money for a cabin, but at least it included meals, good meals, delivered from up at the main lodge – lamb and salmon and eggs benedict for breakfast, and Rodney didn’t even miss MREs until the fourth night.

Ronon had brought two from home, and Rodney ate the beef stir-fry standing up in the kitchenette and burned his tongue and chose to forgo the whole day’s noble art of skiing in favor of messing around in their featherbed. By evening it had started to snow, so they put on robes and wandered out to see if anyone had started a fire in the living room.

Sheppard had, and Rodney ate the fried chicken MRE while the other three roasted hot dogs on the floor and American Idol played on television. Rodney felt that he’d missed out on American Idol through no fault of his own. He enjoyed music, and judgment. He thought he really could have been a fan.

Nobody on the show sang as well as Teyla did, though.

As it got later, they worked out how to use the espresso machine (Atlantis had an espresso machine retrofitted from Ancient technology, and Rodney felt it was much more user-friendly than the piece of crap they’d gotten with the rooms here) and made cappuccinos with Kahlua, and John got out his laptop and showed them pictures online of the three houses he was choosing between. Two of them had three bedrooms and the other had four, and Rodney was sleepy and happy and drunk and stupid enough to say, "Are you really going to need that much space?"

"I don’t know," John said, after a long, tense silence. "I guess that depends."

Teyla put down her cup of plain tea on the coffee table and looked him seriously in the eye, but she seemed to be talking about him and not to him when she said, "We have not yet decided– "

"No, you haven’t decided," John said shortly. "I told you, it’s your decision, it’s not mine."

The promotion came with basically unlimited access to the Stargate, and between Earth and Atlantis, they had enough power nowadays to keep the wormhole open constantly if they felt like it. Rodney thought it had been easier, in a way, back in the days when you had to choose which galaxy your life was in and then stick to it. "You behave as though I should be honored by your trust," Teyla said hotly, "but you mean it more as a test, or a kind of punishment."

"That’s not how I mean it, that’s just how it is. I’m sorry, but there’s no right answer, and you could give me a break and quit blaming me for that, it’s just how things are."

"Do I not have the right to your honest opinion?"

"Oh, what the hell, sure. My opinion is that if you move here, I’ll spend twenty hours a day at work and you won’t know anybody and you’ll be depressed and bored and lonely with the mother of all culture shock to deal with, and if you don’t move here then I’m basically walking out on you, and I’ll miss out on – you, and, and everything, this whole thing that was supposed to be my life and is now going to become my bi-monthly long-weekend’s vacation. So if I say I want you to move here I’m a selfish asshole, and if I tell you to stay where you are I’m my fucking father, and just, fuck me, I think I’ll take a pass all the way around, if you don’t mind. You do whatever it is you need to do."

Apparently what Teyla thought she needed to do was grab her coat and stalk out into the snow, very carefully not banging the door behind her. "Your father?" Rodney said blankly.

Behind him, Ronon sat up abruptly, nearly pitching Rodney off the couch, and in the same tone someone else might have used to say they’re coming in through the walls, he said, "She’s pregnant." John glared into the fire and didn’t say anything.

Ronon didn’t take his coat with him when he went outside, and he did let the door slam.

Rodney ran another cup of espresso, black, and brought it over to where John was sitting on the rug, his computer gone into sleep mode and hiding the pictures of beautiful suburban officers’ homes. Rodney sat in the chair behind him and dumped some more Kahlua into the little bit of coffee remaining in the bottom of his own cup. There wasn’t much light inside the cabin, so there was no reflective glare to obscure the picture window, and the two of them watched while Ronon caught up to Teyla in a few long strides and put his arms around her from behind, cradling her back against his chest.

"I’m counting on you," Sheppard said quietly. "On the two of you. You have to help her with the baby."

"Give her a little more time," Rodney said.

"No. I know what she’s going to do, and so does she, it’s just that neither of us wants to be the first to say it. There’s nothing for her on Earth except for me. It’s not enough – maybe before, but not right now, when she’s going to need more than she ever has in her life. I can’t ask her to move here and – and give up everything, everyone she cares about, take up tennis and go on Xanax and be the gracious General’s wife. She deserves better."

"You deserve your family," Rodney said.

John shrugged. "Yeah, well, I’m military. This is what family looks like for us. I’ll get pictures of the baby by e-mail." He turned to look at Rodney, with that scary, sexy intensity in his eyes that he sometimes got when he had problems that he couldn’t shoot his way out of, much as he might want to. "I almost quit. I wrote the letter and everything, I thought I could – I don’t know, move to the mainland if I had to. Do something. Be a fucking man and do something to stay with my family like I should, but.... I put my life into this. I don’t...even think I know how to leave now. And this isn’t a bad job; you’re gonna be amazed at what I can get done for Atlantis from this end, I swear to God, I’m still with you guys, I won’t let you down."

"I know," Rodney said. He hadn’t even worried about that part. Outside the window, Teyla had turned around in Ronon’s arms, tucked up against him with his broad hand covering the back of her head, and for one nauseous second Rodney knew the answer, the obvious, elegant solution like a proof falling into place, and just as much as he usually loved that feeling, that was how much he hated it now. He drank the last of his coffee and set the cup down very carefully. "Take Ronon with you," he said.

Sheppard whipped around, craning to look back and up at Rodney’s face. "It makes perfect sense," Rodney said. "She won’t feel so displaced if she has someone – someone from home who can be around when you’re not. And neither of you have any family to help out, so you’d end up hiring a nanny anyway, probably– "

"You want him to move to Earth to be our nanny?"

"No, not – well, yes, sort of. I mean – your friend. You can tell people he’s Teyla’s brother if you want to." Rodney started to pick up the coffee cup again, just for something to do with his hands, but he didn’t want Sheppard to see them shaking, so he stopped and pulled a nearby blanket over himself. "He likes kids," Rodney said softly. "He wants kids, and don’t think I haven’t been trying to figure out what to do about that."

"Do you think he’d do it?" Sheppard said. "He had a chance once before, and– "

"A lot’s changed since then," Rodney said, which was possibly the understatement of the decade. "If...if he thought Teyla needed him? Then I think he would, yes. I do. I think he’d do...anything for Teyla. And for you."

Sheppard wound the fringe at the bottom of Rodney’s blanket around his finger. "Would you? Do this for us?"

"John, I’d die for you," Rodney said in exasperation. "I know you know that, so why would you even– ?"

"Because this is harder," John said, chuckling a little like he recognized the absurdity. "Don’t you...think this would be harder, in a way?"

No more breakfast, no more midnight raids on the mess. No more off-planet swashbuckling, no more stupid arguments over which Ancient words were in common enough currency on Atlantis that they should count for Scrabble. No more all-night stargazing with Teyla, no more guerilla contests with Sheppard to see who could reset the other’s desktop background to something more embarrassing still, no more waking up close to noon with Ronon’s fingers stroking him from the nape of his neck to the swell of his ass.

"I do have friends besides the three of you, you know," he said loftily.

"Jesus, Rodney," Sheppard said feelingly, although Rodney was at a loss as to what kind of feeling Sheppard was caught up in, until he reached up and practically dragged Rodney out of his chair, down into his arms, his warm hands pressed to Rodney’s face, his mouth open against Rodney’s.

He raked his fingers through Sheppard’s hair, from the back of his neck upward so that it stuck out even more, and put his other hand on the flat of Sheppard’s hip and said I love you, I really do love you into Sheppard’s mouth. He was much too worn out to get hard again this evening, but he couldn’t stop rubbing against Sheppard anyway, pointless and hungry and just craving every last second of him to add to six years’ worth of pleasure and pain.

By the time Ronon and Teyla came back inside, they were both too flushed and disheveled for any cover story to be believable, so they skipped right over that and filled them in on the backstory. Ronon looked a little shellshocked at the abrupt left turn his life was starting to take, but Rodney didn’t miss the light in his eyes, the dawning possibility that he could finally quit waiting for Sheppard to fuck it up and for yet another family to vanish out from underneath him.

Teyla kissed Rodney’s cheek and let him wrap her in his arms. "You should’ve known we wouldn’t just let you go," Rodney whispered in her ear, almost embarrassed.

"Come with us," she said.

And maybe he would someday. He looked over her shoulder at Sheppard and at Ronon, at these two men and this woman, and he thought that – someday he’d like that, and that better yet, he could trust them to open the door any day, any year that he came knocking. "I have so much to do," he said apologetically, kissing her hair. "I still have so much work where I am. But it’s not – far. Not anymore. I’m not going to be...as far away as you think I will."

In defiance of all laws of physics, there was less space than there used to be between the Pegasus Galaxy and the Milky Way. That night, on the soft woven rug in front of the fire in a Colorado log cabin, they compressed the distance yet again, the four of them trading slow kisses and reckless promises, nuzzling closer and closer to breathe each other in, locking their hands together and falling upward, all of them saved, all of them headed home.