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Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on the sand,
rise on wings;

to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;

to tell pain
from everything it's not;

to squeeze inside events, 
dawdle in views, 
to seek the least of all possible mistakes.

An extraordinary chance 
to remember for a moment 
a conversation held 
with the lamp switched off;

and if only once 
to stumble upon a stone, 
end up soaked in one downpour or another,

mislay your keys in the grass; 
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes; 
and to keep on not knowing 
something important.

-- by Wislawa Szymborska

 

Rodney knows that he and John bookend Kate's day.   John comes to her when the day is new and soft, the color of the inside of a seashell, and Rodney finds his way to her office when the sky is colored like a flare, like the heart of a peach--the sun a round and jagged pit in the apex of the sea.

Rodney sits in the most utilitarian chair, not the most comfortable, because it's what John would do, and he tries to figure out where to put his hands--what to touch.

"You're late," Kate says mildly.  

"There was an emergency in the lab," Rodney tells her.

"What kind of emergency?" she asks.

"We found out one of the Ancient metals we've been using as inert shielding material isn't as inert as we thought," Rodney tells her, leaning back into the chair and shifting until he finds a comfortable spot.   Rodney is Rodney, he thinks John would say, and Rodney will always be Rodney; being fucked up has brought out of lot of John's whimsy.

"But the problem is contained now," she says easily.

Kate never worries--nothing stirs her, and whenever she asks Rodney questions like these, it's without any urgency.   It's a radical thing, Rodney thinks, first to have a shrink to whom he can tell the whole and unvarnished truth, and more than that someone who never worries.   At the outpost, Siberia, Dr. Hammish and Dr. Vogler could never hide it; maybe Kate is the only one who has ever been near enough to ground zero know that there is no reason to fear.

"No, I left a critical situation because I was tired," Rodney tells her, but without any venom.   He is tired.   "John has been doing it again."

"You have three its ," Kate says.   "Which it."

"Is it?" Rodney says, smiling wryly.   "He found Zelenka's Koosh ball again."

"Found?" Kate asks.

Rodney curses verbs, quiet and under his breath.   "He has acquired the Koosh ball again."

"After you hid it from him?"

He looks at the window, at the sun going gold and pink and red in the distance.   Kate isn't having any of it, setting away her pen and notepad and leaning forward to rest her elbows on her knees, staring at him hard.

"John's not a reaction, Rodney," she tells him. "You can't change the variables to speed him up."

"I'm not rushing!" Rodney argues.  

He's not.   He would never rush John. John can go as slow as he likes, take to the scenic path and comment idly on the trees and grass and sky for the rest of his life.   Rodney doesn't know how to care about the destination anymore--he just wants the journey to be easier.   For things to be easier for John.

"I would never rush him--I don't even have anywhere to rush him to."

Kate smiles at him kindly and something in Rodney's chest unclenches.   He knows he can be unkind, and it's hard to know when he's done wrong and what he's done right; he's grateful that Kate is clear and unsparing.

"I know, Rodney," she promises him.   "John knows that, too."

"Okay," he tells her, shaky.  

It's too soon for him to make jokes about it, even if it's not too soon for John, who along with whimsy has discovered gallows humor that makes Rodney want to throw up.   He doesn't know how to tell Kate about it--John's idle smirks and detached amusement, how he talks about the Darfin vacation package, calls it the Wham Bam Thank You, Sir.  

"But taking the Koosh ball doesn't really help things, Rodney," Kate tells him, her voice still calming like she thinks Rodney will leave.   Rodney had only ever left once, when Kate asked Rodney what his nightmares after Darfin were--asked why Rodney hadn't touched himself in weeks.

"He doesn't need it anymore," Rodney says feebly.   "It just reminds him of bad things."

"That's for him to decide," Kate insists gently.   "Not for you.   We've talked about this."

Rodney understands what has happened in scientific relationships, and it speaks to how much effort Kate puts into each of them that she had come in game to discuss it as such--in vectors and lines, intersecting geometries and values lesser and greater than zero, in the language of frictionless planes and forces, shaping Rodney's hands into an L.  

John is an experiment with no control, just a mess of variables.

"I'm a genius," Rodney snarls, small and petty and meaningless.   There aren't many things this lifetime he hasn't been able to fix--he wants to fix John, to give John the perfect mathematical answer to all of this and to cancel out all of the free variables that make the numbers ugly, to give him zero all over again: a clean slate.

"To use your own words, though," Kate says, "a little emotionally retarded."

"I thought therapists weren't supposed to use words like that," Rodney snaps.

"Let's say you bring out the best in me," she says, and leans back, satisfied.  

 

*

 

The lab is better now, since John came and spoke with Zelenka that time, and they have all stopped second-guessing themselves--started to push more than ever before.   No more brownouts in marine biology, no matter how much time John wastes with those dolphin-hugging hippies.  

Work smarter.   No rushing.   Rushing leads to accidents leads to intricate repairs leads to Rodney sending Zelenka with gate team one--leads to the emergency offworld activation four days later, when Ronon had come through the gate cradling John like a child.

"This is strange," Zelenka says, frowning at the container.

It's small and blue and the shape of a teardrop; it's made of a substance that's entirely Ancient and exactly like but completely different than plastic.   It's the same substance that has been remarkably inert, unbreakable, and heat-resistant--the Nalgene of the Pegasus Galaxy.

Rodney remembers he and John had great fun trying to set it on fire, dripping acid on it, stealing make-up and materials to try on it and then it'd gotten silly.   This is years ago, those first few months on Atlantis when two square pegs realized they had left the context of round holes--there's no way to be weird if nothing is normal, and so Rodney and John poured calcium oxide on Pegasus Nalgene and called it a day.

And then--last week, on a fluke--Rodney put some balsa wood next to it.

"How can plastic be reactive to balsa wood? " Simpson snarls.   She has an ugly burn that will leave a scar, and Rodney hasn't heard her complain once.

"All I know is that it has marked me for life ," another scientist--new, mediocre, from the Daedelus, brown hair, some kind of animal name--whines, elaborately reapplying Neosporin and bandages all over the red, irritated skin on his palm.  

He's going to be a winner, Rodney decides, rolling his eyes, and almost misses Kavanagh, who had at least gamely taken having the bottom half of his ponytail singed in the name of discovery.

"It can't be reactive with wood ," Rodney argues, baffled.   "It's just not possible."

It is.   They've tried this many times--the elegant, controlled-environment version of setting papers on fire in a trash can--putting trace amounts of the Pegasus Nalgene into a gravity containment field and throwing in a few balsa shavings.  

Rodney reflects glumly if nothing else they've pioneered a fascinating way to reinvent tired fireworks.

"Notice my hand," New Guy--swine? Swain!--says bitterly.   "It's possible."

"This galaxy is a freak show," Simpson says.   "Okay--so the question we're left with here is if we start the process of carefully dismantling systems on the off chance stray balsa wood comes near them and leads to a catastrophic overload."

In the grand scheme of things, it's not an immediate problem--not like no power or no shields or John hurt is an immediate and percussive problem.  

It's an issue that needs to be remedied but without the dire consequences Simpson has imbued it; it's just the novelty problem of the week--like that time half the lab came out to watch Rodney try and fail to expand the gravity containment chamber only to break down into something not at all like tears, the promise of fission-based energy slipping from his fingertips.

Rodney sighs.   "This is just so embarrassing."

 

*

 

"How are you sleeping?"

Fine.   "Fine."

She looks at him for along time.   "Have you been using your Ambien?"

Rodney shrugs.   "Sometimes.   Most times not.   I'm sleeping better."

"Are you still spying on John?" she asks pointedly.

Rodney keeps letting these things slip in sessions, and he has to stop.   "No," he says, and when her eyes never stray from him, he says, "Yes--and I don't have to justify myself to you.   I'm the chief science officer on this expedition and I have the authority to do what I feel is necessary to maintain the viability of this mission."

She just raises her eyebrows.

"It's not making him better for you to have cameras follow him," Kate finally says.   "It's only making you worse."

I'm fine," Rodney counters. 

You have never managed to talk about what happened," Kate ripostes.

"I talk about it all the time!   I talk about it once a week--frequently against my will."

"You talk about John," Kate says, calm and cool and eviscerating.   "You talk about how he's acting or what he's doing--you never talk about what happened to him."

Rodney's been in therapy long enough not to fight it; even the bad therapists are too good for personal attacks and Kate is disturbingly unflappable.

"I don't like to think about it."

"I bet John doesn't either, but he has to," Kate says.

"What the hell is your point?" Rodney demands, frustrated, all but stamping his feet.

"My point is we all do things we don't want to for our own good," Kate tells him firmly.   "Stop watching him.   It's not hurting him--I know, but it's doing you more harm than good."

Dismantling the elaborate duct-tape and elbow grease monitoring system Rodney had developed throughout Atlantis to follow John will take weeks since Rodney is sleeping again.   When he'd set it up, it was done in less than forty-eight hours and   he had been near blind from the lines of code, all his fingers bloody from picking at wall panels and fighting with sharp edges, criss-crossing wires.   It had felt good, then, for something to hurt.   It was his turn.

Rodney remembers how Carson had kicked everybody out of the infirmary's private room, locked it down to make it clean and dark and quiet, and how John had slept for days, it seemed, groggy and sedated.   Carson gave him dreamlessness in a needle and ran panel after panel of tests while Rodney sat hunched at his laptop, watching, locked into his room with a marine guarding his door at Elizabeth's orders.  

And none of the details had been clear, exactly, until Rodney had watched with nauseated horror as Carson had pulled John's motionless legs open carefully and slid his hands up John's thighs with careful, clinical motions.

"I was making sure he didn't do anything stupid," Rodney snaps.   Rodney's not superstitious, but he doesn't want to say words like'kamikaze' or 'kill himself by crashing out in a jumper,' or 'I don't know what I'd do without him.'

"We wouldn't let anything like that happen," Kate reassures him.

"Yeah, well, look what happened the last time I trusted other people to look out for the colonel," Rodney says flatly, and is so surprised he blinks twice at Kate's unperturbed expression and says, "I have to go."

 

*

 

On Monday night Elizabeth calls Rodney in for a private meeting.

"Just come to my room, Rodney," she says, voice faint through the headset.

"I didn't think we had that kind of relationship," he says, going to the nearest transporter.

She laughs, and it's a sound he hasn't heard in a long time, since before Darfin, since the impromptu staff meeting at 11 o'clock when Rodney had been forced to admit he had broken Atlantis, which nobody really found terribly distressing so much as hysterical.

"I can live in hope, Rodney," she said lightly, and he knocks on her door as she's saying the last syllable of his name.

When it slides open, he sees her barefoot in pajama pants and a Georgetown sweatshirt, her hair still wet and flat against her head.   She looks flushed and undecided, and Rodney says, leering tiredly, "So, you want top or bottom?"

"I want to talk about John going off world," she says instead.

Rodney's mouth tightens into a flat line.   "No," he says automatically.  

Elizabeth cocks a brow at him, waving him toward the sofa, and Rodney sits down clutching at his knees.   The last time they'd gone off world together was to a marsh planet where John told about a million and one stupid knock knock jokes because there was literally nothing else to do.   In the end Teyla had been forced to threaten to smother him to death with her sleeping bag before he'd shut up.   The time after that, Rodney had been unbreaking the city and John had been alone.

"That was my first reaction, too," Elizabeth admits.

"Fantastic, we're in agreement," Rodney says as pleasantly as he can manage.   "Can I go now, or was this all really a ruse to get me into the sack after all?"

"Rodney," she says, and puts a hand over his where he's clutching his knee.   She's frowning.   "John came and spoke with me, this afternoon.   He asked when we'd start scheduling off world trips for gate team one again."

He wants to say, sometime shortly after I bribe the marine biologists to scour the bottom of the ocean around Atlantis to find the time machine again and we rewind and erase the last eight months of our lives.   To take it all back, to keep me from crossing that wire with that crystal.

"What--what did he say?" Rodney forces himself to ask.

"He said he's starting to get itchy feet," Elizabeth sighs, leaning back against the sofa.  

Rodney, Elizabeth and John once had almost monthly meetings like this: after hours and usually camped out in one of their rooms, with Elizabeth's being the crowd favorite since she had a winning combination of floor space, furniture, and a distinct lack of filth covering every flat surface.   "It's not on every flat surface," Rodney had sulked, and gotten stared down by John and Elizabeth in medias meeting.  

This should be old hat, familiar, but the fact that they are meeting with the wrong prime number only makes this hurt more.

"I don't suppose we can make a case for tying him down to the city permanently," Rodney asks faintly.

Elizabeth looks away.   "He says if we--he says if he just stays around as dead weight he might as well get sent back to Earth."

Since the day John had come to Rodney and babbled, drunk on panic, eyes going wild, about water and drowning and if Rodney would still want him, they haven't talked all that much.   But Rodney still remembers pulling John into his chest, wrapping his arms around John's too-thin body and stroking the back of John's neck, so fiercely desperate to let John know that nothing could ever wash away how he felt, how everybody felt, that he'd forgotten to be careful.

"You know," Rodney grinds out a long, long moment later, "there are times when I desperately want to punch him in his perfect fucking mouth."

Elizabeth raises both eyebrows at that.

"Not that I would actually do it," Rodney backpedals.

"Perfect mouth?" Elizabeth enunciates.

Rodney groans.   "Like you didn't already know," he snaps, throwing up his hands for emphasis.   "Like my crush isn't practically written on billboards around the city."

"Well," Elizabeth demurs, "I had an inkling."

"Inkling," Rodney says in disgust.   "You were probably in on the pool."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Elizabeth prevaricates, and sighs, rubbing her hands over her face tiredly.   "He's right, though."

Rodney would like to argue that point.   He'd like to talk about how military productivity has almost doubled in the city since John was around to do paperwork and comprehensive munitions inventory and to keep up with everybody's training and off world team schedules.   He'd like to say that John's work with the marine biologists and his fascinating discovery of the two-headed sharks--which communicated telepathically--was invaluable.   It's all true, but it doesn't make a difference.   This is about John, about what he wants, about what he needs.

"The tests--" Rodney tries.

Elizabeth shakes her head.   "Carson says John's panels have come back clean for at least six months now--if anything was going to show up, it would have showed up already.   And John argued that we couldn't hold him on Atlantis waiting four more months for a follow-up HIV test."

Rodney takes a long moment to try and catch his breath, swallow the thudding fear in his chest and the wry observation that privacy in an operation like this is nonexistent.   Carson will keep his secrets if he can, but he mostly can't, and Rodney knows it must be killing him a little, to offer promises of confidentiality and try to keep up the polite fiction.

"He says he's ready for offworld?" Rodney bites out.  

"He says he wants to go offworld," Elizabeth says precisely.   "I don't know if that means ready."

Rodney puts his head in his hands.   "He's acting like this is ripping off a Band-Aid," he sighs.   "He thinks that if he does this in one quick motion, it won't hurt."

"I guess," Elizabeth agrees softly.   "But he has a right to make his own decisions."

"God damn Kate and her proactive therapy," Rodney snarls.

Kate told Rodney--after Rodney told her about John and the hug and how it had felt to touch John again after all those months, just the hugeness of that warmth--that genius is no replacement for time, for the actual labor of recovery.   Rodney argued with her that it seemed like getting better should be the business of sleeping for twelve hours a day, of wearing old, soft clothes and drinking tea and hot soup out of mugs, of watching your favorite movies and reciting all the lines with them.  

Recovery was the sort of thing you did with a cat on your lap, Rodney argued, not starting combat training again, not going back to the shooting range, not pushing yourself in scary, horrible ways to do things that felt wrong, wrong, nauseatingly wrong.

"If he went back to Earth," Rodney says suddenly, out of nowhere, "I'd go with him."

Elizabeth only leans her head against the back of the couch.   She says, "I know."   And adds, "He wants to stay, and if this is what he needs to do, then this is what we need to let him do."

Rodney bites his lip, feeling the kind of anxiety attack that hasn't hit him in months rolling up and down his spine, twisting like a snake in his stomach.

"I'm still considering the punching," Rodney says shakily.

Elizabeth takes that moment to put her arms around Rodney, and Rodney to put his arms around Elizabeth, and they're both silently miserable together.   Once, a few days after John had been brought home and when he was still in the infirmary, heavily sedated and having gashes and rips sewn up, with fingerprint bruises around his neck fading, Rodney had come to Elizabeth's room roaring drunk and already crying, and they'd sat down on the floor next to her bed and cried together.

"If he can do it," Elizabeth says into his shoulder, "we can do it."

"Okay, but we suck at this," Rodney says blearily.

There's a pause before Elizabeth mutters, "We can fake it."

 

*

 

"Why does he want to go offworld?" Rodney starts, stalking into Kate's office while she's still putting away the files from her last visitor.

She doesn't miss a beat and she doesn't look up, either.  

"One day, Rodney, you and John will realize that just because you share a therapist doesn't mean I'm going to tell you things about each other's visits."   She turns to smile at him pleasantly.   "You two still have to do this the hard way."

"This isn't about any stupid, pointless feelings I have," Rodney snaps.   "This is about you encouraging him to throw himself right back out there."

Kate puts away the file, finally, and moves to sit down in her appointed seat, face serene and smooth as she says, "We've talked about how everybody approaches recovery differently before, Rodney.   If John decides he wants to go offworld, that's his choice."

"It's a stupid choice," Rodney snarls, and throws himself down in the nearest seat.

He's been angry since the night before, since he left Elizabeth's room feeling drained and doomed and lay down in his bed to stare at his ceiling and feel sick and terrified because it could happen again--or it could be worse.   Maybe next time John doesn't come back through the Stargate with Ronon--maybe next time he stays sedated in the private room in the infirmary that Carson uses for suicide watch.  

"Is it a stupid choice every time you go offworld?" Kate challenges.

"Probably," Rodney says, glaring.   "Pegasus is like Las Vegas--the house always wins."

Kate raises her eyebrows.   "Interesting comparison," she says mildly.

"I'm poetic like that."

"I meant that you said Las Vegas specifically," Kate points out evenly.   "And gambling--if I understand correctly, most Vegas games are games of independent chance."

Rodney frowns.   "Right.   Mathematically speaking, there're no hot slot machines and there's no such thing as due for a number on the roulette wheel."

"Then apply that same math to going off world," Kate argues.   "There's no reason to believe that trips to different gates are any more than trips of independent chance."

"Then John won the worst fucking lottery ever!" Rodney shouts, glaring at Kate.

"Yes," she says flatly, unblinking and not backing down an inch, "he did.   And he's dealing with it--which is more than I can say for you right now."

Rodney pushes himself out of the seat and paces around the room.   He wants to kick things but the last time he did that he sprained something and Kate had to help him hobble down to Carson's, which she kept reminding him wasn't in her job description.

"What do you want me to do?" Rodney asks, half angry and half desperate.   Because he doesn't know anymore and he's hates being in a position where he doesn't have the answers.   "I thought I was doing it right," he says.

"You're not doing it wrong," Kate compromises.

"You said I was doing good," Rodney argues, all the fury run out of him in a sudden fit of hopelessness.

Kate purses her lips and leans forward, balances her elbows on her knees and she calls Rodney back to his seat gently, waits until he's settled before she says kindly:

"You were dealing with the situation well, Rodney."  

She reaches out to take one of his hands into her own, and her skin is soft and warm on Rodney's knuckles.  

"You were never going to fix this--you still can't," Kate goes on, voice soft.   "You can't fix the odds, either.   You're wrong about Pegasus being Las Vegas--you can outsmart the house.   You can count cards.   You can design ways to cheat."   She catches Rodney's eyes.   "You can't work around life, Rodney."

"Fine," he says flatly.   "I want to stop playing."

"No deal," she reminds him and glances at the clock on the wall.   "Time's up," she tells him, and pats his hand one more time.   "Think about what we've talked about, okay?"

Rodney is half-convinced that Kate found a time dilation field in Atlantis, the only room in the city that slows to a stop, a long pause, the exhale nobody has time to take--or speeds up, rushes rushes, until you're out the door again and you don't know how.   He comes inside and leaves an hour later and sometimes it feels like a moment and others it feels like a year.  

 

*

 

Thursday morning, Rodney drags himself into the senior staff meeting at 10 a.m. and finds John sitting there intently staring at the Ancient equivalent of a Rubik's cube--only it has eight sides and had been hidden in a top secret location.  

Six weeks ago the entire city woke up to malfunctioning plumbing and cold showers and when Rodney--unwashed and unamused--had been forced to ferret out the reason like some plumber with his asscrack hanging out, he'd found half his engineering team engrossed with it like a particularly poisonous attack of Spider Solitaire instead of solving the power distribution problem.  

He remembers firing a lot of people in his righteous fury--the only problem being that in the Pegasus Galaxy, to fire somebody you have to really mean it: a combination of bureaucratic nightmare and the fact that it's really hard to kick somebody out of a floating city in a foreign galaxy without violating some serious ethical codes.

"Where did you get that?" Rodney demands, before he remembers he's supposed to be nice, before he remembers what's happened and who he's talking to.   But before he can wince in horror and take it back, John looks up and smiles at him--and it's enough to make his knees go a little weak.   It really has been a very long time.

"I can't reveal my sources," John says solemnly, gaze returning to the Cube of Death.   "But I promise I won't let it get into the wrong hands."

Rodney scowls and settles down next to him at the conference table, because ever since Darfin, Rodney has wanted to be close, close, close--and for the longest time all John wanted was to be alone.   This is one of maybe a handful of morning staff meetings John has attended in the last eight months, and the first one where he's been smiling.

"Well, see that none of my staff gets a hold of it, or I'll have to kill them all and hire new people," he warns.   "And I hate sorting through CVs."

John makes an indulgently amused face and keeps twiddling with the toy until Elizabeth hurries into the room, saying, "Sorry, I just popped in on Carson, he said he won't be in today but gave me a list of his agenda--let's get things started, shall we?" in one long exhale, her cheeks flushed.   She raises an eyebrow at John.  

"Colonel--I was told that toy was potentially the most dangerous piece of technology on Atlantis," Elizabeth says.

"In that case, I'm holding onto it for security purposes," John answers, smirking, setting it down.   Three of the eight sides are completed.   "It's only the responsible thing to do."

"I see," Elizabeth laughs, indulgent.

Elizabeth is unchanging and uncompromising, and in the wake of all that happened, after the unfathomably embarrassing evening Rodney spent sobbing on her floor, she'd melted seamlessly back to her old self.   Rodney met Elizabeth in Antarctica, after she'd pulled strings and made phone calls and had him flown from one bitter cold locale to this other, and Rodney had liked her immediately.  

He's looked her up and hacked her file: she's got commendations from and friends in high places--but most importantly she has a sense of wonder that's so often lost, even for the scientists.   It's hard to see the floating, alien city for all the cascading electrical failures, and Rodney sometimes envies her perspective.

"I wanted to go ahead and remind everybody that we have afternoon staff at six to finalize power distribution for next week--when and how long you put off dealing with your own subordinates is up to you," she says, giving Rodney a look.

"That fistfight between meteorology and bio was not my fault ," Rodney insists.  

John raises his brows.   "Fistfight?" he asks, and Rodney has to swallow past the one-eighty that all of his internal organs just made to say:

"It was really more of a slap fight."

"There were fists, Rodney," Elizabeth says disapprovingly.

"It was Collins and Hardig," Rodney says flatly.

John laughs.   "It was a slap fight," he confirms.

Elizabeth's mouth twitches--just barely, and Rodney thinks about school marms from Little House on the Prairie--and she taps a folder to her mouth for a moment before she steels herself and says, "The nature of their dispute aside, I'd like to keep the brawling to a minimum, Rodney."

"You try controlling more than two hundred people who don't listen to a thing you say," Rodney says bitterly.

"I'm sure I have no idea how that feels, Rodney," Elizabeth says, gracefully sarcastic, and clears her throat before he can come up with an appropriate rebuttal.   "Second on the to-do list is a discussion of the next month's off world activity. "   She looks up from her laptop and says, "John?"

But more than anything, Rodney envies her flawless interaction with John.   She's always looked at John with the suffering affection of a much-older sister and that has not changed--she's so steady in herself, in who she is to John.  

Like physics in the Pegasus Galaxy, there are no constants for Rodney, and he never knows exactly where he stands.

"Discussions with Major Lorne and leaders of gate teams two, three, eight, and ten have been reserved for return trips," John says easily, tapping blandly at his own tablet, pulling up a spreadsheet Rodney knows he makes about twelve minutes before the monthly gate-team meeting, copied from a white board hanging in his office.  

"Lorne, Cadman, and Brixton are following up on some potential diplomatic ties and the rest are heading back to finalize trade agreements."   John looks up at them from underneath his lashes.   "Do we need milk, eggs?   Bagels?   Lox?"

Lox ," Rodney sighs.

"Check with Harry about supplies," Elizabeth says, sounding pleased.   "I see our reputation in the galaxy is improving.   I think this makes three full months without any altercations."

"I'm thinking about making a sign," John drawls.   "No spear-wielding natives, drunken diplomatic disasters, or accidental marriages for ninety days and counting."

"Oh," Rodney scoffs.   "Now you've jinxed it.   Thanks a lot."

"Right in time for us to get back into the field," John says easily.   "We wouldn't want to break our black streak or anything."

Rodney scowls at John, but it's hard.   John is almost smiling and so nearby that Rodney can feel him, feels the proximal warmth, and it makes him giddy, the sudden narcotic rush of yes and finally and home and thank you thank you thank you .

"Let's not get too optimistic," Elizabeth laughs, looking at Rodney meaningfully, a look so loud Rodney can almost hear her shouting "be cool, be cool."

 

*

 

"So did you decide on what planet to go to?" Kate asks, interrupting Rodney's record-breaking run-on sentence.

"--And anyways, that's why it's completely unfair I have to manage those squabbling weasels.   Also.   Yes.   P6X-980, first contact, records in the Ancient database say they had some sort of repository there, although they're not clear on what they were reposing."   He knows he's wrinkling his nose and how eight-years-old that makes him look, bitter and wronged and the only kid in eighth grade not dealing with puberty.   "We decided over email."

"Is that how you normally decide?"   Kate twirls her pen.   She didn't do that when they just came to Atlantis, learned it from one of the engineers, for sure.   Rodney thinks that in spite of her calm, enforced professionalism, she has come to see them all as her flock, the way Elizabeth now has about 400 younger siblings she didn't anticipate.

Rodney rubs his wrists.   "There's not really a usually any more, but before, we'd talk about it over dinner."   He glares in the direction of the ocean.   "I ate with Teyla and Ronon but John was out two-headed shark diving."

"You're really bitter about the marine biologists, aren't you?" Kate asks, without a single note of concern, eyes shining in amusement.

"I'm glad my suffering entertains you," Rodney bites out, glaring.   "And fine, yes.   I'm bitter.   They stole ours!   Everybody picked their favorite jarheads and grunts and physics got Sheppard--this is like they stole him."

It's one of those unspoken divisions of labor on Atlantis.   There are only so many security patrols necessary--especially given Atlantis' internal monitoring--and city exploration is carefully parceled out to special teams.   Everybody who came to Atlantis came with more than one skill set, and scientists started adopting soldiers left and right, snatching up the smart ones and putting them to work on their off days, their afternoons and evenings.  

If engineering beats any other hoarders in sheer numbers, botany is the worst moral offender--Katie Brown manipulating Suarez for his blind and ultimately pointless crush on her; Parrish with his too-innocent flirtation with Major Lorne.

At least Rodney got John honestly: by calling dibs and Bogarting all of John's free time.   And glaring a lot at botany when Freeman had come sniffing around, asking John to turn on some irrigation systems.

Kate grins.   "I think John went of his own volition, Rodney."

"But I just got him back," Rodney snaps, because it's true and he's been wearing his desperation like a bruise. " We just got him back.   We get to keep him."

"It doesn't work like that," Kate says, flat and unflinching.   "There's no magic bullet."

"You know, I think eight months was a sufficient length of time for me to realize that," Rodney snarls.

"You're looking at this wrong," Kate tries again.   "You're looking at it as a result, like there's an equal sign.   Like John plus trauma plus time will equal resolution.   This is not arithmetic."

"We could throw in some other operators.   Square roots.   Divisors."

Kate ignores him.   "Think about this as a line, a ray, even better.   There was a distinct beginning but there's no distinct end, but he's moving in the right direction."   She gives him an appraising look.   "You are, too, Rodney.   Despite what you think."

Rodney is silent for a long time.   Sometimes, he leaves Kate's office feeling like he lost a fistfight, and he thinks today might be another one of those sessions.

"John made a joke today," he reports after a long silence, feeling stupid and fourteen, like he's writing in a Lisa Frank diary about the cutest boy in the class and dotting all his I's with hearts.   "He wants to know if he should tell the offworld teams to pick up some lox."

"I love lox," Kate says forgivingly.

"I miss lox," Rodney sighs, slouching into his seat and staring dreamily past Kate's shoulder.   Outside, the sky is fading purple and blue--the early, creeping fingers of winter on the planet.

"I miss moussaka," Kate answers, game.   "And spanikopita."

"Oh," Rodney whimpers.   "Spanikopita."

"Gyros," Kate adds. 

"Tandoori."   Rodney's eyes glaze over, thinking about jasmine rice and foam take-out containers, the oil stains at the bottom of a brown paper bag and the bored delivery boy who used to swing by the office he shared with two other grad students at Northeastern.   "I forgot to eat tandoori when I was on Earth last time," Rodney says, distressed.

Kate smiles at him.   "There's always next time," she says easily.   "Or you could invent the Pegasus Galaxy's version of tandoori chicken."

Rodney makes a dismissive noise. "Half the fun of tandoori is having some bored delivery guy bring it to your door and eating it out of the plastic tubs."

It's dark outside now, the sudden shift from evening to the sparkling infinity of Pegasus at night.   There's no real light pollution--just Atlantis against the enormous brocade of the night sky.   Rodney sees every star with perfect clarity and thinks about how when he got into this business, it was more the astronomy than the physics.

"Are you worried about the mission?" Kate asks, after a long, long unbroken silence.

"Worried would be the understatement of the century," Rodney says, too tired to be angry and all too aware that Kate has listened to his hysterics, that she knows Rodney has blamed everybody, but that above all he blames himself.

"John knows the risks," Kate tells him gently.

"He doesn't know them like I do," Rodney argues, thinking about the numbers, the graphs, the statistical analysis, all the figures and facts and charts he's generated.

Kate raises her brows.   "I think he knows them better than you could ever imagine, Rodney," she reminds him.

 

*

 

P6X-980 has a space gate, and when John steers the jumper to circumnavigate the planet, the life signs detectors stay stubbornly quiet: no Wraith, no people, nothing at all.

That morning Teyla and Ronon and Rodney made a big deal out of not making a big deal when meeting in the ready room to prep, all of their gazes locked onto Sheppard--strapping on his thigh holster, checking his tac vest--in completely obvious ways.   Elizabeth too-casually stood in the control room and waved, eyes soft.   Everybody seemed to have something to do near the gate that morning, and John endured it all with long-suffering grace, only rolling his eyes once before saying, "If nobody minds, I'm going to go to another planet now."

And he does, navigating the jumpers with the same care he always has, and the sudden shock of vertigo, that shift from gateroom to outer space, to the edgeless fabric of Pegasus, knocks them all silent for a moment.

"Plenty of water," John murmurs, looking at the HUD readouts.   John claims he can't understand a lick of Ancient, but he always knows what the jumper screens say.   "Breathable atmosphere and lots of vegetation, from what the sensors are picking up."

"Many planets were culled to extinction," Teyla says, frowning.   "But one such as this would have been ideal for any fleeing from the Wraith to resettle."

"Refugees with spaceships only," Rodney reminds her.   "Space gate."

"You know," John says, sounding curious and bright and nothing more or less.   "Have you guys ever wondered about how we never see other people with space ships?"

"What, the puddlejumpers aren't enough for you?" Rodney asks.

John smirks.   "Just curious, Rodney."

"The people of Pegasus are connected through the gate networks," Teyla says, smiling.   "There has not traditionally been a need for spaceships among traders and travelers."

"Now that is a rotten shame," John says, and he means it.

"Sateda had warships," Ronon offers up.   "Don't know if they're still around."

Rodney can see an expression of deep conflict on John's face and he has to keep from laughing.

"Pathetic," Rodney snickers.

John flushes.   "Shut up, McKay."

"What's pathetic?" Ronon asks.

Rodney turns around in the copilot seat, and before John can slap a hand over his mouth, Rodney says, "Colonel Sheppard here is about to bite through his lip trying to decide whether or not it'd be horrible for him to go look for warships on Sateda."  

Sheppard flashes him a poisonous look, flushed and embarrassed, and Ronon bursts into laughter--and suddenly the low-grade tension that had held them all breaks.

"We could go look," Ronon offers.   "There're probably things the rest of my people want, too--but I'm pretty sure they'll let you keep the warships."

John goes from embarrassed to ebullient in 0.004 seconds flat, and his eyes are round and bright when he starts peppering Ronon with questions--the jumper still making its slow descent.   John asks what the warships were like, and how large.   Did he know how they handled?   Had Ronon ever been in one?  

"Why don't you just ask him if they're awesome ," Rodney finally says, throwing up his arms in amused disgust.

John turns to look at Ronon intently.   "Are they?" he asks seriously.

"Yes," Ronon answers, equally serious, and Rodney can see Teyla's shoulders trembling in laughter.

"Oh for God's sake," Rodney mutters, and crosses his arms over his chest, turning to stare stubbornly out of the jumper's windshield.

There are constants, after all, Rodney thinks as they float down through the planet's atmosphere, observe the green and rolling lines of its continents.   Teyla will fail to see the importance of contractions and Ronon will make crass, irrelevant comments about food or hygiene and Rodney will panic and yell and be smarter than everybody else in two galaxies.   And John will love flying: flying the puddlejumpers, flying F302s; he'll love the idea of finding warships--and although he is loathe to admit it, Rodney likes the idea of finding John warships, too--and flying them as well.

"Ladies and gentlemen," John says smoothly as they near a flat, green expanse on the surface of one of the continents--a small meadow in an enormous copse of trees--"please put your seatbacks and tray tables in an upright position--we will be landing shortly."

"This never gets old," Rodney tells him, all faux-sincerity trying to cover the enormous sense of relief--the wretchedly grateful parts of him that worried all the most important parts of John would change, that this--whatever it is--would be gone.

"Commercial flight on your planet must be very strange," Teyla intones, teasing.

"Temperature on P6X-980 is a balmy 56 degrees, with scattered showers and intermittent sun," John continues, and Rodney feels the soft thud of the jumper touching down, the twitch at the corners of his mouth.   "We hope you enjoy your stay.   Thanks for flying with Atlantis Air, and we hope you choose to fly with us again for wherever your journeys may take you."

"You know, I bet Major Lorne doesn't do this to his team," Rodney says, but he knows he's telegraphing his smile.

"Lorne just doesn't love them enough," John shoots back, grinning.

Teyla stands and laughs, heading to the rear compartment as she says, "I am glad you love us enough, then."

Rodney pushes out of the copilot's seat, watching John's hands stroke over the console, doing a systems check and pulling up the jumper's cloak.   It's normal and ordinary and Rodney thinks that if he pretends hard enough, it will feel like the last two seasons never happened, that the lonely and lingering summer and fall on Atlantis was a fugue.

"All right," John says, palming the control console one more time and making all the lights dim with a soft, mechanical purr.   "Let's head out--life signs still aren't reading anything big enough to be human, but let's not get too cocky.   We're winning Most Bizarre Off World Shenanigans by a mile for a reason."

"Well, as long as Ronon doesn't ask any more tribal leaders to 'hug it out, bitch,'" Rodney says, making air quotes as the hatch opens slowly, "I think we're in the clear."

John groans, pulling the P-90 strap over his shoulder and giving Ronon a warning look.   "I read about that.   I thought I warned you about watching TV with the marines."

"We ran out of Sex in the City," Ronon says flatly.

"Okay," Rodney interrupts before John can make some sort of argument about Entourage being way worse than Ronon watching the adventures of Carrie Bradshaw in the city, "we have to stop talking about this right now or else I'm going to have nightmares about us sitting around eating salad and talking about why men are the root of all evil."

Teyla smiles enigmatically, checking the straps on her tac vest.   "Perhaps I should watch this show," she says.

"I can't believe I missed you dorks," John says, and before Rodney has time to fully process that, John steps out into the sweet yellow sunshine, tilting his head to look at the sky, saying:

"Huh--it's lavender."

"What?" Rodney yelps.   "What, what?"

"The sky," John says patiently, not looking away, "is light purple ."

Rodney exchanges a look with Teyla and Ronon and they all tumble after John out the puddlejumper, craning their necks.

It's been nearly a year since they stepped out together and Rodney knows that they'd wanted to mark this occasion, see it as a transition--that as frightened as they were, they could breathe an outward sigh of relief.

Maybe it's like Kate says, that everybody is looking for an end to this.   And maybe Teyla had marked it when John had gone to her in the infirmary, and Ronon when John went to find him for running.   Zelenka thinks it ended when John forgave him.   For Elizabeth, watching John go through the gate again--finally, finally--will be it.

But it won't end for John, Rodney is starting to understand, and there's no reason to mark this day any brighter than any others--and Rodney is starting to feel like it won't end for Rodney, either, that he has fallen into step with John, that they are walking together.

It takes four hours to find the 'repository,' hiking through punishing--but shaded--forests, but when they do, all of Rodney's complaints fall away.

"Rodney," John says strangely, staring up and pulling off his aviator shades.

Blinking hard, Rodney says, "Yes?"

"Did we make a wrong turn and end up in Ancient Greece? " John asks flatly.

Rodney makes an indistinct noise.   "Elizabeth wouldn't let us recreate the time machine, so I'm going to go with: no."

Rodney hears Teyla take a few steps forward, shading her eyes against the boiling orange-red of the sunset, melting the sky like layers in drinks Rodney has ordered in Miami, in South Beach.   She says, "I have heard traders speak of a place like this--but I was always told it was lost, many years ago."

"I learned it was just a myth," Ronon offers.

"Seems real enough to me," John murmurs, and he starts creeping up the overgrown   acropolis of crumbling granite steps, peering out at the enormous, foamy green of trees, floating like green clouds against the side of the hill, framed against the purple sky.  

And Rodney scrambles to follow him, using his fingers to gain hold and hearing the shift and slide of Teyla and Ronon as well, with more graceful movements--but they are all climbing up the hill, all marveling, and at the end, clambering up the last, rotting stairs, Rodney looks down to see the enormous carpet of city beneath their feet.  

It looks like Athens.   It looks like Olympus.   It looks like books about Greek mythology, philosophy, their thought exercises that spiraled into the pure beauty of math, and Rodney thinks kallipolis without any real reason, and turns to look at John, who is staring instead at the temple at the crest of this small mountain, lined deeply along its slopes with crumbling homes and brick temples.   It's beautiful, and even Rodney, whose fingers ache for stars and science, wants to rifle through the history of this place, look at the paintings on the walls.

"The archeologists are going to go nuts," John murmurs.   He's making his way through the lowest levels of the city, up the cobblestone streets and leaving footprints in the dirt, the gathered dust--the first person to break the silence of the place in maybe thousands of years.   "Whether or not that building at the top is the library."

Rodney snorts.   "All of the soft sciences are going to go nuts."

Teyla turns round to smile at him, reaching out a hand to help him over a shaky patch of steps, saying, "I believe that if this is indeed the library of my people's myths, there will be something for us all."

"Oh, please," Rodney scoffs, catching her fingers.   "Like what?"

"Historical documents," Teyla speculates, hauling Rodney up with a huff, "perhaps trading information.   There is still much to learn about this galaxy."

"Weapon schematics," Ronon volunteers, grunting as he leaps over an outcropping of overgrown weeds and tumbled-over paving stones.

"That," John decides, "would be awesome."

Rodney throws up his hands.   "I'm surrounded by morons."

John grins, flicking on his sunglasses and turns his face to look at the top of the hill.  

He says, "It's good to be back in the field."

And at the top of acropolis, Rodney and John suffer a sudden attack of conscience, wondering if they should open the heavy double-doors to the building, made of rusted-over brass, going green with age, deeply sculpted in relief, speaking in pictures with Hellenistic tongues.   Rodney argues the archeologists would only break it open anyway, and John says that while that is true, they're snotty about how , and will probably yell at him when they chip something.   In the end, the decision is taken out of their hands when Ronon gets bored and climbs in through a side window.

They spend six hours curled up in the deep and cavernous stacks of the repository, stroking gentle hands over stone tablets, vellum scrolls, leaving untouched the most fragile of the yellow papers, bound with leather straps.   It's a library the size of that in Alexandria, enormous, beautiful, and mostly-untouched.   There are chinks in the walls and all the art has been torn away, frescoes carved out--but the real treasures, the books , are safe.

The volumes and scrolls and tablets come in a thousand different languages, it seems.   Somewhere on Earth, Daniel Jackson just had the most intense orgasm of his life, and he doesn't even know why, Rodney thinks, paging through a collection written in Ancient, hands trailing over another in Greek.

They detail early Pegasus history, early Pegasus science--"This is so depressing," Rodney says, "this is modern Earth physics."--a long and nearly unbroken yarn about the hastily-gathered stars they call home.   It's romantic the way sepia photographs and water-stained diaries are, discovered after decades, hidden in corners and nearly forgotten, and even Rodney's not immune.

They miss three check-ins and only realize it, looking up from their respective pursuits, when Lieutenant Cadman says to John--who is lying flat on his stomach, reading a military history of Atlantis intently, in Latin --amused:

"I knew nerd was communicable, sir."

 

*

 

"Did you know that John reads Latin? " Rodney asks.

Kate raises her eyebrows.   "No, I didn't," she says easily.   "Was it something in the repository you found?"

"He was reading this military history of Atlantis--in Latin," Rodney marvels, and he knows he has a besotted smile on his face.   "I'm pretty sure that the anthropologists are going to have to get in a fistfight with him if they want to pry it out of his hands--he was reading it all through the post-mission medical."

Kate laughs.   "He's far more of a bookworm than he lets on, I see."

"Well," Rodney prevaricates, "I wouldn't go that far.   He still hasn't finished his copy of War and Peace , and he's been reading that since we got to Atlantis."

"Maybe it feels out of context," Kate suggests.   "Maybe he's making such quick work of the Atlantean military history because he thinks it's relevant."

"What, like he's taking notes?" Rodney says, and he can't help but feel the corners of his mouth twitch at that.  

The last three days have been delightful; he's been delighted.   The labs are buzzing and he city is buzzing and everybody is filled with a sense of wonder and curiosity that proves not only that nerd is communicable, but that it's catching fast.  

Everybody loves the books, and as soon as they go onto the network or through a translator or into the hands of somebody who can paraphrase, others are clamoring to know.   So much of Atlantis, so much of Pegasus is out of context--not just its wars--and although Rodney and John and Elizabeth have pieced together a bare-bones understanding, they're now seeing a more intimate picture, understanding how and why and when and who.   Now they know where it began, or at least, they may soon enough.

"I don't see John as a note-taker.   He's a uh--" Rodney snaps until the word comes to him "--he's a clouder."

Kate raises an eyebrow.   "A clouder?" she asks.

"It's a word I came up with my first year as a TA," Rodney admits.   "You've been in college classes--there're always the six kids in the front row who tape the lectures and write everything down in obsessive shorthand."

"You were one of those kids?" Kate teases.

Please ," Rodney says.   "Don't insult me.   And then there're the kids who write rough outlines and know all the pieces in between, either intuitively or because they've got good memories--and then there're the guys who never take notes onanything .   It's like they've got their heads in the clouds all the time."

"You give them a lot of F's?"

Rodney smiles.   "That's the thing!   More times than not they'd be the least stupid people in the class!   It just all disappears up there, somewhere, and all those connections get made without having to resort to clumsy paper and pens and things."

Kate looks curious.   "So you think John's like that, a clouder?"

"I think he thinks a lot more than he lets on," Rodney says easily.   He thinks about this a lot more than he lets on, too.   "I think he thinks about things almost constantly."

"What about you?"   Kate leans back in her seat, resting her cheek against one hand.   "What do you think about constantly?"

Rodney's knee-jerk reaction is to say, "keeping the idiots from accidentally sinking the city," or "keeping the idiots from accidentally flooding the city with raw sewage," or "keeping the idiots from putting balsa wood next to the Pegasus Nalgene," but when he opens his mouth all he can say is, "John."

Kate smiles at him.   "Why do you think that is."

Rodney scowls.   "You could at least pretend to phrase it as a question."

"I always lost our family Jeopardy tournaments, Rodney," Kate tells him gently.   "Why do you think you think about John all the time?"

"I don't know," Rodney sighs.   "Because I have an embarrassingly fourteen-year-old crush on him?"

Kate raises an eyebrow at him.  

"Because I--care deeply for him?" Rodney tries.

She purses her lips.

"Because you think I still feel guilty about what happened and am obsessing about it," Rodney snaps, giving her his most poisonous expression.

The thing Rodney hates most about Kate is that she's so unreachable.   He's never managed to piss her off or freak her out or even make her pause in horror.   He doesn't know if she's so immoveable with everybody--he gets the impression nobody on Atlantis who sees her in a professional capacity actually knows her--but she's immoveable with him, and she only folds her hands and says:

"I think you should think about it this week."

Rodney gapes.   "Are you kidding me?   Do you want me to destroy the city?"

She smiles and indicates her watch.   "I'll see you next appointment, Rodney," she adds, and kicks him out of her office.

 

*

 

Rodney thinks that if anybody had told him, two years ago, that one day in the not-too-distant-future, he'd be standing next to a bitchy blonde marine debating how to record a stone slab the size of a Chevy, he'd have kicked them out of his office and told them to remove themselves from the gene pool.

"Maybe we can take a rubbing," Cadman suggests, doubt in her voice.

"I guess the question would be: how do we get to the top of the thing," Rodney says abstractly, craning his neck.   The situation would be ameliorated a great deal if only the stone slab wasn't the size of a Chevy and planted vertically in one of the back rooms.

Cadman glances at him from the corner of her eyes.   "Do we really need this?"

Rodney glares.   "I learned just enough Ancient to read the words ZedPM.   Yes, we need this."

She sighs.   "Right, you and your 'ZedPMs.'"

"Hey!" Rodney snaps.   "It's me and everybody's ZedPMs!   Do you want to die horribly at the hands of the Wraith in our unshielded sitting duck of a city?"

"No," Cadman says, "but I also don't have disturbingly erotic dreams about them."

Rodney pales.   "I do not."

She smirks.   "You did.   I understand.   They are pretty phallic."

"Oh," Rodney moans, covering his face, "my God."

"I'd be nice to me," Cadman sing-songs.   "There's also certain physical responses to people you find attractive you couldn't exactly hide."

"Seriously," Rodney threatens.   "I will kill you."

"Whatever," she says dismissively, and narrowing her eyes at the slab, she says, "Maybe we can just take it home with us."

"Yeah, if you can talk the colonel into letting us attach this thing to a puddlejumper, I will eat your beret, Cadman," Rodney snorts.

It's day eight of Atlantis base's race against time to document and preserve the library.   While the acropolis everybody has started to call Athens is hardly melting away or falling apart, the sudden surge of activity makes it vulnerable.   Elizabeth has a theory that the total lack of any advanced technology on the planet is what had protected the library from the Wraith, and now the Atlanteans and all of their technology are bound to draw unwanted attention--it's just a matter of when.   The information is too valuable to let sit, and the scientists are scanning and archiving what they can, openly thieving what will take more time, what's too delicate or too written-on-a-pebble.

There are no librarians on Atlantis, and so the linguists are doing the best they can with fairly meager resources--which amount to the full cooperation of all literate members of the expedition and John, who'd apparently accidentally taken a cataloguing class his senior year of college. Rodney spends a lot of time peering round doorways to check how John's doing, sitting cross-legged on the tiled floor of the library, leaning against the wall, eyes focused on his laptop.   He looks happy; he looks good.

"Okay, fine," Rodney decides, glaring at the slab and determined to beat it.

"Fine what?" Cadman asks, sounding wary.

Rodney rolls up his sleeves.   "Get me a grappling hook and some rope."

 

*

 

Kate smiles fondly at him from the uncomfortable plastic chair by Rodney's bed.

"Yes, because there's nothing more humiliating than having the entire infirmary cleared out so that I can have a therapy session ," Rodney says bitterly.

"There wasn't anybody to clear," Kate explains.   "There's no one else here.   Lieutenant Cadman got packed off to her quarters with some painkillers and ice packs a few hours ago."   She raises her eyebrows at him.   "She didn't seem happy with you."

Rodney covers his face in misery.   "My life is a farce ," he moans.

"Nobody is blaming you," Kate lies.

"I think Cadman is blaming me," Rodney snarls.

"She's probably just sore," Kate laughs.   "Fair warning, she seems determined to make you do more PT once she recovers."

Rodney throws up his hands.   "Fantastic.   Fat jokes."

Kate bursts into laughter.   "You fell on her, Rodney.   I think she's allowed to be upset."

"She gave me the faulty grappling hook!" Rodney snaps.   "And somebody should remind her that muscle weighs more than fat, anyway--I'm surprised she didn't get it tattooed to her face at Annapolis!"

Leaning back, Kate kicks up her feet on the metal rail, and Rodney barely has enough time to scowl at her taking liberties with his valuable bubble of personal space before Kate says, "So did you think about what we talked about last week?"

Rodney blanks out for a moment, blinking twice, until Kate reminds him, "John?   About why you think about John all the time."

Scowling, Rodney kicks at the blankets.   "You realize that if only Carson wasn't such a bitch about keeping patients in here for observation, I could be hiding in the west spire right now."

"Where you found the stash of Ancient pornography," Kate rejoins smoothly.   "Which is another topic we can broach if you're not willing to talk about a non-X-rated one."

Rodney gapes at her.   Sometimes, he wonders where Kate acquired her psychiatry degree, and if it was the University of the Center Mouth of Beelzebub.

"I didn't get much time to think about it," Rodney grinds out.   "I was working."

"The library," Kate allows.   "Was John working there, too?"

"He took a cataloguing class in college--by accident," Rodney answers, stupidly grateful for the shift in conversation topics.   He doesn't think he'll ever be ready to talk about sex or John Sheppard again without a panic attack--without thinking about the bruises he saw on John's neck, his hips, the red abrasions on his wrists. "So he and Elizabeth have been sitting around trying to create an organizational system for it while everybody else scans things or bags them or plasters them in hairspray."

"What did he catalogue the stone you fell off of as?" Kate asks, grinning.

Rodney throws up his arms.   "Who knows," he sighs.   "But one of the linguists said they had almost half of the library either recorded or preserved at this point, so we're making good progress."

"Did you see him a lot at work?" Kate asks.

Rodney frowns.   "No.   Well.   I peeked in on him.   Just to check."

"Was he alone?"

"There's strict orders about that sort of thing--somebody on patrol or a scientist around to keep an eye on him," Rodney says absently.   It's a policy he didn't have to expend much force to implement; Atlantis' people are as protective of John as their city.

Kate raises an eyebrow, no trace of gratitude for Rodney's machinations.   "Rodney, do you remember what we talked about our very first session together?"

"Probably something to do with our imminent demise in the Pegasus Galaxy?" he asks, impatient.

"You said you weren't sure how comfortable you were being on a team with somebody who probably knew six ways to kill you with one hand," Kate recites.   She raises one brow at him.   "That part of John hasn't changed, Rodney."

Rodney glares at his blankets, hates Carson, hates Kate, hates everybody.

"When you think about him," Kate continues.   "Are you worrying?   Or just thinking?"

"Both," Rodney admits.   "There's a lot of worrying.   There's a lot of thinking."

"What do you do more?" Kate asks, prodding.   "Has it changed?   You used to worry all the time--has there been a shift in your ratios?"

She's right; in the beginning it was all heartbreak and horror and nauseating fear, and somehow over the months that has changed into something different and less invasive. Rodney is scared of that as well, so he plucks at the nubby bits on his blanket and wonders how he could even tell Kate how it feels to worry about hurting John more .

"Look, that's not even the point," Rodney says. He sounds as tired as he feels.   "I know what you're going for and it's not going to happen."   He glares at her, angry at her impassive gaze and flat expression.   " You were the one who told me not to rush him, and I'm not going to--I'm not going to rush him to do anything until he's okay again."

"Talking isn't rushing," Kate argues.

"Talking feels like assault and battery from where I'm sitting," Rodney snaps.   "And since I seem to be answering all your questions wrong, why don't you just tell me what you think."

"Do you really want to know what I think, Rodney?" Kate asks, sounding serious.

Rodney swallows hard around the sudden panic in his chest.   "Try me."

She leans forward, balancing her elbows on her knees and looks at him over her clasped hands, her face smooth and serious and calm.   And she says:

"I think you don't want to stop feeling guilty about what happened.   I think that you care deeply for him, and that you worry that if you stop feeling guilty, that means you stop caring--that you've equated obsessively trying to find some equation that will solve this situation into expressing how you feel."

Rodney can feel his fingernails digging into his own palms.   He's spent his life in and out of shrink's offices, and he knows that this is where he traditionally scoffs and storms out, cancels his next four months' appointments and pretends he's all right until he freaks out and throws another hard drive at a subordinate's head.  

But this is different; it's not just about him.   It's about Rodney and John and who John is to Rodney, and that has always been important enough to stay, to be uncomfortable and cut open and sore.

"I think also that you worry if you stop feeling guilty, you'll make the next move, and I think that scares you more than anything."

Rodney's mouth is dry.   "I don't know what he wants," he says, and it hurts, like he's scraping the words out of his throat.  

But Kate just smiles at him now, closes a hand over his wrist gently.   "He came to you , Rodney.   You told me about it.   He came to you--don't you think it's your turn?"

 

*

 

Athens, at night, is a maze, and despite the carefully-mounted lights and the reflective tape that marks out the pathway up the side of the acropolis, through the crumbling city--always crawling with researchers: anthropologists, linguists, archeologists--Rodney trips and wobbles his way around always.  

The library, perched on a hill, makes Rodney think of Puritan speeches, the best intentions, the dream of something better.   He can imagine how beautiful it must have been once upon a time, before the Wraith tore through the galaxy and ate away all its riches.   But in its own way, the library is still beautiful, gilded at the edges by the last shimmer of the planet's sun, and glowing from inside out with delicate, low light, a dusting of orange and just bright enough to pick out the shapes of things--soft, to preserve the books.   

Rodney hasn't been inside the library after dusk very often, usually being hauled back by one of the less-talented flyers in vertigo-inducing trips that make Rodney want to tattle to John about how his men are abusing the puddlejumpers.

He wishes, and he knows it's foolish, that he could see what it must have looked like before--before its friezes were smashed and columns were chipped, before the delicate mosaics of the floor were rubbed away.  

If he stands very still at the top step of the library, he can almost see and hear it: the cavernous space lit up with torches, can almost hear the murmur of scholars.   And when he steps inside the murmur resolves into the low sounds of familiar voices, the click of computer keys, the constant buzz of the handheld scanners, the snap of digital cameras.

It's been damaged but everything that matters is still the same, and Rodney says this over and over in the too-quiet of the midnight shift, peering around shelves and shelves, looking for John.   The books have survived and the books will still survive.   Rodney has helped to find them, and he'll help to decipher them.  

He thinks that maybe this is what Kate wanted him to say: that no matter what Rodney thinks or wishes or needs he will be okay with what he has.

And when he sees John, finally, sitting in a corner looking solemn and worn but happy, still paging through his book, all Rodney can do is marvel at the idea he wouldn't be okay with what he has--wouldn't be glad for it.

"Hey," he says, and John looks up, eyes crinkling into a smile.

"Hey you," John says and motions Rodney over.   "I thought you had idiots to yell at."

Rodney waves a hand dismissively, getting down onto the ground with a hiss for his creaking knees--John's claims that exercise would be good for him have always been wretched lies.   "I've got it down to an art," Rodney tells John.   "It takes me an hour, two tops, to soundly remind them what enormous wastes of my time they all are."

"You're such a good boss, Rodney," John laughs.

"Please," Rodney snorts.   "I was there when you told the Marines there was some kind of male pregnancy machine mentioned in the Atlantis database, so let's not talk about who's the worse boss here."

John smiles, leans back against a bookshelf.   "You have your management methods, I have mine."

"I didn't threaten to impregnate my subordinates," Rodney argues.

"That was never explicit," John says, unrepentant.   He closes the book in his lap and puts his palm over it.   He leans his head against the wall and turns to look at Rodney, smiling.   "I'm reaching that place where I'm going kind of blind--fair warning in future years when the cataloguing system makes no sense at all."

Rodney finds himself staring at John's mouth, so he shakes himself, says, "It's not really your fault.   If the Ancients could have been bothered to come up with a real cataloguing system to begin with, we wouldn't be in this situation."

John had told Rodney all about it over lunch the other day, just sat down with his half-empty plate of food and moved it around with his fork while Rodney had stared at him, baffled and thrilled and warm all over, hearing John talk about dust bunnies the size of yaks and how he wondered if he should get librarian glasses.   He said he was starting to feel like Mrs. Foster from sixth grade, yelling at everybody who moved things from their shelves.   It had been so normal--it was easy , for the first time in months, when for so long nothing had been easy at all.

"They're not really shelves," had been Rodney's first contribution to the conversation.

"No," John had allowed, poking at a potato wedge.  

Rodney remembers wondering crazily if he'd ever seen John actually eat anything, swirling into a panic at the though of John developing manorexia.  

"They're more like morgue slabs filled with books--but all the same, people keep putting them in the wrong places," John had whined, uncomplicated, "and if the linguists don't let me leave soon, I'm seriously considering faking a seizure."

"You should try to foam a little," Rodney had said, still muffled by shock.   "It'll look more genuine like that."

And John had smiled--real and open and bright--and said, "Good idea," before going to put away his now quarter-filled plate and head back out to Athens.

All Rodney can think now is that John gave him a 'go'--sort of--and that Rodney's stayed perfectly still, hesitating.   Even if the meek shall inherit the Earth, it's the reckless, the hedonists, who will delight in it, so Rodney sucks in a breath and reaches out.

Rodney has actually held John's hand before: giving John a pull up the side of a hill, tugging him frantically into the jumper as angry natives close in, dragging him to and fro--but Rodney's never indulged himself without an excuse.   All he knows of John's hand are fingers curled around a P-90, warm as a flash of skin and calluses, half-stolen sense memories, taken when John hadn't noticed.

So it's equal parts strange and wonderful to curl his hand around John's with intent--and no other intent than to press palm to palm.   And for a moment John looks confused, eyes blurry and questioning, but his mouth curves into a smile in a beat, palm turning up so that Rodney can slide their fingers together, interlock--and Rodney nearly hears the click when their hands slip into one another's: perfect.

"Oh," John says--soft, revelatory.

"Um," Rodney asks, forcing himself to stop his thumb from stroking along John's knuckles, to smooth the skin there.   "Is this okay?"

John smirks, and everything looks dusky and warm and like an image from a old photograph in the light--like a secret.   "Yeah, Rodney, it's okay," he says.

"Okay."   Rodney can hear the relief in his voice.   He gives Sheppard thirty seconds before John can't help himself and says something asshattish like:

"I knew you were trying to get me alone to have your way with me."

Rodney looks at his watch.   "Less than ten ," he says, triumphant, glaring at John.   "You held it in for less than tenseconds."

"I just gotta be me," Sheppard confides in a low whisper.

"That's--that's all I ever wanted from you," Rodney says, and thinks morbidly that his blush will probably be visible from outer space.

John squeezes his hand, and when Rodney hazards a sideways glance, he sees John loose-limbed and drowsy, eyes half-closed, watching Rodney.   John looks open and honest and unvarnished, rough at the edges, and he says, "I've missed you."   He closes his eyes all the way.   "I missed you a lot."

Rodney can feel his throat closing up, so he knows he better get this out fast before talking might lead to crying and other overt affectations of emotion John won't or can't handle, so he pulls their interlocked hands close to his mouth and kisses the place where their thumbs overlap.   And against the darker and lighter skin of his and John's fingers, he says, "I missed you, too."

 

*

 

Part of him wants to shout about it, to be juvenile and overjoyed and gossipy, to slide a handwritten note across the meeting room table to Elizabeth that says GUESS WHO I BAGGED and HE'S TOTALLY THE CUTEST BOY IN THE CLASS.

The first time that Rodney finds himself making a sex joke within John's earshot, he has a panic attack while John sighs and rolls his eyes and stares meaningfully at his watch.   The next time there's a sex joke-- not Rodney's fault --John's eyes go wide and frozen for a moment before he takes a long, shuddering breath and lets Rodney have another panic attack, this time much more graciously.

"Rodney, you are doing fine," Teyla likes to remind him.

"Oh, sure," Rodney scoffs, muffled by his now constantly present brown paper bag.   He doesn't remember ever having freaked out this much over a relationship--not even when he was skating a dangerous line between 'courtship' and 'stalking.'   "Lie to me, that'll help with the healing process."

"I can hear you ," John complains.

"You're all a bunch of pussies," Ronon adds, and goes back to hauling books, his crowd of adoring female onlookers sighing in delight at his rippling pectorals.

Rodney has always known that Ronon lives to make him feel shitty.

Rodney thinks that this is like being regressed to dating in the eighth grade--equal and interlocking neuroses.   If there were lockers on Atlantis, Rodney would have already had an embarrassing incident with one, trying to lean sexily against one and giving himself a black eye instead.   If there were lockers on Atlantis, John would be the angry cheerleader, which is one of those inappropriate jokes Rodney finds himself making with John.   Because nothing's funnier than two people with body issues trapped in a relationship together.

 

*

 

"Your windows are open," Rodney points out.

Kate turns around and glances at her flapping curtains, the fine spray of water blowing into the room and dampening the floor.   "They are," she says, turning back to look at Rodney.

Rodney rolls his eyes.   He has no idea why she makes everything a trial.

Why are your windows open?" Rodney asks precisely.

"I like the smell of rain," Kate allows, grinning.   "There's something cathartic about it."

Rodney stares at her for a minute before narrowing his eyes.   "No, seriously," he asks, deeply suspicious, "do you have some sort of secret telepathy that lets you manufacture situations that segue gracefully into therapy topics for the day?"

"People see what they want to see," Kate tells him, truthful and easy.   "You're reading into it what you want to read into it; if you hadn't already been thinking about catharsis, it wouldn't have even registered."

Rodney crosses his arms over his chest.   "All right, fine," he says, annoyed.  

"Oh, don't hold out on me, Rodney," Kate laughs.   "What's renewed in your life?"

He knows he's blushing, even though he thought that hitting thirty meant a reprieve from that sort of adolescent humiliation.   "Like you don't know."

"I have an idea," Kate allows.   "But I'd like to hear you tell me."

"We uh.   We held hands in the library.   We made some progress," Rodney says, feeling dumber with every syllable, because he was never this eleven-years-old--not even when he was eleven.   "I'm sorry, wow--this sounds even more abominably stupid than I thought it would," Rodney says, amazed.

"Did you talk?" Kate asks blithely.

Rodney closes his hands together, tries to remember the lines of John's palms.   He knows that if he lays out the number of words he said, the number of words John said back, that if he traces the breaks in the silence they will amount to almost nothing.   But Rodney remembers hearing everything in the deep blue quiet of the walk down the acropolis, the slow wander back to the jumper, and the weightlessness of space, hovering with the stars and John before they melted through the puddle--back home, back to Atlantis.

"It was the first time we've really been alone," Rodney says, feeling too-honest.  

He thinks he means that it felt like the ghosts they've been carrying were gone for the moment and that the silence was finally honest, finally just them--and Rodney liked what he heard there in the absence of words.

Kate cocks her head at him.   "Did you say what you needed to?"

It's one of those questions that's not really a question, a Kate Heightmeyer classic.

"I think it got through," Rodney says, shy.

"As long as you're sure," Kate says, but she's smiling when she says it, and Rodney thinks he sees green lights, open road, a horizon that stretches out forever, past the edges of the Stargate--limitless, limitless, limitless.

"I'm sure enough," Rodney says, and he means it.

 

*

 

He knows as soon as he gets back to his room, after the session is over, he will open his own windows, sit with his arms crossed flat across the sash and breathe in the smell of the sea and the sky and the alien rain, whipping through the city and feel like he's just woken up from a very long sleep.   He knows to his bones now what Kate meant when she said that there's no particular end, no particular night or day when Rodney and John will open their eyes and this will have disappeared--but they live in a place with no guarantees, where the threat of disaster is as real as the memories that keep John up at night, that make Rodney afraid and yearning.   But they live, they thrive.   And this will be the same.

 

*

 


(by ileliberte)