Chapter 1: Bring Your Troubles Home
"This," Rodney said with the certainty of a man who could disassemble the building blocks of the universe and put them back together nearly right again afterwards, "is pathetic."
Sheppard had to agree. He rubbed the back of his neck and drifted back to the window, twitching the curtain aside to look out at the grounds. His dull reflection in the glass looked grim, along with the kind of pale you got after three weeks aboard a spaceship.
"Show you the sights tomorrow," he said, trying to inject a positive note and ending up with sarcasm. "Take you out on the town, what d'you say?"
Rodney said 'go fuck yourself, Sheppard', but only quietly. It sounded like he was unpacking, muffled with the phone clamped between his ear and shoulder, or like he'd switched to speaker and put it down entirely.
"So your brother seems nice," Rodney said, managing a tone of absolute neutrality. "Very..." the tone faltered "...polite."
"He'll warm up to you when you win that Nobel Prize and get famous."
"He does know, doesn't he? That you're..." Rodney's voice came sharp again, stillness on the other end of the line. "I mean, this isn't coming right out of the blue?"
"Pretty sure," Sheppard managed to answer, dryly. He couldn't be one hundred percent about what Dave knew or didn't know. That wasn't how the family worked. Ask no questions, tell no lies. He crossed back to the bed and threw himself down, waiting for the grind of elderly bedsprings that didn't come. New bed. New colours. Not his room at all, any more. Just a strange room in a house he knew once. "How's your room?"
"Palatial. Whose guest room has a walk-in wardrobe, anyway? How annoyingly rich are you?" There was a muffled thump as Rodney threw his duffel down on the floor. "This carpet is worth more than my life insurance."
"You have life insurance? What the hell kind of exclusions did you have to negotiate?"
"Don't change the subject." Rodney's voice had a little cut of ice. "Are we doing this or are we not? Separate bedrooms wasn't part of the deal."
Sheppard propped his feet on the footboard, crossed his ankles and put his arm behind his head. His ceiling had been blue last time he lay there looking up. He'd put posters up there, aircraft and comic-book characters. Now it was green, the light fittings in polished brass.
"You don't know what my family are like."
"That's rather the point, isn't it?" In the silence, eyes closed, Sheppard could almost see McKay's face; the sharp, defensive glare turning hesitant, then fading to something a little less hostile as he second-guessed himself, figured out he'd been a jerk. "This one's up to you," he said, with compassion that made Sheppard's jaw lock in resentment. Before he could muster an answer, Rodney cut the line.
Their rooms were a good way apart, but closer than back home, so the phone thing... yeah, that was really pathetic when he could just get up and walk down the hall, and be exactly where he wanted to be for the night.
He watched the clock on his cell phone, watched the display flip from Thursday to Friday. Earth time. The one moon up above. A day where he didn't need to zero his watch, focus his thoughts into some piece of coldly responsive technology, or eat something he couldn't identify.
Earth felt alien, now.
He watched another hour pass by in neon blue digits and shifting white panels of moonlight. He pretended to try to sleep.
He walked silently when he went to Rodney's room, but he didn't creep. Didn't. There was darkness under his brother's door, then he felt the sideways jolt of realising that he didn't know if that even was Dave's room, any more. The master bedroom would be his now, wouldn't it? That door was dark too.
He knocked on Rodney's door; barely waited for the 'come in'.
Rodney looked at him from the bed, from behind a book, an honest-to-God dead tree book, some glossy popular science thing from the shelf of generic hardcover books by the window seat.
"Picking holes?" Sheppard leaned back against the door as it closed; felt the solid snick of the lock under his hand. Slipped the bolt, too.
"In Swiss cheese?" Rodney shut the book, hard, and tossed it aside. He glanced at the clock on the nightstand. Wore the blank look that matched how Sheppard still felt about the twenty-four hour cycle, then looked his way and caught his expression. "You're hating this so bad."
Sheppard stood mutely, looking around the room. Rodney had taken the edge off the studied elegance with his small spread of stuff; wallet, watch and rental keys on the dresser, laptop charging at the foot of the bed, clothes carelessly folded over chairs. Shoes and socks and underwear in a mound by the bed. He'd written 'unimpressed' all over everything and it gave Sheppard a sadistic twist of satisfaction that Rodney could be here and do that.
Then he remembered why they came back to Earth in the first place and the satisfaction soured.
Rodney ought to be sleeping.
"You should write one of those." He went and picked up the discarded book, then put it on the nightstand.
"Yes, achieving the lasting ridicule of my peers and the fanatical devotion of an ignorant readership is right up there on my list of personal goals. Thank you. Stop looming."
Sheppard pushed Rodney's legs out of the way and sat. They should talk, he thought. This was one of those times when people did that. It wasn't like they ever got the time. Now they had it, and he had nothing he particularly wanted to say. What was there to say?
He leaned for the light switch, got pulled back to centre before he could reach it. Rodney's hand appeared on his thigh, a slow rub, encouraging and inviting.
"Subtle," Sheppard said, over his shoulder, but wasn't going to pretend it was unwelcome.
Rodney's hand went up under his shirt, flat against his abs, palm rough and warm. Sheppard's muscles twitched, resistance and want winding into a hurting knot that'd feel good soon, if he'd just let it. If he could just let it unwind again. He wasn't sure it was even possible to unwind, under this roof, and suddenly got the deep and perverse urge to do it anyway; to do the nasty with another man in that house, on those Egyptian cotton sheets, while the ghosts of old accusation watched him from the walls.
He let Rodney pull him around, kiss him, with just that little hesitation on the way that asked for consent, showed uncertainty.
Sheppard leaned in to meet him halfway, because that was what Rodney needed so damn the place and his own discomfort. It felt good, half-watching as Rodney's eyes drifted shut, the first marker on the road to wherever the hell they kept ending up together. Not so much a bad habit now as a lifestyle, but it hadn't gotten easy yet. Nothing here he wanted to take for granted now that they were--
It wasn't like there was any point denying it, any more; not with their hands pulling at each others' clothes till they were naked and naked still wasn't enough, with Rodney pulling him further onto the bed, urging more, wanting it now.
Sheppard tried not to think about anything more complicated than how good it felt. It was hard, that was all; after so long, it was hard to stop looking over his shoulder. Especially in the house where he'd grown up and learned why he couldn't just go and do something as delicious as kissing Rodney from collarbone to chest, licking his tight little nipples then back again, back to his mouth and a greedy welcome. Not in this old house.
Rodney wriggled, overheating, over stimulated, holding Sheppard's head between his hands and demanding, demanding while Sheppard stalled, over thinking, pouring cold water bitterness on his own arousal. Rodney rolled them over, knee between Sheppard's and a hand under his ass, firm enough to leave fingertip-bruises.
"We don't have to," he said, even if his eyes said please, please.
"Yeah, we do."
There'd been a personal rule about not doing this with anyone he'd shared a combat situation with. Sheppard remembered making the rule, and now he remembered why; Rodney could see through him, knew all his tactics. Trusted him way more than he should.
He froze. Couldn't help it. Thinking way, way too much.
Rodney sighed, making himself comfortable without moving off Sheppard at all.
"If you need to unload some adolescent trauma about getting caught in here with your first girlfriend or furtively jerking off to Harrison Ford movies," Rodney said, "just get it over with, already."
Sheppard almost laughed.
"Projecting again, McKay?"
"No, I have no problem admitting that my own adolescence was pathetic and excruciating. I'm over it." He got a puzzled frown. "Mostly."
Sheppard pulled him down for a kiss that was more 'shut up' than 'I want you'.
Rodney did want him. Sheppard had figured that out too recently, too deep in a crisis to do more than take a mental note and file it away. He wanted Sheppard with a directness that only came out in private, in the little things he'd been trying to do and say lately. Maybe they were easier for him to do and say right now. Maybe even harder and he just felt he had to try. He hadn't said and Sheppard hadn't asked.
It still gave him chills to move his hands over the masculine build, over hard angles and coarse body-hair. Rodney might not have been his first guy but he was the first who'd offered more than back-alley anonymity, expecting more than Sheppard had known he had inside him to give. Sheppard would hesitate at a new boundary and Rodney would whisper 'yes' against his lips, against his hand, against his cock. Blanket permission to suck and fuck and finger and lick, to find out every dirty secret about himself while Rodney progressed from moans and yelps to open-mouthed silence and heaving breaths. Loving all of it, open to all of it, and somehow conveying in the clawing, panting last moments before his eyes screwed shut that John Sheppard was anything but a conveniently willing fuck; that he was wanted, and more.
Foreplay was a luxury they hadn't gotten used to and a little was turning out to be way too much. Sheppard twisted away from the sensual assault of kisses to his upper chest, shaking his head until Rodney got the idea and stopped trying. Stopped squeezing his ass like that, wriggling between his knees like that, threatening and promising to drive him insane like that. Rodney didn't do stillness well, but he could fake it for a while. Even if he did end up studying Sheppard like he was an experiment in progress, the sheer intensity of his gaze nearly as bad as hand or mouth against his skin.
With a strangled noise that he chose to think of as a growl, Sheppard flipped onto his front and presented the target.
"Subtle," Rodney said, matching his earlier tone with precision. He reached over to the nightstand, anyway, took out what he'd hidden in the drawer, and made Sheppard feel predictable as hell.
They'd stopped at a pharmacy, back in Colorado Springs.
"I thought you were getting your prescription filled?" Stargate Command had undoubtedly loaded Rodney up with everything they said he needed. Stupid that he'd sat out in the car and not realised... hadn't thought about supplies, the whole time he'd been hoping for and dreading exactly this moment.
Rodney patted his ass.
"I'm the brilliant mind. You're the action hero." It was more of a genuine compliment than not, quiet and followed by a soft, moist line of kisses down Sheppard's spine that had him struggling to keep still. He pressed his forehead to his clenched fist at the first teasing touch of Rodney's tongue on his ass. He went weak every time for that, for the anticipation that bunched in his whole lower body while Rodney kissed and then the sweet, sweet shock of hot tongue and lubricated finger slipping between his cheeks. That was about where Sheppard stopped caring, every damn time; where Rodney could demand the universe and get it gift wrapped just so long as he never, never stopped doing that.
It'd taken him a lot of years to find anything that felt better than flying, but this... Two of Rodney's strong, blunt fingers in him slick with lube, Rodney's mouth delivering random kisses and playful bites and Sheppard's shining-wide universe got real small. Real small. Groaning, all his willpower pouring into making it last instead of letting go so they could start over, Sheppard made his voice work.
"Rodney..." it was more of an order than a plea, he reassured himself. Not reduced to begging for mercy, not him. Not yet, even when Rodney's crooked fingers hit the sweet spot before withdrawing and made him see a constellation of pre-orgasmic stars behind his screwed up eyelids.
He begrudged the seconds it took to use the condom; the clawing sensation of emptiness while he waited. Kept meaning to ask if they really needed the damn things anyway given the levels of relative jeopardy in their lives, given that they were... were together now, then forgetting later or just not knowing how to work it into the conversation. Then Rodney was back, touching him, kissing his back, his shoulders, arranging him over a pillow and making them both wait because he liked that, the anticipation, the looking.
Sheppard sank his teeth into his own hand when Rodney finally give it to him - couldn't stop the cry that escaped his self-control, any more than he could stop himself rolling his hips, rocking, filling himself up with Rodney as hard as he could.
Rodney talked and the words didn't matter, soft, familiar affirmation and affection, broken by his gasps and gulps. Sheppard wanted to shout to him - why so careful, why so damn gentle when you know I can take it hard, need you to - but then he found it in the next lateral roll of his hips, the perfect connection, the perfect sensation between the slow slide of cock and the friction from the pillow beneath. He'd willingly hold himself balanced on the very edge forever, he knew for a fact; ride the perfect moment and never fall, except it felt so fucking perfect to fly that he had to let go. Had to. Did.
Rodney answered his groans with stubborn silence, with shorter, sharper strokes, firm hold of his hips, and followed him over the edge, panting.
He was no small weight on Sheppard's back, afterwards, obscene levels of relaxation the private counterpoint to his regular nervous intensity. And it didn't feel half bad, pinned there with hot skin covering his shivers, with Rodney nuzzling behind his ear, except Sheppard was losing the feeling in his legs.
"Are we going again or what?" he slurred, face mashed against his forearm.
Rodney snorted, softly, and shifted off him with a sigh to grab a fistful of paper tissue for some half-hearted cleanup. He killed the light, crawled under the covers and patted the pillows until Sheppard followed and got close again.
He liked the dark, the relaxed quiet times after they fucked when Rodney wanted... he didn't know what, exactly. To be next to him, touch him. Kiss him at seemingly random intervals while they slowly got sleepy. A double bed and a locked door, that gave them all night and that was... too new. Sleeping together instead of just fucking. They hadn't gotten used to sharing a bed. Sheppard thought they could.
"This is the part where one of us gets the emergency call," Rodney said, incapable of not tempting fate.
Face to face, Rodney's leg over the top of his, hands wandering gently over skin just the right side of too-sensitive, they listened to the silence.
"Are you doing okay?" Sheppard didn't trust himself, just going on intuition and observation. Had to ask.
"All the better for you not asking," Rodney said, and sounded too sleepy to get pissed about it. That was good, sleep was good. Sheppard shut up and settled into a position he could hold all night if he needed to, with Rodney's head on his shoulder.
At some point, they both slept.
Breakfast was out on the terrace, a fresh fruit platter and hot waffles meaning that someone Sheppard hadn't met yet was working hard in the kitchen. Christine, Dave's wife, didn't cook. It was one of the very few things he knew about her.
Rodney hit the ground running and went through the food like a starving man, while Sheppard sat back with a cup of hot coffee and got hypnotised watching the lawn sprinklers. It was good to see Rodney eat like he meant it, again. Sheppard made a point of not watching him do it and just hoped it wasn't too obvious
"Are we early or are they late?" Rodney asked, once he'd taken the edge off his appetite enough to look around him. He looked no more impressed by the house and gardens than by the bedrooms, but then everything paled to grey a little once you'd seen Atlantis.
Sheppard shrugged. They'd arrived late last evening, done introductions, gotten a handshake and a nightcap from Dave and gone to their rooms with vague pleasantries about 'in the morning'.
"I haven't had breakfast here in years," he said. "Guess the kids are away at school."
"He did invite you, next time you were on... next time you were in town. If not to bond with the family, then what?"
He shrugged again, studying his coffee. Wouldn't put it past David or any of his family to invite him over for business reasons - his signature still mattered in a few places. Felt like a jerk for giving the thought room in his head, after the last trip and the stuff they'd said. Or meant, anyway. Mostly they'd talked about golf, and Dad.
"Maybe he misses me," Sheppard guessed, wishing they'd gone to Rodney's sister's place first. Or better yet, rented a beach house someplace, just the two of them, and not left a contact number. Yeah. He could go for that.
"John. Doctor McKay." Dave appeared in weekend clothes, socks on his feet, Wall Street Journal under his arm. The round of good-mornings echoed the good-nights with too much friendly enthusiasm even from Rodney, too big a smile on Dave, and made Sheppard wish he was someplace else. Another galaxy, if that beach house wasn't available. "Got everything you need here?"
"Are you kidding? This is incredible," Rodney said, indicating the entire table with a wave of his fork, which he then dropped with a yelp of pain, scooting his chair back.
"That's Tom," Dave said, of the ginger cat that'd just climbed Rodney's leg to reach his lap. "Sorry."
"Well hello, and thank you for the flesh wounds." Rodney's hand was already busy petting under the thing's ear and the purr could've set off earthquake detectors.
"Is that Christine's scrappy little kitten?" Sheppard suddenly had a clear visual on how long it'd been since their engagement, their wedding; that tiny kitten was one huge cat, now, busy pummelling Rodney in the guts with both massive front paws.
"Yeah." Dave turned the folded newspaper over, smiling vaguely as a girl appeared at his elbow with fresh coffee and a waffle top-up. "This is Aniela, our housekeeper," he said, at Sheppard's pointed look. "Aniela; my brother John and his colleague Doctor Rodney McKay."
More pleasantries. Sheppard smiled at the girl - definitely a girl, not out of her teens, with a heavy Eastern European accent and a cute blush.
"She's sweet," Sheppard said, eyeing Dave when Aniela had gone back inside. "Little young for a housekeeper?" He could feel the unspoken something; still knew his brother's face, even with extra years written on it. Kicked out at Rodney's ankle under the table. "Cat looks hungry."
"He's-- Oh. Sure. A subtle hint. If you'll excuse me." Rodney got up, the overstuffed cat in the crook of his arm, and followed Aniela inside the house.
Dave poured himself juice and coffee. Took a waffle onto his plate. Turned over the newspaper again.
"It's not what you're thinking," he said, eventually.
"And what's that?" Thing was, Sheppard hadn't been thinking it. Not really, though it'd crossed his mind and left a vivid contrail of complete wrongness behind it.
"I hired Aniela last month to take care of the place." Dave shot him a half glance, saw him waiting. "After Christine and I separated."
"Oh." Christine had always been a set of sharp, emotionless snapshots in Sheppard's head; glossy nude lipstick, brown eyes, white wedding and that ginger cat. The only signature on tasteful birthday and holiday cards from the family. Huge and pregnant with their second kid at his own wedding, glittering in blue and getting as much attention as the bride. He'd danced with her. "I'm sorry," he said, though he wasn't, but nothing else fit. He cleared his throat. "I didn't know you guys were having problems."
Dave gave a hollow, fading laugh.
"I think I didn't either."
"... oh." Sheppard fidgeted with his plate. "The kids?"
"At school for now. After that, I don't know. I guess she'll take them to New York and we'll go from there."
So much for the model family.
"She took the staff and left the cat?"
"Yeah. I get the cat." He'd always hated cats and it'd generally been mutual. David was about horses, big dogs, long walks and quiet firesides. Hard to picture Christine and any of that. "So, uh." Dave sipped coffee, frowning in concentration. "Doctor McKay. Seems really well respected in his field. I, uh, Googled him," he added, at Sheppard's raised eyebrows. "Don't worry. I'm not sniffing out your national secrets."
"Glad to hear it. Don't tell Rodney you looked him up. He'd give you background reading. Probably a pop quiz."
"John." Dave sounded tired. Sheppard didn't want to use the word 'defeated'. "I'm trying to say that--"
"I know," Sheppard blocked, quickly.
"No, you don't. And you'll think I'm a hypocrite for saying it now. I respect your choices. If you ever want to bring someone here who's... who's more than a friend... you don't need to pretend. That was Dad's deal, it's not mine."
Sheppard gulped coffee. Poured more and tried to feel something more appropriate than empty and alien. Intergalactic jetlag was a bitch.
"Thanks," he said, when he realised he should say it. Dave relaxed, over the excruciating part and back with plain, familiar awkward. "Wow." Sheppard caught his brother's eye and saw a hint of long-forgotten, pre-teen co-conspiracy in his smirk. He blew out a long breath. "Where's small talk when you really need it?"
Late back and quite a lot drunk on fine wines, Sheppard let himself into the guest room without knocking.
"Good dinner?" Rodney was in bed, balancing his laptop and a printout. The cat was on the chair with his discarded clothes, purring itself half sick as it tried to shred them.
"Great dinner. You should've come." Though maybe not. Rodney looked grim, tired, tense. Sheppard tugged on the knot of his tie, managing a straight line over to the bed but bumping his ankle when he got there. "You're on vacation, remember?"
"Hence being allowed to spend five straight, glorious, uninterrupted hours on a project I haven't had the time for in eight years." Rodney showed him the screen, which would've been a meaningless blur even if he'd been stone cold sober. Sheppard nodded. He knew he'd be sorry if he asked, so he didn't.
The tie surrendered to his clumsy fingers. He dropped it on the floor, sat on the bed, pushed off the shiny shoes with his toes. Swung his legs up and settled back with a long sigh.
"Things are okay with your brother, then?"
"Dinner was okay. I let him patronise me about the wine list all night, I wore a sharp suit that I actually own and I didn't hit on the sommelier. He feels a lot better now. We drank a lot. Like, a lot. D'you eat?"
"Oh, the, uh... Aniela brought me a sandwich," Rodney said, dismissively, which meant he might've had her running after him all evening, or he might not have eaten anything since lunch. "She's planning to study mathematics after her year out. I gave her some pointers, suggested a little light reading..."
"I bet you did."
Sheppard propped his head on his hand and just watched for a while. Fingers on a keyboard trying to keep up with the speed of thought. He could buy that being a genius automatically made you a little crazy, just because nothing else could keep up and that had to be frustrating, but he got nervous when he saw how Rodney's hands shook when he let them go still for a moment.
He stretched out his arm and put his hand on Rodney's chest. Felt knock-kneed fifteen again under the sharp, annoyed look he got in return. It was just... just that they didn't ever get to do this part. Like waking up that morning, tangled in each other. Like sharing a shower so they could share a few other things before breakfast, like they did today. Hell, like breakfast, just the two of them on a quiet morning. Like winding down from a slow, distracting day and thinking maybe they'd like to have sex. Maybe not, maybe just sleep, but to kiss and go to bed and see what happened.
"You saving the world right now?" he asked, waving at the screen.
"No." Rodney caught on and looked hunted. He licked his lips; let Sheppard shut the computer but wouldn't let go of it. Watched Sheppard's hand go under the covers to find some bare skin. "John..."
"It was pretty good this morning, wasn't it? In the shower?" He worked his hand up under Rodney's soft t-shirt. "Wanna rematch?" Sheppard wriggled upright and angled for a kiss, finally getting it right and connecting lips to lips on the third try.
If it was possible to put sarcasm into a kiss, then McKay came really close.
"Aww, we can do better than that." Sheppard knew he was wasted, then, because that sounded profound and Rodney looked faintly revolted. "Best of three?"
"What are we, sixteen?" Rodney twisted his body, avoiding the next attempt to feel him up. "Cut it out." When that didn't work, he took one hand off the computer and caught Sheppard's with it, tight. "You think we can play at this and then go back and make like it never happened?" His voice was hard, frustration more than anger, but cold. "Do you really?"
"Hey, I only--"
"This'll kill you when you sober up." Rodney shoved the laptop off and got out of bed, leaving the thick printout on the pillows. "Given the choice, I'll take you blaming me for being a jerk instead of taking me for a fool."
He heard the words. Didn't know what to say, or where they were at, or why he wasn't feeling a thing except wanting to have his hands and mouth on Rodney. Rodney needed more right now, needed him... fuck, sober for one, because one of them had to be seeing the world straight.
The cat walked across him and curled up in Rodney's vacated warm spot, oblivious to Sheppard's existence.
"Rodney?" He lay on his back, shut his eyes and tried to focus through the pleasant fog. "You okay?"
"I should probably mention that I have some personal issues with the whole sloppy drunk thing," Rodney said, from a safe distance. "That is not a big turn-on, okay?"
"Also beards. Don't ask. But I'm not... this isn't because I'm having a moment, here."
"At least I don't think I am. I... I don't want to screw this up." Much quieter, but closer. Rodney's weight on the bed again. Cat started to purr, louder than Rodney was talking. "God, you've no idea."
Sheppard dragged his eyes open long enough to locate Rodney, get a hand on his knee and avoid the cat.
"Sorry," he said, and felt Rodney relax, saw it in his face, the energy draining out of him, the panic. "Come to bed." Rodney nodded but didn't move, eyes wandering back to his computer and papers. "I'm flexible about Tom but I'm not sleeping with your laptop."
That got a smile. Rodney reached over, unfastened a couple of Sheppard's shirt buttons then plucked out his cufflinks, putting them on the nightstand. Sheppard watched, interested and immobile, and got a grudging kiss on the lips before Rodney was done.
"I'll just finish up here," he said, reaching for his computer. He looked as bemused as Sheppard felt, so that was okay.
Sheppard shut his eyes.
He woke up at dawn, temples throbbing and mouth like the desert, joints immobile until he sucked it up and rolled onto his side, restarting the blood flow and bringing the pain and the rushing burn. He'd had worse pain, off the chart worse than this, but not usually self-inflicted.
He felt like an idiot.
Next to him was a classic Rodney McKay; out for the count, face slack, head back against the slats. Laptop, candy wrappers and the cat for a blanket.
Weird, just to watch him sleep; watch him without any distractions and see all the little ordinary flaws that made up a whole person. Realise that there were still new things to notice when they'd been comrades, been so near death together so many times that they had 'goodbye' down to a neat, private shorthand.
Christine's cat stood up on Rodney's knees, arched its back while it stared belligerently at Sheppard, and jumped down before issuing a loud meow.
Rodney snorted and woke up, disoriented, grabbing the laptop as it slipped while his papers scattered onto the floor and the cat fled across the room.
"What?" Rodney demanded, before reality sank in and he slumped back on the pillows again, relieved that the world wasn't ending. "Oh. Hey."
"Hey." And, though he wasn't exactly sure what for, or if he'd said it last night already, Sheppard added, "Sorry?"
They couldn't afford to leave those things unsaid. Enough people died around you, you figured that out and left the slate clean whenever you remembered.
He rubbed his aching eyes.
"Ibuprofen," Rodney said, with at least a little sympathy. "In the nightstand."
"Yeah, thanks." Sheppard could only hope that Dave had the bigger hangover, since he'd been the one choosing the wine. He sorted through Rodney's travelling pharmacy, found the painkillers. Fetched a glass of water from the bathroom. Threw the crying cat out into the hall. Turned back and saw Rodney settling under the covers, pushing at the pillows and huffing till he was satisfied.
Sheppard swallowed the pills and drank the water, his feet glued to the floor and a few dozen private nightmares lurking just the other side of the alcoholic haze.
Rodney's notes were everywhere, across the bed and the floor and under his feet, probably important, but it was too damn early in the morning. Sheppard stripped out of the crumpled suit and went back to bed.
Hands finding him naked, Rodney melted into the shape of him, all lazy kisses under Sheppard's chin while Sheppard jerked him off in his pants. Rodney returned the favour slower, slippery with his own come, his breathing unsteady until it gave way to whispered encouragement and rough, hot pulls that made Sheppard feel, yeah, about sixteen again, and like the world would end if he didn't come right now. Until he did, and Rodney kissed him properly, full on the mouth and perfectly timed to muffle Sheppard's moans.
They slept some more, skipped breakfast, didn't apologise to Dave at lunch because he looked worse than they did and, after a few uncertain moments, smiled at the sight of them coming in together like... like two people who'd recently dragged themselves out of the same bed.
Nobody ate much or said much, and it was good. Good end to the visit. Good start to... something. Maybe.
When they left the next morning, while Rodney was busy at the car, Sheppard let his brother try to hug him goodbye.
Chapter 2: Some Visitors From Out of Town
Rodney was seventeen when Jeannie found the stash of porn under his mattress and, because it was a younger sister's job to be a pain in the ass and the root cause of later therapy bills, gave him the choice of being blackmailed for hard cash or telling her what little he'd learned of the big grownup world beyond the glossy pages. Childhood, for them, had been something that happened to other people; bright studious minds made curiosity just another science, biology and sexuality just another set of data to be absorbed and filed away, referenced as needed for other projects.
It possibly explained how someone with an IQ off the scale and one of the best minds of her generation fell pregnant for the want of a little common sense and fifty cents worth of latex.
Rodney had been... kind of a jerk about that, so it was the worst sort of deja vu when he hugged Jeannie on the doorstep and felt the baby bump pressing against him; when she looked up at him, grin fading to vulnerable, hopeful.
"My God, Jeannie," Rodney breathed, hands under her elbows. "Oh my God, that's... oh my God." He laughed. Threw back his head and actually laughed, like he hadn't in as many gruelling months as he could remember.
A couple of feet away, John watched them, his face unreadable beneath one of his arsenal of smiles.
"John," Jeannie apologised, reaching for his hand. "Come on in. I didn't want to send this news long distance. Almost six months." She put a hand on her belly, compressing her shirt and showing off the added swell to her curves, and John's smile warmed to something a little nearer real as he caught a clue. He gave her hand a half-shake, half-squeeze, and stepped back out of reach. "Mer can show you the way. I'll make us some tea." She touched Rodney's back as he headed for the staircase. "You can take me baby shopping later."
"I just got here!"
"I'm striking while the iron's hot," Jeannie called, over her shoulder.
John gave him a sympathetic look and followed him up the stairs.
Jeannie's house smelled like family. Not what Rodney remembered as their family - their old house'd smelled like newsprint, hardware, microwave dinners - but there was dusty clutter and poster paints, pot plants and the ubiquitous sweet-strawberry smell that seemed to follow little kids around for the first few years of their lives. He couldn't figure out why.
The guest bedroom had a blob of glazed clay on the nightstand between the two beds. The sculpture was either his niece's best work or something cutting edge from an overpriced gallery. Hard to tell. With Jeannie and her husband those distinctions seemed fluid, anyway. Rodney picked up the ornament, turned it over, and read "uncle mer" on the bottom. Tried to decide if he was the recipient or the subject. John read over his shoulder, too close for a second or two and then, suddenly, moving too far away.
"I should get a hotel," he said, radiating the alertness that Rodney associated with a serious breach of Sheppard's personal space and an imminent lockdown. He'd already retreated as far as the door, still clutching his bag. "Your sister, the baby, this is family stuff. We can take her out for a meal an--"
"You flew all the way here with me to get a hotel and not get laid tonight?"
"Rodney." John's indignation and awkwardness at comments like that had faded a long while back, but he still protested. Automatic. Some big, important part of the man was still back in school, Rodney thought; back at the developmental stage where if you didn't let yourself think the actual thought or say the actual words, there was a reality in which it didn't count. Probably an asset when part of your job was killing other people, when the rest of it was putting your own life on the line so often you lost count. John protected his assets.
"You showed me your city. Now you've got to look at mine. Anyway, she thinks you're cool. Suck it up."
"Maybe Jeannie's got enough to deal with right now without us..."
"Oh, please. Have you met my sister?" Rodney left his bag on the second bed and went back to him. There were ways to angle in under the Sheppard radar, to use his blind spots to bypass all that denial. "She married a poet. She's so liberal-minded it's a wonder her brain doesn't escape and declare independence."
"Right." John rolled his eyes, but didn't dodge him; permission implicit in the half droop of his eyelids, the eager half-hitch of his breath right before Rodney kissed him.
Being back on Earth gave them that much; privacy of a sort they never got back on Atlantis, or anywhere in Pegasus. Not on the Daedelus, either, with its cramped bunkrooms and shift-sleeping and un-fucking-believable scuttlebutt. The Ancients didn't think people needed privacy doors and the Earth-bound military didn't think, period.
The kiss wound itself out and left him on the inside of whatever invisible shield John had deployed, arm tucked comfortably behind John's back. Waste of a good manoeuvre, Rodney thought, remembering that Jeannie was expecting them back down for tea and small talk. He got in another kiss, deep and delicious, before John remembered too.
"Does... she have any idea that you're even into guys?"
"Don't let that blue-eyed girl-next-door thing she does fool you. She picked the combination lock on my door and got into my porn stash when she was twelve. She's responsible for driving away at least three of my potential sexual partners in college and it wasn't with gender discrimination." John's eyes narrowed, accusing him of something, and Rodney spread his hands. "What?"
"Last she heard you were marrying the girl next door," John pressed back, his methodical stubbornness more than a match for Rodney's dismissive spiel. Unfortunately. "You don't think this might come as a shock?"
"More than it did to your brother?"
"He... wasn't surprised." John straightened up. "He just would've preferred not to know. I think. Though you got big points for being somebody he could Google. He thought that was really cool."
For John, that was a big reveal and Rodney stored the information carefully, words and inflections and expression. He'd never had an eidetic memory, even before his mind started wandering, but his capacity for storing inconsequential details about people surprised him. Probably because he'd so seldom bothered to test it, before Atlantis became home and people - on the individual level, that is - started to matter. Some of the people. People he'd let down, left with problems that weren't of their own making because he hadn't planned for... for the possibility that he wasn't indispensable.
Away from Atlantis, Rodney could admit it. If he let himself, he could picture the work he'd left unfinished - reports in the middle of a sentence, whiteboards with half an equation, his immediate staff hardly even briefed on the basics, grouped around his station like sheep reluctant to leave the pen while Zelenka tried to manage and motivate them. God, that was going to be a disaster, the city'd be falling down before he...
"Rodney." John touched his shoulder, brought him back to the here and now, gave him that nervous look he'd been seeing too much of, lately.
"It's fine," Rodney said, before John could finish drawing breath to ask him if he was okay. He never knew the right answer. It was a dumb question. "Let's go see Jeannie. You won't believe her home baking, she's like supermom or something."
John held on to his arm. Waited for Rodney to look him in the eye.
"You know I'm supposed to call it in, if you start to--"
"Weirder than normal," John clarified, trying to dilute the implication with humour. Failing. "Just... I don't want this to go bad on you. With Jeannie. Because of me. You don't need that right now."
Rodney tried not to resent being... handled. Second guessed. If anyone had a right to call him on his behaviour then John did, and John was here and that... that was a good thing. But the handling, the orders... no, he didn't have to like that at all.
"Backing out on me?" he asked, half-serious, plucking one of John's shirt-buttons between thumb and forefinger. He didn't think John would. Not now. Loyalty was his middle name. But...
John grasped his shoulders, waited for him to get it together. Made Rodney feel disloyal for thinking that way, for letting the dark spiral take hold.
"No." John sounded absolutely sure about that, a little smile softening the angles of his face, making Rodney remember exactly why they were doing this. Not only loyalty. He relaxed. "I'm not. But I'm not going baby shopping with your sister. For that you're on your own."
Rodney looked at the racks and racks of tiny cute clothes, the warehouse-sized store as yet unexplored, then at his sister with a well practised mixture of exasperation and pleading. That'd never worked - she either smirked or simply ignored him.
"Don't you have all this baby stuff already? One size fits all?"
Jeannie drew herself up tall.
"You never took me shopping the last time. You owe me." It stayed unspoken, these days, that there were a whole lot of things he didn't do the first time Jeannie got pregnant, on top of the things he did do, most of which had been the wrong things, but it was still there in her eyes whenever the subject came up. Even more, now she was expecting again, and it just about killed him to see her needing anything he could've given her, least of all his acceptance.
It didn't mean he was into shopping for baby clothes. People kept smiling at them like she was his... like he was the...
"I can't just give you my wallet and go wait in the car?"
"Oh, quit whining." Jeannie hit his arm, then slipped her arm through his and tugged him towards a fresh display of creepy cute things. "Just... be here, okay? Being happy for me."
Which he was. Happy for her, and only mildly despondent at having to tail her with the cart and make noncommittal noises when asked for his inexpert opinion. Enjoying her because she was happy.
It was the sheer normalcy that made him nervous. Other visits had given him a taste of it; reminded him about grocery shopping, parking spaces and dish soap. It was always a relief to get back to Atlantis, where if anything was going to get in the way of pure science it would at least be really important, and now...
He thought of Teyla, as Jeannie weighed the merits of bright, soft toys and miniature clothes. He slipped duplicates of what she'd settled on into the cart and met her questioning look with a wordless plea that, just for once, she respected. For about twenty minutes, until they got back to the car.
"What's the matter with you?" Jeannie asked, her hand curling softly around his arm while he loaded her car with approximately ten times the weight of a human infant's worth of stuff.
"Nothing." He tried a smile. Felt it fall flat as she looked right through him.
"You haven't criticised. Once. Not anything, and I dragged you baby shopping. Something's wrong."
"What could be wrong? The stuff's for Teyla, she's had a boy, right before we left. Isn't that great?" He slammed the trunk and turned away when she tried to reach for him. "It wasn't voluntary. The vacation." He heard how that sounded and backtracked, hastily. "Not that I'm not glad to see you."
"Well, I'm glad you're here," Jeannie declared, in that voice of hers that sounded like she could make everything right if she just thought positive. She pinched his ribs when he didn't answer. "You know I can't drive myself when I'm pregnant."
"You can barely drive when you're not," he answered, but it was a recycled insult, years out of date.
Rodney let her take his hand. Looked down at the gold medical alert bracelet he'd given her, that first Christmas after they were speaking again.
He groped for normalcy, for the here and now.
"They looking after you? Good doctor?"
"She's a great doctor, she delivered Maddy. I'm fine. Everything's fine." Jeannie squeezed his hand. "Hey, we could go get John. You can buy us lunch and we can all not-talk about secrets. I promise I won't nest in front of your cool friend."
"He was going for a run, wanted to work off the flight." Rodney waved her towards the passenger door, saw her check her watch as she strapped in.
"For three hours?"
Rodney snorted, pushing the ignition.
"He really likes to run."
Madison had been carpooled home before John showed up. He high-fived her on his way to the shower, wordlessly re-establishing his credentials as the coolest guy in the universe after her dad. Possibly before her dad, even if John was one walking sweat-stain, bright-cheeked as he radiated heat and rubber-kneed from lactic acid and dehydration.
Chicks dug John Sheppard. Even the really little ones.
"How does that work?" Rodney asked, following him upstairs with a bottle of cold spring water. "I bring cool presents and spend an hour playing chess with her before I get a smile, you sweat at her and you're God?"
"You've either got it or you don't," John said, from the middle of his stretch-out routine, and Rodney threw the water for him to catch. "Did you beat her at chess yet?"
"I hate you."
"No you don't. You're just mad 'cause we can both beat you while you're busy telling us how great you are. How was the baby shopping?" John twisted the cap off the bottle, drank half and sat on the bed. Nobody - nobody, Rodney thought bitterly - had the right to look that good after a long run, all energised and wired instead of groaning and near death.
"Wonderful," Rodney sneered, then gave up. He couldn't pretend it hadn't been good to unwind for the afternoon in his sister's company, to talk about safe topics and nonsense, let Jeannie tease him then watch her eyes get wide as he shared their recent breakthroughs in Atlantis. Even following her around the store had been... yeah. Good to see John, now, though. "You missed lunch. Hungry?"
"No." John tossed running shoes and socks out of the way and got up, twisting his shoulders to loosen up a little more. He sounded slightly breathless. "Not hungry."
They both knew the code, Rodney knew that low tone of voice and the sudden inability to meet his gaze. A hard day's hike through an alien jungle; a long day in a claustrophobic negotiation room and first chance they got--
"Shut up." John's hands caught him by the waist, hot and shaking with endorphin overload, double-damn daring him to say no. Or anything at all. Rodney's brain refused to move past the sheer damp heat he could feel pouring off John's body, the heat in his gaze, and the fact that they were about to fuck in Jeannie's house. Damn his mind and little details.
He groped behind him, slipping the pathetic little bolt on the door, right before John slammed his shoulders against the cold paintwork and kissed him. Tongue and teeth, all about need and nothing about teasing or prolonging. Rodney caught breaths when he could, light-headed until John let up on his mouth and bit his throat instead, tongue following hungrily to transform the little pain into pleasure.
"Thought about you," John whispered, letting up on him for a few seconds to nibble around his ear. "About this, how you'd feel. While I ran." He plunged his hand into Rodney's boxers, hot and sure, then kissed him again, palm rubbing over his cock.
Rodney tried to slow things down a little, rubbing John's back and angling for his jaw line with the kisses, but he could feel the momentum working against him. Feel John winding tighter and tighter, and hard against his hip. Couldn't keep up with him, didn't particularly want to but God, John was glorious like that, wanting and on the edge. Delicious, too, his upper lip salty and... God, yes. Rodney loved the taste of him.
"Suck you," he murmured, not managing to stop kissing before he said it. Felt and heard the low grunt of approval as they pulled together at John's pants, as he palmed John's ass as he went down.
On his knees, John's hands on his head, Rodney's body remembered all about the first time and then he felt the arousal; at the memory and reality of salt and hard in his mouth, hands in his hair, the solid muscle and sweat under his palms. The whole-body jerk and groan of fuck from up above, John grabbing the wall for support as Rodney bypassed teasing and just swallowed him; let himself get fucked, clutching John's ass in both hands and not sure he could stop even if he wanted. Didn't want, not ever. Listening to John's best efforts to keep it quiet, Rodney took the first spurt in his throat, the rest burning across his cheek, both their fists around John's cock milking him dry.
John sank down on his knees, tangled in his sweats and shaking, kissing him feebly and holding him, trying to get started on an apology.
"It's fine," Rodney whispered before he could find the words and ruin it, then kissed him to make sure he never did. Didn't want apologies, not for that, for being wanted harder then he'd thought was humanly possible. God, no. He kissed John's neck and shoulder, slow and lazy, until they could both breathe evenly again and John's clutching hands were caressing, instead. "Do you... run because you're horny, or get horny when you run?" he asked, with John's chin on his shoulder. "Or is it this whole Pavlovian circle thing for jocks where one just leads to another and--?
"No, serious scientific enquiry."
"Both, then. And usually neither. And you'd better not cite your damn source."
John kissed his neck, meekly, a half-hearted invitation to get his turn, but he was all about fatigue now - the good kind that knocked a guy out for eight solid hours and didn't happen often enough back in Atlantis. Least of all to John.
"Shower," Rodney prompted, patting his back. "You first."
Flushed, weary and not a little awkward, John collected clothes and towels and stumbled off to the bathroom.
When they showed their faces at dinner, nobody could've guessed what they'd been up to, but Rodney felt weird anyway. Would've bet anything John did too with Maddy chatting away at him, thinking the world of him to the temporary exclusion of her uncle and her parents. If keeping up the soft smile and charm over his pasta bothered him, John didn't let anything show.
Unless he chose to, John never let anything show.
Rodney made himself popular by collecting the plates and taking them through to the kitchen while John and Kaleb between them tried to explain to Madison why she'd need to be a little older before they let her fly helicopters, and that there'd be issues with her joining the US Air Force.
"Great," Jeannie said, joining him with her hands full of glassware. "Yesterday she was going to be an abstract artist. I liked that one. Now she's a military pilot."
"Don't worry, we can lure her back from the dark side with calculus," Rodney said, fussing aimlessly at the dirty dishes. "And if that fails, there's always Chopin."
His sister laughed. He loved it when she laughed and it wasn't at him.
Rodney turned and watched her get busy around her kitchen, busy and pregnant and happy.
"I was hoping you'd play for her," Jeannie said, the smile still warm after the laugh. "I'm rusty."
"You suck," Rodney protested, folding his arms, stretching and curling his fingers in the crooks of his elbows. How long since he last tried to play piano? "Get her lessons."
"I did. She'd just enjoy hearing you play, that's all." The smile faltered, uncertain of the terrain ahead. "So would I."
Rodney shifted his feet, made himself busy with the dishes again. Soap, bowl, suds. Still seemed to work.
"Then... I guess... you guys are so starved for entertainment and culture that I'll just have to take you to a concert," he said, with what he hoped was tact and grace, but suspected was mostly nerves.
From the dining room, he heard John stumbling through the reasons why no, he couldn't help give Maddy her bath. Kaleb was letting him get himself in knots.
"Mer," Jeannie started, then overheard too and went to rescue the guest from her daughter. And possibly from her husband. Rodney was never one hundred percent sure about anything, with Kaleb.
Washing dishes got him out of any form of bath duty too, but the bedtime story was still his - his niece didn't even ask for John in his place, which was... sort of nice. Either that or she had some form of kid-intuition about what kind of dumb stories John would wind up telling her.
Madison was the spitting image of a younger Jeannie now, and that would've been hell on his nerves if Rodney hadn't known he was just visiting. As it was he could just nod and agree with her that the story he'd chosen to read was boring, and then bore her to sleep with anecdotes and a few personal thoughts on elementary particles, instead. She didn't seem to mind, curled up around her brown bear and twirling a strand of her hair with her finger, just the way her mother used to do.
"She reminds me of you," Jeannie said, as he closed the bedroom door.
"Oh, that's funny because I was just thinking how much she's turning out like you."
"She's never been scared of the dark. She likes the same foods as you, the same books. The way she looks at us, sometimes. It scares me, Mer."
"That she'll turn out like me?" He had to admit that wouldn't be all good. "At least she got your looks," he offered, flicking the curl of hair that'd come loose by her ear. "Genetics only goes so far. And anyway, you were left on my doorstep in a basket by evil space monkeys, so we're not even related."
Jeannie burst into tears, Kaleb showed up, and there was glaring.
Rodney felt terrible about it, even though he was almost completely sure it hadn't been his fault.
"She's pregnant," was John's wisdom, when Rodney tracked him down on the back porch, slouching on the damp wooden steps. "Probably not your fault."
Halfway between supportive comrade and devil's advocate, John grinned up at his moment of hope, killing it dead.
Rodney shoved John over with his foot and sat down.
"I want you to tell her about us," John said.
"What?" It took Rodney's mind a second to make the leap - a second and a glance at John's face, which was set in stone right now and picked out in the hard light of a security lamp. "Oh." And he bit down on the rest of what he felt like saying, processing it piece by piece to make sure he got it right, let it all sit and swell in his throat until he was ready to gag on it, because opportunities like this, with John, were rare. "In so many words. So to speak."
"Yeah." He didn't go into detail.
"So... how'd you break it to your brother?" Rubbing his forehead with the back of his hand, Rodney pushed down on disappointment, frustration, annoyance - constant companions, anyway, so he was used to dealing with them.
"It was more of a... an understanding," John said, slow and careful with the words. Weary and wary, the combination so familiar, so Sheppard, that Rodney worried less for hearing it. "I didn't exactly make him hear it and he didn't exactly give me his blessing. And that's... progress."
Jeannie called them from the back door, bringing two beer bottles and an apology. If she'd seen them, heard them, she'd learned a better poker-face than Rodney ever would, though it might've helped that she was red and all blotchy from the crying. He'd never been able to take that.
"What's he doing to you, Jeannie?" John asked, getting up and smiling thanks for the beer. "Want me to beat him up for you?"
It wasn't flirting. Rodney had been watching for a good long while, now - watching the John Sheppard effect on female company. Jeannie was one of the ones who found themselves instantly at ease with him, talking like old friends from almost the moment they met. Maybe noticing, later, the careful distance John kept, or that his interest was...wasn't a pursuit, but not minding because by then he'd charmed them. Or else they'd shot him.
"Not his fault," Jeannie said, knocking herself against Rodney's side the way she did when she was half his height. "Sorry. Hormones, new meds, my head goes to some pretty strange places when I'm tired."
"I guess you have every right to be a walking cliche," he said, taking a beer he didn't want because she was the one offering, and they'd mastered the token-as-apology game a long time ago. "Does Maddy really remind you of me?"
"In a... little girl way," Jeannie said, and Rodney knew John was grinning without looking over at him. "I just thought, all of a sudden after you two got here," she said, watching John. "The world my kids grow up to live in... everything that's out there... everything you two are doing out there." It was awe, the prevailing emotion in her voice, but Rodney knew how that could spill over into tears, into terror or joy. Awe at the universe, the scope of it and the crushing momentum. He was hardly the first to be shipped home with... issues. "Caught up with me, that's all. I told Kaleb you called me the changeling child of a space monkey, though."
John coughed beer back into his bottle and turned away.
"Yeah, ever since you were old enough to throw stuff at my head!"
She hit him on the arm and stayed next to him, happy to join him in staring down the darkening garden.
Did they do it now? Rodney could feel the human geometry of the moment; Jeannie relaxed, glued to his side by emotions he didn't understand but didn't actually need to. Acceptance was all she wanted from him, right now and he knew that, wasn't just guessing and hoping for the best. John was amused, intrigued and fond, the light and laughter in his eyes for real, not one of his forgeries. A space between the three of them that he could fill and redefine everything.
But he wasn't good with words. They were all tired and apparently certain people were feeling over-emotional. And he didn't actually know what exactly he was supposed to tell her. What, exactly, to call it that would sound... that wouldn't sound too...
He cleared his throat, suddenly panicking at the silence and unanswered questions.
"I have some work to... I mean, if you're up to it, I hoped you'd take a look while I'm here. Nothing classified," he added, before she could remind him about almost getting her killed the last time. Before he could remind himself. "Just something I've been working on." And, because he felt he owed her even if the tears hadn't been his actual fault, "I'd really... value your opinion."
"I'd love to," she said, letting go and smiling the smile that meant she'd love to find all his mistakes and explain them in excruciating detail. "So, do either of you guys cook?"
"What?" John asked, exactly when Rodney did.
"Kaleb has a thing. Inviting guests to cook. It's how we first hooked up, and it's pretty cool if you're into it, so--."
"I microwave things that come in boxes," Rodney said, before there was too much information. "Sheppard?"
"I... make a mean sandwich," John admitted, cautious as if they were negotiating with an armed welcoming committee. "Sometimes with ingredients that would surprise and even alarm you."
"Perfect," Jeannie said, as if they hadn't both just admitted to being hopeless bachelor slobs capable of burning hot water. "Tomorrow night, dinner for five?"
"Uh--" Rodney watched her disappear back inside. "Okay."
"Kaleb has a thing." John was smirking.
"Bully for Kaleb."
"Suck it up, McKay. What's the worst that could happen?"
"You mean besides the mockery and the gastroenteritis?"
"We're a team." John slapped him on the back. Didn't take his hand away, and made Rodney shiver at the unpredictable intimacy. It was sad and twisted, but while they had all the time they could ever want to screw each other, to be with each other, he was sort of missing the urgency of having to steal every second they spent together. That way was so much easier. "We'll get through this."
A couple of beers later, when it was getting way too cold to sit out on the damp boards and Rodney was starting to think longingly of a soft bed and a laptop, John leaned over and kissed him. He snatched at it, like he'd been working up to it a while and had already spooked himself, but he didn't move away again. Rodney searched his eyes, couldn't find any answers in the poor light, and pressed the kiss back, gently, giving it a little hint of tongue.
"They might see us," he said, when John still didn't move back.
"Not if we go upstairs."
"We could do that." Rodney couldn't remember such an explicit offer, before. He'd been pushed against walls, dragged across a tent, grabbed in the dark and poked in the ass with a fully-fledged Sheppard hardon. Sometimes a word - now; please; Rodney - but usually just a touch, a look, a looming presence. He wasn't sure what to do about a simple offer. It would've been tempting to turn him down out of sheer contrariness, except he was still delicious and unshaven and Rodney wanted him. Badly.
"Let me give Jeannie my notes," he said. "I'll be right there."
By the time he followed, John had stripped down to boxers and t-shirt, spread himself out on the bed nearest the window and found a game on Rodney's laptop. Rodney didn't even want to know how he'd figured out the latest password because it was getting to the point of mind-reading.
"I'm five minutes and you found something better to do?"
"Try twenty." John looked up between moves. "Jeannie like your theory?"
"It's a little more than a theory." Rodney sorted through his luggage, as much for something to occupy his restless hands as because he needed anything. "I've been working on it since before she started college."
"Yeah. It's weird." He located his wash bag, with all the stuff he'd picked up at the pharmacy after they left the SGC; condoms and lube knocking around with his allergy medication, a box of painkillers, a bottle of anti-acid. Underneath all of it, the prescription he wasn't taking because... because he wasn't trusting some doctor he'd talked with for an hour a day about his feelings with his mind. Not his mind. "You grow up knowing you're going to change the world with your brilliant discoveries, and when it actually happens, the world doesn't even know about it and you can't tell anyone."
"That bother you?" John's fingers stayed busy with the arrow keys, some shooting game that he'd snuck on there, probably. Rodney could feel the sudden attentiveness, though. Not just the SGC shrinks doing the listening.
"Yeah. Sometimes. A lot, sometimes, if you must know."
He waited for some flip remark, a quip about his ego, an order not to worry about it. Turned, when John said nothing, and saw him shutting the laptop, pushing it off to the foot of the bed. Just listening.
In a way Rodney didn't try very hard to understand, that made it unnecessary to say anything more. He sat down heavily on the other bed, pulling off his socks, tossing them in his bag. Living out of a suitcase - something else he hadn't seen coming when he was blazing towards his first Ph.D. Atlantis had become more of a home than any place he'd stayed since his late teens and, even there, his position on Sheppard's team had him always packed and supplied, ready to move out and be someplace else.
John swapped the overhead light for the bedside lamp, then got down on the floor between the two beds, stretching out his legs and putting his back against Rodney's bed. They'd been watching movies that way; their beds back home too narrow and the possibility of somebody walking in always in the back of their minds, but definitely and deliberately within easy reach. Easier to talk to the back of the other guy's head, too. Rodney put his hand on John's shoulder.
"Want to watch a movie?"
"Didn't think so." A little nudging, and John got in between his knees, letting Rodney work on his shoulders. That was more his thing than John's; he liked to feel the definition of hard muscles, the way the cloth bunched and fell and the strength in his own hands. John relaxing as he worked was an added incentive, adding the spice of low-grade arousal.
One-handed, he loosened his pants. Under his other hand, John shivered, responding to the sound of his zipper. With his own eccentric collection of turn-ons, Rodney wasn't in any position to comment on what got John started. Made him wonder, though - about the past, and how a man like Sheppard wound up settling for... well, for Rodney McKay, when he had plenty of options. It'd made sense at first; the perfect sense of convenience and trust and pure, desperate need. Rodney didn't know if there was a word for that set of conditions, for that sort of sex. Great sex, amazing sex. Uncomplicated, and not complicating anything else.
He'd missed the moment when it became anything more for him, for John. Probably not the same moment, they were never that in tune. Probably not even an event at all, just some random shift in the mysteries of brain chemistry changing something pure into something complex and treacherous.
Even that had been fine, just fine and kind of terrifyingly wonderful, until he'd had the time to start worrying about it.
Rodney had never found the right way to ask where another guy learned to suck cock, especially when that guy was military and as cautious with personal information as he was with state secrets. He could understand the reticence. God, he'd used it - used John, others who couldn't look him in the eye afterwards - and been grateful for it because mostly, he'd just wanted sex. He'd just never stuck around long enough in one place, or with one person, to see the downside.
"You falling asleep on me?" John tilted his head all the way back, giving Rodney the upside-down view of his face.
"Sorry. Thinking." He was tired, at that - a whole year's worth of tired, or more, still catching him up after the intergalactic flight. Rodney didn't want to think too hard about what else it might bring with it, when it finally hit.
"Oh." John frowned, a little bit playful, a little bit serious. "Figured we had that part working just fine."
"Oh, you did?" He was teasing, of course he was teasing, but felt the tension seize John before he'd even finished saying it, the warm little bubble of intimacy gone in a heartbeat. John straightened up, pulled up his knees and faced front. "God, would you come to bed, please?" Rodney mock-punched the back of his head, lost for a better response. Never knew when he might step on one of the landmines, with Sheppard - only that the probability increased whenever he got allowed a little bit closer.
"I need to--" Bitten off, angry, frustrated. John took two slow breaths, like he did before squeezing the trigger on a precision shot. "This, us," he tried, calmer and kinder and very, very careful. "I never did anything like this, before."
"And you were right. About not being able to go back once we change things."
"Didn't think you were listening."
"Yeah, I was."
That seemed to be it, or at least all John felt capable of saying at that point. Rodney rubbed his palms together for the heat and resumed the massage. John bowed his head, sighing with some real appreciation.
"So, more than friends?" He'd risk a misstep in the minefield, on the promise of a little solid ground. "Can I tell Jeannie that?"
"That sounds good," John said, wriggling his shoulders. "Yeah, you can tell her that."
"That's... good. Good." Biting his lip to remind himself to shut up and stay that way, Rodney felt short of breath and dry-mouthed. More relief than happiness, he suspected, but he'd take it for right now along with John's lean body under his fingers, between his knees. His bare toes were right by John's bare thighs. Those were all good things. Happiness was as subjective as anything else. He wasn't sure he'd ever been happy. Elated, joyful, hyper, gratified...
"McKay." John turned around, looking up at him with exasperation that wasn't quite fake. Rested his arms on Rodney's thighs and gripped his hips. "You keep stopping."
"Sorry about that."
"So get your pants off and gimme the good stuff."
"Is that an order?" He felt his smile, something from right down deep inside, and wondered if he maybe knew what happy felt like, after all. Held John's head between his hands, fingers burrowing into his hair, feeling him breathe.
"Don't make me hold you down."
John moved before he had any hope of reacting; pushed him down with one hand, pinned him with one knee, and grinned the feral grin that had first given Rodney cause for temptation and late-night fantasies, way back. It was the kind of moment where a person could say something stupid, carried away on adrenaline and desire. Rodney learned years ago to button it, if he wanted to get past second base with anybody halfway cool; sweet nothings tended to turn into somethings and make everything too awkward later.
Letting John pull his pants down, lifting his hips to play along - a much better idea than looking up into those expressive eyes and saying something in the heat of the moment. God, yes. Much better; John pressed down on top of him, mock-trapping him against the too-soft mattress, not-so-accidentally moving hard thigh against his cock. Rodney would've put up a fight, if he didn't think John might misread things and let go of him. He let his wrists get captured, instead, pinned either side of his head, so John could kiss him; made him work for it, teasing his lips until he was ready to part them, gentle with his tongue until Rodney deigned to open his mouth and give a fuller response. John plunged in, then, all his best moves at once and Rodney needed air a long while before he gave in and twisted his head to one side, gasping. John didn't let up, even then; just switched to his cheek, his throat, his neck, like he couldn't get enough of the taste and feel of... tired, unshaven astrophysicist. Rodney was never going to figure that one out - how John could want him so hard, apparently every bit as much as he was wanted. How he offered such a turn-on, just by lying there to be had.
Rodney had learned to be good at fucking, to make himself noticeably worth the time and effort of taking to bed. That it was some kind of compensation for the other things he still lacked... well, that'd occurred, alone and late at night when he'd run out of more important things to go insane about. More, as he got older and his body started doing things, refusing to do things, that he once took for granted. And Sheppard had been... impressed, and not hard to please, and loyally grateful in a way that cemented the growing fractures in Rodney's self-image. He'd never been sure how much John was sure of, if he had known limits or the body-memories of bad experiences. Had never found them out if they existed, but they'd never done this; Rodney passive, or as passive as he ever got; John pushing him, not quite playing, every move a challenge.
Not that they'd ever had the time to play games. They'd gotten good at timing each other, doing what it took to synch up and get each other off in whatever time they had, leaving enough time to hide the evidence.
He yelped, teeth pinching his nipple through his shirt, and John's hands tightened convulsively around his wrists before he lifted his head, flushed and scared and oh, God, guilty for such a tiny little hurt. Rodney had done worse to himself, far worse, groping for relief and all alone.
"Do you want to fuck me?" he asked, taking his right hand out of John's suddenly loosened grip, lifting it to his face and scratching lightly at the stubble. "We never did that and I never asked." John stared, deer-in-headlights, breathing quicker. "Is there some boneheaded Sheppard thing going on about not hurting me, or who belongs on top, because--"
"It's not that." John was gruff with effort, embarrassment. Maybe a little defeat. "Are you offering?"
"I didn't know I needed to. For God's sake." He was suddenly, acutely aware that he was back in control. Or that he'd never let it go to begin with. His hand behind John's neck, he freed the other one and grabbed the condoms, the tube of gel, dumping them on his stomach. "You've watched the fucking Pegasus galaxy give it to me up the ass for four years. Where did you miss the clue?"
It was only his hand, his light grip on John's neck, keeping him from pulling away. Rodney could feel it in him, the need to break free, hide himself. Regretted the words, because he wasn't mocking, really he wasn't, but he sucked at letting affection into the things he said without letting in idiocy and his foot at the same time. John, of all people, should've known that by now.
His back had been sending little messages to his pain centre for a while, anyway; time he took notice and moved to a better position, all of him on the bed, whether John was in the mood to play rough or not. He was more than a little surprised when John followed, sticking close with him as he kicked off his pants and adjusted the pillows for two.
John had the condoms in his hand, flicking the wrappers with his thumb. Restless, unhappy, but there. He'd focus his annoyance and hurt to a deadly pinpoint, when he had to. Rodney didn't actually know what he did with it - with all the varied emotional shit they built up - when there wasn't an enemy to fight or a city to save. Run until his legs wouldn't hold him up, probably. Run, and pin Rodney to a wall with hungry kisses.
"Whatever you want," Rodney said, stretching an arm out to bring them closer together, pushing his face against John's neck. "Okay?"
"Okay." It was all still there, the reserve and doubt, the suspicion of hurt. Rodney tried a kiss, below his ear, and John answered with a hand on his arm, fingertip-soft and careful.
"I... you know... nothing leaves this room. Even when it's only a metaphorical room and we're somewhere else, which we... John, I'd never--"
"Yeah, I know."
More than grateful for the interruption, before he choked to death on his own hopelessness, Rodney nodded. He'd never dared to ask so much of anyone. Never deserved to, even if he would've liked to, and had phantom guilt about doing it to a best friend. Something else he'd never expected to deserve, but tried. Tried hard this time, because he hated failure and he loved - yes, loved, that was the exact, perfect word, even if it made him grimace - his friends. Of which John was one. The closest, the one he had the greatest wealth of trust and respect for and whose company he sought first. He couldn't assassinate the sentiment by even trying it out loud.
"You know, we're usually done by now," he said, sneaking his hand under John's shirt. Making his abs twitch in that way that never let him lie about his level of interest. "We should be in the shower now, or asleep. Or looking for my shorts."
John laughed, warm breath through his hair. Relief as much as amusement, Rodney thought; better a joke than some true confession, some clumsy attempt at honesty. He bent down, mouth following where his hand had been, shutting out the crowded, unwanted thoughts. This - John's body and trust - this was good, and wanted, and hot as hell once he earned that first little thrill of response. He thought deliberately of earlier, all that urgency and hunger focused on him; John's cock thick between his lips, familiar there and fulfilling in ways he'd chosen not to examine.
John's belly contracted under his kisses, cock stirring promisingly under his hand, and it got easy again.
"Easy," John murmured, with Rodney's thumb under his waistband, ready to pull. "Your turn, buddy."
Unreasonably pleased at the consideration, Rodney gave John's abs a last kiss and backed off. Wondered when, exactly, he'd gotten into giving another guy head without getting anything back, and loving it. Some battlefield bonding thing, he guessed, letting John position him; save each others' lives, nurse each others' wounds, stop each other from completely losing it when the shit got too bad and after that... after that the whole scale of give and take was reset, forever.
Head bowed, all concentration and control, John obeyed Rodney's silent directive and stripped off his t-shirt. Even in the heat of the moment, John had the most amazing attention to detail. Once he figured out what worked best - a dry or wet kiss, soft or hard, tongue or not, where and when - he remembered, used it the next time. Made it pretty easy to seduce Rodney into a state of loose-limbed, responsive bliss, to give him the sort of pleasure he'd never banked on getting in company; hands exploring his torso, his arms; fingertips tickling, scratching in his body hair, sneaking inside his thighs to play with the idea of delving under his boxers. Nothing was careless, clumsy or accidental, when John focused like that. Nothing, not even the gust of hot breath across his lower belly as John pulled down his shorts; not the short, hard grunt of approval as he pulled the head of Rodney's cock between his lips, sound vibration adding to the first shock of direct stimulation.
In a hurry, there'd be nothing gentle about it; get him hard, get him off. With the whole night to waste, John slid a hand under his butt and made himself comfortable down there, kissing softly, the entire span between the creases of Rodney's thighs. Rodney had wondered, usually at about the moment that he slid past caring and into heaven, whether John enjoyed any of that. Whether he swallowed through sheer bloody-minded self-discipline, or because he liked it. Watching him kiss and nudge and indulge, the answer seemed obvious, but nothing much about Sheppard was clear-cut. Rodney closed his eyes for a while, until he was getting hard in John's loose grip and could feel the warm enjoyment turning to hungry heat, for both of them. He groped, tapped John on the head, beckoned him; opened his eyes as John's weight settled right on him, snug between his knees. Pink with pleasure, lips a little swollen from all the action, John smiled. Only with his eyes, really, but all the warmer for that.
For once, Rodney couldn't have said a word if he'd wanted to. Didn't want to, just wanted to kiss, be kissed, and let the universe consist only of the points at which their bodies were touching. That was possible, just for a while, when he was feeling so good and his only immediate problem was timing his breathing around the sweeps and swirls of their enthusiastic tongues.
Cotton shorts and hard cocks made for good, dry friction; heat building, sweat on John's back, Rodney's palms slipping as they moved. Just rocking, rocking together with steady purpose until he was groaning protests into John's mouth, into the curve of his shoulder, clinging hard as he came in an agony of drawn out spasms. Left him too feeble to grip John's slick body, too dizzy to lift his head, too satisfied to think and it was pure relief not to.
He watched, insensibly, John grabbing the condoms again, ripping one off the strip, ripping the packet. Right. He'd offered, pushed for that. Thoughts didn't connect enough to make the next part happen; had to let John position him some way that would work, on his side, John behind.
"I hate these things," John hissed, and Rodney managed a glance over his shoulder - saw him fumbling with the rubber, awkward in not enough space. His hands were shaking.
"It's okay. Forget it."
"But you always--"
"It's okay." Weak arms gave out on him and Rodney turned a little further onto his belly, bringing up one knee, letting the mattress take his weight instead. John pressed in behind him, fingers cold with gel, sliding between his buttocks. Rodney would've bitched about the cold, any other time, anyone else; would definitely have had something to say about fingernails and forward planning, but John was shaking, taking all the care he could, and Rodney felt like he was living a fantasy. John's fingers up his ass, firm and deliberate. John's skin against his back, blunt pressure and pushing. Way too much lube on him, overkill in taking care of him, he didn't need that but it made it easy and John was in.
Beyond arousal, out the other side and into drowsy oversensitivity, Rodney swatted John's hand away from his cock, then relaxed again, relaxed completely, forehead to his forearm, hypnotised by the staccato-to-legato rhythm of getting fucked. John, Sheppard, fucking him. He knew he was smiling, probably looked dumb lying there boneless and taking it with a sloppy grin, but didn't care.
John groaned his name, right before he came, and couldn't keep it quiet after that - hard notes on every forced exhale, not loud but clear. Then harsh, broken panting, trembling hand loosening on his arm. Cock and hot come slipping out of him, wet between his thighs.
John said his name again, forcing Rodney to stir himself, open his eyes and cooperate with sticky reality again. John pulled at his shoulder, attempting to shift his near-dead weight unaided until Rodney complied and turned his head. Still the smile on his lips, he knew; still giving him away. Still not caring, even though he'd need to move soon, to clean up a little, maybe even a hot shower if he wanted to sleep in real comfort.
He licked his dry lips, pulled a deep breath that woke up a few of his more useful nerves. The room spun a little as he struggled onto his back. Clutched John's arm for an anchor until the spinning stopped and he could open his eyes again. John's eyes were closed, head tilted forwards. He'd bitten his lower lip raw, at some point, and sweat still beaded his forehead.
"Made you do all the work there," Rodney said, watching everything with a sense of disconnected clarity. "I'd apologise if I was sorry."
"You were... that was..." John sighed, licked his lower lip. Opened his eyes but couldn't hold Rodney's gaze more than a second. "I don't know what to say."
And that really bothered him, right when it really shouldn't - Rodney could see the frustration that should've been all gone now, gone until the morning at least when they'd next need to deal with anything but each other.
"You ever do that before?" As insights went, it came from a familiar direction - left field, where the brilliant stuff flashed into life. Usually without all the pieces.
"Sure." John's chin dipped lower, towards his chest.
Short of a calculated guilt-trip, which wasn't his style no matter what anyone said, Rodney knew there was no way to extract information from John if he wasn't giving. Didn't want to know, all that much, how many lovers and when, and least of all how he compared. Where the no-go areas were, that would've been useful, but they'd come this far and it was... was so, so worth it.
When he managed to move his ass and go for that shower, he kissed John first and felt the unsteady breath, the uncertainty, in the second before the kiss came back at him, sure and generous as ever.
Chapter 3: Nothing But Mammals
Rodney didn't realise how long he'd been working until Jeannie got back from taking her daughter to school. He'd been on the couch hours already when the family came down to start their morning. Now his shoulders felt crunched, his vision was blurring and he couldn't decide whether he was hungry or nauseous. And if the look Jeannie gave him was anything to go on, he'd probably been pretty rude.
"Did you eat?" she asked, stopping behind him and looking over his shoulder at the laptop on his knee. Rodney looked up from the screen, looked blankly at his sister, and heard her sigh. "Did you offer John some food?" She spoke slowly. "Our guest who we want to like us and think we're a nice family?"
"He's still asleep. Never saw him sack out this long." Rodney blinked, clearing the bright and dark spots from his vision "Hi."
"Hi." Jeannie laid one of Madison's jackets over the back of the couch, watching him suspiciously. "You haven't moved since I came down this morning. You weren't there all night?"
"What?" Rodney made an effort to concentrate around the sea of ideas and the growing, tight pain across his temples. "No. I was up early, I didn't want to wake Sheppard." Flexing his shoulders, wincing, he shut the laptop and slipped it onto the table. "Did you say food?"
"This project's really biting you, isn't it?" She gave him an x-ray look before starting towards the kitchen. Rodney tailed her in the hope of getting fed so he could swallow some painkillers.
"You know how it is." He knew she did, once; how the ideas burned their way to fruition sometimes, how it felt when you couldn't rest until you'd turned the next corner, solved the next puzzle. Maybe she forgot.
"I just thought you'd be done with pure theory. Busy wrapping that city around your little finger, making spaceships, exploring wormholes and playing God, not... writing backwater theory on my couch. What, are you itching to publish again and couldn't find anything else that wouldn't get you shot?"
"Playing God?" He'd fielded the accusation before, from people who could pitch it a hell of a lot harder than his baby sister, but still. Low blow. So was the one about publishing again. "Is that what you think?"
"We ripped open a universe, Meredith. A universe. And you weren't even shocked, it doesn't even scare you. It doesn't strike you as a tiny bit strange that you're playing join-the-dots cosmology on paper while you know what's really out there, what needs to be done?"
"Oh, this coming from Mrs Homemaker of the Year!" Her jaw dropped. "It scares me to death," he said. Calm and cold, poisoning himself with swallowed anger like Dad would when they disappointed him. "When I screw up people die, friends die. Pardon me if I need something fundamentally harmless to think about just once in a while to stop myself going insane."
The tears welling up in her eyes weren't her, weren't his sister who gave as good as she got, and for a second or two he actually hated her for it. Then hated himself for that. Leaned against the refrigerator and dragged his hand down his face, unable to keep looking at her while the tears fell. She turned away, dumping the food on one of the counters so she could grab some tissue, but he could still hear it in her breathing. It hurt.
"You never said anything," he tried, weakly, when she threw the tissue away, folded her arms tight, faced him again with her expression set hard. "It wasn't my decision to bring you on board. If you want out..."
"There's no out," she said, tired patience another echo of Dad. "I know what's out there, now, that all of this--" she spread her hands, taking in the kitchen, the house, the life she'd wanted so bad "--is so vulnerable. I just-- Oh, John. Hi," she said, with a lame little wave of greeting, embarrassed.
As entrances went, it was one of John's better ones; sleepyheaded, smart-casual and all athletic-looking. Maybe the reassuring intergalactic hero figure Jeannie needed to see just then, or maybe just enough of a distraction that she found a smile for him.
"Did we wake you? I'm sorry."
"No." John gave Rodney a questioning look, shrugged at his helpless headshake and smiled at Jeannie. "I haven't slept like that in a long time." He managed to turn it into flattery, all easy and effortless-looking. Bastard. "If he's been picking on you, I'll take him outside."
"And if she's picking on me?"
"Then you probably deserve it."
"Creep," Rodney muttered, as John passed him. "Since I can now get something for this headache without disturbing your beauty sleep, if you'll excuse me..."
Upstairs, he noted how John had made both the beds, as military-crisp as it was possible to get with Jeannie and Kaleb's idea of home decor. The window side of the room was tidy, John's shoes and pack out of the way on the single chair. Rodney's own stuff was already spreading everywhere and he had to search for a strip of painkillers. Took two, went back down to the kitchen and found his sister cooking eggs while John leaned at the sink, sipping orange juice and taking up space.
"I get offered muesli, he gets eggs?"
"John's a guest," Jeannie said, working a wooden spoon around the pan. "And you only had to ask."
"Oh." He'd stayed overnight before, never more than one night, never sure of his welcome. Had no idea where he actually fit in the family picture-puzzle, once he got past the obvious duties like bringing presents for Madison and reading her to sleep.
"So, did you get around to proposing to that poor Katie girl?" Jeannie asked with false cheer.
John bit his lip before turning his back and looking out the window.
Jeannie looked up from scraping eggs onto a plate and studied Rodney's eyes with sharp blue suspicion. "Oh, you didn't screw it up with her too? What did you do?"
"I... we broke it off. A while back, actually." He straightened up, defying her to push it. His head hurt, he needed calories and he did not want to talk about this in front of John. Or anyone ever, really. "It was for the best, and you can't make me feel any worse about it than I already do so please don't try."
"Was it ugly?"
"One minute you're all 'Jeannie, help me choose a ring', and the next thing I--" She added two slices of toast to John's plate, turned to offer it and...
Rodney had caught both her and the plate before he'd consciously realised she was falling. "Oh, wow." Her laugh was unconvincing, weak. Scared him with its frailty. "Don't look like that," she ordered, as John rescued the plate and took her other arm, calm concern opposite Rodney's fright. Between them, they lowered her onto a tall stool.
"Good catch," John said, backing off, unsure.
"Just dizzy," Jeannie said, tugging back as Rodney held her wrist, trying to take her pulse. "Dizzy. Let go."
"Are you sure? Did you take your meds? Should I call--"
"I'm sure. And I haven't forgotten what we were talking about, either, so don't get ideas about taking advantage of the pregnant person. Let go."
He didn't. Didn't want her toppling off the stool. Her face was white.
"Yeah, I know." She looked up at him, embarrassed, irritated. "I'm fine now, give me some room. Get me some juice, please?"
"I shouldn't have put you to the trouble..." John tried, gesturing at the plate of cooling food on the counter.
"Don't be silly. Eat before it's cold." Rodney fetched juice, put the glass in front of her. Stood where he could break her fall. "Thanks."
Judging by the appreciative sound John made over his first bite of the food, Jeannie hadn't lost her touch. Rodney hadn't figured out when and how she learned to cook. Not from him or Dad, that was certain.
"If you're already feeling under the weather are you sure you want us to cook dinner?" Rodney asked, remembering that they'd been volunteered and seeing a clear way out. "I'm great at ordering takeout."
"You're not getting out of that," Jeannie promised, and the touch of smug enjoyment relaxed Rodney more than her assurances could.
"Just don't say we didn't warn you." John was alert, watching them both, propped against the counter, faking relaxed. "If you don't let us cheat you're taking a foolish risk with your life. I'm just saying." He finished up his meal, rinsed his plate and left the room, giving Jeannie the perfect opening to push out another stool with her foot, nod to it meaningfully, and say--
"Did she dump you?"
Sheppard had visited Vancouver a couple of times for one reason and another, so he begged off the full tour and volunteered for the groceries, instead. He might be able to handle sharing a kitchen with McKay without pulling a weapon but there was no way he was risking a joint tour of the produce aisles.
Earth-time was really biting, now; his body making the adjustment back to twenty-four hours, to the gravity, the pollution and who knew what else. He ached where he shouldn't after his run yesterday and, hell, probably because he'd gone a few rounds with Rodney on top of that.
Harder to say what was going on with Rodney, whose fine-tuning was more cerebral than physical. He seemed... last night, he'd seemed... better, more sure of everything. Today he looked wrecked, scared for Jeannie out of all proportion with what'd happened and like he might jump at small noises. It wasn't affecting his smarts, though. Rodney and Jeannie might as well have been speaking a foreign language when he left them shuffling through notes back at the house, for all the sense their conversation made to him.
Sheppard had to make a conscious effort not to hurry the trip, hurry back. That was him needing to do something when what he ought to be doing was... what? At his brother's place he'd known the goal; tell Dave, touch base, get out. At Stargate Command and on board the Daedelus he'd been in uniform, and with that came routine and duty; a place for Rodney inside that and whatever moments they could steal besides.
Now, cut loose and on Rodney's time, Sheppard couldn't ignore all the open-ended uncertainties. Didn't want to get in the way if Jeannie could get Rodney sparking like that again; didn't want to waste the opportunity they had, even if they had it for a lousy reason.
Wished they were back in Atlantis.
At least he knew what to buy. He knew what he could cook, believed Rodney when he pleaded ignorance of anything that didn't go frozen into the microwave, and chose what was most likely to go down well with Jeannie's kid from the shortlist of options. No problem.
As an afterthought, he picked up chocolates for Jeannie and a puzzle book for Madison before heading back to the car. Took a drive around, the small, constant concentration levelling out his mood better than taking a run had. All that'd gotten him was hyped up, more energy than he had any use for right now, and he didn't feel great about dumping that on Rodney the way he had. Didn't know where favours like those fit in, any more, and wouldn't have questioned it a few months ago.
It'd seemed like a good idea at the... no. That was a lie, easy and empty. It had been a bad idea from the start. He should've decked Rodney the first time he crossed the line.
He could picture how it should've gone down; feel the impact with his fist, see the shock of hurt on Rodney's face as he hit the deck because there was no way, no way that even someone as clueless as McKay had misread the thousand little signs over all those months - that he was wanted, trusted, that the burning, cutting edge of frustration between them meant... possibilities. But only someone as clueless as Rodney could've thought about stepping over that line. Kissing him, like some damn promise of amnesty, driving every rational thought out of Sheppard's head. He'd gotten his first blowjob from McKay in the front of a Jumper, the turbulent atmosphere of the planet below one great, grey-green spectacle in the windshield, and it'd been... easy. Hot, fast and easy, Rodney demonstrating a startling talent on his knees.
And after that... after that, why not a next time? An arrangement? Mutually satisfying and conveniently compartmentalised, right up to the point where they realised they were capable of so much more.
At least, Sheppard hoped he was.
Sheppard hit the brakes at the intersection, in plenty of time by his standards but too sharply for suburbia. Reminded himself to concentrate, that it was the dumbest, most ordinary things that got a person killed for being careless. Hurling a flying city into hyperspace with a stretch of his mind, that he'd survived; that and a whole load of other insane high-speed stunts. A head-on at an intersection in a rented compact would be a pretty embarrassing way to go.
Earth - off-duty anyplace, really - made him jumpy. Too hard to come down from high-alert, from situations that affected everybody to ones that were just about him.
Him and McKay. They'd figured out that much, after one of the more recent visits to death's door. Whatever they were, wherever they were going, it was together. We. Us. Them. Everything else was just gonna have to fall into line.
He drove a few more streets, blanking his mind to everything but the monotony of mirror, signal, manoeuvre until his guts unknotted themselves and his thoughts stopped going places he didn't want to deal with. Then he headed back.
Jeannie and Rodney were still at it, huddled on the couch and bickering enthusiastically over a laptop, heads together and three out of their four hands on the keys.
"This is you two working together, right?" He watched their heads come up, their identical expressions of startled innocence. Grinned. "Just checking."
"Meredith thinks he's smarter than Einstein, now."
"Not smarter," Rodney protested, spreading his hands. "Just... righter, on this occasion. Even he admitted he was wrong about the--"
"But he knows he's not smarter than me." Jeannie started to get up, but Sheppard waved his hand, carrying the bag of groceries towards the kitchen.
He didn't feel great about having Jeannie wait on him when he could see the green around her gills; had felt worse after Rodney had to catch her. He'd learned in no uncertain terms from Teyla that a pregnant lady could still kick his ass, but there was such a thing as good manners. And if anything bad happened to his sister, Rodney might just...
"I ask for her opinion, she takes over," Rodney grumbled, following him in and pushing past, going to work on the coffee maker.
"Come on, you're loving it," Sheppard accused, unloading his items, leaving the gifts in the bag.
"I'm humouring her," Rodney sniffed, not even making an effort to sound convincing. "You want coffee?"
"Sure." Leaning, folding his arms, Sheppard watched. Like he wouldn't be doing that anyway, even if Sam hadn't made it a direct order as her last act in command. Take care of McKay.
Rodney's hands were capable and steady, scooping coffee and lining up mugs, but a couple of nervous half-glances in his direction made Sheppard ask him,
"Jeannie. I'm gonna... you want to be around when I tell her?"
"No." Sheppard gripped the edge of the counter, letting his mind go blank and calm again. Rodney wanted this, he'd do this. "But I'm not going anywhere."
Rodney's voice turned from low caution to breathless, rapid relief.
"Now that we've had the excruciating discussion about Katie and what a failure I am as a human being I thought--"
"Jeannie said that?"
"Well, no." Rodney scowled, finding something in the coffee preparations to be terribly busy with.
Failure was the key word, Sheppard thought. That was what Rodney took away from the whole experience, all those times Katie Brown had left him bright eyed and smiling like an idiot, or fumbling for the proprieties around her; the way it had ended; he saw nothing but personal failure. And it wasn't right, but Sheppard knew he couldn't talk on the subject of wedded bliss, that kind of failure. Hadn't said a word, hadn't wasted breath on platitudes. Hadn't told Rodney he was sorry because he wasn't, was too selfish for that, but hated this.
"Uh... Tell Jeannie these are from me," he said, planting the paper sack and its remaining contents on the counter. "Or, you know... us. If you want." He considered some more. "Yeah. From us."
Rodney went perfectly still, watching coffee drip.
"This is a big deal for you," he said, just as Sheppard started to turn away. "I know. For me too. Thanks for doing this."
That stung him below his ribs, in the good-bad way that being tangled with another person always did, sooner or later. Sharp enough to cut the ties, if he let it. Not this time. He had to force himself to lift his hands, place them on Rodney's shoulders, crossing the line that still felt like a solid barrier between them until it dissolved with just a touch.
Rodney looked over his shoulder, puzzled and starting to smile, discomfited and flattered at the same time. Sheppard lowered his head, lowered his hands to Rodney's hips and kissed his rough cheek.
That was what Jeannie saw, walking into the room with a sheet of her brother's notes in one hand and some question on her lips. That, and the two of them springing apart like they'd been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Rodney knocked over the coffee canister and scrambled to limit the mess.
"Um," Jeannie said, her train of thought derailed and her eyes wide. "Uh." She looked at Sheppard, who cleared his throat and looked away. Then she nailed her brother with an unreadable, piercing stare. "Should I go out and come back in?"
Rodney gave up scooping spilled coffee and wiped his hands down his pants.
"No, I mean... We were just talking about how to tell you," he said, and it sounded lamer than it had been. "That we're - that is, John and I - we're..."
"More than friends." It was his own voice. Sheppard heard it loud and clear. Ordered himself to shut up and let Rodney do the talking. Never was that great at taking orders. "That is, we're together."
"Oh," Jeannie said. She was silent for a long moment then said, "I knew you left something out," hands going to her hips as she looked at Rodney. "Wow. You are... full of surprises."
"We were about to tell you. I swear. Right now, with the coffee. And... presents." Rodney sounded wretched. "Compared to finding out I live in the lost city of Atlantis it's not really such a shocker, huh?"
"Meredith--" She took a few steps nearer to them, stopped, and turned to Sheppard. "John, I'm sorry. Please don't think I--"
"I know," he interrupted, quickly, and spared Rodney an apologetic glance. "You two need to... catch up."
He could feel Rodney's pleading stare, right on the back of his neck as he walked out; feel the heat rising to his face as he started to breathe again. Going too far away seemed more disloyal, in some way he couldn't explain even to himself, so he sat with Rodney's laptop and half-overheard the low-voiced discussion in the kitchen. Jeannie did most of the talking.
Sheppard thought he should ask her later for some tips on interrogation techniques.
He dug through the screens full of mathematical models, looking for a game. Anything to distract him, right now, because he wanted to be anyplace else, doing anything else. That felt disloyal, too. He wound up with solitaire and lost twice before there was silence in the kitchen.
Jeannie brought two big mugs of black coffee and sat next to him, setting them down on the low table.
"I'm sorry," she said, her fingertips touching his wrist for a fraction of a second. He closed his fist before he could stop himself. "I didn't mean to sound... I just wasn't expecting to--"
"I'm glad for the two of you. Really." Her fierce honesty penetrated, reminded him a little of Teyla and home. Made him try to smile, even though he couldn't. Jeannie's voice shook with a nervous laugh, then. "I'm just used to my brother being a little more transparent, especially about... but, you know, he's never brought anybody home before."
Sounded like his cue. He had no idea what he was meant to say.
"I... really suck at this," he said, carefully. Maybe if he got that out in the open, said it up front, it'd smooth the road in the long run. Worth a try. "I'm not so sure bringing me along was a lot of help." He cleared his throat, which was getting tight and making his voice sound weak and weird. "It was important to him, to come tell you."
"Full of surprises," she said again, but this time she sounded a little choked.
"Yes he is." Sheppard felt something loosen in his own throat, in his guts. Put Rodney's laptop to one side and picked up his coffee. Jeannie did the same, sitting back against the throw pillows. "So... what's this all about? He's been wrapped up in it since we left Atlantis." Jeannie followed his gesture to the laptop, looked surprised and then composed herself. Sheppard awarded himself points for trying.
"Oh. He's trying to calculate the rate at which the universe is expanding." She watched his blank face. "It gets complicated if you ask why," she added, helpfully, before he could.
That was Sheppard's kind of scientist. He rallied.
"Is that all?"
"For now. It's pure theory, not his style at all. Not given everything he has to work with out there."
Sheppard smiled, weakly. There'd been a question in there and he didn't want to answer it.
"You know, if you ever wanted a job in the Pegasus galaxy..." Jeannie laughed. "My job would get a lot easier with somebody on hand to cut through all the technobabble McKay and the others try to sell me when what they mean is that they haven't been able to find their genius backsides with both hands yet but they're working on it." She covered the top of her cup, laughing hard enough to slosh the liquid about. "I'm just saying."
"Oh, God," Rodney said softly, somewhere behind them. "You two are going to make my life an utter hell now, aren't you?" He dumped the paper sack of gifts over Jeannie's shoulder and into her lap.
"Who, us?" Jeannie peeked into the bag and hid her smile. "Your two biggest fans?"
Agreeing to cook was probably the first thing Rodney had ever done that made Kaleb smile. He hadn't detected any mockery in it, any of the sarcasm he might've expected, but then detecting that sort of thing wasn't his strength. His brother-in-law was a stranger he'd learned to share his sister with, and while his work took him away for extended periods it was hard to see how that was going to change.
Sheppard had done them proud; had laid up ingredients for an embellished version of macaroni cheese that'd take all of twenty minutes to prepare and ran absolutely no risk of poisoning Rodney's family no matter what they did wrong.
At Maddy's insistence, Sheppard had on an apron of Kaleb's. So far, he'd risen above Rodney's best attempts at mockery and was managing to make "kiss the cook" look good.
"So of the four of us, you're the only one who can cook." Rodney was seated on a high stool, sipping a glass of red wine and managing to avoid doing anything more taxing than watching John work a cheese-grater. "You notice that? And I'm excluding whatever it is Ronon does to small furry things over a campfire from my definition of 'cookery'."
"I can't cook." John started on a different, smellier cheese. "I can make this and chilli sauce. And grill steaks. I can do that."
His confidence around the kitchen utensils made Rodney suspect at least a partial lie, but he just nodded. Hard to imagine John settled anyplace long enough to get familiar with a kitchen, get together all the pots, jars and spices that packed out Jeannie's kitchen storage, rattling in the refrigerator door.
Ronon had told him about the ex-wife, between crippling blows that left Rodney loving, so loving the relative safety of being on the ground already. Hand-to-hand fighting was never going to work out for him but his team all kept trying with a spirit that was part solidarity, part sadism. They seemed to have decided that a good time to tell him anything that might require a time out was right after you'd hit him.
Teyla's knee had been crushing his coccyx when she told him she was pregnant. Ronon had worked him to a stumbling, sweating jelly of failed manhood before letting on about meeting Sheppard's ex-wife.
Stood to reason that there'd been a home to go with wedded bliss, a kitchen to go with the home. John living there. He couldn't picture it, but it stood to reason.
Madison came and welded herself to his left leg, one of her random displays of undeserved, unreserved affection. He never knew what to say to her; was re-learning like he did each visit that it was okay to say nothing if that worked better - to ruffle her hair, tweak her under the ribs or just clasp her there until she got tired of him.
"Daddy wants to know if you need our help," she said, once she'd surveyed the scene.
"I think we have everything under control," John said, sarcastic emphasis on the 'we', brushing the last crumbs of cheese into the oven dish. "It'll be close, but we're gonna make it."
Madison caught the glimmer in John's eye, laughed the laugh that he wouldn't. Made John smile, simple and soft, and Rodney pressed her closer, grateful.
"Did you see your new puzzle book?" She nodded, looking like Rodney remembered feeling after his early days at school; stupefied by the mundane curriculum, tired by the hours - semi-functional at best until there was a hot dinner inside her and somebody offered intellectual stimulation. Jeannie never looked like that, he remembered. She'd always loved the life she was living. "It's a present from John."
"Thank you," she told Sheppard, obediently, suddenly shy for reasons unfathomable to the uninitiated. She clutched tighter to Rodney, who used to mind and didn't now. He thought about her sometimes when he couldn't sleep, when he couldn't leave his lab to find a bed; what a clean slate she represented. What a monumental opportunity to screw up all over again if he didn't learn to be better. What a reason to fight, when he needed one.
John slid his creation into a hot oven with the first signs of doubt on his face. Shut the door after it and looked relieved. Rodney refilled their wine glasses and toasted him.
"Mission accomplished. Congratulations, Colonel."
"You were a lot of help."
"I was watching and learning. Watching and learning."
"And setting the table."
"Yes. I was going to-- I can do that." He looked down at Maddy, who was watching and learning too. God alone knew what. "Help?"
"You don't know how to set the table?" She looked little-girl stern, playacting her mother, hands on her hips the way Jeannie did it.
"I don't know where the stuff lives," he said, giving it exaggerated patience and a scowl that made her grin. "We can't all be little domestic goddesses." The grin became a giggle.
John sipped his wine and watched from the kitchen while Rodney let his niece lecture him about fork placement and napkin folding, along with family traditions like the cushion on her seat and her special water glass that Jeannie painted hearts on for her. Rodney was reduced to nodding obediently until she accused him of being too tired to help properly and sent him to check on dinner.
"Wow," John opined from behind his glass.
"No kidding," Rodney agreed, reaching for his own and going back to his stool.
"She reminds Jeannie of you, huh?" John sipped, slowly. "And she was born when you were... how old?"
"Shut up," Rodney muttered, and got his sweet revenge forty minutes later when Madision asked John in front of everyone to read her bedtime story.
While Jeannie washed dishes and Rodney dried, she nudged him with her elbow, snapping him out of dull oblivion to realise that he'd been wiping the same plate long after it was already dry.
"Don't take it personally. She loves your stories."
"What?" He blinked at his sister, heart pounding, trying not to let it show. Remembered about John and the bedtime books. Felt his brain making connections and deductions again even as panic constricted his throat. Had she noticed? How long had he been standing there polishing one plate, staring into space? "Just tired," he explained, stacking the plate carefully and taking the next. He couldn't stop the china rattling.
"Yeah, you look it."
"So are you going to tell me what's going on with you?" Her forced calm and forced cheer made him wish she'd nag and gripe. Way easier to deal with. "You're barely eating, your hands are shaking, John's watching your every move and you're obsessing over a ten year old project that's already been eclipsed by your mailing address, let alone the work you're doing there. You bring John for a visit and..." She kept busy in the suds as she spoke, watching herself work. "This isn't like you."
"The paper or the homosexuality?" he asked, overdoing the bite and making himself flinch. Jeannie didn't turn a hair.
"You know I mean the work," she said. Rodney nodded slightly and didn't meet her eyes, didn't want to force her to bring up the past. Not now, when things with John were good and it was possible he was happy, of all things, give or take a few details like his sanity and his career...
Jeannie elbowed him again. Brought him back from empty space again. He felt the blood draining out of his face, the panic waiting like a monster around the next corner.
"Is it so bad if I want to spend my vacation doing work I can actually talk about in company?"
"You've been in classified research since you were--"
"Yes, I have, and God knows I don't share your issues with whoring our intellect for military funding and resources, but there is no other string to my bow, right now. If I couldn't go back to Atlantis..."
He let the sentence die, but the thought carried on with ruthless clarity. The importance of the work didn't change, the thrilling, generation-defining scale of what they were doing and discovering out there, but politics did change. Politics, politicians, administrations. Priorities.
If he couldn't go back to Atlantis...
"I'm on medical leave, Jean." He held up his hand, quickly, at her outraged jaw-drop. Didn't need another round of 'what else aren't you telling me?' "It's not... you don't need to worry."
Rodney gave in and faced her because as much as he wanted to protect her, to reassure her, he wanted her to know. Didn't examine what that might say about him.
"Call it... call it Pegasus burnout. It's not like I'm the first who couldn't cut it. I lost it, Jeannie. Big blackout, crushing depression, dramatic conference with the senior staff while I was under sedation in the infirmary."
"I handed it to the IOA on a platter. My team, our whole administration. They were just looking for a reason to pull us all in for review and then I hand it to them. They even put John through a psych workup. Even Sam, and they tore apart our every decision for the past..."
When Jeannie put her hand on his arm, shocked him into taking a badly-needed breath he wished he'd kept his mouth shut. Now he felt ashamed in a way he hadn't had to deal with since they got out of Stargate Command. John wasn't... John didn't make him go back there in his head, even when he was worried. He hadn't had to think too hard about any of it until right now, and now he wasn't ready. "Listen, I'm not gonna forget to wear pants in front of Madison or start talking to the walls, and if I start spilling classified information in the street Sheppard gets to shoot me. Again," he added, dully. "It's fine."
Jeannie didn't say anything. Bit her lip and watched him, worried and waiting. For what? "I'm okay," he tried, but that didn't work. And, honestly? He wasn't okay. Short term, right now, here with her he was okay. He couldn't think about tomorrow. "Sorry we sprang the other thing on you," he said, reaching for safer ground. "I couldn't exactly put it in an e-mail, with him being..."
"Not like the news that you broke up with Katie months ago," she said, deadpan.
He tried to muster a look of loathing but didn't even get close.
"Your news trumps mine," he said, gesturing to her bump. "You didn't send that by e-mail either."
Silence. Sometimes that worked, the two of them in the same room, comfortable and quiet. Usually it didn't work at all.
"Is it... are you okay about John?"
"Since when did you need my approval for your lifestyle?" she challenged, hotly, then caught herself. Sighed, and reached across to take him by the hand. They were so much better at apologies when they were unspoken. He wished they'd figured it out way back, how to reach past the words. "You don't need my approval."
"I want your opinion." Her perspective, her sanity. Her view from long-lost normality. Her advice. God, her advice on how you were supposed to survive feeling like he did right now, on the edge of something more huge and frightening than a mere trip to another galaxy. She should know, right? He'd never tried to understand, about Kaleb - how she felt, what drove her to make choices that seemed to him utterly irrational. Had she felt like this? Did she still? "I want to know what you think."
"No, you don't. It's not about anybody except the two of you. Are you sleeping together?"
"What?" For the first time, he looked right at her. Stared, saw her sad concern twitching towards mischief. "Of course we're-- What sort of a question is that?" Felt his cheeks colouring, felt stupid because they'd never blushed when everything was pure theory and speculation so it was stupid to start now.
"Then I think you should probably fit the beds together." She waited expectantly for his blank expression to change. Sighed. "They fit together. A double. Linen's in the bottom drawer at the top of the stairs."
"That's it? That's your opinion?" Rodney heard his voice crack with stress, tiredness, indignation. Wished she saw the best of him more often than she did.
She leaned closer. For a horrible moment he thought she was going to kiss him on the cheek.
"Thank you for telling me," she said. "Want some help with the bed?"
"Uh... no," he decided, seeing all the possibilities for teasing that lay down that road. "I can.. I'll... uh... see you in the morning. Doctor's orders. Lots of rest."
Jeannie glanced at the clock. It was seven-thirty, Madison's bedtime not his, but she didn't say anything. He knew he'd worried her more than he'd wanted to. He knew because she didn't tease him about it, just said goodnight.
Rodney looked into Madison's room on his way and saw her sleeping already, one of the books she'd chosen still under her hand.
Sounded as if John was taking a shower so Rodney made a decision, collected the fresh linens and applied himself to converting the two guest beds into one.
Ten minutes later, fresh from the shower, John stared. Stood at the door, scratched his newly-shaved chin and stared.
"Hope you don't mind," Rodney said, with the sinking feeling that he should've checked; that maybe two beds were better than one in Sheppard's head, while they were with company. At his brother's place there'd been separate rooms... "Jeannie mentioned... and I thought it was neat the way they..." he tailed off, unable to read John's expression, unwilling to dig himself a deeper hole.
"I don't mind," John said softly and closed the door. He helped Rodney pull the two comforters back into place, arrange the pillows. They didn't look at each other. "Weird day."
"Your sister... uh." John fidgeted, ill at ease in the redefined space; with Rodney's elbow touching him, surrounded by the shifted furniture and their luggage. "She's very cool about this." It sounded like a question.
"Well, it's not like she can talk." Rodney squeezed his way past the corner of the bed, to the window and the chair - as out of John's way as he could get without leaving the room. "First I knew about Kaleb was 'hi, sit down, I'm pregnant'. Didn't even know she was dating him."
"At least we won't have that to worry about." John sat on the end of the bed, started untying his shoes. Rodney watched the shirt pull tight across his shoulders, defining the shape of him. Angles and corners, nothing soft or going to waste. Dark body-hair and too many scars.
The aesthetics of attraction kept on surprising him, scaring him back a step or two whenever he found something new to appreciate about Sheppard's body. He'd generally reserved those kinds of observation for the unattainable, and limited himself to the obvious; eyes, lips, appropriately sized bulges in the right places. When it was reality instead of safe, solitary fantasy material, he found himself noticing the far more intimate detail of scars, quirks, postures. The smear of shaving cream that John had missed just beneath his ear and a fleck of it on his wet, carelessly tousled hair.
Rodney couldn't fathom why that little collection of Sheppard attributes quickened his breathing, or what John was finding to appreciate when he studied Rodney from across a room. What, exactly, was compelling him to burn so many bridges and gamble with his career. To endure this family time for Rodney's sake and be so patient with the other stuff.
Need, he'd thought, on his knees that first time; John coming quickly, noisily, then kissing him like he'd been starving for it. Waiting for it.
Trust, he'd decided, the first time they slept a little after screwing, John's head cutting off the blood supply to his arm.
Convenience. That was a truth they didn't either of them try to deny until they'd slowly destroyed it, caught up in this... this other thing, where it mattered that their families knew the new truth. They were anything but convenient, now.
Love. He suspected as much, had for a while, even though he found it hard to separate the word from the soft ache of tenderness he'd carried around for Katie, which wasn't at all similar to anything he felt with John. Rodney thought they were in love, now. He didn't know how to prove it.
John gave a glance over his shoulder, trying not to be obvious but checking him out. Checking him out and liking what he saw.
"It's a little early for bed," Rodney volunteered. "You don't have to keep me company."
Half turning, John looked wary.
"You want me to go?"
"Good. Me either. Besides, Jeannie and Kaleb are probably talking about us as we speak."
"That doesn't bother you?" Didn't sound as if it bothered him, but John wasn't so easy to read. Rodney liked the challenge when he wasn't tired, wasn't struggling. Here and now he'd settle for straight answers and strong arms.
"Why would it? Jeannie's been great."
There, the little tell in the straightening of his shoulders and renewed efficiency of his movements. And he'd gotten dressed after showering, shirt pants and underwear dressed, to cover the three seconds between the bathroom and their bedroom door, his casual night clothes still folded on the chair.
"I don't have quite as much invested in keeping my mouth shut and my pants zipped as you do. I guess I thought you'd be... freaking."
Shrugging, John kicked off his shoes. Undid his shirt buttons with unthinking efficiency.
"So... you're okay?"
John turned, bare-chested, fingers on his zipper. Gave him the blank, unblinking stare that was a hazard of saying anything halfway meaningful to him. Of being somebody who could slip the blade beneath his guard, if only in the metaphorical sense.
Rodney had learned to read the shades of that statement long ago. The stubborn 'I'm fine' when Sheppard was bleeding from an artery or slurring from a concussion. 'I'm fine' when he was so angry he could barely catch a breath, containing it at all costs - that told in the way he moved, stalking about because he couldn't sit still without the rage reaching critical mass.
The 'fine' of guilt and grief, nothing but civilised code for 'get lost'. He'd seen too much of that, too many layers of that. Enough to decipher when it meant 'stop talking' instead of 'stop being here', with brooding being, optionally, a team event. There was always plenty of loss and blame to spread around.
Rodney doubted John had any idea how transparent a lie it was to anyone who knew him, that 'fine' of his.
"She could tell, you know. Jeannie. She knew right away that I'm not... that everything's not okay. Does it show? I mean, that bad?"
"I mean, be honest. I need to know if I'm--"
"You're doing great."
"Don't say crazy," John warned, raising a finger at him.
"I don't want her to see that. All that bull from the shrinks about... about reconnecting with home and... no. Maybe Jeannie but not the kid. If I'm acting in any way--"
"Rodney." Sheppard was one of those people who didn't need to raise their voice. He did the opposite, spoke softly, cut across Rodney's stumbling and silenced him. Watched him, face shadowed with worry, hands restless by his sides. "Don't worry about it."
When he said it, it seemed that easy. For a few seconds, anyway, and that was long enough to close the distance between them, pull John towards him with both hands and kiss him. The corner of the bed was between their knees leaving them off balance, cutting them short to readjust and rearrange, but a move like that one saved a lot of silent negotiation. Sometimes he thought he ought to take the time, force the conversations, find out where John was at and try to fathom why but... but a kiss said 'I want you', loud and clear, and John kissed him back, and it was easier when they cut to the chase.
Clothes fell on the floor, hands got possessive with skin and Rodney could stop thinking himself in circles. That hadn't changed, one constant he could rely on; John Sheppard meeting him halfway, cancelling him out. He didn't miss it being occasional, time stolen out of their other lives for themselves and each other; liked the pattern of having John most nights since they promised, liked the constant awareness of 'us' as well as 'I'.
Liked when John's hands tightened on him, greedy for everything, his shallow breaths betraying the boundaries of his self-control. The man's pain threshold was unreal but pleasure was a different story. The right move in the right spot at the right moment and he fell apart without a fight.
They were pretty lucky that none of the bad guys had figured that out yet.
"Bed," Rodney said, because his back was starting to hurt with the weird angle. "Nice big bed for two."
He inched backwards and John followed, trying to keep hold, keep kissing him, get his underwear off him. Rodney wasn't arguing, not tonight - get off, get some sleep before his synapses got over it, yeah, John could rush all he wanted and get no complaints right now.
They fell onto the bed, both plenty used to falling, John rolling him on top and urging kisses, movement that Rodney was glad to provide, cloth over cloth while he got as hard as John, while John started to pant and lose coordination, too near the edge to stop and still like it.
"Go on," Rodney whispered, lips and tongue on his ear, below it, up his jaw with moist tormenting heat. "Go ahead, come on," and John came, curling up and in to muffle his groans against Rodney's shoulder, fingers digging new bruises into his back. "Oww," Rodney laughed, nuzzling soap-smelling skin below John's ear as he went limp on the covers. "God, you're so easy, you're like a teenager."
John froze, relaxation to rigid muscle in the space of a couple of breaths, his mouth suddenly reluctant under Rodney's attempt at kissing. He turned his face away and Rodney felt all the joy of it folding in on itself, turning black and painful. "Kidding," he tried, but it was too late, the moment broken against one of John's invisible walls.
odney pushed off him and sat, arms around his knees while he sorted annoyance from guilt from hurt and got his body's confusion under control. If he spoke it'd be the wrong words, so he didn't; he opened his mind to possibilities and numbers, the kind of abstract he understood how to live with, a private world where he hardly ever made mistakes. Not stupid ones, not blind ones.
After a while, John swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat there staring at the wall.
In a more generous mood, Rodney would have described it as brooding.
"Wanna tell me what I did wrong?" he asked. Couldn't help the cold, clipped voice with its measure of scorn, because... because he'd wanted to exhaust himself with mindless sex and finally get some sleep, not spend an evening fumbling with psychology or any other damn thing he was no good at.
"Nothing." John grabbed his night clothes from the chair, bounced the bed as he got them on.
"Something," Rodney said, stubbornly. "I was kidding."
"I know." John fidgeted, then controlled it and sat perfectly still.
While Rodney explored the universe in the privacy of his own head, John would be running laps in his.
He sighed, turned around and knelt with his arms crossed for warmth, feeling too naked in his boxers now that John had a t-shirt and slacks on.
"I'm not up to this crap right now," he said, going with simple truth because he didn't trust himself with anything more or less. "I'm gonna take a bath."
When he came back, calmer and bundled up in a fleece jacket over his sleepwear, John had turned out the lights.
"You asleep?" Rodney asked, fumbling with the bolt on the door, dropping his shaving kit and grabbing it again before it hit the floor. And Ronon said he didn't have reflexes.
"No." Sounded as though John had at least considered pretending.
Once his eyes adjusted to the available light, moonlight through thin cotton curtains, Rodney could make him out in the bed. Right in the middle, arm above the covers, his back to the door.
What little ill-will had survived a soak in hot water didn't survive the process of slipping under the covers next to John and feeling him adjust to allow Rodney up tight behind him, arm threaded under his arm and his face near the exposed back of John's neck.
After a minute, after Rodney stopped shivering and got adjusted to the shared warmth, John found his hand and laced their fingers together tight.
They both knew better than to go to bed on a quarrel. Better than most people because for them, tomorrow wasn't such a big certainty. Too many close calls to take anything for granted beyond here and now.
He rested his forehead against the back of John's neck. Breathed him for a while, eyes closed, strangely content for a man with demons in his brain and heavy-duty pharmaceuticals in his wash-bag.
"Jeannie hates my work," Rodney ventured when their hands were just touching, fingers sliding over fingers in gentle, absentminded play. "Thinks I'm underachieving." John snorted, nearly a laugh. "Can you believe it? She turns her back on a lifetime of prime scholarships and top schools and starts... starts nesting instead of getting her PhD, and I'm underachieving with a little self-indulgent math in my free time."
"She's still smarter than you are."
"She's nesting," Rodney muttered, warming to his theme. "And we're caught in her hormonal maternal web like a couple of... of..."
"Yeah. It's not as though I stand around criticising her parenting and practical homemaking."
"I'll buy front row seats if you wanna start."
Rodney shoved him half-heartedly, rocking the bed. He thought back to Jeannie's last few e-mails, heavy with attachments correcting his corrections to her corrections of his criticisms. And she'd been right; Radek had practically exploded from smugness as he demonstrated how she was right and he was wrong, and they both got covered in whiteboard ink from pinkie-finger to elbow.
Pegasus peer review was a bitch when his little sister had to do it in her spare time. In her spare time, for godssake, in between getting pregnant and shuttling her kid to piano lessons.
He hooked his chin over John's shoulder, tightened his arm across John's chest, covered him with one leg.
"Are you okay?"
'Fine' was there, a word with a life of its own just waiting to be used.
"I'm... I'm kinda used to how it was before," he said instead, slow and careful, a little hoarse with the effort. "Not a lot of time to stand on ceremony when you're trying to keep under the radar." His throat was tightening, Rodney could hear it. Feel the tension trying to strangle the words, cut them off before John was done talking. "I've never been like this with anyone. Had time like this for... more than..."
A few ragged breaths sold Rodney on the idea that he'd gotten as much as he was going to get.
"I don't have any complaints," he said, snuggling back down to his pillow in a position his spine would forgive and stretching out his arm, hoping... thankful when John turned over and lay with him, head on his shoulder and hand on his chest. "Really. Not a one."
"But you're more experienced and that..." John began, slow care carrying every word and then running out on him, leaving him with a fist clenched on top of Rodney's chest and his jaw working so hard Rodney could feel it. He waited, gave it room and time and wondered if the newfound patience was a sudden virtue or just another symptom to add to his list.
Rodney stared up at the ceiling, ghost-grey spreading moonlight from above the curtains. Still felt like re-learning how to walk because it was John. John, them, us. Even a kiss goodnight took on subtext that half mystified, half terrified ever since they went beyond casual. Beyond friends-with-benefits and decided they were... this. Both pretty damn sure about it, he recalled. There was no comparison with anything - anyone - who'd come before John.
"Do you wanna know?" he asked, curling his arm so he could let John's hair tickle his fingers as they went a little numb from the weight of him. A soft thrill, there. Every time. Even that much was more... more everything than he'd been with anyone else. More right. More erotic. More satisfying. Just a touch.
He wasn't fluent in any language that had the precision necessary to express the feeling, the certainty of them.
Not any more.
"No," John decided, but he didn't sound sure. Rodney moved his hand back and forth, back and forth, John's thick hair brushing his skin. "Not a fan of kiss and tell."
Relieved, Rodney nodded. Didn't see that dredging up his past was likely to help with the whole psychiatric situation, for one thing. Didn't want to spend the energy on getting the words right, either, when John was starting to relax at his side.
"There's never been anyone..." Dammit. Words. Dammit. There should be an equation for this situation, some way of producing incontrovertible proof without this mess and imprecision. "You know."
But John understood that sort of leading nothing, maybe better than he understood dotted i's and crossed t's.
"Yeah," he agreed. Moved his head off Rodney's arm and onto the pillow, adjusting for sleep.
Rodney was getting to like lying awake, listening to John's breathing; liked that John could sleep pretty much anywhere.
They were used to looking over their shoulders, used to any number of people watching their backs. Earth wasn't easy after a tour offworld. Cheyenne Mountain was spontaneously evolving an entirely new branch of medicine to deal with the fallout of soldiers and civilians coming back from unthinkable distances, impossible situations, and crumbling when confronted with the world outside their secret inner world. It happened. It happened a lot, and people left Atlantis for scheduled leave and never came back and later, once Rodney had thought to ask the right people and find out why he'd lost a vaguely competent member of his staff, he'd wonder if there was something he should've done.
He could see John watching him sometimes, wondering what he should've done. Or not done. Rodney could feel that, all unspoken between them. If they hadn't crossed the line, made their promises to each other and the exclusion of anybody else, would this have even happened?
Huffing, half gone already, John turned his back then went face-down, hand burrowing under the lefthand set of pillows. They weren't used to the space, had wound up crammed into little more than the width of a single bed, Rodney's ass and heels chilling for want of covers.
He knew what Earth did to John, on the rare occasions when it didn't provide some thoughtful substitute for his usual brand of intergalactic crisis; even on those occasions that didn't require him to sit around and make nice with family, Earth made his feet itch. Made him want to run, fly, left him with no place to go and the time to ask himself too many questions he already knew the answers to.
Personally, Rodney tended to miss the old place, loved to break out of Stargate Command for a few days and recharge on relatively non-lifethreatening normality. Usually, that involved sleeping alone and a lot of room-service, then his stay getting cut short because they needed him back in the nick of time to avert disaster.
He closed his eyes, settled his hip against John's and tried to sleep.
A few hours later when his back started to cramp, after Jeannie and Kaleb had tiptoed past their door and gone to bed, after John had passed from twitchy snores into deep-breathing quiet, Rodney admitted defeat and headed downstairs.
Coffee. Painkillers. Work. Carson and Jennifer would both be horrified, he expected, but he'd self-medicated plenty over the years with all of the above, especially the work. He didn't have to leave his job behind like Sheppard did, could carry what he needed in his head if all else failed, could stare into a cup of black coffee and visualise the complexity of the cosmos, the underlying web of calculations that promised to make the whole thing look so, so simple if you just kept working the next and the next.
Turning forty, trying to be dour at his own surprise party and not to look at John when Jennifer fed him cake, Rodney had realised for the first time that the promise was a lie. Surrounded by people who smiled at him, with him and for him, aware of John watching him from the wallflower seats with eyes that promised tonight, tonight after they've gone away I'm yours, Rodney hadn't felt all that betrayed.
Lately, looking back over notes and calculations and notions from what looked now like his idealistic youth, he did. Just a little.
"Uncle Mer?" Madison rubbed her eyes in the kitchen doorway, pretending she was awake. She was wearing the slippers he'd given her for her birthday, pink and fluffy, exactly the sort Jeannie told him she'd like.
"Uh..." Rodney glanced up at the clock. "Shouldn't you be asleep in bed?"
"I'll rephrase; you should be asleep in bed." He made an effort at stern but it only made her smile. "What, do you need a drink of water or something?"
She shook her head, shuffled over in the dumb slippers and attached herself to his leg again while she stood on tiptoe to see his notes and computer screen.
"What are you doing?"
"Oh, you know." Lost, Rodney tried to play along. "Measuring the universe."
"That's what your mother wants to know."
"Teach me some more science," Maddy demanded, half-drowsing against him.
"Don't tell me you forgot the laws of thermodynamics already? And Newton?" He secured her with his arm, leaning over to switch the laptop to standby.
"I didn't forget."
"Then you know practically everything you need to know about everything apart from a few really long words that I'll tell you later, and how to get funding which your mother's better at anyway. Go back to bed already."
He should probably take his own advice. His skeleton felt like it'd been turned to lead, his brain dull, his temples throbbing in a sick sort of a way. He wasn't going to crack the universe open like an egg tonight. If he kept trying, it might crack him first.
Madison held up her arms and he sighed, lifted her, waited for her to get her arms and legs wrapped around him so he wasn't doing all the work.
"Aren't you too old for this?" he asked, not exactly minding her chokehold or the silky-soft loose hair against his cheek. "Didn't they pass a law about when you get too old to get picked up just because you stand there and look appealing in fluffy slippers?"
"Bet they haven't," she said, chin on his shoulder. He stood up, wondering why the weight of her didn't seem to add anything to his own leaden body. "Will you help me learn my piano lesson?"
"It's the middle of the night." He brushed enough hair aside that he could see ahead of him and aimed for the stairs.
"It is tomorrow."
"I can't play so good any more," he said, without thinking about it. Then thought, sighed, pulling himself together at the foot of the stairs before starting carefully upwards. "Has your mother been telling stories about me again?"
"She says I'm good because it's genetics and you are," Maddy slurred, rocked half back to sleep by the bumpy ride. "My lesson's really hard."
There was a wheedle in there and if she hadn't been half asleep and they hadn't been halfway up a darkened flight of stairs he would've dumped her on her ass for trying it on him.
He grunted instead and finished the climb.
Rodney toed open her door, lowered her feet first on the bed, watched her get under the covers, slippers and all. That wasn't right, was it? The slippers in the bed? After some nervous indecision he dug under the bedclothes and tugged them off her.
"Please?" she said, all cute and sleepy and trusting.
"No, but I'll show you how you can practise all you want in your head so it gets easy," he said, seeing Jeannie in her again for a few seconds, all the weight of the past in her, all the reminders that he had to do better. "How about that?"
"Without a piano?" She was losing the fight to keep her eyes open.
"You've got a whole orchestra and then some, right up here." He tapped her temple. "Bring me your music in the morning and I'll show you." She smiled, snuggling down victorious. Rodney reached desperately for a little sternness. "And by morning, I don't mean when the birds start tweeting, madam. Nine at the earliest, ten if you ever want another present that isn't school socks."
He... tucked. It was the thing to do, he remembered from when Jeannie was small and cute, all about pink fluff and burning big questions. He'd done it as gracelessly as his other chores, but something seemed to have stuck all these years. You put kids to bed, you tucked them in and they went to sleep, trusting you to keep the monsters at bay because you were older, bigger, smarter. Not so hard, except now he knew where the monsters were, and how often they came close to getting past him.
Madison had no idea that he'd almost gotten her mommy killed a few months back.
In Jeannie's place, in Kaleb's, Rodney didn't think he'd be so generous or forgiving.
Feeling wretched, Rodney took another couple of painkillers and went back to bed.
John's eyes were open, reflecting light. His arms were waiting and wrapped tight around him, John's nose pressed against the back of Rodney's shoulder.
"Yeah." Rodney made himself comfortable, spooned with John and sharing one pillow and the warm spot. "I wish Carson hadn't been offworld. He'd have cut through the crap and given me some sleeping pills. Antidepressant," he muttered. "I'm not depressed, I'm... slipping. Losing focus. I can't sleep, that'll drive anyone a little nuts."
He punched into the stack of pillows, maybe a little too hard.
In the following silence, he realised he'd never put it into so many words before. He'd used them all at some point - with Jennifer and Doctor Cole, with the so-called experts at Stargate Command and even during his excruciating review with the IOA - but they'd gotten so diluted by his sarcasm or by their leading questions that he just hadn't nailed it before.
And he hadn't spoken to John about it at all. Not in so many words. He'd been playing along meekly with the diagnosis but he'd seen it in Jeannie's eyes before he recognised it about himself; she wasn't buying it. He wasn't buying it. Dammit, he just needed some sleep.
Maybe a backrub, John had strong hands, always felt great on his body. He turned his head to suggest it and met a kiss coming the other way, John's hands urging him to turn over then scooping him closer when he complied.
Kissing John was like the polar opposite of Rodney's dark little mental slippages - felt like they could slow time around them just to make a place for it. He could breathe there (except when he couldn't but in a good way), his thoughts going quiet or if they kept folding in on themselves then it was with a simple, stilling mantra of John, John, John. And there was tongue, John's tongue and the way John played with him, just with a kiss. Artlessly, not the tacky porn-movie tricks Rodney had gotten elsewhere, and expressive. Probably more than John knew.
Rodney snatched a breath, held John's head in his hands, fingers in the roots of his hair.
"Forgot about that special-ops stamina of yours," he admitted.
John shook his head.
"You make me feel about sixteen again, you were right."
Rodney remembered sixteen; hot frustration bordering on the obsessive, an automatic sweaty blush around anybody he was remotely attracted to and barely the self control to do anything constructive with an opportunity, even if he'd found one. He winced.
"Maybe eighteen." John caught up one of his hands, trapped it against the pillow next to his head.
"Making up for lost time?" Rodney pulled his head down, forced another quick kiss on him and added, "Kidding." More likely he was making up for all the times they hadn't done this; all the shared looks before Rodney finally just kissed him, made the question a simple yes or no. All the times after when he'd been tied to his lab or putting out fires (sometimes literally) or John had been shouldering responsibilities above his rank... then add up the times they'd each been stuck in an infirmary bed, on another planet, in a jail cell or they'd just been too goddamn tired... they were actually owed a hell of a lot of sex. He would've said so, but John shut him up with another slow, evolving kiss that damn near made his toes curl under.
"For earlier tonight," John said, moving on to his neck, the hand that pinned Rodney's tightening into a squeeze. "Your turn."
His tongue swept beneath Rodney's ear, hot, tickling, saliva cooling his skin as John moved lower and did it again, his Adam's apple, the hollow of his throat, his clavicle, pulling his t-shirt down as far as it would stretch and following his crooked fingers with his tongue. Swimming in new sensation, Rodney had the suspicion that wine was supposed to be involved in this activity; possibly whipped cream or some honey, but John was doing just fine without any of that. Just when Rodney had settled back to enjoy, John let his collar spring back and applied his teeth to Rodney's left nipple through the shirt.
"No teeth!" he protested, his volume moderated by the knowledge that his sister was asleep in the next room and that his quality of life would be considerably reduced if she overheard him making that kind of noise. Not that there hadn't been something in it, a lance of overheated sensation that wired the pain up in indecent ways to the arousal, but... "Or... some other time."
John laughed, quiet and warm against his chest. Rodney couldn't get enough of that private laugh, had only ever heard it when it was just the two of them or sometimes Teyla too. He could picture the way it softened out John's face, turned the stress lines into laughter lines; a small-scale exorcism.
"What, then?" Even half numb with mental fatigue, Rodney caught the plea hidden in the mock-impatience. Wondered how many times he'd missed it before because he was too aroused, too hungry, too selfish... too taken in by the public, brick-solid John Sheppard to imagine that he felt his limitations in the bedroom. Or wherever else they'd managed to snatch the time to fuck. God. Rodney dragged his fingertips through John's hair, loving the warm tickle, the tiny clenching aches it sent through his nervous system when the tickle caught just the right spot in his palm.
"A little lower," he decided, because anything requiring him to use his own muscles was out; he felt like gravity had singled him out for some extra attention, a lead weight sinking into the mattress. "And no teeth."
John squeezed his hand once more before letting it go, wriggling under the covers, pulling his pants around his thighs and giving him the tongue-bath treatment until he bit his hand and came. Nothing new, really, but it felt new and he clung weakly back when John stretched out on top of him, kissed his mouth and jaw, rubbed on his thigh with tight urgency until he came too with his face shoved against Rodney's neck.
It was almost dawn, birds just starting to sing. Sticky, sweaty and with John hanging on tight beside him, Rodney finally got some sleep.
Chapter 4: Next of Kin
There was something kind of smothering about the Miller home. Sheppard couldn't identify any one thing about it that bothered him - not the eclectic décor, not the semi-tidy toys everywhere, not the abundance of artwork about the place from every member of the little family, not the smell of various foods and incense. Hard to find more of a contrast with his brother's place, where the patina of old wood and leather combined with stylish and modern touches, gleaming white-tiled bathrooms, the smell of furniture polish and the sense of everything in its place.
Everything in Jeannie's house had a place, too, but it was a place among cheerful clutter, with everything right at hand.
He'd forgotten it was the weekend until he walked into Madison at the foot of the stairs, wearing a pink sweater over her green nightdress and still heavy-eyed with sleep, some books tucked under her arm. She smiled at him, but he didn't seem to be a part of her current mission and she just passed by.
The lack of privacy was nothing new on him, but he felt it here more than he had on board the Daedalus; more than he ever did surrounded by people in Atlantis. Jeannie's welcoming smile as he went into the kitchen. Seeing her busy on the phone he sneaked an apple from the fruit bowl, poured a cup of black coffee and went back out to the family room. Found himself a spot on the couch, between a crayon drawing and a stack of magazines and tried to relax.
Now that they'd done what they came to do, he was conscious of taking up space that didn't belong to him; kept thinking about moving on, getting a hotel, leaving McKay to his family time. That wasn't how it was supposed to work when you were with somebody, he knew, but he felt like getting out before the family tried to absorb him.
He'd seen what getting back into it did to Rodney. What it did for him, as well, but the whole Katie thing...
"Good morning." He smelled lemon dish soap and sweet hand cream when Jeannie touched his shoulder. Didn't flinch.
She scooped the drawing and the magazines into the crook of her arm - left them in a nearly-tidy stack on the coffee table as she sat. Her tight pants and clinging t-shirt showed off the pregnancy, today. He suspected he should ask how far along she was, if she knew the sex - that he should be interested in the subject in some way that went beyond his concern for her well-being, as a friend and as Rodney's sister. Wasn't. Not at all.
"Fruit for breakfast? I wish you'd talk to my daughter." Jeannie sighed. "Can I get you anything else?"
"No, thanks. This is great." He tossed the apple, caught it. Sipped his coffee, which was way too hot. "We don't always get supplies of this stuff. You miss it, you know?"
She nodded, even though she didn't. She'd gone to Atlantis on the Daedalus, on a supply run that left them with fresh goods from home.
"Say, is there a golf course around here?" His mind tripped from the longing for a bite of green apple to the longing for familiar recreation, outdoors in Earth weather breathing Earth air. In Pegasus, you didn't get to stroll through a meadow or a cool shady forest without carrying weapons, watching your back. He was always responsible for other people, even on a simple visit to the mainland. Recreation was something that happened to other people.
"Yeah." Jeannie shrugged, looking all around her until she located the phone book, half under the couch. "Kaleb plays when he can. I never made it further than crazy-golf before we agreed to disagree on that one for the sake of our marriage. You play?"
"Yeah. Used to."
"Kaleb's parents are fanatical. I think it's how they bond as a family," Jeannie smiled indulgently.
"Golf was about the only thing I had in common with my dad." He didn't know why he said it. It was probably true. More often than not, when there'd needed to be one of those man-to-man talks, it'd been over nine holes, or a single malt in the clubhouse.
He'd left Jeannie not knowing what to say. Unlike her brother, that meant she said nothing at all - just left the silence for him to fill if he wanted.
He smiled at her, instead, suddenly liking the possibilities.
"Think I can talk Kaleb into a few rounds while I'm here?"
"I bet you can. He'll be back soon. Meredith doesn't play with you?"
"Fresh air and rolling greens... weather... bugs... it's not exactly his thing." And, Sheppard thought treacherously, McKay was too damn competitive. He'd miss the point.
"He's never been the outdoor type," Jeannie sighed. "Dad sent him on a three day outward bound survival thing when I was little, he wound up in hospital with a bee sting. Nearly died. I don't think he set foot on grass again for five years."
"Yeah. He mentions that a lot when we're offworld."
He'd said it before he realised the underlying meaning of her question, of the little knot of frown between her eyebrows. Wondering what they had in common enough to make them a couple instead of... of...
She didn't know the half of it. What they'd seen. What they'd been through. What they'd lost, and all of it together. And he didn't want her to know, any more than Rodney wanted her to know, what that meant. He wasn't so sure there was another choice, not if Rodney wanted to keep renewing the ties with his family, and she had the clearance to hear everything short of Earth defence strategy. Maybe she had the right, as well.
"He hasn't told you a lot about the offworld stuff, has he?" That was safe enough conversation. Most of it was talk, trade, formalities and routine. Most of it happened out of doors, with McKay bitching happily about the weather and the pollen count and the local sanitation. "He doesn't live in that lab of his."
"He's talked about other planets." She sounded envious, amazed. "It must be so exciting."
"Yeah. And dangerous, sometimes." Getting uncomfortable, not used to defending Rodney until it really mattered, he concentrated on the coffee. "He can handle himself when we have to fight. We could use one of him on every team. You'd be surprised."
"You're right," Jeannie said, and her laughter was affectionate rather than derogatory. More or less. "I would."
Still, he could see her thinking about it, the logical flip-side of wondering what they had together; that they had to have something, or Sheppard wouldn't be in her house, taking up space on her couch and chewing his way through her organic apples.
Upstairs he could hear Rodney talking, Madison pressing him with bright questions. Hoped she hadn't woken him; he needed the sleep, God knew. Then he remembered the way Rodney looked when the little girl climbed on him or asked him to play, and thought he could probably use plenty of that too.
"John--" She'd started to get up, changed her mind and perched on the edge of the seat, folding her hands between her knees. "Is he okay?" She lowered her voice; she'd heard the sighs of life from upstairs too. "He told me he's been sick, depressed and-- I've never seen him act like this. It's like he doesn't know what to do with himself and that..." she faded into a worried laugh.
He finished a bite of apple, not sure what to say. He looked for something to say that wouldn't scare her, wouldn't betray Rodney either, but wasn't a lie.
"He's doing better than before. Coming back to Earth was the right call." He was realising it even as he said it; that Rodney needed... the time. His family. Atlantis never let up on him, on any of them. In their time off, even laid up in the infirmary there was always something.
The right call for the wrong reasons, Rodney blaming himself for even more stuff that wasn't his fault.
Jeannie seemed to be struggling for the right words, too.
"This project of his... it's mundane, it's boring. Safe. I'd be worried about that alone but he's so sad, so tired. And the two of you, it's just as sudden... I'm sorry, but my brother can be painfully naive at the best of times, especially about--" She stopped for a deep breath, tried again. "I want to understand what's happened to him."
There was a hardness in her voice that Sheppard hadn't heard before. Same way Rodney got when something he cared about was threatened, only with more words.
"It's not so sudden," was all he could give her. There was nothing he wanted to tell anybody about him and Rodney. Nothing. They were private, it was theirs. It always had been and he wanted it to stay that way.
He stood up as Rodney came into the room, Madison trailing behind him with a big book in both hands. It looked more like heavy-duty physics than fairytales, but what did he know? Maybe kids were into that.
"You were talking about me," Rodney deduced, stopping dead and staring at the two of them.
"Of course we were." Sheppard shrugged. "You and golf."
"There is no me and golf," Rodney grouched, continuing to the kitchen with Maddy in tow.
"See?" Sheppard sighed, catching Jeannie's eye and the 'we're not finished' look she gave him. It wasn't hostile, just very definite. He averted his eyes before he turned and followed Rodney, apple core in one hand and mug in the other.
"I have some, uh, business in town," Rodney said, distractedly, pouring coffee into the travel mug he'd unearthed and more into a regular one. Madison tugged his sleeve and he lifted her up onto one of the high stools, earning an obedient thank-you before the little girl opened the big book. It was music, not science - Madison ran her finger along the lines of the score like she was reading it, slow and patient. It looked way too hard for a six year old, until you remembered who her relatives were. Rodney hardly seemed to notice her there. "I'll be a few hours. I, uh, need the car so..."
"Okay." Sheppard held out his own mug, got topped up. "Should probably buy them some more beans."
"What?" Rodney focused down to his level, then, and looked confused. "What?"
"Coffee. We're drinking them dry and you spilled a lot yesterday."
"Oh." Bewilderment was slowly replaced with understanding and Rodney relaxed slightly, taking deep breaths. "Yeah. I'll stop by the..." He checked his jacket pocket - wallet, keys, phone. Spilled hot coffee in the process. "Dammit. No more late night... uh... research." He wiped his hand down his pants and left a coffee stain; didn't notice. "You look chipper," he accused,
"I try." Sheppard watched him toss back the coffee in two gulps, painkillers going down with the second. "No to golf, then?"
"Such a big no. Oh, but try Kaleb, I think he's into that."
He failed to move out of Rodney's way without being asked, almost getting his own coffee spilled in the resulting collision.
"What, you want a goodbye kiss?" Rodney had a dozen or more ways of sounding impatient. That tone was one he generally saved for the people whose names he couldn't be bothered to learn, and then only when they asked him the genius-IQ equivalent of a really dumb question.
Sheppard didn't move aside.
"Want some company?"
"No." Rodney made the effort, then. Concentrated on him, and only him, with every other busy thing in his head pushed aside for the moment. Sheppard hadn't figured out the key to making it happen outside of a crisis, in any situation where he couldn't give a direct order. "No, it's fine. I have paperwork and accountants and... boring. You should golf. This is a vacation, right?"
"Right." He hadn't planned one. Wherever Rodney was, that was fine with him. "You don't look so good," he said, painfully aware of Madison behind him. Kids could tell anyway, couldn't they, if something wasn't right? He touched Rodney's elbow. "I'm supposed to--"
"What? Turn me over to the SGC? Follow me everywhere I go?" Rodney pushed past, head down and determined. He dodged past Jeannie and left her exasperated, staring after him.
"Is he-- did something happen?" she asked, looking at her daughter then at Sheppard.
He wrapped his hands around the hot mug, shaking his head.
"This is how it's been." Didn't want to say more in front of Madison. He could see how still she'd gone, just out the corner of his eye. "It comes and goes."
"Is it... are we talking about post traumatic stress, or...?" Jeannie's bewilderment made her look like he felt. "I'm sorry. I know there isn't always that kind of an answer. I just want to know how I can help."
Madison plopped off her stool and went to her mother's side, freaked by the atmosphere or by the cryptic conversation, or just by seeing her uncle so close to the edge of something bad. Sheppard felt bad for that.
"I asked him if he'd help me with my piano lesson," she said, like she thought she was going to get into trouble for it. Jeannie stroked her hair, looking at her without reproach. "Then he showed me how to play in my head like he promised and it really works. Did I make him mad?"
"He doesn't like to play music any more, sweetie," Jeannie said, all motherly reassurance. "I don't think he's feeling very well. I'm sure he's not mad at you for asking." She patted Maddy between the shoulders. "You remember the golf club under the stairs? Go show them to John, okay? He might want to borrow them."
Instantly brightening up, Madison beckoned Sheppard to follow.
When she decided he was holding things up she grabbed him by the hand and hauled him past a smiling Jeannie.
The smile might've been a smirk.
Maddy's hand was warm and dry, gripped his own all tight and trusting.
"Do you play piano?" she wondered, tugging him through the house to the foot of the stairs and looking up at the small brass bolt just out of her reach.
"Uh... no." There'd been lessons, obligatory and dull, until his parents conceded they were throwing good money after bad. It'd been behind him before his feet could reach the pedals and he'd never, ever looked back. "Do you play golf?"
"I'm not very good at it," she confided, but it sounded rehearsed. Not a line she had a lot of use for, Sheppard figured, turning on the light in the closet and watching her go in. "Grandma helps me beat my dad."
"Are you sure it's okay if I borrow your stuff?"
"They're not mine," she said, muffled and tugging something too heavy for her in the little space. Sheppard hooked her out by the elbow and stuck his arm in. "My Dad got a new set. Mom never uses them."
"Well." Sheppard thought he heard a little note of reproach in her voice. "She's a busy lady. Being a mom and a genius and everything."
"She's having a new baby."
"Yeah." Sheppard hefted the set of clubs and took a step back to let her shut the closet. "I noticed that."
"It didn't used to show but now it does."
"Do you want to play with me?"
"Golf?" he asked, doubtfully.
"No, a computer game."
"Oh." That sounded safe enough. He propped the clubs at the foot of the stairs and awaited further orders. "Sure. Why not?"
At some point late in his studies Rodney had started to make money, and it'd been cool. He'd bought a car. He'd travelled. He'd invested. And then the military had swallowed him up into a life of secret bunkers and remote facilities, his meals provided and his clothing unimportant and everything else - everything a suitably brilliant scientist could demand in the pursuit of knowledge - had been made available. The money had kept coming, never in huge amounts, but by the time he encountered the Stargate Program he'd had a lot of it, and needed people to take care of it so he didn't have to, and he thought John might give him a serious look if he ever caught sight of the portfolio.
Rodney signed what he was told to sign, vetoed a couple of apparently sensible investments and redirected them with the kind of insider information only he had, and made some arrangements for the baby Jeannie hadn't had yet.
When there was enough of it, he found that money took care of itself with the occasional round of decision making and paper signing.
In Atlantis, a malt whisky or the beta edition of a promising new game were worth more than half a year's pay, and Rodney was more used to bartering in pre-industrial market squares for produce, these days, than he was visiting a glossy mall.
In a daze of necessary consumerism Rodney bought clothes - he'd filled out in some places, narrowed in others and was always wearing holes at the knee in any case, even off-duty. He bought coffee beans, a new watch, toiletries, painkillers. A new pen and some paper because some ideas wanted to be slow, stubbornly tactile, and Sheppard hated sleeping with the laptop anyway.
He lost two hours and probably a bag of books, somewhere between a book store and lunch, then lost the lunch in the parking lot, retching until he was dry. He sat shaking in the car, self-awareness and panic fading in and out like a weak, jumbled radio signal.
His head hurt, sick throbbing like a bad migraine but not one, and the lost time scared him bad.
After a while, he remembered his phone and thought he should probably call... someone. John. Or cut to the chase, call Stargate Command so they could send the nice men in white coats for him. Or something. He should do something instead of just sitting in the car, staring at his own white knuckles.
He couldn't think, and that scared him more than anything. It was like the time Ford dosed him with the Wraith enzyme, thought crawling unproductively everywhere, overridden by the body... but it was worse than that. No target for his blame, for the anger. No end in sight, just failure. Failure and pain.
Rodney had perspective on discomfort now that he hadn't had ten years ago, or five. He'd been tortured, not impressively, only in an informal way by motivated amateurs, but still. Torture, with actual blood loss and some screaming. He'd buried friends, too angry or too busy to mourn. He'd been evolved to the doorstep of death, head screaming with revelations that he knew were killing him, that he had to let go again, probably forever, just so he could just go on living, day by day in a world that'd briefly made sense. He'd blamed himself for... so much. He knew about hurting, enduring, overcoming - enough that he'd started to have faith. In what he couldn't say, but it was faith and it worked, it carried him through fear and hurt and desperately bad odds.
It was no protection from what was happening to him now. If there was any one concrete thing he had faith in, it was his mind. His mind.
He was losing his mind.
Madison was... cute. Smart, forward, happy and, he was learning, really into pink. Even her favourite computer game was pink, the game controller was pink. The laptop was pink.
He hadn't known you could even get computers in pink. Madison taught him her game - pink shells and pink fish and pink pearls - and showed him her local area network, and chatted away McKay-like about her school, her friends, her ballet class and her uncle.
Uncle Mer, Sheppard learned, was better than Santa Claus and chocolate cake. He knew everything, he bought them a car, he was cool enough to hold hands with outside school. He was better than Theresa Fletcher's uncle who worked in a toy store and got her a Gameboy once.
Dazed, cross-legged on the pink rug and letting her win at pink pearls, Sheppard wondered whether or not McKay was better than pink.
He'd been to plenty of distant planets that felt less alien than the little girl's bedroom. He didn't fit with the little proportions, his knees and elbows seemed to be everywhere, his hands were too big for all her stuff. Madison brushed by him carelessly every time she wanted to fetch something to show him.
"Maddy, is it okay if I borrow John for a game of golf?" Kaleb must've been watching for a while before he spoke. Sheppard caught the tail end of a smile that might've been a smirk. "You need to work on your piano lesson for Mrs. Hardy, remember?"
"Okay," Madison agreed, deflating and closing the game.
Sheppard did his best not to look like a man being rescued, but Kaleb had a knowing look before they reached the bottom of the stairs.
"She can be a little full-on," he said, one-hundred percent unapologetic.
"She's great," he said - heard himself say, unplanned, and meant it. "I've never had much to do with kids." He hesitated, moving aside as Madison came through, sheet music in one hand and hairbrush in the other.
"No younger sisters? I have three," Kaleb said. "And a lot of aunts. The menfolk are outnumbered in this family. I'm kind of hoping Maddy gets a little brother, this time."
"You don't know?"
"No." Kaleb's smile stayed in the eyes, even when it wasn't on his face. "Jeannie likes the suspense."
His only practical experience of a baby on the way being Teyla, who'd known without any doctor needing to tell her that she was having a boy, Sheppard could only nod and smile. It usually satisfied most people in most situations, but there was something real shrewd in Kaleb that you couldn't just dodge. It reminded Sheppard of Maddy, the same way her focused chatter reminded him of McKay and her eyes reminded him of Jeannie.
They called goodbye to Jeannie over the sound of competently played piano scales and stepped out into a cool, dull afternoon.
"My parents gave us the club membership for our wedding present," Kaleb said, lifting the gear into the car while Sheppard got his bearings on the real world again.
"And Jeannie doesn't play?"
"I haven't given up hope." The guy sounded pleasantly unconcerned. "Rodney?"
"Does Xbox count?"
Sheppard caught the curious look as he buckled up - the question he kept seeing in Jeannie when she talked with him; what the hell was between him and McKay; what they had in common, what they talked about that wasn't work.
Lately, Sheppard had paid more attention to the silences. Hadn't known there was any way people really did that - head on shoulder, or holding hands, or just sitting nearby and... understanding the silence.
The silence with Kaleb wasn't a good one, now. He was a good driver, patient and confident, but once they were in traffic Kaleb started to fidget, to half glance at him in the mirror.
Sheppard had an idea about what was on his mind, and waited for it.
"I don't expect you get to play," Kaleb started, concentrating hard on an erratic sedan ahead of them. "Out there. In the Pegasus Galaxy."
Eyes front, Sheppard weighed the nothing he was supposed to say against the fact that Jeannie had already told her husband everything. Or more likely, only most of it.
"I can't talk about that," he answered, without hostility.
"You can't tell me if there's golf out there?" Kaleb laughed, the self-deprecating laugh they all caught at one time or another once they knew what was out there and felt all insignificant in the face of it. "Some days I see her staring into space, like she's that far away again. You have it too, and Rodney. That look." He went silent again for a while, fidgeting less, breathing slower. Sheppard waited some more. He couldn't say much but he could sit and listen. "I never got a chance to thank you," Kaleb said, more confidently. "For what you did, for rescuing Jeannie. I doubt it was in your job description, whatever the heck that is. Thank you."
"Sure," Sheppard managed, tightening. Couldn't think of one thing he'd done there that he wanted thanking for and Kaleb was right. Situations like that, choices like those, they weren't in the job description. "We don't leave our people behind."
Kaleb didn't answer.
Probably he knew just enough to scare him, just enough to know there was more his wife hadn't told him. That she was protecting him.
Sheppard had tried married life alongside secrets and absences he couldn't explain. It hadn't been the deal-breaker, not for him, but he'd seen it right there in Kaleb; the haunted question he'd seen so often in Nancy's accusing gaze. Not so much 'what?' as 'why?'
There were plenty of people living like that. He'd done his share of condolences, best suit or dress uniform, hat in hand and anger choking his voice half to a whisper. He could see the anger and the questions even if it wasn't face to face. A letter, a video message - it wasn't all that much easier than the knock on the door, the questions he couldn't answer.
Kaleb would be expecting McKay, someday, not a bland uniformed representative. Sheppard was reasonably sure that was never going to happen. If Rodney couldn't protect his sister, he'd die trying. Somebody else would knock on Jeannie's door.
He cleared his throat.
"Rodney needs to be here right now," he said, thinking it through as he spoke. "But I can go, if--"
"Jeannie's slept better since you two came to stay than she has since the kidnapping," Kaleb interrupted, voice flat. "So." He took a deep breath while Sheppard was still trying to work out what to say. "When did you take up golf?"
Turned out they had the lifelong passion in common, except that Kaleb still loved playing with his parents. For Sheppard that'd been more of a down side. He'd loved the solitude of a practice round, the easy camaraderie and rivalry of playing with an acquaintance and the private discipline of making each stroke count. The fresh air and exercise were always welcome, too.
He had to get outside more. As soon as they got out there, Sheppard was remembering how good it felt to be in the open, surrounded by green, the wind in his face. Plenty of that on missions in Pegasus but whenever he came to Earth, he seemed to wind up indoors. Either way it was short on relaxation.
He couldn't help noticing that Kaleb seemed to enjoy the space and the breeze, too. What was it the guy did for a living? McKay had told him, way back when Jeannie first came to Atlantis. Sheppard clearly remembered the sneer of disapproval but not the information. Something academic, something indoors, though. Kaleb looked like a guy who'd be happier out under the sky, building or farming or something.
Kaleb beat him effortlessly and tried not to make it look that easy, then over drinks, Sheppard listened to a proud father. McKay never really talked about the kid, knowing her only from brief visits and landmark events. Kaleb talked about Maddy the way Dave talked about his two. It was easy to hear. It didn't call for a lot of input from Sheppard so he had a second beer, and a third, while Kaleb stuck to ginger ale but relaxed over it like he was drinking straight vodka.
For a guy whose wife was caught up in top secret research, Kaleb seemed pretty damn happy with his life. His smiles were easy and genuine. He reminded Sheppard a little of the people he met so often in Pegasus, the ones who weren't impressed by the weapons and tech but who liked to hear stories and sayings from another culture and would listen to anybody who could produce a wallet photo of their wife and kids.
Excusing himself to answer his phone, Kaleb smiled with pleasure at the sight of Jeannie's name on the handset.
Sheppard had clear, guilt-heavy memories of screening his ex-wife's calls long before she'd been his ex-anything. Hadn't been able to handle the two separate worlds colliding like that, her voice and her priorities intruding while he was working. Her messages when he'd been away too long, any reason she could think of for calling but the subtext always the same - was he coming back? It wasn't exactly practical, hooking up with McKay when they still had to work together, but at least there didn't have to be the secrets, the separation of priorities. He hadn't looked for it, it just worked out that way and just because it was convenient didn't mean it wasn't right, too.
He kept telling himself that.
He thought about ordering another beer.
Kaleb's hand closed on his shoulder and when he looked up, there was no trace of the companionable relaxation in him, any more.
"There's been an accident," he said, letting go and reaching for his jacket. Sheppard couldn't move. Speak. "Rodney's in the hospital. Jeannie's with him. I'll take you there."
"What happened?" Sheppard felt dull, everything closing down after one overwhelming explosion of anger and panic. He followed Kaleb to the car, assuming that it was faster to trust him and follow him than to take any action on his own. He regretted the beer, now, needed to be able to think clearly, be ready.
"Car accident. He's awake, Jeannie said broken bones and a concussion." Kaleb waited until Sheppard remembered to strap in, watched him fumble but didn't muscle in and help. Didn't move the car until he'd gotten the belt fastened, then drove like... like a sensible guy in his own city who knew better than to get them in a car wreck too.
Sheppard felt his limbs itch for speed at every line of late afternoon traffic, every stop light, frustration sobering him up faster and better than coffee would've. Shouldn't have let Rodney go off like that; shouldn't have let him drive; shouldn't have let him ignore the meds. It was a leader's guilt, Rodney's commanding officer talking, but the part of Sheppard that was more than that to Rodney was shut down tight, too scared to move. And Sheppard needed to function somehow.
Kaleb let him out at the entrance to the hospital, gave him fuzzy directions and went to park. Sheppard wiped drizzling rain out of his eyes and went inside, got directions that took him to a side room off a general ward.
Rodney was in the single bed, sleeping. Just sleeping.
"John." Jeannie struggled, getting out of the chair next to the bed; she'd had Madison on her and she kind of didn't fit the chair because of the baby and her coat. He'd have stopped her trying to get up but didn't manage to unfreeze his voice until it was too late anyway. "I'm sorry, I'd have called you but I didn't have your number and Mer's phone must've been in the car... come on in, it's okay, he's okay." She moved almost smoothly from fluttering panic to reassuring, almost motherly tones. She took his hand and held it between both of hers. Her fingers were strong, roughened in places, not delicate like he'd have expected. "We got here an hour ago. They gave him stuff for the pain before I arrived, he's been pretty out of it."
"But he's going to be okay."
She took it as a question. It wasn't one.
"He's going to be fine." Her fingers tightened around his, her rings biting into his knuckles, and he looked at her for the first time. "Is Kaleb..."
"He went to find a parking spot. Thanks for..." Sheppard didn't know what for. He eased his hand out of hers with the least hostile twist and tug he could manage. "Can't let him out of my sight," he half-joked. He looked blankly at Rodney when Jeannie went to meet Kaleb at the door.
Anticlimax: Rodney was okay. He had a couple of skin closures above his eye, his left arm in a cast from wrist to elbow... the right foot looked kind of big under the blankets. No wires or tubes, no monitors, no hovering doctors. No screaming emergency, no deathbed scene. McKay had had worse, way worse.
Sheppard felt weak at the knees.
"Can we get you a coffee, John?" Kaleb, calm and sympathetic and obvious as hell.
"That'd be... thanks," Sheppard managed, his lips reluctant to move. They left, tugging Madison along with them, whispering some reason she was still young enough to buy.
Sheppard went closer, looked down at Rodney. Wanted to touch and didn't.
Rodney opened his eyes, sucked in a breath, then went still when he saw Sheppard.
A couple of seconds later he tried to move his arm and wave. Couldn't. Made a face, embarrassed, apologetic, trying to say it all without saying a word.
Sheppard shook his head, saying it back.
"I shouldn't have let you drive," he decided, watching Rodney struggle to keep his eyes open. "They said you shouldn't--"
"They said not to drive if the meds made me drowsy," Rodney slurred, drowsy right now. "Not taking the meds, so."
"Whatever. You're still grounded."
"You can't do that." Rodney tried to sit up. Didn't fight Sheppard's hand on his shoulder, pushing him back to the pillows.
"Watch me." He let his hand stay there, curled around Rodney's shoulder, thumb rubbing over the stiff white gown. "What did the doctor say?"
"Oh." Rodney had to think about it a while. "Broken arm. Same one as last time. Hurt a lot. Ankle, bad sprain. Not bad concussion. Lucky. Keeping me for observation, I told Jeannie not to..." He gave up, running out of energy or interest, or just thinking better of saying it. "'s just a stupid accident."
"Last time they called you to my bedside I was strapped down and muttering to myself," he said, not-quite patiently. "This is up from that."
"Yeah? That wasn't your fault."
"This wasn't my fault!" Rodney croaked, eyes opening wide, and it would've been loud if he hadn't been parched. "I must've... blacked out," he concluded, trying for quiet dignity right before his face crumpled in obvious distress.
Sheppard squeezed his shoulder, leaning closer, wishing he knew what to say.
It didn't help that he wanted to smack Rodney upside the head right now. Hard.
"Carter gave me a direct order," he said, loud enough to cut through Rodney's misery. "She told me to watch out for you."
"She did?" Rodney looked a little happier. "That's nice."
"Yeah. I'm pretty sure there was something about shooting you, too."
"Uh hu." There, a tiny corner of a smile. Rodney closed his eyes, opened them wide when Sheppard bent over and kissed him, then shut them again with a slow sigh. His lips were like sandpaper but Sheppard didn't snatch back. Gave himself the moment, endured the slightly antiseptic-and-blood taste.
Behind him, Madison giggled.
Sheppard weighed the odds of her going away if he pretended he hadn't heard her, then straightened up and turned. Rodney kept his eyes shut.
"Did he wake up?" Maddy asked, lifting up on the tips of her toes to peer at her uncle.
"What?" Sheppard stared at Jeannie who had a cup of steaming coffee in each hand and was gaping at the back of her daughter's head.
"People are supposed to wake up when you kiss them," Maddy said, then looked to her mother for backup when Sheppard didn't answer.
"That's princesses, honey," Jeannie said flatly, and it got real hard - real hard - to avoid looking at Rodney then. "Uh. Why don't you go find your dad?"
Sheppard heard Rodney exhale.
"Um." Jeannie took a couple of steps towards him. "Coffee." She held out a paper cup. "It's terrible." She laughed, which made the awkward moment worse, but Sheppard took it and was grateful to her anyway.
"Thanks." He stooped a little over the cup, blowing on the steaming drink. "Sorry about..." Sheppard gestured to the door, half expecting Madison to reappear and give him that sweet, curious smile again. "She's a little young for this."
"Oh, please," Jeannie and Rodney said, in almost perfect unison. They glared at each other, but Jeannie didn't keep it up for long.
"She's old enough to ask about stuff she doesn't understand," Jeannie assured Sheppard, with a touch of very McKay-like smugness.
"And young enough," Rodney added, sounding out of it and looking down awkwardly at his cast. "Look, none of you need to be here," he said. "It's just observation, I'm probably gonna sleep all night. Go home already."
"I'll stay," Sheppard said, automatically, and Jeannie nodded. She tapped her fingers on the edge of Rodney's bed, less calm than she was trying to appear.
"Call my cell if you want us to let you in later," she advised, and looked flustered. Vulnerable. Sheppard hated to see it. "We're a little weird about security at night, since..."
"Yeah." Sheppard saw Rodney catch her meaning a few seconds late and start fumbling for the right thing to say. "If they throw me out I'll get a hotel, or... don't worry. I'll call if there's any change, we'll see you tomorrow."
He hung back for the goodbyes, Madison climbing right up on the bed and carefully choosing the spot she was going to kiss goodnight. Kaleb scooped her off, said something about letting her uncle rest, and the family had gone before Sheppard realised he hadn't said thanks for any of it. The golf, the call, the ride, the... normality of them, steadying out a crisis.
They'd saved worlds, him and Rodney. This world. An accident where nobody died, it didn't even compare, so why did his legs feel like sacks of water and his stomach like heaving?
"Sorry," Rodney said, when Sheppard was almost at the bottom of the bitter vending machine coffee. "You don't have to stay either."
"Why didn't you call me?"
"They called the house," Rodney said, uncertainly. "They got Jeannie and... I don't know. Made sense at the time. She's my next of kin and all." He wilted under Sheppard's steady stare. "Be a little hard to explain how that's suddenly you, wouldn't it?"
Sheppard balled up the empty paper cup, crushed it in his fist.
"If it comes up we'll deal with it," he said, hearing his father in the cool, immovable certainty of the statement. Rodney looked like he couldn't deal with anything right now, staring back in slightly desperate, heavily medicated silence. "I really hate this," Sheppard said, darkly, and tossed the cup over the bed and into the trash.
Rodney grasped his wrist as he started to turn away.
"We knew it wouldn't be so easy," he said, anxiety cracking his already failing voice. He let go, but Sheppard caught his hand and held on. Took all sorts to make a world, or a team. Rodney was the sort of person who defined a problem and then faced it until it gave in. He'd valued that for his team, in a friend. Worked here, too.
Careful not to jostle, Sheppard sat on the edge of the bed, Rodney's hand trapped under his own.
Rodney's nose wrinkled at him as he leaned over.
"Were you out drinking?" He squinted, lost control of it and closed his sleepy eyes. "With my brother-in-law? I thought you were gonna play golf."
"I had a few beers." Sheppard could feel the pinch behind his eyes, the hydrate-or-get-a-hangover feeling. "We were gonna have a nice meal, maybe a coffee. Our plans got interrupted. You know I oughta call this in. They said if there was any change..."
"I blacked out. Okay, I shouldn't have been driving. Won't happen again. Jeannie lectured me already so just... leave it, will you?"
"Look... I feel like sleeping, really sleeping, whatever they gave me for the pain it's..."
"I get it." Sheppard did. He'd call Stargate Command anyway if he thought it was necessary. Rodney knew that. The discussion was pointless and... and he needed another coffee. A lot of coffee, and something to eat, and to assess the situation on an ongoing basis.
He returned five minutes later with supplies and found a nurse checking on Rodney, and Rodney snoring soundly.
He could've gone back to Jeannie's place; he could've gotten a hotel for the night.
He spent the night in the chair.
Nobody argued with Rodney when he checked himself out of the hospital the morning after the accident. He'd slept, they'd given him something decent for the pain that made him sleep, and that meant that he was feeling better than he had in weeks, for all that he needed a sling and a crutch. And a chaperone.
Sheppard didn't say a whole lot. By the time the taxi dropped them off at Jeannie's, Rodney almost wished that he'd pick a fight. The silences where John looked like he needed to go away and hit stuff until he felt better, those were bad. More recently, with his entire psyche apparently in a state of mutiny, Rodney found himself dwelling on the past when interaction with somebody took on an edge like that; on fights they'd had, on other, worse silences.
Used to his thoughts driving always forward, always spinning out the probabilities and possibilities, Rodney hated those out of control memories and the way his breath got stuck in his throat over remembered pain or anger. Stupid. And the anger only made it worse, made him short with Jeannie and cold with John, and... and he gave up after a couple of hours and said he was going to bed. Took two of the pills from the hospital pharmacy and recited Pegasus gate addresses until his mind went mercifully blank and he slept again. Ronon had admitted once that it was what he did when Teyla tried to make him meditate. It might not be real serenity, but at least it wasn't real thinking.
At some point, when it was dark and everything in the house was quiet, John got into bed behind him and lay carefully still, too far away from Rodney's back. Rodney went back to sleep, listening to John's deliberately controlled breathing.
The next time he woke up there was painful sunlight in his eyes, and Madison was writing her name on his plaster-cast. She laughed quietly, finishing off with a couple of crooked love hearts while he did his best to glare at her, but only managed a sort of drowsy fluttering in her direction.
"He's awake," Maddy announced, treacherously, and Jeannie yanked the curtains right open with a loud rattle of metal on metal, blinding him.
"I should've stayed in the hospital," he moaned, trying to pull one of the pillows over his face. "Where's Sheppard?"
"He's been up for hours. And how's the patient?"
"Hurting and hungry," Rodney muttered, pulling his aching arm away from the girl. He noticed a tiny, neat fragment of Ancient script next to the thumb-hole and gathered that this was Sheppard's idea. Jeannie had written a whole note, right where he had to twist the painful arm to read it; couldn't make it out, even when he tried. "And the butt of the joke, apparently."
"Yes. You are never, ever, teasing me about my driving again. John's spent most of the morning on the phone, you know. That was his rental."
"There's nothing wrong with my driving," Rodney said, trying to point a warning finger and remembering too late that even uncurling the fingers of his plastered hand would hurt. He curled around the plaster-cast and managed not to actually whimper. "Painkillers wore off." He forced false cheer through gritted teeth and felt awful when he caught Madison's frightened look. Worlds colliding. She wasn't supposed to see him this way.
"It's okay, Mad," Jeannie said, steering her by the shoulders, out of the room. "We just need to get him out of bed. Go tell your dad to put that soup on to warm, and you can pour some of that special juice we bought that won't kill Uncle Mer."
"Soup for breakfast?" Rodney asked, blaming the pathetic croak on dehydration.
"It's two in the afternoon," Jeannie told him, helping him sit up and holding on until the room stopped swirling. "I was getting worried, but John says you do this all the time at work."
He spluttered, wordlessly, trying to indicate with one good hand that he worked harder than anyone in Atlantis, never used the word 'overtime' and got by on around twenty-five hours of sleep per week. If it was a good week and nothing was actively killing them.
"That's not true!"
"After you run yourself into the ground, then wonder why you're not feeling so good and start having little nervous breakdowns," his sister clarified, helping him to stand. "We're going to have a serious talk, Meredith."
"Oh great. I'm wounded and he tattles."
"He's a good friend. A good boyfriend, and you're worrying him as much as you've worried me. Up you get."
Rodney's mind couldn't encompass the notion of 'boyfriend', and he gave her a sceptical look; he'd had partners, male, and girlfriends, but never in his entire life had he had anyone he called a boyfriend. And if he ever did, it wouldn't be John Sheppard.
"Please don't ever call him that to his face."
"What, your boyfriend?" She handed him his crutch and waited while he wobbled his way upright.
"I'm serious. Don't."
She gave him a look, but he needed the bathroom too badly to stand and argue with her.
Jeannie tailed him to the bathroom door then, satisfied that he wasn't going to fall, told him to hurry down for some lunch and left him be.
Rodney caught sight of what she'd written on his cast, in the long mirror on the back of the bathroom door; mirror-writing, in her neatest, angular handwriting like the secret notes they used to pass as kids.
You're an idiot but I still love you. Jeannie.
John's even smaller note (though direct translation from Ancient didn't work and John still couldn't write it for shit in any case) asked how soon he could fix the fucking car.
Laughing really hurt.
"Very funny," he said, waving the cast at John, who met him at the foot of the stairs. "I love that you're so very funny. Now my arm is classified."
John was very much blocking his way towards the welcome smell of food.
"How are you doing?" He sounded tense, strange. He was standing just this side of too-close, his voice hushed like they were whispering secrets.
"Hungry. Sore. Somewhat humiliated. Business as usual, really."
"There's a... situation. Antarctica."
"I might have to leave."
Rodney's brain slowly wound up to effective speed.
"Are you telling me that the planet's under attack?"
"I don't think so. Don't think it's an Ori thing. Sounds like they messed up something in the outpost and think they might need someone who can finesse the controls."
"Idiots," Rodney said, but it was more or less just reflex. "They have a higher percentage of gene-carriers down there than we have in Atlantis but the IOA won't let anyone get any real time in the chair to learn how to use it."
"Yeah." John touched his arm, almost timidly. Rodney looked down at his hand. "They say they can fix it without dragging you down there."
"Oh. But you they need?"
"Maybe. I'm on standby in case they need somebody in the chair."
"Fine. We all know how much the Ancient tech loves kissing your ass." He tried moving forward to see if John got out of his way. Got stopped, soft secure grip on his upper arms, and looked askance. Saw worry lines and eyes full of sorrow and doubt. Wished he was a better person instead of getting so wrapped up in himself that he couldn't see when someone needed... when John needed him to stand still. Figuratively, anyway. Literally standing still was kind of hard, what with the crutch and the bandage and his other arm unavailable for balancing with. He let John balance him. "I need to rest this leg," he said, his voice so gentle it surprised him. Even unnerved him. He'd seen how people acted, how they changed around someone they'd gotten involved with; hadn't expected it to happen to him, or to John either. "Besides, you love it down there. Clear blue skies, compulsory air travel..."
"Hardly any people," John added, tone suggesting that Rodney had left out the most important reason. "I like Antarctica. I like McMurdo. Not so crazy about the secret outpost full of nerds."
"Oh." Rodney hobbled a step forward and this time John let him pass, following him like a shadow. "You met me there."
"Don't remind me."
Madison had made him a get-well card, bright tissue blobs and still-wet glue on a floppy folded sheet of craft paper. She crept closer and closer while he ate Kaleb's vegetable soup and wound up tucked under his good arm afterwards, sulky and quiet, practically ignoring Sheppard's short-lived attempts to cheer her up.
It was new, the feeling of having let his niece down, and Rodney played along with her agenda for a while and didn't complain about the parts she was causing to hurt worse or go slowly numb. He didn't know what else to do.
Sheppard prowled around the room like a caged wolf for a while, tried to read a newspaper and then a couple of books, and finally took his cell phone and took off for a run.
"He's pretty mad at you," Jeannie observed, exchanging his empty juice glass for a full one.
"It was an accident," Rodney stressed, losing patience. "I'm not the only person in this conversation ever to black out at the wheel, remember?"
Jeannie made an exasperated noise and went back to the kitchen, stomping a bit.
Maddy cringed, left him guilty, pretty much loathing himself and wishing she'd wrap herself right around him like she sometimes used to in the mornings when she brought him tea in bed. He guessed she was too old for that now, and he was too... too sharing a bed with someone in a whole other way. Huh. Hadn't expected he'd ever find a reason to regret that.
"How's my little lady?" he asked, giving her ponytail a tug.
"Why's everyone mad?" He recognised the threat of tears in her voice. Rodney recalled once swearing in a fit of short-sighted piety that she'd never have to be afraid to ask him anything. He'd brought this into her house, his crap, his issues. His work, in a way, and he'd sworn not to do that either.
"I'm mad because my leg and my arm really hurt and I feel stupid," he said, letting her go. "Your mom's mad at me for driving when I shouldn't have." He wasn't sure about Sheppard. Maddy knelt next to him, watching him through tangled hair and watery eyes. "You know why most brilliant scientists do their most brilliant work before they're twenty-five?"
"Why?" She wiped her nose with her sleeve.
"Because grown-ups are really stupid."
She snorted a laugh while trying not to and the result was snot.
"Oh, that is... that's just gross," he complained, finding the napkin he'd half sat on and pushing it at her. The watery laughter got brighter behind the paper, then muffled as she blew her nose. "Hey." He held up his good hand to refuse the return of the napkin. "Go tell your mother I said I'm sorry, will you?"
Eager to please, to fix the grown-up stupidity that was ruining her day, Maddy hurried away smiling.
She came back half a minute later while Rodney was tipping another couple of painkillers into his lap from the prescription bottle.
"Mom said I should come back and tell you that you're an idiot," she said, cheerfully.
"Yeah." Rodney sighed and held up the cast so the little girl could see Jeannie's backwards note. "Thanks. I got that."
John took another call from Stargate Command before supper, then spent the meal pretending not to watch Rodney eat. And Rodney did eat, more than he'd wanted to eat in weeks, it felt like. As if the pain and humiliation had hit some kind of internal reset switch he felt... calm. Steady, even somewhat rested. His thoughts went where he directed them, busy with the problems he'd left behind in Atlantis half-solved. Not the critical stuff, there were always plenty of people to take up the slack when it was really important, but the stuff he just knew would be sliding into neglect about now.
Delegating without inviting anarchy was a skill and he was good at it, damn good, but there were things that he'd always done himself because it was easier than taking the time to instruct and supervise somebody else. He should probably get a call through to Radek at the next scheduled dial-in, talk him through the most immediate...
No. He remembered the politics, the dismissal, the interminable trip home because he wasn't a medical emergency, merely an inconveniently large package to be moved from Pegasus back to the Milky Way whenever it suited the powers that be.
He thought about Teyla and her new family, and about Ronon whose ties to Atlantis were more or less all about following Sheppard. Would he stay? Would Teyla, if they cut her off from influencing the expedition's policies? Probably not, they were both proud and... and so was Rodney. He'd gotten sick and they'd used him, and the team that had become like his family had been broken apart.
Sam spent quite a lot of the trip home trying to keep him busy, telling him all the ways it wasn't his fault.
No. He didn't owe anyone that call to Radek, except probably for Radek himself, and he was smart and he'd figure things out when they came up. Hopefully someone in a suit would be inconvenienced before that happened and then...
Rodney made a face over his plate, following that thought to its logical conclusion. And then Radek Zelenka became the indispensable one around Atlantis, and got his job for real and for good. Probably.
"Rodney." Kaleb nudged his shoulder, poised with a top-up of the sparkling fruit juice they were all drinking. "You were miles away."
"Yeah," Rodney admitted, moving his glass into range. "Thanks."
He washed down another dose of the medicine while Sheppard and Maddy cleared the dishes. Jeannie and Kaleb were holding hands around one corner of the table, half-watching their daughter. Quiet together, making the time to just...
Jeannie noticed him staring and tilted her head, quizzical.
"Sorry. Still miles away. I'll get another early night and... yeah." He began the performance that was getting up from an ordinary chair with the aid of a crutch. "Goodnight."
Upstairs, while he undressed around the cast and bandages and gave up on any idea of taking a soothing bath, Rodney heard Madison work through her piano lesson. He had to curl up his fingers, even the swollen sore ones, to keep himself from playing along on thin air, automatically correcting mistakes.
The little girl was hustled upstairs to the sounds of critical acclaim, then hushed by Jeannie on the way past the guest room door.
He remembered that he'd forgotten to say goodnight to her. That was better than nothing. At least he'd remembered. With John Sheppard around the kid probably hadn't even noticed that her uncle wasn't there for the little impromptu recital.
He'd known for a good while now that he needed to try harder. With people, with family. With the kid most of all because she hadn't known him before he knew how to try. But Rodney hated failure and trying to integrate the social niceties, to learn the new cues and responses, that was an invitation to massive, public and ongoing failure.
Maddy never seemed to hold it against him when he fell a little short. Rodney felt pretty certain that Jeannie would let him know if he ever really screwed up and failed to notice. Again.
In bed, foot propped up on a rolled towel and his back firm against the pillows, Rodney got almost comfortable for five minutes straight and fell asleep without even trying.
Opened his eyes with a breathless jolt, leaving some nightmare behind on the edges of memory, and found John stripping off at the foot of the bed, just stepping out of his shorts.
"Nice view," Rodney said, tongue thick and reluctant around the words. He couldn't tell if he'd been dozing there five minutes or a few hours. John snatched up his sleep clothes, exchanging careful silence for economical speed. Covering up. You'd imagine that the whole deal, this commitment, came with permission to look. Rodney thought it should. They didn't, though. They didn't ever just look.
John checked his phone, put it on charge next to his side of the bed, got in and settled down with a hand behind his head, further away than Rodney wanted him to be. Nearer to his phone, in fact.
"Can't wait for some action?" he tried, but the double-entendre got lost somewhere between his drowsy delivery and Sheppard's grim mood.
"Are you sleeping like that?"
"Is that okay?" Rodney heard the almost-laugh of incredulity getting into his voice and tried to keep it from turning into unintended whiplash.
"Sure." Apparently emotionless, John turned on his side, pushed his arm under the pillow and shut his eyes.
After he put out the light, Rodney reached out and touched. Cotton, skin. The relief of contact when he hadn't noticed he'd been going without.
John ignored him.
"You're still mad at me," he diagnosed. It was a safe bet and he trusted Madison's eyes. He held John's shoulder, unwilling to let go.
"I'm... trying," John said, tight under Rodney's hand and almost spitting around his own censorship. "If they drop you, I'll quit."
"You heard me."
Rodney tried to get a train of thought to start and stick.
"I thought you were mad at me about the accident."
"I am." Frustration made a dull monotone out of his voice. "I'm mad about pretty much everything and I don't know why, but I'm trying, okay?"
"Okay." He never did know where a conversation with this guy was going to end up. "I did kind of trash your whole team without even trying. And, you know, I promised you my body and soul and then turned into a total fruitcake."
John looked over his shoulder. Rodney could feel the glare.
"None of this is your fault."
"Yeah?" And really, truly, he wasn't fishing for sympathy but it was good to hear John say it. Better when he turned over and propped his head on his fist, attentive. "If I'd gotten help sooner--"
"Yeah, and if the Wraith and the Replicators had taken one look at us and surrendered, and we'd found a secret hoard of ZPM's our first week there and the commute home was just a daytrip... Rodney, there's no point in what-if. It happened. You're sick, you gotta get better." John's hand delved under the covers, came to rest on Rodney's abdomen. "You're already better, you've been sleeping right, and eating..."
"I've taken enough pain meds to send anyone to their happy place for a while. I don't think a broken arm is a long-term solution, here."
"Doc Keller said you just needed to rest and unwind and you'd recover in no time."
"Yeah, did you ever take a look at her work log? The woman runs mercy missions on her days off. She was dead on her feet by the time they figured out how to stabilise Carson. Believe me, I have a healthier definition of rest and relaxation than she does."
"Doesn't mean she's wrong. You rest up, you feel better, you pass whatever tests the SGC and the IOA want you to pass and we get back to work."
"That an order?"
"If you want."
Rodney ran his hand through John's hair. Because he could, because it was there, because he didn't always remember to show how much he...
John took it as an invitation and scooted closer, arranging himself carefully around the elevated leg. Looking for some place to put his hand. It still got uncomfortable, finding the right ways to grab hold of each other when they wanted to, when they weren't sure the other guy wanted to. He suspected it was a guy thing. Didn't think he'd ever known a girl well enough to worry about the implications of snuggling or not. Sighed and tried not to think about Katie Brown while John adopted a position not unlike the one Maddy had used earlier to effectively rip out his heart through his mouth. Weird how a hug could do that.
Still, he didn't miss the alternative, the clawing skin-hunger that he hadn't ever known he suffered from until he got to Atlantis and found acceptance of a sort; backslaps and half-hugs and handshakes in the lab; Elizabeth's cautioning hand on his arm; Carson gripping his hand when he was too sick to object, Teyla and Ronon swatting and slapping and manhandling him with vaguely malicious affection... and Sheppard, who slouched easily through life and smiled and never let anybody within a foot of his skin without donning some kind of invisible armour first; the flirting that wasn't, the looks that felt like touches, the fleeting touches that felt like a protective embrace. The sex that felt like solving the last perfect, elusive equation.
After all that it felt weird, backwards, that they didn't know where to put their damn hands half the time now they'd actually decided to be together. It hadn't been a problem before.
He hadn't known with Katie, either, but that'd been different.
"I was thinking about quitting anyway," Rodney said, after a while.
"Bullshit," John muttered.
"I'm just saying, there are options. You didn't sign up for 'in sickness and in health', here. It's not like we were ever gonna be out and proud in Atlantis. I wouldn't blame you for going back if I don't--."
"Rodney." John forced a couple of breaths, too shallow and shaken. "Shut the hell up."
Sounded like he was trying hard not to puke or scream or something, so Rodney did. He'd known there was a whole Pandora's box there; the iron self-discipline and the self-denial, the glassy smiles when a conversation got halfway intrusive. He'd known it might never change, just like Sheppard knew Rodney would be a smug prick sometimes, and sometimes they'd drop the subject and argue instead about who got the better deal. They always ended up grinning or fucking. Or grinning and fucking.
After Rodney had kept quiet for a while, John's shoulders loosened again and he breathed slower, deeper.
"Out and proud?" he parroted, shaking his head. "God, McKay." Rodney sniggered. John snorted against his chest, hand spreading out and rubbing, the language that always seemed to work. Well, when they weren't too tired, too terrified, too busy or too distracted to let it.
Rodney was sleepy but not tired, not after his marathon lie-in and the lazy day; his ankle throbbed and his arm ached but nothing exactly hurt, and while it wouldn't have occurred to him that this was a good time for sex, John had an insane pain threshold and probably thought now was as good a time as any.
His fingers undid the badly-tied cord at Rodney's waist then lingered with a coy little question-mark over the band before Rodney stroked his hair again and whispered, "yeah."
John's phone rang, got cursed at, got answered.
Rodney turned on the light and caught himself holding his breath, like he was afraid whoever was on the line might hear him there and know that Sheppard was being a bad little soldier. For all that the rules amounted to 'don't get caught' these days, it still mattered that you didn't get suspected either.
He couldn't actually believe that anybody would suspect. Not John Sheppard, who flirted and charmed the ladies wherever they went. Most people looked askance at the crazy notion that Rodney McKay was his best buddy, his trusted team-mate. Who the hell would believe the rest?
"Antarctica?" he asked, when John flipped the phone closed.
"Yeah. Sounds like it's getting outta control. Apollo's gonna transport me before heading out." He glanced at his watch.
"Have fun." He actually meant it but it sounded snippy and jealous. Rodney flinched. "Seriously. Go, be indispensable, save the day." John hadn't moved. "Pants," Rodney suggested.
"I got a few minutes." John walked around the bed, frowning hard, leaning over. "You'll have to tell Kaleb--"
"A big fat lie he knows better than to believe, yeah, I know." Rodney braced himself for the kiss, for having to stop kissing before John pushed his luck because the secrecy... he could be kind of career-suicidal when he'd been rubbed the wrong way lately. "Mm, listen, you gotta go," he protested, John's weight against his good leg and his bad arm. Delicious stubble grazing against his own. "Really, gotta pack and go. Duty calls," he managed, before John shut him up with his busy tongue. "Mm, how many minutes?" Rodney wondered, tilting his head to encourage John's mouth to follow the most sensitive path along his jaw.
"Not that many." Self-satisfied sparkle in his eyes, John sat back and slapped Rodney's uninjured leg. "I gotta go."
"And that was supposed to be?"
John flashed him a shit-eating grin.
Chapter 5: Indispensable
It took them two days and a chewing out from Carter before they decided to call in McKay, by which time the crack team of scientists had taken about half Sheppard's available volume of blood for study, disabled what looked like half the Ancient outpost's key systems and taken to huddling in small groups over their laptops where Sheppard couldn't glare at them from the control chair.
Okay, so the light-headedness had more to do with not having eaten properly or slept in forty-eight hours than with blood loss, they weren't taking it by the pint or anything, but Sheppard was sure he'd snap the next time anybody approached him with an empty phial. He didn't think it'd be a good idea to snap while sitting in the control chair. Things were screwy enough with the outpost already. It was all about concentration. For the past eight hours he'd been concentrating so hard he'd strained muscles.
The sound of McKay's imperious orders echoing across the facility made him grin, shamelessly pleased that his misery was about to find a whole lot of company. Rodney McKay didn't suffer fools gladly and as far as Sheppard had been able to make out the place was currently being run by them.
"Why does nobody consult Atlantis before they try implementing these half-baked theories? It's not like we live with the technology day-in, day-out or anything. It's not as if we've thought of these things already. Oh, wait, excuse me, that's right, we do, we did. Did anyone talk to Zelenka yet?"
Sheppard had never seen anybody rip through a working environment the way Rodney could, organising and motivating in the same breath as pissing everybody off, a personalised reign of terror. Still hobbling, one shoe and one set of waterproof strapping, Rodney had made the crutch an extension of his arm and used it to sweep the observers out of his way so he could stand in front of Sheppard who grinned, stupidly. Stupidly, stupidly glad to see him and just hoping that it wasn't written all over his face.
"It wasn't me," Sheppard said, before Rodney could make a crack. He wasn't in the mood. "I didn't break it any worse than they already broke it."
Rodney was nodding impatiently by the time he'd finished explaining that.
"I know. How long have they had you sitting there?"
"Six hour stretches, forty minute breaks. It's like a damn dead man's switch. Every time I leave..."
"I know." Rodney looked around him, scanning faces until he found one he recognised. "You." Addressing a young airman, he pointed at the chair. "Relieve Colonel Sheppard."
"Park it, Lieutenant. Just lie back and think of minimal power consumption."
Sheppard's head throbbed. He could keep a lid on the system glitches or he could hold a conversation. Couldn't do both at once any more and definitely, definitely wanted out of the chair, but he wouldn't have still been sitting there if the other scientists hadn't convinced him it was the best option.
"Rodney, it's not quite that easy--" He gave up the second Rodney made eye-contact with him. Getting lectured before he nodded and sagged just let him save some face.
"I need coffee, you need rest and a meal. This isn't going to get fixed this side of you collapsing and General O'Neill's in Atlantis. As much as I admire your staying power, this type of interface was intended only for short-term use and we need you to last in case the Ori show up. Out." Rodney gave a meaningful jerk of his head.
Carefully letting go of the threads of concentration, Sheppard did as he was told and stood. His eyes seemed to bend the shape of everything before it got to his brain, which was nauseating, and his butt had gone to sleep which was embarrassing. Shaking out the stiffness, he followed Rodney into the main chamber while behind him, the young Lieutenant was asking anxious questions as the gaggle of researchers installed him in the chair.
Sheppard gave him maybe an hour.
"Are you saying that thing could be dangerous?" He'd never had any sense of that, using the chair or any other Ancient device. They were built to stop you doing anything especially dumb to yourself.
"Not the chair, no, but prolonged use of those mental muscles... I'm just being cautious, here. There's a good reason that most of the systems in Atlantis rely on old fashioned push-button input. Even the highly-evolved Ancients didn't like using this stuff all the time." Even limping, Rodney was still getting ahead of him and stopped to wait. "Did they tell you why they even connected the ZPM?""Just that they were running experiments," Sheppard said, wearily. The briefing seemed like a week ago. Endless hours in the chair ago, at least one migraine ago and not enough meals. "This is a research facility."
"Unfortunately, it's also Earth's first line of defence against an attack from space. Breaking the superweapon equals bad." Rodney raised his voice for that part, earning dirty looks or turned backs from every workstation.
"So find out what they did and fix it."
"Yeah, working on it. I assume we removed the actual drone weapons before we started messing around in there?" he called, to the room at large. "People?"
"Yes, Doctor McKay," somebody supplied.
"Ah, my favourite three words in the whole universe," Rodney said, smiling broadly at the spokeswoman. "And you are?"
Sheppard recognised her face from the Daedelus and knew for a fact that McKay ought to as well. She went red around the ears and held her ground, offering a tablet with a work log and obediently holding it where Rodney could read it after he indicated his lack of free hands.
Conscious that he'd gone from being the centre of attention to being in everybody's way, Sheppard found a clear area of workbench and sat at it, trying not to take up unnecessary space.
McKay spent an hour touring the outpost, interrogating the resident staff and organising the people brought in for the duration of the emergency.
Not called upon for more than the occasional question and monosyllabic answer, Sheppard rested his chin on his hand and watched Rodney work. Food was put in front of both of them, computers were networked, files were produced and everyone born with the ATA gene got unceremoniously slapped with a red sticker on their chest. Rodney and everyone else using the gene therapy got green. Everyone with training in the chair or a simulator got blue. The people left wearing both red and blue looked understandably nervous. There weren't many of them and one look at Sheppard would've convinced anybody that they didn't want to get picked for his team today.
At some point, between the chicken stew and the chocolate mousse, somebody got yelled at and fired. That probably wouldn't stick - Rodney technically had no power over these people - but being a spectator was good for the soul.
"I think you're right about the prolonged exposure," he said, when people had stopped running about and Rodney was bent over a laptop. "I feel like I ran a marathon. With a hangover," he added, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
"Go get some sleep." Rodney finished reading whatever he was reading, and looked up. "Nothing in any of the research suggests that it's in any way harmful to interface with the Ancient technology, but even at the superficial level it's an effort to maintain any kind of conscious control. We're none of us used to sustaining that sort of mental discipline for hours at a time, with or without the gene. Someone with your level of control is... one in a hundred thousand. Probably less. Carson's ATA therapy makes the technology accessible to more users but it's only a part of the puzzle, only the... the passcode, if you will."
Sheppard nodded, tightening the invisible band that was trying to crush his skull. He was happy for Rodney to do all the talking, at this point, but felt like he had to prove he was listening.
"I... guess that was why they were experimenting. Try to spread the load."
"Whatever," McKay scoffed, like he'd never in his life broken something by poking it to see what'd happen.
Insofar as Sheppard understood the problem, one of the researchers had come up with an interface designed to let folks without the gene use the Ancient technology, had tried it out with the control chair and one insignificant little sub-system and caused the entire outpost to go insane.
"We're wasting unacceptable amounts of power whenever you're not in the chair to control the malfunctioning systems," Rodney said, stirring him from a badly concealed yawn, "but the blue-sticker-people can probably keep us from a critical overload or massive drain if they strain real hard and take short shifts."
"That's good." Sheppard felt sluggish, stupid. Like it might be a good thing all round if he went away and threw up. Everything was too bright for his eyes, little lights popping and fading to points of black in front of his optic nerve and leaving pain and pressure behind. "What do I do now?"
"You sleep. Habitat dome. Surface. Up." Rodney gestured in the direction of the access shaft, gasped with pain and let his broken arm rest in the sling again. Narrowed his eyes impatiently at Sheppard's automatic concern. "Will you go, already?"
"I would, but I like this chair." Sheppard let himself go off duty, let the exhaustion pour in and his body surrender. Let himself look at Rodney that whole other way and was glad to see him all over again. A sight for sore eyes. "How's the arm?"
"... it's fine. As fine as a fractured arm can be without not being fractured." Rodney spoke as if he suspected Sheppard of being simple today, eyes drawn constantly back to his computer screen. "Don't ask about the motion sickness, the sinus pressure or the painkiller withdrawal."
"Okay," Sheppard said, obediently.
He sat there and watched Rodney until Rodney noticed him again.
"Jeez. If you need something done--" Throwing down his stylus, Rodney moved to his side of the bench and beckoned vaguely with the fingers of his plastered hand. "Come on. I'll walk you to the living quarters. You look like you couldn't find your way to your own vest pocket."
He wasn't wrong about that; it was the longest Sheppard had been without anyone making demands on him since he arrived and now he'd come off high alert he was crashing. Short of war breaking out in the skies above Antarctica, he was past the point of no return. Contrary to popular opinion back home Sheppard did know when to quit. He did.
He followed Rodney and tried to walk straight. Every step jarred his headache, hammering it worse - by the time he caught up to Rodney at the elevator Sheppard was taking short breaths through clenched teeth in an effort not to puke.
It subsided a little once he stopped moving, back against the cool metal cage and eyes closed.
"Everything okay at your sister's?" he asked, on the slow ride to the surface. Rodney nodded, and Sheppard couldn't tell whether there was a story to his sad little smile, or if he was just multitasking - saving the day with the numbers in his head while escorting his big dumb friend to a bunk. "You look better," he tried, when Rodney failed to contribute anything more.
"You look like crap," was all he got back, but Rodney walked close beside him and they couldn't even pretend that it was because he'd be any help if Sheppard fell over. Their elbows brushed together as they moved, clumsy between Rodney's rhythmic limp and Sheppard's best efforts not to weave from side to side. Neither of them tried to stop it happening.
Rodney steered him into the bunk room furthest from the common room, a tiny four-bunk space that looked and felt like an afterthought. Smelled like socks and bleach. Rodney flicked on the overhead light and Sheppard automatically shielded his eyes from the harsh white glare. Two mattresses were bare and two had rolled sleeping bags. One, the nearest top bunk, had been firmly marked with somebody's all-weather jacket and a laptop case.
"Yours?" Sheppard gestured, leaning his weight against the metal frame and rubbing his face.
"Yeah, sure, the top bunk's mine, I hopped right up there," Rodney said, waving his crutch and rolling his eyes. "I just got here, I didn't pitch camp yet. God, you look awful. They said you were getting headaches, but I've seen you with your skull cracked open and you didn't look this bad."
"It's fine," Sheppard said, automatically. He wanted that light turned off. Rodney had places to be, work to do. "I'm fine, you go back. Kick their asses. It's gotta be six months since someone filed an official complaint against you. You're overdue."
"Nine," Rodney responded, without needing to work it out. Whatever Carter had said to him after the last one, it'd made an impression. "I must've been sickening for something."
They shared a long look that managed to be angry and sorry about it all at once.
"Yeah," Sheppard managed to say. Touched Rodney's arm, like a superstition, a lucky charm. Just so long as they were within reach, kept making the effort, kept closing the distance, everything would be okay, wouldn't it?
Christ, he needed some sleep. Fingers feeling weak and oversensitive, Sheppard rolled out the sleeping bag and opened it out. Sat on the bunk and halfheartedly loosened some buttons.
Rodney hesitated at the door.
"Leave your radio on. If you hear me screaming, run like hell."
"Is that towards you or the other way?"
"Still with the funny. You won't be laughing if this facility implodes with you in it."
Sheppard was foggy, but he didn't think that had the tone of one of Rodney's actual predictions.
"Why can't you just pull the ZPM till you figure it out?"
"That was their first idea when they broke it, and why there was no particular urgency when they put you on standby."
"It didn't work?"
"Really not. A whole bunch of stuff just died when they reconnected it, including the outpost's shield. In spite of which that system is still trying to draw power. We can pull it again if we really have to, conserve what's left that way, but this isn't going to get solved without trial and error. And probably you in the chair. Sorry."
"Gremlins," Sheppard muttered, getting his boots off with a sigh of relief and swinging his legs up onto the bunk. The room kept moving for a few seconds after he'd stopped. "Feels like kind of a fight in there."
"Oh?" Suddenly incisive, focused entirely on him, Rodney bent down. "How so?"
"Just... like it's pulling one way and I'm pulling the other. Like it's got a mind of its own. Like it... knows. Stays ahead or works around..." He heard himself and screwed his eyes shut, watching more of the popping white lights. "Or I should shut my mouth and sleep off this headache."
"If you say so." Sheppard put his arm across his eyes. He could think of some words for the headache. Interesting wasn't one of them.
"No, I..." Rodney perched beside him, awkwardly, propping his crutch against the bunk's frame. He gave Sheppard's arm a gentle shake until he uncovered his face. "As much as I hate to say it, your intuition carries a lot of weight when we don't understand something."
"That's not very scientific," Sheppard accused.
"No, it's not."
Rodney kissed him. It was over so fast, his brain so sluggish that Sheppard could've convinced himself he'd only imagined it.
Sheppard looked up at his face, worried blue eyes. Felt the worlds collide, clashing conflict deep down in his gut; the world where he wore a uniform, made the decisions, and the one where he could kiss Rodney for looking at him like that and Rodney would take the decisions right out of his hands.
Wished that he would. Right here. Right now.
Rodney looked away first.
"That was stupid. Sorry."
"We're still on vacation, right?" Sheppard asked, zipping himself into the sack and wriggling down. "After we save Earth again?"
"Unfit for active duty, yet here I am." Rodney's expression dulled, with that, and he straightened up. "Work to do. Get good and rested." Rodney turned out the lights. "See you later."
He jerked awake, grabbing at the big hand that covered his face before realising it was just Rodney taking off his headset. It was dark, but he knew Rodney; the weight of him on the side of the mattress, the scent of his skin and clothes, the nervous hesitation that he tended to think worked instead of stealth. He had the steadiest hands of anybody Sheppard knew when he was working, in his element and past all doubt.
"Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you up." Rodney's voice was low, very quiet. His fingertips brushed the hair above Sheppard's ear, the hand settling warmly on his shoulder.
"Crisis?" Sheppard asked, muzzily, easing onto his back. He felt like he'd been immobile in sleep, every muscle locked and sore.
"Acceptably diminished. Though I hope nobody chooses right now to attack us from orbit, because that would just be unsporting." Rodney rested his hand on Sheppard's chest, twirling the captured earpiece between his fingers. "You feel okay? One of the red-blue sticker kids actually passed out, but it's possible that I just scared the living crap out of him while outlining the potentially apocalyptic consequences of not doing what I... uh, anyway. You okay?"
"Yeah. Fine." His temples throbbed but less than before. On the bunk above, someone moved heavily and gave a raw, extended snore. The room, empty when he'd crashed, now had a full and lived-in feel to it. Probably every bunk was full.
Sheppard refused to feel suddenly guilty about having Rodney there, hip against his hip and hand over his heart. In the dark, brushing the unsteady borderline between familiarity and... more than friends. He wanted the moment, the time with Rodney but the temptation to cross the line... yeah, it was probably a bad idea to stay on his back and let Rodney go on touching him, in this situation.
He sat up, pushing at the sleeping bag until he could extract his legs, and waited for Rodney to struggle upright and out of his way; waited until they were outside in the corridor before speaking again.
"How long was I asleep?"
"Six hours." Rodney handed back his headset, sheepish. "We weren't gonna need you right away. Thought you'd sleep better if I took it off."
"Nice thinking. Thanks."
"Sorry." They walked past more bunk rooms to the main common room, where there was coffee and the remains of a hot buffet. A few people were sitting in small groups, chatting over food, or huddling alone with their laptops, but somebody had obviously called time on the hard work for the day. "So, it turns out that trying to bypass the ATA requirement really sends things haywire."
"We knew that before you got here. The Ancients weren't stupid." Screwed up, arrogant, short-sighted; all that, but not stupid. They'd needed to make everything they possibly could Wraith-proof, hadn't they? And the Wraith weren't stupid either.
"No, before I got here they were guessing. The outpost reacted to the tampering."
"A booby trap." Sheppard took a plate, filled it with rice and some mushy hot stuff, and headed for the nearest table. Rodney took the seat opposite, stretched out his bad leg and rubbed his chin.
"I'm not so sure. More like a critical layer of the interface just crashed. I haven't seen anything to suggest that the Ancients even knew their technology was fallible, and I seriously doubt that they foresaw eventually interbreeding with the seeded population and spreading the gene that way, so--"
"Please, I'm eating," Sheppard complained around a steaming mouthful of yellow curried something. It might've been meat. Once. "So not a booby-trap."
"No, I think the researchers unwittingly bypassed the regular systems and accessed some long buried subroutine, releasing the equivalent of a dormant virus."
Sheppard forced himself to swallow what was already in his mouth.
"Tell me you mean a computer virus, not a real one?"
"With a lot of this technology there's less difference than you'd think."
Rodney's enthusiasm was kind of reassuring; if he wasn't predicting doom and disaster then things were probably going to be okay, sooner rather than later. "What you said about it feeling like a fight for control, that gave me the idea to stop treating it as a random set of errors and consider that it was something... almost alive."
"Great. Did you kill it?"
"We're working on keeping it quarantined. Putting it back in the bottle, so to speak."
"And if we need to use the weapon or the shield in the meantime?"
"... we kill it," Rodney said, deflating. "You're not remotely interested in this, are you?"
"Beyond getting the weapons platform working again so I can shoot bad guys? Not really."
He hadn't shaken off the sleep, yet, but Rodney's hurt voice got through. He put down his fork and took a good look at the other man; saw the bruise above his left eye meeting the sleep-deprived smudge below it, the coffee stains on his thick shirt and the hand tremor that suggested Rodney was reaching his limits.
"Forget it." Rodney used a combination of the crutch and the chair back to get himself upright and balanced. Sheppard noticed, then, that while Rodney qualified easily as walking wounded, it was impossible for him to walk carrying so much as a cup of coffee, let alone a tray of food. "Switch to channel two and get your genetically superior ass down there when someone calls you."
Sympathetic looks came his way from the scientists who'd clocked off for the night. Sheppard scowled down at his half-eaten dinner and ignored them. It wasn't that Rodney didn't earn the reputation that preceded him, but there was a difference between his inability to suffer fools in the workplace and the way he got when he was at his limits already and somebody chose that exact moment to add carelessly to the load.
Rodney in pain, that was never pretty either.
When he was summoned half an hour later, Sheppard went armed with coffee and a covered meal tray, and two ibuprofen in his pocket. He'd never seen the place so deserted. Only Rodney and a handful of other people were working in the whole huge space, and the lights were powered down to minimum except directly above the table where Rodney had set up.
"I guessed you were off the hard stuff for the duration," he said, before Rodney could order him into the chair. "Here. These might help." He dropped the little white pills into Rodney's hand, waited for him to nod and put them in his mouth, then handed over the coffee. He put the food down on top of a pile of plans and notebooks and waited for Rodney's graceless grunt of forgiveness. "Got time to eat before we start?"
"Not really," Rodney said, already reaching for the cutlery. "The goal is to get our little friend out of the outpost and into isolated crystal memory."
"Okay." Sheppard made a face. "Your little friend?"
"I'm telling you, it's an artificial intelligence, or possibly the core programming for one, dormant in the computer..." Rodney looked up at him, chewing the first bite of food. "Think about the Pegasus Replicators--"
"I'd rather not," Sheppard admitted, uneasily. "You don't think they're related?"
"Only in the sense that the Ancients probably created this too." Rodney hesitated, his spoon dropping back to the tray. "And... probably abandoned it as an abysmal failure at some early stage, without cleaning up after themselves. As usual."
"I'm liking this less and less, Rodney. It had control of some pretty important--"
"Which is why we're going to secure it in storage where it can do no harm!"
"I still vote for the killing."
"Well, you would." A man with more hours of weapons training than many serving officers, who packed more ordnance on a daily basis than most soldiers would see in an entire tour, McKay somehow maintained a solid disdain for all things military, including his commanding officer. "Fortunately, you're just here to look pretty in the chair while we handle this like scientists."
"I thought I was saving the planet." Sheppard propped himself against the workbench and folded his arms. Rodney's elbow skimmed his hip every time he dug into the tray for another bite of food, and he was never going to get used to how good that felt. Just a casual, accidental touch; Rodney wasn't even noticing, intent on emptying the tray.
"They isolated all the drones before you got here," Rodney said. "Really, you're saving the outpost and the ZPM. Possibly just the operating system."
"Well, you sure know how to bring a guy down."
"Lest you forget that you're not the only human capable of using the chair."
"Just one of only two so far who can do it on demand and without busting any blood vessels--"
"Oh, you love it, don't you? You love being the man."
"If you've got it..."
Rodney looked up at him, smiled crookedly, and Sheppard missed a breath. They were going to need some new ground rules, he could tell. Starting with one about looks. Or smiles.
"I'll talk you through what we need you to do," Rodney said, apparently having no trouble breathing. Funny how he was the one who kept his feet on the ground while Sheppard... "Sheppard."
"First we need to find out where it's gone to ground. The sooner we do this, the sooner we're out of here."
"Then I get loaded up on painkillers and go home."
Rodney's expression slid through anxiety and into careful blankness, then he looked down at his laptop.
"I guess I'll settle for a five star hotel room, in the short term. And the pills." He rubbed his hand across his face, sighing. "We've really got to work on that planetary beaming technology. You know they flew me down here in an F-16? My lower intestine's still in Canada. I'm going back first class and horizontal."
"Sounds nice. Am I invited?"
"You don't need to be invited," Rodney said, with irritation that he was too tired or too sincere to try and hide. "That's sort of the point, isn't it?"
"I guess." He didn't know what the point had been; just that it had been important to let their families know they were...
Damn, Rodney was right. They needed a name for it. A word he could put in that sentence without belittling what they had, or scaring himself shitless. He should've asked Jeannie, he thought, obeying Rodney's impatient wave in the direction of the control chair. She'd cut through the bullshit and confusion, tell them what it meant, exactly, when you wanted to fuck about as badly as you wanted to breathe, and when you didn't have to check if you were invited.
She'd thought Rodney was engaged to Katie Brown, that sweet slip of a thing who made him try so hard he stopped even being himself. He wondered if they'd fucked; if it'd made either of them happy, or terrified, or satisfied.
"John." Rodney was standing in front of him, prodding his shin with the end of his crutch. "Do your thing? Give me a schematic of the power system. We can see where it pops its head up next."
"Yeah." He felt his face heat up, caught thinking the thoughts he couldn't afford to think when he was on duty. Not when he wasn't, either. He brought his hands down to the bio-interface, felt the itch at the back of his skull, the outpost coming alive under his control.
Angry, unbalanced, he ignored Rodney's first request and ran through the mental drills they used with newcomers back in Atlantis; power up; slip through the holographic menus from a map of the local solar system. Feel it, without affecting it. Be still. Rule one, don't screw anything up.
"What the hell are you doing that for?" Rodney demanded, swaying as he looked directly up at the hologram, currently showing Jupiter from a fixed orbit. "It is you doing that, right?"
"Just warming up," Sheppard muttered, shutting it down, going still with the power at his fingertips. Back in control. He brought up the power schematic.
"Good." Rodney beckoned an anonymous lab coat towards him with a tablet. "Hold that where I can see it. Don't touch anything."
"Yes, Doctor McKay."
Sheppard sucked in a smile. The woman's tart reply carried the not-so-subliminal suggestion that Doctor McKay could drop dead where he stood. He wondered how many PhD's she had to earn for the honour of standing there and holding a monitor where Rodney could see it.
"Okay. Give us the shield."
Sheppard brought up the shield with a thought.
The lights went out. Just the Ancient ones; the harsh Earth-built floods kept right on blazing, throwing huge shadows up the curving white walls.
Footsteps hurried towards the chamber with the chair.
"That wasn't me," Sheppard said. "I brought up the shield."
"Bring up the lights," Rodney suggested. He sounded intrigued.
"Rodney, I've played this game already. We played virtual whack-a-mole with this thing for two damn days and all I got was a sore head. Would you kill it already?"
"Humour me," Rodney said, distractedly. He circled the chair in a rapid hobble. "Try turning the lights back on."
They came on.
"Huh. Try calling for a drone. Don't worry, they're in storage, nothing'll happen, you'll get an error message."
Nothing happened. The lower left side of the holographic display informed him that there were zero weapons available.
"Happy now?" Sheppard closed his eyes, getting information overload from the holographic interface that scrolled faster than human eyes were happy processing. One detail stood out, though, consistent, growing the way the hum under the dais was growing, the brightness of the lights. "Power spike in this--," he started, but Rodney and the woman with the tablet had already converged, talking urgently.
"Crap," Rodney said and grabbed his arm, pulling as he spoke. "Sheppard, get out of th--"
For a moment Sheppard felt like he'd been glued to the chair, hands too heavy to lift. Then crackling energy discharge threw them clear of the dais, Rodney going down heavy under Sheppard's momentum and the both of them skidding across the polished floor. Rodney yelped with the impact but scrambled over, crutch and sling forgotten, hands randomly checking Sheppard for physical damage as the lights - all the lights this time - blew out in a series of dull explosions.
"Yup," he agreed, trying for an inventory of his own limbs. "Ow."
"What ow? Somebody get flashlights in here!" Rodney pulled at him, hanging on to him and Sheppard wondered if he was afraid of the dark. No. Not the dark. Pretty much everything else but not the dark, so long as there was plenty of room and air. Weird, that.
He stopped trying to lift his head, which only sent sharp pain jolting down his spine, the back of his thighs. Let his head rest on Rodney's thigh, instead, inhaling the familiar scent of his body and sweat to cover the acrid smoke, the pungent suspicion of scorched cloth and flesh. Better. "John," Rodney said, weakly, his good hand strong on the back of Sheppard's neck. "Get some damn lights in here, find out who's hurt!" he yelled. "Radio the surface!"
"The ZPM, the weapons platform," Sheppard prompted, because duty came first. Rodney bent close as a few thin flashlight beams started to dance off the walls and floor, voices and footsteps approaching at speed.
"Samuels got it offline before the..." Rodney ran out of breath and panted a few times, sorting out limbs that were probably reminding him they were already injured before he landed in a heap. "Takes more than a surge like that to fry a ZPM, don't worry, just be okay. John?"
People were trying to pull Rodney up and away from him. Seemed to take them both a few seconds to figure out that they were gripping each other tight and needed to let go now.
"I'm okay," Sheppard told him, let go, and let blackness in.
The IOA and the United States Air Force, Rodney was informed, were extremely concerned.
He gave the errand-person-Captain a dark look before turning back to his laptop. Six other people around the room were working on portions of the cleanup code but it was his program, his solution and delegation was often overrated. Rodney typed one-handed and two-fingered, drank too much coffee and swore like a sailor under his breath until he got the job done.
Under his skin, he felt the restless prickle-shiver of being terrified and alive.
He finished around local noon, his body clock screwed beyond repair and his forearm throbbing with a full-on sick ache. Took two ibuprofen with a cup of soup, for all the use that'd be, and read through the work one more time. He forced himself to focus fully on every last line.
"Okay," he said, backing up the backup and pocketing a copy. "Check it, debug, check some more and if the planet's not under attack send it to the SGC and have Lee's team check it too. Then I'll check it." He dropped his crutch and couldn't remember the name of the bearded guy who picked it up for him. "Thanks," he said, uncertainly, and then to the room at large, "that's good work people. Thank you."
It didn't even cost him a limb, and he felt the atmosphere change.
Had to remember that.
After a couple of tries Rodney remembered the way to the medical facility. That was a grand name for a room that had two cots and some emergency equipment, and one doctor who doubled as the head of genetic research and development and got to stick needles in everyone who sat in the chair. To the best of Rodney's knowledge, nobody had come up with a good reason why Sheppard and O'Neill were in such a minority of power-users - why their DNA was different, or what else they had besides the ATA gene that gave them the edge.
The doctor looked up from his desk as Rodney shuffled in. He'd been playing solitaire on his PDA.
"Doctor." Rodney had no idea what that guy's name was, either, and couldn't pretend he cared. "How's Colonel Sheppard?"
"Stable, resting. He was lucky, minor burns and a concussion. A slight electrolyte imbalance that we can't fully explain, possibly the result of spending so much time using ATA recently. Did you see the chunk that discharge took out of the wall down there?"
"Yeah, it was the chunk right behind my head." He blinked away fatigue. "Can you give us a minute, please?"
The doctor shrugged, dropped his PDA into the breast pocket of his white coat and strolled out. Rodney made a mental note not to get sick while he was here.
He eased himself into the plastic chair next to Sheppard's bed. He touched John's arm, reluctant to wake him if he was sleeping but even more reluctant to leave without talking to him. Making sure he was okay. Crawling onto the bed and clinging to him would be going too far, he knew, but that didn't mean he wasn't tempted.
"John?" Rodney turned on the bedside lamp, angling the shade carefully away from John's face. He sat and looked.
It wasn't dramatic. A band-aid on his cheek, a white gown, a red blanket and a white sheet tucked up under his arms. Cracked lips, a little bloody. Pulse ox clip on his finger and fluids in his arm; the steady repeating blip of his heart rate on the monitor. Medical overkill, Rodney hoped; medics in the Stargate Program had learned to err on the side of caution, monitoring everything just in case, if only to allow them to better learn from their mistakes if the patient unexpectedly died or mutated into a giant bug.
John turned his head, smiled drowsily. His lip tore open again and bled.
"This is turning into a bad habit," he said, dabbing at the tear with the back of his hand.
"Tell me about it," Rodney said, weakly. His body hadn't forgotten the last time, the bedside vigil and the caffeine overload. Jennifer had resorted to dropping loud hints about his blood pressure and deep vein thrombosis to get him to move. "We're gonna need a fetish for hospital gowns if this keeps up."
"Already have one," John deadpanned. Rodney decided he was kidding and tried to laugh. "'m serious. The ones that tie up at the back and leave your ass hanging out--"
"Mine, actually. 'd I say that out loud?" John turned his head again and watched the fluid drip into the line for a few beats. "Am I stoned?"
"I don't think so." Rodney didn't know. Had needed to put John out of his mind, to work, to do what needed to be done and trust other people to do what John needed. Felt sick now, and lost, and wanted to touch John's skin so bad it almost hurt not to. Just like the last time. "We can talk about your personal kinks when you're back on your feet, I promise."
"Yeah?" John's smile was slow, would've been sexy if not for the broken lip and glassy eyes. "Promise promise?"
"Cross my heart. But you'll have to meet me halfway and indulge a fetish of mine," he added quickly because everything - everything - was a contest, or easier if he treated it like one.
"Yeah?" John dropped his voice as the doctor came back into the room. "Math porn DVDs? Midnight snacks?"
"Bathtubs," Rodney corrected, even quieter. "With bubbles."
John sniggered and Rodney decided that he probably was stoned on something after all. The bang on the head hadn't been that bad. "Okay. I'll let you rest and..." He started to stand up and landed hard in the chair again. The room spun and he leaned forward, breathing hard. "Wow, I should probably get some rest myself."
"Were you hurt?" John's hand groped for him, missed. Rodney guided it back to the covers and held it there, patting it uncomfortably.
"Not hurt, I'm just... you rest, okay? I just wanted to..."
"Yeah," John said, with feeling. "You fix the outpost?"
"It's getting done. Looks like the rogue program was corrupted when it caused the overload, left a few pieces of itself lying around so we just need to--"
Rodney took another good look at him and softened. Not a great time for technical detail.
"Yes, I think it's dead. We just have to repair the damage it caused."
"Why'd it try to kill us?"
"What?" Halfway to his feet, Rodney sank back to the chair again. "It overloaded the main power conduit into the drone banks. I think we attracted it when you accessed those controls. It wasn't personal," he added, because John was looking blank. It didn't suit him.
"Felt personal," he muttered, under his breath, and turned on his side to get comfortable. "Night Rodney."
"It's midday," Rodney told him, but John was out already.
The doctor was playing with his PDA again as Rodney left. He decided to take it as a good sign.
Rodney located his small backpack under the bunk John had used. Pushed John's stuff to the foot of the bunk and lay down there himself, because at least that way he could be sure nobody would kick him out for the next few hours. Because John had been there already, his more honest inner self supplied, and Rodney curled around the thought, pushed his feet into the sleeping bag, zipped himself in.
When he closed his eyes, the memory of John outlined in killer blue light was still burned in, stark against the back of his lids. He could feel John hitting him, hip sharp against his thigh as they landed, grabbing to protect one another. Just like normal, only not because remembering made him start shaking, and it was different this time from all the other close calls and daring rescues and dumb-ass suicidal Sheppard stunts. Whatever they called it, whatever label and definition John would decide they could live with, they'd given themselves a lot more to lose than before.
He dozed without really sleeping, too aware of where he was and the work half finished; that he technically had a planet to save and that taking a prescription painkiller at this point would be bad. The pain wasn't so bad anymore, it'd flared after his fall with John and then faded to background noise; an irritation, a distraction but not as much of a problem as John being unconscious on a stretcher, taken out of his sight, as relying on radio updates while he struggled to focus on what had to be done.
The smell of the evening meal pulled him out of the restless nap, via a bathroom to the common room where twenty or more people stopped what they were doing and looked at him. The medical doctor was there, busy with a tray of food.
Rodney blinked at them, shook himself mentally, searched the faces for one that could give him an update.
He ate a few bites of salty stew while someone brought him up to speed on repairs, showed him alterations to the new diagnostic program... half of it barely registered, like the guy was speaking the wrong language or Rodney was losing his command of the one they had in common. It looked right, felt right but could he trust his instincts right now?
"We're having more problems integrating th--"
"It doesn't need to be perfect," he said, because it didn't. He hated the very idea, but it really didn't. It just had to kill bad guys on demand again, then he could leave, he and John could leave, and he'd swear off saving the world until he could trust his own brain again. "We get the weapons platform operational then you ship Kavanaugh up here with his snowboots to finish off while I go back to playing with my niece."
"Okay." Rodney rubbed his eyes, the screen making his eyes itch. "Looks good. Run the sweep, let me know if it finds anything left that you can't quarantine."
Satisfied that people were slowly getting back to doing jobs they were familiar with and capable of, that his program was sound and that the gremlin was probably dead already anyway, Rodney left the project leader in charge of his own project and went to see Sheppard.
He closed the medical room door behind him, leaned on it and fought the urge to lock it, shut the demanding world out and just...
John was picking at a meal tray with a plastic fork, a crumpled magazine folded open in his free hand.
"Hey," he said, and Rodney breathed a little easier for seeing him sat up, functioning normally. A too-familiar sight in hospital white. "Thought you were getting some sleep."
"This shouldn't be me," Rodney told him, the words a flood of worry and relief combined. "I shouldn't be here. I came because you were in trouble when I should've told them no."
There was a pause, Sheppard slowly lowering the magazine and maintaining his listening expression, like it took him a while to catch up with the rush of words.
"Did you screw up?"
"Not yet! But I can't do this, not now, that was just the pills making me sleep so I could function but I can't, and..."
Suddenly there, in his face and substantial, John took hold of his upper arms, waited for him to push past the panic and take a breath.
"Listen to me," he said. Rodney always did, even when he pretended he wasn't, or when he didn't want to hear. "You know this, you can fight it. You breathe. You face it. You're beating it."
"It hasn't been this bad since Atlantis. I can't concentrate! I have to hand this off, what the hell was I thinking? If this happened yesterday--"
"It didn't." John shook him, sort of. Gentler than that, rocking him on his feet, hands holding him tight. "It didn't happen. You whipped everything into shape, right?"
"Faster than anyone else could've, I bet. Nobody knows this stuff like you do. You get some sleep, we finish up and we'll get out of here. No more missions until you're ready, okay?"
Dipping his head, chasing eye-contact while Rodney tried to avoid it, John waited for his nod.
Rodney didn't know how to explain - how sure he'd always been of his decisions; how shaky the foundations of that certainty had become over the past few weeks. How one moment he trusted his mind, felt the clarity and the next... He let John kiss him so he didn't have to try arguing the point. He was here now, he was the man on the spot. He had to get this right and he didn't live the kind of life where excuses cut it. He was used to being fine with that. Proud of that, even if his peers and rivals thought he'd burned out years ago. He'd chosen the secrets, the pressure, the anonymity. It paid. It paid in so may ways, and one of them was Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard kissing him, bringing him back to centre, making his lips tickle with something tempting.
"Somebody'll see," he complained, resenting it more than he ever had because that kiss felt like it could cure everything if they just kept at it long enough.
John pressed him back against the door, pressing the kiss against Rodney's hesitation and losing. Not giving in without one last inviting brush of lower lip across lower lip. Rodney wondered sometimes if Sheppard wanted to get caught, or if he trusted Rodney to be sane enough to say no.
"Doc won't mind if you take the other bed. We can roll you off onto the ground if someone gets sick."
"Right." The Sheppard bedside manner. Never failed to make Rodney get better sooner, even if it was by a roundabout route. And sleeping together, even if it was only in the same room, that was something. Probably a needy, pathetic something. Rodney didn't care. "Look, sorry about... it's not that I don't want to, but I'm possibly hanging on to coherent thought by a couple of fingertips here and... discretion being the better part of valour..."
John kissed him again. Just a peck, immobilising his lips for long enough to stop the flow of verbal crap.
Rodney let himself get led to the empty cot, lay down obediently, shucked the sling. John threw a blanket over his legs.
"Gimme your radio," he ordered, hand out. Rodney did. "I'll wake you up if they need you."
Moving easily, not so bothered by his injuries that Rodney felt like worrying, John went back to his bed and his magazine wearing Rodney's headset. Anybody who called for him in the next few hours had better hope it was actually important.
"Where d'you want to go after we leave here?" Rodney asked, more because he wanted John to talk at him than because he cared about the answer.
"I'm easy." John flipped a page, got better settled. "I don't wanna outstay my welcome with your sister."
"Are you kidding? She's crazy about you. Madison was heartbroken when you were gone in the morning. I had to buy her a doll and watch The Little Mermaid for two days straight." And sit with her balanced on his good knee, playing one-handed accompaniment while she improvised the soundtrack. He'd forgotten how easily it came, the perfect pitch and perfect control. Always had. Madison didn't have that, took after her mother and approached the music with slightly haphazard enthusiasm and determination, as something intractable to be conquered. He sighed, looked at blunt and scarred hands that he'd once kept supple and safe because they represented...
Rodney sighed, groping for the blanket and pulling it up to his hips. He'd stopped taking care of his hands when he gave up playing the piano even in private. He'd been, what, seventeen? Eighteen? Already years into a lifetime of hunching over computers and scrawling calculations on chalkboards until his carpal tunnels begged for mercy. He just wished he could pinpoint where he'd stopped taking care of his mind.
A person didn't go from sane to crazy, coping to not without... a trigger, a reason, an obvious decline. He wondered when it'd started and if anybody at all had noticed.
"It helps if you close your eyes," John observed, exaggerated patience and a spark of mischief. He got bored real easily, Rodney knew. A hospital bed, forced inactivity, he never lasted long.
"You might wanna look up 'insomnia' in the dictionary," Rodney gave back, the best he could manage. His body wouldn't sleep but his mind was freewheeling, a broken and useless machine right now. He might as well be unconscious, might as well take the pills and render himself incapable of productive thought for the next few hours.
He wondered how long John would last playing chaperone and companion if the weeks turned into months or years of this. Couldn't see that future, couldn't extrapolate it from the known facts.
When he was nine years old and had beautiful, graceful hands, Rodney had known for sure that music was his life, the whole backbone of his personal reality.
At twenty-one he'd known he was going to eclipse Einstein, Newton, because the answers to everything were at his fingertips, tantalising and thrilling. He just had to stretch out his hand.
He didn't dare let himself know anything about the future, any more, but he wanted... wanted to keep on waking up next to John, finding his hidden clues, stumbling into his tripwires and earning his trust. The whole messy, imperfect thing.
"John." Sheppard looked up. "Thank you." Rodney choked on the words but not for the wrong reasons. Not with John looking at him that way, soft-eyed and fond. Worried, too.
"Get some sleep," John ordered, smiling uncertainly as he went back to his reading.
After a few minutes watching him, thinking about nothing else but him, Rodney fell asleep.
Sheppard was back in uniform before breakfast was served. Nobody present technically outranked him, what with the IOA insisting on leaving the outpost under civilian control, so he gave the young doctor a breezy smile, left the medical room for a shower and didn't go back.
He found Rodney in the common room, alone at a table and working on two laptops at once. Other people were already hard at it too, but there was still the sleepy atmosphere of scientists who hadn't had their coffee yet and might not be fully functional until after a hot meal materialised within reach.
He clapped Rodney on the shoulder and dropped into the seat beside him.
"How's it coming?"
"Good, fine." The picture of concentration and effort, Rodney spared him an unseeing sort of a glance. "We have the power restored, we're re-initialising the critical systems, they're managing the diagnostics down there without your exceptional prowess at the controls. It's good." Sheppard would've bet fifty bucks that Rodney was dispensing information on automatic and wouldn't remember the conversation later.
"You lose your crutch?"
"Hmm?" Engrossed in Ancient script, Rodney turned his head as if to acknowledge Sheppard but didn't get as far as taking his eyes off the screen.
Sheppard poured him a black coffee and put it within reach, catching a belated murmur of thanks as Rodney's hand moved automatically to close around the mug. He knew the difference between McKay buried in his work and McKay lost in a downward spiral of despair; was satisfied that this was just work, that Rodney had gotten enough sleep to bring him back to peak performance for a while.
Hell, they didn't need him at his peak Just close enough to scare all the other guys into being at theirs.
Not currently in demand Sheppard took a walk around the compound outside the dome. The base was spreading, like any Earth facility tended to, though with a whole lot less pollution than had once been the case thanks to the Naquadah generators. He was glad about that; he had more than a soft spot for Antarctica and its clean open spaces, had loved flying the relative wilderness even if it meant being the USAF delivery boy and cab driver while his contemporaries were getting F-302 training and closing ranks in the intense, final way that only men who'd seen what was out there could wear.
At the time, Sheppard hadn't cared about the big pink elephant of a secret around the rec facilities at McMurdo; hadn't cared that he'd probably never serve his country again in any capacity more pressing than flying cargo.
Correction. He hadn't cared much. Cut free from his marriage, his career prospects in the toilet, he'd enjoyed the self-pity and the rage for a while, and then enjoyed the placid aftermath where the world could go fuck itself for all he cared.
Later, he'd found out here at the outpost that the world very nearly had, several times already, and there was something he could still do about it.
These days a space flight felt almost routine half the time. Flying the Puddle Jumpers didn't take much in the way of effort, even for an unskilled pilot. He missed the challenge of good old Earth tech, simple aerodynamics and his own skill keeping him up there and alive to enjoy the ride.
A couple of SGC airmen threw cigarettes into the snow and stepped on them, saluting as Sheppard sauntered past. His men in Atlantis knew better, even the Marines who were mostly about unthinking military reflexes by the time the Corps was done training them.
Sheppard made a point of not looking back at them as he followed the perimeter fence back towards the main dome. He hadn't seen them slacking and they hadn't seen him not salute, and military discipline was maintained in the most efficient way possible.
He tramped back to the habitation area, tossed his jacket across Rodney's table and got himself some breakfast.
"It's a beautiful day out there," he said, sitting opposite McKay and right in his line of sight. "You should get some air."
"No thank you. You know where the hole in the ozone layer is? Right overhead. Thanks, but I'll leave the disgusting fatal skin cancers to the richly deserving."
"Should've packed sunblock," Sheppard said, muffled by oatmeal.
"Hey, they barely let me pack a toothbrush and a change of underwear," Rodney complained. Sheppard noticed for the first time that he was wearing SGC green under a too-tight polar fleece jacket; he was crossing the line from unshaven into growing a beard and frankly smelled kind of ripe. "They gave me a little toilet kit, you know, a comb and what have you? Little sachets of refreshing citrus body wash, citrus shampoo. Can't tell you how much I love these people."
"I don't think they meant for you to eat it," Sheppard said, glad to hear him raise his voice; get pissy and self-important; get back to something approaching normal for a little while. "You can use mine." He saw McKay's scowl in the direction of his cast. "I can give you a hand."
"Yeah, because that won't tip anybody off."
"Sometimes a cigar is jus--"
"Is that supposed to be funny?"
"No..." Sheppard said, warily. "What's the matter with you?"
"I'm just... in Atlantis I know where I stand. Who I can... I just want to get out of here, okay? Let me work."
"Okay." He concentrated on his oatmeal for a while. Rodney started typing something with more speed than accuracy - his hand kept flying to the delete key and his focused expression was turning to a frustrated scowl. "How long have you been at it?"
"What?" All the impatience got directed his way with a penetrating stare.
"I meant, did you eat breakfast? We don't need you passing out."
Rodney looked over at the food service then down at the screen.
"I'll get something in a minute. Could you please... be somewhere else? I can't think with you hanging around."
Sheppard felt a fool over it, but that was a little knife-twist, a physical hurt that lingered for the next few hours. He worked out, ignoring the pull on his burns and bruises; earned himself the endorphin high. The habitation area might've grown since his last visit but he was still conscious of being in the way as soon as he left the little gym. The scientists were busy, either with their regular work or Rodney's orders, and those dealing with Rodney were looking harassed and bad tempered.
Short of volunteering to put his scorched ass back in the chair to help with the testing, Sheppard couldn't see a way to be useful so he found a spare terminal in the communications room and caught up on some recent mission reports from Stargate Command.
It was something else, reading those while he was stuck on Earth. In Atlantis it all felt unreal; sure, it was his planet, his home, but far away. They had problems of their own and he had responsibilities. Friends. Allies. Even enemies. He could pluck out the facts that seemed like they might prove useful and leave the rest on some emotional shelf where he didn't worry too much about the fate of his own home planet. For the most part he thought it was in good hands and there was plenty to distract him when he doubted it. Being on Earth, it'd always cross his mind that maybe he should stay, join the fight; he thought they'd give him a command out of Cheyenne Mountain, a team, but it wouldn't be his team. And that'd suck.
He was glad of the time with Rodney. He was. It just would've been a lot more welcome back in Atlantis, maybe a trip to the mainland where Rodney could bitch about the bugs and enjoy the rations, and where being alone had a whole other meaning.
After Pegasus, Earth made him feel pretty crowded.
Each time he left again for Atlantis, Sheppard had it in the back of his mind that he might not come back. That even given the choice he might never come back.
Rodney and the chief researcher declared the planet saved at 16:43hrs and somebody laid on hot chocolate for a small-scale toast in the common room. Rodney slipped away as soon as everyone's attention was on the steaming jugs and Sheppard tailed him, didn't try to catch up to him but wanted to... hell, just wanted to be near him, which was pathetic enough, let alone that Rodney obviously wanted to get away from everyone. He stopped short of following the poor bastard into the bathroom, made his way to his bunk instead and sat there feeling like a fool.
He'd been married he knew that even when two people didn't need to sneak around, even when they lived under the same roof they weren't... they didn't live under each others' feet. Wouldn't work if they tried. Sheppard had never gotten any good at the mutual arrangements that made things work, dealing with the mutual acquaintances. Truth be told he'd been lousy at married life, period; had practically dropped the ring from shaking as he put it on Nancy's finger and should've taken the hint then that he wasn't cut out for conventional couplehood, audience looking on with expectation.
McKay had lower expectations, practically zero expectations, and that... that was good. Even if they could, Sheppard didn't think he wanted to have the world looking back at them and knowing, measuring them up against some subjective scale of personal happiness and fulfillment. Like that was something that could be achieved, earned.
He'd tried that with Nancy. Tried himself in knots, followed her lead because she'd seemed to have it all figured out. He'd looked for meaning in the rituals and landmarks of their life; the engagement, the wedding, the wedding night. The house, the car, the dinner parties, the--
Sheppard rubbed his face, pushed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets as if trying to press the past back inside his head and keep it there. It was no good now, no use to McKay who needed him steady and unquestioning and above all strong. Some other time, maybe he could be the one who lost it for a while, let himself dwell on the things he usually couldn't afford to. He'd never tried that in good company. Maybe, one day, as long as it was Rodney there for him.
The door opened and Rodney almost trod on his boots.
"Oh, sorry," he said, looking bemused. "Forgot, this is yours. I just borrowed it." He really did look like he'd forgotten, grey-faced and struggling to organise his thoughts.
"You want it?"
"No, I left my... under the bunk, my stuff."
Sheppard bent and felt around until he found the lightweight pack. They really had made Rodney travel light. Just his luck to miss getting transported the easy way by the Apollo.
"Sit down," Sheppard ordered, moving sideways to make room. "What happened to the crutch?"
"Oh. Doctor... thingy... said I could lose it. He's one of those doctors who thinks pain is a good and improving thing." Rodney sat, slowly, and pushed out his feet in front of him. "Look, both shoes."
"And your arm?"
"Ugh, weeks to go." He squirmed his shoulder and waggled his fingers in the sling. "Itches. Gimme."
Sheppard put the pack into his lap and watched him rummage.
"When do we get out of here?"
"Oh. That." Rodney located painkillers, the drugstore kind but stronger than the ineffectual ibuprofen, and looked at the box with a happy little sigh. "Things are a little backed up, lots of people here who don't need to be and most of them aren't on leave." The vague smile went all smug. "Neither is Kavanaugh, any more, though. He's enjoying an economy flight to New Zealand as we speak. With all the traffic they won't get to us until tomorrow at the earliest."
"Right." Sheppard watched for a while as Rodney struggled to pop the capsules through the foil then grabbed the strip and did it himself. "Here."
"I should've grabbed some of that hot chocolate." Grimacing, he swallowed them dry, then directed a crooked smile Sheppard's way. "Indispensable, huh?" They grinned, Sheppard's lip stinging, threatening to tear again and Rodney barely keeping his eyes open. "You wanna do something tonight?"
"Like what? There's not much of a scene around here, in case you hadn't noticed."
"I don't know." Rodney blinked, making an effort. "Movie?" Another blink, a frown. "Private screening?"
"Not a whole lot of privacy either," Sheppard reminded him, and half thought that Rodney had actually forgotten, even sitting with his head bowed.
"You spent nearly a month here before we went to Atlantis," Rodney said, dismissively. "Are you telling me you didn't figure out how to sneak behind the bike sheds?"
"Guess they must've left that stop off my welcome tour," Sheppard said, dryly. "Are you telling me that you did?" He remembered his first taste of Rodney's company - remembered being taken aback by the sheer drive of the man, down there under the ice. Had him pegged as a workaholic, an obsessive, a guy who lived to solve the next puzzle. Off shift, he'd played chess and argued physics and galactic politics with Grodin, he'd harassed Beckett about his health or he'd slept. If Rodney had taken time out to date in those weeks leading up to departure...
"Well, no, but you know me. Prepare for every eventuality. I figured out where to go. Just in case something... came up."
That he could buy.
Rodney went red.
"Right." He had a feeling this was a waste of conversation; Rodney wasn't going to be awake for long after those painkillers worked, Sheppard could tell. "So, do we hang a sock on the door or something?"
"We could do that, if you feel like starting the rumour that we're sleeping together," Rodney said, patiently. "And some of these guys don't get out much," he added, nose screwing up as his imagination went places. "They might miss the significance and walk in anyway, and then..."
"Rodney." Sheppard didn't - very definitely and deliberately didn't - check the door before kissing his cheek. Startled, Rodney stared at him and waited. "Get some rest. I'll wake you up for something to eat."
"But I..." Rodney swallowed, nervous-tight and unsure. Touched his tongue to his top lip and made Sheppard want to kiss him there, too. "Last night, you wanted, um..." He sighed, realising for himself what Sheppard had known since he walked in; that sleep was about his only option at this point. And that Sheppard wouldn't even need to make it an order.
Rodney did glance warily at the door before he kissed Sheppard back, impatient and as seductive as sandpaper. Welcome even so. "Another raincheck?"
The anticipation was already an almost physical thing, almost sweet inside him. He kind of liked it.
"You'd better believe it."