It’s only two days before he notices how Rodney’s hands flicker over a keyboard. Those fingers operate like they’re used to typing ridiculously large amounts of text in very short periods of time. Dexterous, he thinks, may be one very understated way to put it.
Still, he barely knows the guy. Talking about how long and dexterous someone’s fingers are is not really something the military has ever encouraged. Even in the Air Force, where floppy hair and the occasional homosexual do occur in even the best squadrons.
Actually, his squadron leader was the homosexual so... that was that, really.
By the time a month has passed in Atlantis, John’s gotten to watch Rodney’s fingers on a keyboard far more than he really likes, given that Rodney types fastest when all their lives are on the line.
Rodney’s fingers are less awesome with weapons.
John’s pretty sure McKay was never picked for his potential ability to shoot hostile aliens who suck the life out of humans with their hands but he finds himself dragging a scientist into the nearest training room for a go at the firing range.
The good part is that Rodney learns quick.
The bad part is that Rodney never shuts up.
It’s not just Rodney’s fingers that are fast; Rodney’s tongue works just as well. Is just as dexterous, John thinks, and then rolls his eyes at himself.
It’s been a while since the divorce, and a long time since he’d been removed from Afghanistan and generally told that his career in the Air Force was in the toilet. He’s had a few one-night-stands with some great women since then but nothing approaching a relationship. So it stands to reason, he feels, that he’s starting to eye up his team.
It’s part and parcel of settling in- trying to determine where they fit.
Ford is discounted almost immediately. He’s too much like a kid brother. Or a puppy. John’s not really sure which but he gets the feeling that if he whistles, Ford will come bouncing up with his tongue hanging out, and then beg for ice-cream or something.
Teyla would be the obvious choice but she’s too... distant. Different?
Strong, he decides, definitely strong. He’s got nothing against women who can take care of themselves but he likes being needed. And Teyla does not want him or need him.
McKay, on the other hand, seems to spend most of his time expecting John to protect him from the big bad aliens. And doing some protecting of his own, but then that’s why John doesn’t mind it so much.
Rodney McKay, with his snark and his genius and his quick-silver tongue, fingers flickering over a keyboard in an effort to stave off yet another enemy/ hive ship/ malfunction. John can’t understand a word of all those tech things but he can understand watching the back of the man who’s going to save his sorry ass when it’s not down to blowing things up.
Between them, they’ve got a little system going.
When they’ve been in Atlantis for about six months, John looks up from watching Rodney’s broad hands move over several control panels at once to find Rodney staring at him, eyes bugging with exhaustion but still clear enough to show his confusion.
“What?” Rodney demands, “Why are you always staring at my hands? I don’t have a sixth finger or anything and my nails are clean. You don’t understand anything I’m typing so it can’t be that.”
John sort of shrugs and deflects the question, which isn’t hard given that they’re about to die (again) somewhere off-world (again) and Rodney really does need to concentrate on what he’s doing.
A day later, when they’re all very much alive, John sits down across from McKay in the room where they’re waiting for Elizabeth to turn up so they can officially finish the really unnecessary debriefing.
“You did good,” he says, because Rodney’s sulking about not being quick enough to re-route power from the something conduits to the whatever circuits and okay, John had enough to do fending off very large evolved bears to listen all that much.
“You must have typed one hell of a term paper,” he comments laconically.
Rodney tells him smugly that he did indeed type a hell of a term paper. Rodney tells him this in detail. And Rodney tells him what his typing speed is. And then Rodney tells him about being told to stop wasting his time with the piano when he was twelve.
He says it matter-of-factly, and there’s a small amount of hurt but John’s watching carefully and he hears scarring more than raw wounds. So he assumes that Rodney’s over it.
“That makes sense,” he says peaceably.
It strikes him as weird that Rodney stopped doing something just because someone told him to but for all he knows, Rodney could have been bored. Could have wanted to stop by then. Probably found astrophysics and realised his true calling.
John puts the whole subject to bed and doesn’t pay it much attention after that. Until they find a weirdly piano-like contraption somewhere that Rodney sneers at and then turns his back on. Typical Rodney, though, the man’s sneaking looks from the corner of his eye.
Which John knows because Rodney’s people skills have landed them on the knife-edge of intergalactic ‘situations’ so often that he keeps a sharp eye on the smartest brain and dumbest mouth in two galaxies.
“Hey,” he says, and nudges Rodney in the arm, “You think you could play that thing?”
“What thing?” Rodney asks impatiently, and then points at the machine, “That thing? Please.” He flicks his fingers at it as if it isn’t worth a second look.
John shrugs and let’s it go. Again.
A year after that, he’s stuck with two brand spanking new marines and Rodney on a torn up puddlejumper in the middle of a winter blizzard. It’s freezing outside and not much better inside. If they don’t die of hypothermia, then the wind might get them by dumping the creaking old ‘jumper off the bank and into the flooding river.
Attempts to find their way back to the Stargate have left them all soaked to the skin and demoralised.
Rodney fusses with life support and internal temperature control and communications and John follows him around, peering over his shoulder and prodding at buttons. The marines keep their big feet tucked up and their hands shoved under their armpits and they seem to think they’re not going to survive.
It’s a reasonable concern. John and Rodney have cheated bad luck, death and taxes for so long that it’s become kind of a habit but brand spanking new marines haven’t had a chance to develop that attitude yet.
"When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cop,” one of the marines says, when they’re on their second round of ‘keep talking and we might just make it’.
“No kidding,” John says, because he’s running out of disinterested but encouraging replies, and because he’s watching Rodney’s thin lips move soundlessly while those long, blocky fingers drag out and modify wires and crystals.
Life support is up and running. No problem with that. But simple heat is proving to be a hassle and by the time John puts two and two together, Rodney’s hands are blue and shaking.
There are two things John can do. He can do something about it, like get Rodney to stop, stick his hands under his armpits and warm them a little. Or he could ignore it, which is probably what McKay would want.
Rodney’s got a stubborn streak several miles wide, and Rodney never stops in the middle of a job. Not when he believes he can get it done with just a bit more time, a bit more effort.
Of course, the last time that happened, Rodney blew up five-sixths of a solar system. John should know; he got front row seats to the fireworks.
Rodney’s stubbornness can be self-destructive. So John sits down next to Rodney, turns so the marines can’t see them, and then he snags one of Rodney’s hands away from the keyboard.
“Hey! I was... what are you doing? Why are you rubbing my hand?”
“Hypothermia is a very real possibility,” John says blandly, and, “I figured astrophysicists need their hands. Kind of a job requirement.”
“Actually, no. I could do the thinking part. Also- lab assistants and prosthetics.”
“Yeah. And watching your thumbs fall off,” John retorts, and twists the tips of his fingers against Rodney’s right thumb.
He expects an ‘ow’, and gets a ‘humph’.
“Sorry,” he says but he’s really not. Rodney’s hand is a block of ice. He’s not sure whether his own fingers won’t get frostbite just from direct contact. What’s more, if Rodney didn’t feel the pinch, it means pain receptors aren’t doing what they’re supposed to.
“How long since you lost feeling in your hands?” he asks bluntly.
Rodney grimaces at him. “My hands are fine. They’re just cold. So are your’s,” he adds accusingly.
John doesn’t reply. The hand he’s got between his has warmed up and it looks pink and well-kneaded, spatulated fingertips filling back out again. Wordlessly, he lets go and nods to Rodney’s other hand. Rodney sighs and rolls his eyes but he obeys.
He’s got Rodney’s left hand in his grasp and this one is just as bad. Cold and frozen and clearly numbed.
“For a smart guy, you’re an idiot, McKay,” he says, “What the hell makes you think I want to deal with frostbite and gangrene in the middle of a winter storm in a grounded puddlejumper?”
“Oh, I don’t know, I just thought you’d like a change of pace for how the universe tries to kill us this time. Look, I don’t have frostbite! If I do, you’re doing more damage than good. And they’ll get us out when they can. It can’t be too much longer. And my hands are fine. I just need to get back to what I was doing so we can get some heat. And then...”
John runs his knuckles over Rodney’s palm, rubbing back and forth to get some blood flow happening.
“And then?” he prompts.
“And then we wait.” Rodney deflates. His voice goes quiet.
They sit in silence for a while, and John gets tired of playing nurse enough to stop rubbing vigorously.
In the end, he just traps Rodney’s hand between both of his, thinking of keyboards and pianos and how often these hands have saved Atlantis.
It’s actually quite a nice hand. Apart from those fingers, which are starting to look a little sinful, okay, John admits it, but it’s a good hand. Big, square, strong. Soft enough generally with a couple of calluses around the place.
“You’re doing it again,” he hears, and he looks up.
Rodney’s staring at him, frowning slightly, completely focused on him like he’s the next great puzzle. A little bug-eyed again, ‘cause that’s how Rodney gets when he concentrates. And his thinning hair is stiff with wet and cold and it’s standing up a little, like Rodney’s dragged his hand through it in frustration.
“What is with you and my hands? Seriously, this is getting weird.”
John lets go. “Just thinking.”
“About my hands?”
“Funnily enough, no.” The lie comes easy, mostly because it’s not a lie, as much as it is. John was, but a part of him is still fixated on escape, on survival, on how they’re planning to get out alive and in one piece.
He’s got two new marines and he owes them enough not to get them killed on the most pointless mission ever so far from home.
“Hey,” he yells, turning his head to crane a look over his shoulder, “How’s it going back there?”
The two marines are cuddling together for warmth. They look stoic and uncomfortable, but they’re doing it.
“Fine, sir,” he hears back.
He can hear more than see McKay’s bemusement- “Well, how cosy.”
“Just get us some heat, Rodney.”
He sticks his own hands between his own thighs and goes to crouch at the rear door. He can’t sit in the driver’s seat because it threatens to topple the puddlejumper the last few handspans into freefall.
Rodney mutters something and goes back to his work.
John keeps watch carefully. The marines don’t sleep but they doze, fitfully, and Rodney’s fingers still shake and move slowly. And he watches, feeling his muscles cramp with the cold and the tension.
“Got it!” Rodney shouts, a second before something whirs.
There’s no discernible difference but John feels it after a while- the heat. It’s sluggish and tepid but it’s something. The marines wake up and boast about the worst storms they’ve seen back on earth and Rodney ignores them all and keeps fighting for communication.
Something goes click and they lose their lights.
“Rodney,” John calls warningly.
“Minor hiccup, Colonel. Won’t take a minute to, er, if you just hang on... You don’t happen to have a flashlight, do you?”
“What did you do?” John demands.
He moves back towards Rodney’s sheepish voice and he trips over one of the marine’s big feet and almost goes sprawling.
“I’m fine,” he snaps.
“It’s fine. Just- just don’t move.”
“I’ve got a flashlight, Colonel.”
“Well, okay, then. Hand it over, Sergeant.”
He almost gets his eye poked out.
“Ow!” he says again.
“Stop apologising. None of us can see in this damn place. Rodney! What the hell did you do to the lights?”
“I was attempting to find a way to tap into the communications system through the sensors but it seems to have tripped a failsafe.”
“Can’t you fix it?”
“Not unless I suddenly acquire the ability to see in the dark. Which is why I need the flashlight.”
“Coming, coming,” John grumbles, and he manages to make his way through his own puddlejumper by feeling along the curve of the wall. Eventually his hand ends up brushing the top of Rodney’s head a second before he remembers that he could have just switched the flashlight on. He sighs and gropes downwards past Rodney’s face to where a hand is blindly reaching upwards.
Somehow they exchange the flashlight without dropping it in the pitch dark and then it turns on.
And shines straight into John’s eyes.
“Sorry,” Rodney says, but he sounds distractedly.
The end of the little flashlight goes into Rodney’s mouth and John can just see Rodney’s teeth clamp down. And then Rodney’s fingers are suddenly flying across the keyboard by the light of that flashlight, just as they would somewhere drier and warmer and a hell of a lot safer.
The lights come back and John sinks down beside Rodney again.
He gets three affirmative grunts and two nods, and sits back with a sigh.
“I,” he says tiredly, “Wanted to fly.”
The words drop into silence.
One of the marines- Sergeant Bruce Macavaney- clears his throat. “Always? Even when you were a kid?”
“Even when I was a kid.”
The silence comes back.
John watches the side of Rodney’s face, watches the thin lips slightly parted, the slack jaw and pale, sweaty tension. That’s how Rodney looks when he saves Atlantis, or when he just saves John. John’s not picky. It’s not the prettiest look but it gets the job done.
He looks down and Rodney’s fingers have paused, but they’re poised on the keyboards, fingertips barely in contact with the plastic covered keys, perfectly steady and posed.
When they get picked up by Ronan less than an hour later, Rodney turns around and says quickly, “I wanted to be a concert pianist.”
John just stares at him, a little freaked out by the sudden introduction of the topic.
“And then you discovered astrophysics?” he asks.
odney smiles, but it’s a little twisted. “Actually, I ended up with science when I stopped music.”
“Why’d you stop?”
“My teacher told me I had no feeling for it. I was technically perfect, but, you know, no emotion. She said I wasn’t good enough so I quit.”
Rodney turns tail and strides away, head tucked down as he lugs his equipment away with him into the mud and slime and snow.
John hates the rain, and he hates the cold. And mostly he doesn’t get how anyone can look at anything Rodney does and say it lacks emotion.
But hey. If Rodney had stuck to banging out Beethoven, he wouldn’t be in the Pegasus galaxy saving their asses.
It’s only when seven years have passed and they’ve run the gamut from Ascending to dying to living to engagements to almost-weddings to torture to grief and full circle, that John just calls it a day and sits down next to Rodney in the laboratory.
Rodney’s fingers are battered, now, harder, bonier, scarred. No wedding ring. There’s a fresh burn on his right index finger.
“Again?” Rodney says, but there’s no heat, just resignation.
They’ve had this conversation before.
John scratches his chin. “Don’t you ever want to go back and play again?”
Rodney actually puts down the thin, tiny screwdriver he’s wielding. And he stares, eyes wide and eyebrows raised, like John’s asked the most ridiculous question possible.
“Why?” he asks.
“You enjoyed it. I mean, I’m not the world’s greatest guitarist but I find it relaxes me to play. To strum a little bit. It’s something I did as a kid and now as an adult, I...”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Rodney says impatiently, hands lifted as if to physically stop him continuing, “I get the picture. You think I’m carrying around this large burden of grief because someone told me I couldn’t have my dream and be the greatest concert pianist that ever lived. Well, you’re wrong.”
“Yes! See? No pain! And what I did on a piano far surpassed your out-of-tune rendition of ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’.”
“I’m practising,” John says calmly, like that explains everything.
“Then you need to practise harder. And stop thinking I’ve got some kind of deep dark sorrow because I didn’t get to be what I wanted to be when I was twelve. Not everyone knows they want to fly before they even learn to walk, Colonel. Some of us grow into our dreams. What I am now is just fine.”
John leaves him alone.
Atlantis gets blown up four months before the eighth anniversary of their arrival there. The tattered remnants of Elizabeth Weir’s expedition evacuate last, and all of them are in shock in the days following the event.
John finds himself strangely ambivalent. He misses Atlantis but there’s nothing in particular that he can pinpoint. It’s not the Pegasus galaxy, or all that ‘modern’ architecture. It’s not the sea or the databases or the way the tech lights up for him or even the puddlejumpers. And it’s not the people, because they’ve brought everyone back, with the exception of a relatively small number. They’ve brought some back in bodybags but it’s enough.
He thinks of Ford, and Carson 2.0, and he thinks of Teyla, who stayed behind with Kanaan and Torren and her people. He thinks of his men, some of whom were captured by the Wraith and never recovered, or went missing during missions. He thinks of the Daedalus- crew spared, thank god- floating somewhere out in space with its wreckage orbiting a planet they never had the chance to name. He thinks of Elizabeth and wonders if there’s another replicator version of her somewhere out there in Pegasus.
Of their little team, Rodney and Ronan are still with him. Radek survived, though he walks with a cane, and Caldwell is alive though currently injured. Bates left before the four year mark and Lorne... Lorne made it. Lorne is there, shepherding his own little team and looking half-sick from the transition and shock.
John’s waiting for the shock to kick in but it doesn’t come. Not even when they go their separate ways. Earth is different, but entirely the same. Atlantis or Antarctica- the weather changes, the faces in charge change, but the people who matter are still clinging on. They make the same old jokes and forge the same alliances and the technology blows up in the same old way. And they fight the same old enemies.
It never changes.
He tracks Rodney down to an apartment in Quebec and, because he is not as stupid as Rodney thinks he is, he notices the upright when Rodney lets him in.
“You’re playing again?” he asks, lighting up.
“Why are you so obsessed with this?” Rodney replies, and flaps at him to sit down.
It takes a while. It takes three beers, actually, from some microbrewery that John doesn’t actually like but drinks anyway because Rodney doesn’t offer a choice. Typical Rodney McKay- he doesn’t realise people may want different things.
When the beers are gone, John cuts his eyes to the piano and just looks at Rodney. Lets the question hang there without asking.
“I’m rusty,” Rodney warns, but he gets up and sits at the piano.
John doesn’t know what he was expecting. He gets up and goes to peer over Rodney’s shoulder because he’s curious like that.
There’s no sheet music.
And Rodney’s fingers are flying across the keys, dexterous and certain and nothing close to rusty. Flying fast enough to make the tune whole, to stop the gaps between notes showing through.
Then even as John watches, Rodney’s fingers crash down in one big discordant hammer of a chord that absolutely doesn’t belong to the music he was playing.
“Have you got it yet?” Rodney snaps, eyes narrowed and cheeks flushed and head tilted challengingly up at John standing over him, “I’m getting sick of this, John. Getting sick of waiting. So help me, if you still don’t know what you’re doing here, I’m...”
John kisses him.
“You’ve got great hands,” John says when he pulls away a little, “Let’s go use them.”