John balanced with the tips of his boots on the ledge just outside their window, turning his head toward the thin support beam that was his destination. On the other side of the beam, there was ornate scaffolding, which would let them climb down the several stories to the ground below. Below lay freedom: it would be a simple matter to sneak into the main building and steal back their gear—including Rodney’s pack with the replacement gate crystals. Their captors, while belligerent and potentially nasty, were a bit inept. Even now, they’d left John and Rodney in a room from which they could easily escape, while the captors themselves were off somewhere else, arguing about what to do next. They acted like someone who’d caught a tiger by the tail and didn’t have a follow up plan.
Crossing over to the other building and climbing down was a piece of cake. For John. Getting Rodney across was another matter.
He inched forward on the ledge, reaching out for the next handhold.
“Oh. My. God.” Each word from Rodney was hushed and flat, as though he were afraid of startling John. “You can’t be serious. I know that you’re some sort of Spiderman—really the number of times you’ve scaled the city with your fingers and toes is nothing short of ridiculous—but I’m thinking that has to be some sort of residual bugginess, you know?”
John hadn’t intended on looking back when Rodney spoke, or else they’d never make any forward progress here, but that comment required a response.
“Residual bugginess?” he asked, turning his head carefully to glare at Rodney. He narrowed his eyes and gave Rodney his best Tough Guy Colonel glare.
Rodney had leaned out of the window to watch him, clutching the frame tightly as he did so. He looked embarrassed. “You know,” he added hastily. “Back when Ella bit you and you turned into the Pegasus version of Ol’ Yeller.”
John squashed the urge to laugh, releasing it as a muffled snort instead. That was the first time Rodney had used that particular analogy to refer to the “Bug Incident’, as he tended to call it. Damn it, now was not the time to get distracted by Rodney’s undeniable entertainment value.
John turned his focus back to the task at hand. The support beam was just out of his reach—he was going to have to figure out how to get to it in a manner that Rodney could duplicate as well.
“I’m just saying,” Rodney continued, with an air of trying to make amends for the previous comment, “that you really could have some sort of Spidey powers left over that make it easy for you to cling to vertical surfaces. More so than the average human. So I really think maybe you should count me out on this one.”
“I’m not leaving you behind, McKay.”
“Technically, you wouldn’t be leaving me behind so much as going further ahead of me than usual.”
“Not happening.” He wasn’t gritting his teeth. It was just the strain of speaking while reaching for the grip he sought that made him sound like he was. His fingertips slipped on the rough stone surface and burned. He knew that later he’d find that he’d scraped them raw.
“You might not have a choice. I don’t have Spidey powers, remember?”
He could hear the apology in Rodney’s voice, as well as the fear and the certainty that he was going to let John down. The sun was hot on John’s shoulders, soaking uncomfortably through the black t-shirt. He could feel a trickle of sweat bead up and slide down the side of his neck. He sighed and risked turning his head at Rodney again. “You won’t need Spidey powers. This is a piece of cake. A walk in the park. It only looks tricky.”
To prove his point, he made a Herculean effort to reach the next most obvious handhold and breathed a sigh of relief when he gripped it sufficiently to risk pulling himself across. “See?” he asked when he repositioned himself on the beam. “Duck soup.”
“The ease with which you toss out clichéd idioms does nothing to bolster my confidence,” Rodney said dryly. He hadn’t made any effort to leave the safety of the window frame. The breeze tousled his short hair and his expression was a combination of frowning disapproval and sarcastic regret. Only Rodney. John found himself assessing Rodney’s face and wondering just when those fine lines around his eyes and mouth had appeared. Rodney squinted against the brilliant sunlight and the sudden evidence of the passage of time on his face disturbed John in a way that the constant threat of attack by the Wraith (or their many other enemies) did not.
You’re running out of time, his brain told him. He told his brain to shut the fuck up.
“Look, McKay,” he growled. “The Durkans disabled the Gate when they took us hostage. Like it or not, this escape will be a bust unless you come along to fix the DHD. So no more talk of you staying behind.” He didn’t trust the bastards anyway. Management had changed hands since the last time they had come to PX4-332 and the new guys weren’t as friendly as the old leaders. He wished now that they’d brought Teyla and Ronon with them.
Echoing his thoughts, Rodney spoke wistfully. “I wish Ronon and Teyla were here.”
Ouch. That hurt. Even though he’d just been thinking it himself. “Gee, thanks, McKay.”
“Okay, I know you’re annoyed with me because I’m ‘McKay’ now.” Rodney sighed. “It’s not that I don’t trust you to get us out of this—you always get us out of these things. It’s just that there’s something soothing about having Ronon and Teyla along. You know, as insurance that this sort of thing won’t happen in the first place.”
Rodney had a point. Traveling with Ronon was a little like taking a Rottweiler with you wherever you went. It didn’t mean no one was going to mess with you, but it did mean they’d think twice about it. What Ronon didn’t deter, Teyla seemed to defuse. “Next time,” he promised. “Meanwhile, get your ass out here on this ledge.”
He began to have his doubts about this plan when he saw the awkwardness with which Rodney put one leg through the window and reached around with his toe to find the ledge. He had trouble extricating himself from the building while still maintaining a death grip on the window frame and it was several tense moments before he was standing with both feet on the narrow ledge. He was breathing heavily and staring down at his feet.
“Rodney,” John said. “Look at me.”
Rodney tucked his neck back on his spine in the manner of a turtle pulling into its shell, craning slightly in John’s direction with one eye squinted shut with the effort of turning toward him. The other eye, as blue as ever, showed his worry and fear.
“You’re going to have to reach for this beam. That’s the hardest part of the whole deal. Once you’re on the beam, you’ve got lots of different options to get across. But getting to the beam it the worst part of the whole shebang. It’ll be simple after that.”
Rodney nodded, and then closed his eyes and clung to the window frame with fingers that were turning white.
“Listen to me, McKay.” John deliberately chose to use Rodney’s ‘working’ name to steady him. “I’m going to move further out on the beam to make room for you to come across. But I’m right here, see? I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Rodney shot him a look of utter disdain. “Don’t bullshit me. If I slip, there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop my fall.”
“You’re not going to slip, and even if you do, I’ll grab you.”
Normally, John would have straddled the beam and inched his way across already, but he felt he’d be in a better position to help Rodney if he remained standing. He eased out further along the beam, still maintaining his grip on the building.
Rodney made an abortive attempt to reach John’s former handhold, but jerked his hand back to clutch at the building once more when it was obvious that he was going to fall short.
“I can’t do this.” His eyelids were screwed tightly shut.
“Okay, let me rethink this.” John backed up even further and walked his grip down the wall, balancing on the beam, with his booted feet in alignment along it as he bent his knees and lowered himself down. When he reached the level of beam, he straddled it, hooking his ankles together underneath. He looked up to see Rodney staring at him, his eyes wide with fascinated horror at John’s movements.
“There is no way I can move forward and sink down at the same time,” Rodney insisted. “There’s nothing for me to hang on to there until I get to the beam.”
“I know.” John took a deep breath. “You’re going to have a make a bit of a leap for it.”
“A bit of a leap?” Rodney’s voice rose to that pitch of incredulity that would make dogs howl, were there any dogs in Pegasus. “A bit of a leap? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
“I’m right here, Rodney. Just grab for the beam and hang on. I’ll see that you don’t fall.”
“How exactly? By hanging on to me with your fingertips? I don’t know if you know, but Mythbusters disproved the Hollywood theory that a person can hang onto a ledge with just their hands for any significant period of time. And they had safety harnesses and big poufy mats to fall on and everything.”
Sometimes, John really hated the Mythbusters guys.
“We’re running out of time, McKay. The Durkans will be back soon and we’ll have lost our best chance to escape. Come on, now or never, buddy. Just do it.”
“I hate it when you quote Nike at me,” Rodney huffed. He closed his eyes briefly and then opened them before leaping toward John.
A little warning would have been nice. A simple count of three would have sufficed. Instead, John was unprepared for the way Rodney hurled himself at the beam and almost missed grabbing his shirt when he hit it with a painful thump and clutched clumsily at it.
In the ensuing scramble, Rodney almost dislodged John, but in the end, he was on the beam next to John, hanging on in a full body hug, with arms and legs wrapped tightly around it.
“Okay,” John heaved another sigh of relief. “That was the hard part. Let’s go.”
He began to push himself backwards along the beam toward the far wall and the scaffolding that would let them climb down to the ground below.
Rodney didn’t move. He continued to cling to the beam with his eyes clenched shut.
“Rodney.” John stopped, exasperated. “Get a move on, would you?”
Rodney didn’t respond.
“McKay!” John kept his voice down—no telling who was within earshot—but he let his irritation show.
Rodney still didn’t respond. Muttering curses under his breath, John scooted his way back toward Rodney, until he could reach out and touch his shoulder.
The muscle underneath his grip trembled—though with the strain of hanging on or with fear, he couldn’t say. Shit.
“Rodney,” he said softly. “Come on, buddy. The hard part is over.”
“I can’t do it. I can’t. I’m not as brave as you.” Rodney opened his eyes long enough to shoot John a searing look of pain and self-loathing before he screwed them shut again.
“It has nothing to do with bravery, Rodney.” John sighed. “I’m not as brave as you think, okay?”
Rodney peeled open one eyelid to stare at him in disbelief. “Oh, please. Next you’ll be telling me that you’re running scared all the time.”
“Well,” John waffled. “Not all the time.”
Rodney opened his other eye and twisted his mouth sarcastically when he spoke. “Of course not. Not the man who flies a nuke-laden jumper on a suicide mission. Not the guy who grossly exaggerates the number of Wraith he’s killed because he’s in a pissing match with someone younger and stronger than he is.”
“Ronon may be younger, but I’m wiser,” John said.
Even scared out of his mind, Rodney could still roll his eyes.
John realized he wasn’t helping his case here. He puffed air out through his lips. “Okay, I don’t know where you get this ‘brave’ thing.” He released his grip on the beam with one hand to make air quotes. “I just do what has to be done sometimes. I don’t think that makes me brave so much as not very smart.”
That made Rodney loosen his grip on the beam a bit so that he could look up and scowl at John.
“I don’t know where you get off calling yourself stupid, because I assure you; I wouldn’t be with anyone that I thought was stupid.”
It was rare for either of them to acknowledge that they were in a sort of relationship together and it made both of them momentarily embarrassed.
John backed up slightly on the beam. Rodney pushed himself up on his hands a bit further. “The point is,” John said heavily, inching back some more and hoping he wasn’t getting so far away from Rodney that he’d shut down again, “most of the time, bravery has nothing to do with it.”
“I disagree.” Rodney was sitting up on the beam now, still gripping it tightly, but at least in a position to let his hands talk, should he have the nerve to let go of the support to wave them about. “Having courage doesn’t mean you never get scared—it means you do whatever is needed despite getting scared. I’m not like that.”
He glanced down at the ground far below them and winced.
“I don’t know about that, McKay.” John continued to make his way slowly across the beam to the other side. “We’ve been out here what, almost five years now? I’d say you’ve changed a lot in that time.”
“Really?” Rodney’s face lit up at the suggestion of approval from John.
“Yeah.” John nodded. “You were pretty much an asshole-but-brilliant geek when we first met. Now you’re someone I can count on in a pinch. Just like I would Ronon or Teyla.”
“Really?” Rodney was both shyly pleased and incredulous. John felt bad that he hadn’t said anything sooner.
Rodney still hadn’t moved from his original position, however.
“You got to move with me here, buddy,” John prompted. He regretted the words a second later, when Rodney seemed to realize where he was and wrapped himself around the beam again. John thought that if it were possible, Rodney would have folded his legs around the beam several times, like the twisty tie on a loaf of bread.
“Say what you will,” Rodney ground out through clenched teeth. “This is easy for you. You’ve scaled Atlantis as if it was the monkey bars on the playground at school. You know you can do this.”
John thought for a moment. “So what you’re saying is that this isn’t hard enough for me? That I don’t get how scared you are?”
“Yes.” Rodney bit off his words, even as he ducked his head and clung to the beam when the wind picked up briefly. He lifted his head to glare at John when the breeze died down. “You have no idea what it is like to have to function in the midst of paralyzing fear. I’m not saying you’re never afraid, but you’re never afraid to the same degree that the rest of us are. You trust your body to do what you ask of it. You don’t deliberately set out to go on a suicide mission, but you genuinely believe that the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks. You’ve never been as afraid to do something the way I’ve been.”
“So,” John said slowly, weighing his words with care. “If I came up with something that scared the living crap out of me and I was willing to do to it, would you come across this beam behind me?”
The question hung in the air for a long moment, as the sun beat down and the breeze ruffled John’s hair. He could see the disbelief on Rodney’s face—the certainty that John didn’t have anything that frightened him as much as crossing this beam frightened Rodney. However, Rodney also knew they were running out of time and that John was right about the unpredictability of the Durkans. No telling what they’d do if they found that John had escaped but Rodney had not. “If I think it’s sufficiently scary, yes.”
“Okay.” John let out a big sigh. He backed up another half a foot. Rodney eyed the increasing distance between them with dismay.
“Would you marry me?” Just stating his intent aloud caused a flurry of instability in John’s world, creating the sensation of everything spinning around him. He scarcely knew which way was up.
Rodney looked poleaxed by the question and then sat up abruptly, placing his hands on his hips. “That? That’s the thing you’re scared of the most? Seriously?”
“Hypothetically speaking.” John was quick to add. “I mean, not right now, because the repeal isn’t technically official yet, but yes, when it’s all over and done, would you marry me?”
“You’re serious.” Rodney began to scoot forward, pulling himself along with his hands and hitching himself along on his thighs behind them.
John continued to work his way backward at a similar rate. “It’s a big deal for me, McKay. I’ve done it before and it didn’t exactly work out, you know.”
“You married the wrong person last time,” Rodney said with supreme confidence. “You realize that this is a little insulting. You’re placing marrying me on the same scale as I would place performing death-defying acrobatics.”
John found himself getting irrationally angry. “You asked for something that scares the crap out of me and I gave it to you. I can’t help it if it doesn’t meet your standards of scary.”
“No, it’s not that. I get where this sort of thing is scary for you, Cro-Magnon Man of Emotions that you are. I’m just reserving the right to be insulted, that’s all.”
They were halfway across the beam now and Rodney showed no signs of realizing how high up they were. “Look, you’re important to me, okay?” John began moving faster, before Rodney caught on, before John had to admit he’d do anything to ensure Rodney’s safety. “I’ve fucked up every relationship I’ve had so far and it’s important to me to get this one right.”
“I just find it hard to believe that declaring yourself is more terrifying to you than single-handedly taking on a ten-thousand year old Wraith, or scaling the city walls with nothing but your bare hands, or flying a suicide mission, or thwarting an invasion of the city all by yourself.”
John made it to the other side and reached for the scaffolding, taking hold and swinging himself lightly on to the supports there. “Not ‘declaring’ myself, Rodney.” He was angry now and not above letting it show. “Losing you. That’s what has me running scared. That’s what makes me do the things I do.”
Rodney reached the scaffolding as well and let John help him onto it. “Well,” he said, his eyes big and round with the impact of John’s words. “That changes everything. Yes.”
“Yes?” John was confused. Rodney looked at him with that bright, mischievous expression that he loved so much and yet he felt like he’d missed a big important part of the conversation. They gripped the scaffolding and stared at each other.
“Yes, I’ll marry you,” Rodney said. “Unless, of course, that was just a ploy to distract me into crossing to the other side.” In the moments it took to say the words, Rodney’s face fell. It was as though he knew that John was not above using any ploy necessary to manipulate Rodney into doing something John thought was important.
John hated seeing that look on his face.
“Not a ploy. And we have to wait until the repeal is officially official.”
“Of course,” Rodney said loftily. “Goes without saying.”
“Okay.” John felt the occasion called for some sort of acknowledgment, but hanging from a building several stories from the ground sort of tied his hands. Rodney leaned in for a quick kiss. Reluctantly, John let it go at that and the two of them climbed to the ground.
“Okay,” Rodney said when at last they were positioned outside the door to the building where they believed their packs to be held. “Packs first, escape through the Gate back to Atlantis, celebratory sex, and then marriage as soon as possible without ramifications on your job in Atlantis. Am I leaving something out?”
John hesitated for only a second before kissing Rodney thoroughly. “Nope, I think you’ve got it covered,” he said. He was surprised at how grounded he felt. The rightness of it all was almost giddy in and of itself.
Rodney was pink around the ears when John released him. “I wonder who’s going to win the betting pool?”
John smothered a laugh. The sound of someone on the other side of the door caught his attention and he slipped into command mode, signaling Rodney with his hands his intent to open the door and attack the guard within.
Business as usual in Pegasus.