After Ronon leaves him alone with his thoughts and his scar, Rodney’s restless in a way that isn’t going to be solved with an all-nighter in the lab, a long shower, or a quick jerk-off session. He isn’t even sure why he’s still wired—the adrenaline of the bomb threat and the “Caldwell’s a Goa’uld” drama wore off hours ago, and the torture techniques Q & A with Ronon actually made him feel more settled than he probably should. Feeling comforted by Ronon is pretty high on the list of things he never thought he’d experience in the Pegasus galaxy, right up there with sharing his brain with another consciousness and being responsible for five planets no longer existing, but Rodney’s learned not to dismiss things that seem unlikely, impractical, or even impossible. He’s watched Sheppard come back from the dead enough times to know that there’s no such thing as an absolute, and he can’t say he isn’t grateful—at least for that part of it.
Rodney can’t find it in himself to care that Kavanagh’s going to be screaming for their resignations the moment he gets back to Earth. No one’s going to listen to him, of course, even if he’s totally justified in this one rare instance. General O’Neill likes having the peace and quiet of Rodney in another galaxy and hasn’t been shy about saying so. No amount of foot-stomping outrage from Kavanagh is going to change that fact.
Rodney’s less worried about the security of his job and more freaked out that they actually made a more-or-less democratic decision to torture someone—someone he doesn’t like, but part of his department, nevertheless—and he’s almost certain decisions by committee are supposed to be along the lines of setting priorities, establishing protocols and deciding the kinds of things he tends to dictate to his staff because he’s never been that good with the democratic process. Too many stupid people with PhDs and a sense of entitlement. Still, before today, torturing his staff had only ever been a figure of speech and making the screw-ups do without the really good coffee is a far cry from letting Ronon have ten minutes alone with Kavanagh and a very sharp knife.
Rodney knows something about that—at least the knife part, and what’s bothering him most is feeling like he’s somehow gone up a notch on the scale because Kavanagh fainted the moment he realized Ronon wasn’t bluffing. The bitter, nasty part of Rodney wants it to have taken more than that to reduce Kavanagh to an unconscious lump on the briefing room floor, wants him to have suffered more, yet Rodney’s secretly gloating and stupidly proud he lasted longer than that when it was him alone in a room with a knife and a crazy man. Sure, Kolya’s not Ronon, but that’s only because Ronon’s stopped being frightening in Rodney’s eyes—most of the time—and Rodney’s certain anyone with half a brain would be right to be terrified of Kolya. The man didn’t do anything but smile at Rodney as he ordered someone to put a knife through his skin, and even when Rodney babbled his way through the plan—the lightning rods and the grounding stations and how it probably wouldn’t work anyway—Kolya kept smiling. When the blood started running down Rodney’s arm, falling to the floor in a steady pattern of drips, when he’d screamed that he didn’t know anything else—didn’t know what Sheppard would do, the man was unpredictable at the best of times—Kolya had grabbed the knife for himself and pushed the edge of the wound open another inch. Just to be sure, he’d said, and Rodney had never wanted to crawl into a corner and die as much as he’d wanted to right then. He doesn’t want to believe he would ever wish that on another human being. Even Kavanagh.
And in spite of Ronon’s assurance that everyone breaks, Rodney can’t help thinking where he fits on the grand scale of it all. Stronger than Kavanagh isn’t much of an indicator of moral fibre, and Rodney knows it’s stupid to be thinking along those lines, but he can’t seem to stop. He’s already got the axis marked, the line drawn along an imaginary curve with Ronon at the top and Kavanagh at the bottom and Rodney places himself as a dot somewhere along the middle, but what he’s really curious about, what he can’t stop his mind from wondering is where Sheppard fits.
He didn’t know Sheppard had been tortured, and he thinks he should’ve. He likes to think he knows the man better than most, but honestly that isn’t saying a lot. Sheppard doesn’t share anything he doesn’t want to. Ronon knew without Sheppard telling him, and maybe there’s some unspoken sign he’s supposed to know, a secret handshake. Then it occurs to him they’ve all got scars, and yes, he’s occasionally incredibly dense, but he’s honestly been trying not to eye Sheppard too closely all those times they’ve had to share close quarters in the two-man tents that are only good for ensuring easy passage of hideous alien germs and a permanently damaged spine—or for ogling handsome Air Force officers if one is inclined that way. For the first and only time in his adult life, Rodney’s gone the completely unselfish route and tried his best to keep his inclinations to himself. For both their sakes. He’s risked Sheppard’s life more than once—almost got them both blown to hell on Doranda, and Rodney’s painfully aware of everything they lost on that particular mission—but he’s not prepared to get him court-martialed too. He owes Sheppard at least that much, probably much more. Rodney’s got a particular fondness for people who save his life—repeatedly—and Sheppard’s gone above and beyond the call of duty in keeping Rodney sane, bullet-free, and provided with Powerbars.
But Rodney can’t stop pondering the where and how and the why of it all. The torture that Ronon’s so sure happened at some point in Sheppard’s life. Rodney knows the Colonel’s file as well as his own. It’s light on details and heavy on insinuation, but Rodney doesn’t really know enough to be able to read between the lines, and he’s got no intuitive sense when it comes to these kinds of things. Sheppard had a party with dead people when they thought they’d gone home, but beyond that he’s never said a word and Rodney’s never asked more than once. Sheppard changes the subject when Afghanistan comes up, doesn’t discuss Iraq or anywhere else he’s served—although he steadfastly maintains he liked Antarctica—and Rodney’s learned pushing doesn’t get him anywhere with Sheppard, so he just never bothered. He’s starting to think that was a mistake.
So, Rodney’s left wandering the halls, thinking entirely too much about knives and scars, the dull ache he feels in his arm when a storm is on the horizon. Carson will tell him it’s psychosomatic, and maybe it is, but it doesn’t stop him from rubbing his fingers across the skin whenever the air promises rain. He doesn’t think anyone notices, and suddenly it’s important for him to say something to Sheppard. To acknowledge what happened, even if he isn’t supposed to know, and he’ll figure out how to explain that when he has to, but right now he’s realizing he and Sheppard have far too much in common and if this day’s been hard for Rodney it’s got to have been absolute hell for John.
The night patrol doesn’t even blink when they find Rodney at Sheppard’s door with the control panel off, rearranging the crystals to bypass the privacy lock. Sure, he could just knock or wave his hand over the screen that causes that annoying little doorbell-chime, but this is easier and ultimately more fun, and really, Rodney doesn’t ever get tired of Sheppard’s zero-to-awake look and having a fully loaded Beretta shoved in his face, safety off. Who would? The element of surprise makes it all worthwhile, and he’ll never admit it, but John with a gun has always been hot. It took coming to Atlantis for Rodney to realize he’s got more than a passing thing for dangerous men.
Maybe it’s just reckless, but he’s feeling that way tonight. Half on edge and half coiled too tightly, and talking to Ronon—or listening to Ronon talk, and how weird was that?—didn’t help except that it did. But he still feels vaguely like there’s something he’s missing, something he should’ve done, and his brain keeps pulling him back to Sheppard and long-ago tortures and all the things they never say.
When the door slides open, Rodney’s got a clear view of Sheppard sprawled on the bed, still dressed, and he’s only half-moving, like a snake that hasn’t warmed up yet. An arm is flung across his eyes to block out the sudden swath of light, and there’s a low groan from the bed, so that for a second Rodney thinks maybe John’s ill. Then he registers the undone pants, stained shirt, one hand still tucked in the waistband of John’s blue boxers.
Well, shit. Rodney’s never seen Sheppard look this …wrecked, and being the compassionate man he is, Rodney says the first thing that comes to mind: “What the hell happened to you?”
“Shut the damn door, McKay.”
Sheppard doesn’t move the arm that’s hiding his eyes, but he licks his lips and Rodney can see the dark blood-blister where he’s bitten through. Jesus. John’s other hand is lying flat on his stomach now, and Rodney didn’t see him move it. He waves at the door panel and steps further into the room, losing perspective momentarily in the darkness that follows the door sliding closed.
“If I trip and break something, it’s on your spiky-haired head.” Rodney feels his way towards the bed, bumping into the desk and the chair before he hits the edge of the mattress, his hand landing on Sheppard’s leg.
“When I said ‘shut the door,’ I meant with you on the other side of it.”
Sheppard shakes his leg as if Rodney’s a small dog, but Rodney just gets a firmer grip and pushes Sheppard’s feet onto the floor to give himself room. He settles down at the end of the bed.
“You know, I could’ve been anybody walking through that door.”
“You think other people routinely break into my quarters in the middle of the night? No, Rodney, just you.”
Sheppard rolls onto his side and pulls his feet back up onto the bed. His socked feet push against Rodney’s thigh, nudging him to move. Rodney decides not to take the hint. He crosses his arms over his chest. “Where’s your gun, Colonel?”
“Don’t tempt me, McKay,” comes the grumble from somewhere near the pillow. “And why are you still here?” The toes dig into Rodney’s thigh again and he smacks Sheppard’s ankle.
“Stop that. I was concerned about you, and apparently I had reason to be. You look like hell.”
“Not until you tell me what’s going on.” Rodney lets his hand fall on Sheppard’s ankle. He’s wearing socks, thick black cotton, and Rodney doesn’t do anything but wrap his fingers lightly around the material. Enough that Sheppard knows he’s there, that he’s not going to be poked or kicked or bullied into leaving. Not this time.
"Christ, McKay, haven't you had enough tonight? You honestly felt you had to go looking for more trouble?"
Rodney starts because there's something in Sheppard's haggard voice that isn't just talking about Kavanagh and the bomb and the hellish day they've all had. There's an understanding there, resignation, like someone's beaten John once too often, and Rodney tightens his finger-grip around Sheppard's ankle until he can feel the press of bone beneath the cloth.
"What do you mean?"
"What do you mean what do I mean?"
Rodney's eyes are adapting to the dark now, a thin sliver of moonlight lancing between John's trembling curtains and helping to light the way. Sheppard looks weary, worn down like the edge of an over-used blade, and Rodney swallows hard because in some ways that's exactly what Sheppard is. Their savior, yes, their protector—but also their weapon, and what a weapon he can be.
"H-How many—" Rodney stops and clears his throat. This isn't the conversation he came here to have. Or maybe it is.
"How many what?"
Sheppard's eyes narrow suspiciously, as if he knows what Rodney's asking, but he shouldn't know. There's no way he should know Rodney's been back in time with Kolya for most of the day, that he's been trying to gauge his own bravery and his own cowardice against Kavanagh, against the rest of them who've faced torture.
"Rodney, how many what?"
"Men have you killed. How many men?" Rodney manages to get the words out, watching Sheppard's face grow harder in the grey light.
"Today? None. Yet," he says pointedly. "It was a good day."
Sheppard laughs, bitter and hollow, and Rodney wants to slap him because he knows John is avoiding the question in his own screwed-up way. Today couldn't be called a good day by anyone's definition.
"No," Rodney says. "You know when. You know."
"No, I don't," although the lingering look away from Rodney, away towards the sea and the moonlight, tells him it's a lie. Sheppard won't lie to his face. It's like he can somehow preserve this fragile peace between them, this equilibrium they've established of roles they play, and Rodney's too tired and too torn up to work at playing his part today. He's supposed to be the selfish one, the one who turns it all back on himself. He's supposed to be here to tell Sheppard how awful he felt today about what they did, and Sheppard, like a priest, will forgive him and convince him there are worse men out there. Just look at John.
"Not today," Rodney says, and his voice is shaking when he lets go of John's ankle, and places a deliberate hand on the bed beside John's knee. The other hand he sets beside John's thigh as he settles his knees on the bed between John's knees. Right hand shifting up, then the left, until he's hovering over John, face-to-face, up on his knees, their bodies not touching. Sheppard has the look of a cornered predator, and Rodney wants to pet him and tell him it will be okay, but he knows that's likely to get him thrown into the wall. He needs to do something, but he isn't sure any of his choices are the right ones today.
"What the hell are you playing at, McKay?" It comes out rough and Rodney can't help the shiver that runs through him. He's given a man with a knife free access to him once today already. Why stop doing things that terrify him now?
Rodney reaches down, praying his hands are sure when he touches the seam of John's black t-shirt and hauls it up, exposing his stomach. John grabs his wrist the moment Rodney's flat hand touches skin, but he doesn't twist, doesn't hurt him, although it's clear in his eyes he wants to. He's holding back because it's Rodney.
Rodney licks his lips, lets his palm relax against the flat of John's abs. "Tell me what happened to you."
"I don't know what you—"
"Bullshit. You always know what I mean even when I don't know what I mean."
Sheppard pauses for a second to consider that. It's true. Sometimes Rodney blurts out things, random things, and Sheppard seems to know what to take and what to ignore, what part of the techno-babble is relevant to the plan of saving their lives.
"Ronon had no business—"
"Who said anything about Ronon?"
Rodney sways a little, suddenly uncertain. If Sheppard never told anyone, how does he know Rodney didn't just figure it out by himself? Why did Ronon come to mind immediately unless …
"You son of a bitch," Rodney says, letting his nails scratch dully against Sheppard's stomach. "That was private. No one invited you."
"You made the call on an open frequency. Did you really think I'd just ignore it after the day we had?"
"You've been pretty good at ignoring everything else to do with me."
Sheppard's jaw clenches and he looks away, which makes Rodney feel a kind of hollow triumph. At least John knows things haven't been right between them. Rodney was starting to wonder if it was just him that missed the way things used to be—so easy, even when they didn't agree or when the world was falling apart. Sheppard had always been someone he could count on with his never say die attitude and his fucked up moral compass that somehow fell more or less into line with Rodney's in this new universe.
"Sheppard." Rodney's voice quakes along with his knees. "John. Why didn't you just tell me what happened to you?"
There's a sigh from the pillow beneath him. "And when would've been a good time for that, do you suppose? When Kolya had cut you open and made you bleed? Or maybe while we were deciding what to do with Kavanagh?"
"There was a hell of a lot of time between those two things. You could've—"
Suddenly Rodney's rolling, Sheppard's hands coming up to grab him, flipping their positions on the narrow bed. John straddles Rodney's hips, light pressure, and the grip on his shoulders is almost painful.
"I could've told you someone cut me open too? That they used razor blades and electricity and salt water, and yes, I talked. I practically sang. I told them everything they wanted to know and more. Would it have helped to know I'd been that weak once, that helpless? Do you want to see the scars?" John pulls his t-shirt over this head and flings it into the darkness. Rodney swallows hard as he stares at John's bare chest touched with moonlight. He still can't see any scars, and Ronon had implied they weren't obvious anyway. "Was that what you wanted, Rodney?"
"No." Rodney's voice is hoarse. Sheppard's at least partially right, and as much as Rodney thought he'd wanted to know, that somehow it would make him and Sheppard closer, more equal, hearing the words makes him feel like melting into the mattress and trying to disappear. He doesn't want to think about Sheppard being tortured anymore than he wants to remember Kolya's blade in his own arm.
"You don't want Ronon or me to be weak. You don't want to know that we fuck up too. Everybody breaks, Rodney. Ronon wasn't wrong, but I never wanted you to feel sorry for me, or—" He waves a hand near Rodney's face. "Or whatever this is. I'm not your hero, McKay. I'm just a guy."
"I never asked you to be a hero."
Sheppard laughs. "You and everyone else have done nothing but that since we stepped through the gate. I never told you anything, Rodney, because you didn't want to know. You still don't want to know who I am, who I really am."
Rodney narrows his eyes because he's many things, but a fool isn't one of them, and he'll be the first to admit he doesn't have all the answers that make up John Sheppard, but he's a hell of a lot better at reading the man than John's giving him credit for.
"So what you're saying is you'd rather I think you're the sort of man who gets off on hearing about someone's worst fears, who immediately runs back to his bunk and rubs one out because he's so fucking wound up at the thought of all that blood and pain inflicted on some other poor bastard."
Sheppard flinches, but doesn't deny it, which just pisses Rodney off.
"I killed sixty men—more probably—that day Kolya had you and Elizabeth. I didn't think about it; I just did what I had to do."
"You sewed me up afterwards. You could've told me—"
"Christ, Rodney!" Sheppard's voice is sharp with pain. "If I'd known exactly what Kolya did to you, I would've killed them all."
"You already knew I'd told them what they wanted. You thought I was so much a coward I would've told them without a fight?"
"No, no, that's not what I'm saying." Sheppard sits back on his haunches, scrubs a hand through his bedhead. "It was never supposed to be your job to protect the city."
Rodney opens his mouth, incredulous. He saves the goddamn city all the time. He's about to let out a tirade enumerating exactly how many times he's protected the city and everyone in it when a hand is clamped over his mouth.
"McKay, shut up for a minute! I'm trying to tell you you could've just told Kolya what he wanted. It wasn't your job to stop him, and it wasn't worth you getting hurt. Nothing's worth that. If I'd realized he put a knife to you—"
Underneath Sheppard's hand, Rodney nods. Okay, he's starting to get the picture now. It fits with the self-sacrificing Sheppard he knows, the protective warrior who can kill to keep his people safe. Rodney's sure the lives of the people he's killed haunt Sheppard sometimes; he's just too private to share that level of pain with someone else. Just like the torture. John doesn't know how to let other people in without it hurting, and Rodney doesn't want to be just another person who pries John open only to leave him exposed and in pain.
"Don't you get that? It wasn't Elizabeth or Atlantis that day. They had you, and—and how could I tell you that when you expected me to save the city? If I'd come to you, you would've freaked the fuck out and told me to stay away from you or go see Heightmeyer, or worse, and I wouldn't have blamed you. I didn't blame you for talking. Jesus, Rodney, I know what it's like to be compromised. To need to survive. I blamed myself for letting you be in that situation in the first place. I should've been able to protect you. I should've—"
Rodney pushes Sheppard's hand away from his mouth, then grabs John's arms and hauls him down.
"Shut up, you moron," Rodney says and kisses him. He can't believe how stupid Sheppard can be, and Rodney wants to tell him how he was only brave because he knew John would go through hell to get to them. Maybe he hadn't known for sure if John would do it for McKay alone, but he'd had a pretty good idea.
John kisses like it's a fight, like McKay's going to change his mind any second, and pretty soon Rodney's having trouble catching his breath. He turns his head, catches John's face in his hands.
"I'm not going anywhere. Just—take a breath. Slow down a second, okay?"
Sheppard eases up, embarrassed, and wipes a hand at the edge of his mouth. Nods once as Rodney takes a few deep breaths to slow his pounding heart. It's hard to relax with Sheppard, half-naked and practically on top of him, and Rodney lets his hands drift over John's shoulder blades, the soft well at the small of his back.
"It wasn't that I didn't want to call you tonight," Rodney begins, "but after Doranda and everything else…I didn't think it would do any good. You were so angry."
"You blew up a solar system, and—"
"Yes, yes, I know. I can't fix it, Sheppard. I would if I could. Believe me, if I could figure out how to manipulate the physics of time travel, Doranda would never have happened, and there wouldn't be this—" Rodney gestures between them. "This thing between us. The bad thing, obviously, not the good thing. Not the kissing thing. I kind of like that thing."
The corners of Sheppard's mouth twist up in a smile, and Rodney feels himself relax a fraction. It's a start.
"Why did you—" Rodney makes an awkward gesture with one hand, and Sheppard rolls his eyes. "After you heard me with Ronon. Why that?"
"When they had me—when I was—tortured, they made a lot of really shallow cuts. There aren't many scars. You'd hardly know anything happened. But towards the end, they started threatening…other things. Cutting things off."
Rodney's arms tighten around Sheppard's waist. "You don't have to talk about this."
"Everybody breaks, Rodney. And for the record, I never thought you were a coward and I never blamed you. I was angry you were ever in that position, and that I couldn't get you out of it before someone put you through that. I never wanted you to have to deal with torture. Ever."
Sheppard pulls back, rolling onto his side, but staying close. Rodney mirrors his position so they're face-to-face.
"I guess I needed to know I was alive," Sheppard continues. "Everything intact, so to speak."
"I'll be happy to check for you any time you need reassurance," Rodney offers, trying to coax a smile out of Sheppard. It's a half-hearted one at best.
"Thanks. And I guess I realized how bad things were between us—how I should've been the one you were talking to, but I'd made that impossible, and the thought of that…"
"Yeah," Rodney breathes out. "I was starting to think we were never going to find our way back. That we'd missed our shot."
He reaches out and pulls Sheppard forward, kisses him with the promise of things to come, and Sheppard drifts closer, lets himself be nudged and coaxed and maybe a little bit bullied because it's still Rodney after all, and Rodney wants everything now that the door's been opened a crack. He wants the whole damn package that is John Sheppard, hot mess, and he needs John to know that.
"I get what you and Ronon were trying to tell me, everyone breaks and all that. I do." Rodney tips John's chin up so he can see his eyes in the greyness of dawn. "But I'm pretty good at fixing things if I know what's broken. Maybe we can concentrate on that for a while."
John's answer is to kiss Rodney again, the kind of kiss that opens up possibilities and Rodney's going to take that as a definite yes. Maybe the Pegasus galaxy has broken them more than a little, but they're not done yet. There's still time to fix things, or at least try to make them better, and for Rodney, right now, that's more than enough.