From those days to these is a far cry, but even in this era of liberty and naturalness of impulse, running the gauntlet of people's attention and criticism is no small test of the good taste and sense of a young couple. -- Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, Emily Post, 1922
In the beginning he never thinks of it as a relationship, because it isn't, or maybe because he just doesn't think of it in such concrete terms. Rodney's never dared to presume that his way of interacting fits in the safe and tidy boundaries employed by other people, and it's one area where he professes no arrogance, feels only frank, helpless bafflement when forced to face it head-on.
He can work out people, sometimes, if he's given the time to study them, understands why they do the things they do on an abstract level, if he looks at them objectively like ants or puzzle-pieces, a clinical viewpoint he adopted at age eleven. But people with each other, himself with other people, present complications that turn the clean-edged arrangement of variables he prefers into a hopeless tangle; spiderwebs or abandoned knitting projects or the way rope ends up snarled inescapably into knots, no matter how carefully it's put away. One person might be understood: himself. People, plural, are messy, and he's never dealt well with things he didn't learn easily.
Anyway; if you make things solid enough for categories, they can be lost, they can get away. Human beings aren't like mathematics. He knows this, even if he can't express it. You put feelings down on paper, and they grow hands, they grow teeth; they can hurt you. The best thing you can do with people is change them, make them want to stay, and that takes a subtlety he's never credited himself with.
He had friends before John - thinks he did, anyway, or something like them. He must have, though he doesn't remember any of them with the same embarrassingly heart-clenching fondness he has for John, or even the strangely welcome vulnerability inspired by Teyla, Ronon, even Jennifer, the memory of Carson or Elizabeth. He doesn't know what the difference is, but he suspects — and hates that he has no evidence, because without it he is reduced to the realm of opining - that it's tied to John. Knows that everything about the difference beyond simple friendship, which until Atlantis he sort of let happen or not happen, welcoming it when he blundered upon it but knowing he could do nothing competent to bring it about, is entirely John's fault.
Which, he thinks occasionally as he's floating up towards day in the mornings, still distantly surprised to find himself not alone in bed after all, is probably for the best. If it had been left up to him, he would probably have gone on wallowing in what he thought was a one-sided infatuation for the next four years, as well. Lucky thing that John is, in some ways, much smarter than Rodney, though damned if he'd ever admit it out loud.
But it's not a relationship, exactly, because it's more complicated than that. And it's not that Rodney thinks he's too important to be in one (though he remembers at least one short-lived fling with a college girlfriend who suggested he was too something else). He's perfectly happy to subscribe to categories that are accurately defined, that make sense, like the rare and minuscule percentage of soaring human intelligence into which he falls. He and John, though, are something else. It's not that he considers the boundaries beneath him, beneath them, it's just that they don't seem big enough.
And that's another thing he hesitates to express, not only because it makes him stutter and makes him uncertain, but because it's nebulous and even Rodney knows that not everything can be quantified. That John would say not everything should be, if he didn't find it more convenient to say "it's nobody else's business," a sentiment Rodney is more than happy to take to heart, if for slightly more selfish reasons. Strange that fear of disciplinary action and separation seems a better reason for discretion than the possible fallout of their friends' well-meaning scrutiny.
He's perfectly happy to be discreet, really. It's easier than the alternative, and the creeping, irrational, paranoia always lurking just beneath the surface of his thoughts when he chances to wake up before John, stay awake longer, see him unguarded and lax. The one that says this is private because it's him, not because it's them, and that at the slightest hint of being discovered John would be gone, no evidence he'd even been there. Rodney knows this is paranoid, knows it's pathetic, tells himself he knows John better than that. But sometimes, sometimes, it creeps in, for only a second, and he has to remind himself that he's a genius, that he daily reduces his subordinates to tears, that once, he blew up five-sixths of a solar system. He's not defined by, certainly not dependent upon anyone's affections.
This is a blatant lie, of course, but admitting that is simply not an option.
They lose the Daedelus at the beginning of the fifth year, round about the time their only ZPM reaches levels that make regular wormholes back home a crippling waste of power. It's a skirmish, not a disaster - a fight on the edge of the Solar System, right in Earth's own back yard. When they receive the message, the last one they'll get for some time, because the same databurst ends with orders to conserve power wherever possible, Rodney's incredulous, and John is bitter.
"It was stupid of them," he says in a low voice after the meeting, as they're walking towards the transporter, "to assume that just because they'd beaten the biggest bad guys, the other bad guys were less serious." And it was even stupider, he adds, to forget that there were always people, ordinary human beings with no godlike powers at all, always lurking in the margins of any situation, waiting for a chance.
It's not the Lucian Alliance, but its leaders were part of it, and they've had years to build back up, gather men and ships and resources, and Earth's not gone, but it's besieged as far as intergalactic travel goes. And these bad guys fight like people, don't care about the sweeping political implications of aliens on a previously ignorant population of six and a half billion, take out secret, underground ship-building facilities from orbit because that's the smart thing to do. Earth has two ships left, and they're both needed, and not needed enough in Pegasus.
Just like that, they're alone again.
That's the first night John crawls into bed with him. Okay, not the first, they've shared a bed before, but not like this; not wrapped around each other this tight, not breathing one another's air like otherwise there's no breathing. They don't sleep, just lie there like that, taking comfort. It's surprisingly easy. It's not a surprise at all.
"It's almost morning," Rodney says hesitantly, when the sun begins to creep into the room. Part of it's a warning, part of it's him wishing they can fall asleep this way.
"There's still time," John says, warm breath and the prickle of stubble against the side of Rodney's neck, making him shiver. "I don't... I don't want to go, yet. Is that okay?"
And Rodney's reply is all relief, an outrushing-sigh as he tightens his arms around John's back. "Is it - god, of course it is." It's an effort to keep the you-are-such-an-idiot tone out of his voice, because christ, honestly. "You can... stay as long as you want."
He feels John's eyelashes flutter. "Good," he murmurs. John is a warm weight next to him, a warm weight on his arm, but he actually doesn't care very much right now. He doesn't trust the warmth blooming in his chest, no more than he ever has. He's never known how to deal with how he feels about John - anyone, really, but John least of all - and he's always figured cowardice was the better part of valour where situations like this were concerned.
Then again, it's John who came to him. John who said nothing at all, just soft noises, sure hands, trying to get closer. Earth hasn't been home for a long time for either of them, not really, but there's a chasmic difference between choosing to leave and being told you can't come back. Rodney knows this, viscerally, deep in his bones. There's a difference to the weight, of being the person who has to make the decisions and being the last one asked and knowing, for a fact, that you're the last one who can be asked. Comfort. Rodney knows what this is, even if he doesn't quite trust the reasons.
"Why--" he asks, and John stiffens, and Rodney squeezes his eyes shut, because better to get this over with if there's going to be an over, "I mean you had to know that I..." he flounders, one hand clenching in the back of John's shirt, and John moves. Rodney opens his eyes, because damn, he should have kept his mouth shut, but John just raises his head, looks curiously down into Rodney's face. The tension is gone from the line of his body, and he's half-smiling, eyes downcast. "Why now?" Rodney finishes, feebly, wishing that any of this made sense.
"I don't know," John says, soft, fingers carding over Rodney's scalp, and Rodney wants to shiver but he's afraid to move. "I didn't want to be by myself. I just... it seemed..." He shrugs, and strangely, that's the thing that makes this normal. It means I wanted to be around you, and that, Rodney understands, because it's been at the heart of his own gestures for four years.
"We're alone," John sighs, into Rodney's hair.
"We're not," says Rodney, with surprising fervency.
"Hm," says John, apparently satisfied, and pulls the covers up over their heads.
After the first time, they usually end up in John's bed, though there's never any discussion about it. Whether it's after a mission — both of them sore and exhausted and just making it to the shower before slipping, exhausted, between the sheets — or at the end of one of many week-long days, it's usually John's bed.
The fourth, fifth, and sixth times, it's just how it happens, during an unusual lull, hot, horrible weather that the environmental controls won't touch because the city's still calibrated to Lantea and not New Lantea, yet. They can't do anything about it while the summer is beating down the walls, and Rodney's been up to his elbows for twelve hours in the city's heat distribution system, a labyrinthine network of pipes that aren't keeping their rooms cool but are keeping the desalinization tanks from rupturing in forty-five-degree-Celsius temperatures. John's been almost as many hours locked in a meeting with Sam and Lorne amending training schedules that used to make sense when they had contact with Earth but don't make sense while they're running as an abandoned colony on the far seas.
Rodney doesn't know how long they've been working, but he's begun thinking the Ancients lacked not only a sex drive (because nothing else explains the size of their beds) but a sense of smell, but at some point Zelenka gives him a narrow look over the top of his glasses. "Rodney," he says, almost gently, "you smell of rotting meat."
Rodney glares at him. "You don't smell much better." Which is true, because they've been doing the same work all day and Rodney rubs his forehead and thinks, idly, that he's very tired and flashes on an image of waking up who knows how many mornings ago with John wrapped around him. They've passed one another a dozen times in the corridors but haven't managed to exchange three words, and that makes him feel obscurely unhappy but Zelenka just gives him a pitying look and tells him:
"Go to your quarters. Shower. Sleep. Leave me alone."
It's in such firm tones — because Radek can be surprisingly persuasive when he wants to be — that Rodney just goes, feet carrying him without direction. He's thinking longingly of a lukewarm shower and clean clothes and falling into bed to sleep for ten hours with great concentration.
He abruptly finds himself standing in the middle of his darkened room, wondering why he came here. Feeling like he's visiting.
Turns around and leaves again.
In the corridor, the city feels languid and quiet and everyone he passes looks wilted. When the door to John's quarters hisses open for him, John himself is lying spread-eagled on the bed in his boxers and one sock, limp like he's melted into the mattress, and he lifts his head a little.
"Where've you been?" he asks, and Rodney lets the door close behind him and drops his kit on the floor.
"Doesn't matter," he says, and heads for the shower.
John doesn't treat him any differently than before, and this takes him some time to realise - that John always behaved as though this was inevitable, as though it was natural, not to be questioned. He touches Rodney no more or less in front of other people than before they were having sex, and there's no responding awkwardness when Rodney associates the warmth and weight of John's hand on his shoulder with the damp hot press of his lips there, in private, and flushes hotly, stammering.
John just smirks, proud of himself, never seems concerned other people will suspect, never says anything, never pulls him aside to mutter a warning. John doesn't find him embarrassing, which is another thing Rodney has trouble grasping and hates that he does, because there are and always have been so many things about himself that Rodney finds embarrassing. Plenty of people of Rodney's acquaintance have been embarrassed by him, and most of them weren't sleeping with him.
That he's historically covered with bluster and snap isn't really the point, and he isn't embarrassed by John (how could he be?), not by them, just by the implications, by how much of himself the whole thing exposes to daylight. Then again, John is wildly, inexplicably fond of many things that Rodney finds terrifying, and always has been.
So when it's Ronon who first says something, John just shrugs, while Rodney's left trying not to swallow his own tongue.
"You know, you'd be warmer if you zipped 'em together," he says, gesturing to where Rodney is laying out their sleeping bags, side by side, half inside their tent. Ronon and Teyla's is already set up, and Teyla is carefully building a fire a few feet away. This world is cold, not freezing, but it might drop that low during the night, and Rodney's already been complaining and blowing on his fingers all day.
"Uh," he says, and it's unlike him to have nothing to say, except in situations like this, where it's really not.
He sees John give him a considering look, and then he rolls his shoulders. Stretches his arms above his head like he does before they climb into bed together back in the city, easy and languorous, gives Ronon a smile that's almost bashful.
"Yeah," he says, "I thought of that," and turns to look at Rodney again, questioning.
Rodney just stares at him, stares between them, at John who's still watching him, at Ronon, who could be smirking. They don't talk about this — they haven't talked about this — but this is Ronon and Teyla. This is their team.
"Okay," says Rodney, and sees the tips of John's ears turning pink as Rodney turns to unzip their bags, lay them out, zip them back together as one. John's smiling, though, just a little, and Rodney turns his back on them and can't help but smile, too.
But later it grips him, as he's accepting a cup of burnt-tasting soup from Teyla — it's amazing, that she can ruin pre-packaged soup — that maybe they should talk about this, because Ronon and Teyla aren't stupid, but sometimes, even now, they don't quite understand things he and John take for granted. And more importantly, Rodney's spent most of an hour thinking about all the ways that could happen, and go wrong, and ruin everything, and somebody should say something.
And John's not doing it, John's been quiet, smiling down into his — awful — dinner and letting them murmur quietly amongst themselves. So it's Rodney, as always, who has to broach the subject.
"Uh," he says, because he figures, by now, they're pretty much beyond subtlety, which is good because Rodney sucks at subtlety. "You guys know that... you can't... you aren't going to..."
See, this, right here? This is why he fixes things and yells at people, and doesn't negotiate treaties. He thinks, fuck it, and blurts: "You can't tell anybody about the sleeping bags."
And then he spills his soup, because it's hard to cover his face with both hands while he's still holding it.
"Huh?" is all Ronon says, and John stares at him, and Teyla is cast in black shadows by the flickering firelight.
Rodney feels his face is burning hot and not from the fire, either. "I really didn't mean to say that out loud," he says, his voice muffled by his hands, and then he says: "If somebody could just shoot me now, that'd be great."
But he doesn't get a chance to get far into humiliation, because John chooses that moment to break suddenly into his terrifying donkey-bray of a laugh, and Rodney looks up to see he's fallen sideways off his log. Ronon, who's sitting on his other side, grins and prods at him with a boot. Teyla leans forward into the light, says "we know, Rodney," and smiles at him, golden and solemn. "We would never endanger you." And she means us and she means both of you, and Ronon just nods and looks faintly smug.
Sometimes, Rodney thinks Teyla knows everything, and this is one of those times. He lets out a breath that makes his shoulders sag, as John, still chuckling, crawls across the grass and up onto Rodney's log, slings an arm around his neck and pulls him close, right there in front of Ronon and Teyla and the sky and everything.
"Yeah," he says, not even resisting, leaning back into John without even thinking about it and surprised at himself. "Yeah. I know."
He does know, and that surprises him, too.
So much of it, in the beginning, feels like a test. Rodney keeps expecting an exam, for someone to come and ask him questions and prove he knows what he's doing. It's disorienting, because usually things that are this important to him come with a syllabus, with a schedule, with guidelines. But as with all other purely human things he often feels like he's fumbling, coming up with the right answer by accident and more often with the wrong one. Sometimes John freezes, and gives him a strange look, before shaking his head and pulling Rodney into bed. Sometimes Rodney says the wrong thing, but doesn't know what it is until he's said it, doesn't know why it's wrong until later.
Sometimes he wants to accuse John of cheating — not like that, just that John doesn't have to think about this, and that's unfair. Being deliberate with people isn't something you're supposed to have to learn. You're supposed to just know, and Rodney knows this, and looks for it, sometimes, finds it missing. He never learned the things you're supposed to simply feel, and that's dissonant enough to make him angry about it. It's like being asked to count the cells in his stomach lining; it's part of him, it has to be, but he can't articulate it, not in any sensible terms. Instead it's buried, twisted up, and for him, emotion and intellect have always inhabited different spheres.
He can't access this, can't explain it, even though he can feel it there, hovering just out of reach. It gives him a headache.
"This isn't really fair," he says once, after an argument he still can't parse. They're slumped against the wall of John's room, John's hand cupped around the back of his head and his breath harsh in Rodney's ear. Surprisingly, of the two of them, it's usually not Rodney who yells. "You've done this before."
"Done what before?"
"This." Rodney's hands flail, as he belatedly realises they're behind John's back, John can't see him. "This — this, knowing the rules. You've done this before. You know what to do, and what things mean, and I... don't."
John laughs, loosening the knot under Rodney's sternum, because five minutes ago John's look was pitying, disbelieving, almost hurt, and he still feels guilty about that, because almost anyone else would have known how to fix it without panicking. "That," John says dryly, "is really, painfully obvious."
Rodney kind of wants to take offence at that, but what he actually does is sag against John's body, sigh and feel heavy and tired. "Yeah," he says, his voice breaking a little on the word. "I know."
And John leans back to look at him, as he says, painfully earnest, "I'm trying," and John smoothes back Rodney's hair, which has grown long enough that it sticks up at funny angles.
"I'm not any good at this, either," says John, in confidential tones and, pressing his cheek to Rodney's, "but I know. It's okay."
They fight a lot. They always fought, or argued, anyway, and at first Rodney's afraid that what was friendly competition before might be worse now, seeping into cracks between them that it couldn't reach when they were something else. They still argue, though, they still joke, they still gape over the almost cartoonishly-bad cast of most of the bad things Pegasus throws at them, because anything less would make things weird between them. In most ways, it's the same as before; John's still unquestionably his best friend, they still do most of the things they did before, playing video games, watching awful movies, baffling Ronon and Teyla with heated debates over the merits of some obscure pop culture reference.
The main difference is that now, Rodney almost never sleeps alone. That sometimes, John surprises Rodney with hot hands and hungry mouth when he least expects it, a laugh turning into a moan when one or the other of them is supposed to be working. And Rodney can't believe how different it really is, when he dares to dwell on it, how it fills up places inside him he didn't even know were empty, pushes thrilling liquid comfort into shadowed places untouched by the sun for years. How it makes it seem completely normal to steal ten minutes out of his work day to sabotage the city sensors, just a little, to show them each in their own separate quarters at night. To wake up to a kiss to his temple, to brush his teeth with John at his shoulder, squinting into the mirror while he shaves. It never ceases to amaze him, but after it's been months, he stops being afraid that the least thing will topple them. Lets himself relax. Lets himself forget that that's how it usually all goes to hell.
What happens is this:
It's been three months since they last had enough power to make the linkup with Earth, and Earth hasn't tried to contact them either. It's been six months since they had any hint that Earth had the attention to spare for them, and now, only now, they're coming to a point where they have to start looking again for allies, for food, for replacements for their dwindling medical supplies.
It's this last that sends them to Velona, a world so strangled by ceremony that Sam insists on a three-hour briefing just to make sure they don't do anything fatally stupid the moment they step through the gate.
"I don't see why we're going somewhere so neurotic in the first place," Rodney complains, as Teyla beckons he stand so she can show them the proper way of bowing to one's social superiors on Velona.
"Because we lost two generators in a surge last month, and they have naquadah refinement on a level close to ours, and we need some," Sam reminds him, patiently, remaining in her seat while John pulls him to his feet to do as Teyla shows them.
"And we're all really fond of heat and running water, Rodney, so pay attention," John admonishes, giving him a little shove when he doesn't mimic Teyla as John and Ronon do.
Rodney glares at him. For good measure, he glares at Teyla, too. "You said they kill people for failing to have babies!"
Teyla, who is standing with her palm flat atop her closed fist, pauses, and tilts her head to one side. "That is... something of an oversimplification," she says slowly. "Velona is... has always been steeped in very sombre tradition."
"Which is another way of saying they oppress people and then kill them when they don't do what they're told," Rodney says sourly. Four years in another galaxy have totally destroyed what little tolerance he ever had with societies inclined to violence towards people who don't agree with them.
"That is also an oversimplification," Teyla says, frowning a little, but not at him. It's not a disagreement, Rodney notices.
"They're friendly enough to visitors, Rodney," Sam says then, and when he turns to look at her he sees she's gone a little tight around the mouth and eyes, like she's remembering something about this that makes her uncomfortable. He knows she must have seen other worlds like the one they're talking about, knows her well enough to know it probably makes her want to do more than just complain about it. But she's in charge now, isn't allowed, has to be an example. "They don't consider them part of the system."
"Don't consider them people," Ronon corrects her, looking no happier about the situation than Rodney.
"Well," John says, tone deceptively light, and at least, at least John is actually unhappy about this, even if he's hiding it. "That lets us off the hook for hostess gifts, anyway." Which is true, because apparently the Velonans consider outsiders unclean, which more than counts in anything they might bring with them.
They count on Teyla, mostly, to keep them from getting into trouble before they show up somewhere. But Teyla's not omniscient, Teyla hasn't been everywhere, and she's only heard about Velona, never set foot there. So when the gate closes behind them and they find themselves at the business ends of two-dozen weird, chunky Velonan laser rifles, Rodney can't even blame her.
"You have acted against the will of the gods," says the Governor, who is really more of a high priest with a bureaucratic state behind him. Like the rest of the Velonans, he's dressed all in black, trussed up to his throat, hair tightly bound up in a dark cap that covers even his ears.
"Governor," Teyla says, stepping forward, "I'm afraid I do not understand. We had just arrived. We had yet to even seek out your people when we were taken prisoner. If you could explain what we have done to offend you..."
"It is enough that you have come at this time," says the Governor — who hasn't told them his name, because apparently it's too precious a thing to trust to the unclean. "You have trespassed during a time of worship."
Teyla shoots a look back over her shoulder, the rare one that means she doesn't have this one entirely under control, and they should maybe start getting ready to run away. "We apologise," she says, with a long, slow blink. "We were unaware that we were arriving on a holy day. We came at the time my people have always come."
"And who are they?" asks the Governor.
"My father once traded with this world," Teyla says. "He was Tagaan of Athos. He was acquainted with Governor Trelas."
The Governor sneers, the expression somehow more severe in the face bound about with dark cloth. "Trelas," he repeats, "was from a time of less devotion. We have recently made a move towards greater humility, of more dignified rule and behaviour."
Teyla's spine stiffens, Rodney can see the change, glances at John and Ronon to see Ronon fisting one hand around his belt above the empty holster, John's fingers twitching slightly where they hang at his side. This isn't good. Rodney's not sure what's going on, but he knows this isn't good.
"If we may somehow make amends," Teyla's saying, and her hands are still clasped behind her back in Velonan fashion, unthreatening, submissive. "As we meant no offence, if there is anything..."
The Governor narrows his eyes at her, and then turns to sweep his gaze over the three men, one at a time, lingering the longest on John, who Rodney can feel thrumming with tension. The Governor's look is speculative, sharp. "You will remain here," he says stiffly, getting to his feet and gliding out of the room before Teyla can reply.
As soon as the heavy carven doors have closed behind him, Teyla turns to them with graceful eyebrows drawn together in concern. "I am sorry," she says quickly, shaking her head. "I was not told... when my father came here, he always described the Velonans as... particular, but not nearly so hostile. I have spoken to others who have traded with Velona over the past two years, but they always met on market planets, not Velona itself."
"Too bad they haven't showed up at market anywhere in more than six months," Ronon says, glaring at the door.
Teyla shakes her head. "And we needed their trade so badly... I was never given the impression that they would attempt to punish us for failing to observe some trivial custom, which..."
It dawns on Rodney then that Teyla's actually angry, which jolts him out of his own prickly annoyance with the day so far. Teyla's rarely angry — annoyed sometimes, impatient, but generally is too serene to let even that show very much. But right now she's twisted up across the neck and shoulders, holding herself too stiff and straight.
"It's okay," John says, touching the back of her wrist until she unclenches her fist, drops her arm to her side. "You couldn't have known they'd have a religious revolution over less than a decade."
"He's right," Ronon echoes, and Rodney nods, because even for Pegasus, going from pedantic and a little stiff-necked to "uncovered heads are an obscenity against the gods" and "trespass on holy ground is punishable by death" is a little extreme. But who knew they'd walk in in the middle of a theocratic revolution?
"Still," Teyla says, as John leans against the Governor's unoccupied desk, looking around the room and obviously marking the locations of windows, doors, vents in the ceiling; Rodney's seen him do it a dozen times before. "I did not anticipate this level of..." she holds up her hands, palms up, then drops them again. When she goes on, her voice is low. "I do not know what they might do."
"Well, you still know better than the rest of us," Rodney says, scowling, and that gets him a tiny smile out of her.
"It's okay," John says again, crossing his arms and nodding in Teyla's direction. "Don't worry. We'll figure something out."
Of course, they don't, not for the almost half an hour the Governor leaves them stewing in his office. They don't try to leave, which is good because it turns out that all the exits are being guarded by more guys with more of the weird laser rifles, which they find out when the Governor re-appears, flanked by six more guards, heads covered in dark blue cloth, ordering them to follow him in a tone that silences even the half-formed protests in Rodney's throat. It helps that the Velonan guards decide to hurry them along by closing in behind them and giving Rodney a jab in the small of his back when he doesn't walk as fast as the others.
"Hey," John protests, reaching out to grab Rodney's arm and pull him into step with him. They exchange a look, John tense and squeezing Rodney's arm briefly before letting go. And it hits him, then, rolls over him in a wave that this has just become a dangerous situation, that the rest of his team is wearing the closed expressions, the weird, sleek grace all three slide into when they're getting ready to maybe have to kill people if it becomes necessary. Rodney's never been able to manage it, but he knows what it looks like, knows to have his hand near his sidearm, and he would, he would, except that their weapons are in the hands of the Governor's guards, were confiscated at the gate. Rodney's not sure when he started feeling naked, off-world, without a weapon, but it's apparently happened.
The temple is a big circle of stone pillars on an open space not all that far from the gate, which is probably not un-related to the fact that they're being treated like heretics; not only did they interrupt, not only did they have the gall to show their faces in daylight with uncovered heads, but they did it in full view of the leadership doing solemn religious things, which has apparently compounded the offence. More irritating than the rest of it is that Rodney's still not absolutely sure what it is they did, aside from show up. Religion in general has always made Rodney feel uncomfortable, like undue gravity is being lent to things that can't be proven or seen, and religion with guns is a whole new level of discomfort.
"You will prove yourself by the gods' method," the Governor says, standing still as an aide drapes a vivid red mantle over his shoulders. It's the only colour on the field, and Rodney cranes his neck a moment to see the gate in the distance, the only thing stilling the incipient panic sparked in him by the Governor's grave expression.
"What does that mean, exactly?" John asks.
The Governor gestures across the circle, to where a podium stands in the centre, flat top smooth with a blue stone set into the surface. It's Ancient, Rodney's sure of it and knows John has seen it too, from the way his expression hardens.
"The Oracle will read your intentions. It is inexact, to read a savage in such a way, but we are no longer as we were, giving up our dignity to outsiders with no assurance. You will be tested."
Rodney meets the fleeting glance John gives him, the one that says keep your mouth shut, and Rodney's about to bristle that he hasn't said anything, and what's the big deal about touching a rock, anyway, until he sees the tension riding high in John's shoulders. "And if I don't pass?" John's asking, and the Governor frowns.
"If you fail, you are not worthy, and you will be removed from our soil."
Rodney would never claim to have much in the way of skill at subtlety, but he's been around enough of these theocratic lunatics to recognise the emphasis on "removed."
"Hang on just a damned minute—" he begins, but John doesn't look at him, and Ronon grabs him by the shoulder, making him stumble back the half-step he's just taken without realising it. He turns his head furiously in Ronon's direction, getting angrier with every second he watches, his brain adding up the scene and the Governor's words and John's nervous posture. "We can't! He can't!" he hisses, and Ronon shakes his head.
"He knows what he's doing, McKay," he rumbles. "They won't trade with us if he doesn't—"
"That's sort of my point!" Rodney whispers. "Did you happen to notice that they didn't tell us whether lighting the thing up is a pass or a fail?"
Ronon frowns, eyes flicking over to where John and Teyla are listening respectfully to the Governor as he describes the ceremony. "Huh," he says.
"It doesn't—" Rodney continues, patting his vest until he finds his scanner, one of the only things the Velonans didn't confiscate, thumbing it on and squinting down at the screen. "—it doesn't make any sense for them to test people for the gene — this is a society that expects everyone to prove their virtue by being identical, right?"
"Right," Ronon says, in a whisper that sounds provisional.
"And, and..." Rodney narrows the scan, and then shoves the scanner in Ronon's face. "Look! There's barely a power signature. I'm willing to bet nobody's lit it up in a hundred years, even if anybody on this backwater planet has the gene, which I doubt, but you know Sheppard and Ancient tech..."
He sees the change on Ronon's face, from bored to thoughtful, but by then, John is already walking across the circle with the Governor, standing next to the podium while the other priests (or whatever they are) chant something in low voices, averting their eyes from the outsider treading on their holy soil. And Rodney knows, is absolutely sure, that this is one of those times where John's figured it out a hundred miles ahead of him and knows it's as bad as it looks and worse, and has consigned himself to some fate they wouldn't allow without telling them.
And... no. No, because it's one thing to submit to these tests, these trials, these minor public humiliations in the name of trade, when they come out of it as friends, as allies, but Velona isn't like that. No matter what they do... no one not born here is a person, here, and nothing they do, John does, will change that. And Rodney was listening during the briefing, knows that even if they pass, they'll be no better off than when they got here and offended the gods. That it's pointless, that if what Rodney thinks is going to happen, happens, they'll kill John and deport them through the gate by force and that John will do it anyway, because he wants to keep them safe, because he throws himself in front of the rest of them without even thinking, without ever thinking.
So possibly it's part indignation, part selfish terror, part honest, actual rational diplomatic sensibility, that has him stumbling across the open space of the circle before Ronon can stop him. Reaching out and grabbing John's hand on its way down to the smooth surface of the podium, yanking him back and away.
"Rodney, what the hell?" John says, pulling his arm free, and is wide-eyed and looking around as the Governor falls back, white-faced with rage.
"You can't pass, you can't possibly, it'd light up like a Christmas tree, you idiot," Rodney is babbling under his breath, even as the Governor makes a gesture and a dozen nasty-looking Velonan weapons are suddenly pointing right at Rodney.
"Okay," John says, holding up one hand and using the other to yank Rodney behind him, "I'm sure we can talk about this..."
"There is nothing to discuss," the Governor returns angrily. "He has transgressed, he has interrupted the ceremony, this is simply unendurable..."
John blinks, with deceptive easiness, though his hand is tightening around Rodney's wrist. "Governor," Teyla says, moving to flank John, her hands raised like John's, palms out. "Surely there is something we may..."
"You were offered amends!" the Governor says, voice thin and a little strangled. "He has soiled our good grace, and now he must be—"
"I really don't think he will," says Ronon, and Rodney didn't even see him move, but there are two guards unconscious at his feet, and Ronon's got his gun back, and the barrel is hovering near as a kiss to the Governor's temple.
John keeps a hold of Rodney's wrist all the way back to the gate, as Ronon walks close up behind the Governor smiling his dangerous smile. He lets go as Teyla's dialling the gate, and Rodney finally exhales with relief as the gate whooshes open, turns to John to share a grin he expects to find there... and doesn't. John's face is expressionless, cold, and he glances at Rodney for only a second, a brief shake of his head, before turning away and passing through the gate ahead of him. They leave the Governor sputtering with rage beyond the event horizon.
The debriefing is mercifully short, and he trails John back to his quarters feeling totally uncertain of where he stands, which is odd, because this morning it was fine, they were fine. But then the door closes behind him and John wheels around and Rodney flinches back before a word's been spoken, John's so angry.
"What the hell were you thinking?" John demands. "Seriously, you're not stupid, so I know you understood what was going on, that interrupting would get a lot of people with guns involved!"
Rodney realises his mouth is hanging open, so he balls up his fists and replies: "I understand that we were wrong about Velona before we even went!" he shouts back. "We were prisoners the second we stepped through the gate! They were never going to trade with us!"
"Yeah, but we might have gotten out of it without taking a hostage, McKay!" John's not looking at him, is stripping off his holster and slamming it down on the desk.
"The three of us might have!" Rodney disagrees. "Me, and Ronon and Teyla, but not you. Never you. They weren't going to—"
John balls up his jacket and flings it into the corner of the room. "Stop," he grits out, "just stop," and his back is to Rodney, his shoulders heaving, breathing hard. Rodney's a little out of breath himself, and this is at least familiar, this is how they usually end their fights, and any second now John's going to turn around and kiss him to shut him up. Slap a hand over his mouth. Push him up against the wall until they've burned through being angry into something else.
But he doesn't. He stays where he is, doesn't turn, doesn't even raise his voice. "We can't do this anymore."
"We — what?" Rodney is thrown, he's lost his rhythm entirely. "What do you mean?"
"We can't..." And now John turns, and it's with that same closed, cold face he wore on Velona as they stepped through the gate. Rodney can't read it at all, and that scares the hell out of him.
"You know what I mean, Rodney. This is... it's interfering with more important things."
It hurts more than Rodney expected, which is something because he understands what John's saying less than a breath before he says it, and it leaves him swaying like a punch in the stomach. "You want—" his mouth is dry, and he has to swallow, hard. "You don't want to..."
"It got in the way of your judgement, Rodney," John bites out. "It got in the way of mine. That wouldn't have happened... before."
"Of course it would!" It bursts out before Rodney can stop it, loud and embarrassingly hoarse. "Of course it would! It always would have." And it's true. Maybe before he wouldn't have known why, couldn't have said why, but John's the first reason he's ever had to put himself in danger with no gain, and he has been for four years. It's never been in question, not ever.
But John isn't listening, and Rodney's grasping for words to explain himself, to explain that it doesn't matter what they are, that they'll still be this, at least he will, and he's afraid to ask whether he's alone in that. John's shaking his head.
"It's a liability," he says, reasonable and infuriating and Rodney wants to grab him by the shoulders and shake, but he can't make his legs move, his hands, even his tongue. "It's one we can't afford. I should have... I should have seen that before."
"It's always been one," Rodney argues, barely a whisper around the lump of misery rising in his throat.
But John just shakes his head again, and looks away, and that's when Rodney can't take it anymore. He has to turn around and leave so he can pretend he's not about to fall apart, break into pieces, stop being himself, just because John won't meet his eyes.
It would be appropriate to say that the next month is one of the worst of Rodney's life, including Siberia and the year his mother died, but for much of it he barely notices time passing. He slides back into his old routine with hardly a bump, work, food, work, food, sleep, and not a lot of that. All the off-world teams are on indefinite hold, because right after Velona they become victim of a plague of minor malfunctions, little things that get worse and worse over two weeks and of course, Rodney doesn't have time to do much but run around the city making patches and hoping that the next one holds.
John's not exactly cold with him, but he's not himself, things aren't the way they were before and they aren't the way they were before that, when they were good friends who weren't sleeping together, and Rodney misses that, too. It's not like he had a lot of friends to begin with. Surprisingly it's Ronon who checks up on him now, showing up with food and dragging him out of the lab when he hasn't left it in more than thirty hours.
It's Teyla who comes to him when he can't sleep at all, is sitting up into the wee hours hunched over his laptop, frantically trying to track down the problem. Teyla's firm with him, closes the computer and manhandles him into bed, dimming the lights and telling him to sleep, with a gentleness that tells Rodney she means it for more than just the city browning out around them. Or maybe that he hasn't seen John outside of meals in the mess for more than two weeks, and she knows that.
When they finally track down the problem, it's at the tail-end of two days of seemingly-random power surges, and Rodney's sick to death of his scientists scurrying off the infirmary with electrical burns. Right after that they start getting read errors in the city's buoyancy monitors, which means the city is actually sinking, or trying to, and he gets Zelenka yelling in his ear as he's just finished frantically re-coding a relay.
He elbows his way into John's office past Lorne and Cadman and says: "We have to use the goddamn chair," and John's up on his feet and following before Rodney finishes the sentence.
They haven't used the chair since they lost Earth, because they haven't had enough power to run the chair for anything they can't do from a thousand interfaces throughout the city. But the chair is still the primary interface, the reset button. "It's a virus?" John asks, as they're hurrying down the corridor from the transporter. There's a detachment of Marines outside the door who step out of the way when they see them approaching, and Rodney ignores them completely in favour of snorting in disgust.
"Yes, let's oversimplify it beyond all comprehension," Rodney snaps, but there's something invigorating about this, mocking John and seeing him smirk as though he can't help himself. "It's like a virus, I said. It's ten levels of magnitude more complicated than an actual virus. We think it self-generated when we tried to dial that planet with the dead gate last month—"
"The one where the star went nova?" John asks, and Rodney nods.
"That's the one. The gate network usually compensates for errors like that, usually by refusing to connect, but for some reason the city's database was never updated, and when it couldn't connect, the blowback of a failed wormhole created enough of a surge to corrupt our system. It started deep enough that it wasn't caught by diagnostics, but then it started corrupting everything it interfaced with. We've got so many different operating systems linked to the city's mainframe it's amazing we didn't sink six months ago, and this is what happens when you don't let me run comprehensive simulations before implementing—"
John rolls his eyes, interrupting him. "But you think rebooting the system will fix it?"
"Oh my god, are you listening to yourself? Atlantis is not a desktop computer, it's..."
"You just called the chair a reset button," John points out, as Rodney goes from console to console, checking readouts and making sure that what he's planning will actually work.
"Yeah, well, I'm in a hurry," he says, and then curses as the floor lurches under them.
"Rodney?" John asks, steadying himself on the console.
"Yeah, yeah, shut up a second!" Rodney shouts, as the alarm starts going off, "it's the buoyancy system again, damn it, I just fixed that!"
"Maybe we should get on with this, then?" John asks, and Rodney waves him away.
"Just give me a minute," Rodney shouts. "We're shutting down and starting back up, that's an incredible amount of power, I have to make sure it doesn't fry me like a—"
"Who says you're doing it?" John asks, harried and angry.
"I do, because I know the system about fifty times better than you!" Rodney shoots back.
"Yeah, and if it fries your brain we're in a lot more trouble than if it fries mine!" John looms over him. "I'll do it."
Rodney slams his fist down to activate the final sequence, shouts: "No, you won't because I can—" and turns towards the platform, striding towards it. But then John grabs him from behind, shoves him, hard, and Rodney stumbles, loses his footing, lands hard on his ass.
"John!" he shouts, because he's smart and he knows what's happening about a second and a half after John pushes him away.
But John's already in the chair and leaning back, the platform flickering suddenly bright, bright blue.
It works. Of course it works, because Atlantis always wants to please John, even when he's a moron, but broken as she is she can't help jolting him when the system kicks back in. The city doesn't sink, but John's unconscious and twitching with aftershock and not responding when they try to wake him.
He's unconscious for ten days, and while Keller assures them there's no reason to worry, Rodney has to shut himself in his quarters for twelve hours to a) have a panic attack and b) finally conk out on sleeping pills when the panic doesn't abate. He really doesn't need this kind of stress and if he doesn't sleep the city really will sink next time.
When John finally does wake up, Rodney makes sure he's there, huddled into himself on one of the sadistically uncomfortable visitors' chairs and glaring death as John blinks slowly, turns his head, sees him there. It's early, and the infirmary is empty except for the shift nurse far on the other side of the room.
"Do you know how stupid that was?" is the first thing he says, and John just blinks at him a few more times, pushing himself up on one elbow and rubbing at his eyes.
"Hey, Rodney," he greets him, voice a little rough from disuse. "Nice to see you, too."
"Don't you start that with me," Rodney says, stabbing a finger viciously in John's direction. He hasn't slept much in the last few days, or in the last ten, and that makes this going on a full month he hasn't done much more than toss and turn when he gets time to sleep in the first place. Now that he's got John, awake and looking at him, he's shaking a little with repressed — rage? Panic? Something. Something big.
"Don't you act like this was no big deal. Don't you fucking dare."
John sits up, shakes his head. "I did what I had to, Rodney."
"No, you didn't!" Rodney snaps, remembering just in time to keep his voice down. "You didn't. I was going to do it. I could have done it. I probably could have done it with a smaller power surge because some of us don't feel obligated to overload the chair interface out of sheer enthusiasm every time we sit in it. I almost certainly could have kept you from getting fried like an egg and slipping into a coma for ten days because you can't bear to be wrong about something—"
"What are you talking about?" John asks, looking genuinely confused. "Also, you know, there are places in the world where saving the day doesn't get you yelled at."
"Shut up! Just, just shut the fuck up!" Rodney says, and he's really angry now, angrier than he thought he was. "You pushed me out of the way! You did it so that it wouldn't be me there, and that's not... that's not being a responsible military commander, so don't even try to feed me that bullshit. That was you, looking out for me. Just like it was me, on Velona. Just like it's always—"
"Rodney," John says, and his tone has a warning in it, but Rodney's not having it, has been stewing in this for ten days and has to get it out before he loses his nerve.
"So, so your logic is faulty. I told you it was. I told you it didn't make any difference, whether we were... well, you know, together, or not, that we still, we still matter to each other too much for it to make any—"
"Rodney," John says again, and his face has taken on that unreadable stiffness again, the same face he wore when he told Rodney it was over, that they had to stop. "It was for the city."
"What?" Rodney asks, brought up short by the way John's words feel like a slap. "What are you—"
"It was for the city," John repeats. "I would have done it for anybody." He's holding Rodney's eyes, and Rodney stares back, pressing his lips together, hoping to see some crack in this armour John's wearing, some flicker of something in his eyes, but all John looks is sort of annoyed with him. For bringing up something he shouldn't.
And suddenly Rodney just really, really doesn't want to deal with this anymore. Doesn't want to talk about it, doesn't even want to look at John. He gets up, sending the chair skidding back, straightening his wrinkled jacket with a few sharp tugs. "Well," he snaps, trying to cover the hollow feeling between his ribs with anger he still feels, "I guess it's just me, then."
John sighs, tolerantly, uninvested. "Rodney..."
"No! Fine," Rodney says, not looking at him, because he doesn't think he can maintain even this tenuous control if he does, might break and strangle the man instead, or maybe kiss him, try to convince him, and Rodney McKay is a lot of things, but deliberately pathetic isn't one of them, not when he can run away, instead. "Fine."
"Fine," John agrees, and now there's a crack, but it's mostly doubt, a frown between John's eyebrows. "I don't..." he swallows, like it pains him to have to say it, but for none of the reasons Rodney wishes it did. "I don't want to talk about this anymore, okay?"
"Never again," Rodney promises viciously, and leaves with as much dignity as he can muster. He hears John sigh, and he sends back one last glance to see John fall back into bed with every sign of relief, turning over, closing his eyes, going back to sleep.
Rodney goes back to his quarters, picks up a coffee mug, and smashes it against the wall. For a few minutes he just stands there in the middle of the room, chest heaving, not sure if he wants to hit something or cry, equal parts angry or confused. Wondering, vaguely, if he just imagined everything, imagined John crawling into his bed and clinging to him like he was the only comfort the world offered. Imagined John holding him close and telling him it was okay, that he wasn't going anywhere, when Rodney confessed he was always afraid that people who didn't need him wouldn't stay, because they hadn't. Imagined John cornering him in a transporter not two months ago and hitting the emergency stop just so he could kiss Rodney breathless, for no reason, in the middle of the day.
He looks down at the shards of broken ceramic, scrubs a hand through his hair. "Fuck," he says, loudly, fervently, and sits heavily down in his desk chair. He stares at nothing for a long time, until his heartbeat returns to normal, until a stray gaze falls on his bed, the rumpled sheets, where he's been sleeping alone for a month.
He wasn't lying. He knows John's logic was wrong, that formality and sleeping arrangements are never going to change how he feels. That he's always been likely to do stupid things in defence of the very few things he cares about enough to risk himself and his reputation.
John's wrong about him. That doesn't mean he's right about John.
But it's not like Rodney's got anywhere else to go, anywhere better to spend his affections. So he goes back to work, instead.
The Republic of Nareim is a small, semi-industrialised society on a planet shrouded deep in a magnetic field that confounds navigation, so they know nothing of the Wraith except what they learn by trading with other worlds. Teyla doesn't know them, but Ronon's heard of them, reclusive people bent to the wheels of science and scholarship, the study of history. Barely two days after John's been put back on active duty, Lorne's team encounters one of their envoys on a trade mission to a roving market where they negotiate every so often for food, and are invited back to Nareim that very same day. It's the lead team that goes, for obvious reasons.
The city is small and bounded by a high stone wall, and they learn that the Nareim cluster their cities, spread out across the planet, to make them more efficient. The one they see is the main cluster, more of a village in the shadow of a mountain that casts a bluish pall over the wide paved streets. The Nareim's star is dim compared to what Rodney's used to, making the surface seem locked in perpetual, cloudy twilight.
He likes their guide at once, as she leads them on a brisk tour through the city, giving a high-speed narration of their history. Nareim was once a research colony of the Ancients, and the Nareim people have spent the intervening ten thousand years leaving their world only to gain intelligence, to further their discoveries, to find new fields of study.
It's consequently Rodney who does most of the talking, and John, Teyla and Ronon follow behind, keeping quiet except for the occasional question interjected by John. Of course John is at once bent on flirting with Neeli, their guide, a young woman with sleek dark hair and sharp, clever features who actually seems to find Rodney interesting. On top of all the bullshit he's put up with from John in recent weeks, it's really more than Rodney can take. He finds himself vying with John for Neeli's attention, bringing out progressively bigger boasts until finally he maybe goes a little too far.
"We've found a way around that, actually," Rodney tells her, when she bemoans their inability to use most of the Ancestors' machines, says they're starting to have trouble producing food, maintaining power, because their naquadah-fuelled systems are failing.
She turns to him with wide eyes. "You have? Please, tell me."
"Oh, well, Ancient technology is often keyed to a specific gene. It's extremely rare, even among our people, but we've developed a medical treatment to activate it." He intentionally ignores John's warning look beamed like a laser over Neeli's head.
"Is this so?" Neeli asks, excitedly looking to John for confirmation. John nods, slowly, and she turns back to Rodney. "And you have received this treatment?" she asks, and Rodney grins, nodding.
"I was the first, actually," he tells her.
"Though he still can't get it to work half the time," John breaks in, glaring at Rodney.
"I would be indebted if you could tell me more about this process," Neeli says, clearly not aware of the tension between them. He turns back to her, smiling.
"I'd be happy to," he says, and lets her lead him into their main lab.
John catches his sleeve. "Hang on, McKay," he says, and Rodney whirls on him, officially sick of this.
"What? What is your problem?" he demands. "Or have you decided that nobody is allowed to be interested in me?"
John looks obscurely uncomfortable, like he's swallowed something that isn't agreeing with him. "It's not about that, Rodney," he says. "I'm getting a weird vibe off these people. I don't think they're being totally honest with us."
"Oh, so you're cockblocking out of concern for my well-being. I'm touched, really I am, but I think you've surrendered your rights to interfere in my social pursuits." He shakes off John's hand, turning away to follow Neeli. "Mind your own business Colonel. I am."
He's riding a hot high of triumph at the look on John's face as he walks away for the rest of the day, all through handing off a cart-load of purified naquadah to Ronon and Teyla to take back to the jumper, through the really very good evening meal the Nareim insist he and John stay to enjoy, during which John is uncharacteristically silent, no longer flirtatious and genial at all. He enjoys it all the way up to the point where they're about to leave Neeli and her military escort at the city gates and walk back to the jumper, and instead of bidding them a fond farewell, the soldiers suddenly raise their guns and tell them to stay where they are.
"I am very sorry about this, Doctor McKay," Neeli says, sounding genuinely regretful, "but we really don't have much choice. Our cities are dying, and if what you say about the gene is true, then we need you to bring the power-source back online. We cannot let you leave."
Rodney sputters, because he really, really didn't see this coming. "Oh, this is hospitality. Feed us dinner and then take us prisoner?"
Neeli colours with embarrassment, but she is resolved, and so are the half-dozen soldiers around her. "The decision was made only an hour ago," she says. "in an emergency session of the council. We cannot run our hydroponics farms without power. We will starve. We cannot let you leave. Your friends may take the naquadah as we agreed, as a gesture of good faith. But..."
"Good faith? That's what you call this?" Rodney yells, but he doesn't get any farther, because there's a familiar hand on his shoulder, pulling him back and out of the way.
"Yeah, that's really not going to happen," says John's voice, and out of the corner of his eye Rodney sees him raising his P90.
He doesn't follow everything that happens next, but there are shots fired, and then they're running full-out for the city gate not a hundred metres away, and then John lobs something into the control tower that explodes, bringing the gate slamming down as they skid through in a hail of bullets. They barely make it out in one piece, don't slow down until the sound of weapons-fire dies away.
John doesn't say a word to him for ten minutes after they pass the wall, and doesn't say a word, period, except for the three times he speaks into his radio to find out how far away Ronon and Teyla are. Rodney is trying like anything to be angry, and it's working, but it keeps being interrupted by alternating waves of humiliation and dizziness.
"I didn't mean to—" he begins eventually, fifteen minutes out, and John stops, spins, and gives him a look so cold that Rodney backs up a couple of steps.
"I don't want to hear it, McKay," he says, sounding like he's biting off the words and spitting them. Rodney gulps, and there's humiliation again, with a little resentment because Jesus, of all people John knows how hard it is for him to apologise for anything. "It's one of the top ten. We don't tell people about the gene. You know that."
And Rodney does know that, was the one who suggested the rule, after the fifth civilisation (to use the term loosely) decided to keep a gene-carrier, usually John, because they couldn't make their machines work without one, and they had to shoot their way out.
"You fucked up," John growls, "you fucked up big-time, and now is not the time to make yourself feel better about it. So just fucking save it."
Rodney shuts his mouth, stung. There's a difference between having that implied and having it said, and that was it, right there. John glares at him for a second longer, his eyes daring Rodney to say something else, but Rodney just stands there until John turns and stalks on. Rodney trails slowly in his wake, limping a little. His right side is definitely starting to feel a little funny, but it's a distant sort of discomfort, lost beyond the roaring in his ears. Lost beyond the indignation of what John has implied.
He wasn't trying to cause trouble. He really wasn't. He didn't mean to say it and he didn't mean to sound like - and it did sound like - it was all about him. He knows it isn't. But he was tired and cranky and John hasn't looked at him in four days and he vastly underestimated how starved and wretched that would make him feel. It just came out. He didn't mean to...
"What the fuck did I just say?" John snaps, not even looking back or slowing down.
Rodney blinks, stumbling a little and catching himself. Did he say that out loud? But now that he's started, he might as well get it out. "Hey," he answers, wanting to sound angry but horrified that it comes out tight-wound and broken, "excuse me if extreme exhaustion does things to my verbal impulse control. But some of us haven't had ten days of leisurely convalescence to catch up on our beauty rest, some of us spent all ten days terrified other people were going to die."
"Rodney." John's voice is tight, warning. But Rodney can't bring himself to care.
"And fuck you very much, too," he snaps, getting into his stride. "I wasn't the one who decided we needed to... to... to re-prioritise because I was such a liability, and obviously you made the right choice there, well done. I feel so much better, enlightened even. Thank you so much for making me understand what was important, Colonel."
"Jesus, Rodney!" John shouts, stopping again and turning with his hands fisted so tight Rodney actually thinks he might hit him. "When I said I didn't want to talk about it, I meant I didn't want to talk about it. Ever again. We're hanging by way too thin a thread for me to be distracted by - to be thinking about - I can't be worrying about - just stop. I mean it. If you can't handle going back to the way things were, you can be on another team. We can do that. There are more important things to be worrying about. Now we have to get back to the gate before those fucking lunatics decide to send a ship after us."
Be on another team. The words are like a lash, and Rodney actually rocks back on his heels for a second, as John starts walking again, and he hurries to catch up.
"You don't - you can't mean that," he pants, because his right side is feeling sort of wobbly now, from shoulder to knee.
"I'll do whatever I have to do to protect the city, McKay. So get your fucking head in order," John growls.
"You are such a fucking liar," Rodney shouts back, or starts to - because at that moment his side suddenly flares into white-hot, searing pain, and his right leg gives out underneath him.
He vaguely feels the ground rise up and smack him, hard, hears the startled grunt it drives out of him, and lies there thinking, with spinning, stratospheric despair: He's not even going to look back, before the roaring in his ears spikes into a dull throb.
Far away, he hears John curse, shout his name in a stricken voice, and then John is there, hands patting up and down Rodney's sides, the back of his neck, turning him gently so that his weight is cradled between John's thighs, and even with his head pounding Rodney can feel the throttled panic in John's every muscle.
"Rodney - fuck, Rodney," he's saying, and in a flash of errant cloud-filtered sunlight Rodney sees him lift fingers slick with blood from Rodney's side, sees his eyes go wide and his face white. "Fuck," he swears, with feeling that Rodney can't help but find gratifying even if he's pretty sure he's bleeding to death. Then he's talking into his radio, rattling off a distress call to Teyla and Ronon, and bending down over Rodney to snake a hand inside his vest, the other slipping around the back of Rodney's neck, comforting even though his hand is shaking.
Rodney blinks up at him. "Hurts," he says, with faint surprise. "I don't remember..." and then he's seized with sudden urgency. "John."
John swallows, narrowed eyes lifting from where his hand is pressing a bandage into Rodney's side. Rodney can see the pulse in the side of his neck, rapid and frantic like his breathing. "Yeah, buddy?"
"Please don't take me off the team?"
And before he can feel embarrassed by the pleading, thready sound of his own voice, the world pulls away from him in a rush.
"So here's the thing," says John's voice, and Rodney is completely unable to generate surprise that the first thing he hears, waking up in the infirmary, is John's voice. "You were wrong, and you were right."
"Huh?" Rodney asks. His throat is dry, and he has to blink through the lingering muddle of painkillers as John sighs and holds a straw to his lips.
"Slow, Rodney," John cautions. "I don't want Keller running in here 'cause you're choking."
Cool water brings clarity, at least a little, and he realises that John's hand, the one not setting the cup back on the bedside table is curled around his own, fingers dry and cold.
"You're here," Rodney croaks, now becoming aware that they're in a private room, that there are a lot of machines hooked up to him, but only one IV. "I'm not dead," he adds, with some vague surprise.
"No," John agrees, and Rodney looks back in time to see a flicker of something cross his face, pain, frustration, he's not sure what.
"So what am I wrong about?" Rodney asks, deciding not to point out John's holding his hand in case he decides to take it away.
John drops his head, rubs the back of his neck. "You said I knew how to do this," he says. "You said... you said I was better at this than you were."
Rodney suddenly feels very, very tired. "I thought you didn't want to talk about that," he says, closing his eyes.
"I didn't," John admits. "Because... look, I was married, really married, for less than a year. I knew... you said it, I know all the things you're supposed to do, but I was never very good at it. When we got to the point where you're supposed to talk about stuff, work through things, I ran away to fly planes in Afghanistan." He shows Rodney a rueful smile. "So I don't know if you could call me an expert."
"Hah," Rodney says, injecting it with as much scorn as he can manage in his weakened state. He still feels kind of floaty, like his various appendages are only loosely connected to his body, and he can only sort of feel it when John squeezes his hand, making Rodney look at him again.
"But you were right, too," John admits, still looking down, picking at pills on Rodney's blanket.
"'Bout what?" Rodney asks. Wow, Keller really gave him the good stuff. A minute ago he had a handle on lucidity, but it seems to be drifting in and out, the only constant John's hand in his, and isn't that ironic.
"About..." John sighs, frustrated. "About... how not being together wouldn't change anything. We'd still be... Rodney, I thought you were going to die, and all I wanted to do was go back and blow their city to kingdom come."
"And?" Rodney wants to say he certainly hopes so, he'd have done the same thing, though probably safely from orbit.
"And it's not the first time I've felt that way when somebody hurt you. It just..." John waves a hand vaguely, a gesture Rodney is pretty certain is his. "I didn't know what it meant, before. Before we started... and I thought I could stop it. I thought... I knew what to say, to make you back off, I knew how to... and I'm sorry about that. I didn't..." He scrubs at his face, looking haggard. "I didn't mean it," he spits out, like it pains him to say it, and with a faint pang Rodney remembers standing where John's sitting now, saying it's just me, then, hoping for a denial, and not getting one. "I didn't. But I honestly thought it would be easier that way. It wasn't."
Rodney feels his eyes go wide, waits for the wave of fury at John for putting him through this, only to capitulate at the end like he always fucking does, but it doesn't come. He's abstractly aware that he's angry, but he can't seem to feel it. Drugs. Good drugs.
"I can't believe you," he says instead, baffled instead of furious. "You moron." It's strangely matter-of-fact, but John goes satisfyingly pink in the face anyway. "I told you... why don't you just listen to me?"
"Rodney..." John objects, looking actually flustered, which Rodney's absolutely going to enjoy later.
"Fine," Rodney says, cutting him some slack, because he's been where John's sitting now, and he can have some sympathy. But only a little. "So what you're saying is we're both fuck-ups, and we may as well be fuck-ups together as separately. Right?"
John grins, then, and it's a bright flash of sunlight, something Rodney didn't quite dare to hope he'd see again, and oh, but he's going to make John pay for that, as soon as he can, like, walk, again. "That's the gist, yeah."
Rodney presses his lips together, pretends to inspect John critically. But finally, he nods. "I accept your premise," he says, relaxing back into his pillows. "Now bring me some more water. I'm wounded. And much, much smarter than you are."
More than twenty years ago and a galaxy away, Rodney once took a literature class as an undergraduate breadth requirement that dedicated a unit to traditional courting through the ages. Teenaged Rodney hoped it would yield some intelligent method of dissecting the baffling behaviour of the female sex, but what it actually turned out to be was a study of articles, pamphlets, and newspaper columns regarding the social rules surrounding courtship.
After realising this, Rodney spent most of the semester poking leisurely through the Navier-Stokes equations instead of actually listening, but he did remember a few tidbits. One of them was a projected image, twelve feet high, of an artist's depiction of a "whispering reed" preserved in a museum somewhere in Massachusetts, that had been used by engaged couples to whisper tender nothings to one another across the length of a room. Supposedly it was there to facilitate chaperonage, and to save the eyes and ears of others from the vulgarity of PDA. Rodney scoffed, and scoffed loudly. (It was the last time he ever took a class with such a high percentage of Women's Studies students. Honestly, he'd have expected ridicule of such a moronic device to be better-received by feminists.)
It still seems ridiculous to Rodney now. But that doesn't stop him from feeling like when they're not in John's bed, about all the clue he gets that he's ever been there is a few whispered words, a shaded smile across the length of a crowded room.
Because if he didn't know any better, he'd have no idea they were having sex, either. Certainly not from John's behaviour, which is exactly the same, around other people, as it was before.
The thing about John is that he's an excellent liar, as skilled at it as Rodney is abysmal. Almost everything about John in his Colonel-clothes is a show, from his easy smile to the loose set of his shoulders. Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard seems approachable, genial, charming, but John is wary, and taciturn, and shy. John panics when he's tasked with responsibility for something he doesn't completely understand. John will touch anyone he pleases, knowing he can smile and nod his way through anything to get his own way, but doesn't know how to react when someone touches him.
It was something that Rodney appreciated, at first, because he's much the same. Oh, he doesn't have an aversion to being touched, knows that he's fundamentally kind of self-indulgent , but he's certainly touch-deprived, and when they were still new, fumbling their way through things, he had to hold himself back from exploiting what John was offering. The dizzying luxury of having another human being he was allowed - expected - to touch, to kiss, to press up close to in the night, to lean into when they're hiding in some godforsaken hole in the ground, Wraith darts screaming overhead. Someone in whom to take comfort. Someone who touched him back. At first, though, because he knew these things about John, he was uncertain, he was hesitant, afraid of spooking John into flight. He'd seen other people make the same mistake.
Later on he's not quite as hesitant, though Rodney's always careful. Usually he waits for John to start things; he's more than happy to reciprocate, happily and with great enthusiasm. He's not sure when to reach, but he's always reaching back. John's still not the kind of guy who invites casual shoulder-pats, and he still doesn't shake hands if he doesn't absolutely have to, but he no longer stiffens for a microsecond when Rodney steps into the two-metre radius around his person that Rodney's always designated the Twitch Zone. Rodney likes to consider this largely his own accomplishment.
Rodney's never sure when it changes, when the shift comes from them being wary of each other to being wary of other people. Ronon and Teyla don't count, of course; they already know, and in any case, they're family. They'd know, anyway. But other people. Rodney's known from the beginning that there was a chance this could go very, very badly, if not because of him then because of John's stupid, stupid country's stupid, stupid military's stupid, stupid rules.
For all his assurances of "it's cool, Rodney," and "it's nobody's business, Rodney," for all that he denies it when confronted, Rodney can see it drawing John tight and nervous, sometimes, but he doesn't keep the fear as deep as Rodney does. For John, the possibility of getting caught is more like a dare, something to be endured. John can put off his rank as easily as an old coat, which is unsurprising considering how it's always been something he put on, something someone handed him. Rodney wishes he could set aside his own awkwardness so blithely, but it's a part of who he is and has been for as long as he can remember. For all that time, it was what kept him safe.
All the same, he wonders, sometimes, whether John would still be so loose-limbed and easy about people - people other than Ronon and Teyla - knowing, if it were more than just a possibility. If it were happening. If it were bound to happen. If it already had. He likes to laugh it off.
But Rodney can't laugh it off so easily. Maybe it's just that he's more fretful by nature - and he is, he doesn't deny it - but at least some of his concern is that John has never had such controversial qualities aired out for the whole world to see. Neither of them calls what they're doing "dating," but they are "together," and more than once since this began John's fended off the advances of some pretty young thing on off-world missions by saying he's "already taken."
And mostly it just makes Rodney flush with secret pleasure, looking away or excusing himself while he tries to force the big, stupid smile off his face, but occasionally it sobers him. He sees the half-triumphant grin on John's face as a girl sighs regretfully and wishes him well and thinks that John likes this, likes keeping a secret, rides it like a thrill. Rodney's not fooling himself into believing that this thing between them bears any resemblance to normalcy; the chances are something like six hundred to one against that they'd ever be able to be open about things, even if they wanted to (he's done the math, of course). But sometimes... sometimes. Sometimes he imagines it.
He pictures things. Being able to sit leaning into each other in a public place; movie night, festivals on off-world missions, the mess hall. The fearlessness of touching John's arm when he's laid up in the infirmary, without having to cloak it in sarcasm and gruffness.
Sometimes, when he gets particularly sappy or drunk, he pictures them somewhere, Atlantis, or maybe Earth, in the distant future; sharing a house with trees and a creek, somewhere near the ocean. In a fantasy it doesn't seem stupid, because he knew years ago that John Sheppard was going to be in his life until he died, whatever they were to each other.
But it's just a fantasy, and when he lets himself imagine that far ahead, he almost inevitably winds up disgusted with himself for wishful thinking. They could be dead tomorrow. They could be dead tonight. And whatever else he tells himself, it is always followed by an iteration of a secret fear that this is fragile enough, at least on his part, that maybe the scrutiny of others would stress it to the point of fracture.
Worse yet, he fears that whatever it is that John has done for him, to make him this person he thinks he may even respect, part of it is private. Is shy. Is made of equal parts of the scrawny, timid, resentful child he remembers being and the brilliant, brash and passionate man that Pegasus, Atlantis, and John have made him. Enough of him is afraid that he could not be this person, if anybody else knew that he was here. And that's cowardly, and it's frustrating, but it's his, and it's John's...
...and that's enough.
It's been nearly a year by the time John finally thinks to ask Rodney about the life-signs detector. They've just spent two days trying to track down a wayward linguist who wandered off into an unexplored sector by mis-reading a transporter interface, and in the end the only thing that let them find her was re-wiring a transporter to beam a rescue crew into the empty area. John spent most of that time hunched over the life-signs display in the control room, co-ordinating the search, which is probably what brought on this minor panic attack.
"What if somebody just looked at our rooms?" he asks. "They'd be able to just look in here and see us. It's a miracle nobody's caught on this far!"
Rodney blinks at him, watches John pacing frantically back and forth across the limited floor space in his quarters, and says: "Relax. I've already taken care of it."
John stops, fingers tangled in his hair. "Wait, you have?"
Rodney shrugs. There's something hilarious about John when he's in this state. "Yeah. Like, a year ago." He points at his own chest. "Genius. Remember?"
"Oh." John lowers his hands, comes up to the desk to peer over Rodney's shoulder as he brings up the interface on his laptop screen. "What'd you do?"
"Nothing much. It's a diagnostic sim sort of pasted into the live feed. It shows us in our own quarters at night, no matter where we are."
He feels John stiffen behind him, but doesn't think much of it until John grips his chair and spins Rodney to face him, looking grim.
"What?" Rodney asks, bemused. "What's the matter?"
"Rodney, you have to change it back."
"What?" Rodney jerks back. "But you said! Anybody could look and... what if you got in trouble? I mean, I think we're a little beyond the point of your stupid country firing you, but it's still more than I think either of us wants the general public to..."
John shakes his head, slowly, and says only: "It's not like nobody's ever been abducted from this city before," which stops Rodney cold. Only two months ago, a delegation from Yesern decided they wanted to take a few of the Lantean scientists home with them, because women with red hair were exotic and rare on Yesern. They hadn't seemed moved by polite refusal, and the Lantean forces had just barely caught them as they tried to board their ship.
"What if something happened — if nobody knew we were gone until we didn't show up for a shift?" and Rodney knows John means him, because that's almost happened, too. "Or if one of us was compromised? No," John says again, shaking his head a little more slowly. "It's too much of a risk."
Rodney stares at him, not sure what to say, because John's right, Rodney knows he is, but that doesn't mean this doesn't suck.
And then: "We'll tell Radek," he blurts, as John's pushing himself straight. "We'll tell him, and him and me, we'll figure something out."
"Figure what out?" John asks, not moving away, but leaning on Rodney's desk.
"I don't know, we can..." Rodney's thinking fast, trying to think of some way to salvage this, because damned if he's going to lose this now after all they've... he snaps his fingers. "A contingent code. Something that will kill the patch if there's an emergency. Any kind of alarm; breach, power surge, whatever. But I can't do it by myself. I'll need..."
He's got other arguments ready, lining up and jostling each other for attention, sure he'll have to convince John that it's worth it, that Radek can be trusted, that he can do this, but John just looks at him, steadily, thoughtfully, for a second, and then shrugs.
"Okay," he agrees, "we'll talk to him in the morning."
And Rodney's mouths snaps shut, but he just nods.
So in the morning, a full two hours before anybody else is likely to be in, he and John walk side-by-side into the lab, find Radek bent over a power diagnostic, muttering to himself in Czech.
Rodney isn't sure what he's expecting. He's roiling with equal parts defiance and terror, because Radek's his friend, because Radek's not a moron, but he's learned not to trust too much in most people, not with himself, not all the way.
For a second he thinks it's been a mistake, feels John go tense next to him, feels the hand low on his back fist in his shirt - but Radek just rolls his eyes.
"Do you think that I am stupid?" he asks, not of Rodney, but of John, and for a second, Rodney wonders whether he already knew. He takes off his glasses, inspecting them for smudges, setting them carefully down on the lab bench. He turns his attention to Rodney. "Bigotry is for the ignorant, the crude," he says, and it's more a pronouncement than an explanation. Rodney realises, after a second, that Radek almost looks hurt, and all at once he feels guilty. He opens his mouth to - say something, he's not sure what - but John fixes it, his hand dropping back to his side.
"It's nothing personal, Radek," he says, and Rodney dares a glance to see John's open smile, the rare one, out and bright on his face, if a little weary. "We didn't mean..."
"I didn't really think you would..." Rodney interrupts, and Radek looks at him again, and he sighs. "There was too much at stake." His own voice sounds foreign, hoarse, quiet, and Radek, studying him, shakes his head, runs a hand through his hair.
"I understand," he says, just as quietly, and he smiles, something like a smile, anyway. "I am pleased you trust me enough for this."
"I only told you because you're the only one smart enough to figure it out on a diagnostic," Rodney points out, crossing his arms, and Radek laughs.
"Of course," he agrees, still smiling. "I would not dare think otherwise. Although, I suspect that Colonel Carter could also..."
"Don't worry about Carter," says John, and he's so sure, not dismissive but sure, that both Rodney and Radek look at him with surprise.
"If you say so," Radek says, a moment later, and holds up a tablet. "Now," he says, "we must devise some method to circumvent the sensors without endangering everyone."
Rodney sits down next to him, sparing only a glance for John, who stays where he is, hands in his pockets, grinning down at the floor.
The first Christmas they're alone, they're being constantly buzzed by Wraith hive ships and spend two weeks cloaking whenever they spot a blip on their long-range sensors. Understandably, there's not much yuletide cheer under conditions like that.
The second Christmas they're alone, a little more than a year since the last message from Earth, there is a concerted effort on the part of the entire city, unspoken and unplanned but weirdly synchronised, to do the thing up right. Zelenka turns out to have an almost ruthless attitude towards Christmas, ordering everyone around with brisk cheerfulness and delegating his projects throughout what would be Earth December. Rodney's never sure how he does it; seasonal supplies were always low-priority and they couldn't have had more than a room or two's worth of decorations. But garland and red ribbon and tinsel begin to appear with such alarming frequency that Rodney begins to harbour suspicions that someone, somewhere, has set up a PVC manufactory for the express purpose of creating shiny metallic plastic sheeting. Carols are constantly playing on low volume throughout the public areas of the city, almost subliminally quiet, so that Rodney catches himself humming snatches of Deck the Halls and not knowing when he started.
The worst part is the mistletoe. It's never in the same place twice; it's uncanny, the way it seems to wander the city, always showing up in the most high-traffic areas, no warning, no pattern. The whole city - clearly bored and with far too little work to do - gets in on it, Sam the worst of the lot for "enforcing" holiday cheer. If two people are caught in the vicinity of mistletoe, they can try to run, and nobody's ever actually forced, but it's disgusting how easily some people bend to peer pressure.
Rodney starts to get paranoid, and only just barely manages to avoid kissing Lorne (twice), Miko (once, but she looks a little terrified at the prospect, which Rodney decides, for the sake of his ego, is due to the noisy and enthusiastic crowd), and Sergeant Farello from the mess (five times). He fails to avoid kissing Teyla (he's too busy stammering about how she's probably exempt to fend her off when she gives him an affectionate, indulgent smile and grabs him by the ears) and Ronon (who must have kissed everyone in the entire city by now, and tastes of the vile fake-cherry tarts the mess has been cranking out in lieu of Christmas cookies).
He studiously avoids John. He's sure he's been careful. So it's Radek Rodney knows he has to blame the day he and John walk into the mess and stop dead at a burst of scattered applause, and, to Rodney's horror, catcalls.
He looks up, already knowing what he'll see — and lo and behold, taped to the doorframe is a little sprig of plastic mistletoe, red berries glinting evilly down at him. "Oh, Christ," he mutters, trying to back out of the doorway, but a hand stops him, flat in the middle of his back, and he turns his head to see Sam, wearing her evil, evil smile, standing right behind them.
"Going somewhere, McKay?" she asks sweetly, glancing up and widening her eyes in dramatic surprise when she sees the mistletoe, as if she didn't already know it was there, as if she wasn't totally in on this. He scowls at her.
"I hate you," he hisses, and she just grins wider.
"Aw, come on, Rodney, have a little holiday spirit. This is good for morale." She slaps him on the back encouragingly, making him stagger a little, right into John, who looks a little wide-eyed, staring out over the jeering population of the mess, but not nearly as panicked as Rodney thinks he probably should be.
"Good for morale?" he sputters. "How about my morale?"
"Good of the many," Sam says in a sing-song voice, and slips easily past them, joins the rest of the traitorous city cheering them on.
"Oh my god," he says, covering his face with both hands. "Kill me now."
A couple of seconds pass without anything happening except for the rising noise of the crowd, now chanting something Rodney refuses to acknowledge might be "Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!" He's begun to hope they'll just go away if he keeps his eyes shut long enough, but then someone is prying his hands gently away from his face, and he's somewhat surprised to find that it's John, and that he's smiling with all the mischief Rodney's only used to seeing when they're in John's room with the door closed.
"You cannot possibly be serious," Rodney protests. "There are..."
"Our public awaits," John says, and slides a hand around the back of Rodney's neck, a gesture to which Rodney is, by now, absolutely hard-wired to respond. His eyes drift closed as John leans forward, and then he feels the warm pressure of John's lips on his, chaste but thrilling. The crowd beyond them erupts in a deafening roar of applause.
John's pulled back by the time it degenerates into catcalls again, grinning boyish and huge, and Rodney's face is burning, but he doesn't bother to glare at the room of busybodies behind them as he turns and lets John tug him away down the corridor.
"I can't believe you did that," he says faintly, wanting to be annoyed with John but still too warm and confused to get all the way there. "I can't believe you — I mean, a hundred interfering — what if they'd thought it was—"
"It's just a little mistletoe, Rodney," John says, turning to face Rodney who's been trailing behind him, and a moment later Rodney suddenly realises John has him corralled against the wall of the corridor, hands flat against the panelling on either side of Rodney's head. It occurs to Rodney that this is the closest together they've ever been in public when one of them isn't bleeding, and John's practically pressed against him from shoulder to knee.
"Just a little holiday cheer," John murmurs, leaning in to rub his nose in the hair behind Rodney's ear. Rodney shivers, his eyes falling shut as John presses a wet, gentle kiss to the same spot.
"Somebody could..." he tries, his hands moving of their own accord to settle on John's back, under his jacket, where he can feel the warmth of John's skin through the thin t-shirt. "Somebody could come. Down the... the thing." The word hallway dances completely out of his reach, like the words privacy and mistletoe and brain haemorrhage when he feels the slick heat of John's tongue with the next kiss.
"Ngh," he says instead, and John pulls back enough to tease him:
"Down the thing?"
And then leans in again to take Rodney's mouth, this time with more conviction. Rodney makes an undignified noise of agreement and hooks an arm around John's neck, hauling him in closer.
It's perhaps due to the brain-melting properties of John's mouth, something Rodney's long known to be one of his greatest weaknesses, that Rodney doesn't hear the approaching footsteps until John pulls away, turns a little, going suddenly tense against him, saying: "Major," in the even, dangerous tone he uses when someone has a gun levelled on his head.
Because Major Lorne is there, standing half a dozen paces up the corridor, swallowing hard as John raises his head, but doesn't move away from the wall, even though Rodney is desperately telegraphing run away, run away! with his eyes.
"Sir," Lorne says, nodding politely, only glancing at Rodney, who is sure he's bright red, blushing harder than he did while they were at the mercy of mistletoe and Sam and Radek Zelenka.
Rodney's afraid to move, though, because while to the casual observer John seems relaxed and at ease, he's taken on the stiff aspect he wears when there's an even chance that things will either go very, very well, or get them all horribly killed. Rodney understands that, because he's feeling about as hopeful about the outcome of this particular situation, which has been exactly what he's feared from the very beginning, this, this right here, and—
"Something I can help you with, Major?"
And Lorne — Rodney's going to have an aneurysm, any second now — just grins at him, and holds out an envelope, red with holly leaves sketched in silver around the edges.
"Colonel Carter asked me to deliver this, sir," he says, and John reaches out to take it, opening it where Rodney can see. Inside there are two vouchers for a free day, shifts covered and everything, something that's become so rare and coveted over the past year that they're practically black market.
"She and Doctor Zelenka decided you won, sir," Lorne explains, still grinning, like he's enjoying this.
"Won what?" Rodney asks, his voice a little higher than it should be.
"Best kiss," Lorne tells him, and the little bastard is still grinning.
And so, Rodney sees, is John, who tucks the envelope away into his pocket, and says "thanks, Major," putting his hand back where it was, flat against the wall next to Rodney's head, relaxing one muscle at a time. Lorne tosses off a little salute and goes back the way he came, hands in his pockets.
Rodney lets his head thunk back against the wall. "Did that just happen?" he asks, faintly.
"Yeah, pretty sure it did," John says equably.
"And he's not going to go and tell Sam that—" Not that he thinks Sam would, that Sam ever would give a damn one way or the other, but if Lorne reported it, hell; Rodney's never understood the draconic mysticisms of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
"Yeah..." John says, and looks slightly abashed. "She kind of already knows."
"She what?" Rodney demands shrilly, less because he's embarrassed than because he envisioned one day being able to tell her himself, to let her see what she missed out on by turning him down all those years ago, and that John is at least twice as hot as she is.
"She kind of called me on it when you were... after Nareim." He shrugs eloquently, and then Rodney understands. He's seen John when people are hurt, hovering to the point of obsession, being chased away, complaining, by the nurses, losing sleep. He also knows how he gets when John's hurt, and Sam, of all people, is not stupid, for all that she's not actually that much better with people than he is.
"Oh," he says, softly, and furrows his brow. "You're not going to get in trouble for..."
John shakes his head. "Even if we were in a position to be under the jurisdiction of the Air Force, I don't think..." He looks briefly distant and thoughtful, and then he shrugs again, meeting Rodney's eyes. "Lorne's a good guy. He knows what's important. Things are different now."
"How so?" Rodney asks, and John tilts his head a little.
"We've been abandoned in an alien galaxy, Rodney," he says, with a hint of a smirk. "It's time to stop following the rules that don't make sense."
And he kisses Rodney again, this time lush and wet and slow, and Rodney, who has never been fond of holidays, who has never had good memories to attach to sparkling lights and gleaming tinsel and extravagant expenditure of money in the name of thinly-veiled commercialism, finds himself actually looking forward to Christmas.
Or at least to another encounter with the migratory mistletoe.
It dawns on Rodney over the next couple of months that most people know. At least, Rodney thinks they do, that they've suspected since before there was anything to suspect, which he gathers from off-hand comments and knowing smiles recorded over years and only now reviewed for content. And... it doesn't scare him. If anything, it makes him more relaxed, and when he brings it up with John, John just grins and says it's not like anybody in Atlantis is actually stupid.
"Kate used to hint around about it," he tells Rodney, shrugging, with a solemn nod to Kate's memory. And Rodney is surprised, but not really, because Kate may have been a practitioner of the worst kind of voodoo but in the end, she was usually right. In retrospect, he's pretty sure she hinted with him, too, and it sailed right over his head.
He finds himself remembering conversations with Elizabeth, usually when John was hurt or missing and Rodney was losing his goddamn mind with worry, where she seemed more solicitous and sensitive with him than she ever was at any other time. Back then, he just found those moments confusing, but his irritation with her veiled comments was a welcome distraction from panic, so he never delved any deeper.
They don't make out in the mess hall or anything, but Keller gives them indulgent smiles when one of them is laid up in the infirmary and the other is hovering, refusing to leave, and if John's giving him a hand up a set of broken steps off-world and his hand lingers a little longer than it should, nobody says anything. It's just... understood. Rodney thinks.
One late night midway through their second year as a colony, Sam sits down next to Rodney, who is working alone in the lab, and rests her chin in her hands. She doesn't say anything, just stares at him, until Rodney, who has been hoping she'd go away if he ignored her, finally gets flustered puts down his screwdriver, turning to face her.
"What?" he asks. "What do you want? I'm in the middle of something."
It's not that he resents the interruption — well, he does — it's just that he's on a roll, he's right on the cusp of figuring out what the hell the device in front of him does, and he hates having people busting in on his train of thought. Even John gave up on trying to lure him back to bed several hours ago, and John is generally pretty persuasive. But this is Sam, she knows better than anyone what it's like to be de-railed mid-discovery, so if she's doing it she must have a good reason.
With forced patience, he saves his work on the laptop before him, and carefully sets down his tools. "Okay, what? "
Sam frowns at him, drums her fingers against her chin, and then straightens up on her stool. "I need your opinion on something," she says.
It gives Rodney pause. He can count on one hand the number of times Samantha Carter has asked his opinion on anything, and all of them have fallen in the midst of crises involving incipient massive explosions and rips in space-time. But there's nothing urgent in her demeanour right now, just concern, maybe a little uncertainty, which is something he's not used to seeing on her face, even back when he was accustomed to watching it obsessively for signs of affection, something he hasn't done in a long time. They're friends now, he thinks, or something close.
"Uh," he says, totally off-balance. "What?"
She glances at the open door, the empty corridor beyond, and leans forward. "We've been cut off from Earth for almost two years now," she begins, tilting her head to the side. "And it's been brought to my attention that certain regulations once governing the operation of this base may no longer be practical."
"You're speaking in military," he points out, sourly. "I hate it when you do that."
She rolls her eyes, exasperated. "Oh, well, excuse me, I was trying to broach a sensitive subject with some professionalism."
Rodney crosses his arms, looks pointedly around the room. "You came down here at two-thirty in the morning to have a meeting about something professional?"
"Fine, fine," she admits, leaning her elbows on the lab bench, darting another look around. "I had two members of the military contingent approach me for permission to be marked down as next of kin and... well, basically, to get married."
Rodney blinks. "And?" He doesn't immediately see the problem - but she raises her eyebrows significantly, and then he gets it. "Oh. Your military code doesn't allow... and one of them is American."
"Both of them, actually."
What Rodney considers the irrational part of the U.S. uniform code has never applied to non-Americans on the expedition, but there are enough Americans in the city for the regulations regarding fraternization to be problematic. The fact that it hasn't come up before now is something even Rodney finds astonishing, though he supposes that it's taken almost two years for people to accept that Earth was permanently out of the picture. Still...
Sam taps her fingers on the tabletop. She looks like this makes her uncomfortable, but she also looks determined, tucking a lock of hair behind one ear. In the past year she's been letting it grow, usually pulled back in a braid from which little wisps are perpetually escaping. If Rodney still had a thing for her, he'd probably be fixating on the way she's always brushing hair out of her eyes.
"It made sense to keep to the old regs when there was still a chance we'd be going back to Earth some day," she continues. "But it's been two years. If we're going to be here the rest of our lives... I can't keep telling people they can't have lives."
"Oookaaaay," Rodney says slowly, still not entirely sure why she's telling him this, of all people. "And you're here because..."
She sighs again, looking annoyed with him. Then she fixes him directly in her gaze, blue eyes frank and direct. "Because if we're getting rid of the frat regs, there's no reason to keep DADT, which was more or less a mockery of logic to begin with," she snaps, using Rodney's own words, then leans back on the stool, crossing her arms.
Rodney feels his face flood with heat, sees her smirk as she notices. "Oh," he says, groping for the cold cup of coffee on the end of the bench. "I... see."
"And I thought you might have some input as to what kind of rules we should keep," she adds, as Rodney gulps down the last of the cup, and grimaces at the taste.
"What, because I have a vested interest?" he asks, glowering and still, he's sure, blushing bright red, and god, he hates his complexion sometimes.
She smiles sweetly, the smile that people who don't know her think is a winning one, her yes, sir, fuck you, sir, smile that Rodney has long suspected all cocky U.S. Air Force officers learn like a secret handshake the moment they're promoted past Captain. "Because you're in charge of most of the civilian departments in the city, McKay," she tells him, as he puts down his coffee mug and slides it safely out of the way of his experiment, still laid out on the bench.
He swallows. "Oh."
There's a long silence, and she leans forward again. "So?"
He looks at her. The smirk's still there, but she's really asking him, warmth behind the mocking, even affection. "I guess... I mean, yes, it's a good idea. What do you need to..."
She smiles. "There's not really much to do. Some language changed, here and there, a few passages deleted, to reflect the more permanent nature of the expedition..." she mimes pressing a Delete key with extreme prejudice, then lets her hand fall into her lap. "Doctor Weir laid out most of the groundwork the first year the expedition was stranded. It's all still on the database, but it was never implemented."
Rodney stares at her, actually surprised by the wave of grief that washes over him, not debilitating, but there. It's been a long time since he thought about Elizabeth, and the idea of her quietly plotting social revolution, all in the name of good sense...
"I... I didn't know that," he tells Sam, and Sam nods.
"I can't pretend I was surprised or anything," she confides, with a little half-smile.
"No," Rodney agrees, vaguely, and Sam pushes herself up to her feet.
"So I'll get on that in the morning," she tells him, "and keep you in the loop."
He turns as she makes for the door. "What, that's it? We have a talk in the middle of the night and then..." he waves a hand expansively, "...no more anti-sex rules?"
She shrugs both shoulders. "I'm going to have to talk to Sheppard about it, too," she admits, "but I thought I'd do that in daylight, you know, in an office, where he can pretend he doesn't know what I'm talking about."
And choke on his own spit, Rodney thinks, and nods his head fervently. "I think that would be best for everyone."
In the end, it goes through with little fanfare. There's a directory on the Atlantis mainframe where the rules and regulations governing the Atlantis Expedition are posted, kept constantly up to date. The U.S. military uniform code shares space with shift schedules and the original, international charter of the expedition, as well as current rules regarding the research side of their mission, mostly notations by Rodney along the lines of "keep out of the chemistry lab on level 7B, on pain of horrible dismemberment" and "post-it notes are no substitute for proper artefact containment, THIS MEANS YOU, SIMPSON" and "any personnel attempting to access city power flow for personal use without first requesting permission will have all power to their quarters severed with no notice, and I really mean it this time."
So two weeks after their two AM talk in the labs, Sam posts an update to the server, sends out the usual notice of altered content, and that's that.
Nothing really changes, except that Captain Francine Kyle (USAF) and Lieutenant Brandon Judd (USMC) get married in a quiet ceremony in Sam's office on a Sunday afternoon. The city has a raucous, drunken party on their behalf while they take two days off to move to bigger quarters, and not answer the door until Wednesday.
"Rodney. Hey, Rodney."
He hears John's voice as if from far away, drifting as he is on a cloud of satiation and drowsy contentment. God, he loves days off.
John chuckles, low and warm. "Open your eyes," he says, brushing knuckles along Rodney's jaw, and Rodney yawns, cracking his eyes open just enough to see John propped up on one elbow, looking down at him. In the fading daylight from the windows, John's face looks soft, fond.
"What?" Rodney asks, scratching his chest idly. "Why am I opening my eyes?"
John smiles, teeth very white in the dim. "'Cause I wanna see them," he says, rubbing one hairy calf behind Rodney's knee. Rodney blinks at him, feeling himself flush, because even after all this time there's something unnerving about being studied with such focus as John can summon up at will.
"Oh," he says, and reaches for John because there's one sure way to distract him from staring, and Rodney's good at it. John comes easily, laughing all the way into the kiss, folding down into Rodney's arms, a warm, comfortable weight. Sometimes Rodney thinks he could do this forever, for hours, for days, just curl up together in bed and kiss until they run out of air.
But the klaxon of an unscheduled off-world activation interrupts them a few minutes later. Reflex and the corresponding adrenaline has them both pin-wheeling up out of bed before either realise they're moving, hunting for clothes scattered about the room since mid-morning, Rodney reaching under the bed for one of his boots, John getting halfway into the wrong pair of pants before tossing them across the room to Rodney in exchange for his own. It would be funny if it weren't so familiar, but they pause long enough for a last hard kiss before stumbling out the door.
The make the gateroom in under five minutes, both rumpled and breathing a little hard, but no worse for wear than a lot of other people dragged in out of their holiday pursuits; this is one of Sam's mandatory rest-days, instituted by force and locked doors after the first year ended with people going into tandem mental breakdowns from lack of sleep. Still, she gives them a smirk and a knowing look as she greets them, before leaning back on the console beside Chuck.
The wormhole is open, and a voice from the other side, a galaxy away, is saying: "Atlantis, this is Stargate Command. Please respond."
Rodney turns to find John staring at him, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as the gateroom suddenly erupts in cheers and applause, whooping, shouting. Rodney grins along with the rest, but or some reason he can't quite name, he's aware of a tiny, pervasive spark of unformed dread, deep in the pit of his stomach. But he smiles anyway, keeps smiling.
"I hate this," Rodney gripes, digging through John's closet and tossing his clothes into the duffel on the floor. His uniforms are scattered between their rooms by now, the bulk of them here, where he usually sleeps, but they're going to be gone four weeks and he needs all he's got. "I really, really hate this."
"I know," John says. John is not freaking out at all. John, of the otherwise nonexistent military self-discipline, took about fifteen minutes to pack, and is sitting on the foot of his bed, playing Solitaire while Rodney slowly works himself into a frothing panic. "City will sink without you, waste of your valuable time, tiny space under a mountain for three weeks, etcetera, etcetera." He stares hard at his six rows of cards, then with great deliberation, places a two on the ace of spades.
"Oh my god, are you listening to yourself? There are people who know who we are. Normal people. People who've heard our names on television. People who watch daytime talk shows." Rodney kicks the bag a little further out onto the floor and starts balling socks and throwing them hard into the bottom of it.
"Rodney, calm down," John says, a low, comfortable drawl, and Rodney doesn't believe a single word of it. He saw John's face when news of declassification came through, three databursts worth of archived news reports following the space battle just outside Earth's atmosphere that was visible not only by civilian observatories but by people with backyard telescopes. It was the deciding victory in the two-year conflict between Earth and the pirate fleet that took up the mantle of the Lucian Alliance after the fall of the Ori, but it left no government in the world in any position to deny that they've been hiding the existence of life beyond the Solar System for more than a decade.
"Calm down?" Rodney squeaks, spinning to glower down at where John still sits, cross-legged, clutching half of a dog-eared Bicycle deck with scantily-clad women on the face cards. John's had that deck since flight school. All the little painted women have names. "They're going to debrief us like criminals and then throw us to the wolves!"
John smirks. "I think they still call themselves journalists, Rodney."
Rodney points a shaking finger in John's direction. "Shows what you know," he says, and goes back to balling socks. He has to get this all washed before they leave, in the morning, oh god, they're going back to Earth in the morning and there's not enough time. "Declassification, Christ. What were they thinking? I've worked for classified government programs for most of my adult life, and while I've been tempted to blow idiots out of the conversational water by telling them exactly what I do for a living, I never have and this is why."
John raises an eyebrow. "And eighty or ninety pages of confidentiality agreements had nothing to do with it."
Rodney waves a hand dismissively. "Yes, yes, that too." He does a last sweep of the room for any lingering items of clothing hiding from the justice of the laundry. "Just, just remember that when this all blows up in our faces and we're being vilified in the international press."
Among other potential disasters, like the kind of obsessively pointless review to which they're sure to be subjected after two years incommunicado, like the nightmare of the expedition being recalled, for whatever incomprehensible reason, who can understand bureaucrats. Like, god, who knows, John being recalled, or worse, because it's not like they needed a good reason the last time they tried that. They've gotten comfortable in the two years they've been for all intents and purposes their own country, and if they're suddenly once again under the thumb of the U.S. military, there's no predicting what might happen.
People can get so accustomed to things that they forget what not to mention in casual conversation. All they need is one scientist making casual reference to the fact that Doctor McKay spends most of his nights in Lieutenant Colonel Sheppard's quarters and everything could... everything. Everything.
He's too focused on digging through the detritus on the floor of John's closet to hear him getting up, crossing the room, crouching down behind him, until John's arms are slipping around his waist, pulling him back into a warm embrace.
"Hey," John says, hooking his chin over Rodney's shoulder, and Rodney's hands still, dropping the strap of the duffel, leaning back on pure reflex.
"What?" he grumps, crossing his arms over his chest.
"It's only a month," John says, softly, right into his ear.
"You're sure of that?" Rodney asks him, sighing. "We don't... we don't know what'll happen."
"Sure I do," John tells him, and Rodney can feel him smile against the side of his neck. "Everything's different now. You read the reports."
"Enough to know there's no way of knowing what they'll do," Rodney snaps back, because he only got sixty pages into the five-hundred-page package sent through by the SGC before he had to put it down, his hands shaking. It's just all too much, too much to take in at once, even for him. "I don't..." Don't want you to change your mind. Don't want them to find out. Don't want to have to hide again. But he will, will do whatever he has to, because he's not losing this, not now. John hasn't given him any reason that he might.
John's quiet for a long time; so long that Rodney starts to get worried, but then John's arms tighten around his waist again, pulling him back off his knees and into John's lap. "Hey!" Rodney protests, but John swallows up the noise, craning his neck to kiss Rodney hard on the mouth, then hauls them both up to their feet.
He bundles Rodney's duffel into his arms, and nudges him towards the door. "Finish packing," he says, and still dazed, Rodney goes. "I'll see you later," John promises, with a smile that promises all sorts of lascivious things, as the door slides shut between them.
But there is no later, as it turns out. Sam knocks on his door, actually knocks on his door, right as he's about to leave for supper, shoving a handful of powerbars at him and dragging him out by his sleeve. She looks so harried that Rodney has followed her all the way to the main storage warehouse before he realises he's agreed to helping inventory every single supply container logged into the city's database in preparation for the upcoming debriefing.
He rails and complains and tries to escape twice, but she alternates between yelling at him and making desperate, stressed Disney-animal-faces at him and there's nothing he can do. Around three-thirty in the morning she walks him back to his quarters, Radek trailing in their wake, muttering to himself in half-conscious mixed tongues, and produces a bottle of very good, very old scotch from apparently nowhere. By the time the sun's creeping in through Rodney's curtains, Radek and Sam are just stumbling out to seek their own beds.
Rodney considers making his way back to the much-more familiar bed in John's room, but standing up seems ill-advised, so he crawls up into his own empty bed, asleep before he can regret the state of things.
The debriefing is every bit as torturous and pointless as Rodney expected. Two weeks and five days of the same questions over and over, the same questions they've gotten during every annual review they had a working wormhole to Earth, but this time with an obvious angle towards reform of the "expedition goals."
Rodney tolerates it first with patience, then with sarcasm, and finally with random twitching of the extremities and jumping at loud noises, overdosing on caffeine. On the twentieth day, Sam — wonderful, wonderful Sam — politely extracts him, John, Teyla and Ronon from the clutches of the Joint Chiefs and deposits them at the Broadmoor Hotel. "Enjoy yourselves," she calls out the car window, as she pulls out of the lot, squealing her tires.
"What's her hurry?" Ronon wonders aloud, unconsciously fidgeting with the hem of his button-down cotton shirt. It's strange to see Ronon and Teyla dressed in Earth clothing, though of course nothing can possibly make either of them look anything less than healthy, gorgeous and graceful. Rodney snorts.
"Three guesses, and the first two don't count," John mutters.
"Yeah, my money's on those plane tickets to DC she was trying so ineffectively to hide in the glove compartment," Rodney chuckles, reaching down to pick up his bags.
"She's going to go see that O'Neill guy, right?" Ronon asks, and Rodney doesn't even look back when he hears Teyla laughingly smack him on the arm.
"I believe they were trying to be subtle, Ronon," she chides, as they walk into blessedly air-conditioned embrace of the hotel lobby.
"Well they should've just said so," Ronon grumbles.
The SGC has, to Rodney's complete and utter lack of surprise, assigned them each to separate rooms, and he only sets down his bags before stepping out into the hall to knock on John's door.
John answers in only his BDUs, barefoot, still holding the t-shirt he's obviously just taken off. Rodney stares at him, mouth open, until John smiles, reaching out to pull him inside. "I was just coming to..." Rodney begins, but John cuts off his explanation with a hand over his mouth, letting the door swing shut behind him.
John's gone in the morning, when Rodney wakes up at the luxurious hour of six o'clock Colorado time, seven-thirty Atlantis time. For a moment he forgets where he is, reaching for John in the bed before he realises they're in a hotel, and then that he's alone. He sits up, rubbing his eyes, momentarily confused before he sees the cup of cooling coffee on the bedside table, on top of a note bearing John's neat, cramped handwriting. Back later, it says. Rodney glares at the note, but drinks the coffee before shuffling back to his own room to shower and dress.
He doesn't really have any plans for the day, at least he never got around to making any beyond sleep in a real bed and eat real food, so he spends most of the morning re-acquainting himself with the world of television and the Internet.
He stops after a few hours, when he keeps coming across news sites that mention his name, the Stargate Program, the "well-known members of the Atlantis Expedition miraculously returned home after a two-year exile" and is obscurely angry that this is what finally gets him notoriety, not his work, not his genius, but his accidentally getting stranded in another galaxy while Earth fought space pirates and forgot all about them for two years. All this is doing is reminding him that they've only got today and tomorrow before the reporters catch their scent, and the idea is almost enough to bring Rodney out in hives.
He goes across the hall and knocks on Teyla's door. Teyla answers wearing one of the hotel's fluffy white bathrobes, looking sleepy and dishevelled, two things Rodney's never seen her look before. It's enough to bring him up short.
"Are—" he hesitates, "are you okay?"
She blinks at him, and then lets a smile rise up in her eyes. "I am fine, Rodney," she says, reaching out to lay a small hand on his shoulder. "I am merely suffering... what I believe you call 'gate-lag.'"
"Oh," Rodney says, trailing her into the room when she turns towards the bed to pick up the clothes laid out there. She hasn't closed the door behind her, left it wide open and given no hint she wants him gone, but still, in his experience women in bathrobes do not want him intruding. "Are you sure?"
She turns around, looks thoughtful and distant for a moment, as if seriously considering the question. Then she shrugs. "I am feeling the distance between here and Atlantis, that is all," she tells him, and then looks almost embarrassed. "I find I am missing Tagaan," she says, in a confidential tone.
Rodney stares at her. Teyla's so matter-of-fact about her son, most of the time, that sometimes he forgets that she's his mother, that Teyla's a mother. It's probably something to do with her being equally matter-of-fact about expecting all three of them to contribute to his upbringing, something, Rodney was surprised to find, he doesn't really mind all that much. Tag (as he was dubbed by Lorne) is bright and gregarious and always asking questions in the way that used to annoy Rodney's parents when he was the same age. He can often be seen toddling after the Marines and pestering the scientists while clutching Bob, the teddy bear donated to him by Jennifer when he was born (probably, Rodney suspects, her very own bear).
"I'm sure he's fine," Rodney offers awkwardly, wondering if he should hug her, but pretty sure that would just be embarrassing for them both. He's not very good at initiating physical contact, not even with John. Fortunately Teyla solves the problem by setting her hands back on his shoulders and resting her forehead against his.
"So am I," she tells him, smiling, her eyes closed, "Evan is very good with him. But thank you, anyway."
"Sure," Rodney murmurs, "no problem."
There's a knock behind them, and Rodney looks up to see Ronon lounging in the doorway. He takes a second to hate the taller man, just a second, because nobody should look that good in a pair of jeans and a University of Colorado t-shirt. He looks better in Earth clothes than Rodney ever has.
"Are we talking to the fleas today?" he asks, arms crossed.
Teyla looks between them, confused. "Fleas?"
"Bloodsuckers," Rodney corrects him, grinning. "But don't call them that in front of John. He thinks I'm biasing you against Earth culture." He turns back to Teyla. "He means the reporters."
"Ah," says Teyla, eyes widening, as Ronon makes a noise a little like a low, soft growl.
"Yeah, I've seen your entertainment programs," Ronon says, looking unimpressed. "You're not gonna bias me any more."
"Has John returned yet?" Teyla asks of them both, and Rodney flushes as Ronon shakes his head.
"Left early. Isn't back yet."
"In that case, I would like to see the city," she says pacifically, instinctively suggesting something easy and simple. "I had very little chance the last time I was here."
"I could go for some food," Ronon volunteers, pushing himself straight from the doorframe.
"Good." Teyla turns, gathers her clothes up from the bed, jeans a t-shirt, and a blazer Rodney's sure will look much better on her than any woman born on Earth, too. "Just give me a moment to get dressed."
She disappears into the bathroom, and Rodney perches on the edge of her bed to wait, while Ronon crosses his arms again, gives him a look Rodney can't really decipher. "What?" Rodney demands, after a few seconds have passed with nothing but staring in them.
"You guys okay?" Ronon doesn't sound bored, right now, and that's unusual enough to make Rodney look up, but he doesn't look any different than he usually does. Rodney stares for a long moment, and then shrugs, looking away. He's never been good at this, this being graceful with his insides showing.
But any answer he might eventually feel compelled to make is mercifully cut off by Teyla, emerging fully dressed.
They're all inclined to blend in as well as they can, Rodney more than Ronon and Teyla, but as it turns out they needn't have bothered. Colorado Springs is a ghost town as far as reporters go. The country's entire journalistic population is still circling, vulture-like, over D.C., annoying the hell out of Sam and General O'Neill and the other handful of officials currently holding forth about the Atlantis Expedition's glorious "homecoming".
Sam and O'Neill keep ducking photographers, which only seems to encourage them, and Rodney can only imagine what kind of black ops strategies they're employing to evade the kinds of so-called journalists better known for scaling the garden walls of Hollywood celebrities. The Lanteans have been given a doomsday date of Thursday, which is, incidentally, tomorrow, before the SGC officially notifies the public that they're done debriefing and available for interviews.
The SGC has, in so many words, told them to make themselves available, and wouldn't be swayed by fifteen straight minutes of argument on Rodney's part. Landry seemed delighted at the prospect of foisting off some of the limelight on other people for a change, which Rodney kind of understands, as Landry's been at the centre of attention since the declassification.
The food is good, plentiful and familiar but not; these days Rodney's more accustomed to his potatoes having a different texture and a redder hue, and keeps expecting every bite of green pepper to have a fruity tang to it like the kove the mess cooks have been using for a year and a half. But it's good anyway, and they pass a quiet meal with attentive waitstaff at one of the few restaurants Rodney remembers from when he actually lived here. He takes Ronon and Teyla on a walking tour of the downtown, and while there's not much to see they're both curious, so by the time they walk back to the hotel it's early evening. It's warm, early June in Colorado, and Teyla has her jacket folded over one arm, the other arm linked companionably through Ronon's as he peers through every store window they pass.
He's feeling almost at ease, at peace with the world, with a full stomach and no one, at the moment, trying to kill him, and people walking beside him who actually like him. He has his hands in his pockets.
It's perhaps because of his state of almost-relaxation that when he sees John, a little ways up the street from the hotel, he doesn't say anything at all, just freezes, stares.
He's been walking a little ahead of Ronon and Teyla, but they catch up quickly, and Teyla touches his arm carefully. "Rodney?" she asks, gently, doubtless seeing something in his face. "What is the—" And then she falls silent, probably because she sees the same thing Rodney's seen.
John, standing next to a car with a pretty woman with brown hair. She's wearing a sharp business suit and she's smiling, and John has his arms around her waist. As they watch, she laughs — the sound silent at this distance — and then leans in and kisses John on the lips.
He's already walking away as Teyla reaches out for him again, pushing open the lobby doors, ignoring the sound of her voice calling after him. He doesn't bother turning back, asking them not to say anything. He knows they won't.
He paces in his room for almost twenty minutes, working himself up into a state of agitation so great he has to sit down and put his head between his knees. And god, wouldn't that be hilarious, surviving in Pegasus for five, six years only to have a rage-induced heart attack in a hotel in Colorado Springs. He sits like that for a long time, until he's not mad anymore, just confused, exhausted, worn out, in the state where he really doesn't know what he thinks or how he feels. It seems strange, that he never realised how much of his life he's spent like this, totally adrift in every sea the Universe offers, except the one bounded by numbers.
After a while, someone knocks on his door, but he's half asleep, drowsing on top of the bedclothes. He might hear John's voice, or it might be Teyla's, but he's not sure.
The interviews, which commence bright and early the very next morning, are every bit as hellish as Rodney imagined. It's a little like he always imagined a criminal interrogation would go, and the whole morning passes in a haze of the same twelve questions asked over and over again.
"How do you feel to be back home?"
Rodney stares blankly in response to this question twice, until Sam, who's been flown back to babysit them, elbows him in the side and he makes something up.
"How do you feel to have been absent while the Earth was fighting for its very survival?"
This is something like the eighteenth question, said in a snide, accusatory tone, as if a) they had any choice in the matter and b) Earth wasn't involved in a war going on outside the Solar System for ten years before an armada of pirates made enough noise to get the attention of the general populace. It's the first question that makes Rodney bring out the tone he used to use with graduate students. He makes the second questioner cry. It's cathartic and deeply satisfying.
"Do you think it's appropriate for so many of Earth's resources to be diverted to a project that ultimately benefits no one here at home?"
It's this question, said just this way, that finally gets Rodney a time-out, out of earshot of the reporters, because it's not only ridiculous — "Resources? What resources do you imagine we've been getting from you people since we've been stranded at the ass-end of another galaxy?" — but he's only getting it from American reporters, none of the others, which just proves what he's always said about this fucking country. Explode a dozen alien space ships over their heads — twice! — and they still think they're the most important focal point in the known Universe. The others aren't much better, of course, but they're more subtle about it.
Sometimes they're interviewed together, sometimes apart. Rodney has the easiest time of it when he's alone, because he doesn't feel inspired to hold his tongue beyond the absolute minimums of civility. Most of the morning is politically-slated, trying to place Atlantis in a context alongside the rest of the Stargate Program, and the changing order here on Earth. Most of the questions make Rodney feel obscurely uncomfortable, like he's been accused of something and he's not sure what. He's never been fond of politics, not even in academia, where he found it tiresome and pedantic, and the MIT graduate program had nothing at all on the New York Times when it comes to neurotically focusing on irrelevant detail.
The afternoon's interviews are the domain of the tabloids, or so Rodney gathers by the content of the questions. In retrospect, he figures he should have seen it all coming when the pretty, young, blond reporter from the Herald-Tribune (or possibly the Tribune-Herald?) smiled winningly at John and asked if she could have him and Rodney first, and then Ronon and Teyla, and then the four of them, like she was choreographing a dance. They set up in one of the hotel's meeting rooms, and she speaks with John first, which gives Rodney ample opportunity to study him under the cover of listening to his answers.
The thing is, Rodney thinks now, with the insulating distance of a full night's sleep behind him, this isn't the kind of thing John does. John's no good at articulating anything more emotionally sensitive than a drink order, but he doesn't lie about things. Hell, he doesn't even cheat at chess; that's Rodney, and only sometimes, and it never helps him win, anyway. If John had the random impulse to take up again with his ex-wife — and that was Nancy, Ronon confirmed it — he'd say so. He wouldn't sneak around and pretend. And Rodney's pretty sure, now, that the person who knocked on his door last night was John, that he sounded worried.
"So, now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about how it feels to be back." The reporter — Rodney's pretty sure her name is Stone, but it's not as if he was actually paying attention when she introduced herself — leans back in her chair, crossing her legs under her short skirt and smiling prettily at them both. Rodney bets somebody told her that it made her look guileless and attractive. He has to fight the urge to cross his arms and scowl.
"I'm sure after two years — especially considering what's been happening while you were away — Earth must look like a very different place," she says. "A dramatically different world stage, new technologies... I can't imagine what that must be like for you."
Rodney's been letting John field most of these stupid questions, because John's charming and he's good at giving nothing answers without getting fed up with them. Comes from a career, Rodney supposes, of bullshitting COs. "That's a difficult question to answer," he tells her, with a disarming sort of smile back. "We haven't been back to Earth in two years, so I think everything would seem alien even without declassification. It's all relative, I guess."
She nods, looking thoughtful. "Well, I can give you some examples and get your opinion on them?" she offers, and John shrugs, not a yes, exactly, but she takes it as one.
"Well, for starters, the U.S. military has undergone a lot of changes since the declassification of the Stargate Program. Do you suppose that's due to a wider perspective, or increased scrutiny on the relationship between the military and the civilian population?"
Something about the way she asks the question bothers Rodney — it clearly bothers John — but he can't put his finger on why. There's definitely more interest in her posture than there should be about the answer to such a broad, bland query.
"Well," John laces his fingers together over his right knee, "the relationship that the public has with the military has always had a lot of influence on policy."
Rodney sits up a little straighter. It's a more insightful answer than he's heard John give all day, and at the same time there's a certain wariness in his voice that Rodney's come to associate with village chiefs on planets who've just discovered gunpowder. Like he wants something out of this, but doesn't want to give too much away.
"So the claims by top military officials that the changes were dictated by internal trends are..."
John smiles. It's a genuine smile, the one he wears when he's laughing at himself, and one Rodney's always considered a personal weakness — in himself, that is. "I think the military has a vested interest in maintaining its independence while they've got the whole world breathing down their necks."
The reporter leans forward, tucking a lock of hair behind one ear and giving them both a smile like a challenge. "And which do you think is true of the recent changes to the uniform code? Public pressure or independent decision?"
Changes? Rodney's head snaps up, and he doesn't say anything, but he knows John's seen it, because he turns his whole body a little bit away from Rodney, towards Miss Stone. Just a little, but enough that Rodney keeps his mouth shut.
"I think that the rules governing the largest standing armed force in the world are always going to be complicated."
"Oh, come now, Colonel Sheppard — "
"It's Lieutenant Colonel," John tells her, not for the first time today, not even for the first time this interview.
She raises her eyebrows. "Lieutenant Colonel," she amends, and then continues as if without interruption: "Your history makes you out to be pretty independent yourself. You're telling me you don't have an opinion about the most globally controversial article of U.S. military law being summarily deleted?"
"I think it was a little more complex than that," John says, downright evasive and apparently beginning to frustrate the pretty reporter. But then he takes mercy on her and gives her a charming smile, one that Rodney feels even though John's not looking at him.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a holdover from a less enlightened time," John says, finally, and Rodney doesn't miss that while the reporter is scribbling down his every word, John is glancing over at him, eyes dark and inscrutable and focused, until Rodney's cheeks burn and he ducks his head. And okay, Rodney thinks, this is at least partly his fault, because it isn't as if he actually read the whole ridiculous "re-orientation package" sent through by the SGC, having better things to do and figuring, honestly, that anything important would be self-evident. Important things usually are. But still, he's surprised, that with something like that John didn't even mention it.
"You don't think there will be continuing controversy over its repeal?"
"I think it's always going to be a complicated issue," John tells her, crossing one long leg over the other. "But you asked what I thought, and I'm coming from a different point of view from most of the military."
"Ah," says the reporter, running her finger down a page of notes. "Of course, Atlantis has an international contingent. Does that affect the way U.S. military law is enforced?"
"Always has." John shrugs. "Even in the beginning; strictly speaking, we're a civilian operation, and that comes with all sorts of complications. Besides," he adds, slouching a little more comfortably in his chair, and casting another, briefer glance in Rodney's direction before turning back to the reporter, "Atlantis isn't Earth. You live in a closed society and you end up keeping rules because they make sense, not because they're the rules."
The reporter gives him an arch look, paired with an amused smile. "If you don't mind my saying so, Colonel, you're awfully suave for someone who presents himself as plain-spoken."
"It's always better to be underestimated," John laughs, and shakes his head, serious again. "You want a straightforward answer?"
"Please," she says, smiling.
"Okay. I think there aren't a lot of people who will miss it that I want under my command." He drums his fingers on one knee. When he next speaks, his voice has dropped in volume, going low, serious, a little sad, two of those things people who don't know him would never see. "I think that people do their jobs better when they don't have to hide parts of who they are."
And then he looks up, straight at Rodney, for just a second long enough for the reporter to widen her eyes and start scribbling like mad.
"I think that's always been true."
It's almost four PM before they can escape from the public eye — or eyes, as it happens, because it's not until they're in the elevator, Rodney leaning heavily against the pink-wallpapered wall of the car, that he realises they've done fifty-seven interviews between the four of them. Teyla is restless and jumpy, Ronon looks positively wrung-out, more tired than Rodney feels, and John — John is himself, watching the little red numbers climb, hands in his pockets.
"I believe I understand your wording now, Rodney," Teyla mumbles, leaning into Ronon's shoulder, her eyelids drooping.
"Bloodsuckers," Ronon agrees, eyes all the way closed.
"Told you," Rodney says, and then: "I should have gone to Prague with Radek. I laughed at him, but he's probably getting wined and dined and not a reporter in sight, the little bastard."
"I'm going out of town for a few days," John says suddenly, and all three of them fall silent to look at him in surprise.
"Out of town?" Rodney repeats stupidly. John's shoulders and back are hard straight lines, and he's keeping his eyes fixed on the floor numbers. "Where?"
John doesn't glance at him. "Going to see my brother."
The elevator doors open on their floor, and John precedes the rest of them out into the hallway like he's fleeing a mob.
Rodney's not sure why he does it; he's still not sure if he's angry at John or not, but something makes him follow John into his room, which yesterday — or was it the day before? — was their room, even if it's only John's name in the register. Their bed.
"When are you leaving?" he asks, standing just inside the door as John folds clothes onto the spartan white quilt, digs his duffel out from under the bed.
"Tonight. Pretty soon." John shrugs off the sport coat he was wearing for the reporters and hangs it on the back of the desk chair. Rodney thinks, with strange consciousness, that under normal circumstances, this is the kind of moment where he'd walk across the room, slide his hands up John's back, try and pull some tension out of his muscles in favour of something better.
He's equally aware that his version of normal, untold miles away in a city in another galaxy, is slightly askew from most people's. And that he senses that right now, he has no entitlement to touching John at all. He hates it, because he can't get angry about it. He doesn't understand it.
"How long will you be gone?"
"Like I said, a few days." John shrugs out of his shirt, too, pulling on a pale-washed blue t-shirt and sitting down on the bed on the opposite side from where Rodney is standing to fold shirts into his duffel bag.
"I could, I can go with you," Rodney offers impulsively, familiar unhappiness clutching somewhere behind his breastbone. He wanted to go when John's father died because someone had to go, he offered, he tried, but had to badger Ronon into going instead, something he still feels guilty about. Even now he remembers standing in the door to John's quarters, wringing his hands, wanting to reach out and not quite daring. It feels like that now, watching John pack, getting ready to step out of Rodney's reach without once looking back.
John's hands still, and he glances up, just for a second. But it's too quick to catch much — he shakes his head. "I... I don't think so, Rodney. But thanks anyway."
"I mean it," Rodney persists. "I could... it's not like I wouldn't jump at the chance to get far, far away from the people with the pocket recorders, but I also... well. You know. Moral support?"
John shakes his head again, reaches under the bed for a pair of brown boots worn at the toes, but not worn through. He sits down to put them on. "I don't think it's a good idea," he says.
John tosses a few more things into his bag, and then he fastens it shut, sits there with his hands on his knees. They're both silent for a few long, long seconds, John sitting, Rodney standing. Rodney senses another significant moment, this one where he could, if he wanted, take the three steps around the bed and bring their bodies once again within touching distance. But for some reason he feels bolted to the spot, empty of impetus, devoid of resolve, and he hates this, hates this, that he can be brought this low just by caring this much.
"I hate this," he says, very quietly, reaching behind him to find the wall solid at his back, not sure when he moved to lean against it. "I want to go home."
He hears John sigh, and then he stands up, swinging the duffel onto his shoulder, picking up his keys. "Yeah, buddy," he murmurs, and he crosses the room to press a brief, dry kiss to Rodney's forehead, the closest he's come to really touching him in, what, two days? Rodney's not even sure anymore.
Rodney's not sure how long he stands inside John's door after he leaves, but eventually he goes back to his own room and orders a jug of coffee from room service, and guts the mini-bar for everything drinkable.
Ten minutes later he's in sweats and knocking on Teyla's door, across the corridor. Ronon answers, looking left and right along the empty hall with an almost hunted expression. "You're alone?" he asks, and Rodney nods quickly, holding up his double-handful of miniature alcohol.
"Awesome," Ronon says, giving him an admiring look before reaching out and pulling Rodney inside.
The weird thing about being on Earth is that it's just that — it's "Earth." When Rodney thinks of going home to bed he thinks of John's narrow little bed in Atlantis, on a planet orbiting a star not even visible in Earth's sky. And even though they're officially done with interviews, people keep calling, and they've all had it with reporters and grocery stores and shopping malls and all the other little easy luxuries that make coming here at all worthwhile. It's too much. Eventually Teyla calmly unplugs the phone and wraps it up in a pillowcase, shoving it under the bed as though it might wake up and crawl back out.
They stop watching live television, too. They keep seeing unflattering video of themselves — and how anyone manages to make John, Ronon or Teyla look unattractive is anybody's guess, Rodney boggles — on the local networks, and Fox News keeps repeating the same stupid loop about "the Atlantis Expedition's wayward flagship team, currently debriefing in Colorado Springs" with a snotty little head-bob, and MSNBC keeps talking about John's childhood and his father, the "corporate giant". Eventually Rodney declares they're going to watch movies, that's it, all done, and they spend a day and a half working their way through all the Bond movies the hotel has on pay-per-view, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and all ten of the Star Trek films whose existence Rodney is willing to acknowledge.
"This is stupid," Rodney grumbles, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of Teyla's couch. Ronon is slouched at one end of it and Teyla is curled up on the cushions at the other. None of them have been dressed in anything but sweats in over thirty-six hours but it's not as if they plan on going anywhere else on this benighted planet. Still, Rodney keeps feeling as though he's forgetting something.
Ronon throws a cushion at his head. "Yeah, we get it, McKay, there's no sound in space. We heard you the first eighteen times."
"Well," Rodney mutters, crossing his arms, "it bears repeating."
"I think it has been repeated enough," Teyla says diplomatically. "Rodney, will you hand me the bowl?"
Rodney passes her the bowl of popcorn, the (he counts) eighth today. Eventually room service just sent up two boxes of microwave popcorn when they kept ordering bowl after bowl after bowl.
"He wasn't trying to piss you off," Ronon says, after the Enterprise has destroyed another three Romulan ships on the room's big-screen TV.
Rodney glares at nothing in particular. He's been trying to pretend he's not upset about John up and abandoning them to hang out in a mansion somewhere, but Ronon keeps bringing it up, and even the gentle haze of alcohol is doing little to insulate him from how much this annoys him.
"Thank you very much, Doctor Phil, but I think I'll stick to my time-tested strategy of avoidance, if it's all the same to you. I don't care what Sheppard is doing... whatever he's doing," Rodney snaps, reaching for his laptop where it's propped up against the couch.
"Rodney," Teyla says, gently chiding, at the same moment Ronon says, with what for Ronon counts as exasperation: "McKay," and Rodney pauses, looks up at them mutinously. They keep asking him, every couple of hours or so, like they're working shifts, like they've planned out a schedule to keep him from self-destructing or read it in a book somewhere. It's not like he doesn't appreciate the concern, but this is mostly just embarrassing and he's got other reasons to be slowly losing his mind than the possibility that John is undergoing some kind of intergalactic mid-life crisis and has decided to leave Rodney out of the loop.
"Rodney," Teyla says again, more sternly, interrupting his internal monologue, and he looks up to see her patting the cushions between them. "Come here."
He glares at her for a moment, mostly for effect, before crawling up between them and sitting down, heavily, with his arms crossed over his chest.
"It's not—" he blurts, shakes his head, "—I don't think that he — I know that. I think I know that. It's just that he gets into these... these moods, where I have no idea what the fuck he's thinking, and he does stupid things, and I..."
"We know," Ronon says, like Rodney's an idiot.
Rodney looks at him, because, oh, right, this is the same mood John gets into when he flies suicide missions and doesn't tell anybody where he's going. "Right," he agrees, grudgingly, "I guess you do."
On the screen, Captain Picard argues with a Borg queen. Rodney's lost track of the plot, and he's almost picked it up again when Teyla asks softly: "What are you afraid of?"
He starts hard enough to spill half the popcorn over his lap, and he curses, trying to scoop it back into the bowl. He buys himself a couple of seconds that way, but eventually he has to turn and meet her eyes, wondering how, how in two galaxies someone who's spent her entire life under constant threat of extinction can talk about such terrifying things so openly, so easily. Maybe it's about compensation, pushing the fear down so deep it comes out the other side.
"I don't know," he admits, and looks away again, picking at a spot of melted butter on the knee of his sweatpants. On the screen, one ship blows up another, but he's not really paying attention. He's not even sure which Enterprise they're watching, but it lends enough absurdity to the moment to let him say: "I've never had this before. And I don't exactly make it easy."
Teyla's sigh is sad, and it's tolerant, and it's very faintly exasperated. "Rodney," she says, and he can't see her shaking her head but he can imagine it, copied perfectly from memory. "After all this time, how can you still doubt our regard for you?"
"Because I'm—" Rodney starts, angrily, clenching a fist, and then staring at it — he's not sure why he's angry. If he's angry, or it's something else he's always been angry about. He flattens the hand out on his thigh, and shrugs, instead. "I don't know," he tells her, surprised at his own honesty. "Habit?" He casts a suspicious look at the neat rows of twenty or thirty (or possibly eighty) empty miniature liquor bottles. How many of those did he drink, he tries to remember, and how many were Ronon and Teyla's?
His mental tally is interrupted by Ronon suddenly looping one long arm around him and squeezing until Rodney turns and glares at him. "Quit it," he protests, squirming to no avail.
Ronon shakes his head. "Earth people don't touch each other," he says, like it makes perfect sense, arm absolutely not moving. "It's not healthy."
And yeah, apparently a few of those bottles were Ronon's, anyway. He turns to Teyla for appeal, but she's got her knees drawn up to her chest, stocking feet curled under her, and she's giggling behind her hand. Apparently more than a few bottles were Teyla's, too.
"Oh my god," he gripes, as Teyla leans over and hugs him, too, still giggling, "I am never, ever getting drunk with you guys again."
Some time later, after the terrifying group-hugging has subsided and they've all sobered up a little over lunch and a huge pot of room service coffee, Captain Kirk's monologue at Camp Khitomer is interrupted by a phone ringing. Not the room phone, which is still safely imprisoned under Teyla's bed, but Rodney's mobile phone, which is sitting on the carpet next to his laptop.
The SGC issued them all mobile phones when they let them out of the mountain, but they're for alien-invasion-scale emergency calls only so they've all been blissfully silent so far. Rodney is pretty sure that nobody without top-secret clearance is even authorised to have the number, which is not to say that he's actually surprised when he answers, and Jeannie immediately starts shouting at him.
"I cannot believe you, Meredith!" Jeannie yells, and carries on in a similar vein for several minutes. Rodney holds the phone away from his ear, Jeannie's tiny, tinny voice still pouring out of the speaker.
"Uh," Rodney says, as Ronon and Teyla stare at him curiously. He points at the phone. "I'm gonna..." and flees back to his own room, catching up his laptop as he goes.
As he locks the door behind himself and sets his laptop down on the desk, she takes a pause to order Madison to turn down her cartoons.
"Do you want to talk to Uncle Mer?" Rodney hears her ask.
"It's okay, we e-mail," Madison's voice answers, negligently, which is true. He's actually exchanged more e-mails with Madison since being on Earth than with Jeannie, which is partly due to the fact that Jeannie's been giving almost as many interviews as the team has. Of course, paparazzi in large numbers don't dare venture as far north as Vancouver (and would probably perish from the contact scorn of the public if they did), so they're mostly actual journalists, but she's made it clear she's going to get her holy revenge on him anyway.
"Meredith, are you listening to me?" Jeannie demands, and Rodney blinks back into the conversation, because he wasn't, really.
"What? Sorry. No."
Jeannie makes an irritated noise. "I cannot believe you," she says again. "You don't even call me when you return miraculously to Earth after two years, during which, by the way, I thought you were dead —"
"Oh, you did not," he scoffs. "You have security clearance. I know for a fact the SGC contacted you. Anyway," he scans the room automatically for anything resembling coffee, but remembers he left his cup in Teyla's room. "I did call you. I remember calling you. I called you within an hour of beaming down."
"'Hi Jeannie, I'm alive, and now I'm going to bed,' does not qualify as—"
"'Gee, Mer, so glad to hear you weren't devoured by life-sucking space vampires, I was so worried,'" he retorts sarcastically. "I don't remember you being overly enthused about the news that I was—"
"Because you called at three-thirty Pacific Time and then fell asleep while you were on the phone with me!" she explodes, and then pauses, probably gathering strength for another attack, but instead she pauses and takes a deep breath. Rodney waits, warily.
"It's good to hear your voice, and I'm glad you weren't eaten by space vampires," she tells him, grudgingly.
Rodney eyes the phone suspiciously, but replies: "Well, um, thanks." A pause. "So why are you mad at me today? Aside from that?"
"Oh!" She suddenly sounds some strange mix of annoyed with him and... pleased? "Go check your e-mail. I just sent you a link." And that, right there? That was his little sister's voice sliding over into evil.
But... "Okay," because he was about to do that anyway, "I'm checking it right now." He logs into his e-mail account and gapes at the number of messages he's received since only this morning, deletes most of them, and then scans what's left. The message from Jeannie is near the bottom of the — Christ on a pogo stick — twenty-third page, the subject heading filled with smiley emoticons. He opens it and then clicks on the link.
"Now, I don't want you to think that I've forgiven you for keeping this from me, because honest to god, Mer, if I ever again have to find out things about my brother via Pamela Oorbeck at the Parent Advisory Committee and her deeply unhealthy fixation on celebrity gossip — and my god that woman needs more hobbies — but for the meantime I'm going to let you take a raincheck on the retribution because I'm feeling generous today."
Rodney tunes her out as the page loads, and then blinks, and then blinks again, because it's http://www.people.com, and there's a really quite flattering but alarmingly prominent picture of him, John, Teyla and Ronon front and centre on the home page. It's from the session yesterday morning, and the photographer caught Teyla in a rare laugh, Ronon looking on with his usual smug blandness. He and John are a little apart from the others, Rodney on the end with John leaning a little towards him, wearing the tiny smile that most people don't notice or recognise as a smile.
"Since when does People Magazine publish articles?" he asks absently. And when did they talk to somebody from People Magazine? Did the SGC just lose all sense of decency and decorum or... no, stupid question.
"They always published — Meredith, you are not paying attention to me," she chides, and he shakes his head.
"Well, between you and, I'm sorry, People Magazine, I think I'd rather be running laps or..."
And then he sees it. Idly scanning the whole article, which is ninety percent the same ten repetitive talking points about the mission and how physically attractive Rodney's team-mates are — and then a paragraph that actually makes him stop breathing for four and a half seconds.
When we asked John his opinion on the demise of DADT, his response was diplomatic, but direct. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell was a holdover from a less enlightened time," he said, with the smile that's been described as both boyish and charming, adjectives that this reporter feels are well-earned. He added: "I think that people do their jobs better when they don't have to hide parts of who they are," sharing a look with Doctor McKay, who for a man who has been described as both abrasive and arrogant, seems deferential, almost shy in Sheppard's company. There is obviously a close friendship between all four members of Atlantis' flagship team, but it does not compare to the affection that is clear between the handsome Lieutenant Colonel and his sharp-tongued scientist.
The next four paragraphs devolve into a re-iteration of John's physical attributes, sentiments with which Rodney can't exactly disagree, but as phrased in a People article not worthy of his attention. Which is fortunate, because a large part of his usually highly functional brain is caught in a loop of oh my god oh my god oh my god, until Jeannie shouts his name into the phone, and he jumps.
"What?" he says, faintly.
"I said," Jeannie begins, and then pauses. "Meredith, are you hyperventilating? Don't tell me this is the first you've seen of it."
"I stopped checking the news almost two days ago! There's only so much pseudo-journalistic effluent a person can take!" He stares, horrified, at the laptop. "You're telling me there's more of this?"
He can almost hear Jeannie's shrug. "Apparently that's the closest to a respectable publication hinting anything that strongly, but the columnist from the Georgia Straight hinted around about it when she talked to me, and I've seen stuff in tabloids, even up here. Not on the front page or anything, but... Mer, breathe."
Rodney slams the laptop shut and pushes away from the desk, squeezing his eyes shut. No, he's not hyperventilating. Though, any minute, now...
"It's the information age, big brother." Jeannie's voice is almost gentle, though there's still an edge of amusement there. "Faster than light, so to speak. So..."
"Yes, what?" he asks, when she says nothing for several seconds. He can hear the theme song to some inane cartoon playing in the background.
"So, it's true, then?"
There's an odd, almost breathless quality to the question, and Rodney lets his head thunk down onto the polished wood of the desk. Oddly enough, it makes him feel better, talking to his feet rather than his sister. "Yes," he moans, "it's true."
There's another pause. And bizarrely, he's seized by the image of her reaching out and smacking him in the back of the head. Probably, he thinks, because it's what she'd do if she were here.
But when she speaks again, it's softly, a smile tingeing the words. "So how's that going?"
He raises his head a little from the desk, asks suspiciously: "You're not going to ream me out for not telling you? I hasten to note that technically it happened while I was stranded in another galaxy with no method of—"
"I've decided to save it for when you visit, so I can yell at you in person," she says dismissively. "Besides," she adds, warmly, "you are the worst liar in the history of the world, Meredith. I spotted that when I was in Atlantis two years ago. I just didn't want to upset... anything. Now, though," she adds, and he gets another image, this one of her rubbing her hands together like the moustachioed villain from Dudley Do-Right, "now I'm going to get to take it out on both of you."
He laughs, doesn't really mean to, and is only a little surprised when it comes out sounding brittle. "I wouldn't," he tells her, getting control of himself a little too late, "I wouldn't bet on that, or anything."
She's silent for a moment, and then he hears her closing a door, the music growing muffled and faraway. "What's wrong?" she asks, in the same tone more often used for phrases like hands where I can see them! and empty your pockets onto the counter, young man the one time he tried to shoplift a packet of chewing gum and got caught by his mother.
And for some incomprehensible reason that probably speaks to his progressive space dementia, he answers. "I really have no idea." Even to him, it sounds bleak. "He's not even here. He went..." He waves a hand, forgetting for a second she can't see him, but he guesses she can imagine his usual gestures just as he can imagine hers.
"Ever since we got back here he's been..." He's not sure what to say, how to phrase it in a way that preserves what little dignity he has left.
"Distant?" she guesses. Again, he holds the phone away from himself and gives it an accusing stare. Luckily, he thinks savagely, Jeannie's not under the delusion that he had any dignity to begin with.
"I'm not talking about this anymore," he decides aloud. "I think I'm all done with the sharing now."
"Fine, fine," she agrees. "I'll wait to interrogate you when I can corner you in an actual corner."
They talk for a while longer, about trivial things, mostly — Madison's grades, something about Kaleb's job that Rodney doesn't pay any attention to, the looming terror of Jeannie's upcoming PhD defence. Eventually Rodney's yawning too much to keep talking, and she bids him good night after extracting a promise of a visit before he leaves Earth.
"Just give him some time, Mer," is the last thing she says before they hang up. "Give yourself some time, too."
Rodney's dreaming about being back in the city. Standing on the balcony outside the control room in the full brightness of the evening sun, reflections from the stained glass glinting here and there, the deck, their clothes, their hands where they lean on the railing. The city behind them is busy, humming, but quiet, and John is there, leaning into Rodney's side, and nothing is said; they just stand with their shoulders touching, sharing warmth, the whole stretch of the horizon tinted orange-red in the fading sunlight. There's no context, no explanation, but there is him, and there is John, and there is Atlantis, and within the boundaries of this moment, he's happy.
For a minute, Rodney thinks he's still in the dream, but the John in is dream is in profile, still and smiling a little. Someone else is shaking him, gently, urgently repeating his name: "Rodney, come on, wake up."
He rolls onto his back and realises that this other person is John, too, and better because he's solid. Still not quite awake, Rodney reaches for him without thinking, and it's only when his fingers close on chilled leather that he blinks, comes fully into the waking world. John is sitting on his bed — his bed, his own bed in his own room, and they're on Earth, he remembers — and he's fully-dressed, awake, smelling like rain and outside and wearing his leather jacket.
"What's going on?" Rodney asks, clearing his throat as he pushes up on one elbow to squint at the alarm clock. "What time is it?"
John reaches out easily to hold the clock up in Rodney's line of sight. "Four-thirty," he says, and squints down at Rodney. "You awake? We've got to get going."
Rodney stares at him for a very long seven seconds, because now that he's awake it's taken that long for it to come flooding back, the tense, subtle misery of the past week, and he remembers.
John is looking around the room, and now standing, opening Rodney's drawers and pulling out folded clothes to stack them at the foot of the bed. Rodney struggles to a sitting position, rubbing at his eyes. Even in the dark room, brain still slow from the heavy sleep of slightly-alcoholic exhaustion, Rodney can see he's holding himself straight, urgent, almost. However terrible he's always been at reading subtle cues, the broader gestures of John's body language have been written into his consciousness as a survival mechanism, dramatically painted like the tang of lemons. This, this careful scanning of the room for missing pieces, the orderly folding of Rodney's discarded clothes, this isn't fear, but it's something.
"Where are we going?" Rodney asks, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "What are you—"
John pauses just long enough to roll his eyes at him. "The rest of us are already packed, Rodney," he says, with just a hint of impatience, and somehow, it's that that gets Rodney moving, huffing out an irritated sigh as he gets out of bed.
"I thought we weren't leaving for another two days!" he complains, reaching for the clothes John hand him.
"Yeah, well, there's been a change in plans," and John grins, sharp and almost wolfish. "Actually, I think you're gonna like it."
The thing about their whirlwind departure from the planet Earth that most irritates the hell out of Rodney is that it makes it easy for John to escape his questions; hell, he doesn't even get a chance to ask any. John rousts him up out of sleep, into his clothes, and then they're beaming up into orbit before Rodney even has a chance to do more than ask where they're going.
And where they're going, as it turns out, is not the Icarus. Instead, they materialise in the bay of the Endeavour, the first internationally-commissioned space vessel of the planet Earth.
"The Endeavour?" Rodney repeats disbelievingly, with more than a little scorn. "What, they couldn't come up with something a little more clichéd?"
"I think it is an inspiring name," Teyla says, staring around the bay, the dozen or so F-306 fighters lined up shining on the deck, the coils of high-gauge cable and machinery crowding above. "And this ship is magnificent."
Rodney opens his mouth to make a scathing comment, but changes his mind as he realises that it would be wasted — just one more Earthling in-joke she won't really get, and then give him a look like he's the one missing the point. Anyway, she's right. This ship is magnificent, all shining and new, integrating Earth and Asgard technology; it's the most advanced vessel ever produced by humans in the Milky way. It would not have been possible without half a year of declassification, every country in the world free to collaborate without the stifling influence of secrecy.
And it's a truly international ship, too. In fact if anything it's more like Atlantis than any Earth ship Rodney's ever been aboard. There's military here, certainly, but they come from sixteen countries and almost all of them are scientists; mathematicians, physicists, a slew of the strange specializations unique to the space sciences. It's like being on the Enterprise — a thought Rodney keeps resolutely to himself — and it's kind of inspiring, just like Teyla says, even to a self-described cynic like Rodney McKay. Even if the captain is French.
So he doesn't complain too much right away, as the Endeavour eases out of orbit and makes course for the moon — because as it turns out, their early departure was due to a minor growing crisis right inside their own Solar System.
One of the first projects undertaken after declassification six or seven months ago was a base on Earth's moon; still un-named, it's meant to serve as a sort of early warning system — the controlling station for a network of Asgard sensor satellites scattered through the Solar System — and will eventually house a permanent low-gravity laboratory. Rodney can't help but feel that some day soon Luna will be the Siberia of the second space age, somewhere to send recalcitrant scientists like Rodney, but all the same the idea makes him practically salivate. Or it would, except apparently they're having critical problems with their life-support systems and they need relief as soon as humanly possible.
It's not as big an emergency as it sounds at first, the captain tells his Lantean passengers, all thirty-nine of them, Sam, Radek, John, Rodney, Ronon, Teyla, and a crowd of scientists and soldiers. "They can hang on with bottled air for almost seventy-two hours, and we are only into the thirty-third," says Captain Laroche. "We would have had a ship to them yesterday, but the Icarus is still undergoing their overhaul and it was faster to rush the completion of our ship for the journey."
Rodney wants to say something about the merits of rushing a spaceship into completion, but over the last seven hours he's been over this ship pretty much from top to bottom and hasn't found anything to complain about. Luckily they won't be on this ship long enough to have first-hand experience of its possible failings if something horrible does happen. Once they get where they're going they can travel home the fast, easy, relatively safe way. Luna Base now has Earth's secondary stargate, because after all this time they've learned to be cautious.
The trip takes significantly less than a full day, and by the time they've got the fresh air flowing again (Rodney has no idea how they ever, ever did space travel without Asgard-designed scrubbers except oh, wait, they didn't) there hasn't been time to sleep, let alone get John alone for three minutes together. Not that Rodney's sure what he'd ask, more like demand, but he's worked up enough from sleep deprivation — and possibly some mild hypoxia — and the weird buzz that low gravity always gives him to demand something.
But then they're lining up their new recruits in the warm blue glow of the event horizon, Rodney absently stroking the casing of their brand-new, fully-charged ZPM (courtesy of one of Jackson's recent accidental discoveries in some dust-choked alien temple or another, because according to Sam he's got a lot of time on his hands these days) and John just shoots him one fleeting grin before he's stepping through. He disappears with barely a ripple.
It's late evening in Atlantis when Rodney steps through, and he drifts out of the way as the rest of the new crowd comes trooping through behind him. He's still carrying the ZPM case, and he's tapping his fingers rhythmically on the outside, just drinking in the sight of the gateroom, the fiery glow of fading sun through the stained glass windows, the sound of half a hundred voices, the hum of the city under and around him. He doesn't notice John coming to stand beside him until John nudges their shoulders together, and for the fraction of a second Rodney thinks he's back in his dream, that everything's all right.
He glances to his left. John's watching the new recruits as Lorne, standing on the stairs, shouts out over the din for them to pay attention, runs them through the basic "don't touch anything, and we really mean anything" speech, followed by the "if it glows when you touch it and you didn't expect it to, for the love of god call your CO" lecture. John's hands are shoved deep in his pockets, and then it hits Rodney, like it hit him last night — two nights ago? — watching John move around his hotel room, like it's hit him on a dozen off-world missions. The sudden bright-edged image of John, uncertain, wary, in possession of knowledge that carries weight; some intention might bring either triumph or ruin, and he's not sure which.
"I wanted to talk to you about something," he says, softly, and Rodney holds his breath.
And that, of course, is when the alarm starts to sound, and the whole gateroom is filled with shouting and confusion.
"What the hell is going on?" Rodney yells, charging up the stairs and bearing down on Chiang, who's manning the sensors. "Is that a—"
"Proximity alert," Chiang confirms. "There was a magnetic disturbance on the outer edge of the system, and we were worried it might disrupt the sensors, but we weren't—"
"Well, now you know! Congratulations!" Rodney snaps. Behind him, he can hear John and Lorne chivvying new soldiers and scientists into line and out of harm's way, respectively. And then:
"Three Wraith cruisers, coming in hot!" Chuck reports, pulling up the image on the main screen. Rodney stares for a second, mouth open, hating the entire Universe (all the Universes), because this is proof that it really does just like to fuck with him.
And then he's shouting "Well, sure, why wouldn't there be?" already running out of the gateroom.
The nice thing about having a fully-charged ZPM, Rodney reflects, as he staggers, zombie-like, out of the lab ten hours later, is that nobody ever sees it coming.
Or... no. Hang on. The nice thing about having a fully-charged ZPM is that it means they have shields and drones and the ability to actually blow Wraith ships out of the sky rather than hiding from them.
Of course, the first thing is true, too, he thinks. The Wraith ships certainly seemed surprised — at least they didn't have much chance to get used to the idea that Atlantis is armed and dangerous before they became pretty lights in New Lantea's sky. Possibly this is going to become a problem later, because that kind of thing reads to the Wraith like a challenge, but Miko swears they didn't have a chance to get off a transmission; this was as close to a random happenstance as anything gets in this galaxy. They were just passing through.
He finds that his feet, on autopilot, have carried him back to John's room, and this shocks him out of the haze of post-adrenaline crash as effectively as cold water to the face. It's a greater shock, still, when he waves his hand over the sensor and it gives him the negative, low-pitched sound that means it's been secured from inside. First he thinks it's a malfunction, so he rings the chime, but though he can hear it sounding inside, the door stays stubbornly shut.
He stares at the door. He could go back to his own room — he's not sure if John would seek him out, or if he'd let it lie, and he kind of doesn't want to find out. He thinks hard at the door: open, god damn it, but it stays stubbornly shut, and now, standing very still, he can hear voices inside, and after a second, a low burst of laughter, quickly hushed.
He tries the strip once more, but the door stays closed. He knows he could open it if he wanted, is tempted to just pound on it with his fists, but the surge of anger dies as quickly as it rises, and if he tries to have this conversation now, he's just going to look... stupid, he thinks. Irrational.
When the door slides open, Rodney jumps back a step in surprise. The expression on John's face is first puzzlement and then faint annoyance, when he blinks out into the corridor and sees that it's Rodney.
"Uh," he says, moving to block the door when Rodney tries to look inside, "Rodney? I thought you were still in the lab."
There's an evasive note to John's voice that makes him pause, makes him look straight into John's face. "Why's the door locked?" he asks, and John glances back over his shoulder, shrugs unconvincingly.
"No reason," he lies. "I must've done it by accident."
Rodney stares at him. It's such a stupid lie that he's actually astonished. And John's usually a pretty good liar.
And then, just like that, he's angry again. It's a different anger than a moment ago, deep-down and quiet, and tinged with hurt, he thinks, but it's hard to tell. He does know that he kind of wants to hit John in the face, but more because he deserves it than because Rodney feels like hitting him, which doesn't make much sense. He pushes forward, meaning to barge in, but John stops him, grabs him by the upper arms and shoving him back with his own body.
The door closes, shutting off the light from inside the room, and they grapple for a moment before John gets Rodney away from the keystrip. "Rodney - Rodney, quit it!" John grunts, pushing him away, and Rodney stands there panting for a second or two before he can find words again.
"I'm so sick of this!" he shouts, before he can think about things like the early hour, the fact that other people in this corridor might be sleeping.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" John demands.
"With me? With me?" Rodney repeats, incredulously. "I'm not the one who's been somewhere else for the last week and a half! Obviously something is going on, and you're not telling me what!"
John goes a little pale, uncrosses his arms, hands up, palms out. "Rodney--"
"No!" Rodney cuts him off. Wow, this is kind of amazing. He always knew that yelling at people was cathartic, but this is worlds more satisfying than just humiliating his minions. "No, you're out of votes. This implacable exterior thing is sexy and everything, but you don't get to use it with me! We talked about it! We agreed! And we both know I'm crap with signals but these ones even I think I can--"
"Jesus," John hisses, "keep your voice down! There are people--"
"I. Don't. Care," Rodney tells him, more softly but with just as much venom. "If you want to stop this, then you're going to say so, you're going to say it out loud, so I can be sure I got it right. You don't get to just - just stop answering the phone like a thirteen-year-old girl, hoping I'll get the message--"
John twitches, his whole body, like he's been shocked. "I'm sorry, which of us is the thirteen-year-old girl in this relationship?"
"Oh, so we have a relationship now!" Rodney mocks.
"You're the one who never wanted to call it one!" John retorts.
"Because you didn't want to, either!" Rodney shoves him, hard, and he staggers back against the wall next to his door. The door, however, stays shut. John shoves back, obviously more reflex than anything else, because once he's got a double-handful of Rodney's shirt, he freezes, eyes wide.
For a long moment, Rodney's almost eager for it - wants an excuse to strike out, because it would obviously penetrate better than words. Words never seem to stick to John, slide off him like water, and Rodney feels like he's drowning in the unsaid ones.
But John lets go, slowly, takes a tiny step back, takes a deep, steadying breath. Rodney stares, infuriated, because suddenly John's calm again, or at least putting up his best front. The desire to hit him redoubles, but Rodney reigns it in. It's like he's being mocked, and he knows from long experience that you don't react by sinking to the other guy's level. The problem is that despite all this, he still doesn't really want to hurt John - and that makes it even worse. This would be so much easier if Rodney just didn't give a damn.
"I've said it, and you never have," Rodney croaks, and doesn't know when his voice got so thick and hoarse. He's still angry, or at least he's something that makes his face feel hot and his throat sore. "And you aren't going to, are you?" There's a sheen of sweat on John's forehead, and he's still breathing a little hard, but he doesn't say anything right away. Instead, he scrubs both hands across his face, and then he does exactly what Rodney was hoping he wouldn't do, what he's been afraid John would do, ever since the beginning. He turns away, closes his eyes.
"Rodney, you've been awake for two days," he says, like this explains everything, like Rodney's being irrational. "You need - you're tired. We're both... we're both tired."
He takes a step back in Rodney's direction, reaching out hesitantly. "Breakfast, yeah? We can figure out--"
And Rodney's really, really not having it anymore, this ham-handed attempt to steer things back to where John wants them, a situation where he doesn't have to sacrifice anything. He slaps away John's reaching hand. "Fuck you," he spits, and turns and storms away, away from John's room, away from John calling after him.
It's one of his more artful dramatic exits. He'd maybe take time to enjoy that if this didn't hurt so much. Maybe later.
He thinks it's early morning when he jerks awake, feeling gritty-eyed and slow as he squints around the empty lab. And it is empty, totally empty like it rarely is, but he was the last one here last night, everyone else gone to seek their beds and pass out, the way most of them do after a crisis. Rodney himself couldn't stomach the prospect of his own bed, of any bed, or of the introspection that would surely have resulted as he lay there, staring up at the ceiling. Last night he was angry enough, or high on some residue of adrenaline, that he was sure he wouldn't sleep at all, no matter how long he'd been awake. Apparently he was wrong.
A glance at his watch shows he's been asleep for less than two hours. He's still tired, but no longer so bone-weary that he's going to collapse at the slightest provocation. Which is something, he supposes. Emergency over, the city is quiet, and it's early, so early the sun's barely up, filling the lab with pale morning.
He's used to working through into sunrise; he did it for years in school, more when his work took him places where finishing something on time meant more than just grant money, meant the whole planet. These days, a fractured sleep schedule is a fact of life, something he's used to.
He's been used to John, too, he realises. At least the past half-year, in their city in their galaxy, they've had this life that included the two of them together. Until the wormhole opened again and Earth called them back, Rodney thinks maybe he stopped thinking about it as something to be careful about, like he did at the beginning. It's not just paranoia, not just some neurosis that kept him worrying he'd ruin it, all this time - though it's that, too. No; he started taking it for granted, but not nearly as much as John did. John took it for granted before it had even started, crawling into Rodney's bed like he was sure of his welcome. And everything since then has been on John's terms. It's had to be. He had so much more to lose than Rodney did, at least until recently, and they both knew it.
But that's not true anymore.
The quality of the light is cool, sharp, and it might be that which fills him with abrupt, complete determination, or it might be the much-belated work of the little ambient computer always figuring difficult problems at the back of Rodney's mind. Either way, it has him pushing away from the bench, swaying only a little on his feet, making for the door.
Of course the clarity of any epiphany reached at five o'clock in the morning has a limited shelf-life, and by the time he's reached the jumper bay — which is where the life-signs detector claims he'll find John, probably messing with the jumpers' control interfaces like he does when he's wired and bored — it's dulled, somewhat. Standing just inside the bay, he has a strange, terrifying moment where he can't remember why he's here, can't remember if he came to tear John a new one or just came because it's been god-knows-how-long and he and John haven't even had a conversation, not even about anything stupid, and he's gotten terrifyingly accustomed to having that.
Jumper one — John's favourite, even though Rodney's told him five hundred times that they're all exactly the same — is sitting in the middle of the bay, resting ten feet away from the charging dock, its ramp down. The bay is otherwise deserted, always is, this early in the morning, but Rodney can hear John, moving around in the rear compartment, and then he can see him, standing in the open hatch, hands resting on the inner bulkhead. He knew Rodney was there, Rodney's sure of it, and for a second he wonders if John knew because the city did.
"Hey," he says, and he looks so glad to see Rodney, so surprised that for a minute Rodney hesitates. There's a smile, there, but it's a strange one, a one-sided quirk of his lips. Cautious, again, like he's not sure what will happen if he isn't.
"Hey," Rodney echoes, feet carrying him, again on automatic, so that he's standing a little ways away from the ramp. John stays where he is, and seems to be bracing himself, or maybe he's just expecting something. Rodney looks down at his feet. "Are you still awake, or awake again?"
John raises one eyebrow at him. "Still awake," he admits. "You?" Sometimes adrenaline keeps John awake for a day after the need for it is gone; usually Rodney crashes, hard, with no preamble. After two years of sharing a bed the two cycles are more or les in sync, which makes it all the more awkward to be standing in the jumper bay trying to figure out how to phrase the words burning across his mental landscape.
"Are you--" John hesitates, lowering his hands to his sides, "gonna hit me?"
There's a little smile in there, but John looks genuinely worried, maybe not that Rodney will hit him but that this will be a repeat of last night. Rodney still feels raw, and he was the one who said all the cruel things.
"No," he says, shaking his head. He's always known that fatigue brought calm, but he's always thought it was because there was simply a lack of the energy necessary for anger. But now he feels a little like he's moved beyond it. Now he just feels... sad, maybe. "No, I just... I wanted to tell you I was sorry."
"Sorry - sorry for what?" John looks puzzled, and he comes down the ramp the rest of the way, stops within arm's reach.
"For - I didn't hold up my end, either," Rodney explains. "What we talked about. Saying stuff."
John opens his mouth, shuts it again. "Rodney, you'd been awake two days, I'm not gonna hold it against you."
"I'm not talking about last night," Rodney says irritably. He's trying to do this with some dignity, and John is not helping. "I'm talking about... about this." He waves his hand between them. "I know, we've said, neither of us is any good at this, and there was never time to work on it, but you obviously don't want this anymore and I'm the smart one, if not the smart one with... this, and I should have said something."
"Rodney," John says, carefully, and Rodney looks up to see he's gone sheet-white and tense, "what the hell are you talking about?"
Rodney hunches up his shoulders. "You want to end this," he explains patiently, trying hard to be the mature one here, something he's never been any good at, but he still wants to salvage something, something. "I still think you're a total dick for doing it the way--"
He stops, because John reaches out and frames Rodney's face with his hands, making Rodney look him in the face. Rodney blinks, amazed, because John looks scared, confused, but scared. "Rodney," he asks, "what the fuck made you think I wanted to break up with you?"
It's said with such innocent bafflement, such frank confusion, that Rodney's mouth drops open.
"What made me think - " he sputters, and it turns out he does have the energy for anger, it was just waiting for its moment, because before he realises he's doing it, he's shoving hard and John's staggering back. He totters for a second before sitting down, hard, on the floor of the bay.
"Hey!" he exclaims, annoyed.
"Oh, shut up!" Rodney tells him angrily. "You - you stupid jackass! Are you telling me that this whole last - what, week and a half? That's not what it was? That wasn't you trying to send a message?"
"What? No!" John says loudly, and winces, rubbing at his tailbone. "Could've hit my head or something," he mutters, and Rodney finds that he once again wants to hit him across the face. He takes a step forward to see how much, and John throws up his arms in front of his face.
"Hey!" he yells. "Truce!"
Rodney stops, crosses his arms. "Talk," he orders, and John eyes him warily for a second, then gets up to pick up his jacket from where it's crumpled in a heap next to the jumper ramp. He extracts a sheaf of papers from the inner pocket, walks back over to Rodney, and shoves them in his face, just as Rodney's taking a breath to carry on. "Here," he says, "I've been carrying that around since we got back."
"What is it?" Rodney asks, eyes crossing as he tries to read the top page.
"Read it," John tells him impatiently, then steps back a little, out of punching range, probably.
Rodney doesn't read all of it, there's too much. But flipping through pages he catches phrases like "power of attorney" and "retirement benefits" and "investment portfolio," and isn't sure, but he thinks he might have mis-read this situation just a little.
Rodney regards him suspiciously. "So you're not breaking up with me?"
"Christ, no! " John says loudly, looking horrified. "Of course not!"
"Well how was I supposed to know?" Rodney demands, not caring even a little how many echoes his voice kicks up, and kind of liking that it makes John look deeply, deeply uncomfortable. "We're out from under the Mountain a day out of the clutches of debriefing hell, and suddenly it's all lunch with Nancy and secret meetings with your brother and 'by the way, Rodney, I think it's best if you stay here while I go jetsetting all over New England even though I've stayed in your sister's house.' And it's not like you've never done it before, though the last time at least you were straightforward about it--"
"Jetsetting?" John repeats, looking bewildered and hurt. "And that's not fair!"
"It's not supposed to be fair!" Rodney cuts him off, and punches John hard in the arm, remembering something.
"Ow!" John complains. "Quit it!"
"There was kissing! I saw you! Ronon and... and Teyla saw you! And then she acted all..." Rodney waves his hands expressively, "...all sympathetic, and Teyla, and what was I supposed to..."
"While we were on Earth, there wasn't time," John tries to explain, glaring as he rubs at his arm. "Or, I guess, there was, but there was debriefing and there were fucking reporters and I didn't want--"
"You could have told me!" Rodney insists. "You could have dropped me a fucking hint! You could have told me yesterday!"
"I was planning on telling you when we got back here, but there were hive ships! " John yells, mostly to make himself heard, but Rodney's not about to be bested.
"Or last night!"
"You didn't give me a chance to get a word in edgewise!" John reminds him. "Let alone explain something so--" He shoves his fingers into his hair like he does when he's completely lost control of a situation, walks two steps towards the jumper, two steps back. "Christ, Rodney - I wasn't trying to freeze you out, I just..." and then he stops, shakes his head, lowers his hands. Looks at Rodney with purpose. "Are you going to hit me again?"
"I'm thinking about it," Rodney tells him honestly, still annoyed, but John's already reaching out, pulling him close in a hug that drives all the air out of him. Rodney struggles, cursing, but John holds fast. "What are you — what is this — let me —"
"Rodney," John says, in a strained voice, "shut up for a second, okay?"
And Rodney does it. Hates that he does, but does it anyway, body relaxing against John's. It's as much habit as the fact that he's missed this, Christ, he's missed this, and John's using the Do What I Say Or We're All Going To Die voice.
Instead, he presses his face into the wash-worn black softness of John's t-shirt, and breathes in. "I don't understand this," he complains, and also: "Seriously, I hate you. Are you trying to give me a nervous breakdown?"
John's arms around him loosen a little, enough to pull back and look at him, and he looks as tired as Rodney feels. "I'm sorry," he says, shaking his head. "I didn't mean to do that. Make you think... I'm sorry."
He shakes his head again, then looks down at their feet. "I was just trying to handle things. That's all. This isn't easy for me, either. If I'd known you thought... I swear, I would have told you. I just figured you'd freak out--" which is fair, Rodney supposes, because the part of his brain that isn't still furious with John or pathetic with relief is in the middle of doing just that, right now, "--and I figured one of us freaking out was enough."
"Nancy?" he asks, and John sighs, steps back a little.
"Nancy called me," John says, tilting his head to one side. "She's with Homeworld Security now. She was in town helping manage the press junket. We had lunch because she's still listed as the beneficiary on my pension from when we were married. I wanted to have it changed."
"What about the kiss?" Rodney dares to ask, because there's getting along, and then there's getting along.
"A peck on the lips, Rodney," John says, raising both eyebrows in the gesture Rodney chooses to believe is John finding his insecurities endearing. "She's happy for me." He over-enunciates each word, framing it with his fingers, as if Rodney is stupid or possibly deaf. He drops his hands back to Rodney's shoulders. "Which is, well, a sign that she's the more adult of the two of us." He frowns vaguely off into the middle distance for a second, before turning back to Rodney.
"I went to see my brother because... well, I've got a lot of investment stuff to do with the company, stuff my dad left me, and I had to see Dave to get it in order and... and to put another name down as signatory for the accounts. Also..." And here John shuffles his feet in that boyish way Rodney absolutely refuses to admit he finds attractive, "...we don't get along as well as you and Jeannie, and even now it's kinda..." he shrugs. "I didn't think the best way to start making overtures was for you and he to get into a screaming match, which... let's just say I had a premonition."
"Probably a sound one," Rodney admits grudgingly. He's never met John's brother, but he's heard about him from Ronon, and Rodney can usually sense that he's going to hate people before he even meets them. It's only one of his many special talents.
"Yeah," John agrees, and a small smile crosses his face. "I've got two nieces," he says. "They don't hate me yet."
"They wouldn't—" Rodney starts to say, everybody loves you, but he stops, looking down at the papers, this thing John did because he can't just say it. "You still... you could have told me. I mean, maybe I would have freaked out, but it would have been better than thinking you--"
"I know," John hastens to agree. "Fuck, I know. I'm sorry. It's just... this was so..."
"Big?" Rodney offers, because it is, the biggest thing in the world, terrifying and overwhelming and really, absolutely okay.
John nods, serious, wide-eyed. "And it was about us, and god, it's Earth, there was no time for anything, and I didn't want to share it. It shouldn't make a difference, but it does, and I didn't want to fuck it up before I'd had a chance to..." He shuts his eyes for a moment, as though remembering something he wishes he didn't have to.
"I always thought a lot of what wrecked it with Nancy was that... it was what I was expected to do. I mean, we liked each other, I think I even loved her, still love her, but it was more like the way I love Teyla, y'know? It wasn't..." He rubs the back of his neck awkwardly. "When I was younger, I guess I didn't know the difference. And there was always that awareness of being observed, of having everything I did with her scrutinised, and I'm..."
"Really, really, adolescently bad with authority figures?" Rodney grumbles, and John laughs, a sound that implies both hell, yes and look who's talking. Rodney flips through the papers again, idly, sees his name here, there, there again, swallows against the lump in his throat.
"In the future," he says, a little hoarsely, "you are to tell me about any life-changing legal decisions in process before I have a chance to start, start constructing admittedly paranoid scenarios where you get bored of me and..." he takes a deep breath. "Understand? Obviously what we need is to be clear about things, so whatever it is, anything. If you're taking up knitting or you have cancer or you're leaving me for someone younger or prettier, even if it's awful, you still have to..."
He feels a little bit better about the miniscule tremors shaking him from head to toe — delayed reaction, he tells himself, stress, exhaustion — when John tugs the papers gently away and frames Rodney's face with his hands again, calloused and cool and shaking a little, too. "Don't do that," he mutters, "I hate it when you do that," and Rodney looks up to find, to his puzzlement, that John looks angry, even though his right thumb is stroking restlessly back and forth against Rodney's temple.
"I swear to god, Rodney," John says, and it's a growl, almost, something shaken from deep, deep down, "if I could go back in time and beat the shit out of every person who ever made you think you were... some kind of... of consolation prize, I would."
And he means it, Rodney has no doubt he means it, because he says it in the voice he uses to talk about the Genii, about the Wraith, about enemies. People trying to kill them. As expressions as affection go, it's a little weird and a lot dysfunctional, but pretty unambiguous.
"Because you're not, okay? You're not." John kisses him, hard, on the forehead, right above Rodney's eyebrow, and when he pulls back the skin is a little damp.
"Okay," Rodney says, even though there were times where he's thought exactly that. It's what he's been used to, for a long time, and it takes more than hearing it once to change the habits of a lifetime. Then again, it's not like John's ever silent about it - he does things, doesn't say them, and that takes an effort to remember, but the creased pages clutched in Rodney's fist are a fairly clear reminder.
Rodney clears his throat. "So, we're clear?"
"Yeah," John agrees, a mumble into his hair. "We're clear."
"Because, you know, there really isn't anybody else I'd rather - that is, there isn't anybody hotter than you in this city, so it'd be a downgrade, and that really wouldn't be fair. To me," he finishes, on a decidedly sulky note, and John laughs.
Rodney studies him. He looks more relaxed than Rodney's seen him in six months, on par with their last day off before Earth called them back, and there's something else, there, too. A sort of warmth, the elastic, easy comfort that Rodney never sees when they're off-world, or even on Earth, these days. It's only, and Rodney's surprised at himself, that he's never put words to it before now, ever there when they're in the city, Atlantis humming contentedly around them, when they're home.
And as if he's been following Rodney's train of thought, John suddenly steps away, grabbing Rodney's hand, towing him towards the door that leads back into the city. "I almost forgot," he says, before Rodney can ask, "I wanted to show you something, but there hasn't been a chance since we got back."
I want to show you something has always been code for I found something really cool, and so Rodney follows without comment. And John doesn't drop his hand as they make their way up three levels and two transporters, pulling Rodney behind him with their fingers twined together. Nobody, Rodney notes, even bats an eyelash; he's not sure anyone even notices.
When John finally leads them to the door outside his quarters, Rodney is confused. This isn't new, it isn't cool, this is John's room, where not two hours ago he stood ringing the chime and getting no answer and suspecting the worst. He turns to John and crosses his arms. "You are so full of crap," he mutters. "If you wanted to have sex you just had to say so. You don't even have to do it quietly anymore."
That startles a laugh out of John, not just a dry chuckle but the real, awful, embarrassing Muppet-laugh, and it's enough to bring a grin to Rodney's face despite his best efforts to keep scowling.
Then John reaches out and waves a hand over the keystrip, and the door slides open, and Rodney sees it.
"It's..." Rodney drifts into the room with no memory of having told his feet to carry him forward.
"It's a bed," John provides helpfully.
It's beautiful, Rodney's brain provides, and Rodney reaches out to press down on the mattress, which is springy and firm and actually big enough for two grown human beings. It bears as little resemblance to the narrow Ancient single bed as a capuchin monkey does to a Sumo wrestler. It has six pillows and a real comforter and a headboard, and the things we could do in this bed, Rodney thinks, only mildly surprised when "falling asleep without fear of sudden falling-out-of-bed-related concussion" makes the top of the list.
"You bought a new bed," he says, turning around, and finds that John is once again rubbing awkwardly at the back of his neck, as though uncertain of Rodney's reaction.
"I, uh," John says, shoving his hands into his pockets, "I bought us a bed, actually."
Rodney stares at him, turns around again to take in the beautiful, enormous mattress. "So that's why the door was locked," he muses.
"I had to get it shipped here on the Icarus, in pieces," John admits. "Ronon and Teyla and Radek helped me put it back together. It was supposed to be a surprise."
Rodney feels — and this is an unfamiliar sensation — a little like the grin on his face is going to split him open. But it's not a bad feeling. "You bought us a bed," he repeats, and is advancing on John before either of them can say another word and ruin the moment. They're both awfully good at doing that.
"Hey!" John laughs, as Rodney tackles him down onto the mattress, still grinning. "Careful! I helped put this thing together, I'm not sure how stable it is."
"I don't care," Rodney says, kissing him, and then kissing him again. "I really, really don't care. Just, just stop talking, now," he adds, tugging at the hem of John's t-shirt until he lets Rodney pull it off. John lies under him, laughing, flush with it, half-naked on their bed in their room.
"I thought you needed to hear these things," John points out, helping Rodney unbutton his own shirt, slapping Rodney's hands out of the way when their fingers get tangled together. Finally the shirt goes sailing away across the room, and Rodney pushes up on his elbows to glare at the door until it locks.
"I'm a genius," he says haughtily, "and you're not stupid, either," he adds, magnanimously, as John slides his hands up Rodney's back, making him shiver.
"Yeah," John breathes, tangling his fingers in the hair at the base of Rodney's neck and pulling him down, until they're so close they're sharing breath. Rodney can feel John's pulse, deep and steady under the palm of his hand.
"I'm sure we'll figure it out."