When Elizabeth invited John to tea in her private sitting room, John expected bad news. Seeing the teapot snuggled inside its cozy, the fresh baked scones, and jam tarts, John thought it might mean he was to be a delegate to the water rights summit, or perhaps he would be required to have an extended stay in one of the outer provinces.
The reality, though, was worse.
While pouring tea, Elizabeth said, "John, we need them."
When she handed John the clotted cream, Elizabeth said, "Our land is dying, and they have agreed to share what they know of how to revitalize it."
When she pressed her back against the ridged back of her chair, her fingers white against the armrests, Elizabeth said, "It is your duty to the empire to marry Rodney McKay."
Putting his cup down on the tray before his shaking hand could spill his tea, John managed to swallow and nodded, adding a simple "Okay."
John's great-grandmother had been the Empress Helena. As a kid, whenever he pulled some stupid stunt — like jumping off the back of a chair or climbing out of a window to get his kite — his nanny or his tutor would remind him of his position. A position that, as far as John could tell, was guaranteed to cheat him out of the things he wanted in life.
Instead of a fast car, he had a good driver. Instead of piloting an airship, he navigated crowded receptions. Instead of falling in love, he agreed to an arranged marriage. John wasn't sure the status of a Dyzan science minister relative to someone several steps from the Lemas throne, but everyone assured him that while Rodney McKay was obsessive, self-absorbed, and abrupt, he was also an excellent match.
"From all accounts, he lives in his labs," Lorne, the captain of his honor guard, said. "Happy, healthy, and absent, isn't that how it goes?" Lorne gave him that sideways grin he had, the one that said that he understood the irony of the universe. "That's what everyone wants in an obligation marriage, right?"
John used his diplomatic smile, and took a drink from his beer, keeping his tone jovial. "Sounds great," he said, pasting on a winning expression.
It was only when he was safely alone in his room that he let the mask fall.
Shivering in his traditional wedding attire, John felt goose bumps form on his bare arms and legs in the unseasonably chill autumn air. The official signing ceremony was taking forever, and the wedding itself, with the vows and the songs and the perfunctory kiss, was secondary to signing the treaty. Instead of enduring all of the terms and conditions that brought the Dyzan province back under the empress's control, John got to enjoy a bracing northern wind and a beautiful garden setting, where the leaves had just started to fade. Forcing himself to relax, John tried not to curl up his toes in his sandals or think about how nice it would be if he had actual sleeves. Or if the pants came down below his knees. Or if the whole outfit were made out of something warmer than silk. Still, he would have to get used to the cold, as he'd been told that Dyzan province was noted for its long and harsh winters.
He shifted slightly, trying to move so that one of the ornamental columns would block the wind, but he knew it was a lost cause. One more thing he couldn't control, like this marriage, like his whole wasted life.
Never important enough to be fussed over, but too important to risk, that was the story of John's life. The guy standing in the background of every photo op. John smiled brightly at the assembly as he heard the music pick up; this might well be his last formal reception, and that, at least, was something to look forward to.
As John watched the figure clad in a grey morning suit and dark blue shirt climb the dais, he admitted that Rodney McKay was at least presentable. No obvious deformities other than lips that turned down at one corner, creating a slanted appearance on his too-wide mouth. At least he looked to be about the same age as John, rather than twenty, thirty, or forty years older. His hair was thinning and he had what was called a 'sturdy' build, but when he placed his foot on the steps he looked up, and John caught sight of brilliant blue eyes, blue eyes that sparked with impatience.
The eyes made it worth it.
Commander Caldwell stepped onto the dais while Empress Elizabeth herself settled into the chair set for her at the front of the hall. She was three months pregnant now, and already not up to standing during the ceremony, even if it was another jewel in her diplomatic legacy.
Fifty years ago, the Dyzan province had attempted to secede from the empire, and there had been a bloody civil war. Worse, the end of the war didn’t bring peace; it just exchanged open battles for a vicious war of attrition. Empress Elizabeth herself had stepped in within the past decade, addressing the province's needs, and drafting the peace treaty. This marriage would signify and strengthen the blood-ties that existed between them all.
Rodney turned to look at John, placing his hands palm up. "Come with me and know me."
John responded by placing his own hands over Rodney's. "I will."
Rodney's palms were broader than his, but just as sweaty, and it made John smile a little to know he wasn't the only one anxious about this. Ribbons of green and gold and black were wrapped around their left wrists, binding the two of them together. Rosewater was brushed across his forehead and cheeks, then together he and Rodney lit the marriage candle.
John stared at it as it burned. This was it, then. His last mission for the empire. He had been told he would find a measure of peace in his life; that Rodney was well thought of in his own country and was of high rank. But John had no clue what he was supposed to do. The treaty said that he would live with Rodney for a year and a day, to see if they were compatible, before the marriage was final.
At that point, it was John's choice what would happen. John could request that the marriage be dissolved, or he could renounce his claim on the Lemas throne and stay with Rodney. Elizabeth had explained to him that either way, the treaty stood.
Everyone was tired of the war.
Under the excited cries as Caldwell signed the marriage agreement, John heard someone muttering quietly near the dais. He glanced up, and caught sight of Ambassador Grodin mopping his brow, and next to him, from her chair, his cousin Elizabeth smiled approvingly.
He inclined his head slightly, and she nodded. One more year and a day, and his duty to the empire will have been adequately fulfilled.
The main ballroom had been converted into a jungle, with fountains in all of the corners pouring champagne. There was a table on one wall covered with exotic dishes — lamb grilled with coconut and lime; chicken basted with lemon, white wine and dark chilies; duck and partridge in orange sauce; slow-roasted pork marinated in pineapple. Not even the salads were free of the exotic fruit, each one of them boasting a hint of tropical flavor far from Lemas borders.
The other wall held tables of plainer food — bread and cheese and vegetable dishes for the most part, along with fruit punch and the triple-layered wedding cake.
In the receiving line, John stood next to Rodney and shook hands with the guests as the photographs were taken, scooting even closer and resting his arm around Rodney's shoulders when the photographer asked for one of just the two of them.
Rodney's shoulders were pretty broad, John thought, and he liked the way Rodney's arm wrapped around his waist, too The wedding night wouldn't be that bad, would it? Maybe he needed to whisper his mantra to his new husband, too. Rodney had sweat beading at the back of his neck, all of the reporters and the crowds of people milling around the room seem to make him nervous, and his eyes darted toward the exit every time someone spoke to him. He looked completely out of his element, and John felt for him.
John himself was counting down the minutes until he could get out of here, but he was better at hiding it. Picking up a couple of glasses of champagne from a nearby tray, he handed one to Rodney. "Here you go. And you can refill it at the champagne fountain if you want."
Rodney downed the drink in one huge gulp. "Thanks," he muttered quickly. "Actually. Uh — "
"You can call me John. Since we're married and all."
"John." Rodney's eyes widened and he quickly glanced away, twisting the glass in his hands. He was kinda cute when he was flustered. "This is a little weird, isn't it? Meeting someone for the first time on your wedding day?"
"Happens in all the best families, or so I've been told." John smiled his charming smile, but Rodney wasn't looking at him at all. Huh. John wasn't used to that reaction. Even though he wasn't that all that close to the throne — a spare, not an heir — most people paid attention to him when he used that smile. John used it a lot, to distract and to diffuse tense situations. It was one of the few things he felt successful at as a member of the diplomatic corps.
"Is there — " Rodney looked desperately at him. "Is there anything to eat that doesn't have citrus in it?"
"That wall over there," John gestured to the back where the cake stood. "All citrus free."
Rodney beamed at him, his mouth curving up in an unselfconsciously brilliant smile. "Let's get something to eat." He pressed his hand against the small of John's back, and once again, John mentally noted the size and strength of Rodney's hands.
Rodney seemed to know all about food, and took care to describe everything in detail about what he liked, disliked, and what he was allergic to. It was no different than listening to someone talk about water rights and dams, as far as John was concerned; at least Rodney was animated when he talked about it. John remembered the tutor who had been given the task of lecturing John on legal matters, guild issues, and district rights. The tutor's voice had been incredibly monotone, and every day, John had fallen asleep about thirty minutes in.
Rodney, though, was captivating. His eyes lit up and his hands waved passionately as he discussed the selections of cheeses available on the 'no citrus' table. John caught a sympathetic glance tossed his way by Lorne, but that was about it. John was trying to figure out if he should try to get a word in edgewise when the orchestra was announced.
"Oh, hey," he said, catching Rodney's hand. "We need to have the first dance."
"We do?" Rodney stared at him, cracker held mid-way to his mouth.
"We do." John nodded solemnly, tugging on his wrist. "Two dances, three tops, and then we can get out of here." Though what that meant, he didn't know. He'd only met Rodney today, and while he'd met and slept with someone in less than a day, he really didn't feel like he was ready for that with Rodney. He seemed like a nice enough guy, and attractive in a charismatic, rather than a classically handsome, way. But...John was tired. Bone-weary. Utterly drained. If he could have done what he wanted, he would have gone back to his room, showered, and read in a wonderfully people-free environment.
Instead, he'd be going back to his room with his new husband, and —
Cupping his hand around John's back, Rodney led him out onto the dance floor, while everyone around them watched, clapped, and laughed. Under the noise of the crowd, Rodney whispered in his ear. "Do you mind if we don't...tonight?"
John sighed, feeling some of the tension ease out of his shoulders. Thank God. He didn't want to deal with stressful, awkward sex right now either. At some point, John knew that they would have to sleep together, but...maybe once they were out of the city and away from the crowds staring at them. When they had some time to themselves, and John no longer saw every unfamiliar glance as a demand that he fulfill his duty to the empire. Tucking himself in closer to Rodney, he leaned his head against Rodney's neck. "Frankly, I wasn't sure if I could, after the day we've had."
He pulled back and looked at Rodney, who smiled ruefully at him. "I know what you mean."
Before they left, Rodney spent some time with Ambassador Grodin, verifying that everything was ready for transport. John spent the morning with Elizabeth, reassuring her that he would be fine, and that if anything happened, he would be sure and send her a telegraph.
Finally they were off. Rodney lived not far from the border of Dyzan, near the city of Olantis, about 30 hours away. Luckily, the Dyzan government had provided them with an opulent private train car, and immediate right of way over any other train they encountered. Passenger cars and freight lines, cattle and timber all pulled aside to let the Dyzan's representatives pass. Which was great, but 30 hours was still too damn long to spend cooped up in a small room with a man who used two conversational modes — either abstracted, paying no attention, obviously thinking of something else, or else conversational bludgeoning, where Rodney talked non-stop, ninety miles an hour, asking and answering his own questions, and apparently thinking John an idiot, just because he couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
Occasionally he appeared to remember they were supposed to be getting to know each other, and asked a stilted question or two. John couldn’t help himself; he started peppering his answers with what he felt were pretty outrageous statements, just to see Rodney react.
While they played cards: "I've never actually attended the symphony. Saphuwa-fighting is more my speed. I like how they dress the little guys up in those pink suits and let them have a go at each other. It's better than pork dances, I swear."
While they ate lunch: "Yes, I've heard about the Ancients. There are some ruins just up the hill over there that have a giant circular ring embedded in them. The locals send their sheep through it to make sure the lambing goes well."
As Rodney attempted to settle down for a mid-afternoon nap: "Really? Sunlight is something to be avoided? At midsummer I'm used to stripping and dancing around naked in the sun all day. You really think that's bad for me?"
That last one nearly gave Rodney a fit and made him fall out of the sleeping bunk, so John had to immediately drop it. At least Rodney was amused by John's bullshit rather than being upset with it. John wasn't sure what he would have done had his husband had no sense of humor.
The dinner chime sounded just as he glanced down at the black wedding bands around his wrist. Husband. It was still an odd thought. John stood carefully and made his way down to the dining area, Rodney a half a step behind him.
The table was laid out beautifully, crisp white linen, fragile hand-painted china, etched crystal wine glasses. A large clay mug filled with coffee was sitting by one of the plates, and Rodney snatched it up as soon as he saw it. "Oh thank God." Rodney finished off his first cup before he even sat down.
The food was excellent — mushroom tarts, roast duck with a rich sherry glaze, and a wild rice salad — but John wasn't sure that Rodney tasted any of it, as he quickly bolted his food.
After dessert, they moved back to the sitting area, coffee cup clutched firmly in Rodney's hand. "What did you do before this?" Rodney asked as he settled into his chair with a sigh. He glanced at John, his eyes sharp. "I have to admit you're not quite what I was expecting."
"Not much." John shifted uncomfortably and gazed out of the window, not meeting Rodney's eyes. "We have compulsory military service at seventeen." John scratched the back of his arm. "I liked the military, but the empress decided I was better suited for the diplomatic corps." He leaned back in his chair and stretched his legs out as far as possible; God, his hamstrings were getting tight from doing nothing but sitting. "I wasn't very good at it, actually. I was a lot better at fighting and shooting things."
"Ah. I see." Rodney shifted slightly so he was looking diagonal to John, and put down his now-empty coffee cup. "I've never been one for fighting, myself. I don't like hunting, either; all that running around outside in the cold gets to be wearing rather quickly. I attended three different universities, taught at two, and hold advanced degrees in engineering, physics, and mathematics." His hands rolled in small circles as he talked. "Do you have, uh, any formal education?" His voice cracked on the question.
"I had a few advanced classes in aeronautical engineering, before I went into the diplomatic corps. I was part of a team trying to enhance engine throughput capacity."
"Engines?" Rodney sat forward, leaning his hands on his knees. "What kind of engines?"
"An improved airship engine." John sat forward, their foreheads almost touching, and used his hands to frame the problem. "The current engine design tends to vibrate when it gets to any speed over about eighty miles an hour. If we could reduce that vibration, we thought maybe we could reach speeds of upwards of 100 miles — "
"That's interesting," Rodney cut in quickly, pulling back abruptly. Only his tone implied that it really, really wasn't.
John glanced back out of the window as the train zipped past farm lands, lakes, and the occasional Ancient burial mound. "I really liked to fly." At least in the diplomatic corps, they'd let him fly — even if only as a passenger, never a pilot — and mostly to far off receptions and funerals. Ones when they needed a representative of the empire to attend, but not someone as important as the empress, her consort, or the heirs to the throne.
John spent a lot of time in the outlying provinces.
"Yes," Rodney said in a tone that obviously meant that it was time for John to shut up with his pointless babbling now, and that suited John just fine. He turned his attention to the scenery as Rodney took out his books and papers and started to work on something.
Even as a passenger, John still loved to fly.
By nightfall, Rodney finally cracked. "Look, I can't spend all of my time entertaining you once we reach Olantis. I have work to do. Whatever you want to study, I'm sure there are books in the house or we can hire someone who will teach you what you want to know."
"You have anything on airships?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "No."
"It's okay. I'm used to making do." John leaned back in his chair as he thought. "Can you get anything on airships."
"As long as it's not classified, yes."
John arched his eyebrow as he leaned forward slightly. "What about classified stuff?"
Rodney threw his hands into the air. "Look, I am not going to turn over classified information on Dyzan's airships to you. It's just not going to happen, all right? Think of something else."
"What about if I had a security clearance?"
"John!" Rodney's lips were a compressed, tight line.
"Just asking." John tried not to sound too disappointed.
"I'll do what I can," Rodney grumbled softly, looking at John, "but I can't promise anything. I don't have any influence over the military."
"Good enough." John pursed his lips as he watched Rodney's hand settle in his lap. "Do you always talk with your hands?"
Rodney looked down at his palms. "What's wrong with it? It helps me to think."
"Nothing's wrong with it." He placed his hands over Rodney's palms. "It's the same with me. I move when I think."
Rodney's hand felt really good under his own, warm and solid, with calluses on his thumb and forefinger like he wrote a lot. Maybe he did, for all John knew. No one had been very forthcoming about Rodney's work. He laced his fingers through Rodney's and squeezed; for a moment, it felt really comfortable to touch Rodney like that.
Maybe he could grow to like Rodney, too, if Rodney would just slow down a little and let him.
"When I was in Lemas I went to political receptions, dancing, symphonies and the like. What do you do for entertainment around here?" He stroked the back of Rodney's hand, looking at it carefully. The nails were clean and trimmed, the skin pale; no one had skin that pale in Lemas, ever. He brushed his hand over Rodney's matching wristband, and down the underside of his wrist.
Rodney cleared his throat and gently pulled his hand away, but he let his finger brush over John's wrist as he did. So, not completely hopeless then. John had begun to wonder. "In general, I may have one or two people over for dinner sometimes, but usually it's either reading or work." Rodney rubbed his hand over his chin. "Occasionally someone will ask me to go out to one of the outlying areas and take a look at their irrigation system, or their power grid, but that's pretty much it."
"So, for entertainment you...work."
"Okay, see, that's not going to do for me as I have no work." Okay, so maybe Rodney wasn't the only one getting a little bit frayed by the situation. Maybe John needed some time outside of Rodney's influence too.
"Huh. You have a point." Rodney pushed himself back from the table. "Talk with Teyla, she's — well, actually, she runs everything on the estate that I don't really care about."
"Which is...everything that isn't work?"
Rodney nodded excitedly. "She knows everyone, and I'm sure she can help you find someone who knows what they are talking about on almost every subject." He patted John's knee. "I'm sure she can find something for you to do."
As the train pulled into the station, Rodney paced the floor of their compartment. "Listen," he said, looking determinedly at John. "When I saw you in that ridiculous get up at the wedding — "
"Hey, that's a traditional — "
"Yes, yes. And I'm sure it's wonderful when you're out in the sun getting burned and absorbing enough radiation to — " He waved his hand, changing the subject. "Anyway, I realized that you might not have a lot of...cold weather clothing." His eyes softened a little as he looked at John. "It's a lot colder here than you're used to. So, uh, I had Teyla buy some things for you." He shifted a little uncomfortably, and then had to grab the back of one of the chairs as the train ground to a halt. "Just...stay here a moment, will you?"
"Okay," John said, a little perplexed. He wasn't actually sure what had been packed for him, as someone else had seen to the trunks; he just knew that there was a bunch of stuff he'd never worn before, and assumed that it was included for good reason. He waited though, wanting to see what happened.
Within five minutes, Rodney was back in the train car, a pile of cloth in his arms. "Here," he said, shoving it at John. "I think this will fit."
The coat was well-tailored out of coal-black wool. There was a hat, gloves, and a scarf to match, and John put them all on as Rodney watched.
"Much better," Rodney said, looking a little dazed. "You don't look like you're going to freeze to death." He paused as he caught sight of John's shoes. "We'll get you some boots later."
The moment he stepped out of the train car, John realized that the wind was colder here than he'd ever felt back home. It cut into him as he crossed to the parking lot, and he was grateful for Rodney getting him the new coat.
Rodney's car was waiting for them once they left the station. Silver and sleek, the moment John saw it, he fell in love. He stuffed the gloves that Rodney had given him into the pockets of his new woolen overcoat, and ran a hand over the surface. He traced the roof and side panel, and down to the hood of the car. Rodney stared at him oddly, his gaze riveted on John's fingers as he stroked the smooth surface. "What's she got under the hood?" he asked, turning to the driver.
The dark-skinned woman smiled slightly. "She is the latest from the jumper assembly line, with a full six cylinders."
John whistled. "That'll go a fair pace."
"Hello?" Rodney interrupted them. "Going home, remember?"
"Oh, yeah, right." He smiled wryly. "Sorry about that."
"Teyla, this is my husband, John Sheppard. She's the one I told you about."
"That's right." Taking her hand, he bowed formally to her. "A pleasure, Teyla."
"Cold, now. Going home." Rodney opened the front door of the car and pressed the horn. "We are leaving now. Everyone clear?"
"Right." John looked at the car. She was a sweet thing. "Hey, listen Rodney. You mind if I drive?"
"You've never been to my house before. You have no clue how to get there."
"I know. But I'd kinda like to get a feel for the engine."
Rodney threw his arms up in the air. "Fine. Drive. Teyla, you sit in the back with me. Maybe I can get some work done while you navigate."
John wasn't sure, but he thought there was a hint of jealousy in Rodney's voice. He considered it to be a very good sign.
The bad sign was that Rodney gave John his own room.
It turned out that Rodney had been telling the truth when he said he worked a lot, and John saw his husband as infrequently as Lorne had prophesized. John started making plans for the next time they were both at home. First, make sure that they ate dinner together, and in the library rather than the horribly stuffy formal dining hall. The library was comfortable in a way the dining room wasn't, filled with books and furniture that looked well-used. Rodney even had a music box there, made of an etched silvery material that John couldn't identify. It had colored panels on it, which would light up in different sequences as the music played. John had never seen anything like it in his life.
"It's Ancient." Rodney said, popping the last of the jam tarts into his mouth and chewing rapidly.
"Ancient? It looks brand-new."
"Oh. No, no," Rodney waved his hands as if to erase his last statement. "It was developed by the Ancients." He stared dolefully at John. "I thought you said you knew about them."
"I do. Kinda."
"Ah. Well, I work at the site of what we believe was an Ancient city, just up the river from here. We've found things like that," he gestured at the device, "and are studying the technology, seeing if we can adapt it to ours." His brow furrowed. "It's a very complicated procedure, and I'm not sure you'd understand it."
"Go ahead," John said as he wandered over to the overstuffed couch and settled in, right in front of the fire. "I like hearing you talk."
He could hear Rodney go still at the table behind him. "Really?"
John poked his head over the couch to look at Rodney, who was staring at him with a slightly frozen expression. "Really." He patted the cushion beside him. "Now come over here and tell me about it so I don't have to strain myself to look at you."
"Uh, wow. Yes. Okay." Rodney gingerly sat down next to John, his body stiff and formal.
"Relax," John said and rubbed his hand across Rodney's shoulders. "I'm not going to attack you or anything. I just want to hear about...well, what you do and what you like and the things that bug you." He dropped his hand to the back of the couch as Rodney started to relax. "See?" He ran a finger up Rodney's arm. "This isn't going to kill you."
"You don't have to do this, you know," Rodney said very quietly. "There's no obligation here. You can just... live with me until it's time to go back."
"I know." John rubbed at the base of his neck. Even though they could lie, he didn't see the need. Rodney wasn’t 82 like the man his aunt had been forced to marry; or twelve, like the boy his cousin was betrothed to. Sure, Rodney was a bit awkward socially, and an insane workaholic, but he was also brilliant and strangely charismatic, not to mention occasionally hilarious; consummating the marriage wouldn't be a huge burden for John. Besides, who else was he going to fool around with? "I like you, Rodney. Why wouldn't I want to sleep with you?"
"I don't know. Because I'm rude and abrasive and yell a lot?"
"It doesn't bother me." John sketched an 'X' over his chest. "Cross my heart." He pulled back to his own side of the couch. "So why don't you tell me about your day, and we'll go from there."
"Okay, fine." Rodney scrunched up his face as he thought. "The first thing you need to know is that I have a bunch of idiots working for me. Oh, Radek Zelenka, my assistant, is smart enough, but the rest of them..."
The fire crackled as the Ancient music box played in the background. Rodney talked about Zelenka and Kavanagh and Simpson, and his on-going argument with Carson Beckett, the head of the medical department, about budgets and safety issues, and why the military oversight of the research team bothered him so much.
Every now and then, the lights on the music box would sway from yellows and golds to reds and blues, framing Rodney's face in a way that made his eyes seem a deeper blue than they usually were. His hands moved as he talked, like he was conducting the music, and John felt a tingle of desire stir deep within him.
He moved closer to Rodney and let his hand drift to the back of Rodney's neck as he stroked the fine hairs there. The touch anchored him, grounded him in a way he never expected he'd ever want. All of his life, he'd thirsted to go faster, flyer higher, to soar above and beyond what anyone else had done, and the day Elizabeth grounded him, assigning him to the diplomatic corps, had been the worst day of his life.
So why was it that touching Rodney felt so right?
Rodney turned slightly to look at John, and nervously licked his lips. He slid his hand onto John's thigh, stroking it carefully. "You're really...fit."
It felt great to finally be touched like that, so John turned in slightly, his knees touching Rodney's, and ran his hand down Rodney's arm. They sat like that for awhile, not saying much, just stroking each other. The gentle wisp of hands against cloth, the crackle of the fire, and the sound of the music box couldn't cover the noise of John's heart pounding in his chest, or the way that air rasped out of his lungs as he looked at Rodney. Each sensation seemed to blend into the next, and it wasn't long before John reached his breaking point.
"Rodney— " John leaned in, his mouth brushing against Rodney's, the feel of Rodney's slightly dry lips tantalizing under his own. He groaned softly, unable to hold it in any longer, and pressed himself up against Rodney.
Rodney responded by pulling John in close, opening his mouth and licking at John's lower lip. Oh, yeah, John thought. That was it. That was what he wanted. He liked the way Rodney felt under his hands, sturdy and solid and unbreakable, and John really wanted to know what he looked like naked. Arms wrapped around Rodney's waist, he slid one hand around to the neck of Rodney's shirt and undid the button there.
Rodney groaned and pulled away; John could see him shaking. "I'm sorry. Sorry, John. Sorry."
Standing, breath coming in deep gasps, a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead and a distinct bulge in his pants, Rodney formally inclined his head in farewell. "I think it's best if I retire."
John's body was humming, his skin sensitized by Rodney's touch. Yes, now, please was running through his system, and the words Rodney had spoken didn't really make sense.
"No! Don’t go. Please." John tried to grab onto Rodney's arm, knowing that Rodney really couldn't want to leave now. They both wanted this.
Rodney stepped aside. "No, John. I'm sorry."
The sudden sensation of the world falling out from under him had nothing to do with sex, and everything to do with what John knew was at risk. Didn't Rodney realize that if they didn't, and someone found out, that the treaty would be null and void? Or maybe...maybe Rodney wanted that, wanted to— John's mind froze. No, this couldn't be a political ploy, could it? The people of Dyzan wanted this as much as the empire did. No one would have agreed to the treaty and the marriage if they wanted to restart the old war. There had to be some other reason.
Maybe Rodney just didn't like him, or maybe John wasn't the type of man Rodney wanted. Laying his head back against the couch, John stared into the fire, refusing to watch Rodney go.
They started eating in the formal dining hall after that, with an ocean-sized table between them. At least Rodney more often made sure he was back in time for dinner now, so that John didn't have to always eat alone. But it wasn't enough, and John ended up sleeping a lot more than he ever had in his life.
He also drove a lot, first through the city, memorizing its roads, and then out into the countryside and then on into the mountains. He spent hours on the road, just driving, the motion clearing his mind. He drove fast, the scenery a blur at times, until the day that he saw the lake.
John pulled over and got out, walking over to the edge of the cliff and stared out across the wide expanse. In Lemas, a place like this would have been covered with vacation cottages and summer homes, filled with the noise and sound of people, even in the late fall weather. Or it would have been cordoned off as a watershed and dammed, the lake providing irrigation water for parched, arid farmland. There were no places quite like this back home, giant bodies of water untouched by the needs of a large population. Still, silent, serene.
For an hour or more, John stared at it. No cars passed by, no one stopped to talk to him, no demands were made; he could feel something uncoil inside of himself that he'd never really thought about. People made him tense, and there was no one here, no signs of habitation except for the roadway he'd driven down. For once in his life, John was utterly alone.
He could feel the knowledge sinking into him, feel it uncurling knots and muscles that he'd never known were tense. Here it was just him, some spiky-leafed trees, newly-frosted grass, and the wide expanse of the lake. He couldn't remember a time in his life when it had felt as peaceful as this. He'd stay here a bit, toss some rocks in the lake and watch them ripple.
Then he'd go back to Rodney.
The thought made him tense up again, and he felt his muscles re-knot. He didn't know what he was doing wrong, why Rodney didn't want to...have sex with him. He didn't want to push, but it was getting harder and harder not to do something or say something that would betray how desperate he was to complete the terms of the treaty.
Not just for the treaty's sake, but because John felt completely outside of his own life right now, as isolated and cold as the landscape around him. Untouched. Unwanted.
A flock of large, black-winged swans honked through their landing on the lake, interrupting his thoughts. Shivering, John pulled his coat around him tighter and then thrust his gloved hands deeper into his pockets, not quite willing to leave. He watched as the birds swam and ate, and then took flight again, on their way south for the winter.
At the end of the year, John would head south himself, back to Lemas. If he hadn't seduced Rodney by then, he would have spent a year in isolation for nothing. The treaty would be invalid, and Lemas and Dyzan would be back to the negotiating table again, and the papers would be filled with his failure. He could feel the weight of Elizabeth's concern and carefully hidden disappointment settle over him, wrapping itself around him tighter than his warm woolen coat. She wouldn't ask any questions, merely tell him that she knew he had tried, and that she was sorry that it had not worked out.
Ashes could not taste more bitter than that. If Rodney didn't want him, John would have to figure out a way to change himself into something that Rodney could want, whatever that might be.
An icy wind kissed his cheeks as it passed, and John's fingers told him it was too cold to stay any longer, even with warm gloves, so he headed back to Olantis.
His efforts at seduction had them snuggling in the music room occasionally, and there were more than a few kisses, but Rodney's reluctance was a firm wedge between them. John ended up driving up to the lake on an almost daily basis, until the pass was closed because of the snow.
As winter wore on, the days dragged for John, and despite morning workouts with Teyla and the long drives, he grew beyond bored. He tried wood carving, first making a small wooden dog, then ice skates, and then a flat little wooden skiff for summer. Rodney made a few appreciative noises when John showed it to him, so John knew he wasn't interested. But there had to be some way for them to really connect.
Finally driven past boredom into bravery, John walked to Rodney's lab, across the bridge and down the lane to the facility. It was cold and the snow crunched under his feet as he walked, but it didn't take long before he'd gotten into the rhythm of it, setting a cadence in his head. He felt extremely chilled when he arrived, but once through the tunnels and into the city itself, the place seemed to light up with warmth.
Rodney fussed over him, getting him coffee and making Carson check for frostbite; John and Carson exchanged amused glances over Rodney's concern. It was nice, John thought, but he wished Rodney were interested in him rather than his health. He'd already spent too many nights lying awake, thinking about his husband-in-name-only, and wishing it were more.
"He's fine, Rodney," Carson said, putting his stethoscope away. "No harm done, just a nice brisk walk. It might do you some good to get a walk in too."
"Please. It's freezing out there. Anything could happen." Rodney set the device he'd been fiddling with on the table next to John. "You don't seem to understand that I am very susceptible —hey, don't touch—huh."
The moment John had picked up the spoon-sized object, it had started glowing. When John hastily set it down, it stopped. "I didn't mean to do that."
Rodney waved his hand, staring at the object, then clicked his thumbnail against his teeth in thought. "Huh. That's interesting. Do that again."
John touched the silver thing again, and it flared up with a bright green light. This time, though, the light stayed on, even when he'd pulled his hand back.
"Again, but think — Uh, off."
John touched it, and the light turned off.
Rodney blinked. "Fascinating." He dragged John off to his main work room, and made him try out the small pile of objects he had collected. Zelenka took notes of the color of the light (if any), temperature, vibration, sound, any projections that appeared — one displayed a topographical map of the area around the underground city — and other distinguishing characteristics.
By the time they were done, John was exhausted, and more then willing to let Rodney drive them both home. The next day Rodney left earlier than usual, but this time he left paperwork for the security clearance and a note.
"If you're going to visit, we should make it official. I'll see you at dinner tonight."
Eagerly, John signed the papers and then spent the better part of the day after that trying to decide if there was anything, anything at all that he knew about or could learn about that could potentially interest Rodney, other than this weird ability he had to light up Ancient artifacts. He only came up with one thing: Rodney did like to eat.
John pushed himself back from the table. "I think the peach pie could have used a little cream."
"Please." Rodney rolled his eyes. "It was excellent. Sweet and tart, and the crust! Incredibly flaky."
"Really? You liked it?"
"Of course." Rodney snorted.
"Cool. I made it."
Rodney stared at him in astonishment. "You waited this long to tell me you know how to cook?"
John slung his arm over the back of the chair, grinning broadly. "Actually, Teyla taught me. She's a fair hand with a pie herself."
"I thought.... You're ex-military. I thought she was hitting you with sticks or something."
His shoulder twinged, and John winced at it, sitting back upright. "She does that, too."
"So why cooking?"
"I've seen you eat, and I've seen you yell at the cook. I figured if we didn't want to starve to death when the cook left, I had better learn more than how to brew tea and coffee." John laid his hand over Rodney's, enjoying the feel of Rodney's skin against his own. "I'm glad you liked it."
"Listen." Rodney hesitated a moment, then threaded his fingers through John's. "I'm afraid you may be here under false pretenses."
Heart hammering, John asked "The treaty isn't valid?"
"Oh, it's valid. It's just. Well. I may not be able to, ah, consummate the relationship."
"What?" John blinked. Okay, that was a new one. Rodney had used a lot of excuses when things got, well, interesting between them, but John had never had any illusions about this arranged marriage. He knew that once his time was up, he would return to his old life in Lemas, but that didn't mean that they couldn't enjoy each other until the trial period ended, especially since they certainly couldn’t enjoy anyone else.
"Actually, it's quite funny. Before the council agreed to the treaty, we had a heated discussion about whether we could abide by the terms of the marriage." His voice drifted off and he stared at John; John could see the beads of sweat breaking out on his brow.
"Rodney, what's up? What is it you aren't telling me?"
Rodney stared at their hands and licked his lips. "I've never...I've never actually done anything like this with a guy before. It's just...I was the only unmarried member of the first council who admitted to, ah, occasionally thinking about...men that way; I have no experience doing it." His eyes were a deep, dark blue when he looked at John. "While in theory, I know how everything is supposed to work, I've, uh, never actually put it into practice." He puffed out a deep breath, the hair on his forehead stirred by the force. "I'm sorry. I'm really not very good at this."
Rodney's confession did something to John's mind, stoking his quiet arousal into something fierce. He looked at Rodney intently, devouring him as his gaze skimmed from the top of his head, down his bent neck to where his chest hair poked out of the top of his unbuttoned shirt, down across his belly to where his cock lay hard and visible in his pants. Rodney had no reason to be anxious, he thought. This should be easy, so easy, for both of them. There was no reason for Rodney to keep running away.
John couldn't stop his lips from twitching into a smile, though he tried to be serious, for Rodney's sake. If he had known, he could have taken care of this months ago; as a problem, virginity had a very simple fix.
"Don't worry, you will be." John’s previous strong desire to have Rodney had now multiplied itself by a hundred. A thousand. "I want to," he said, desire wrapping itself around his cock and his throat, lowering his voice. "Let me do this first." When Rodney's mind was properly focused, he could do amazing and incredible things. John had seen it and wondered about what might happen if he turned that mind to the intricacies of great sex; he was sure that if he just put forth a little effort right now, he'd en joy the benefits soon enough.
Pushing Rodney's chair around so he could kneel in front of it, John placed his hands on Rodney's thighs. "Let me know if I do something you don't like." He nipped gently at the cloth right next to Rodney's cock, which produced a long low groan, followed by a muttered, "Okay, yes, sure." John took his time unbuttoning Rodney's trousers, opening up the material and pressing it aside before pulling Rodney's hard dick out of his boxers. Long and thick and deep velvet red, just looking at it made John's mouth water. He tried to tease Rodney a little, licking at the tip of it and sliding his hand over the skin, but the first taste was enough to drive all thoughts of going slow out of his mind. The rough curly hairs scratched at his hands and lips as John sank down on it, sucking it, sliding his tongue under the head, swallowing it whole.
After weeks of celibacy, John was so hot for it, hot to take Rodney like this, especially knowing that no man had ever been where he was. He loved seeing Rodney looking down at him with his eyes wide and bright whenever John looked up, completely fixated on what John was doing. Rodney's breath rasped in sharp little gasps as John slid his head up and down Rodney's cock, enjoying the feel of it on his tongue, the way it stretched his mouth. Rodney's hand shook as he touched John's hair, as his fingers slid down John's cheek, touching where it bulged and hollowed as the head of Rodney's cock went in and out. His own cock twitched, and John had to slide his hand down and press against it, trying to hold on as Rodney's fingers brushed against John's lips.
Jerking back, Rodney gripped the arms of the chair tight. "Oh, God. Oh, oh God. John." The last was a deep groan and John had to let go of his balls and grab onto to Rodney hard to keep him from arching out of the chair. John hissed as his mouth flooded with Rodney's bitterness, and as he swallowed, he felt his own orgasm roll through him, leaving him wet and panting, his pants still closed.
Momentarily stunned, his eyes wide, Rodney rumbled out a few appreciative words. "God, John." He threaded his fingers threaded through John's hair, stoking him; John felt so sensitive right now, if he hadn't already come, that would have done it right there.
Shuddering and laughing and tugging at the wet spot on the front of his pants, John leaned his head on Rodney's thigh and gave a contented sigh. "I said the pie needed cream."
After that, John didn't see any point in keeping his own room and moved into Rodney's. The weather grew colder, and John was grateful that Rodney gave off so much body heat. As Rodney never had mastered the art of getting up early, there were several mornings where he was able to get up, make coffee, and crawl back into bed, snuggling into Rodney's warmth.
It was nice, John decided. Rodney wasn't nearly as confident in the bedroom as he was in the labs, and his nervous hesitation stayed amazingly appealing. John took his time, enjoying every moment of teaching Rodney how he liked to be touched, and learning where Rodney liked to be touched in return. For all his bluster and brashness outside of the bedroom, Rodney was a gentle and considerate lover.
Well, except for those nights when John wanted to be fucked hard and fast, with deep strong strokes that shook the bed and made John cry out as he writhed against the mattress. Rodney was good at those nights too. John was teaching at the master's class level, and Rodney was the best pupil ever.
And if their nights were full, the days flew by as well. Rodney was able to get John a low level security clearance, so that John could join him in the labs, as well as drive him in to work each day. Once a week, twice a week, then more often than not, Rodney would ask John if he wanted to come to work with him. Each time John said yes, Rodney's face lit up briefly before sinking back into astonished puzzlement at why John would be interested.
John started off with generators, and the electrical system, then certain pieces of interface equipment that Radek had built, all of which had an unfortunate tendency to break down. In fact, Radek took John on as an unofficial apprentice, giving him the mundane chores of keeping the labs operational so that he could work with Rodney on more important things.
Except that somehow, John started getting involved with the important projects, too. At first they only asked him to join them in the lab when they needed something initialized, but then it became when they needed an extra hand, or, once they noted that he could do complex equations easily in his head, he was given formulas and asked to work out the math. It was kind of...fun.
And when he wasn't working with Radek or Rodney, he found some interests of his own to follow. The generators in the facility suffered from a vibration problem similar to the one that John had noticed in the airship engines he'd worked on, so he spent some time trying to fine-tune the power system under Radek's negligent supervision. The first time John coaxed enough extra power out of the system for Rodney to turn on both the coffee pot and his latest experiment, Rodney lit up like the Ancient city itself, and John decided then and there that he loved that happy, excited look, and wanted to do something that might bring it out again.
Even better was the look that Rodney gave him the first time he had to pull John away from something that he was working on; best described as the smug cat-that-ate-the-budgie expression. That look was happy, sure, but it was also slit-eyed with hunger, and John knew, knew, that Rodney wanted him.
As he drove them both in the next morning, his ass pleasantly aching from the night before, John noticed that trees lining the road were starting to bloom; it must be late spring, or maybe even early summer. His stomach knotted as he realized that it was almost time to go back home and resume his duties in the diplomatic corps. He'd never thought that the year could go so fast.
He couldn't help glancing at Rodney, who was heads-down in his paperwork again, not seeing that the world had changed around them. John would miss this, miss the two of them being together. Not just the sex, but the simple things, like driving or eating dinner or talking about the day's work.
He bet that Rodney would be happy to have his freedom back, and the chance to spend as long as he wanted at work. He'd find someone else to be a magic key for him, turn the Ancient artifacts on, and assist him with his math.
Rodney would find a new lover, too. John tried to think about whether Rodney would look for a woman or if — after his careful training — he might look for a man; John felt his fists clamp tightly around the steering wheel, and his jaw clenching painfully at the thought.
John let the calendar fall into place and turned to look out the library's southern window, listening to the music playing faintly in the background. Six weeks to go before he would head back to Lemas and his old life. It would be high summer there right now, with beach parties and swimming, surfing and warm weather nights; while here in the Dyzan province, in Olantis, summer had barely chased away the springtime drizzle. For the first time since moving in with Rodney, John longed to go home.
"Good morning." Rodney entered the library, a letter clutched in one hand, his other stuck in his pocket. "This arrived for you. It's from — "
"Elizabeth!" John said, recognizing the paper. He grabbed the letter and ripped it open, scanning the contents. Elizabeth had had the baby — a little girl named Hannah — and this was a formal invite to the official festivities. There would be a month of celebration, capped off by the formal investiture of the new heir when Hannah was six months old, and John was requested to attend.
He looked up and caught Rodney's gaze. "Do you want — "
"I can't leave for that long. But you should go." Rodney huffed a little and said, "I know you like that sort of thing."
"What sort of thing?" John was only partially listening as he re-read the letter. Maybe he could go for just the last week, with the formal investiture. Then maybe Rodney could go too.
"Parties. Receptions. Celebrations with large crowds of people at them." Rodney folded his arms across his chest. "I told you that I don't entertain."
"We've had both Carson and Radek over—"
"Yes, and I saw you yawning during the discussion of theoretical physics." His mouth firmed into a straight line. "Not to mention how overjoyed you were at discussing the possible budget cuts."
John rubbed the back of his head. "It reminded me a lot of water rights."
"You think it's boring."
"The budget stuff, yeah." John shrugged. "The physics was over my head, but kinda interesting."
"Kind of interesting." Rodney lifted his chin. "You think physics is kind of interesting."
"Sometimes, yeah. When you talk about it, it sounds cool."
"Cool." Rodney's voice dripped with skepticism. "But it's not what you're used to."
"Not quite." John felt like he was being shoved in the corner somehow, and couldn't figure out what was going on. "People didn't exactly expect me to talk string theory with them, or do their math. As long as I didn't step on anyone's toes on the dance floor, that's all that was asked."
"Exactly." Nodding like John had just agreed with him, Rodney pulled a hand-sized device out of his pocket and set it on the table in front of John. "This is a Farviewer." He opened the silver filigreed packet to display a mirror-like viewer and transmitter. "If you want, when you concentrate, you should be able to see me." He cleared his throat and poked at the device, making it spin on the table. He rubbed his hands together, and then looked back at John. "Go ahead. Try it."
John picked it up and looked at the image; a smaller version of the library was reflected back at him. "Oh, now that's cool," he breathed.
"Yes, yes it is cool." Rodney cleared his throat. "Stay as long as you like. I know you've been missing...anyway. I think you should go. Teyla can make the arrangements."
"Rodney, are you — "
"I don't regret anything we've done, John. Don't ever think that." He spun on his heels and reached for the door before John had time to react.
"Rodney?" He felt like a giant wave had washed over him, dragging him out to sea. What the hell was happening? Where was Rodney going? Sure, he wanted to see Elizabeth and the baby, but they had such little time left....
"Don't wait for me to say goodbye before you leave. I have some critical experiments I need to watch down at the lab, so I probably won't be home for the next couple of days."
The door clicked closed behind him.
Elizabeth, his cousin, friend, and empress, went out of her way to make John feel welcome; John knew it was because she felt guilty over ordering him to marry Rodney. She didn't ask him about his marriage, and instead added his name to all of the social engagements that heralded an heir's birth. Concerts, balls, dedications of new works of art — John attended them all. The days slipped by, almost without his knowledge, building toward the final dedication ceremony.
One night, when the stars were out and a warm breeze blew in off the ocean, John sat on the window ledge and stared out across the walls of the compound. From there, he could see all the way across the city, to the farmlands beyond, to the tumbledown mountains.
But he couldn't see Olantis. He missed it, missed the people there, but more importantly, he missed Rodney. With all of the late nights, he hadn't had a chance to try Rodney's gift, but tonight there was an ache deep inside him, like a dark pit that needed filled.
His hands trembled slightly as he opened the Ancient Farviewer, and looked at the screen. Rodney had said to 'think about what he wanted to see,' so, well, even though it felt weird, John went ahead and did it.
The silver surface cleared, and John could see Rodney, sitting in the library, dinner tray untasted before him. Well, not quite untasted. John squinted, and thought he could see where Rodney had taken a few bites of toast, but that was pretty much it.
He looked haggard, his eyes red, face drawn. He must have been working late for too many days; he needed someone to protect him from his own excesses, John thought indulgently. How did he survive his own bad habits long enough to get married?
Rodney must have been listing intently to his music box, as John had never seen him motionless for so long, even his hands were still. And Rodney's hands were always in motion, even when he was just talking to himself.
The lights played across the screen, reds and golds and blues and greens, coloring the image, though the colors were dimmer than John remembered. Rodney did nothing but sip at his coffee and look out the southern window, his whole body focused on the landscape there, like there was something brilliant and exciting and precious outside, something just out of reach. It must have been some symphony for Rodney to be so absorbed, maybe something new.
Placing his hand on the viewer, John wished that he could talk to Rodney, instead of just seeing him.
Every evening after dinner, he went to his room to watch Rodney. Sometimes Rodney was at home, as he was the first night John saw him, but later on, it was more likely that he was in his lab. The room was silvery and coppery with wide blue lights, and the walls had the same type of filigree work as the device in his hands, so John assumed that they came from the same place.
Rodney was gesturing wildly at a smaller man — Radek — whose wild hair and glasses did nothing to hide his sharp eyes and angry expression. If only there was sound —
The device sizzled, and John could hear.
"The equations are fine. I've tested and retested them, Radek. We can go ahead and try activating the generators."
Radek was his hands dismissively. "You have not tried enough simulations. Your mind," he tapped a hand to his forehead, "is gone. It has been missing for months, first from the presence of your husband, and now from the lack of your husband. You have lost all focus. Pffah." Radek's hands churned the air around him. "Go away, and come back when you can think again."
"I'm fine," Rodney's chin jutted out stubbornly, before drifting down again. "I need to work, that's all. Just...work."
John closed the Farviewer with a distinct snap and stuffed it deep into his suitcase, the ache inside him growing larger and deeper than before. He couldn't stand this, couldn't stand the seeing without the touching.
Even as he clicked the suitcase shut, he knew he would use it again. Radek thought Rodney was missing him, so maybe Rodney wasn't quite as distant as John had thought.
The reception for Crown Princess Hannah was held in the same ballroom where John had first held Rodney's hand. John had a hard time imaging his life before Rodney had joined it, but the fact remained that he had known Rodney for barely a year.
The whole royal line was gathered together at last, from Princess Hannah and her mother to the aged sister of Empress Helena herself. John found himself in traditional clothing again, standing at the back of a large crowd of people, all of them trying to look terribly dignified and self-important. John could feel the sweat rolling down the back of his neck as he stood in his position and smiled at the camera. When had Lemas gotten so warm?
A whisper became a murmur became an agitated crowd. The photographer fluttered his hands as the guards came to attention. Ambassador Grodin was grabbed, and then people started actively running for the doors.
As quickly and quietly as possible, John sidled up to Elizabeth as she handed her daughter to her nurse. "What's happened?"
Her eyes were bright as she looked at him. "There was an earthquake along the coast. It may have run as far north as Olantis, I don't know. I'm going to the briefing room to get more information."
John nodded, his heart pounding in his chest. "I'll meet you there."
Before he headed to the briefing room, John dashed back to his own apartment. He dug through his trunk, and clutched the Ancient Farviewer to his chest. "Come on, come on," he muttered. "Show me Rodney."
A cool blue light sizzled and popped as John held the device; now he could see an image of Rodney, deep under the earth, fallen blocks of stone around him and his team. John thought he glimpsed Radek's still form behind Rodney, but what chilled him was the blood he could see dripping down Rodney's side, and the splinters of bone protruding from his arm.
John didn't think as he grabbed up his pack. He had to find an airship and get back to Olantis as fast as he could. There really was nothing for him here.
"I'm sorry, but we need the airships to ferry materials and food to the affected northern provinces. The village of Pelori was hit by a wall of water and completely collapsed." She shook her head regretfully. "I need to take care of them just as much as you need to get back to Dyzan. You're only one man, John, and Pelori had more than a thousand people in it. In all good conscience, how can I put your needs above theirs?"
"It's only for a few hours, enough time to take me north and then come back. They're our allies, I — " But it was more than that. So much more that John felt himself shaking. All his life in Lemas, he'd been one to follow orders. Where to be, what to wear, who to be polite to, who to ignore. All of it in the name of duty.
But all that was before. Before he'd gotten married and learned to live a different kind of life. And damn it, he wasn't going to follow the empire's orders this time. Not if it meant abandoning his friends.
Not if it meant abandoning Rodney.
"I'm going, Elizabeth," he said quietly. "Either with or without your permission, I am going. By airship, by rail, by car — if I have to, I'll walk. But I'm asking you as a personal favor to give me access to one of your airships." He took a deep, shuddering breath. "Rodney's up there, and I need to be there too."
The empress bit her lip and looked out the door to the balcony. The big apple trees had fallen, and John could see the roots sticking up out of the ground. "Fine," she said, nodding determinedly. She strode over to her desk and wrote out a quick note. "Take this to Commander Caldwell. He'll give you an airship and crew, but that's it, John. You may be my favorite cousin, but I need the rest for our people."
John folded up the letter and stuck it in his pocket. "This will be enough."
John had been right about the vibration problem; the engine of the empire's newest airship didn't vibrate at all as they passed the hundred-mile-an-hour mark. Within a few hours, they were close enough to Olantis to see that the docking spire had shattered and lay like kindling on the ground. There was no place for the airship to land in the city, so John directed them to a large field near Rodney's estate.
"Just drop a ladder and get as close to the ground as you can," John said as he searched for a snap line. "I've done evacuation drills on this stuff before."
The pilot looked aghast. "I'm sorry; I can't risk the life of one of the heirs to the Crystalline Throne like that."
John grinned at him. "In case you hadn't heard, I renounced all claim to the throne and will be living in Olantis. So, get that ladder set up and let me get down there before I decide to just jump."
Teyla met him as soon as the airship had withdrawn. "There was an accident at the Ancient City," she said. "They have no power to operate the doors, and all of the labs remain sealed." She shoved her hands deep into her pockets and tilted her head. "No one knows how to fix it."
"I bet you I can do something about that," John said, striding toward the estate. He was still dressed in his formal wear from the reception, and his shoes were slick and ill-suited for the rocky terrain, making him move more carefully when he really wanted to run. "Go get the car and I'll meet you out front."
He didn't change clothes, but he did pull on rubber-soled work boots before he met up with Teyla again. He waved at her as he swung into the driver's seat of the still-running car. Slamming the door shut, John slipped the jumper into gear, throwing gravel as he took off for the labs.
If he'd been in the car, Rodney would have complained about how fast John drove. But if Rodney had been in the car, John wouldn't have been speeding in the first place.
The moment he hit the underground city proper, John knew it was bad; the lights wouldn't go on, and the air tasted warm and stale. In fact, the constant hum of the air filtration system that he remembered was at a low ebb, too quiet, almost dead. Faintly he could hear the sound of equipment and men anxiously working somewhere ahead of him, and he headed for that sound.
He rounded the corner at a dead run, but everyone was so focused on trying to get the doors open that they didn't really notice him until John saw a familiar face in the crowd. " Carson!" he yelled, startling the doctor.
"John!" Carson waved at him. "Rodney and Radek are both behind the door." Carson shoved his way through the crowd and over to John's side. "There's a problem with the interface, and there's no electricity getting through."
"Let me take a look." The moment that John touched the problematic equipment, it was as if someone fed the problem and the solution into his head. He knew almost without looking which cable had been broken inside of its casing; he knew immediately which switch had failed, causing a cascade effect. Even with knowing what was wrong, it was still going to take him another couple of hours to fix it, but John worked as fast as he could.
When the lights flickered into blue, and a cool breeze picked up, John tossed down his crimping tool and ran back to Rodney's labs, yelling at other people to get out of his way. He slammed his hand against the door plate, willing open, open, open! Slowly, the shattered remains of the lab were revealed.
"Rodney!" John skidded onto the mixture of rock and crushed glass. He pressed his hand to the pale skin, praying that Rodney was still alive. With the structure destroyed, heat had slowly leaked out of the area, and Rodney felt too cold to him right now.
"John?" Rodney's voice was a whimper through his cracked lips.
"I'm here." He stroked at Rodney's temple, pushing the limp hair aside. "I'm not going anywhere until Carson's here to take care of you."
Rodney grabbed onto John's shirt with his good hand. "I...I made a mistake." His eyes were fever-bright, glassy, and filled with pain. "Radek was right, the equation wasn't correct. This is my fault." Rodney's eyes were a starting to glaze over and John could feel his own heart pounding. "I was thinking about you."
"Come on, Rodney. Stick with me." John wrapped Rodney's good hand with his own. "There was an earthquake, that's all, and the generator's interface equipment was damaged. You didn't do a thing."
Rodney was staring at him, his gaze begging John to tell him it was okay. "Really?"
"Really." He squeezed Rodney's hand reassuringly.
"No, not you." John brushed his lips against Rodney's forehead as Carson finally made his way over and injected Rodney with something.
"Oh. Good." Rodney smiled his half-crooked smile as he looked at John. "I think I'm going to pass out now."
"I'll be here," John said, watching as Rodney dropped into sleep.
Rodney ended up spending nearly a week in the hospital, as his bones required surgery to piece them back together. John spent as much time as he could there, sitting and reading in the private room while Rodney slept, or talking, playing cards, and reading aloud while Rodney was awake. At first his tongue stumbled over the technical words in the articles that Rodney asked him to read, but after a couple of days, John got the hang of it — and Rodney didn't remember what he had read anyway, so he read the same ones a couple of times.
Still they were a little interesting, John had to admit, though he didn't understand everything they mentioned. He got enough out of it that he made a few notes in the margins when Rodney wasn't looking, so that Rodney could explain it in more detail once he felt better.
The pain medication was scaled back on day four, and by day six, Rodney was demanding to be released, and everyone was quite willing for him to go.
"I can't wait to get out of here," Rodney grumbled as he eased himself into the wheelchair. "This place is full of superstitious idiots." He threw that last comment at Carson, who had stepped in front of the wheelchair and stopped them.
"Ah, he's in good humor I see." Carson scribbled down some notes and handed them to John. "This is for a painkiller that's a little stronger than what's he's got at home. Make sure he takes them if he starts getting cranky."
"Thanks, Doc." John stuffed the paper in his pocket. "Though how am I to know if he's cranky or not?"
"Well, extra-cranky then."
"Hello? Right here, remember. John, come on." Rodney shoved at the chair wheel with his good arm, making it turn slightly.
"Don't run over Carson." He glanced back at the doctor. "Anything else?"
"Just these." Carson handed him a stack of papers. "Everything we talked about earlier is written down there. Let me know immediately if any of the symptoms I told you to look for appear."
"Symptoms?" Rodney said plaintively.
"Will do." John nodded.
"You're all set then" Carson leaned down to look at Rodney. "Try not to yell at him too much, will you?"
"Yeah, sure, fine." Rodney snapped his fingers and pointed his index finger at the door. "No more talking. We're going home."
John made sure that Rodney's coat covered his shoulders and that it draped around the cast. "Sounds good to me," he said, as he gave Carson a friendly good-by wave and wheeled Rodney out into the sunshine. "You can annoy a whole new set of people now."
When Rodney wanted to have dinner in the library, John knew it was going to be okay. He brought in the tray himself, filled with tea, toast, and jam. And a couple of those anise seed cookies that Rodney liked too. He thought the music box on as he put down the tray.
"Here," John said, handing Rodney one of the cookies. "I asked the cook to bake these this morning."
"Thank you." Rodney shifted to a more comfortable position for his arm, and took the cookie. He didn't eat it, just looked at it, twisting it back and forth a couple of times. "I didn't say this at the hospital, but I thought you weren't coming back."
"I didn't think I was either," John said, settling down on the sofa next to Rodney. "Surprise."
Looking out the library window, Rodney said, "I wouldn't want you to stay out of any sense of obligation. Because I was injured or because of the treaty."
"Even if you weren't hurt, I would have come back anyway. I found I kind of...missed you." John tucked himself in close to Rodney, pushed off his shoes, and put his bare feet on the couch. "I told Elizabeth I was coming back here to stay."
"You—" Rodney swallowed, and John felt Rodney good arm slide around his shoulders. "You gave up your position then."
"Signed all the paperwork and everything."
"Doesn't that bother you?"
John tilted his head slightly so he could look at Rodney. "Actually, no. The hours were lousy and there were too many people around. I like things a little...quieter now. Smaller parties." He shrugged. "Maybe just two."
"Do you—want to come back to the labs?" Rodney turned enough so that he could look at John, too. Even after a year, his eyes were still worth it. "You were much better than any of the other assistants I've had."
John couldn't completely repress the smile that wanted to escape. "That depends. Do I get paid?"
"If you want." The colored lights flashed over Rodney's face, highlighting his answering smile.
"Cool. I wouldn't want anyone to think I was nothing more than a trophy husband, or that I was your kept man."
Rodney's arm tightened around him as the music hit a crescendo. "If you wanted to be, I would, you know."
Maybe John hadn't understood what Rodney said because of the music. "What would you do?"
"Keep you. When you...stopped coming to the labs, I realized how much work I'd been asking of you. I did it because I thought you'd enjoyed it." He took a deep breath, "I didn't mean to take advantage of you. Not intellectually and not...sexually." His finger carded through John's hair, which felt really good. In a month, how could he have gotten this touch-starved? "While you were in Lemas, I made sure that all of your work was properly cited. You'll get credit for everything you did. And I may also be able to get your security clearance increased, so you can visit the airship fields with me in the spring. If you still want to."
"I do. And I want to work with you in the labs, too. It was...different. Fun. Differently fun." John rubbed his head against Rodney's neck, then nuzzled in a little bit, taking a deep breath. Even the scent of the soap on Rodney's skin was really good, and so much better than the infirmary smell. "I felt useful."
"You are." Rodney's voice was husky, and he stopped talking for a moment, clearing his throat. "I...I didn’t mention this before, because it felt like I was...I was bribing you to stay, and we may not be able to get them to work anyway—"
"Rodney, slow down; what are you talking about?" John blinked at him, his heart pounding.
"Flying machines." Rodney smiled. "The Ancients had flying machines, and Radek thinks —with your help —we can get one to fly."
John felt stunned, and kind of suspected that he looked like an idiot as he sat there, his mouth slightly agape. "You're not joking, are you?"
"I swear I'm not joking." Rodney gently kissed the top of John's head. "I was so sure you’d leave. There was nothing for you here — none of the dances and parties and intrigues you had back in Lemas. I knew if I told you about them, that you'd stay so you could fly them. And..I was selfish. I wanted you to stay because — you liked me." He stroked John's arm. "I really tried not to fall in love."
"I know. I tried not to fall in love too." Brushing his fingers across Rodney's stubble-covered cheek, John leaned in and kissed him, the music box playing and its colored lights spinning long into the night.
A week later, John received a large packet from Elizabeth, containing his full marriage certificate, along with a beautifully calligraphed letter:
I know how hard this arrangement has been for you — your contractual agreement was complete at a year and a day, but if you had ended the marriage then, it would have been a bit of a scandal; thank you so much for doing what needed to be done. Your country will know little of your sacrifice, but I, your Empress, appreciate it.
Below that, in a sloppy scrawl was written —
John, that’s the letter I send to all of the duty spouses that continue on with their marriage. From your eagerness to get home after the earthquake, I suspect that in your case, however, the sacrifice you’re making…has its own compensations.
All my love,