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Rodney knew from the look on Teyla’s face that their day had just gone to hell. It figured. They couldn’t seem to arrive at a planet, share a meal, shake hands on a trade deal, and fly home to Atlantis without at least one major obstacle, fiasco, or catastrophic incident of galactic proportions.

“You’d think it would be easier to make a deal with people who don’t talk,” Rodney murmured to Sheppard. “I mean, how many ways can you possibly screw up ‘we come in peace’ in sign language?”

A slight shrug was the only response. “Teyla? What’s up?”

She smiled and inclined her head. “The Vendi are quite eager to trade with us: food for medical supplies. They only require a sign of our willingness to conduct open trade. This is not unusual.”

Rodney rolled his eyes. He knew what that meant. One of them, or all of them, having to perform some ridiculous feat of skill or eat something unidentifiable. It usually ended with bruises or nausea, or worse, a trip to the infirmary, and Rodney was already anticipating the worst. It was just easier that way, and so far he’d rarely been disappointed. He was pretty damn sure SG-1 didn’t have these kinds of problems.

“What do they want us to do?” Sheppard asked, resignation in his voice. Rodney recognized the tone; the sooner they found out what they had to do, the sooner they could get it over with and go home. Rodney was in complete agreement for once.

“A gesture of trust.” Teyla looked towards the Vendi leaders standing a few feet away. They fluttered their hands like butterflies caught in a net. Rodney bet they were great at shadow puppets.

“Well, where we come from,” John said, speaking slowly and clearly as if the Vendi were hearing impaired rather than sworn to silence, “we shake hands to seal an agreement. It means we’re allies. We trust each other.” He passed his P-90 to Ronon and extending his right hand towards the Vendi leader, reached out and clasped the man’s hand, shaking it firmly.

There was polite nodding from the Vendi, then a series of the rapid hand signals directed at Teyla. She turned back to John. “Because they do not speak, the mouth is considered sacred to the Vendi. Therefore, I believe, a kiss is required to convey acknowledgment that an agreement has been reached.”

Rodney rolled his eyes and poked John in the side. “Sure, the last planet we went to, I was blindfolded and poked with sticks like some kind of ceremonial piñata, but you they want to kiss. It figures!”

Rodney muttered “Kirk” under his breath, and ignored the glare he knew was directed at him in spite of John’s reflective sunglasses.

“McKay,” Sheppard said evenly. “You’re welcome to do the negotiating. Feel free to put your money where your mouth is. Or at least put your mouth where it might do us some good.” Sheppard gestured to the all-male Vendi contingent who continued to smile at them hopefully.

“Oh, no, no, no. That’s your area of expertise, Colonel. Making the natives breathless is not my job.”

“Well, if you’re not up to the task, McKay,” John said casually, and Rodney sputtered in response. He’d just been insulted by a man who couldn’t even control his own hair, and there was no way he was going to take that lying down.

“What—you think I wouldn’t? Just because they’re male?”

Sheppard’s eyebrow quirked up over the edge of his sunglasses. Rodney knew a challenge when he saw one, and he felt his cheeks flush.

“Fine,” Rodney said, thrusting his notepad at Ronon, who growled because he was now carrying Teyla’s pack, Sheppard’s gun, and Rodney’s computer. “Fine, Colonel. I’m not as homophobic as the next man, apparently.”

“I’m not homophobic!” Sheppard started, but Rodney didn’t hear the rest. He walked confidently across to the Vendi leader—a tall man with curling dark hair—and reached his hands up to cup the man’s face. It had been a while since Rodney had done this—with anyone—but it came back without a thought. The slight tilt of the head, his eyes snapping shut, and the soft feeling of lips pressed against his. His heart was racing—not because he felt any particular attraction for the man, but simply because Sheppard was watching. Everyone was watching, and Rodney hadn’t known that was a particular kink until now, but the thought of everyone’s eyes on him made him kiss a little harder, his long fingers grip a little more tightly along the Vendi’s smooth jaw line. Rodney could sense the Vendi leader was pleased—there were large hands on Rodney’s shoulders, kneading him gently, and then the Vendi opened his mouth slightly, inviting Rodney’s tongue inside. A quick flicker of tongues meeting, and Rodney stepped back, pink-faced and winded, and there was Sheppard staring at him from behind his shades with an expression Rodney couldn’t quite read and wasn’t sure he wanted to.

“What?” Rodney snapped, walking back to Sheppard’s side. “It’s not like you’ve never seen me kiss a man before.”

“What are you talking about?

“Beckett.”

“I thought that was Cadman,” Sheppard pointed out.

“Well, it was,” Rodney said, “but that’s not—I mean, you don’t need to seem so shocked. It’s not that unusual. I know you’re a little backwards south of the border, but really, step into the twenty-first century, Colonel.”

“I’m not shocked, Rodney.” Sheppard’s voice was careful and even, and he was fondling his holstered 9 mm in a way that Rodney was pretty sure wouldn’t seem inappropriate if he hadn’t just kissed another man.

Teyla interrupted with a somewhat delicate cough, and the two of them stopped arguing long enough to notice that the Vendi leader had turned to the second negotiator and was repeating the kiss with the same enthusiasm he had shown McKay. Well, damn.

Sheppard clapped Rodney on the shoulder. “Ah, don’t feel too bad, McKay. It would’ve never worked out anyway. I can’t quite picture you with the strong, silent type.”

“Very funny,” Rodney murmured as the other two men broke the kiss with pleased smiles. They turned and looked back at Rodney expectantly, hands carving out delicate patterns in the still air.

Teyla nodded, turning to John and Rodney with an apologetic look. “The Vendi are most satisfied with your gesture, Dr. McKay.”

“Yeah, it seemed like it,” Sheppard said with a hint of a smile. “The way he went straight for—”

“Oh, and I suppose you think you could’ve done a better—”

“Well, as a matter of fact—”

“Gentlemen!” Teyla interrupted. “The Vendi share the kiss between their leaders to demonstrate there is commitment and trust among their own people, as well as to our new alliance. They have a saying—”

“A saying?” John and Rodney both said skeptically.

“—loosely translated, the open mouth hides no secrets. The man who cannot kiss his brother cannot be trusted. Therefore, you must also share the kiss.”

Rodney opened his mouth to protest, but really, what was the point? And seriously, he hadn’t had much action since he’d arrived in Atlantis, so maybe it was time the universe threw some kissing his way.

“Teyla?” Rodney asked hopefully, and she shook her head.

“They know Ronon and I are not of your world. You and Colonel Sheppard are the true representatives of Atlantis. Therefore …” she trailed off, hand gesturing vaguely in the air.

Rodney looked at John, but there was nothing in his face except the usual thoughtful expression he wore when he was trying to figure something out.

“Teyla,” Rodney said, trying to intervene. This was not a good idea. For any of them. “Tell them it isn’t allowed in Colonel Sheppard’s … culture. Tell them—”

“I’m perfectly capable of speaking for myself, McKay,” Sheppard said suddenly. “And besides, it’s not exactly like the Vendi are going to tell anyone about this, are they? And the team’s not going to say anything.” He matched Rodney’s glare with one of his own. “So let’s just get on with it.”

“Get on with it?” Rodney squeaked and took a step back. “Are you out of your mind? You can’t seriously think this is a good idea. I’m not going to kiss you just to—”

“You had no trouble kissing him.” John gestured towards the Vendi leader, who waved back enthusiastically. John frowned and pushed Rodney back another step.

“That’s different. I don’t know him.”

“Oh, so you don’t mind kissing strangers, but—”

“Excuse us a minute,” Rodney tossed over his shoulder at the Vendi as he grabbed Sheppard’s arm and hauled him aside. He didn’t care that his grip was leaving red marks on Sheppard’s skin or that the Vendi were beginning to lose their shiny, happy looks. “I don’t want to do this. You don’t want to do this. We’ll figure something else out.”

Sheppard pulled away from Rodney and crossed his arms. “A man who cannot kiss his brother …”

“You’re not my brother! And for the record, ew!”

“It’s a figure of speech, Rodney!”

“Obviously not so much with these people, John!” Rodney hardly ever used Sheppard’s first name, and particularly not when they were working, but he didn’t know how else to get through to him. “Look. We have to work together, and that’s aside from the fact you’re in the military, you idiot, and they can court-martial you for doing exactly what you’re thinking about doing. This is insane.”

“You’re chicken.”

“And you’re out of your mind.”

Sheppard stepped closer. “You’re chicken. All talk but when it comes right down to it, you’re scared. You think I’m going to be better than you are, and the great McKay ego just can’t take anyone being better at anything.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Rodney sneered, not believing what he was hearing. He honestly hadn’t thought he’d ever be trying to talk John out of kissing him, but this wasn’t how Rodney had wanted it to happen. He’d thought about it—he was pretty sure he wasn’t the only one on Atlantis that had a few wayward fantasies about the colonel—but the point was Rodney knew that’s all they were. Fantasies. Not reality. Not even a remote possibility, except for the fact that John was standing close enough that Rodney could feel John’s breath on his face. And yes, John was right. Rodney was scared of what would happen if they went through with this idiotic plan, but not for the reasons John thought.

“Colonel Sheppard, Dr. McKay.” Teyla’s voice was edged with concern. “There is a time-limit for the completion of the ritual. If you wish to seal the agreement—”

“We can’t,” Rodney said, but he was looking into the reflective surface of Sheppard’s sunglasses, and the words didn’t carry any weight. Rodney felt his stomach tightening as Sheppard took a step further into Rodney’s personal space.

“Rodney, just do it, okay?”

“What, you’re a poster boy for Nike in your spare time?” Rodney could tell he was losing the argument and losing ground. Sheppard’s hands settled on his waist, the grip of long fingers pulling him closer.

“Chicken,” John whispered, leaning in and smiling. His tongue darted out and licked his lips, and Rodney found his breath escaping.

“Fine, but you’re not hiding behind these,” Rodney said, grabbing the edge of John’s sunglasses and tossing them aside. He never heard them land because in the next instant John’s mouth was on his and there was the initial awkwardness of bumped noses and where to put his hands, but then Rodney decided if he was going to do this, he was going to do it right, and who the hell was Sheppard to imply Rodney wasn’t as good a kisser, anyway?

Rodney slipped one hand behind John’s neck, tilting his head for a better angle, wrapped an arm around Sheppard’s waist and pulled him in tight. The lean heat of Sheppard’s body was enough to make Rodney want to plaster himself closer, and it was only when he felt Sheppard’s hand slide under the back of his shirt, hot against his skin, that Rodney thought maybe they were both in over their heads. Rodney started to open his mouth to say something, to whisper stop or enough or something equally meaningless because the last thing Rodney wanted was for John’s lips to stop gliding against his, and Rodney had a bad feeling that now he’d had a taste of this, what this could feel like, it was never, ever going to be enough.

John’s kisses were persistent, relentless, and Rodney had to concentrate on giving back as good as he got. John’s lips parted for an instant, and Rodney took advantage of the opening and pushed his tongue into John’s mouth. The sense of triumph was short-lived when John retaliated by sucking on Rodney’s tongue and when a moan escaped Rodney’s mouth, he could feel a tremor of laughter coursing through John’s body.

Fine. Two could play at that game. Rodney nipped John’s lower lip—hard—and licked the spot with the tip of his tongue, tracing the edge of John’s lip as he went. Hooking his fingers in the waistband of John’s BDUs, Rodney hauled him closer, pushing a thigh between John’s legs, and getting a breathy “Jesus” as Rodney connected with the heat of John’s groin.

“Colonel Sheppard! Dr. McKay!”

Rodney suddenly realized Teyla was calling them, both of them. Loudly. Repeatedly. He wanted nothing more than to pretend he couldn’t hear her, that there weren’t a half dozen Vendi watching them with surprised interest, and oh my God, was that applause? Rodney flushed, put a hand on John’s chest and shoved him away.

“What--?” Sheppard asked breathlessly, hands still clutched in Rodney’s shirt. He seemed to realize the situation, and let go. He looked as wrecked as Rodney felt.

Teyla stepped forward and laid a hand on his arm. “Colonel, the Vendi are assured of your sincerity. They are most pleased with your … um, demonstration.” Rodney noticed she wasn’t quite meeting their eyes, but the Vendi were all smiles. Ronon handed Sheppard his sunglasses. He slipped them on, glanced around, and shouldered his P-90, not looking at Rodney.

“Let’s wrap this up and go home.”

***

They didn’t talk about it.

Life in the Pegasus galaxy went on exactly as it had before.

***

The Vendi had allies on three other planets, and Sheppard’s team made contact with all of them. At each one, John and Rodney enacted the joining ceremony precisely as they had the first time. Well, not precisely, perhaps, since the second time Rodney distinctly remembered John’s hand grabbing his ass, and the third time John’s shirt was halfway off his body when Teyla’s fighting stick whacked him on the ass. “Hey,” he said, rubbing his ass, but the Marahni seemed pleased nonetheless, and Rodney was already happily consuming the ceremonial wine. John slid his shades back on and joined the party.

On P90-900, which John not-very-cleverly called P-90 and Rodney called “The Planet of Penile Fixations,” it was immediately evident that no one there had ever heard of anything remotely resembling “don’t ask, don’t tell,” nor would they have understood it if they had. “Why do you not declare yourselves?” the aliens asked, hands constantly caressing one another until Rodney thought he was going to explode. “It is plain for everyone to see,” they said, and John wasn’t entirely ungrateful when Rodney developed a pain in his head that could only be an aneurysm and they were forced to return to Atlantis before any ceremonies could be planned. Lorne’s team was sent back to continue negotiations.

On P14-691 and MX6-998, the aliens called it a “spilling of seed” to ensure the continued benevolence of the local gods who had brought them together for trade. Rodney started to point out how the local gods had been pretty remiss in giving them an endless supply of tubers, but nothing resembling alcohol or coffee, when he found himself flat on the ceremonial altar with his pants around his knees and John Sheppard’s mouth on his cock. He really didn’t have anything to say after that.

On M03-921, it was the “Ceremony of New Alliance.” John and Rodney looked at each other and sighed—John shrugging out of his vest and handing his weapon to Ronon, Rodney already tugging his shirt over his head—when Teyla said she would be happy to “take one for the team” this time if it was required. John stared, stunned, and Rodney managed to get himself tangled in his clothing, shouting “where the hell did she hear that phrase, Colonel,” before stomping off angrily and refusing to participate. It turned out the ceremony was purely symbolic and required no nudity whatsoever, so John shared a cup of wine with the leader of the state. It tasted strangely bitter in his mouth.

On M17-379, it was considered distasteful to touch other people for reasons other than procreation. Naturally, they discovered this the hard way, and John’s casual slap on the back ended with them running for their lives across the biggest grassy meadow Rodney had ever seen, their names being declaimed as desecrators and sinners while arrows whizzed past their heads, and Rodney whiffled and sneezed as John dragged him towards the Gate. “That is the last time—achoo—you are ever touching me,” Rodney shouted as they dove through the wormhole to safety. Once they were through to the other side, he sneezed on John again, and John was sure it was purely out of spite.

On Z81-082, Rodney found a half-depleted ZPM, Ronon found a shiny new sword, Teyla negotiated a trade that included fresh fruit, and John found a girlfriend. Rodney was too excited by the ZPM to notice John’s new interest until the girl had already convinced him to stay behind. Nothing the three of them said could convince him to return to Atlantis. Rodney was getting ready to order Ronon to just pick Sheppard up and carry him back when Teyla suggested Rodney try talking to the Colonel one last time. Rodney was forced to climb a rose-covered trellis, got stuck with thorns three times in impractical places, and finally fell on his ass in the middle of John’s bedroom, where, luckily, he was alone. Rodney pinned John to the wall, hoping to talk some sense into him, when John did exactly what Rodney didn’t expect—and hit him. “You broke my nose,” Rodney moaned, pulling out a handkerchief and trying to stem the bleeding. John blinked unhappily and stared at Rodney as if he were a stranger. “Fuck this,” Rodney said and grabbed John’s face in both hands, kissing him hard. John shook his head as if waking up from a dream and said, “Jesus, Rodney, what happened to your nose?” “It took you long enough,” Rodney said, and kissed him again. The young woman walked through the door and began to cry. “Why does this always happen to me?”

On M49-672, they kissed their way through two treaty signings and one state dinner. Kissing was a sign of openness and acceptance. Everyone was doing it. Even Teyla and Ronon were starting to get into the spirit of things. After three glasses of ceremonial wine, John and Rodney ended up in one of the palace bedrooms, soft unidentifiable animal pelt in front of the blazing fireplace, and it really was entirely too warm for clothing of any kind. “They must have drugged the wine,” John murmured as he kissed his way down Rodney’s stomach. “God, yes,” Rodney said, his hands clutching at John’s dog tags and pulling him closer, “sneaky bastards drugged the wine.” When John slid inside him for the first time, Rodney arched his back and whispered again, “Oh, god, John. Yes.” When Rodney woke up in the morning, the outline of dog tags pressed against his skin, John was already gone.

***

After a while, word spread through the galaxy that there were people once again in the city of the Ancients. They were known as honourable traders. Honest. Loyal. Courageous. They were accepted at their word. No one required them to prove themselves any longer. Ceremonies were considered superfluous. Unnecessary.

It had been almost four months since John had touched Rodney.

Neither of them said anything about it.

***

On P89-713, the high priest requested their participation in a purification ceremony. Teyla smiled and nodded, assuring Colonel Sheppard and Doctor McKay she would try to ascertain the exact terms before agreeing to anything. Ronon surveyed the perimeter of the village and flirted with the women gathered around the well. John slouched against a ceremonial pillar, P-90 resting against his hip, and counted off the number of guards around the temple, the weapons they were carrying, and how far the team would have to run back to the Gate. A mile, give or take.

Rodney took off his vest, his jacket, and started to unzip his shirt when Sheppard caught sight of what he was doing and laid a hand on Rodney’s arm.

“Has heatstroke set in already? Didn’t you wear your SPF1000 sunscreen today, McKay?”

Rodney blinked at him in the bright sun, and sighed. “Look, Colonel, we both know what a ceremony means. How many times have we done this now? How many worlds? Friendship, joining, bonding, alliance, union, commitment, unification, fusion, purification,” Rodney undid the zipper at the neck of his blue shirt, “it all amounts to the same thing. Somebody’s going to get kissed, sucked, or fucked. I’m just getting ready.”

“Rodney!” Sheppard said through clenched teeth, and pulled him behind the pillar. “Don’t give them any ideas.”

“Maybe I want to give them ideas.”

“What?”

“You heard me, Colonel.” Rodney crossed his arms over his chest and waited for the implications to sink in. “And take the goddamn shades off. You know I hate talking to you with them on.”

John bit nervously at his lower lip, but he took off the sunglasses, folded them carefully, and slipped them into the pocket of his vest. They were Serengeti aviator shades, after all. He wasn’t going to let Rodney throw them on the ground again. The two of them stared at each other for at least a full minute, and John realized that Rodney was angry. Not upset because this was taking longer than it should and there was an energy signal that needed tracing, not cranky because he’d had too much sun and too little sleep, not even annoyed because John was being his usual laidback self. Rodney was angry. It was clear in his blue eyes and the set of his jaw, the tension radiating off him like heat rising from the sand. John took a step backwards, and let out a breath.

“Okay, you’re pissed off. I see that.”

“Gold star, Colonel.”

In the background, John could hear Teyla’s voice discussing seating arrangements and menu selections. Negotiating on some of these worlds was worse than trying to plan a wedding, John decided, even though he’d only ever had nightmares about that.

“Look, maybe this isn’t the best time to discuss whatever’s bugging you. When we get back to Atlantis—”

Rodney laughed. “You don’t get it, do you? I thought—I mean, I really thought there was something—but, wow, I guess I’m just stupid when it comes to stuff like this. Smartest man in two galaxies, but, huh, I know shit about relationships.”

John licked his tongue across his very dry lips, and felt as if his insides had turned to sand. He knew exactly what this was, why this was, and McKay had every right to be angry, but John couldn’t bring himself to give an inch. He wasn’t any good at relationships either, and Rodney had him cornered on a strange planet. John felt completely exposed, and he fingered the side arm of his sunglasses, but resisted the urge to put them on.

“McKay,” John started and stopped. He couldn’t think of anything to say, and the sand inside him started running through an hourglass, and he could see in Rodney’s face that he was out of time to fix this. He’d had four months and now he was out of time.

“No, don’t play dumb. It doesn’t work with me. I actually know you. At least a little—or I thought I did. And yeah, this is my fault too because it was enough. It was enough in the beginning to have this. These missions, these times we could blame on someone else. Aliens made us do it, the wine was drugged, it was the only way we could discourage the nubile alien priestess from kidnapping Sheppard. You know the routine.”

John opened his mouth, but it was the truth, and there really wasn’t anything he could say.

“You know,” Rodney leaned back against the pillar and looked at him, blue eyes brighter than the sky behind him. “I have lube in my flak vest. I’ve replaced it twice—well, once was because it got shot on that planet with the purple trees—but it got used. A lot.”

Rodney seemed to be waiting for some kind of acknowledgment, and John nodded almost imperceptibly, but it was enough. Rodney kept going. “The tube in my bedroom? Back on Atlantis? Not even opened.” The laugh Rodney gave was bitter and a little sad, as if he was aware that the joke was on him and it wasn’t funny at all. “I think there might even be dust on it.”

“I’m sorry,” John said, knowing it was the best and the worst thing to say. Maybe the only thing to say, and they both knew it wasn’t an apology so much as an excuse. John had been hiding behind the military for a long, long time.

“You know what? Me too,” Rodney said, and he held John’s gaze for a moment before looking away. When he stepped past him, he laid a hand on John’s shoulder and squeezed. Then he was gone, walking away across the square to where Ronon was leaning against the well. John slipped his shades back on, and waited in the shadows.

***

When the ceremony came, it was one of the simpler ones. They shared a meal, a cup of wine. They were required to spend a night in the temple.

“Two of you,” the priests requested. “Two of you to be made pure and new. Who will step forward and receive the blessing of Osha?”

“I’ll do it,” John said because it was his responsibility. It was always him. He waited for McKay’s familiar voice to volunteer with him, and found himself listening to silence.

Teyla cleared her throat and began to speak, but Rodney cut her off with a sigh. “I’ll do it.” But something in his voice told John this was the last time. He tried not to notice the ache he felt inside.

The priests were busy hustling them towards the open doors of the temple. “You must enter the temple free of any belongings. You must be unencumbered to greet the new incarnation of yourself.”

“Great,” Rodney said, as he pulled his shirt over his head and dropped it on the growing pile. “The days are 40 degrees, the nights are sub-zero, and clothing will naturally interfere in my ability to interact with my higher self.”

John undressed and stood shivering beside Rodney, not glancing over at him, and secretly hoping there was a fire inside. He was pretty sure he couldn’t count on Rodney to huddle together for warmth. Not this time.

“What’s in there?” John couldn’t help asking, and when the priest replied, “Only what you take with you,” it was no surprise to hear Rodney chuckle.

“You’ve seen Star Wars too many times, McKay,” John interjected, cutting Rodney off before he could point out that John probably had too. “Okay, we’re ready,” John said, looking at the priests expectantly.

“You must leave everything behind, Colonel Sheppard, to be truly free.”

Rodney’s head turned towards him, and John looked down at himself. All he saw were miles of hairy, pale skin. There was nothing else.

“Seriously, guys, I’m not hiding anything. This is me. This is all there is.”

“He means your dog tags,” Rodney said softly, and John realized he didn’t even notice them anymore, dull silver glinting against his chest.

“I—they’re—” John stopped because he knew it sounded foolish. They were just there, part of him. As much as anything else ever had been. He wondered if this was how people felt about their wedding rings after so many years of never taking them off.

Rodney moved then, stepped in front of him and John looked into blue eyes that were still bright even in the fading twilight, and there was a hint of exasperation playing at the corners of Rodney’s mouth, but the anger was gone. A finger slipped neatly under the chain that held the tags, and Rodney looked at him and asked the question without saying a word. John felt himself nod and then Rodney’s fingers were tracing the edge of the tags, lifting the chain away, up and over, fingers trailing lightly across John’s skin, through his hair, and then there was a soft thud as the tags landed on the pile of clothing beside them.

“Now you may enter,” the priest said, and they stepped through the doors, naked. Unencumbered.

***

Rodney found the first tapestries that looked expendable, threw one on the floor and wrapped the other around himself. Then he stoked the fire that had been left burning for them, and sat down in front of it.

John stood in the middle of the room, completely naked. He stared at the space on his chest where the hair was thinner, flatter. Where his dog tags usually settled. It was strange not to see them there.

“Never realized you were an exhibitionist, Colonel.”

“I never realized the damn things weighed that much.”

Rodney nodded and scooted closer to the fire, leaving an empty strip of tapestry beside him. John sat down and watched the flames shift, feeling strangely lighter. He stretched his hand towards Rodney, threaded their fingers together, and simply held on as the shadows danced around them.

***

Rodney’s door chimed, which in itself was not unusual except for the fact it was one in the morning and he’d been in his room less than five minutes. If he didn’t know better, he’d suspect someone was using the city’s monitoring system to check his location.

“Hang on,” he said, going to the door, which slid open to reveal Colonel Sheppard standing in the hallway, dressed in jeans and a faded blue button-down shirt. It looked like it was soft with years of washings, and Rodney had to stop himself from reaching out and touching the sleeve. He took a step back. “Colonel.”

“Can I come in?” John’s voice was soft, like his shirt, and Rodney knew this was monumental because John had never actually come to his quarters when there wasn’t an emergency.

“It’s late,” Rodney said, shaking his head. “I—I don’t think I can do this.”

“Rodney.” John’s face crumpled just a little, and Rodney didn’t think he’d ever seen him look like that. Like he wasn’t trying to hide anything at all. “Just—can I just come in? Please.”

It was the please that did it, and Rodney moved back, so Sheppard could step past him. The door slid shut and Rodney turned, “Colonel—”

“I’m sorry,” John whispered, and there were hands holding Rodney’s face, thumbs stroking gently across his cheeks. Rodney closed his eyes and leaned into those hands, let John’s lips press soft apologies against his nose, eyelids, across his forehead, down rough-stubbled cheeks. When John’s lips found his, Rodney’s hands were buried in the soft fabric of John’s shirt, his mouth opening naturally, eagerly, wanting John to be exactly where he was, where Rodney had wanted him for so long. It took every ounce of willpower for Rodney to pull away.

“Rodney, don’t—”

“Nothing’s changed, John.” He swallowed and leaned his forehead against John’s. They were both breathing hard, John’s fingers caressing the lines of Rodney’s face. God, those fingers were beautiful. Strong. So damn sure of themselves most of the time. Rodney knew exactly what they could do; he closed his eyes and shivered with the memory.

“I’m here, aren’t I? I’m here,” John said. “I heard what you said, and yeah, I was stupid, but I didn’t know—I didn’t know what this was. How important this was.”

Rodney could feel John’s breath ghosting over his skin when he talked, sending small shivers down Rodney’s spine. He curled his hands around John’s waist and dragged him closer, knowing there was no way he was ever letting John leave again. Rodney had waited his entire life for something like this, and no, it wasn’t easy, but right now Rodney couldn’t think of anything he wanted more.

“John.” Rodney’s fingers stroked under his shirt, touching skin he hadn’t touched in a very long time, and John’s mouth moved over his, whispering his name, I’m sorry, a mixture of words and kisses sweeping over his skin.

“I was hiding from everyone,” John said, standing back and reaching for the open neck of his shirt. “From you.” Long fingers undid the buttons as Rodney watched. “From me.” Pale skin and dark hair appeared where the blue fabric slid apart. Rodney reached out, fingers trailing across John’s bare chest as the shirt slipped from his shoulders. “I thought it would be enough.”

Rodney’s fingers caught in the chain of John’s dog tags; he wrapped them around his fingers and pulled John closer. Kissed him, tongue pushing between wet lips and seeking out the corners of John’s mouth, the places where he kept his secrets. John opened up and let him in, and Rodney sank one hand into John’s hair and held on. They kissed until they were breathless and hard, until John’s mouth was red-lipped and swollen, and Rodney’s erection was straining against his zipper.

Hazel eyes looked into his and Rodney kissed John more deeply, softly. Sweetly. Eyes open, mouth relaxed, no secrets, no surprises.

“I never thought I could have anything else,” John whispered, and Rodney understood perfectly. Understood wanting and not believing. Understood settling for less when it was all you imagined you could have. John slid his fingers over top of Rodney’s, caught the silver rectangle of tags between their hands. “This is still who I am, who I’ll always be. It’s something I have to live with. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” Because he did. And in spite of everything, John was still here, naked to the waist, and more open than Rodney had ever seen him, and Rodney knew this wasn’t settling, this was accepting they could have more, even if it meant being careful. It wasn’t impossible. It was incredibly easy, and he lifted his arms to let John take off his shirt, and then they were both tugging at belts and zippers and pants that were suddenly too tight and in the way, shoes that refused to slip off and left them tumbled in a laughing heap on Rodney’s unmade bed. John tugged him on top, and Rodney saw the glint of silver that was John’s tags hitting the floor.

“I want this, Rodney. I want everything. Here. With you.”

Rodney slid down John’s body, kissing everywhere his mouth could reach, licking the soft crease of his thigh, nose buried in the nest of curls around his cock. Rodney eased John into his mouth and curled his tongue around the leaking head. Licked carefully and slowly, slowly, opened himself to take John inside, sliding down the shaft with deliberate strokes, lips pressing against sensitive skin, fingers stroking firmly from thigh to balls and finally to John’s opening. Spit-wet fingers pushed, pushed again, knuckle slipping past the tightness and the heat, and John’s hips arched off the mattress, cock sliding deeper into Rodney’s throat, and he sucked and sucked until John was gasping and spent beneath him.

A tug on his shoulder and Rodney found himself rolled onto his back, John above him, kissing wet and sloppy, tongue lapping into his mouth and Rodney knew John could taste himself there, taste both of them in his mouth, and so he let John lead him, kissing so deep and fragile, Rodney could feel John trembling against him.

When John eased them over again, Rodney slipped a hand into the drawer and pulled out the lube he’d put there when he was hoping against hope for a night just like this one, when John would show up at his quarters and everything they did on alien planets and under dubious circumstances would be legitimized because this was home. Atlantis. Where they didn’t have to hide—at least not all the time. Then Rodney slipped down John's warm body, kissing each rib, each curl of hair as he went, until he was pulling John’s legs up and apart, licking into him with a determined tongue.

"Jesus, Rodney!"

Rodney heard John’s head hit the pillow, watched his fingers grab at the edges of the sheets and pull as Rodney slid his tongue inside, once, twice, a quick flicker of wetness, and Rodney could feel his own cock aching with the anticipation of sliding into that wet, warm place. It had been far too long, and he nipped at John's thigh with his teeth once before reaching for the lube.

“I’m sorry it took me so long,” John murmured in a voice that sounded so broken, Rodney cracked the seal on the tube and coated his fingers liberally.

“Good thing there's no expiration date,” Rodney said, licking John’s thigh while he spread his legs further apart and slid two slick fingers inside, letting John adjust, muscles tight against his fingers. Rodney kissed his balls, licked the hair that curled along his groin, inhaled the musky odor he’d come to recognize. Appreciate. Want. Rodney rubbed his face against John’s half-hardened cock, delighted when it twitched against his cheek.

Two fingers became three, three gave way to four, and John was hard again and pushing onto Rodney’s hand, making soft whimpers and quiet moans that promised not to stay quiet very long. Then he was shifting, cock slick and hard, and John so incredibly wide and ready, so that Rodney slid home in one slow push. It was the best kind of slow because John was looking at him with wide eyes and a slack mouth, and when Rodney bent to kiss his neck, he could feel John’s cock bouncing into his stomach, and Rodney said, “you’re incredible.” When John moaned “fuck me,” Rodney was helpless to do anything but obey.

He was deep, buried to the hilt, and John’s legs were splayed open, heels pushing against Rodney’s spine, driving him deeper. With every thrust Rodney felt John tighten around him, and he knew the moment he hit John’s prostate because the moaning became sharp and desperate, and “Yes, Rodney, oh fucking God, right there!” was the only thing Rodney ever wanted to hear as he slid out and deeper, out and deeper, harder, and John pushed up and back, his hand reaching down and grabbing his cock while Rodney felt the tightness across his back and in his spine, the nerve endings wrapping around one another as he pushed and sweated and burrowed inside John until he had no idea where he ended and John began. Rodney thrust again and again, gazing down at John’s face as he came with Rodney’s name on his lips, and Rodney pushed once more, driving home, driving John backwards up the bed, and Rodney felt his cock pulsing like a broken dam, tremors weakening his knees until John said, “Come here. Rodney, come here,” and Rodney slid out and into the space between John’s legs, head pillowed on John’s bare chest, fingers running softly through his hair, the pounding of John’s heart echoing Rodney’s own.

“I love you,” John murmured into Rodney’s ear when he was almost asleep, and Rodney smiled and decided he’d let him have that one, once, let him hide a little while longer if he needed to. But only a little while.

Rodney closed his eyes and drifted weightless into sleep.

 

THE END