After the door to their cell closes, Rodney waits all of two seconds before jabbing a finger in John’s direction and starting a rant.
“Only you, Colonel Romeo—only you could get us thrown in jail for a misunderstanding about kissing. Half the time I think we’re actually living in a soap opera about your many harrowing romances. In the future, make sure I’m not mixed up in them before you get started, thanks.”
John sinks to the floor in the corner farthest from Rodney, which just gives Rodney room to start pacing. “Glad you’re here too, buddy,” John says, which is only partly true. Rodney’s good in a bind, but John also wouldn’t mind it if he knew Rodney were safe and sound somewhere not in a dungeon.
It’s not the worst dungeon they’ve ever been thrown into, and John isn’t all that worried about their eventual escape. Rodney, however, isn’t ready to stop complaining about the injustice of the entire situation long enough to help make a plan yet.
“It’s just not fair,” Rodney is saying. “It shouldn’t always be you. Odds are that somewhere out there, there’s an alien princess who’ll be falling head over heels for me.”
Dropping his head back against the wall, John says, “Her name is Harmony.”
It’s good to think about something besides how Princess Jatta had looked up at him through her eyelashes, or how his stomach had turned when she’d leaned in. Rodney’s an easy enough target, and poking at him is definitely more interesting than remembering Jatta and his own stupid miscalculation.
Rodney splutters for a moment, but recovers quickly. “As flattering as that may have been, it doesn’t count and you know it.”
“Sure it counts,” John says, aiming for just the right drawl to send Rodney into a fit. “She’ll be eighteen soon. I bet our invitations for your royal wedding are already sealed and waiting to be sent.”
“Oh yes. Har har, that’s a real good one there, Colonel. I’m sure I’ll be the laughing stock of the city in a few years. But wait, what was it exactly that’s gotten us into our current situation? You were just so smooth with this princess that it was criminal and she had to lock you up?”
John winces at that—so much for distraction. He can still feel the echo of Jatta’s lips on his cheek, where he’d turned his head to avoid her kiss and his palm still tingles where he’d squeezed her shoulder in quiet apology. It probably says something about him that he’d been less surprised when the guard shoved him to his knees with a quick maneuver of his staff than when Jatta leaned in for the kiss, but John’s not going to give himself time to ponder that.
“No one is going to be talking about this back in the city because, as you said, this is perfectly normal for me,” John bites out.
Because Rodney’s right about that. John has written too many reports about encounters with aliens in which he’s hedged around the words lips and kissing and sometimes she had her hands on my ass. It’s always such a hassle to clean up the reports so they don’t cause too much of a stir when he files them.
Rodney scoffs and John steels himself for another quip about his alleged flirtations, but Rodney’s shifting focus again, back to his tirade against their unjust arrest.
“I mean, they can’t really have expected us to follow their rules if they never actually told us what those rules were,” Rodney is saying, restless and pacing. “Not allowed to touch the royals? Really? That’s one of their highest laws? What would have happened if you’d actually kissed her back? God forbid you’d done something like touch her if that was happening. Or maybe tongue is allowed but hands aren’t, which, stupid rule. Please tell me these people don’t go around just putting their tongues on things.”
John finds his nose wrinkling in disgust at the thought, even if Rodney is being ridiculous and hyperbolic in the face of anxiety. “No way.” John rubs at his thighs, the memory of his encounter with Jatta making him feel suddenly and indescribably unclean. “There was no tongue involved. I’m sure I would have noticed that.”
“Yes, Colonel, I’m completely aware that there were no tongues this time. That’s the problem, right? You didn’t—” Rodney cuts himself off, and when John forces himself to glance up, he finds Rodney is staring at him, his hand floating in the air in an aborted point and his brow furrowed in thought.
“You didn’t kiss her,” Rodney says slowly, wagging his finger absently in John’s direction. “Why—why didn’t you kiss her?”
John’s mind is blank for a moment, the question heavy and uncomfortable. “What are you talking about?” he asks, drags the words out in a bid to distract Rodney again.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Rodney starts, taking a step in John’s direction. The cell isn’t all that large and John feels more trapped now than he had before. “This happens all the time and you always kiss the girl. What happened this time?”
Feeling tense all over, John pushes himself back to his feet. It puts the two of them back on equal ground, but does nothing to ease the way his heart is pounding. “I don’t know, Rodney,” John drawls, hates that he’s suddenly ready for a fight. “Maybe I just wasn’t feeling it.”
Of course, Rodney just barrels on, oblivious. “You weren’t feeling it? That’s ridiculous. She was hot and she was flirting with you the entire afternoon. I mean, I lost track of the amount of times she stopped to look at your lips. I lost track. Me.”
“I don’t care how much she wanted to kiss me or not,” John says, forcing himself to cross his arms over his chest. He doesn’t really want to fight, but his hands are itching for it. “She threw us in the dungeon, Rodney.”
“What I’m saying is,” Rodney says, waving a hand for emphasis, “you flirted back the entire time. You were charming and you kept smiling at her and you didn’t stop her from holding on to your arm while we had that tour of the gardens. But you wouldn’t kiss her?”
“I was just being polite,” John says, keeping his voice as neutral as possible by digging his fingers into his crossed arms. He doesn’t remember the details as Rodney describes them. He hadn’t been trying to flirt. He knows because he doesn’t ever try to flirt.
“Yes, polite. Sure. But why didn’t you kiss her? Maybe it was some grave insult to her or the royal family or something. I mean, clearly she was insulted. I would be insulted if you did that to me after flirting with me for three hours straight. How did you expect her to react?”
John lets out a short breath, forcing himself to lean back against the wall. “Maybe I wasn’t thinking about her like that and maybe I really wasn’t planning on kissing anyone this afternoon.”
Rodney squints at him, tilting his head like he’s come across a very complex problem. John, more agitated by the scrutiny than he’d care to admit, tries not to fidget.
“But,” Rodney says, his eyes distant, calculating, “she was hot. And clearly into you?”
John says nothing. He does not want to have this conversation. He wouldn’t even know how to have the conversation if he did want to have it. Not in a cell in a dungeon on an alien planet in a distant galaxy. Not with Rodney. Not with anyone.
“I’m just trying to figure out where things went wrong,” Rodney says, his eyes finally sliding back to the floor. He resumes his pacing. “How can we fix it when we are inevitably dragged back in front of a royal audience to pay for our crimes? Maybe if you just kiss her next time, things will be fine.”
“Not happening,” John says tightly. He’d screwed everything up by turning down Jatta’s kiss this afternoon, and he’s not going to let the situation get out of hand like that again.
Rodney scowls at him. “You wouldn’t kiss her to save our skins?”
“Maybe you should do it,” John snaps back, because he’s already had the same thought and he does not want to dwell on that particular scenario.
This time, his efforts at distraction pay off. Gesturing wildly, Rodney says, “If she’d given me even the slightest inclination of her interest, even half of what she was showing you, you bet I would have kissed her! The question here is, why didn’t you kiss her?”
“Drop it, McKay,” John says, trying to make it an order. His sexuality is not a topic of conversation he particularly enjoys and the thought of having to explain exactly how he feels about kissing to Rodney is excruciating.
Rodney, never one for following orders the first time, pushes on. “No. I want to know what you were thinking when you messed up relations with a potential new ally. It’s not like you. It’s—”
“McKay,” John says, and hopes his glare will do as much to silence Rodney as his tone. “Instead of speculating about what might have gone wrong, why don’t you help me figure a way out of here?”
Rodney’s scowl is completely expected, but he doesn’t protest. “Alright, Colonel,” he says, voice flat. “Who do you think is more likely to get here first, a guard with dinner, or Teyla and Ronon for a heroic rescue?”
As it turns out, John and Rodney are able to bust out of their cell on their own before the guards or their team make an appearance. Unfortunately, their escape is hampered by the presence of more than a handful of guards between them and the gate.
Back on Atlantis and dosed with some strong pain medication to combat the injuries acquired in their heroic escape, John drops his tray down on Rodney’s table in the mess. Rodney looks up at him over a tray piled high with enough food for at least three meals. Typical after a mission where they’d nearly died, but still ridiculous.
“Are you going to eat your jello?” Rodney asks, already reaching for it before John even has a chance to sit down.
And the pain meds must be stronger than John thought, because he actually feels himself smile and he can’t stop the next thought from escaping his mouth. “Kissing is like pizza.”
Rodney doesn’t say anything for a moment, just chews slowly through his bite of cornbread—or, the Pegasus equivalent of cornbread. Then, “Better without olives?”
John can’t stop the breath of laughter that rises in his chest, even though he’s pretty sure he should be mad about it. He’s willfully brought up the subject of his feelings and Rodney is making jokes.
“No, Rodney,” he says, dragging his fork through his mashed almost-potatoes. Absently, he realizes he couldn’t have said anything further if Rodney had responded with anything other than humor. “It’s a metaphor. For me, kissing is like pizza.”
“Oh,” Rodney says, staring down at his tray thoughtfully. “Right. I don’t see it.”
“That’s because I haven’t had a chance to explain it yet,” John says carefully, because sometimes Rodney needs things laid out for him like that.
Rodney glances up at him with a frown. “You were going to explain it?” he asks, his voice filled with a completely unexpected amount of sarcasm. “Forgive me, but it didn’t sound like you were going to explain it. It sounded more like it was your entire thought. I wouldn’t be surprised—you’re always relying on me to figure out the solutions to your biggest problems. McKay,” and his mocking, whiny tone gets right under John’s skin, “I touched it and now it’s about to explode. Or, McKay, we’re stuck in a dungeon because I couldn’t keep it in my pants again. And it’s not like you’re always just spouting long-winded explanations of your personal feelings about things, either. That’s you, Lieutenant Colonel Feelings.”
This is definitely not what John wanted when he came into the mess. One minute he’s ready to eat some food and talk with his teammate about why a mission had gone south, the next he’s having drug-induced feelings moments with the least empathetic person on the base. Teyla would’ve been a much better choice for this conversation—or Ronon. Even Woolsey would have been better than Rodney.
“Fine,” John says, stabbing at his salad. If Rodney wants to be an asshole, that’s fine. John can be just as much of an asshole right back. “Kissing is like pizza. You figure it out.”
He shoves a forkful of lettuce into his mouth and glares at Rodney across the table. The challenge will drive Rodney crazy, and John has no intention of helping him figure it out.
Rodney splutters for a second, but instead of arguing, grabs John’s not-cornbread and takes a bite. John retaliates by grabbing back his jello. Quick as ever, Rodney stabs his fork down into the bowl of jello and drags it back to his side of the table.
They probably would have gone on until the table was a mess, but Radek drops into the chair beside John with a cup of coffee and a tablet. He’s grinning from ear to ear and as soon as the words ‘Jumper’ and ‘improved maneuverability’ are out of his mouth, John’s challenge is forgotten by all involved.
John is lying in the infirmary two weeks later after another mission gone wrong, counting the number of seconds he can breathe in before the pain in his chest cuts him off. He’s had enough broken and bruised ribs in his life to recognize the pain for what it is, but he can’t stop himself from pushing back against it.
“So, uh,” Rodney says from the next bed over, where he’s recovering from what Keller diagnosed as a mild concussion. “It’s like pizza?”
The non-sequitur throws John for a moment, drags him right out of his head and back into the moment. “What?” he asks, hoping Rodney can pick up on the incredulous look he’s trying to send him without moving a single muscle below his neck.
“Pizza’s always blowing up in your face like that, then?” Rodney asks, as if that makes any more sense than his first question. “I mean. Obviously she didn’t blow up or anything, but she did try to break a couple of your ribs and threaten to cut off all of our limbs after the two of you sucked face for a few minutes. I think that counts as blowing up.”
John has a flash of his conversation with Rodney weeks ago in the mess. It had been the furthest thing from his mind back in the settlement when Commander Tiea had pushed him up against the wall of the meeting hall and kissed him. The kiss was pleasant, a welcome addition to her gruff, militaristic manner—up until she’d pulled back to punch him in the face.
There’s a quiet cough from Rodney’s bed and John realizes he’s waiting for John to respond instead of letting the silence drag on. He’s supposed to have something witty to say, something to brush off the incident or distract Rodney from it altogether, but the words won’t come.
“I’m just trying to figure this one out,” Rodney says, a clear prompt for more. “You know, like you told me to.”
“Cool,” John finally manages to say, carefully shifting his head so he’s looking as far away from Rodney as possible. “I have important healing to do. Alone.”
Rodney sighs, loud enough that John knows it’s meant to keep his attention. “Jennifer didn’t exactly put our beds in isolation rooms,” Rodney says, as if he’s being reasonable. “And I find that I recover from near-death experiences better by talking. About food. And sex. Or—kissing. So?”
“That’s weird,” John says, because he’s not ready to give in on this and maybe Rodney will be willing to defend himself instead of continuing his questions. Also, it is weird, thank you very much.
Apparently unwilling to be sidetracked, Rodney says, “Kissing is like pizza because it’s good hot or cold?”
“Cold pizza is gross,” John murmurs. It’s like poking a bruise. He knows it will only encourage Rodney further, but he can’t stop himself.
There’s a sound like Rodney smacking his hand against the cot and John can picture Rodney’s appalled look without turning to see it. “You’re such a freak,” Rodney says, but he doesn’t sound too upset about it.
“You’re the freak here.” Because really, that’s obvious.
“Sure, whatever,” Rodney says easily. “Is it because it’s always delivered to your doorstep? Unless you go pick it up?”
Stifling a groan in his throat, John seriously considers how much pain it would cause him to roll all the way over, to put his back to Rodney to end the conversation. Instead, he says, “Please tell me you’re not out there ordering delivery kissing like it’s pizza, Rodney.”
“Wouldn’t really be any of your business if I was, but, fine,” Rodney says, and he’s definitely smug about this now. “How about—it’s served twenty-four-seven?”
“McKay,” John snaps, ignoring the way raising his voice pushes at his ribs. Maybe it’s the drugs or maybe Rodney’s just that good at wearing him down, but John doesn’t see any other option than giving in. “Kissing is like pizza because I don’t always like it.”
And that stumps Rodney for a whole, glorious minute. It’s a private piece of John that he doesn’t share with anyone, but the silence is so sweet that he’d seriously consider telling Rodney again if it got him another moment of peace.
“Oh,” Rodney says eventually—a tolerable response.
John closes his eyes and lets himself relax into the idea that Rodney’s not actually as much of an asshole as he sometimes comes off as.
“I thought—” Rodney starts again, and John’s eyes snap open. He immediately hates the direction that Rodney’s headed in.
“I know what you thought,” John grinds out over Rodney’s next words. And really, everyone just assumes that John’s some kind of hot shot womanizer and he doesn’t get it. “Sometimes I like pizza just fine. Most of the time, I eat it because it’s food and it’s already on my plate. And other times, even the thought of that much cheese in one place gives me heartburn. Okay?”
His ribs ache with the effort of speaking so much, and he’s tense with adrenaline at the confession, and his ears are hot enough to be uncomfortable. Rodney better not have any further opinions on this.
But of course, Rodney always has an opinion on everything. “Well—”
John cuts him off again, feels the fight draining out of him as he does. “Just leave it, Rodney.”
Silence falls between them and John lets his mind wander away from the moment, through the pain, where he can’t think about the fact that Rodney now knows something entirely private, something that could be used against him, that he doesn’t tell anyone because they always look at him differently after learning it.
“I can’t believe you don’t always like pizza,” Rodney says, an unknowable amount of time later. John hears the comment distantly, as he’s falling into sleep, and he can’t be blamed for smiling.
The sun is long set as John steps into the small room the team’s been offered for overnight lodgings on their current mission. The settlement is small, but has some remarkably intact Ancient ruins buried beneath it. They’ve been at it all day, negotiating with farmers, digging, interfacing Ancient technology with their own.
It’s days like these that leave John exhausted and longing for his tiny bed back on Atlantis. That would at least guarantee him a shower and a quiet place to sleep. As it is, the four bed rolls spread across the floor mean he’s in for a night of tossing and turning and snoring and elbows digging into his back.
There’s a soft creak as the door opens and closes again, and John turns to catch Rodney shucking off his dusty field jacket in the dim glow of the lantern hanging by the door.
“Turning in already?” John asks, levering himself down onto the bedroll nearest the door.
Rodney makes a noncommittal noise in the back of his throat and reaches down to unlace his boots. “How are you feeling about pizza today?” he asks, yanking one boot off. Dust pours out of it onto the floor.
John almost misses the question trying to keep the dust from gathering on the end of his sleeping roll. Since he’s not getting a shower, he definitely doesn’t plan on getting even more dirty as he sleeps.
“We just had dinner,” he says when his ears catch up to him. He’s about to explain to Rodney that it’s not even pizza night on Atlantis and even if it were, he’s pretty sure that gate travel would ruin a good pizza if they tried to order in, but Rodney’s continuing on.
“Because I really hope you brought some antacid with you if you’re not up for it.” He goes for his other boot. “Nessa’s definitely going to make a move on you.”
Of course Rodney’s talking about that type of pizza. John should have known Rodney would never be confused about pizza night, but it’s still difficult to believe that Rodney would be so interested in what John thinks about Nessa.
“Nessa,” John says, pulling all of the blankets on his bedroll close to him because that seems to be the only thing that will keep them out of the path of Rodney’s shoe dust. “I hadn’t noticed.”
Rodney freezes, staring at him with his mouth hanging slightly open. John raises an eyebrow at him before turning to his own boots. It’s not his business if Rodney gets alien dust germs in his mouth because of his own rudeness.
“What do you mean, you hadn’t noticed?” Rodney stammers. “Forget everything that happened during the day—which was a lot—she was all over you at dinner!”
That may be true, John thinks. Nessa had been leaning rather close to him at the table, and she maybe touched his arm more than he expected her to, but mostly he remembers being exhausted and hungry and more interested in Rodney and Ronon’s report than in Nessa’s anything.
John lies back on his bedroll, rolling his shoulders to adjust to the hard floor. “Believe it or not, Rodney,” he says, twisting his legs around in his blankets, “pizza is usually the farthest thing from my mind until it’s right in front of me.”
The words come easily, more easily than John’s ever been able to articulate before. He tries not to think about how it would feel to tell Rodney everything.
Even in just his socks, Rodney’s feet are too loud on the floor as he stalks over to the second bedroll and drops down to it. “I don’t believe it. It’s been over five years, Sheppard. I’ve seen you flirt with too many people out here to believe that pizza isn’t one of your main goals when stepping through the stargate.”
“Well, you can’t be right about everything,” John says, throwing his arm over his eyes to block out the light and maybe signal to Rodney that the conversation is over. There’s a reason he doesn’t talk about this.
Rodney, being Rodney, does not get the signal. “If we miss this opportunity to study another Ancient cloaking device because you won’t play nice with the priestess for five minutes, I’m going to make sure you regret it.”
John huffs a laugh at the weak threat, mostly because it means absolutely nothing. “Start planning your revenge, then,” he murmurs, trying to keep his voice low, like he’s going to sleep, “because I’m not going to—have pizza—with random people for your little science experiment.”
“Little science—I just don’t get that!” Rodney exclaims, loud and exasperated. “That’s like, the best kind of science deal I can imagine. I would have pizza with Nessa any time, anywhere—and anything else she wants, too.”
It’s an echo of their conversation in the dungeon on Jatta’s planet, and John wonders how long Rodney’s been thinking about this. Taking a long breath, John lets himself consider the thought—Rodney bargaining for new technology by making out with Nessa, maybe with other attractive people across the Pegasus Galaxy. It’s not hard to imagine, and it’s not entirely unpleasant either.
“I know you would,” John says, pressing his arm down harder across his eyes, focusing on the spiraling darkness there. “But that’s not what we’re talking about here.”
Beside him, he hears Rodney shift on his bedroll. “No, it’s not,” Rodney says, voice quieter than before, like he’s finally realized that they are in bed. “It brings us back to my original question, though. Are you up for some pizza?”
John drops his arm to his chest, glaring up at the ceiling. It’s not the kind of question he just has an answer lying around for. He thinks of Nessa, her smile, her hand on his arm, what it would be like if she tilted her head, leaned up a little—but then all there is is Rodney and his incessant questioning.
“Who knows.” His voice feels too loud for the stillness of the room. “Maybe I would have been just fine with a slice or two, but now all I’m going to be able to think about is you and actual heartburn.”
Rodney doesn’t say anything, which is exactly what John has wanted from the beginning. But the silence drags on, and there’s still prickling discomfort running down his spine. It’s something he doesn’t think Rodney quite grasps yet, and he can’t stop himself from saying, “So next time I’m happily not thinking about pizza, maybe you can also refrain from mentioning it the first chance you get.”
“Maybe,” Rodney says. And then, a moment later, “Sorry.”
John doesn’t respond, closing his eyes. He’s not sure he’ll be able to fall asleep, and even if he does, it won’t be for long. From this position, John will wake as soon as Teyla or Ronon put their hands on the door handle, but he doesn’t care. Even if he’ll only get an hour or so, sleeping is all he can think to do in the face of Rodney’s apology.
It’s only two hours into the fertility festival. The village is dark except for what’s lit by the large bonfire in the central square, which warms the crisp air of spring. The music is rhythmic and the wine sweet. And the people—John wishes desperately that this were a harvest festival instead. There would be the same amount of ritual and dancing, but less kissing and definitely less fucking.
Not that John minds people having sex—he’d just rather not have to see it each time he turns his head. It leaves him with the uncomfortable feeling that someone may be expecting him to join in.
John’s managed to stay seated at one of the long benches to the side of the festival. His hands tight on his mug of wine, he regrets the fact that he’s left his tac vest and P-90 back in the tent with the rest of their supplies. The locals had suggested full participation in the festival would ease trade relations, and that meant no weapons. Instead, there’s a team of Marines posted between the village and the gate, but John still misses the weight of his sidearm.
Most of the locals have stayed away, and John lost track of his team early on in the evening, although he can see Ronon’s head above the crowd of dancers closest to the fire. Things may go better for them if John puts his foot out, too, but he’s done all the rest of the evening’s rituals—eaten strange, stale bread while the chief chanted a prayer, washed his hands and feet at the fountain near the center of the village, drank more sweet wine than he would have liked. Soon he’ll be able to beg out of the rest of the festival to sleep off the wine without seeming too rude.
Except a woman settles on the bench next to him, pressing herself against his side and smiling up at him. He vaguely remembers seeing her at the gate when they’d first arrived, but can’t remember her name.
“Why don’t you join me for a dance?” she asks, pulling his mug from his hand to take a long drink from it.
John shrugs. “Not much of a dancer,” he says, looking back out over the rolling crowd.
The woman places a hand on his cheek, pulling him back around to look at her. “We could change that,” she says, still smiling as she leans in to kiss him.
Given the circumstances, John’s less shocked than he normally would be, but it still takes him a moment to react. He leans into the kiss and finds that the woman is warm and solid when he manages to get his hands on her waist, her shoulder. With the wine and music running through him, it’s easy to relax into her.
But then her fingers are trailing down his chest to his stomach, running over his belt and fly, and John tears himself away.
He’s on his feet before he knows it, muttering an apology and stalking off in the direction of their tent. His mind is buzzing, trying to make sense of the last few minutes through the haze of alcohol and music and smoke, and he barely notices as he pushes past Rodney.
“What the hell, Sheppard?” Rodney snaps, grabbing at John’s arm to stop him.
John pulls his arm free. “Leave it, McKay,” he growls back, continuing on towards the tent.
He makes it to the clearing at the edge of the woods where the villagers have set up a large tent for his team, but he can’t make himself go inside, claustrophobic at the thought. Instead, he drops down by a large tree, leaning back against it. He fists his hands in his hair and pulls until the sting of his scalp and scrape of bark on his back cut through the cloud of alcohol in his head.
It’s quieter here, but he can still hear the music and laughter of the festival. The horizon is lit with the bonfire, and the smell of burning wood and faint incense carry on the breeze. Cool air and the sound of alien crickets settle over him and slowly John’s thoughts put themselves back in order.
He’s an idiot—he’s made a fool of himself and that poor women, but no matter how many times he runs the scenario over in his mind, his reaction is the same. The kissing had been good, but John doesn’t usually let his guard down enough to let anyone go further than that. Even the memory of her fingers over him makes his stomach turn.
A branch cracks a few feet away and John’s head snaps up to catch Rodney’s outline through the darkness.
“You gonna freak out on me if I get too close?” Rodney asks peevishly, coming forward anyway.
John runs his fingers through his hair to relieve the lingering pain and he’s sure his glare is lost in the dark. “Don’t push your luck,” he says, hating that his voice strains to carry.
“Luck is a social construct,” Rodney mutters, shuffling closer. He hesitates for a moment, toeing at the pine needles on the ground before he drops down to lean against the tree next to John.
“So,” Rodney starts, after a long, silent moment. “I take it that that pizza didn’t agree with you.”
John blinks and wonders if he’s fallen into a different reality where pizza has something to do with offworld missions and fertility festivals, before the metaphor catches up to him.
“I have some antacid in the tent, if you want,” Rodney continues, and John feels it more than he sees it when Rodney brings up his arm to wave towards the tent and their packs.
Letting out a long breath, John shakes his head. Rodney probably can’t see it, but John doesn’t have a response. He’s just stupidly grateful that Rodney is here and seems to understand—or is at least trying to understand enough to make jokes about it.
Rodney scuffs his boot through pine needles and dirt. “I’ve never turned anyone down once they had their hand down my pants,” he says, then lets out a short breath. “Scratch that. I’ve never turned anyone down at all.”
John lets his head fall back against the tree, feeling the tension bleed out of him. “I’m not like you,” he murmurs.
“Thank god for that,” Rodney says, perfectly normal and waspish. “I’d have to let Jennifer do an MRI and full blood test if I even suspected otherwise. Can you imagine what could go wrong in the lab if I had anywhere near your low levels of self-preservation? And you—if you started speaking sense at staff meetings, I think Woolsey would have a stroke.”
The rant continues, and John lets it rush over him like the cool night air, crisp and comforting, until he dozes off.
“Can’t believe you blew it with Keller,” Ronon says around a mouthful of a local rodent he’d caught with his bare hands and roasted over the fire.
Rodney sputters and John thinks that maybe Rodney isn’t quite as upset as he’s acting. It’s all rather theatrical. “She wanted to leave. She wanted me to go with her.”
And John still can’t believe that. The thought of Rodney staying back on Earth to be with Keller leaves him cold and angry. He doesn’t know what he would have done if Rodney had asked his advice on the matter instead of bursting into John’s room fuming about it. The only thing John had been able to do at that point was nod in righteous agreement and bust out the beer.
Teyla tilts her head thoughtfully. “In the end, Jennifer chose to stay on Atlantis as well. It is possible that you may still be able to find a compromise that could make you both happy.”
“Rodney was just making the decision that was best for Atlantis,” John says, because that has to end the conversation. He doesn’t want to dwell, doesn’t want Rodney to get any ideas in case it leads back to leaving Atlantis. Keller might not have left, but John still doesn’t trust her intentions.
“Exactly,” Rodney says, somehow smug as he waves a hand at John. “Thank you, Sheppard. I was just trying to keep the best and brightest mind Atlantis has ever seen around as long as possible. Who knows how long you would last without me. Besides. I am happy with the way things turned out, thanks for asking.”
It’s arrogant and self-centered, but John can’t help but relax at Rodney’s confidence in his choice to break it off with Keller and stay.
“And you, John,” Teyla says, shifting focus easily enough. “Not even after our long stay on your homeworld did we see you take interest in anyone.”
If John has been uncomfortable with the discussion of Keller, he’s doubly so now. He’d been lucky on Earth—Teyla and Ronon had seemed satisfied with John’s decision to go with them to meet Rodney’s family for Easter and to bring them all with him for an awkward Memorial Day picnic with the Sheppard family. Other than that, John had barely left base, besides some mandatory trips to Colorado and D.C., and no one had commented.
His luck has run out, though—almost half a year later, back in Pegasus, and on a training outing John had signed them up for, they are finally asking.
Oddly, John finds himself looking to Rodney for support. Never in a million years would he have thought that Rodney would be his best option in a conversation about his personal life. But John wishes he could make a quip about his pizza preferences not being to everyone’s taste and move on.
Rodney is frowning, eyes darting around the group and mind clearly going a mile a minute, but he doesn’t say anything. It’s not like it was fair of John to assume Rodney would help. Rodney’s no less awkward than he is when it comes to this, and they hadn’t exactly had time or inclination to plan out a defense for this scenario.
“It’s complicated,” John finally manages to say, pulling at a few blades of grass near his boot. Teyla and Ronon are both watching him with so much concern that he almost feels guilty for saying it.
“John.” Teyla is always so kind, reassuring and firm at once, but John doesn’t want to hear it, not about this. With this, it feels too much like pity. “You know we care for you. You are allowed to have feelings—relationships. We would not compromise your position if we knew.”
If she wants to think this is about fraternization and the chain of command, John will allow it. Because it is, in a way. John’s never had a problem following those rules to keep his position and standing in the Air Force. But even without the rules—even if John weren’t military—this would be complicated.
Ronon grunts. He understands military precedent and protocol better than Teyla, and John takes the noise for support on his side. But Ronon says, “There are plenty of civilians here in Pegasus who you could make a life with.”
Teyla smiles and nods, probably about to suggest someone in particular when Rodney scoffs.
“Please, don’t encourage him.” Rodney almost whines it, annoyance biting through his exasperation. “Listening to you, I’d almost forget that he has his tongue down the throat of some alien woman offering to help us out every other week. I can’t believe he’s never been diagnosed with some Pegasus STD! He’s never even had mono.”
“Rodney,” Teyla scolds, but John’s almost sighing with relief. Miraculously, Rodney has brought the conversation back to stable ground, away from John’s jagged edges to familiar territory.
“Besides,” Rodney is saying, bravely talking over Teyla’s attempted rebuke, “Sheppard’s clearly one for no-strings-attached. He’s had plenty of opportunities to take things further, and he hasn’t ever tried. Not once.”
“You just don’t want to see all three of us happily settling down when you’re all alone.” And that’s a little harsh, even for Ronon.
Rodney just rolls his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest like a petulant teenager. “Yeah sure, this is all about me. Misery wants company and all that. Hey, Sheppard. Are you as miserable as me?”
John smiles, finds it comes easily. “Couldn’t possibly be that miserable,” he says, enjoying Rodney’s dramatic eye roll before turning back to Teyla and Ronon. “I’m happy the way things are. Don’t worry about it.”
Teyla smiles back, but there’s some sadness there in her gaze, like she suspects John’s just putting up a strong front. She probably won’t ever believe him completely until he tells her the absolute truth and that is not likely to happen any time soon.
For his part, Ronon looks suitably convinced, attention back on his gamey rodent dinner. John won’t be surprised, though, if their next sparring session is a little more on the brutal side than normal. Ronon can be just as persistent as Teyla when he wants to be.
“I deserve a reward for that,” Rodney says under his breath when the conversation has turned away from romance. “At least an extra slice of pizza or something.”
Almost immediately, before John has really processed what’s been said, Rodney turns bright red and says, “I meant real pizza, of course. Not that I—not that you—fuck.”
John laughs, can’t stop himself. This is getting out of hand, he thinks when Rodney joins in, still slightly pink with embarrassment—the metaphor, Rodney’s easy acceptance. It’s all too conspiratorial, but John can’t remember the last time he’s felt so at ease.
“Have you seen—” Rodney says, bursting into the room with a tone that means he’s about to start a rant. John really should pay more attention to things like locks if he’s going to make out with people in a room he’s sharing, especially on a mission. Maybe he should’ve put a sock on the door handle.
Since he’s been an absolute idiot and forgotten the lock, John’s now in the unfortunate situation of having their host’s hand wrapped around the back of his neck with their lips locked and Rodney standing right there. John pulls back, but can’t get as far away as he would like with Brant’s hand still warm on his neck.
“McKay—” John manages, just as Rodney says succinctly, “Right,” and ducks back out of the room.
Brant raises an eyebrow, winding his fingers up into John’s hair. “What’s his problem?” he asks, leaning back in, nose brushing warm and soft over John’s cheek.
John places a hand on Brant’s chest to stop him. “Sorry,” he says, and he really is. Brant has been more than kind—patiently showing them around the small village, making them meals from his own food stores, bringing John a beverage after lunch that was thick and warm and sweet, sweeter when Brant ran his fingers over the skin of John’s forearm as he drank—and he’s an excellent kisser, but John can’t let go of the look of complete astonishment on Rodney’s face. “I have to go deal with that. Maybe we can pick this up later?”
He doesn’t wait to hear an answer, just chases after Rodney until he catches up with him outside. The sun is still high in the sky. Combined with the burnt orange of the local dirt, it gives everything a warm, slightly yellow glow, even in the shade of the sparse, shrub-like trees that dot the village.
“Rodney, wait,” he says, but Rodney’s already turning to face him, like he’s anticipated John following him.
“Is that what you meant when you said it was complicated? Complicated in the equal opportunity pizza variety?” Rodney asks, gesturing wildly back at Brant’s home.
The anger and accusation in Rodney’s voice sting more than John’s expected. It’s not new. Plenty of people have reacted badly to this information in the past, but, if he’s being honest with himself, John’s never thought Rodney would be one of them.
Glaring, he squares his feet against the ridiculous notion that Rodney might attack him. “You’re not going to be an ass about this, are you?” he snaps, rebellion bubbling out of the helpless, trapped feeling of being found out.
Rodney’s eyes widen a fraction, his eyebrows going up in surprise, before his face sours. Crossing his arms over his chest, he says, “That would be pretty hypocritical of me.”
And isn’t that a revelation, but Rodney doesn’t give John the time to let it sink in. “Although I’m sure I’ve been called an ass and a hypocrite about this in the past. I just can’t believe you’ve been keeping that up your sleeve all this time and still forgot to lock the door. Anyone could’ve walked in. What would you do if it had been Lorne? Or one of the Marines?”
“Well,” John says, biting down on his nerves as they redouble at the thought, “they didn’t.”
Rodney tips his chin up, like he’s proud at being the hero in his own disaster scenario. “You’re right. I got there first.”
John takes a few steps away, closing his eyes against the adrenaline still pulsing in his veins. He wants to run until his lungs ache, wants to go back to Brant, wants to go home and bury his head under his pillow and scream. Being here and now with Rodney is suffocating and inescapable.
“Hey,” Rodney says, voice soft in a way it rarely gets. “You can have pizza with whoever. Or—I guess—not have pizza, sometimes.”
There’s a moment of silence and John can’t bear to look back at Rodney.
John doesn’t let himself imagine coming out anymore, won’t torture himself with what-ifs and maybes like he used to—just lives half in secret and carries on like normal. But if he ever did let himself wonder, he never would have thought it would be like this—acceptance so fast and easy it’s unremarkable and the warmth of camaraderie that reaches all the way down into his toes.
The moment’s gone when Rodney opens his mouth again, though, voice back to its normal conceit. “At least I’m going to keep having pizza with whoever I want. We should really have each other’s backs. It only makes sense.”
John turns back to Rodney as Rodney casually shifts the conversation to crops and the planet’s unusual growing season and the abundance of nitrates in the soil, a weight lifting from his shoulders.
The sound of Larrin’s footsteps echo down the abandoned street as she jogs back towards the new Travelers’ settlement, miles back toward the gate. John lets out a long breath, smoothing down the nervous energy that’s always present under his skin when he’s stuck. And even if it’s Rodney who’s really trapped this time, John doesn’t plan on leaving him.
“She’ll be back soon,” John says, wishing he could reach through the debris to offer Rodney a reassuring pat on the shoulder. Each attempt to remove the debris so far has only resulted in further collapse of the building. “When they realize our comms are out, Keller and the engineers might even meet her halfway.”
Through a gap in the fallen metal and concrete, John can just make out Rodney’s outline in the shadows. “You sure this isn’t some complicated facade to capture us for her nefarious purposes?” Rodney’s tone is light, but John can hear the fear laced through it.
And it’s not an entirely unfounded fear—John’s had the same thought. But it seems unlikely, since there are already about a dozen Atlantis personnel at the settlement volunteering their time and energy for the Travelers. Kidnapping the two of them just wouldn’t be a smart move on Larrin’s part this time.
“She’ll be back,” John repeats, leaning against a sturdy-looking portion of wall. It graciously doesn’t budge.
The building had collapsed when Rodney had entered, and John’s heart is still pounding with the fear that had gripped him as he’d watched from the road of the abandoned city. For a moment, there had been nothing but Rodney’s startled cursing over the radio and the sound of three floors of warehouse crashing to the ground. The silence that had followed had been deafening.
“You’re absolutely sure about that?” Even muffled by the debris, Rodney’s voice oozes annoyance and anxiety.
John takes a breath to ease his own nerves. Somehow—miraculously—Rodney is fine. He’s reported no injury beyond superficial cuts and bruises—maybe something a little deeper on one arm that he’s already tied off with a bandage. The remains of the building have settled and everyone’s on stable ground. Even if something in the building had shorted their comm lines, there’s no real, immediate danger. Rodney’s just stuck, and Larrin will be bringing help soon.
“I trust her this time,” John says, forcing the words out for Rodney’s benefit.
There’s a moment of silence, punctuated only by the soft breeze. Then, “So. You and Larrin.”
John should be used to this by now. Everyone thinks there’s something between them and even Teyla likes to dig at him about it. So of course Rodney’s going to push. There’s no reason that this encounter with Larrin and the Travelers should be any different than the past.
As casually as he can, John asks, “What about me and Larrin?”
“She seems,” Rodney hesitates, and John fills in a hundred different adjectives—independent, hot, ruthless. “Nice.”
Definitely not the word John would go with, hadn’t even made it on his list. But if it’s what Rodney wants to believe, John’s not going to stop him. “Just make sure you don’t disappoint her.”
“Does that mean—” Rodney cuts himself off almost immediately and John can almost hear his frown. “Did you guys—You didn’t disappoint her, did you?”
“Rodney,” John cuts in, glaring at where he thinks Rodney must be standing. He is suddenly painfully aware of where Rodney’s mind has wandered. Right into the gutter, apparently.
“I mean,” Rodney starts, ignoring John completely, “clearly she’s someone who ordered something other than pizza from the menu, right? And it was disappointing?”
Pizza again. “I’m sure Larrin has no idea what pizza is,” John says, turning back towards the road. Playing dumb probably won’t stall Rodney for long, but it might annoy him to distraction.
Of course, Rodney knows how to get under John’s skin right back.
“I’m injured,” Rodney says, his tone bordering on a whine. “Bleeding out in some grimy abandoned city because we were trying to find some useful scraps to cannibalize for your space girlfriend's new settlement. If the blood loss doesn’t get me, I’m probably going to die of infection by the time Jennifer gets here. Humor me.”
John turns on his heel, jabbing a finger at the gap in the wall. “McKay.”
“Fine, fine,” Rodney says absently, completely unfazed by John’s anger. He might even be amused by it, the bastard. “I’m injured and trapped but nothing bad could possibly happen to me while I wait for our most esteemed doctor and engineers to rescue me. Better?”
Even knowing he’s been baited, John feels himself relax. It is better. John will not let Rodney bleed out on some alien planet and he can’t handle Rodney’s defeatism getting in the way. “Much,” he says, and just because Rodney’s being an asshole, adds, “You better not call her my space girlfriend where she can hear you.” Because Larrin might let Rodney bleed out out of spite.
“But I’m not wrong?” Rodney says, barrelling right on with his original line of thought.
“Rodney,” John bites out—doesn’t know if it’s possible to get Rodney to leave it be. He leans with his forearm against the wall, keeping Rodney’s shadow in sight.
“Just,” Rodney starts, slow again. “You seem close.”
John can’t help but roll his eyes at that. “Close like she’s held me prisoner and had me tortured, you mean,” he says, because if he’s honest, thinking of Larrin often leaves the taste of blood in his mouth. Blood and nerves and the electric aftertaste of a stunner.
“And shared some good pizza, if I recall,” Rodney says, and John doesn’t need to see his leer to feel it, his ears burning at the implication.
He hadn’t denied it the first time, and he won’t deny it now, but there’s a difference between denial and a simple refusal to talk about it. So he bites back his terse response and looks down at his boots, trying not to think about the look in Larrin’s eye when she pressed the stunner to his side.
“I’m right,” Rodney murmurs, as if he’s surprised by his revelation. “Totally right. She had something else from the menu, too. A salad? Breadsticks? Chicken wings? God—pizza is a terrible metaphor.”
John drops his forehead to his arm on the wall, barely resisting the urge to repeat the gesture and pound his head against the wall. Because of course Larrin had been looking for something else. He might be terrible at noticing these things until they’re right in front of him, but he’s not blind.
“I’m not one to kiss and tell.” He manages to get the words out around his tight throat, although they don’t sound quite as forceful as he’s meant them.
Rodney’s still smiling when he responds—John doesn’t even need to see it to know. “No need to be so uptight about it. I’m definitely not judging you,” he says, and John supposes, Rodney’s probably not. Rodney hasn’t been really judgmental about any of this. “She’s hot. And she made you smile at least three times today. It’s kind of—nice.”
There’s that word again. Nice. It’s vague and positive and John needs to pay more attention to how he lets other people affect him if even Rodney notices things like his smile. But that’s kind of nice itself, the fact that Rodney is thinking about him—wants him to be happy. Some of John’s tension eases away and he can feel his shoulders relax—just a fraction.
“There’s nothing else on my menu,” he says, slowly, softly, not at all like the first time he’d ever admitted that to anyone else, when his throat had been raw from yelling and his chest aching from the disappointment on Nancy’s face.
Once the words are out there, John can’t quite figure out why he’s said them. With Nancy, it had been panic and anger and desperation driving the confession. Now, it just feels like something Rodney should know. The pizza metaphor is wildly oversimplified for an explanation, but it feels right, and if Rodney knows part of it, he should know the rest.
“But—” Rodney starts, curious and thoughtful and nothing at all like disappointed. “Not even like, a two-liter?”
John reaches for anger, but finds that he’s mostly amused by Rodney’s response. Shaking his head to force back a smile, he says, “Sorry, buddy. There’s nothing else. There’s not even pizza all the time, remember?” John hesitates, but can’t stop himself from adding, “Is that a problem?”
“Well,” Rodney says, like he’s about to start in on a long tangent, but—“No.” It’s a short answer—simple and easy and very much Rodney grudgingly facing facts when they line up, even if the facts are proving all of Rodney’s theories wrong.
It takes John a second to realize he’s smiling. “Can we please go back to not talking about pizza?” he asks. He should be doing something, checking the road or looking for a way to get Rodney out, but he doesn’t want to leave Rodney’s side long enough to do it.
Rodney is silent for all of two seconds before he asks, “Does she know?”
John huffs out a breath, would shove Rodney if he could reach him. “None of your business,” he says, forcing himself to turn back and scan the road again. Maybe Rodney has a Life Signs Detector in his pack.
“No, really,” Rodney says. “Does she know? Could you put in a good word for me? Tell her, I don’t know, that I’ve got a fully stocked, five-star menu or something?”
Pizza really is a terrible metaphor for this. “I’m not helping you get Larrin’s attention.”
“It doesn’t even have to be Larrin,” Rodney says, matter-of-fact. “Any of the hot aliens panting after you. Just send them my way next time.”
The door to the lab is open when John arrives, but he stops a few feet out. There’s a sprig of mistletoe hanging low in the entry, and John hates it with his entire being. It’s a stupid tradition that just makes people uncomfortable and he learned from a young age to spot the plant a mile away.
Grabbing it down, John barely resists the urge to chuck it across the room at Rodney’s face. “You know,” he says, twisting the plasticky leaves in his fingers, “Christmas was three weeks ago.”
Rodney doesn’t even look up from his laptop—John should’ve thrown the damn mistletoe. “What are you talking about?”
“This,” John says, leaning across Rodney’s workbench to spin the mistletoe under his nose.
Barely flinching back, Rodney grabs John’s wrist to stop the movement. His hand is warm and John drops the mistletoe, spreading his fingers in surrender.
“You’re supposed to put it over our heads, if you’re looking for a quick slice of pizza,” Rodney says, letting go of John’s hand and turning his attention back to his computer.
“I know how mistletoe works,” Johns says, exasperated. His heart is pounding at the thought of pizza and Rodney and that really isn’t what he’d been aiming for at all. “You’re the one who put it in the doorway of every other lab from here to the East Pier.”
Rodney finally looks up at him, blinking as his brain almost audibly changes gears. “Oh—I guess you’re right. It’s probably time to take them all down.”
“That’s it?” John asks, shifting his weight on his elbows to get more comfortable against the bench. “I thought you were some sort of Scrooge who couldn’t wait to get rid of all the Christmas decorations. You had the tree in the control room down within twenty-four hours.”
Rodney sniffs, tipping his chin. “When all it does is distract the scientists, of course I wanted it gone.”
“Everything except the mistletoe?” John raises his eyebrow and sends a meaningful glance to the fake flora on Rodney’s desk. “Wouldn’t that be the most distracting decoration of all?”
“Just thought I’d take the opportunity to cast a wider net,” Rodney says, grabbing at the mistletoe. “Seize the day, and all that.”
“You’re trying to get laid with mistletoe?” John asks, because that can’t possibly be right. There’s no way anyone is desperate enough to think that would work, especially not Rodney. Rodney has a brain.
The mistletoe disappears into Rodney’s fist. “Not all of us have people throwing themselves at our feet every other time we step through the gate.” He says it as if that’s something John actually wants.
“Rodney.” John tips his head forward, trying to catch Rodney’s gaze, but Rodney continues to stare at his hands, resolute. “You know all the people who come into your labs and you hate at least ninety percent of them. You don’t honestly believe some pizza under the mistletoe will change that, do you?”
For a moment, Rodney doesn’t say anything, and John thinks maybe he’s gotten through. But then Rodney’s glancing up at him—finally—with his eyebrows drawn together. “Maybe it’ll spark something,” he says, and with the way he’s fidgeting with the mistletoe, John doubts it will survive until next year. “You never know. You should’ve seen Patel and Park going at it in Lab Eight the other day.”
John blinks, surprised by Rodney’s error in judgment. “They’ve been seeing each other for two years, Rodney.”
Rodney frowns at that and it’s almost a pout. “Well, they’re not the only ones.”
“It’s a completely contrived situation,” John says, because he can’t hold it back any longer and he can’t believe that Rodney’s honestly lost his logic in the face of the tradition. “You can’t think that—”
“Colonel, please,” Rodney says, and John’s stops short at the use of his rank. It’s after hours and they’re just trading friendly banter but—Rodney’s completely serious. “You might be happy with a casual pizza here or there, but some of us are looking for something a little more substantial than that. And out here in Pegasus, we either take whatever chances we get or we make our own chances.”
There’s a pink tinge high on Rodney’s cheeks and he’s holding his gaze steadily just over John’s shoulder. He’s absolutely serious—and embarrassed by it. It’s exactly how he used to look when he’d talked about Katie Brown. The way he’d strung that relationship along for three years and bought her a ring when they’d been anything but steady—or even passionate—makes a little more sense now. Even the way Rodney had been willing to let Keller push him around is beginning to add up.
Maybe Rodney is a little desperate—desperate in that way John can’t quite fathom, but that others seem to feel so deeply.
“Well,” John says, ducking his head for a moment to break the tension before glancing up at Rodney with a smile. “Maybe you should hang some over your desk next year. It may increase your chances of actually getting some pizza for yourself.”
The tension in Rodney’s shoulders eases, even as he rolls his eyes. “Please,” he says, and John’s relieved to hear the whiny lilt of a tease returning to Rodney’s voice. “Everyone’s intimidated by me. The only people who actually stand next to me at my desk are you, Radek, and Miko. I’ll take my chances with the door.”
“I don’t know,” John says, leaning farther across the table to pull the mistletoe out of Rodney’s grasp. “I think you and Radek could make each other happy.”
Rodney stares at him, eyes wide with something like horror, before he smirks. “If that ever happens, I need you to kill me immediately. Radek would draw it out. It would be painful, terrible torture before a painful, terrible death.”
John grins, holding the abused mistletoe up above Rodney’s head. “We could leave it up all year and see what happens.” Finding something to secure the mistletoe to the ceiling of the lab wouldn’t be too hard.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Rodney says stubbornly.
“Imagine how often Miko would stop by if we did,” John says, mentally doing the calculations for how much string they’d need to hang it at just the right level. “You’d never be without coffee again.”
Rodney snatches at the mistletoe, but John holds on—he’s almost got the calculations figured out. Standing up on his toes, John keeps the mistletoe out of Rodney’s reach over the bench, but when he glances down, he finds Rodney staring at him. They’re inches apart and the flush on Rodney’s cheeks is unmistakable—maybe John has completely miscalculated his attempt at lightening the mood. Maybe this is too serious for him to be making jokes about.
“Rodney,” he starts, dropping back to his heels and setting the mistletoe on the table. He has no idea where to start his apology.
But Rodney shakes his head, stepping back from the bench. “I’ll take care of the rest of the mistletoe,” he says. “You’re right. It’s a stupid idea.”
And he’s gone before John can respond.
It’s almost time for their check-in with Atlantis when John steps into the jumper. They’d agreed to meet together and head back to make their separate reports. Since they’ve all been working with different villagers throughout the morning to find out as much as they can about the farming community here, there aren’t many other options. The abundance of land and crops paired with the perfect climate make it an agrarian dreamland.
Rodney crosses his arms, leans back in the co-pilot chair, and raises an eyebrow at John. He can’t even keep his smug look out of his voice when he says, “You’re not nearly as subtle as you think.”
“That’s rich,” John responds, sliding easily into the pilot’s seat. Honestly. Rodney’s about as subtle as Ronon’s gun.
“You always smile like that when you’ve been off getting pizza without the rest of us,” Rodney says, swiveling to the view screen when John does.
It’s almost startling how easy it is to make the connection now. Pizza is kissing and John has most certainly been off kissing Keyan under the almost-apple trees. It had been warm and the fruit was sweet and Keyan had smiled at him and kissed him softly, leaned back up against a tree and pulled him in.
“You know,” he says, tapping the controls to life, “smiling is a thing most people do when they’re happy. You should try it sometime—being happy.”
“You’re sure happy about something right now,” Rodney says lightly.
It’s tease or be teased in this galaxy, so John turns to Rodney and says, “That’s because I just had some good pizza. You didn’t get any?”
Suddenly Teyla’s there, shuffling through the jumper with a bag full of something bulky and green-smelling. “They do not have pizza at this settlement,” she says, settling herself into her seat.
And then Rodney is downright beaming. “It’s a metaphor,” he says, turning back to Teyla, “Sheppard just—Ow!”
A swift kick to the shins is a good way to shut anyone up, John has learned, no matter which galaxy you’re in. This is not the way he wants Teyla to find out about pizza. Rodney’s kept the secret for so long that John’s almost surprised to hear him crack now.
“Where’s Ronon?” John asks, his hands moving over the consols for the preflight by memory.
“He will be here,” Teyla says from behind him. “I know that he wishes to make his recommendations for further interaction with these people in person.”
Ronon had been the first one to suggest splitting up, heading off to the fields with someone who had news of some Satedan refugees. John just wishes he’d make it back on time for once.
“Atlantis will be expecting us any minute now.” He should probably be more concerned with a prompt check-in, but can’t muster more than a casual glance at his watch.
When John checks over his shoulder, he finds that Teyla and Rodney are sharing a Look. “Do not worry,” Teyla says, when she sees him looking. “We will make our reports quickly and then we can get you some pizza.”
John turns his chair sharply forward, feeling the heat in his ears already. “Not necessary,” he snaps, tapping unnecessarily at the controls. “Thanks for thinking of me, though.”
“I’m up for pizza,” Rodney says, still grinning.
The entire conversation is idiotic, especially with Teyla sitting right there, smiling in that fond, patient way. But John can’t help himself. “I don’t think Chef will be too happy if you barge in asking for unscheduled pizza.”
“We’re getting pizza?” Ronon booms, his boots heavy on the jumper’s floor.
There’s a moment of silence and Rodney catches John’s eye before they’re both laughing, doubled over in their seats, while Ronon and Teyla roll their eyes at Milky Way humor.
John has been waiting for this databurst from SGC for a month. It’s not often they get their personal requests met, but this one had been requested by so many members of the expedition that there had been an exception made.
“You ready for tonight?” John asks, catching Rodney’s arm as they pass on his way out of the control room.
Rodney glances down at John’s hand on his arm and John lets go. “What’s special about tonight?”
“You, me, some beer, the Super Bowl,” John says, waving his prized flash drive in Rodney’s face. This is the closest he’s come to watching the Super Bowl live in six years—just two days after it’s aired. It might not be college football, but John’s not about to complain.
“I should’ve known it was football,” Rodney says absently, his shoulders dropping. “You have that whole look about you.”
John shrugs. “What can I say?”
“You could say: Rodney, I want you to come watch a bunch of grown men push each other up and down a field tonight, but I know you have more important things to do, so I won’t even ask,” Rodney says, tone somewhere between mocking and actually amused. “But you won’t.”
“I definitely won’t,” John says, patting Rodney’s arm. “I will say: see you at nineteen-hundred.”
Rodney rolls his eyes. “Nineteen-hundred,” he repeats, and turns back toward the control room where he, presumably, has some work to get done.
“I’ll make sure there’s pizza in it for you,” John calls over his shoulder, because food is always good motivation for Rodney and it’s second Tuesday.
The day drags on at an agonizing pace. Watching training drills is more boring than ever, catching up with Lorne at lunch feels like a chore, sitting through a senior staff meeting with Woolsey is downright painful, except the part where glancing at Rodney every few minutes reminds him of the coming evening—he may even have a passable smile for Woolsey at the end of the meeting. Rounds of the city go particularly smoothly during the afternoon, but John can’t take the time to appreciate that, not even as he heads back to his quarters, stopping by the mess on his way.
When his door finally chimes, he has his screen set up with the game queued, the pizza set on a crate in front of the couch and fresh beers sitting in a cooler he managed to snag from Keller for the occasion.
Rodney squints at him when the door opens, which is John’s first clue that something is wrong. He expects Rodney to open with a lecture about the shortcomings of football as a sport and implications towards the mentality of anyone who enjoys it.
Instead, Rodney steps around him into the room, running his hand over the door crystals to close it as soon as he’s over the threshold—clue number two.
“Hey, buddy,” John says, because the game is suddenly much less important than a potential Rodney meltdown. “You okay? I got—”
His words are lost as Rodney crowds into his space, his hands coming up to John’s face and John almost goes cross-eyed watching as Rodney leans in and kisses him. It’s firm and doesn’t last long, but everything in John’s mind comes to a grinding halt because Rodney is kissing him, there in his doorway.
It’s over too soon, definitely too soon, and Rodney is pulling back, breathing sharply over John’s lips and saying, “I didn’t even realize pizza was on the menu here. You have no idea how long I’ve wanted—”
John brings a hand to rest on Rodney’s waist, mostly to feel that he’s there and solid. He doesn’t mean for it cut Rodney off, but Rodney’s mouth snaps closed nonetheless. Pizza, of course, means kissing now. And John had been an idiot for mentioning it earlier without clarifying. Not that he’s entirely unhappy with the results, but definitely still an idiot.
“Rodney,” John says, trying to catch Rodney’s eyes. “It’s okay.” And it really is. Rodney knows his boundaries, knows how John feels about kissing, hasn’t judged him once about it. He’s shown up at John’s door instead, looked him in the eye and kissed him.
“Oh, god,” Rodney says, his voice suddenly filled with doom, the way it gets when one of his machines gives out, when a reactor is about to breach, or a solar system about to explode. “You meant real pizza. You didn’t even—it’s second Tuesday, isn’t it? I should’ve known. I’m a genius and I couldn’t make the connection between pizza and football and second Tuesday and I kissed you instead. I’m so sorry. I’ll leave and we don’t need to talk about this again—”
Rodney’s trying to take a step back now. John doesn’t let him, holds onto his waist with one hand and lets the other slide around Rodney’s shoulder. And he kisses him again, drawing him in closer. He’s found that kissing people is as effective at shutting them up as kicking them in the shins.
“But you have a real pizza,” Rodney says against his lips when John pulls back.
“I do,” John says, giving Rodney another short kiss. “I was planning on eating it with you. But this pizza isn’t so bad, either.”
John tries for another kiss, running his hand up from Rodney’s waist to his chest, grabbing at his shirt to hold him where he is, but Rodney turns his head away. “We don’t have to,” he says, uncertain in a way that he shouldn’t ever be.
This time, John lets go, steps back. Rodney needs an explanation, so he’s going to get one. “Okay. I hadn’t ever really considered this pizza before,” he says, gesturing at Rodney, “but it’s nice. I would try it again.”
Rodney only hesitates a moment before he’s kissing John again, framing his face with his hands, the perfect amount of pressure and passion and John stumbles back a few feet, pulling Rodney with him, sinking to the couch and drawing Rodney down on top of him.
“Do you need to try it another time?” Rodney says softly, his lips still brushing John’s as he speaks.
This time, the kiss is drawn out and slow, almost lazy, and John feels himself slowly melting into his couch.
“I bet this pizza would go real nice with some beer and the sound of the Colts crushing the Saints in the final quarter,” John says, when Rodney pulls back again. He would reach for the remote, but Rodney settles in over him and it’s awfully distracting.
John can feel Rodney’s smile as he leans back in and says, “I’m still enjoying the pizza by itself.”
Two days and one almost smooth mission later, Rodney shows up at John’s door again. He has that look on his face that means he’s been thinking, which sucks because John has been doing everything possible to not think since Rodney left his room after the game.
“McKay,” John says, almost forgetting to let Rodney in.
Rodney, on the other hand, almost forgets to wait for the door to slide closed before he says, “I need to know what the rules are.”
“Rules,” John says, because that’s not what he expected to hear. He expected some insistence that they kiss more. Or do something else—go on a date or sleep together. Or that it’s all been a mistake.
“I need to know what you want,” Rodney says, gaze fixed on John’s face, so focused and intense that John has to turn away.
John has nothing to say, doesn’t even know how to answer. He probably should have thought about it more rather than ignore it. Because there’s something here, something with Rodney and his easy acceptance and unexpectedly patient kisses. It’s a new layer to their friendship, which is already long and rich and vital and John really does not want to fuck it up.
Taking his silence as an invitation, Rodney pushes on, “Is this something serious or are we just friends who sometimes have pizza together?”
John really wishes those things weren’t mutually exclusive—serious friends who sometimes make out seems like too juvenile a title for men in their 40s. That doesn’t make it any less appealing, though. Because what he and Rodney have—it works. The kissing had been unexpected and wonderful and it would be great if it didn’t have to change anything else.
“Or are we teammates who are friends who had pizza together one time?” Rodney’s still thinking, talking faster now, his hands moving without direction in the space between them. “I can work with that, but I—this has never worked for me. Relationships have never worked. I’m always on a different page than everyone else and I just—I need to know.”
“You know I was married once, right?” John asks, because he doesn't know what else to say. He can’t stop himself from retreating across the room to stand by his desk, breaking all illusion of eye contact. Rodney needs to understand all of this—of him. “It sucked. All of it. Not just her expectations for sex and romance—everyone else’s too. It changed everything about us that made us good together.”
There’s silence for a moment and John almost turns to look at Rodney. He would look, but he might lose his nerve. Ignoring the way his fingers are almost shaking, John flips through a stack of comics on the desk.
“So, what? You’re not interested in buying me roses?” Rodney asks into the silence, clipping the question like he’s talking to one of his more obtuse underlings. “Good. It’s kind of hard to do around here and my minions would kill you for stinking up the labs.”
“McKay,” John starts, turning on his heel to glare across the room at Rodney. “I’m being serious. I loved her. I wanted a committed relationship. But that wasn’t enough for her or for anyone else. I wasn’t—It just wasn’t enough.”
Rodney takes a step forward, like he’s about to pace, too, but the move is aborted and he rubs at his eyes instead. “So you do want this to be serious?” he asks, dropping his hand and catching John completely off guard.
Because that’s not exactly what he’d meant, and Rodney’s looking at him, eyebrows up and hopeful.
“I want us to be friends,” John starts, but the rest of the thought catches in his throat.
Rodney’s sigh is deep and long and accompanied by a roll of his eyes that gets right under John’s skin. “For the love of—” Rodney says, his tone short and tense before he takes another breath. His next words are just as exasperated, but somehow softer. “I’m pretty sure you just compared us to your actual, real-life marriage, John. Give me a break.”
John glances back down at the comics, not really seeing them. He can’t get Rodney’s pleading look out of his head. He could backtrack, tell Rodney no. Things would be awkward for a while, but they’d figure it out eventually. Everything would go back to normal. But now that he’s taken a step forward, John’s not ready to go back.
“I don’t—” John tries, gaze still fixed on his desk. “I don’t know how to say this.”
“Well, you’re going to have to figure it out on your own this time,” Rodney says, just as exasperated as before. “Because I’m really not sure where you’re going.”
“Fuck,” John breathes out. Really, he’s never even let himself name this feeling before, let alone articulate it. But Rodney’s right—Rodney’s right more often than he’s not when it’s important.
Forcing himself to look back at Rodney, John says, “I want us to be friends who are serious about each other and sometimes have pizza.”
Silence again, and John can’t quite believe he’s said it.
The word is like a drop of water in a pond, rippling its way from the top of John’s head across his body and down into his toes.
Not sure his voice will work, John manages to repeat, “Okay?”
Rodney squares his shoulders, arms crossed over his chest. “If that’s what you’re comfortable with, I can make it work,” he says, a challenge glinting in his eye, like he’s daring John to contradict him—which is easy enough.
“I’m not going to just change my mind.” John pushes himself away from his desk, back into Rodney’s space. “Not about pizza or anything else. You can’t be okay with that. There’s no way.”
“Really,” Rodney says, like he can’t believe he has to. The glint in his eye sparks and his hands fly up again, waving between them. “Maybe you haven’t noticed, but making stuff work is what I do. And I know I’m irresistible and all, but you might’ve also noticed that I don’t exactly have a lot of options lined up for serious. And a serious friendship—with you—that’s—”
John flinches, stops himself from taking a step backwards, because he doesn’t want to hear that he’s Rodney’s best option—his last resort. He knows Rodney’s desperate for a normal life, desperate for a family and a legacy, willing to take almost anything to get there. Being the backup plan to that is something John may be able to live with, but he’s not sure Rodney could.
“I’ve been in love with you since the beginning.” Rodney says it softly, but it rings in John’s ears like he’s shouted instead. All John can think of for a moment is Antarctica and interstellar maps and the slightly awed look on Rodney’s face that never seemed to fully dissipate in those early days. He really never sees this coming.
Rodney looks sincere and determined and maybe a little bit nervous in the way he’s shifting his weight from foot to foot, one hand pulling distractedly at the hem of his shirt. He tips his chin up, though, resolute despite his obvious nerves.
And John wants to say it back, wants to tell Rodeny he loves him, because it’s true. But the words catch in his throat. He loves Rodney, but he’s not in love with him and that makes a difference. Because he’ll never be in love with Rodney, just like he was never in love with Nancy. And maybe he should say all of that, but he can’t, just manages to say, “Rodney,” his voice breaking on it.
Something snaps in Rodney and he looks away, twists his hands together and says in a rush, “Or we can just forget about this and go back to the teammates who are friends who had pizza one time thing.”
“Rodney,” John says again, because he needs Rodney to stop. There are a million things he could say—Give me a minute, or This is too much, or We were never just teammates—but none of them seem right. Instead, he takes the last few steps to close the gap between them and twists his fingers into Rodney’s shirt, pulling him close.
“Shut up,” he says, wrapping his arms around Rodney and holding on, face pressed into the warmth of his shoulder.
“Oh.” Rodney almost sounds surprised, but his hands are immediately there on John’s back, large and steady as he turns his nose into John’s hair.
They stay there for a moment, and John can feel his heart racing. He doesn’t do this, normally—he’s never been one for hugs and cuddling and physical comfort, but he can’t bring himself to let Rodney go.
“So,” Rodney says, some time later, breath warm over John’s scalp. “Friends who sometimes have pizza?”
John tightens his hold on Rodney for a moment and shakes his head. “Serious friends,” he corrects.
One of Rodney’s hands moves, rubbing an arc over John’s back. “See?” Rodney says, smug. “Already making it work.”