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The day before the Daedelus was scheduled to make the return trip to Atlantis, Hermiod and Novak got into a slap fight.   It escalated into punching.   Hermiod's high-pitched, screams when Novak gave him a black eye had echoed throughout the ship, and then all pretense of professionalism disappeared into brawling when Hermiod--in a blind fury--had tackled Novak into a console, sparks flying everywhere.

 

*

 

Although Rodney would have given a kidney to have been in the meeting where Caldwell had been forced to explain why the Daedelus' return trip to Atlantis would be postponed pending repairs, he could have lived without the unfortunate side effect of being trapped in Cheyenne Mountain for another six and a half days.

Since they'd encouraged the beginning of an intergalactic civil war between various Wraith groups, Atlantis had gained the luxury of time--which the SGC chose to waste by recalling authority figures left and right for torturous debriefings, as if somewhere between the last time Rodney explained the eight thousand ways they'd fucked up one of them could have changed or something.  

No department head was safe and senior management was being passed around like a particularly down market party favor.   The last time Rodney had seen John in the halls Sheppard had been wearing a slightly crazy look around the eyes; he'd thought briefly about warning General Landry or the international committee of the dire consequences of letting Sheppard go all the way feral, but figured they'd guess for themselves when John started gnawing on the walls and office furniture, clawing at their faces.

On Thursday, Rodney was tooling around John's office--the SGC hadn't seen fit to give Rodney a lab of his own, but laconic pilots who did all their paperwork sitting on the floor, they deserved personal space--when he accidentally hacked the pitiful security measures on John's computer and accidentally searched through all of John's email.  

(Rodney would have felt bad about it except around year four on Atlantis John had started taking Rodney's clothes and Tylenol and one particularly memorable occasion had fallen asleep on him, cementing Rodney' suspicion that Pegasus had effectively destroyed their idea of boundaries.)  

In between the many and increasingly stupid memos about AAR minutiae and questions about munitions and personnel concerns and John's hundreds-of-messages-long flamewar with Cameron Mitchell about whether or not N.C. State or Boston College "sucked goat balls," there was an automated email invitation.

Rodney scanned it and said, " Huh. "

 

*

 

"Did you know," Rodney said, sitting down across from Sheppard in the mess and automatically reaching over to snatch away John's chocolate Snack Pack, "that you and Samantha Carter graduated from the academy the same year?"

John set down his half-finished turkey sandwich and shoved a few crinkle fries around his mostly-full plate, looking inscrutable.   "Did we," he said.

"I don't know how you could have missed it," Rodney said brightly.   " She's got a mountain of accolades and she was nearly canonized."

John glared at him.   "Does this have a point, McKay?"

"The point," Rodney said, beaming sweetly, "is that your graduating class is apparently having a little unofficial get-together this weekend--and you should take me."

John rolled his eyes, peeling the bread off of his sandwich and squishing it into tiny white balls--partly as a nervous tic, Rodney knew, and partly to encourage Rodney's sometimes irrepressible desire to confront John about his obvious eating disorder.   The man was three ballet lessons and a breakdown in the girls' bathroom away from being an after school special of the worst and most poorly-acted kind.

"No offense, McKay," Sheppard drawled, "but you're not exactly the kind of girlfriend you take home to impress old friends."

"Ha ha very ha," Rodney snapped, tamping down a vague sense of reasonless hurt and trying not to think about said reasonless hurt in the context of his coercing Sheppard into helping Rodney consummate his and Sam Carter's cosmic romance.   "You know exactly what I meant."

Cocking one brow, Sheppard started in on the other slice and said, "And I'm not too psyched about helping you badger Carter into falling in love with you, either--if the blunt force approach hasn't worked for this long I doubt stalking will help much."

Finally unable to stop himself, Rodney slapped the remaining bread out of Sheppard's hands, jerking the lunch tray out of John's reach.   "Stop that!   Christ, you're such a freak ."   And noting Sheppard's less-than-amused expression, Rodney sighed, "Look--I'll owe you, okay?"

"You already owe me," John answered.

"That's not true," Rodney argued.

John held up his right arm, where on the pale skin on the inside of his elbow there was a tiny, fading transfer tattoo of a My Little Pony.   "You owe me," he insisted grimly.

Gulping, Rodney held up his hands in a peacekeeping gesture.   "Fine, fine.   I owe you already--but can't I owe you more?"

Narrowing his eyes, John said, "Lay it out for me."

It was hard not to yell, 'Hah!   I knew you'd capitulate!   You always capitulate!' but Rodney managed somehow, saying instead, "It's really simple.   We'll just show up at the bar coincidentally with the rest of your party and you can say something asinine like, 'wow, Carter, what a surprising coincidence!' and then I'll take it from there."

John gave him a look.   "Tell me, in your head, do these plans actually sound like they're going to work?"

"Sometimes," Rodney said defensively.

Reaching over to snatch back his pudding, John said, "Fine--but you owe me big ."

 

*

 

To be fair, John had lived up to his part of the deal and shown up, said, "Wow, guys, it's great to see you again, what a totally surprising coincidence," although he wasn't going to be getting any extra brownie points for acting ability.  

It was after that it all started to go to hell.

Linda's had disreputably-blue walls and televisions mounted over the bar, playing ESPN and CNN and SoapNet on mute, aged wooden booths, and the permanent waft of stale cigarette smoke in the air, the loud buzzing of dozens of Air Force officers reminiscing about their glory days nearly failing out of rockets--whatever that was.

"Except Shep here," somebody everybody was calling Speed said, obnoxious and obviously drunk, one arm tossed over John's shoulder and preventing his planned escape.   If Rodney was reading John's expression correctly, it translated roughly into: I am feeding you to the largest, ugliest, most rapacious Pegasus natives I can find as soon as I get back to my own God damned city, McKay.   "Shep was practically Jesus ."

Rodney choked on his Sierra Nevada.   " Jesus? "

John covered his face.   "Oh, Christ," he muttered.

"The second coming .   Walked on fucking water this guy," Speed insisted, and waving his hands expansively, he motioned at the other patrons, saying, "You can ask anybody in the joint, Shep was a fucking hazard .   This motherfucker could make you feel dumber than a pile of dog shit if you looked at his work."

"Thanks, Leslie ," John said sourly, glaring.

Looking betrayed, Speed said, " Hey ."

"It's been a long time," John said uncomfortably.   "Can we stop comparing grades now?"

Rodney failed to see when it would ever cease to be appropriate to compare grades; it wasn't like there was a statute of limitations on these sorts of things.

"Oh, don't be shy, Colonel Sheppard," chimed a familiar, heavenly voice--Sam Carter in her shining blonde glory: smirking and bright-eyed with her arms crossed over her chest in challenge, standing next to their booth.   "You graduated second in our class, after all."

John winced.   "Colonel Carter," he said.

Rodney was momentarily torn between confronting John about this 'second in their class' nonsense and why it was further proof that John played stupid for the sole reason of giving Rodney an aneurysm, but decided there'd be time enough for that on long puddlejumper rides where there was nowhere for Sheppard to hide.

Giving John a warning look just to let him know he was in trouble, Rodney pushed up to his feet to flash Carter his most charming smile.   "Sam!"

"McKay," she said, but her eyes were focused entirely on John, with a low-grade but intently homicidal expression that made Rodney sort of uncomfortable.   "Let me guess, you bugged Sheppard until he brought you."

"And I was just planning on leaving," John said stiffly, and pushing Speed's arm off of him, he said, "So, that is actually exactly what I'm going to--"

And then a man with dark blond hair pushed his way through the crowd, saying, "Sam--hey, did you get a booth?   I parked the--oh," cutting himself off as he saw John.

Rodney freely admitted to being somewhat socially retarded, so the fact that even he immediately smelled the blood in the water made all of his muscles tense.   He thought crazily in memory that really, he'd never seen Carter and John in one another's vicinities before--and that perhaps the disturbing sensation of somebody throwing chum into a shark tank that was brewing here was part of the reason why not.

"Uh," Speed said, disentangling himself and stumbling away from the booth, wild-eyed, "I better go.   You know.   Stuff to do.   Places to be.   Other than here.   Anyway bye!"

Rodney watched with bland fascination as John went from green to white to dark red in the face and stayed stubbornly quiet for a full, unending minute before he said, "Ben."

"John," Ben said awkwardly, eyes darting between Sheppard and Sam in a thoroughly disconcerting way.   "Sam invited me.   I didn't know you were coming."

"Neither did I," Sam bit out.

"Neither did he," Rodney felt compelled to remind everybody, and winced.   One day his stupidly protective instinct for Sheppard was going to get him mauled by tigers or persistent local suitors or both.

"And on that note, I should really be going," John said firmly, hand flat on the table and starting to get to his feet.   "Not that this hasn't been really special.   Rodney.   Colonel.   Ben.   I hope you guys have a good night."

"Wait," Ben said, sighing and looking sheepishly between John and Carter.   "Look, guys.   It's been almost two decades, can't we just act like adults and put it behind us?"

Both John and Sam made matching hamstrung expressions, but before either of them managed to produce some good reason why not, Rodney asked, "Put what behind us?"

 

*

 

It was probably both the best and worst possible question to ask, Rodney would reflect morosely later, sitting next to John with Sam Carter and Ben Last Name Unknown perched uncomfortably across from them, fiddling with the ketchup and mustard bottles.

"So," Rodney tried nervously, "you were all...friends at the Academy?"

John put a hand over his face silently as Ben made a hysterical noise.   Sam just continued to glare at John.   He was sitting on the outside of the booth, trapping John in his position, and although he'd cased the joint for exits, if he was reading correctly the iron grip John was keeping on his knee correctly, he had no chance of escape.   It all but screamed, You started this, and you will stay here and suffer it .

"No," Ben finally managed to say, mouth twitching.  

"Oh," Rodney said faintly, deeply uncomfortable.

They all stared at each other some more until Ben rolled his eyes and sighed.   "For crying out loud, Sam.   You've forgiven me, don't you think it's time to let John off the hook?"

Carter's mouth turned down, which was all that needed to be said.

"I knew this was a bad idea," John said quietly, and tried to get up, reaching one long arm across the table to reach for his jacket, hung up on the side of the booth but--Rodney's eyes widened--Ben put a hand on John's wrist and gave him a pleading look.

"John, please?" Ben murmured, low and sweet and, fingers curling solidly around the surprisingly-fragile looking bone at John's wrist.   "I haven't seen you in years."

And if that wasn't bad enough, John's determined expression faltered into one of uncertainty, like he, too, felt that he had not seen dirty-blond Ben--who, Rodney suddenly thought meanly, looked a lot like some of the more buffed actors in cheap military-themed porno--in years and had missed him .

Rodney wondered if his head wasn't just going to explode in sudden, blinding jealousy, but before he could slap Ben's hand off of John and yell, "Okay, just what the hell is going on here, Sweet Valley Airmen?" Sam Carter did it for him, punching John in the arm instead and hissing:

"Are you kidding me? "

"Okay, ow ," John complained, sitting back down and rubbing at his elbow.

"Sam, cut it out," Ben said, disapproving.   "Let's just--try to be grown-ups about this?"

"Like I'm the one in the wrong here," Sam said bitterly, sounding entirely like a 17-year-old girl, which was both disturbing and kind of hot, in a dirty old man sort of way.

John huffed, "For the record: I don't even want to be here.   I still don't want to be here."

"Well, I want both of you to be here," Ben said tightly, glaring across the table at Sam and John and by extension Rodney, who was trapped in the unending hell that was the tiny space between them in the booth.   "God, you two."

"Oh my God," Rodney said, feeling sick, looking between John and Sam, who firmly looked at anything but one another.   And entertaining thoughts of Carter and Sheppard engaging in pornographically acrobatic sex with one another's gorgeous bodies, Rodney asked morbidly, "Did--did you guys date? "

Sam's face was almost comically mortified and John's entire expression turned to stone even as Ben rolled his eyes, saying, "Hardly.   Samantha and John spent most of their time at the Academy trying resist the urge to kill one another in their sleep."

 

"Kill each other in their sleep," Rodney parroted faintly, worried.

"It was not like that," Sam protested.

"It was like that," John said back, too casually.   "At least, on your end."

Narrowing her eyes, Sam pinned John with a scowl.   "I wonder why ."

Throwing up his hands in a disgusted move Rodney recognized well from the many and sundry offworld trips that went terribly, horribly, astonishingly wrong, John said, "Oh for God sakes--I said I was sorry!"

Sam's eyes bulged and leaned over to hiss, "You stole my boyfriend!"

Rodney had a seizure, very quietly.

John rubbed the bridge of his nose.   "Thank you for telling," he sighed, glaring.

Ignoring him, Sam hissed again, "You stole my first boyfriend!"

"I didn't steal your boyfriend ," John hissed back as Ben muttered, "Oh for fuck's sake."

Rodney felt a second seizure coming on, but he still didn't trust himself to make any noise.   He'd had dreams like this, where John and Sam Carter got into catfights that had somehow turned erotic, and after they'd made out with each other for a while, they'd decided to paw on Rodney instead--which was about the time that Zelenka or Simpson or Elizabeth or hell, John, would yell into his radio, "The east pier is being attacked by fire-breathing squid," or something equally stupid.

"Look," John said, putting his hands flat on the wood of the table to glare at Sam more closely.   "I've said I was sorry; I said it was an accident--"

"How do you accidentally sleep with--?"

Rolling his eyes, John muttered, "Well obviously I did it to spite you despite the fact that you and I barely knew each other and I met Ben when we were both incredibly intoxicated."

"Okay," Ben interrupted, putting his hands up, "time out!   Both of you!"

Sulking, John and Sam both slumped down in their respective booths and Rodney flagged at the bar frantically, trying to communicate his desperate need for liquor--and noted with resigned pain the expressions on the servers' faces, which plainly said there was no chance in hell they were getting anywhere near their booth.

Ben glared between Sam and John and said, "It's been two decades already: just bury the hatchet and get over it.   Sam graduated first in our class, I slept with John; in this case, maybe two wrongs kind of equals it out."

"No, it doesn't," John and Sam chorused.

"Hold on a God damned minute," Rodney finally burst out.   "You--I--I can't believe--" and failing to achieve coherence, he went with his gut reaction and turned to John, boggling, " What the hell?   You sleep with men? "

John covered his eyes.   "God, McKay, can we talk about this later?"

Rodney ignored him, waving his hands emphatically.   "You sleep with other people's boyfriends? "

"At least twice that I know of," Sam said bitterly.

"By accident ," John groaned.   "By accident .   And can we please keep in mind that we're in a bar filled with Air Force personnel?" John hissed, slapping Rodney's hands back down onto the table and scowling.

Rodney dug his nails into John's fingers until Sheppard said, "Ow, mother fucker! " and let him go, looking betrayed, and Rodney barely stopped himself from babbling out a knee-jerk apology because he was hopelessly weak against John's hurt eyes.  

Ben groaned, "How can you two still be angry at each other?   Is this about your grades?   Because neither of you even liked me that much."

"What!" Sam all but yelled, splaying a hand across her heart.

"Oh, please ," John and Ben said together with matching skeptical expressions.  

"Ben, how could you say that?" Sam demanded.

Ben raised his eyebrows.   "What's my birthday?"

"Ben, come on," Sam laughed nervously.

"No, I'm curious," John said snottily.   "You dated for almost a year."

"Until you slept with him ," Sam retorted.

Rodney gaped.   "What the hell was this, Colorado Springs 90210?"

John turned to Rodney with an intense stare.   "McKay," he said seriously, "if you don't let me out of this booth right now, I'm going to starve Ronon for a week and then lock you two in a room together."

"Well, excuse the hell out of me!" Rodney snapped.   "This wasn't in the original game plan for me, either, Colonel Sleeps With Other People's Boyfriends!"

John put his head on the table.   He'd barely finished saying, "Please let aliens start attacking Earth so I can have an excuse to escape this fresh hell," when his and Rodney's cell phones started ringing off the hook.   And at Rodney's infuriated, accusing stare, John squawked, "I didn't mean it! "  

"Apparently, you never do!" Rodney shouted back, struggling out of the booth and tossing John's coat at him, reaching over to grab his own.   "I swear to God, Sheppard, if we're annihilated, I'm going to kill you ."   He gave Sam a pointed look.   "Well?   Aren't you coming?"

"This is my first day off in nearly six months," she snorted dismissively and waved at a waitress.    "I'm sure you two can handle it."

 

*

 

The car ride back to the mountain was uncomfortable.   It was hard to listen to Elizabeth detail the machine that had just cut through the SGC iris while every alarm in the complex shrieked in the background and her disbelieving bark of, "What do youmean Colonel Carter isn't coming?"

Elizabeth met them in the control room when they burst in, her eyes wide and tight around the mouth.   She said, "General Landry and O'Neill are on a conference call in the other room to discuss options, but we're not certain what we're dealing with here, so any suggestion is a welcome suggestion."

 

She indicated the gateroom.   "It's been making progress cutting through the iris.   Dr. Lee thinks it looks Ancient in origin," which prompted Sheppard to say, knee-jerk, "Oh, thank God."

Elizabeth gave him a disbelieving stare.   "Excuse me?" she asked.

  Rodney waved his hands dismissively.   "He was begging for alien intervention a little while ago--it just figures Atlantis likes him enough to actually send it," he said, equal parts bitter and worried, watching the sparks fly from the jagged rip in the iris, the way the metal was flaking off in tiny corkscrews as the blade shredded its way through the leaves of trinium.   "What makes you say this is Ancient?"

At that exact moment, through the torn lip of the iris, a sensor reached out and a soothing blue light began to flash at regular intervals, and the metal arm of it swept the room until it finally pointed straight at Sheppard and started to beep threateningly, light going from blue to an alarming shade of red--the robotic equivalent of saying DEATH DEATH DEATH.

"I vote not from Atlantis," John said uncomfortably.   "I don't think it's happy to see me."

  "Or too happy to see you," Rodney snorted, disgusted, and went to work, muttering under his breath as his fingers flew over the computer keys, "It's probably just pissed because you slept with its boyfriend."

Excuse me? " Elizabeth asked again, eyes rounding.

"You are so lucky we're being attacked by space robots right now," Sheppard warned.

You are so lucky we're being attacked by space robots right now," Rodney promised.

"Guys?" Walter piped up.   "It's uh--reaching some kind of leg through the hole in the iris."

It was.   The "leg" had about a foot diameter and a fringe of deadly-sharp razor blades going down its left side.   It whirred and whirred and Rodney wondered sometimes why he'd ever bitched and moaned and pleaded to be let out of the Area 51 labs and into field work--because when you did field work, this is what happened: you ended up with team leaders who slept with other peoples' boyfriends and the space robots who loved them.

"Oh for fuck's sake," John muttered, and turned on his heel.   "I'm going to the armory, somebody get the gateroom door ready to open on my command."

John was already braced at the gateroom door, wearing his t-shirt and jeans and bazooka on his shoulder when Elizabeth leaned over the control console and said into the intercom,   "John, we don't even know what it is--I hardly think blowing it up is the best course of action here.   Give Rodney some time to--"

Rodney leaned into his own mike, saying, "One week's pay that I kill it before you can blow it up."

John grinned up at them, tapping his radio.   "I'll take your money."  

Scowling, Elizabeth said, "Both of you are fired," but Rodney figured out Sheppard missed the announcement completely because firing a bazooka was really, really loud.   The crater that it left in the iris was visible once the immediate cloud of smoke cleared, and by then General Landry was out of the conference room and back into the control room, sputtering in fury while Rodney muttered about increasing radiation and hair loss and Sheppard having six-eyed babies and naming them Blinky if he didn't get the hell out of the gate area immediately.

"Colonel," Landry bellowed into the comm, "what do you see?"

But John only coughed into his radio and said, "I blew off its leg, sir.   So its either going to go lick its wounds now or it's going to be even more pissed."

The whirring resumed.

John sighed.   "Hold up," he said, annoyed.   "I have some grenades.   How's McKay doing?"

"McKay is realizing that you're looking at sterility if you don't manage to get that thing to shut off soon," Rodney called back.   "This thing is emitting radiation and amping it up every minute--you have five more minutes down there before I send some MPs to drag you out kicking and screaming."

"In that case, I'm going to try something," John quipped, setting down the grenade and frowning deeply at the smoking metallic stump still balanced in the opening of the iris, he said, "If this works, it's going to be really embarrassing."

And just like that--the whirring stopped and the robot stilled in the smoking crater of the iris.

"Oh my God," Rodney said in disgust, staring.   "You thought it off.   I'm not paying you for that," Rodney said into the comm when he finally regained his equilibrium, listening to the wormhole shut down and watching heavily-armed MPs flood the room, pointing their guns threateningly at the now-dead robot with a lot of posturing until Sheppard sighed and said, "It's really dead.   Don't make me go poke this thing."  

Luckily, the summary humiliation of the entire exercise shifted left dramatically when SG-9--"Oh, Jesus ," Sheppard had moaned--opened a wormhole and radioed frantically to warn the SGC of the Ancient science experiment they'd accidentally initiated on M78-538 as they were planning to dial back into the mountain, and to ask if they were all okay.

 

*

 

It was later, while John was chewing out his ex-gate team just for old times sake, that Rodney caught up with Sam, finally wandering back into the mountain looking utterly unconcerned that while she was hagging around they'd all nearly died.

"Nice of you to finally show up," Rodney snapped at her, scowling at her over his laptop.

She smirked at him.   "Mountain's still standing," she said by way of answer.   "And don't pretend you don't deal with stuff much worse than that all the time--I read the Atlantis mission reports."

"If by 'worse' you mean 'more stupid,'" Rodney allowed acidly, "then yes."

Sam just grinned back.   "You've really grown as a person, McKay," she praised him, and tugged off her jacket, tossing it over the back of a chair before sitting down.

Rodney shut his laptop with a snick, and spent some time staring at her nearly unparalleled combination of beauty and brains and bodacious bod before in a moment of totally Pegasus-related insanity, he said, "He really doesn't do it on purpose, you know."

Sam blinked at him, confused for a moment before her eyes widened in shock.

He rolled his eyes heavenward.   "I can't believe I'm going to say this," he told the ceiling, disgusted with himself, and then tipped his chin down to look at Sam again.   "I'm serious.   He doesn't do it on purpose.   To quote him directly, he 'never sees it coming.'"

Sam couldn't hide her smile.   "Happen a lot in Pegasus?"

"Well," Rodney said meanly, "clearly I didn't know about the 'other peoples' boyfriends' part, but yeah, this happens a lot in Pegasus."

Sam gave him an unreadable look for a long moment before she said, finally, "That really doesn't help much."

"I just thought I'd let you know so that you all could form a That Bastard Accidentally Stole My Man Slash Woman club and cry and make friendship bracelets," Rodney told her meanly.   He tried not to think about the sickly jealous tone in his voice, his progressively more intense hopeless crush, and the fact that he'd picked up a copy of Walk the Line while Earthside, because that was how much of a 14-year-old boy he'd become in Sheppard's presence.

And then he caught Sam staring at him, considering, her mouth turned downward, and Rodney thought in a panic about how Sheppard said he had a shitty poker face, how he gave everything away.   So he opened his laptop again and stared down at it intently.

Huh ," Sam said.

"Don't even say it," Rodney snarled at her, not daring to look up, and started typing at random on his screen, fingers flying over the computer keys and seeing row after row of gibberish appear, the home key letters appearing over and over again until Sam finally left the room.

 

*

 

His next three nights were a haze of insomnia and pay-per-view and cyberstalking like it was going out of style.  

In less than 24 hours Rodney knew everything about anything to do with John Sheppard's academic career--always an area of his past Rodney wasn't particularly interested in, since John dismissed the entire thing with a hand wave and a shrug that all but screamed "mediocre."   He spend the following 24 hours obsessing over the fact that when Sheppard's drunken friends at the bar had been talking about "rockets" they'd meant essentially "rocket science" and that for many years at the Air Force Academy, John had been a major threat to Sam Carter's class rank.   He lay down on the floor of his apartment and took deep breaths while trying not to explode from a combination of arousal and fury.  

In his darkest moments, Rodney entertained demoralized thoughts of the many thousands of slutty boyfriends Sheppard had slept with--imagined with great detail bar bathrooms and alleyways, furtive blowjobs and Sheppard slamming people into and then fucking them against walls.   There were some really elaborate set-ups involving leather and pick-ups and possibly fucking on motorcycles, which Rodney attributed to unrealistic and also supernaturally well-balanced porn stars on cable.   Mostly, he spent a lot of time being pissed because John was so effectively hiding from him.

Rodney didn't know what he was most bitter about, that John was being so immature about this--it wasn't like John had never learned embarrassing truths about Rodney--or that he was becoming slightly deranged from spending his nights imagining John having illicit gay sex instead of getting any sleep.  

On the fourth day, he called Jeannie.

"If you weren't my sister," he started, "and also, you were a man and you slept with other people's boyfriends--would you date me?"

After she hung up on him and he called her right back, Jeannie sighed and said, "Okay, seriously, Mer, if I weren't your sister and also a man and also slept with other people's boyfriends, I still wouldn't date you because Colonel Sheppard doesn't know you have a completely embarrassing crush on him."   She paused.   "And you call him a slut.   A lot."

"I didn't say it was him!" Rodney snapped.   "And I don't call him a slut that much!"

"You called him a slut like 12 times while I was on Atlantis," Jeannie said flatly, and then cussing under her breath, said, "Madison!   No!   Slut's a big people word!   Crap--thanks a lot, Meredith," and hung up on him again.

The ultimate problem, Rodney knew, wasn't John's lurid sexual history or how his lurid sexual history intersected with Sam Carter's, but that it illuminated a possibility Rodney had put out of his mind--and now it was all he could think of.   And that was when Rodney realized there was something worse than imagining John having illicit gay sex, and that was wondering if John would have it with him .

So he blamed a combination of sleep deprivation and gate-induced madness for his showing up at Sheppard's apartment at 11:30 the night before the Daedelus left for Atlantis again and babbling, "I just wanted to say, just to let you know that really, if you based it on basic relationship standards and the fact that I'm frequently caught partaking in free time with--"

Rodney ," John interrupted, standing in his doorway and looking annoyed.

"--my point is," Rodney quickly revised, "I'm kind of Katie Brown's boyfriend."

John stared at him blankly.

"You know," Rodney prompted.   "If you wanted to keep up your MO."

Sheppard slammed the door in his face.

 

 

*

 

Then it was Rodney's turn to avoid Sheppard, which worked out pretty well for both of them until they realized it was a nearly-impossible feat in the confined space of the Daedelus, and that also Caldwell had a sicker sense of humor than anticipated and assigned them to bunk together.

"Is he doing this because he hates you?" Rodney asked, staring at their tiny room, equipped in true prison chic with a sink and a mirror and two narrow beds, bolted to the gunmetal walls.   Design whores the Asgard were not.

"Probably," John said, resigned, and threw his bag onto the left bunk, collapsing down onto the thin mattress and throwing an arm over his eyes.

Rodney stared at him uncertainly for a moment before he said awkwardly, "So."

"I don't want to talk about it," Sheppard cut him off.

"Well, I don't want to talk about it either," Rodney snapped, throwing himself down on the opposite bunk.   "I never wanted to talk about it to begin with!   But you and Sam rubbed your--your disgusting little sexual shenanigans in my face and--"

Sheppard threw his duffle bag at Rodney and then Rodney, sputtering, threw his backup battery adapter at Sheppard.   But before the situation had an opportunity to escalate into all-out warfare, John was called away by the one of the F-302 engineers and Rodney recalled to the bridge, and they called a temporary truce to storm to opposite sides of the ship.   By the time Rodney finally managed to stagger into his quarters again that night, Sheppard was already passed out on his bunk, completely dressed save for his shoes, smears of motor oil and engine fluid on his face.   "You know," Rodney whispered into the dark.   "I only call you a slut because I care."

The next day was more of the same, uncomfortable silence punctuated by flurries of abortive violence, and Rodney didn't know how obvious they were being until Elizabeth sat him down over lunch and said, "You know--there's a rumor going around the Hermiod and Novak were forced into counseling."

Rodney's fork stopped halfway to his mouth.   "Seriously?" he boggled.

Elizabeth gave him a warning look.   "Yes," she said darkly.  

Rodney edged away from her.   "Uh," he said intelligently.

"Just some friendly gossip," Elizabeth continued, voice light again and wry smile back in place, leaning back against the chairback easily, hands cupped around her mug.

Narrowing his eyes, Rodney said, "Wait--you assigned housing for this trip, didn't you?"

Elizabeth said, "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about."

"Fine," Rodney muttered, clutching at his flatwear bitterly.   " Fine , but you should know this can only end in tragedy."

Elizabeth gave him a look that conveyed just how little she cared.

After a lagging start and a few more emails appraising Rodney of Novak and Hermiod's experiences in therapy with particularly ominous ellipses at the end, Rodney kicked himself into high gear, only to have Sheppard spend the next two days further eluding him.   Rodney was having uncomfortable flashbacks to his freshman year of college, where despite the fact he was fairly certain he had a roommate--judging from the monstrous pile of laundry and ill-advised Whitesnake posters--he'd never quite managed to get visual confirmation of it.   "I know you're on this ship somewhere," Rodney wrote Sheppard in an email, "you can't hide forever."   Then he found out Sheppard was terrorizing all the new F302 pilots with harrowing space scrimmages.

Rodney thought darkly the only way he'd get Sheppard to stay still long enough to talk was if somebody pinned him with one of the planes.

 

*

 

"Okay, but I didn't mean it ," Rodney said, heart thrashing around in his chest as he watched a small army of pilots and crew carefully dissemble the left wing of a damaged fighter.   The pilot inside the cockpit was white-faced and horrified--a completely rational reaction to having run over one of your commanding officers.

Sheppard was lodged underneath a mountain of twisted steel, gnarled from where the F302 had veered too close to the left and made intimate contact with the far wall of the bay where he'd been doing some sort of pre-flight inspection on one of the older fighters.   The only thing holding Rodney's burgeoning panic attack at bay was Sheppard's annoyed, gravelly voice bitching near-nonstop from underneath an engine, his words slurring from the painkillers the ship doctor had started pumping into his system in preparation for when the shock wore off and the broken bones wore in.

"I'm going to bust that guy back to private ," Sheppard moaned from underneath the sheet metal, curled up on his side with IVs winding around rotator cuffs and piles of bolts.   "I can do that.   I'm a lieutenant colonel now."

Elbowing his way into the fray, Rodney reached out and grabbed Sheppard's bleeding hand.   "The Air Force doesn't have privates," he said.

"Neither will he when I'm done with him," John shouted through the metal, trying to jerk his hand away from Rodney's.   "Go away--I don't want to talk to you."

"I cannot believe you're being belligerent right now," Rodney chastised him, tugging John's hand more firmly back into his grasp and keeping a few fingers on his pulse, partly to assuage his own worry and partly to comfort the ship doctor, who was giving Rodney an extremely evil glare.   He indicated that he was counting and looked at his watch in comically exaggerated motions.   "You're pinned under a spaceship, just shut up and let me comfort you."

"I don't want you to comfort me," Sheppard muttered, voice tinny and echoing from beneath the metal and faint in the shriek of bolt-cutters and saws working overtime.   "You'll just call me a slut some more."

Letting out a frustrated huff of breath, Rodney checked left and right to see everybody was too busy trying to unpin Sheppard to listen very carefully before he said, "Look--I'm sorry about that.   I didn't--well, I guess I didn't mean it that way."

"Which part?" John said mulishly, and Rodney tried not to think about the sheer stupidity of this situation: having a conversation while Sheppard was crushed underneath part of an F302--because of course that was the only way to coerce John into talking about his feelings.   "The part where you sided with Carter and called me a slut or the part where you tried to pick me up like I was a slut?"

"Okay, Jesus!" Rodney hissed, paranoia rising.   "I'm sorry for calling you a slut!"

"I'm not a slut, Rodney," John bit out, and there was a thud as another piece of wing disappeared and Rodney saw a little more of John's chest--his uniform ragged and a bit torn, blood seeping from a shallow cut along his side.   "I really didn't mean it."

Sighing, Rodney nodded, though Sheppard couldn't see it.   "I know you don't."

"They don't ever tell me," John continued, sullen and sounding distant, like the morphine was starting to weight down his eyelids, making him tired.   "They never say anything."

Rodney blinked.   "About what?"

"About their girlfriends," John murmured.   "I always found out like, a week later."

There was a long pause when Rodney was fighting a desperate urge to call John easy and a whole host of other unflattering names when John added, voice faint and annoyed and something else that Rodney didn't hear out of John very often, "They don't mean it.   I'm just there ," and Rodney's entire argument collapsed in a fit of self-loathing realization.

Rodney let out a shuddering breath as one of the mechanics yelled in the background, "Okay, guys!   Be ready to lift on my call!" and suddenly the rest of the twisted wing was gone and there was just John, curled pitifully in a medicated sleep.   His eyes were shut tightly and he looked bruised, bloody and ill-used--one hand still clutched in Rodney's.

 

*

 

John spent the rest of the Daedelus trip in the infirmary making life hell for both the infirmary staff and his subordinates, who were lucky enough to have to deal with both Lieutenant Colonel Crushed By An F302 and Colonel Put An Asgard And A Soldier In Couples Therapy.   Rodney spent it feeling shitty.  

In high school, Rodney had been friends with the class bicycle, a stringy-haired blonde named Harriet.   It'd taken him about three weeks to figure out what the term "class bicycle" meant, and then a few more before he realized that even though everybody got a ride, nobody particularly liked her.   The rest of the guys never really had anything other than come ons for her and the rest of the girls looked at her like she was something offending, scraped off the bottom of their Trapper Keepers.   Scrawny and afflicted with a serious case of logorrhea and 12-years-old, Rodney had gravitated toward her immediately.

"Okay, reputation or not," Harriet had said, glaring, "I am not banging a 12-year-old."

Rodney had scowled at her, slamming down his Freezer Mate lunch box.   "Please," he'd scoffed.   "I don't think I've even hit puberty proper yet--I just figured you're not going to pants me or make jokes about diapers if I sit with you a lunch."

She'd raised one dark blonde eyebrow at him but turned back to her sandwich and Harlequin.

They had always sat together at a table at the far corner of the cafeteria, far out of the way of cheerleaders and jocks and even the nerds, who'd shunned Rodney outright as a freak of nature.   And after a quarter of silent lunches where Rodney had occasionally caught her watching him working on physics with a strange curiosity, he'd accidentally tripped into a conversation with her.  

Harriet wasn't particularly smart, but she was funny and she knew a thousand mean things about everybody--who had a tiny dick and who had funny spots on theirs, who was cheating on their girlfriend (usually with Harriet).   Rodney had realized eventually that she was just as shitty with having friends as he was.   When he was 13, he'd made the fatal mistake of trying to kiss her one day and she'd made a look of hurt so profound that he'd tripped all over himself babbling an explanation, saying he'd been enjoying his sister's Tiger Beat a little too much and he wasn't sure if he was bi or gay or broken --but things had changed anyway.   At the time, he'd buried it under sullen reassurances; he was graduating in a few months anyway, and Harriet could take her and her creaky wheels elsewhere.

Now, more than two decades and an entire galaxy away, Rodney realized with sinking horror he'd done it again , and he couldn't even blame it on being kind of gay or too young to know better.  

This time he wasn't 13-years-old, couldn't really get much further away than the Pegasus Galaxy, and liked John a whole lot more than he'd liked Harriet--there were bigger stakes here than somebody to sit with during lunch.

So when John woke up the day before their anticipated arrival on Atlantis, Rodney was prepared, braced in a hideously uncomfortable seat next to John's hospital cot.  

"I don't think you're the class bicycle," Rodney told him as soon as he saw John's eyes open, swimming slowly into consciousness.

John turned to stare at him for a minute, blinking twice before he said, "What?"

"I don't think you're the class bicycle," Rodney repeated clearly, flushing miserably.

Rubbing his face, John said, "Rodney--what does that even mean? "

Resisting his urge to flail his arms around until John caught a clue, Rodney hissed, keeping his voice low, "It means I don't think you're really a slut, and I'm sorry that I called you one all those times.   And that when I--well, when I did that thing, it wasn't because I thought you were easy."

John looked horrified.   "I will give you $1 billion dollars if we stop talking about this."

"We have to talk about this," Rodney snapped.

"I will give you $1 billion dollars if we can talk about this somewhere other than the infirmary of the Daedelus," John answered.

"Nobody's here," Rodney dismissed, indicating the very empty infirmary.   "They're all at some sort of voodoo staff meeting, and the rest of the crew is so scared shitless between you and Caldwell they're all hiding at their workstations."

But John only looked progressively more hostile, so Rodney sighed and said, "I'm serious, Colonel.   I didn't--it was my attempt at trying to be smooth."

"By treating me like a slut," John said flatly.

"I didn't say I was good at it ," Rodney emphasized, face flaming.  

"Really?" John said, all faux astonishment and wide eyes.   "I never would have guessed."

Rodney tightened his hands around the bed railing, feeling sicker and more scared by the moment because he thought that if he tried to kiss Sheppard and it turned out like it had when he'd tried to kiss Harriet, there'd be nothing to console him and nowhere to go.   They were in Atlantis , at the far edge of the universe, and he had the sickening realization if he fucked this up all he'd see of Sheppard for the rest of whatever would be laundry and Whitesnake posters.

"I like you," Rodney forced himself to say.   "Actually, I like you to an embarrassing degree, and almost everything about you, even the stuff I hate.   Like your stupid belief that you can fly everything and how you honestly think that the Dreamcast is a superior gaming platform to the--"

"Rodney," John interrupted, frowning.

"--the point is," Rodney said, high-pitched, "I like you.   And I don't think you're a slut, and I kind of hate the people who made you think you were."   He rubbed his face, realizing that it was actually possible to die from humiliation as he found himself saying out loud, "If I had a girlfriend--you'd hear it from me, and she wouldn't be my girlfriend anymore."

There was a long pause before John said, "You know, I'd think this was a whole lot sweeter if I wasn't waiting for somebody to kill me with a copy of the UMC."

Rodney gaped at him, but felt his righteous fury kind of melt at John's smile, which was soft and sarcastic and just as sweet as he didn't find this conversation.  

"Thanks, McKay," he said, resettling himself against his pillows and rearranging his plaster-cast wrist on the sheets.

"I mean it," Rodney said, sounding as desperate as he felt. "I really do."

John cocked his head to one side and looked at him with a considering expression.  

"I guess you do," he said quietly, like it was a radical concept.   Like nobody had ever really meant it with him before, which Rodney realized with a pang could be exactly the state of things.   "We should pick this up on Atlantis," John said finally, a grin creeping over his face.  

Feeling utterly Pavlovian, Rodney beamed.   "Yeah?"

John laughed.   "Yeah.   You can not call me a slut some more."

 

*

 

Less than three hours after touching down in Atlantis, Hermiod and Novak got into a tense disagreement about rounding up or down in the thousandths place while calculating long-range sensors that escalated into more hair-pulling and backhanding than even before.   Rodney and John actually stood, watching in fascination, as Hermiod cussed violently in Asgard and Novak said words that would get her mouth washed out with soap until John made Lorne break them up.  

"Sir," Lorne said, making a hangdog expression as a rolling chair was overturned.

"Get to it, Major," John said cheerfully and clapped him on the back.

"You enjoyed that way too much," Rodney accused, trying and failing to keep the smile from his mouth as he and John sat down in the mess hall.   Rodney slid John's coffee across the table to him: two creams, no sugar.

"Maybe," John allowed, grinning.

"Gentlemen," Elizabeth said, wandering past, trailed by a small army of underlings with backlogged paperwork and things she totally, absolutely, completely needed to look at 30 minutes ago, only not at all.   "I see you've kissed and made up."

"Well," John said saucily.   "We haven't kissed yet ."

Rodney choked on his coffee but Elizabeth only laughed, saying, "Good, good."

Yet ," Rodney wheezed after Elizabeth had left, mopping up the coffee on his chin and collar while glaring darkly at John.

"Well, you only just made your intentions clear," John said lightly, still smiling, "I wouldn't want to seem easy or anything."

Rodney lost the fight with his smile completely.   "Oh," he agreed.   "Of course not."