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The Obvious Trap

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John Sheppard walks into the cell like someone has slipped up and told him there’s a surprise party just beyond the threshold. There’s an effort to his nonchalance, a forced coolness, his unease only broadcast in the tells you need to know about to know about: the unnatural flatline of his brows, the way his hands shunt at fabric-burn speed into pockets and his inability to navigate any piece of furniture like the human beings they were designed for. It’s the same way he enters the senior staff meeting, only here, now, there is no chair to slump into or table to hide a jiggling leg behind, and no confetti or cake, so he leans against what’s left of the door in the wake of Ronon Dex, demolition man.

It could be fun to watch the piecemeal way John’s apprehension dissolves in the absence of shouting and paper hats, how his shoulders unpinch and how his hands, out of his pants pockets this time but wrapped around his P90, gradually lose their ghostly hue as he lessens their clench and the blood tumbles back in. Fun, if you’re not Rodney McKay, until now imprisoned by a bunch of bellringing hippies for a day and a half with no food, no radio. Fun, if your friends hadn’t just kicked down the door without warning and pointed their weapons at your head. The Penari had pointed nothing at him, he’d just gone, beguiled by honeyed mead, the spiced thrum of music in the air and John Sheppard’s laugh ringing in his ear as loudly as the bells, as jarringly as the promise Rodney couldn’t quite believe John might keep. Gone, walked blithely when ushered into a room and heard the haunted house scrape of a key turning in a lock behind him.

“Oh, thank god,” Rodney says, though not without some wariness; John and Ronon had lowered their weapons hesitantly. “I’d get up but, uh, I’ve not really eaten in a while? Hypoglycemic hallucinations or not I still don’t want to pass out in front of you.” No food, no radio, but he’ll be damned if he’ll let what little dignity he has left after falling for such a stupid ruse in the first place get pulled out from under his feet too.

John is wordless, tilting his head out of the doorway to keep tabs on their escape route. Ronon, having demonstrated his talent for phasing through solid matter through the simple principle of being ten feet tall and getting a good run-up, takes point, holstering his particle magnum and crossing the room to crouch in front of Rodney.

“We’re real, McKay,” he says. The hand he has on Rodney’s shoulder feels tangible enough, tonne of bricks that it is, strangely gentle as it is. Ronon has his terrifying moments; being spoken to by him in a reassuring tone sure is up there with walking through doors without opening them. “You good?”

“I’m good,” says Rodney, peering through Ronon’s hair to decipher the mood scrawled into the lines of John’s forehead. Normally there’s more snark in the air when a rescue has gone right, a west-coast drawn-out massacre of his name as they humph him up and along some misbegotten corridor and back toward home. It’s like John is bluescreening, like he can’t believe there’s no party after all, like the Colonel cosying up to him on a cushion at the Penari celebration one and a half days and two minutes ago, all liquor-loose and lovely, had been no more than an imposter wearing his weirdness like a well-fitted coat. The memory clatters through Rodney’s thoughts like a dropped handbell. John is spooked, right here, right now, and Rodney wants to know why.

“So,” Rodney addresses John over Ronon’s shoulder. “This a covert op or did you hand over the last of the expedition’s creamed corn for my safe return?”

There’s a curve to John’s lip now that’s some cousin to funeral laughter, a relic of how hilarious everything becomes when you’ve been rattled like a cocktail shaker and poured out like one too. The tells are even more telling of his discomfort; not meeting Rodney’s eye, gaze darting and landing on every other surface like a fruit fly in an upended glass. “Don’t worry about it, McKay,” is what he eventually hands over to Rodney, and it’s a poorer trade than whatever the Penari got out of this, that’s for sure.

Ronon shifts and blocks Rodney’s view of John completely, and he really would like to not be in this room or on this planet any more so John’s crisis falls from importance, an unopened letter sliding off the pile and spinning to the floor, kicked into the keeping of dust bunnies.

“C’mon,” John says to Ronon, seeming to startle himself at how suddenly he boots back up from his moody reverie. “Get him up and let’s get out of here.”

“He is right here,” Rodney says, because other than the pass-out-and-you’ll-miss-it jumble of emotion that careened across his face when he first set eyes on Rodney John is otherwise a pretty big disappointment in the hero stakes today. Rodney opens his mouth again to point that out, primed and raring to make inquiries on the identity of who pissed in his cornflakes but Ronon decides it’s time to haul Rodney up by the scruff of his tac-vest and there really is no negotiating that; if Ronon Dex wants you to go somewhere, you’re going.

*

Dr Keller starts shooing the rescue mission hangers-on before the gate even winks out. She’s long-practised now in the dispersal of the extra bodies that hover in elbow-jabbing radii around the injured, or, in this case, act as load-bearing joists for an astrophysicist who can absolutely make it to the infirmary under his own steam but since the gurney is already here, well, then, let’s roll.

Ronon slaps Rodney on the back after hoisting him onto his transportation then makes tracks; the man knows how to make himself a scarcity of resources. John lingers, more from habit than concern: the expression sketched across his face has been done with a particularly distracted hand. He looks like he’s about to read a eulogy.

One of the medics is taking over shoring-up duty, arranging pillows at Rodney’s back and making more of a nuisance of themselves than even Rodney feels is warranted; there’s being the centre of attention and then there’s being coddled, and though the bar is frankly ankle-height at this point Rodney has some standards. He backhands John’s arm as they start to trundle away from the gate. “You gonna tell me who died already?” John is stiff-backed and ants-in-his-pants begging to be shooed in the glances he keeps flinging over his shoulder toward Dr Keller, but Jennifer is talking to the medic pushing the gurney along the hall and hasn’t noticed his weird need for permission to get gone. Rodney’s gut twists when he realises who’s missing. “Oh, God, is Teyla…?”

“Teyla’s fine,” John says, flashing Rodney a smile so there and gone that it looks like the corners of his mouth were propped up with cocktail sticks. “She had to go to the mainland at short notice.”

Rodney smooths the bedsheet primly as his fright ebbs. “I suppose you and the Kool-Aid Man handled the rescue just fine by yourselves.”

“Yeah, you can drop it. Nothing’s wrong.”

Now, John is a goddamned no-good lying sonofabitch and this is no deviation from his programming. An open book with half the pages written in lemon juice, invisible and inconvenient, but whose encryption barely passes muster and has never deterred Rodney from coming to his own conclusions anyway, crinkled in the heated reveal. Mistranslations, perhaps; reading John, with all his omitted words and redactions, has always been a losing battle, but if John’s flaw is burying the truth between the lines then Rodney’s is never yielding, always turning the page to see that John’s charm is not charm at all when you read it again. Not even close. The snippiness in his voice, his mouth a curling citrus rind, are a bell-chimes all of their own saying, anywhere, anywhere but here.

A side-corridor presents itself and John peels himself away from Roney’s retinue; tardy in his heeding of Jennifer’s original begone, mortals gestures but heeding them all the same. All for the best, probably. He’s no fun when he’s being shitty, rumpled like slept-in bedding, desperate for Rodney to pick a fight.

“Nothing’s wrong, my ass,” Rodney mutters to the back of John’s head. Unraveling John’s problem today is futile; John is no stranger to being intractably bizarre simply because it’s a Tuesday. Taking the bait, rolling it around in his mouth like a slurp of sauvignon blanc, is pointless, and Jennifer is saying something about a bed-bath so the only thing Rodney wants right now is for there to be no witnesses.

*

It’s not like he ever thought he wouldn’t be rescued, but it’s the when that gets you, crawling up under your not-so-fresh clothes halfway through the night to whisper small stories into the shell of your ear about all your friends realising life without you is actually rather pleasant.

MR3-395, or Penar-Tana according to the Ancient database (and Teyla), had promised little in the way of life-threatening danger other than death by boredom (“Ooh, another win for the conifer enthusiasts I see.”) or deafness. “The bell-ringing celebration goes on until dawn; the Penari believe the bellsong chases off the dark months of winter and sounds the way for the warmer days to find them,” Teyla had explained on at least three occasions. Rodney had tuned out halfway through the first, bent-backed at the prospect of another evergreen afternoon on a planet yet again bereft of energy signatures. There really was no reason to bother sending in their flagship team, Rodney had said at least three times too, but somehow he was in Jumper One in his gear and pointed at the event horizon before he’d even finished listing his protests.

“They could turn out to be valuable trading partners,” Teyla pointed out from the rear passenger seat. “It is a small enough gesture on our part to spend one night with them so that both parties may benefit for years to come.”

“Might have cool guns,” Ronon said.

“Did you miss the part where the MALP indicated precisely zip in the advanced technology department?” Rodney said, twisting in his seat so that the flat look Ronon was drilling into the back of his head could drill into the front of it instead.

“Do your P90s show up on that thing?”

“Well,” said Rodney, “No, but-”

“Chance of cool guns,” John said from the pilot’s seat as if announcing the weather forecast. “Worth a sleepless night to me.” The gate swallowed them up, much like Rodney would have preferred the ground to swallow him up later when he realised he’d strolled into the galaxy’s most boring trap.

He hadn’t panicked, not right away. Tried the radio, which was either broken or not penetrating whatever the walls were made of, and the life-signs detector was all of a sudden a nothing-detector as well as a not-cool-guns detector. He contemplated, then, how unoriginal it was for this sort of thing to happen again, to happen to him, to happen on all of the most annoying planets, before he decided it was time for a little hyperventilation after all.

Before that, it had been going strangely. Not well, Rodney hadn’t quite decided it was going well, but the rotgut on tap was a hair above rus wine in the potable stakes so it was definitely of note. They’d hardly touched down in the jumper before being whisked into the Penari bell circle and onto a rug with a three-asscheek-capacity maximum, but hey, Rodney wasn’t against the idea of people sitting in his lap in theory but when it was less the long-legged and long-haired bringers of booze and more so the sidearm of one John Sheppard digging into his appendix his enthusiasm for getting local waned somewhat.

But it was okay. John Sheppard of Penar-Tana was amiable, braying as the tongue-sweetening wine flowed and the possibility of a civilised trade negotiation became the future AR-1’s problem along with the hangovers. John’s arm was an amiable arm, had woven its way through the tangle of the team to wrap around Rodney’s shoulders like they were the sort of old-buddies-old-pals that did that sort of thing.

The bell circle was vast and the Penari confident of their weather patterns: the whole ensemble was spreading itself outside in a grassy clearing like an algal bloom, less so a verifiable circle as a simmering congregation of their entire settlement’s population limned by upright trees whose affrighted branches pointed to the darkening sky. Rugs like the one Rodney had most of his backside on, thick woven and scratching him through his BDUs, were arranged around a great collection of braziers in the centre; Olympic torch-rivalling, blazing, hot and heady, a great orange mote on the surface to the galaxy’s eye. The rugs were occupied too, by too many people; all of them, man, woman, and child had bells braided through their hair and tinkling around each wrist and ankle, shimmering and sussurating and strung from low-slung loops around bare waists, dripping from navel-length necklaces and in at least one of every pair of hands there was a hand-bell, with which they punctuated every other sentence by clanging vigorously and in Rodney’s opinion, entirely unnecessarily.

The Penari were all very hand-holdy when not occupied with the jingling of the handbells so the arm thing was easy to explain. John’s concession to local custom, that was all, impressive steps for a man so remote from the practice of demonstrative affection he might as well tonsure that non-regulation hair and become a monk. The only problem was that sort of thing, the guys-being-dudes team-spirit embrace, was transmuting from the dullness of lead to something rare and new as gold, from a grinning and bearing of it all to what Rodney, halfway through his infirmary spongebath, is now one hundred percent certain was John making a pass at him.

Woozy quivering heat-mirage air and too many thighs pressing against his, Rodney was sure this debacle qualified as at least first base with at least one member of the team, but, bunched together on the same cushion as they were, it was impossible to be completely sure who. John, however, didn’t seem to mind any of it. Rodney had unrolled his sleeping bag beside John enough times now to know the man was drywall in a tent, board rigid even when asleep, or never truly sleeping. Relaxation, despite all the slouching, the lounge pants when off duty, the languid speech even now as he somehow both yelled and mumbled into Ronon’s ear over the bells, was just an affectation, a lackadaisical sham, more fiction and filler in the book of John. A bait and switch that John was performing only for his own amusement. Rodney had been counting wine-wise; John had had one cup, had covered it with his free hand when the leggy pourers had made their way back around the circle to proffer a refill.

John’s free hand was not reaching for a bell but somewhere in Rodney’s lap. A reflexive curl of fingers on the meat of his thigh, then, opening like a clamshell to clamp, gentle as the bite of a soft-mouthed dog. It was no accident, no slip of the trigger-finger. Torso twisting, all of them contorted in one manner or another to stay seated, John would have been much more comfortable if he wasn’t sliding the palm of his hand along the inside of Rodney’s leg, and Rodney would hazard a guess, just a wild hypothesis, that so would he.

Comfortable, but much less interested.

John’s attention, to the onlooker, was on the ceremony, on the dance of light and shadow on skin and metal and on the tangle of sounds competing with each other in the chaotic air; the whispered chuckle of tiny bells on babies’ feet, the cackle of the handbells and the funereal peal of the bourdon bells at the far end of the circle near the edge of the Penari settlement, rattling windows in frames and teeth in jaws alike.

It was a grounding gesture, then, a focal point for Rodney to hone in on, keep in line of sight while the air vibrated around them and Ronon’s locs bounced against his face. As hypotheses went it wasn’t too batshit, but it was up there. Any port in a storm, face flushed with wine and the pulsing fire, Rodney swallowed and tried not to enjoy it too much. One of the Penari women handed him a cowbell and wouldn’t go away again until he jangled it in an acceptable manner. Claustrophobia in a wide open space, that’s what this was, and John’s hand was tightening its grip. Grounding, sure, but which of them needed it more was up for debate.

John Sheppard of Penar-Tana had been letting something slip, and Rodney never quite got his hands around the neck of it before it all went wrong.

John Sheppard of Atlantis kept his hands to himself, left him at the end of a long corridor and didn’t drop by to see how he was doing, not even once.

Slipping, slipped, slipped up, slipped back.

*

Teyla visits him once he’s recovered enough from his ablutions that Keller lifts the embargo on moral support, bringing with her a cornucopia in the form of a tv dinner tray heaped with boiled vegetables and what might be steak. Rodney isn’t sure if he’s more pleased to see her or the mashed potato.

“I am glad to see you suffered no lasting ill-effects of your imprisonment,” Teyla says, but what she means is, I have never seen anyone look upon creamed corn with such rapture.

“Living out here in the galaxy fighting for your life every day tends to harden one to these sorts of situations,” Rodney says as he examines a baby carrot impaled on his fork tines, mouth politely only half-full.

“By that metric that would make me very much inured to such trials. Ronon too.”

“Oh, well, yes. Obviously you two are way ahead of me in the, uh, field-competency stakes, but I really think I’ve come qui-”

“And John-”

“Alright, yes. I’m still the least cool person in the team. Old news, my lot in life and so on. Speaking of people who have a haircut in place of a personality,” Rodney says, sawing into what he really hopes is meat, “what crawled up Sheppard’s ass and died since I got de-Shanghaied?

Disgust alights on Teyla’s features briefly as she navigates her response. It’s not that Teyla isn’t on Rodney’s side - or that any member of the team isn’t in a to the death sort of way not on any of their sides - but she so often falls in line with John when John’s bonnet is the one with a bee in it that when she finally concedes, “He is being more obtuse than usual,” Rodney has trouble swallowing his forkful.

Right? He’s barely said two words to me since he and Ronon tossed a coin over who wanted to carry me over the threshold and even then it was through gritted teeth. Like how everyone used to speak to me when we first got here and how we all still speak to Zelenka.”

Teyla punches his shoulder in a way Rodney supposes is meant to be fond, but there are no half-measures, or mock-punches, with Teyla.

“It is as if John has been… distracted ever since we returned from Penar-Tana after your capture,” she says, retracting her right hook to smooth out the creases in the corner of the hospital blanket nearest her. “I suppose that is not unusual; we were all worried and eager to return with a rescue party. When I asked how the mission went on my return from the mainland his answers were brusque. Evasive. Even for John. As if he had something much more pressing on his mind than talking to me, and he could not wait to attend to it.”

“Ah!” Rodney says, pointing his knife at her. “So it’s not just me he’s pissy with.”

“Actually,” Teyla says, awkwardness so alien in her serpentine head tilt, the way she recrosses her legs while she chooses her words behind the line of her mouth, “I believe it is. Just you. I am surprised to find John absent,” she adds, indicating the empty ward with a sweep of her eyes, “despite that.”

Rodney dumps his cutlery onto the dinner tray and shoves it further down the bed. He goes to fold his arms but changes his mind and stalls mid-way, jerkily scratching his nose with one hand while the other hovers redundantly. “Is it something to do with the bell-whatever festival?” he says, before Teyla can get a word in. “Because if it’s not, then I don’t know what I’ve done. Or not done. I’ve forgotten everything that ever happened before that point.”

The Penari Festival of the Harvest Month,” Teyla corrects with the soft curtness of one who has corrected on this specific topic so many times it’s become a matter of principle. “Which, if I recall, you were enjoying if the quantity of upturned cups in front of you was any sign.”

“Hey, I like shots as much as the next cultural hostage up until the moment the natives actually take me hostage,” Rodney says, thinking of how much John was enjoying proceedings if how far his hand had proceeded up Rodney’s inseam had been any similar clue.

Teyla concedes this with a twist of her lip. “But, you escaped without injury and are home now, where the creamed corn supplies are, I have been assured, still in abundance.”

“That Athosian humour, hm?” Rodney says, narrowing his eyes.

Teyla narrows hers back. “Perhaps.”

Rodney sighs. “Right,” he says, folding his arms without incident this time. “I need to tell you something about Penar.”

*

The team left him. Watched him disappear off to the bathroom for all they knew and dusted off their hands (and handbells), said oh, thank god for that, it’s only taken five years, and zipped back to Atlantis in the jumper in time for dinner. A giant ploy: get McKay offworld and oh, would you look at that, he fell into a bear trap, Mr Woolsey, oh dear. Irrational, Rodney knew, the thoughts that wheeled through his mind during the first night of his imprisonment. They wouldn’t abandon him; they were probably still topside, calling out for him (or ringing some bells) but he heard no calling (or ringing, thank God for small mercies) so after twenty hoarse minutes he stopped shouting for help and started trying to find the way out for himself.

They’d said, the Penari, the pair of young men who had taken his bell from him and beckoned hither, they’d said some nonsense, that they had heard he was a great mind amongst the visitors from the Ancestral City, that they had heard he might be persuaded to help them. Rodney, overcome with gratitude-induced mania at no longer being responsible for rattling his bell on the off-beat had let what they said be true, figured he very well could be persuaded to bestow his brainpower on whatever problem they were having. Yoke-related, probably, or someone almost inventing the lever and needing a leg up. If they happened to have any ZedPM-shaped mantel ornaments lying around ripe for the repurposing, what was a great mind to do, so he stumbled after them on cushion-numbed legs. They’d walked him into one of the thatched-roof dwelling-houses that had had the usual chaos inside of rushes-strewn floors and the malingering scent of the backends of various livestock. Then he was being led downstairs, and that was always a bad thing, going downstairs, especially going downstairs inside a structure that from the outside only had one storey. What alarm-bell in his head could possibly compete with the thousands of real-deal peals burnishing the air outside? Rodney walked guilelessly as a soft-footed lamb into the room he was directed toward, and there was no yoke or lever, no mantelpiece or ZedPM waiting inside, and they shut and locked the door behind him before he could even point out how unoriginal this was.

John had said, keep in touch, don’t go far, and tapped his radio with a finger on the same hand that Rodney, skirting the edge of the bell circle with one side of his body hot from the braziers and the other cool from the encroaching night, could still feel pushing into his thigh muscle as if testing the firmness of a peach. Spectral memory-versions of John’s fingers were still skating along the tightrope edge of his pants waistband too, not quite bold enough to uncover skin, or brush against the dander hair in the small of his back, but the molten anticipation of it all had been pooling in the base of Rodney’s belly all the same. Half hot and half cold, Rodney had been worrying mostly about deciphering that (and not about where he was being led) and how easily he’d flipped from disdain to vague intrigue to even vaguer confusion to being glad the Penari men were leading him away from the light and into the shadows of the settlement. Hand-holdy was one thing, but the Penari might not take to their guests of honour strolling about with hard-ons as sweetly as to their wine.

The way he’d come into the room was the obvious choice for a swift egress, but the door was barren of hinges he could unscrew or mechanisms that invited tampering. It seemed, like most cells, the only access was from the other side of the door. Nothing to climb onto either, and nowhere to climb to; there was no window, no light save for the dull orange glow of firelight from the corridor he’d followed the Penari men along, seeping in like an envelope nudged under the edge of the door.

He tried to think of the next logical action. He couldn’t escape, so he could either try and negotiate when the Penari inevitably came to give him food or water or make a break for it when they came to do the same. It was reasonable to assume if they’d wanted him dead he’d be dead, so crusts and water were at least a possibility. He sat down, then got up again because pacing helped stave off the swelling closeness of the darkness and the cloying scent of whatever it was he’d put his hand in on the floor.

If they had some Ancient tech they needed a gene-carrier to activate surely they could have just asked, but consent was a wishy-washy concept in some parts of the galaxy so it was hardly a given that the Penari held fast to the concept. If they had some way of detecting the ATA-gene it made no sense to grab Rodney either, flattering though it sort of was, when the Pegasus galaxy's numero uno lightswitch-flipper was right there on the very same rug they’d snatched him from. Perhaps the drinks-bringers had been double-agents, spying and listening and relaying their findings via bell-chime Morse code. This guy’s the leader, these two could probably kill us with a look, this last one is an unknown, is drinking too much, is quite at ease with having the leader’s hand so far up his leg he can count the change in his pocket, let’s nab him. If they did in fact want John after all, making him do what they wanted would be easier if they had something of his that he cared about, and did not want bad things to happen to.

The room was a trap only Rodney would walk into because he really was the least field competent; even now, the least aware of the bigger picture, of context, detail-oriented to the last. Focused so much on the minutiae and how they slotted together, for example, pacing between the door and the wall, how on earth to explain John’s actions in a way that both fit into the narrative between them up until now, and in a way that pointed to the future - by which he’d meant the next five minutes, and then the five minutes after that, a lifetime in bite-sized morsels of so we’re a thing, now? - in the gentlest way possible. No freakouts in the panic room, there were already too many ghosts in there with him.

There was no negotiating with the Penari that night or the next day, no crusts, no water. Rodney, having steeled himself to try and get some sleep on top of whatever that was on the floor, was tentatively brushing the dust from the epiphany that perhaps it was less it’s taken us five years to get rid of him, and more it’s taken five years to get up the nerve when the door came bounding off its hinges, followed in short order by the muzzle of Ronon’s particle magnum, then Ronon himself. Finally, lingering under the lintel, the hazy hangover-memory of John himself materialised, out of arms’ reach once again, and five years too late to do anything about it.

*

“I do not think,” Teyla says at length, drawing patterns in the remnants of Rodney’s creamed corn with his discarded fork, “that I am the one you should be telling this to.”

“Well, it’s not like he’s here, is it?”

*

John is a hard man to pin down, except normally he can’t be shaken off when you’re the guy he’s been panting after since day one and he’s waving a Daedalus-fresh copy of The Two Towers at you across the mess hall and you have the team DVD player. Rodney had had a moment in the small hours, released from Keller’s keeping and lying at last in his own bed, that jolted him awake like a hypnic jerk: it was only when John wasn’t stepping on his shadow or whatcha doin’ing in his ear in the lab or control room like a dog that’s decided you’re its person was it clear to Rodney that it was kind of annoying not having him annoying him. Maybe, Rodney thought, turning the pillow to the cool side, he’d been doing a little oblivious panting of his own.

He finds John in the jumper bay after several ignored radio calls, in the jumper, messing about with the weapons configuration menu on the HUD.

“I’m pretty sure the drones don’t come with a passive-aggression setting but I know how much you love to prove me wrong, so, by all means make your sulking in here useful.” Least field-competent maybe, but Rodney has gleaned enough about tactics over the years to know a full frontal assault is attention-grabbing if not the linchpin by which victory is assured. Fighting with John is a little fun anyway, sniping and biting and biting back until a third party tells them to pay attention to the briefing, gentlemen, please.

The reflection of John in the windshield has a halo of Lantean text pulsing around its head; neither it, nor the real thing, glance up. “Looks like someone got up on the wrong side of the cell this morning.”

“First sign of madness, that. Talking to yourself.” Rodney plants his hands on the dashboard, eye level with the side of John’s head. “Wait, no, did I say madness? I meant being an asshole.”

“How is that the first sign of being an asshole?” John says, scrolling through schematics and still not meeting Rodney’s eye.

“No, no, you’re right, getting ahead of myself here. Let’s see,’ Rodney says, counting off on his fingers. “Pissy for no reason, check. Ignoring your poor, recently re-traumatised so-called friend after a miraculous rescue mission from Planet Tinnitus, check. Pseudo-platonic, years-long, so-called friendship that neither party was ever going to actually broach the subject of that I had an epiphany about at four-thirty this morning, check, check and check. I’m going reverse-chronologically here but stop me if you want to amend anything. Like, uh, don’t know,” he finishes more lamely than planned, punctuated with an uptilt of his chin, “the being an asshole.”

“The only thing miraculous,” John snaps, standing up so abruptly Rodney doesn’t follow him and is scowling, momentarily, at his belt buckle, “about that whole situation is that you managed to put yourself in danger, again. Get captured, again. Put the team at risk getting you back. Again.”

“Oh, oh!” Rodney exclaims, glaring in the right direction, “why was I distracted, I wonder!”

“You’d think,” John says from the cockpit door before storming out, “you’d have learned something in the last five years about not fucking me over, but I guess we’re not that close after all.”

Rodney staggers after him, wending his way around equipment and trip-hazard cabling that someone really ought to tidy away. “Oh, sure. Gloss over everything else! It’s all about you. Team at risk? Risk from going deaf, sure, I’ll give you that.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” John says, and Rodney almost agrees. It’s too weird, too difficult, and there’s the niggling feeling that John is right, in a way; Rodney has no idea what he’s trying to say, only that he has to say it, and why break the habit of a lifetime. John is by the jumper bay entrance when Rodney stamps up to him and bats his hand away from the door control.

“Why did you never just say you liked me?”

John’s good, Rodney will give him that. Doesn’t flinch, or blink. Doesn’t give him even an inch, this guy, this guy right here who knows Rodney inside out, who can read his mind and finishes his sentences in sub-vocalised murmurings when he thinks Rodney isn’t paying attention. John is even more of a moron than Rodney thought, doesn’t actually know Rodney at all if he’s got it into his head that pushing that theoretically platonic friendship into proven new territory is a non-starter. A bad idea, a slip of the tongue. The thing is, Rodney, obsessed with detail, minutiae-maniac, is always paying attention, even if he’s not paying attention to the fact he’s paying attention. “You are chronically incapable of letting yourself be happy, aren’t you?”

John hits the door control, shoulders past Rodney, and walks out.

“This, this is really helping your case, this,” Rodney mutters, sprinting after him. John is striding along the hallway at a fair pelt, and people are moving aside and staying aside as Rodney ploughs on in his wake. “This whole ‘just walk away’ thing?” he says, too loudly, “I have a goddamn degree in arguing on the hoof so your plan here is a bust, bucko.”

“I have work to do,” John says, diverting down a side-corridor that definitely leads nowhere where anything needs doing by Atlantis’ military commander no matter how briskly he’s power-walking along it. Rodney veers after him like a repression-seeking missile.

“Fine. We can fight on the way.”

John stops. Turns, puts a hand out to stop Rodney too, and says, to Rodney’s disbelief, “I slipped, Rodney. On the planet. It shouldn’t have happened and I’m sorry. Now, just, leave it.” And then he’s off again, quicker than a slap, ten steps away and getting further by the second. It’s Rodney’s turn to have computational issues at that unbelievable admission, but he shakes them off, starts jogging to catch John up while his hindbrain ties itself in knots with analyses.

“Oh, no no no, you do not just get to keep getting your ten thousand steps in after finally having an emotion, Sheppard. You’re sorry? What, for coming onto me?” Rodney says with still no regard for volume; there are more people passing by and John is looking more alarmed by the second as he barrels down the corridor with clearly no real destination in mind. “For ghosting me the second you find out I’m still in one piece which by the way, as much as I’m used to that, not cool.”

“Yeah, well, you know what?” John grits out, whipping around again so suddenly Rodney almost walks face first into him, “Maybe it’s a little hard-”

“Oh, it’s a little hard is it? A little hard?” Rodney interrupts, really, so genuinely trying to control his voice but it’s all getting a little frantic, computation errors compiling, brain going into safe-mode. “Try being me, no, shut up, try being- hey!” he yelps, as John yanks him by the elbow into an adjacent storeroom occupied only by shelves and shelves of MREs.

“Keep your goddamned voice down for once in your life,” John growls between the boxes. “Jesus Christ.”

“I wouldn't have to yell if you’d just listen to me,” Rodney hisses back. “This entire thing is your fault, remember? I was quite happy repressing any latent feelings in the you department until you decided to ring my bell.”

“Jesus Christ,” John says again. “Look-”

“No, you look-”

“Will you shut up and let me speak?”

“No!”

“Why?”

“Because I don't know what you’re going to say!” Rodney shouts. He closes his eyes, rubs a hand over his face, contrite. “Okay, that’s not a strong argument, granted.” He gestures at John, hand wheeling on his wrist. “Go on then. But it better be good.”

There isn’t much room to pace in here, not without meandering through the maze-like spaces between the towering boxes of apricot jubilee and chicken supreme, but John gives it an aborted attempt anyway. Two steps in, he turns back around to face Rodney, shoulders slumping, fingers latching onto a shelf-rung, elbow dangling.

“It’s getting too easy to fuck up around you, and it just can’t happen,” he says, more easily than even John apparently expected. His mouth shuts tight around the last syllable; let no further incriminations free themselves.

“A minute ago I was the one who fucked up,” Rodney points out.

“Yeah, I know.” John’s lip is more bitten than not, each word squeezed out like dishwater from a cloth. “Look, forget I said that. It was unfair and I’m sorry. So was- so was what happened on the planet. None of that should have happened.” Go on, Rodney wants to say, say you were drunk, say you were influenced by the bacchanalian vibes, I dare you. I double dare you.

“It happened, though, and all I want to know is where we go from here. Backwards is unacceptable,” Rodney adds.

“Backwards is safe.” John is fidgeting, fingernail picking at the corner of the cardboard box with ‘Cheese Tortellini’ ominously stencilled on the side.

“Backwards is boring. Backwards is known. We’ve been there, lived through it, got the standard issue t-shirts,” Rodney says, pointing his thumb at himself. “I don’t want to stay put, not when there has apparently another road we could’ve be going down this whole time.”

“There’s no point going down that road when it’s a solo trip.” says John. He stops, grimaces as if in pain. It could be his appendix for all Rodney knows, less so any emotional trauma contorting his features and locking his tongue behind tooth and jaw.

“Humour me here,” Rodney tries again, because John is somehow, willfully even, still ignorant of the elephant in the room. That Rodney was also, until sometime in the middle of the night, unaware of the same trunk-possessing entity was besides the point; better late than never, he’s the king of getting up to speed and knows a good thing when it squeezes his thigh. “You’re me. Dragged to the zillionth pre-industrial wheat-worshipping world where the most advanced piece of technology is a floor and you go along with it again because even though you’ve got better, actual galaxy-benefitting things to be doing and even though you’re not military, orders are orders, team is team, and John Sheppard is asking you, asking you, this time, to go.”

John is being quiet at the right time for once. Uncomfortable, yes, vibrating with the need to evade or twist himself into any configuration that gives him an out, yes, but quiet, and listening. Rodney leans against one of the shelving units, arms folded, fingers of his left hand drumming a tattoo against his right-side ribs. His voice is more measured now, though he doesn’t know how he’s managing that when all he can focus on is the clench-unclench of John’s jaw and the way his nostrils aren’t quite flaring, but aren’t quite not, either.

“So,” Rodney goes on, “you go and you drink moonshine that you wouldn’t clean a patio with and you ring some bells and John Sheppard, who you know hates this crap as much as you, is happily walking his fingers along your leg and you think, ho-hum, that’s new. Don’t you dare pretend,” he says, unfolding an arm to jab the air with his forefinger, “that you don’t know I’ve figured out you’ve had it bad for some time now. Maybe,” he says, sing-song, “I only worked that out while trying to sleep in what was left of the previous occupant of that cell, but it’s no less valid an observation. It just took a while,” he says, and hey, those are some interesting floor tiles, “to collate the data.”

“I can’t,” murmurs John, pained. “I slipped up, but I can’t.”

Rodney continues on as if John hadn’t spoken. “Would it really be so terrible if you just let yourself have it bad? What do you think’s gonna happen? What do you think I’m going to do? Not feel the same? Have you met me?”

He might have said what he meant there - he’s not sure - but either John hasn’t parsed it or is still pretending not to. Knee-jerk avoidance, none of your secrets, none of my lies, only, there’s a big lie unpinning it all, a big fat untruth that Rodney has seen rear its head for a moment, flash in the pan, bells sounding out the hour of midnight and John Sheppard’s firelit face tilting toward his own. The lie that says, with John’s voice while looking at Rodney with John’s eyes, I’m not in love with you.

“That,” John says, flinging an arm out to encompass the elephant, the recent past, or the whole universe outside of this cupboard, “is a prime example why having it bad is a bad idea. ”

“Oh, it is, is it?” Rodney says, not really getting it but needing to fill the moment with something.

It’s John’s turn to make no sense, or less sense than he was already making which is no mean feat, but also no surprise. “It’s because you’re you that it’s a bad idea.” John’s nervous energy is reaching a critical point; he wants nothing more than to leave this room with its MREs and its Rodney McKay, but he can’t, because its Rodney McKay is blocking the only route out. So John fizzes like an alka seltzer, tongue running over his top-teeth under his lip back and forth, a roiling boil of barely-there emotion and suppressed who-knows-what.

Rodney breaks the silence - it’s a stupid silence - eyes rolling. He examines the stack of boxes on the shelf unit beside him. It’s a marathon, maintaining eye contact with John’s hummingbird gaze, flitting here, there and everywhere, and he needs a pit stop. “You are unreal, you know that?” he says to the vegetarian lasagne. “‘Oh no, what if it’s requited.’ Give me a break. Shit or get off the pot, Sheppard, but don’t you dare treat me like you don’t know me because you can’t decide which.”

“Alright,” John says, Rodney’s vulgarity spurring him back to life. “I’m you in this scenario? Alright. Okay, fine. I’m you. I hate going on missions, except when I don’t hate going on them, and team sure is team, but you’ve never been made to do anything, least of all by me. If you don’t wanna go you don’t have to go. But you go, because I ask you to-”

“First of all, you are mixing this metaphor up so badly-”

“-when something happens, inevitably, because we don’t live in a perfect universe, when something happens to any of us it’s terrifying. When it happens to you I lose my mind. I can’t lose my mind, Rodney. I can’t lead a city, or this expedition, or command my team or negotiate all these goddamn trade agreements or help win the war against the Wraith if I can’t think straight.”

“Word choice aside, that is the biggest pile of horseshit I’ve ever heard hit the floor.” Rodney steps closer, still barring his exit. “I don’t have to go? You’ve never made me do anything? That’s some nice selective reminiscing you’ve got there, Douglas Quaid. God,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut for a long moment, “you are such a moron.”

“Excuse me?”

“How long?” Rodney says, and neglects to clarify further. How long have you looked my way? How long have you been a moron?

“Long enough,” John says. “To know that if something happened to you it was too big a risk.”

“Long enough that you never thought at any point in the years we’ve known each other that doing something about it anyway was actually an option? That no matter whether I wanted in your pants as much as you allegedly want in mine it’s gonna hurt, buddy, I hate to break it to you, if either of us gets, well, killed.”

“I know that.”

“Well, what was it about Penar that changed things? What made it worth the risk? Do not say anything to do with bells because I swear they’re still ringing in my ears.”

“I don’t know. Maybe it was the bells.” John laughs, a short, breathy bark. “I’m not going to say it was the wine, the heat, the, uh, intimacy.”

“You’re saying having your face in Ronon’s armpit doesn’t get you in the mood?” John cracks a smile at that too. Full frontal assault, works every time.

“I’m just saying I felt, I don’t know. Safe. Too safe, obviously, to go about it in anything but all the wrong ways.” John has the coy flicker of a better mood playing at the edge of his mouth, the stupid bastard.

“Holy shit,” Rodney’s eyes are saucers. “You do actually like me? I mean, like-me like-me? Like-

“Rodney!” John is exasperated. “What do you think we’ve been talking about for the past ten minutes?”

You weren’t doing much talking and, well, I have been known to take a hypothesis and run with it. Once or twice.”

“Hedging your bets?”

“I may have thought about you over the years.” Rodney sniffs. “Here and there.”

“I like you,” John says levelly, as if persuading both of them. “As a friend.”

“But-”

“And,” John’s lips tighten, as if it’s possible to have feelings for someone begrudgingly, as if it’s this huge obligation, a hassle he’s desperate to be inconvenienced by, “as more than a friend.”

“So-”

“So, shut up.”

“Fine.”

“I didn’t want to screw up our friendship, and I didn’t want to lose myself so much in you that I lost sight of other important things. Things that mean a lot, to both of us.”

“The city, the team.”

“Yeah.”

“That it?”

“Kind of.” The tension is melting from John, the tightness in his bones oozing away like warmed honey now that that’s all said and done. He slumps against the shelves; they creak softly but don’t topple.

“Can I speak now?”

“Can I ever stop you?”

“Well that depends-”

“Look,” John says, mastering his aversion to just saying it at last, “I didn’t want to fuck you up. I’m pretty messed up.”

“Oh, please,” Rodney says. “A, I’ve met you. And B, who isn’t. I’m so screwed up I make you look normal. Maybe our neuroses can cancel each other out.” John smirks at that, a half-smile, an exhalation. Now they’re just standing in a store cupboard, epiphanies welcome.

“So, should we… well, make out or something?” Rodney says after a silence, and he had imagined it, in that moment, on that cushion, Ronon’s armpit not far distant. That woozy heat-mirage air, the oily scent of the cook fires, the sound of bells upon bells and John’s face tipping toward his own. It could have been the light, the flicker-phantasm of the fires casting shadows where there shouldn’t be shadows, carving expressions into John’s face that weren’t really there. Before they were interrupted by the Penari coming to sweep Rodney away Rodney had wondered if the wine would taste sweet on John’s tongue, or would it have a heat of its own, a dark and cloying promise. He had wondered if anyone would even notice if they kissed, crammed as they all were together on that pillow on that rug on that planet and yet so at ease with one another there was no need for line of sight. A touch, the heat of a body, the scent of skin was around them, so that was enough.

No-one is going to see them now - they’re in a cupboard. It is soft more than sweet, just a question, lip against lip. Weird, the fight or flight response is electrifying; Rodney doesn’t know if he wants to bolt or grapple John to the floor, but there’s no space, no time, John’s hands are meandering, tentative as they were not tentative before. Seeking permission, counting the stitches and making quick work of getting beneath them.

Then, for the second time in the space of twenty minutes, John is quiet for all the right reasons.

*

It’s raining MREs.

“Are we really having our first kiss in a storage closet?” Rodney says, flustered but with no intention of coming up with any other plan. A portion of beef ravioli slides off of the shelf he’s pressed up against and taps him on the shoulder before landing by his foot.

John reaches up over Rodney’s head to hold back the flood of meal packets threatening to bury them. “‘Meals Romantic to Eat’? Doesn’t really have a ring to it.”

“Is that a pun? Are you making puns instead of making out with me?”

“I’m talking to you, Rodney,” John says, arm still holding back the tide, head dipping, murmuring against Rodney’s mouth, “isn’t that what you wanted?”

“Amongst other things,” Rodney tries to say, but it’s hard to be intelligible with another tongue in your mouth, or think unmessy thoughts when a body you’ve only seen in fleeting, accidental glances in the showers moving wickedly up against your own, a claustrophobia of a welcome kind.

“Hey,” he says breaking away and breathing like a steam train, John’s cheek against his, John’s hands scalding where they press against his skin like branding irons, “next time I get captured, you can give me the bed-bath.”