The sign swung gently in the mid-morning breeze, rusted metal symbols clanking faintly together. Rodney stared at his tablet, then at the sign, then back at his tablet.
"Ascension World," he read incredulously. "Really?"
Teyla took the tablet out of his hands and examined it while John peered over her shoulder. "That is my understanding as well," she said.
Rodney squinted at the broad metal archway overhead. Now that he wasn't focused solely on the lettering on the sign, he noticed the way the pillars of the arch were wrapped with tasteful iron vines that bloomed into sedate flowers across the apex of the arch, dripping down into bland iron buds on either side of the letters. A second, smaller line of text was etched below the first. "A place for children."
"I didn't think the Ancients were big on children," John said. He had moved away from Teyla and was now standing a little inside the arch, in front of what looked like turnstiles.
"Nothing I see here is challenging that assumption." Rodney frowned. He scanned the area again, taking in the rusted gate, the high walls, and the wide, paved path leading past the turnstiles into what looked like an empty courtyard. Far from the Disney World of the Pegasus Galaxy, this place reminded him of the mall area between federal buildings. "Of course, given what we know about the Ancients, their children probably found fun a foreign concept."
"It's a park, McKay," Ronon said from behind him. Rodney twitched. He appreciated stealth in battle as much as the next person, but the downside was that in practice he often forgot to pay attention to Ronon's whereabouts.
"You know, for kids," Ronon went on. "To teach them important skills through play. I thought you had these on your world."
"Ours tend to be a little more, I don't know, peppy," Rodney said. He looked back at John, who was now half-way down the path staring suspiciously at a placard.
"I think this says 'release your burden,'" John said, nose wrinkling. "Are we sure we want to go in? I think it's educational."
Rodney found himself perking up a little. It was true, he didn't care much for children aside from an abstract interest in providing the best education possible for those who would be changing his diapers in the nursing home, but in the area of education he was pretty sure he and the Ancients were in line. The sooner you could put away childish things in favor of differential equations and exotic weaponry, the better. "Some of us value the pursuit of knowledge," he said, purely to goad John.
John squinted and made his why do I put up with this face at him, but he turned and headed down the path, motioning for the rest of them to follow. Rodney rolled his eyes--it was his idea, was it not? He didn't need herding--but trotted along after Teyla.
The turnstiles were squeaky and stiff with disuse, but the paved path was in surprisingly good condition for something over ten thousand years old. Watching John and Teyla stride ahead, Rodney had a brief but vivid fantasy of the four of them skipping down the yellow brick road toward Ascension World, John's gingham skirts belling out around him, ruby slippers glittering. Then he had a brief moment of self-disgust over how quickly he’d devolved into stereotype. It hadn’t been a week since The Revelation, and he was already stripping John of his individuality in favor of easy classification. Ugh.
Rodney came back from his attack of conscience to find the rest of the team a good six meters ahead and Ronon staring back at him in irritation. He shook it off and hurried to catch up. He could self-flagellate later.
The path led through a short concrete tunnel, devoid of plaques or decoration, and opened out into a large circular courtyard paved with cobblestones. Low, flat benches ringed the area, while patchy shade covered the center, filtering down from a mesh screen strung overhead, rotted through with age. In the shadier areas, weeds sprung out of the cracks in the cobblestones, while in the full sun the stone was bleached to a yellowish white.
Rodney reached the center and turned slowly in a circle, unimpressed. Set several meters back from the benches was an outer ring made up of six or seven low, dark buildings that would bear further investigation, but the immediate area was barren. Empty courtyard to the north. Empty courtyard to the east. To the south, the path leading back to the park entrance. To the west, a squat metal box into which Ronon was stuffing metal tokens.
"Hey," Rodney said, starting forward. As he watched, little pink lights on the front of the box flashed weakly, then the machine grumbled and spit out a little paper cup full of blue slush.
"Ronon, don't eat--ewww," John said.
"Don't bother," Rodney said, pulling up next to him. He and John traded aggrieved looks as Ronon upended the cup into his mouth and swallowed.
"Oh!" Teyla said in delight. "It works!" She stepped forward, already holding out more tokens. "What flavor did you get?"
"Tuttle root," Ronon said, dodging away with a smirk as she slapped at him. "Blue raspberry, I think. It's a little stale."
"What do you want to bet he didn't really say blue raspberry?" John asked sotto voce.
Rodney grunted in agreement, although in all honesty he found the vagaries of the gate translation system somewhat dull. More pressingly, "It's ten thousand years old, it's probably sentient by this point. Please tell me you're not going to put that in your mouth."
John gave him a wounded look. "I like snow cones," he said, holding out his hand for tokens. "Ronon, give."
“Get your own,” Ronon said, jerking a thumb toward the entrance tunnel. Rodney turned back to look and saw a small, oblong dispenser mounted on the inside wall. He must have missed it in his hurry.
John jogged over and fiddled with it, then came back with two jingling paper envelopes. Rodney took one and shook a few tokens into his palm to examine. They were oval, with engraved flowers not unlike lotus blossoms on each side, along with Ascension World in tiny text along the outer rim. Designed for the park, then, rather than actual currency. Rodney dropped them back in the envelope and stuck them in his pocket, where they clinked against his thigh.
John's cup of slush was bright green. "I'm not holding your hair when you vomit," Rodney warned him, but John just rolled his eyes and passed him the cup.
"Green apple," he said.
Rodney took a slurp. The flavor was thin and watery, but tart and pleasantly cold in the hot sun all the same. It was the first real concession to childhood as he recognized it that they'd seen so far. He dumped the rest of the snow cone into his mouth, ignoring John's protests, and dropped the cup into what was probably a waste bin on the side of the machine. The cup promptly caught fire.
"Whoa," John said, eyebrows raised.
They all stared at the tiny pile of ash in the bin. After a moment, Rodney took Ronon and Teyla's cups and tossed them in to see if the results were replicable. They were.
Ronon nodded in approval. "Kids would like this," he said.
Rodney was inclined to agree.
He was less inclined to stand around staring at a trash incinerator, though, however flashy. He caught John's eye and turned toward the east-most building from the entrance, pulling out his scanner. Low-level energy readings, nothing terribly provocative. No large or humanoid life signs; minimal rodent activity. Nothing indicating the presence of further Ancient vending machines.
He wandered over, noting the tarnished metal strips set into the concrete, winding back and forth before ending up at more turnstiles in front of the building's door. Apparently Ancient children didn't require guide ropes or metal railings to keep them in line.
There was another metal plaque over the door. This one appeared to say "Wraith Blaster," which made a little more sense in the context of an amusement park, although the subtitle, "unburden yourself of responsibilities" seemed a bit heavy.
Rodney pushed through the turnstiles and put a hand on the door. It slid open with a grating sound, letting out a wash of cool air. Inside was dark except for more strips of metal set into the floor, this time glowing faintly. He stepped inside.
Behind him he could hear the distinctive sounds of John getting his shorts in a wad because Rodney had entered without letting someone with an automatic weapon scan the room first, but when he turned back to engage, John was standing in the doorway with his head cocked, looking disconcerted.
"What?" Rodney asked.
John frowned. "It smells like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in here.”
"What are you talking about?"
"Like soft serve ice cream and air conditioning."
Ronon shouldered around John. "Let's see if it's still running," he said, grabbing Rodney's arm and spinning him around, and it was only then that Rodney realized the emergency track lighting led toward a line of gondolas with distinctive metal lap restraints.
"Oh no no no, I get motion sick," he protested, trying to back away.
"No you don't," John said, grabbing his other elbow.
"Okay, I don't want to have an encounter with animatronic Wraith!" Rodney went on, like it ever did any good to appeal to these people with logic.
Between John and Ronon's manhandling he ended up in the back seat of the first gondola, ass jammed into the child-sized molded seat. Teyla perched next to him with the air of anticipation of one whose buttocks weren't overlapping their kiddie cup, while John and Ronon crammed into the front seat.
"Okay, hold on," John said, and pressed his palm to the center of the little control panel on the dashboard of his seat.
Nothing happened for long enough that Rodney started to get twitchy. Then there was a faint grinding sound and the entire room erupted into the violent brightness of a space battle. A hologram of a Wraith hive ship hung just overhead, firing energy weapons, while tiny Wraith darts shrieked by in swarms so vivid and startling that Rodney momentarily forgot to be annoyed at the depiction of sound in space.
Ships took fire and exploded, caught fire and disintegrated around them, and then a line of text unfurled across the belly of the hive.
"'Center yourself," Rodney translated. The text faded and disappeared.
Automatically, Rodney closed his eyes and breathed in. He could hear the others doing the same nearby, the same way they did every time Teyla smiled and reached out and bowed her head. It was Pavlovian.
On the dashboard, a button lit up. The light began to brighten slowly as Rodney watched, still breathing deeply.
"Huh," John said. He pressed the button.
The room went black and quiet as the space battle disappeared.
Another line of text appeared on the ceiling. "'Congratulations. You have defeated the Wraith.'"
"Well. That was anticlimactic," John said slowly.
"I'm leaving," Ronon said in disgust. He got up and stomped out, the door whooshing serenely closed behind him.
"What the hell," Rodney said, still caught somewhere between bemused and the adrenaline spike of space battleus interruptus, but rapidly turning the corner into pissed off.
"I also would like to know what the hell," Teyla said, and both John and Rodney turned to stare at her. She was bolt upright in the seat, shoulders stiff with what Rodney supposed was anger. "If the Wraith could be stopped by deep breathing--" she stood up abruptly and pushed out the door after Ronon.
They stared after her in surprise.
"Holy crap," John muttered.
Rodney felt a weird sense of remorse, not that he was in any way to blame, nor could he possibly have anticipated this sort of outcome without extensive prediction matrices. Still. "It is patronizing to the point of obscenity," he pointed out. "You can't really blame her."
"Of course I'm not blaming her!" John said, nostrils flaring with wounded pride and what passed for empathy from him. "It's just, you know..." he deflated a little, glancing uneasily at Rodney, at the door, at the empty ceiling. He sighed. "Kind of a let-down. It's supposed to be an amusement park, jeez."
"Not terribly amusing so far, no," Rodney agreed.
John sighed again and stood up. "I better go, you know," he said, waving one hand uncertainly.
Talk to her, Rodney extrapolated. He slumped down in the seat as far as his ass would allow and stared at John's retreating back, feeling awash with cynicism. Checking in with Ronon and especially Teyla was the responsible and kind thing to do, certainly, but so unlikely to leave anyone involved actually feeling better. Expurgated, maybe. Appeased, if they were lucky. Mired in an uncomfortably intimate conversation about dead relatives seemed the most likely, though.
Now Rodney found himself sighing. John seemed to kind of like that sort of thing with Teyla, though, the intimate conversation. Or if he didn't like it, he at least kept going back for more.
If Teyla had been there for The Revelation, he bet John wouldn't have bolted.
And that was about enough of that, Rodney thought, standing up and pulling his scanner out of his vest pocket. Practically anything else he could be doing at this moment would be more useful than moping in a gondola.
He pulled his flashlight out for good measure and flipped it on. A quick scan of the surroundings showed blank dusty walls with no other outward sign of decay. The room appeared to be both circular and smaller than he'd previously noticed--there were three other gondolas spaced at even intervals, with the same glowy track lighting set into the ground between them.
Rodney followed the tracks with the beam of the flashlight until they fetched up against the far wall. The darker outline of a rectangle caught his attention, and Rodney made his way over to examine it. It was a door, unremarkable, with a small sign inscribed with "Continue" set over the lintel. The exit, then, and a possible explanation for the circular nature of the courtyard. It made sense that the Ancients would require their amusements to be experienced in the proper order. Apparently they'd completed part one.
Rodney waved at the door, which didn't want to open, and required some prying and eventually a good kick to trigger. He stepped out into the sharp bright sunlight, finding himself in a weedy patch of gravel on the side of the building. Ahead of him was another low-set building with turnstiles leading to the entrance, while to his right was a small square hut with what appeared to be wash basins set into the front wall. Ancient restrooms. Rodney stuck his head inside, noting rows of stalls with knee-high kiddie versions of the Ancient toilets, and came back out to stand in the gravel again.
When he had fiddled with the basin faucets to discover that he could, in fact, still wash his hands after he peed should he so desire, it occurred to him that he couldn't see any of the rest of the team. Rodney sighed. He'd rather hoped that by the time he made his way out of Wraith Blaster the consoling part of the morning would be over.
He hesitated in the gravel for a moment longer, feeling the competing emotions of desire to continue exploration and the guilt of knowing that not responding to his teammates' distress made him a crappy person.
Guilt won out eventually. Rodney made his way back around the side of the building into the central courtyard, where he found Ronon sulking on a bench with a pile of crumpled paper snow cone wrappers at his feet.
"Teyla?" he asked.
Ronon grunted and jerked his shoulder toward the shadiest corner of the courtyard, where Teyla and John were seated amidst a miasma of emotional tension.
Rodney took a step forward, then stopped and turned grudgingly back to Ronon. "You're...okay, right?" he asked.
Ronon stared at him for a long moment then shrugged. "I've been condescended to before," he said, turning away to sort through the pile of tokens on the bench next to him. "I'll live."
Rodney nodded sharply in agreement and set off across the courtyard toward John and Teyla. They were having some sort of intense, murmured conversation, chock full of meaningful eye contact, which they halted as soon as he arrived.
"So!" Rodney said brightly, and then immediately faltered.
John sighed and stood up. "You're sure," he said to Teyla.
"Quite," Teyla said. She reached out and briefly squeezed John's wrist, then turned to Rodney and gave him a small, tight smile. "I will expect to hear from you at regular intervals."
"Of course," Rodney said, feeling like his expected emotional trajectory had just hit a wall. "Wait, what are we doing?"
"You and I are going to check out the other exhibits," John said, tugging him back toward Wraith Blaster. Rodney waved awkwardly to Teyla and followed.
"And Ronon and Teyla are going to, what, sunbathe?" Rodney persisted as they tramped past Ronon and back across the courtyard yet again.
They rounded the corner of the building. John stopped and rubbed the back of his neck irritably. "Teyla's humoring me," he said.
Rodney gaped. "Why in the world would she do that?"
John sighed. "She pays attention, she's heard me talk about amusement parks for years. First time I ever spoke to her I made some crack about Ferris wheels." He looked sheepish, if a person could look sheepish and eaten up by brooding at the same time.
"And she doesn't want you to miss the opportunity, even though so far the opportunity looks entirely substandard," Rodney said, getting it.
"Mmm," John said, staring distractedly at the kiddie restrooms. "If it helps, I feel lousy about it. But if I call off the mission and we go home now I think it'll just piss her off more."
"So exploring's the lesser of two evils?" Rodney asked.
Rodney rubbed his hands together briskly. "You know Ronon's working on the mother of all sugar headaches right now."
"So let's go."
The plaque over the next door read, "The Truth Helmet," and the inscription was unburden yourself of falsehoods, or maybe false prophets; Rodney wasn't really sure.
The ride itself looked like the dental exam from hell. Twelve vinyl-covered exam chairs, partially reclined, sat in rows of three in the center of the room, while narrow benches ran along the perimeter. Suspended above each chair from a single wire like a particularly creepy light fixture was a metal beanie.
"There is no way," Rodney said, staring at the nearest chair. "What if it melts my synapses? You'll have to do it."
John poked the beanie over the chair in front of Rodney. It began to glow faintly as it swung, throwing shadows like the bare bulb of an interrogation scene in a prison movie.
"Out of curiosity," John said, "can you think of a way this could go well?"
Rodney considered. "Not really, but I'm sure it'll be educational. Hop in, Colonel."
"I don't want to wear the truth helmet," John said irritably.
Of course he didn't, Rodney thought with bitterness. They'd already seen how excessive truth-telling affected them. "You can turn it off first if you're so worried. But you're the one who's being humored here, I think you should get the full experience."
John crossed his arms over his chest and averted his eyes, shoulders tense. "It's not a good idea, Rodney."
"It hurts my feelings when you don't want to confide in me," Rodney said. "I know you're laconic at the best of times, but I really just want to feel close to you and I hate that you'll apparently spill your guts to Teyla at the drop of a hat but talking to me is some big production. Plus that thing from last week was a pretty big deal and I'm getting a little choked up at the thought that you didn't feel you could share it with me oh my god," he yelped, slapping the beanie and thinking off, seriously, off at it.
John was staring at him with big eyes.
"Did you do that on purpose?" Rodney's voice soared and cracked with the force of his embarrassment. "Did you tamper with it on purpose just to get a rise out of me?"
"How the hell was I supposed to know it was a truth force field!" John barked. "I thought you had to wear the helmet, same as you!"
"Well now we know better," Rodney said peevishly. And then, feeling mean, he added, "Coward."
John's jaw clenched. "Fine," he said, looking murderous. "Quid pro quo? Fine." He slapped his hand on the helmet and stared Rodney in the face. "I wish I hadn't told you I was gay. Happy now?" He slapped the helmet back off and stomped out.
"Christ, this is the worst amusement park ever," Rodney said.
"The way I see it, we have two options," Rodney said, steaming to a halt in front of John and crossing his arms. "We can give up, go back to the jumper, and ride all the way back to Atlantis secure in the knowledge that we suck, the Ancients suck, and this day sucks most of all, and also that we have failed to comply with the wishes of our friends who we inadvertently allowed to be grievously insulted. Or we can man up, go on to the next exhibit, and deal with this like the adults that we are!" He stopped, panting with righteousness.
John rose slowly to his feet from where he'd been slouched on a bench along the side of the restroom.
John crossed his arms.
"Or we could go with a third option of your choosing," Rodney offered, caving magnanimously.
John's gaze was set someplace over Rodney's left shoulder. His mouth tightened briefly, then he squared his shoulders and looked Rodney in the eye. "What I said was out of line," he said stiffly. "Let's keep going."
"I--that's generous of you," Rodney said, shocked into graciousness. "Really? I mean, I'm sorry I goaded you."
"It's forgotten," John said, turning toward the third building. "Let's move."
They trudged around the side of the Truth Helmet building in silence. Not having come out the proper exit, they waded instead through the rather more unruly weeds between the east side of the building and the high outer stone wall ringing the park. Rodney stopped to brush stickers off his pant legs, yelping as the barbs embedded in his fingers instead.
When he looked up, John was watching him with unexpectedly soft eyes.
"Why would you say something like that?" Rodney blurted.
John’s face tightened down again. “Have you met yourself?”
"That hurts me," Rodney said, rolling his eyes to cover for how it really kind of did. "But seriously, why wouldn't you want me to know?"
John tipped his head back to stare at the gathering clouds in apparent exasperation. "I don't like talking about it. And you know how you are, you--like to talk."
"I wouldn't have hassled you!" Rodney squalled.
"Hassling me about it right now," John said, turning away. He put a hand on Rodney's shoulder and tugged lightly in an obvious attempt to get them moving again. "Can we just--look, we're good, okay?"
"I hardly think that's for you to judge," Rodney said with wounded pride, but he let himself be jostled into motion again.
They trudged some more. A few meters later they rounded the corner and found themselves at the exit of the previous exhibit. From the space between buildings, Rodney had a clear view of the central courtyard. The sun-dappled stones of earlier were now the same pale uniform color under the overcast sky. Far across the yard he could see Ronon and Teyla seated together on the Bench of Discussing Dead Relatives where he'd found John earlier. Teyla's head was tipped against Ronon's shoulder, and even at this distance the lines of her body spoke of exhaustion.
Rodney felt like shit all over again.
"Ronon," John said softly into his radio. Across the yard Ronon raised a hand to his ear, while Teyla didn't move. "You want us to wrap it up here?"
Whatever Ronon replied, he did it on John's private channel. Normally this would have been preferable, but today Rodney felt perversely left out.
"If you're sure," John said, hesitant. "You know we'll leave if she gives the word."
Across the yard Teyla sat up and flung out both arms in a dramatic stage gesture, shooing them. John gave an unwilling huff of laughter and saluted.
Galled, Rodney tapped his radio. "Ronon, if you two get tired of woolgathering, I need measurements and base power readings for anything functional in the courtyard and entryway. If you're quite finished with your siesta."
Ronon raised a hand in a different, one-fingered salute, then slung his arm around Teyla and slumped even further down on the bench.
"Charming," John drawled, but when Rodney looked over John gave him a half-smile and turned away.
"I really wouldn't have bothered you about it," Rodney said to his back. "You're my best friend."
"McKay, you bother me all the goddamn time," John said tiredly. "Don't worry about it. Let's just keep going."
The third exhibit was a maze of empty corridors. Rodney let the door swoosh closed behind him and stared. The corridor in front of him traveled about six meters forward before curving off to the left. The same soft, diffuse lighting that filled the halls in Atlantis bathed the walls and the floor. As far as Rodney could tell there was absolutely nothing to see.
"What does this have to do with freedom from desire?" he asked.
John looked at him sharply. "What?"
"Haven't you been reading the signs? This one is Tunnels of the Mind, subtitle unburden yourself of desire."
John frowned. "Sounds like a parasite."
"It does, doesn't it. You don't think--"
"Not really," John said. "But who knows? Come on." He started forward, P-90 at the ready.
Probably even the Ancients wouldn't make parasitic infestation part of a children's exhibit. Rodney shrugged and followed.
There was nothing around the first corner except more blank corridor. There was nothing around the second corner either, or the third. Rodney dogged John's heels, waiting for the inevitable catch, the part where something terrible and sufficiently culturally Ancient leaped out at them and hissed about how they were bad children who'd never shed their physical bodies if they didn't solve the maze, but it didn't come. Just meters and meters of flat eggshell white walls, floor, and ceiling.
They turned the fourth corner. "Oh, finally," Rodney said, sinking to his knees in front of a control panel set low on the wall. "There must be a short cut."
"It's only been ninety seconds," said John.
"Well, they were very uneventful." Rodney got the panel open and flipped on his pen light. "Huh."
"Good huh or bad huh?" John crouched behind him, leaning over his shoulder to get a better look.
"More like bemused huh," Rodney said. "Look at this." He trained the light where the control crystals should have been. The slots were filled instead with tapered cylinders with rounded safety edges.
John reached out and flicked one with a fingernail. "Feels like plastic," he said.
"Or rather silicate, or some sort of molded ceramic compound, but yes, your point stands," Rodney said. John was uncomfortably far into his personal space, bracing a hand on his shoulder for balance. Rodney wondered if he was supposed to be reading too much into that sort of thing, now that he knew John liked men. He cleared his throat and John leaned back and stood up.
Rodney stayed where he was and fiddled with the fake crystals for a moment for formality's sake, but it was useless. They really did look like plastic. Some of them even had sloppy seams down the side.
"Well, I guess we keep going," he said, stuffing the pen light back into his vest. He stuck his arm up and John grabbed his elbow and hauled Rodney to his feet, rolling his eyes. Rodney felt a little bit of the tension that had been sitting in his stomach since the truth helmet, or maybe last week on the pier, give way.
The corridors wove back and forth endlessly ("Eleven minutes, McKay,") until Rodney began to despair, not of failing to escape--someone on this team would have explosives, if it came down to it--but of ever seeing or discovering or thinking of anything that wasn't eggshell white.
Beside him John was quiet, with the exception of instructions to stay back when Rodney, lulled into security along with utter boredom, made to round corners first, and John's unwelcome time-keeping.
The sixth control panel appeared in corridor twenty-two. Rodney stared at it without hope; none of the others had yielded anything worth finding. He pulled the pen light out of his pocket and knelt anyway.
Above him John cleared his throat. "I had this dream once where I was in my dad's house," John said. "I opened the back door to let my dog out and there was this whole other room there instead. A room full of ice crystals. Kinda looked like control crystals."
"Do we have to talk about this now? It seems unnecessarily recursive." Rodney popped the latch on the panel, irritated.
John scowled. "Thought you wanted me to share." He nudged Rodney's thigh with the toe of his boot, jostling him and making him drop the light.
"Nobody but you thinks sharing your hopes and dreams means literally talking about your dreams." The opened control panel looked exactly like all the others: full of smooth, rounded crystals that looked nothing like the real ones. "This one time I dreamed about a room full of ice cubes," Rodney mimicked, slamming the cover shut in disgust.
"Fine." John turned on his heel and stared off down the corridor, jaw set.
"Oh, don't sulk."
"Whatever," John said, striding forward at a pace that left Rodney scrambling to gather his tools and catch up.
"Dear diary, I hope and dream that around this corner there's a grilled cheese sandwich," Rodney said in a mocking falsetto, digging the hole deeper. He couldn't help himself. It was all the eggshell white.
"Get moving, McKay," John called from around the corner.
Rodney got to his feet and stomped after him. Under the irritation and frantic boredom with his surroundings, he could already feel stirrings of remorse, peppered with self-disgust. No wonder John went to Teyla for this sort of thing.
He rounded the corner to find John scowling at him, hands on hips.
"I blew it, didn't I," Rodney said grimly.
"Just a bit, yeah."
Rodney deflated. Just because he recognized the need didn't mean he enjoyed taking his lumps. "Maybe next time you could warn me when we're about to have a moment," he said sourly, trying to push some of the blame back onto John, where he preferred it. "And maybe wait until we aren't surrounded by--by--total nothingness." He slumped against the wall and rubbed at his forehead, closing his eyes to block out John and the stupid empty corridor. "I hate this exhibit."
He felt John come to lean against the wall next to him, shoulders just touching. "Hey," John said, leaning into him. Rodney leaned back, eyes prickling with how unexpectedly grateful he was to feel John touching him just now. "Hey Rodney."
"What," Rodney muttered to the inside of his eyelids.
"I wanted to warn you," John said softly into his ear.
"Now? Really? But I thought we--okay, just--just a second." Rodney took a deep breath and squared his shoulders against whatever John Sheppard considered an emotional revelation. He opened his eyes. "Okay, I'm ready," he said.
John put his lips right to Rodney's ear. "I found the exit," he whispered.
Outside on the weedy gravel path again, Rodney shook himself all over. "What a stultifying experience. I feel like my head's been stuffed with cotton wool." He narrowed his eyes at John, who was still looking smug. "No thanks to you."
"I don't know, I was amused," John said, smirking at him.
Rodney grimaced. "It's about time someone was." He frowned at the exit. "While we're on the subject, what could that possibly have had to do with freedom from desire?"
"Curiosity," John said unexpectedly.
Rodney looked at him.
"Not desire desire, but, you know, desire for knowledge," John went on. "By the end of it, were you at all curious about the maze, or did you just want to get out?"
"That's rhetorical and you know it."
"See there? Freedom from desire." John nodded sagely at him.
"Huh." Rodney glanced from John to the exit and back, unwillingly intrigued. "It's like a koan, only even more pointless."
"What is the sound of your brain on eggshell white," John agreed.
Rodney huffed and pointedly busied himself with his scanner, which continued to register basically nothing. He still felt off-kilter, like he'd just woken from a ten-year nap. A nap with really poor REM sleep and unsettling dreams.
Dreams. He glanced up at John, who was maybe ten paces away peering into the open doorway of a second set of children's restrooms. This building had a small covered platform jutting out from the side wall that even Rodney could recognize as a diaper-changing station. The same metal waste incinerators from earlier were mounted under the platform, which seemed like a simultaneously dreadful and yet very satisfying method of dirty diaper disposal.
"So," Rodney said, shuffling closer while keeping his gaze fixed determinedly on the scanner. "A room full of--" he cleared his throat, "--ice cubes, you mentioned."
Silence. Rodney peeked up at John to find him watching Rodney with narrowed eyes. Rodney tipped his chin up defensively, then remembered he was giving John space for low pressure sharing and quickly tipped it back down.
All at once John took a breath and settled back against the restroom wall, crossing his arms over his chest and propping one foot on the stones behind him. "Ice crystals," John said. "I think it was a spare bedroom, except everything was frozen over. It was creepy."
Well, that was random. He was making an effort here, though, so, "Houses in dreams are supposed to represent yourself," Rodney said gamely.
John wrinkled his nose at the sky. "Doesn't everything in dreams represent yourself?"
"You're the one looking for psychoanalysis," Rodney said. "So? Is there an unexplored facet of your personality that you subconsciously find inhospitable and perhaps even off-putting? Something that your father disapproved of, hmm? Did you want me to guess?"
John glared. "What do you think?" Abruptly he pushed off the wall and spun to face Rodney, nostrils flaring.
"I can't help it if your brain defaults to unimaginative imagery!" Rodney protested, backing away.
"Rodney," John started, but Rodney barreled on.
"Seriously, what exactly am I supposed to be saying, here? You bring the subject up, but you don't want to talk about it and you're sorry you even told me, but you want me to ask questions, but only if I ask the right kind of questions and then only in the right way, which you know has never been one of my strong suits." He flung his hands up, beseeching. "I'm terrible at this, I know, but I'm trying. Just--what do you want?"
"I want to go on to the next exhibit," John said.
"You--no," Rodney said. He felt half a minute away from stamping his feet or throwing himself to the ground in a tantrum. He wanted to grab John by the shoulders and demand that he make sense, or barring that, that he at least stop changing the subject. He knew on some level that he was out of line, that this subject was probably considerably more difficult and frightening for John than for him. But it had been a long morning, and a long damn week, and while Rodney dealt perfectly well with uncertainty he dealt not at all with confusion.
"No," he said again. "I don't want to."
John sighed and slumped back against the restroom wall again, out of his aggressive posture. "Nothing's changed, Rodney," he said tiredly. "There's still ground to cover. Teyla and Ronon are still pissed. Let's just get through the damn park so we can go home."
"And what will happen back at home, hmm?" Rodney asked. His chest hurt.
"I told you," John said. "Nothing's changed."
"Then let's go," Rodney said. "If nothing's any different, we might as well keep right on pretending this mission is both useful and loads of fun." He turned and started toward the next building, crunching angrily through the gravel.
"Keep it down, McKay," Ronon's gruff voice said abruptly into his ear, and Rodney jerked and flailed in confusion for the quarter of a second that it took him to remember the comlink.
"What?" he snapped, searching the underbrush in disorientation before zeroing in on the faraway outlines of Ronon and Teyla across the courtyard.
"Teyla's asleep," Ronon said. "Quit running your mouth."
Rodney squinted and saw Ronon's lumpy elephantine outline resolve into the disquieting spectacle of Ronon, seated on a bench, with Teyla stretched out next to him with her head in his lap.
"You can't possibly hear me from this far away," he protested automatically, while his brain spun in confused circles.
"Whatever. Shut it," Ronon said, and hung up on him.
Rodney wheeled to face John, emotional trauma shunted to the side for the moment. "Teyla's asleep. On a mission."
John's eyes widened, then narrowed. "She's been--weird, lately," he said reluctantly. "Tired."
They stared at each other in mutual suspicion.
"It could be a virus," Rodney offered. "Or an infection. Or a neurological condition, or exposure to environmental toxins, although in that case you'd think she wouldn't be the only person affected, or what if it's a covert expression of her Wraith DNA? She could be on the verge of running amok with extra orifices." He broke off, torn between disgust and the mounting dread provoked by his own hyperbole.
"Or she could be tired," John said.
"Fine," Rodney said petulantly. "I'm sure that's all it is."
They sized each other up for a moment.
"As a break in the tension, that was quite effective," Rodney offered.
"Mmm," John said.
"Oh fuck it, let's keep going," Rodney said. He turned and strode off down the pathway toward the next building. After a moment John caught up with him.
"Maybe you were tense," John said.
"I don't want your stupid olive branch," Rodney said scornfully. "I'm only doing this because the alternative is getting into a jumper with a woman on the verge of a viral outbreak. It has nothing to do with humoring you."
John bumped shoulders with him. "I'm trying, too," he said, softly.
"Well, you suck at it," Rodney said.
"Yeah," John agreed. "And you pissed all over my olive branch."
"Kinky," Rodney said, and they both snickered.
The fourth exhibit was housed in another low, squat building similar to the previous ones, although this structure stretched back further, almost abutting the park wall. Rodney was pretty sure that any disorientation he had felt in previous exhibits had been related to clever architecture rather than the possibility that the buildings actually were larger inside than out, but it was reassuring to note that this building was truly physically longer than the others.
"The River of Solitude," John read. "Unburden yourself of...something. What's the opposite of solitude?"
"Before today I would have said 'an amusement park,'" Rodney said, squinting at the sign. "People? Crowds? Teeming masses? No, too literal. Friendship, maybe. I don't recognize the root word at all, so I'm going on context alone. Connection. Intimacy."
John made a face.
"Right, we can probably skip this one," Rodney said, rolling his eyes.
John scowled at him and waved open the door, stepping inside. Rodney followed him through the doorway and into a swamp.
Ahead of them, the smooth industrial flooring of the entryway sloped away into dimness. There was a sound of water lapping gently somewhere close by, although after the daylight outside Rodney could only make out varying shades of darkness. The air hung heavy with moisture, and the smell of damp was overwhelming.
"Looks like somebody left the faucet on," John said, signaling a halt like there were Marines around to pay attention. He flipped on the light on his P-90 and scanned the room.
A dock stretched out in front of them. It was short and bare, with plain metal pylons disappearing into the water below. Off the far edge, secured to cleats, bobbed several canoes.
John moved forward slowly, testing his weight with each step onto the dock. Rodney watched him uneasily, aiming his penlight first at John's feet, and then at the black water beyond the far edge of the dock. Anything could be in there. Crocodiles. Amphibious Wraith. John was better able to defend himself from surprise attack.
John reached the far end of the dock and peered into the water, then pulled something out of his pocket--rock, coin, bullet, Rodney couldn't tell--and tossed it in. It hit the water with a light splash, followed only a second later by faint underwater clanking. "It's pretty shallow," John said. "Looks like the canoes are on tracks."
Rodney sighed. "What on earth is the point of a canoe you don't even have to paddle?" He stepped out onto the dock next to John and peered into the nearest boat.
"Maybe it's romantic," John suggested.
"It's for kids." Rodney poked at a mass of partially disintegrated synthetic fiber in the bottom of the boat. "And no ride you have to take swaddled in personal floatation gear could possibly be romantic. Especially that stuff. It smells like dead mouse."
He straightened and played his light over the walls. Squat, drooping trees with feathery leaves, clearly artificial, grew along both sides of the river, forming an archway that led into the darkness.
Rodney shone his light down into the water. The bottom was visible, not more than knee-deep. He eyed the decaying life jackets again and decided that given a choice, he might rather drown.
Rodney sighed. "I suppose we have to get in the boat," he said unenthusiastically.
John brightened, like the idea of actually taking the ride hadn't occurred to him. Maybe he still had a zen hangover from the previous exhibit and had been planning to stare contemplatively at the canoes until he lost all alpha-wave function. Rodney wouldn't have put it past him.
The canoes had two bench seats, which was convenient, but were scaled for Ancients under a meter, which was less so. Rodney sat in the stern with his knees splayed wide to accommodate John's hips on the bench in front of him.
John leaned backward over him to uncleat the canoe, setting the canoe to rocking and pressing a good deal more of his TAC vest into Rodney's inner thighs than Rodney was strictly prepared for. It was an odd, stolen feeling; the combination of rough, impersonal fabric and heavy, warm body between his thighs. It reminded Rodney of receiving a hug from a child, or an elderly relative: pleasurable, overlaid with the faint tension inherent in finding pleasure in the touch of someone sexually off-limits.
Although John wasn't, inherently. Whether he was available, Rodney wasn't entirely certain, but he was not inherently off-limits. That was the distillation of John's halting declaration last week on the pier. And Rodney's uncertainty was part of his discomfort with John this past week.
Mostly, Rodney thought, he wanted his friend. He wanted John back the way they had been, or rather, he wanted to fast-forward through the tension and the loaded pauses and the stumbling over changing boundaries, and to simply be in the future, in the new way they would be with each other. He wasn't sure he particularly cared what way that would be as long as it had him in it, and John.
What John felt about all this, Rodney lacked sufficient data to speculate.
"Ow," he said instead, shoving at John's back where it was pressing into his chest.
"Can't reach otherwise," John said, leaning in even further. Rodney felt his face begin to heat at their continued proximity. Spiky hair tickled his nose, and then John gave an oof and pressed something on the edge of the dock and the canoe jerked forward.
Rodney gave a startled yelp and tried to clutch John's shoulders, the side of the canoe, and the non-existent paddles at the same time. The canoe rocked on its underwater track and water slapped against the side, although thankfully not into the boat, because who knew what sort of toxic mold cultures were growing in there after all this time.
John snorted and pushed off of him, sitting up and out of Rodney's lap, or as far out as he could realistically get under the circumstances. "Suave, McKay."
"If you wanted suave, you should have come out to alternate universe me," Rodney fired off, and then winced at his own tactlessness.
John peered over his shoulder and stared at Rodney incredulously. "Wow," he said. "You are terrible at this."
"And I can apologize again, but we both know it's not likely to change anything," Rodney said. He crossed his arms over his chest belligerently, then quickly uncrossed them when the movement made the boat rock again.
John stared at him a moment longer, then turned back toward the darkness in front of them. He shrugged his shoulders, making his TAC vest move up and down and bump against Rodney's knees. "Guess I'm kinda used to it," he said to the bow of the canoe. "Since you're my best friend and all."
Rodney stared at the back of his head, stunned. "I--really?" he asked in an embarrassingly small voice.
"Mmm," John said noncommittally.
"You're sure?" He paused, but John didn't add anything. "Just--that's the most sentimental thing I've ever heard you say. I think you should be sure.”
John swiveled and glared at him. "I can take it back."
"No!" Rodney yelped. "No, you don't need to, I was just--I just--" he stopped and took a breath, gathering himself. "Thank you." He reached out one hand, flustered by the expanse of John's back and shoulders, and after a brief hesitation settled for patting him on the arm.
John reached over and covered his hand, a brief hard press, and once again that was far more than Rodney had been expecting.
The canoe slid through the black water, past the shadowy outlines of trees dripping synthetic moss and around bends in the river created by tree roots and narrow, grassy banks. The only light came from John's P-90, and from the occasional tiny, winking balls of yellowish light that Rodney assumed were supposed to be firefly analogues.
Unlike the previous exhibits, it was actually rather restful. The canoe traveled smoothly enough, but faint clunks and vibrations filtered up through the bench seats, reminding Rodney that they were safely atop a track, headed toward, if not actual enlightenment, at least a destination.
Rodney watched the trees slide by with vague, unfocused attention. The majority of his brain was rifling through the events of the day, generating patterns and hypotheses and proposals for exploratory research into the nature of John Sheppard.
"I wish I had some cotton candy," he said abruptly. The brain required glucose for this kind of complex synthesis.
"We'll get you another snow cone when the ride's over," John said, and patted his calf.
Rodney was suspicious of this new data point. "You're awfully affectionate all of a sudden."
John reached back and flicked him.
The bumping and clunking of the canoe sped up suddenly. With a little burst of speed they rounded a hummock and were faced with an island. Two more boat-lengths and the canoe beached itself on a tiny sandy shore with the chunk of a locking mechanism engaging.
They unfolded themselves and stepped out. The island, if it were really large enough to deserve the name, was no more than four meters across at the widest point. The tiny beach gave way almost immediately to scrub vegetation and a narrow paved path, which climbed up and over a low hill. The path was lined with the same bluish track lighting from Wraith Blaster, while the short wiry bushes formed a makeshift hedge on either side.
They climbed the hill, boots scraping as grit from the beach met the pavement. At the top of the hill the bushes opened out into what looked for all the world like a campfire ring, complete with log benches and a pile of ash in the center.
John tapped one of the logs with the P-90. The log made a hollow, echoing sound, and in the middle of the ring the ashes grudgingly began to glow.
John waggled his eyebrows at Rodney. "Wanna see what it does?"
"It's a campfire, I already know what it does," Rodney said.
John stepped over the nearest bench and plopped down. He patted the spot next to him in invitation. "Come on, Rodney, pull up a log."
"Now that sounds enticing," Rodney muttered, sitting down next to him gingerly. More molded ass-indentations on the logs, wonderful. The embers, possibly triggered by his weight on the bench, began to glow more strongly.
Rodney stared into the fire. What a day.
Next to him, John gave a deep sigh and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. He tipped his head toward Rodney conspiratorially. "I like this one so far. You're right, though, it'd be better with cotton candy."
It figured John would grasp the appeal once something was on fire. "Of course I'm right." Rodney unzipped his vest and fumbled through the inside pockets until he found what he was looking for. He held his hand out toward John. "I can't help you with the candy, but I can offer you a choice of sugar-free spearmint or cinnamon gum."
"Big spender," John said, popping a piece of spearmint in his mouth. "Thanks."
Rodney took a piece of cinnamon for himself and turned back to the fire. It was hard to imagine the intended purpose of this exhibit, but in and of itself it wasn't so bad. The flames flickered steadily, making him feel warmer even though he was pretty sure they were holographic. The exhibit hall was dark, the quiet broken only by the faint sound of running water in the distance. The only insects were computer generated.
"Wish I had my guitar," John said.
"What for?" Rodney asked, nonplussed.
"We could pass it around, play a few tunes," John said. "Ronon's learning."
"Excellent, we could all sing Satedan power ballads," Rodney said without heat. "So what you really mean is that you wish you had a guitar, and Ronon and Teyla. And maybe some cotton candy."
"Mmm, yeah. Cultural exchange," John said, nodding. He strummed a few air chords and sang in a rough baritone, "Home, home on the range..."
"Where the deer and the antelope play," Rodney harmonized, and they finished the chorus together. John wasn't too bad, although his breath control could use some work. Rodney grinned and bumped shoulders with him anyway.
John grinned back, then stilled suddenly. "I haven't--talked--to Ronon or Teyla yet," he said, eyes on the fire, and Rodney bit his tongue against the reflexive desire to ask "about what?" It was like playing John Charades sometimes, seriously. Two syllables, rhymes with "emotionally unavailable."
"I will, I guess," John went on. "They're my--I guess I should tell them."
"I suppose," Rodney said, as nonjudgmentally as possible. After John’s hasty retreat that night on the pier, Rodney had returned to his quarters and spent several hours poring over what relevant literature was available on the Atlantean database, brushing up on his queer theory. There had been an online etiquette guide that covered this situation, but experiencing it was a lot more nerve-wracking.
John looked at him then. "I just started with you," he said.
"Wow," Rodney said stupidly. He stared back at John, stunned and pleased, while a small, fiercely competitive portion of his brain pumped its fist and shrieked, yes!
"Don't let it go to your head," John muttered, but the corner of his mouth was curled up.
Rodney wracked his brain for something suitably congratulatory and supportive. The online guide had been extremely clear on the necessity of being supportive. "I'm sure Teyla and Ronon will be delighted to talk with you, just as I have been," he said formally. He frowned for a moment, picturing the scenario. He could visualize John and Teyla having a serious conversation well enough, but Ronon was more difficult. He pictured himself approaching Ronon and suggesting the need for a tete-a-tete, then winced. That was unpleasant.
John made a face like he was picturing the same thing.
"Maybe you could just skip Ronon," Rodney suggested, and John snickered.
"Or you don't have to say anything to either of them," Rodney went on.
"Yeah," John said softly. "I don't have to." The lines of his shoulders drooped a little. He looked exhausted, suddenly. "I'm almost forty, though. It feels dumb not to."
"Well, sure," Rodney said. "But you do a lot of dumb things. We're sitting on fake logs in a fake swamp in front of a fake campfire, for one."
"Wait a second," Rodney said. "When you say you 'started with me,' you meant 'started with me out of the handful of people on Atlantis with whom you might care to reveal something of this nature,' right?"
John eyed him with discomfort and seemed to fold in on himself a little.
"You didn't," Rodney said dumbly. "Oh, wow."
He stared unseeing into the fire, feeling like his insides had been scooped out. "Why not, before?" he asked finally.
"I told you," John said. "I don't like talking about it."
And that seemed to be that. Rodney sat, and stared at the fire, and chewed his gum mechanically. After a little while, John slid onto the ground and stretched his legs out in front of him toward the fire. Rodney slid down to sit next to him, and they sat like that for a while.
"So you didn't ever look for a, I don't know, a support group or something?" Rodney said quietly after a bit. He felt like if he moved too suddenly or raised his voice he'd pop the bubble of calm that surrounded them.
John made a motion with his shoulders that might have been a shrug. "What for?"
Rodney waited, but the moment drew out and John didn't elaborate. "I suppose the obvious answer would be 'support,'" he said finally. "Help figuring yourself out, or something."
"It's not really that hard a concept," John said.
Rodney felt slow and dreamy, like he was moving underwater or at half-speed. He thought that normally it would be killing him to sit here getting stonewalled. Except he was beginning to think perhaps this wasn't stonewalling, that this truly was the extent of John's engagement with the topic. 'It's not that hard a concept.' Like it was algebra, not identity politics.
"So, what, just--sometimes guys?" he asked. "That's it?"
Now John rolled his head to look at him. "Yeah," he said slowly. "Mostly nobody. But sometimes guys."
Leaving aside the patent unlikelihood of "mostly nobody" when a person looked and moved like John Sheppard, Rodney felt his agitation rising. "But you didn't have anybody there to, to show you the ropes."
John snorted. "Well, first you take your dick out. Then you take his dick out. Then--"
"No, shut up," Rodney said. "That's not what I mean. I mean you didn't have friends, a mentor, a, a community there for you, as embarrassing and saccharine as it is for me to put words to that concept, but like it or not I never would have gotten where I am today without the people around me."
He stopped. John was watching him with polite incomprehension. It was a look Rodney was used to seeing, but not on John, and it made his stomach hurt.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't know you back then, I'm sorry we didn't know you, me and Ronon and Teyla and everyone, and that you were by yourself. I'm sorry it was like that for you."
"Rodney," John said, sounding frustrated. He sat up straight and stared at Rodney, scowling. "What else is it supposed to be like?"
"You're supposed to have people," Rodney said heatedly, helplessly. His eyes stung. "I wish I had been there." He reached out blindly and grabbed John's hand.
John was silent next to him. His hand was gentle on Rodney's, pressing back but noncommittal.
Rodney squeezed his eyes shut and gripped him more tightly. He pulled his knees up to his chest, wishing he weren't sitting here with his literal and proverbial soft underbelly exposed. It just hurt to think about, John by himself all that time.
"I think--" John began, "I think you're missing the point."
"Oh, what now?" Rodney said, dropping his head to his knees in defeat. He knew it was horrible, but he didn't think he could take another elliptical conversation.
"You're here now," John said. "You and Ronon and Teyla."
Rodney looked up at him. "Ronon and Teyla aren't here, they're asleep in the courtyard," he told John irritably.
"Figuratively, Jesus," John said, and kissed him.
It was a strange kiss, prickly and damp and underwritten with both surprise and a sense of loss. It had been a long time since Rodney had kissed anyone who didn't go on to find him a disappointment, and he thought that maybe it had been even longer for John. He wanted to grab John and force comprehension into him on a molecular level: you're my best friend, dumbass, and I don't care if you make sense, and I don't even like amusement parks.
It was silly, he knew, but Rodney had never been the guy who didn't care.
He settled for touching John's bristly cheek, the corner of his mouth, the outer ridge of his ear. Up close John smelled like spearmint, and it clashed with the leftover cinnamon flavor still coating the inside of Rodney's mouth. He went on kissing John anyway.
In the center of the circle, the fire suddenly flared, rising to half a meter with a crackling whoosh. The flames leaped, twisted, and then went out. A flurry of sparks floated in the air, tiny pinpricks of light in the sudden dark.
They pulled apart, blinking away the after-images.
"Looks like the party's over," John said, rubbing the back of his neck self-consciously.
"The path's lit up over there," Rodney said. His voice caught at first and he had to cough and start over. He wasn't sure if he was turned on or not. He felt more like he'd taken a blow to the head than anything else.
They unfolded themselves from the ground, brushing away sand, and made their way down the blue-lit path in silence. The path dead-ended at another tiny beach with two canoes settled half in and half out of the water.
Rodney examined the closest one. It was barely large enough to hold him, let alone two grown men, no matter how cozily they sat. Apparently one might enter the River of Solitude with a companion, but one left alone.
"I knew there was symbolism in here somewhere," he said sourly.
John kicked the side of his canoe. "I don't like this."
"Now imagine you're here with a screaming toddler," Rodney said. "I know it's unlike me to take risks with my physical safety, but barring emotional minefields, there's been nothing even remotely dangerous involved in this mission so far. I vote we shove off and get out of here."
John hesitated, then shrugged. "I think we might be doing this one wrong anyway," he said, and folded himself into his canoe.
Rodney stared after him, back in the moment on the hill with John's tongue against his, then shook his head briskly and stepped into his own boat. John reached back and pushed the button, and a moment later the canoe lurched away into the dark.
The trip out was mercifully brief. Rodney's canoe trailed behind John's, John a dim silhouette of shoulders and ears and the dark horizontal line of his P-90 resting across his knees. They rounded two or three leisurely turns before the quality of the light began to change, becoming grainy and pale instead of the velvety dark of the exhibit.
An outline of a door appeared, a thin bright tracing, and then a second one further along. Ahead of him, John's canoe veered off to the right toward the first door, while Rodney's continued. He felt the boat dock with a clunk, and then squinted against the brightness as his door began to open.
Back on the path, the daylight was blinding. Rodney rubbed at his watering eyes, feeling like he’d emerged from a dream. John put on his sunglasses, and then to Rodney’s surprise pulled a second pair out of his vest and handed them over. Rodney accepted gratefully and slid them on.
The sudden shade brought relief, and a strange certainty that he should be back in the dark with John. He turned, already reaching out, feeling his palms cupping around the phantom solidity of John’s shoulders, to find John watching him with that same weary expression.
“Hey,” Rodney said softly. He reached up and brushed his knuckles across John’s cheek, thinking gently, gently.
It was the wrong approach. John grimaced and shook his hand off, even though he’d shivered and leaned into that touch, in the dark.
“Do you want me to go for confrontational, then?” Rodney asked. He had no problem with that, if it would keep them from stalling out again.
“You don’t like men,” John said quietly.
Surprised, Rodney held very still for a moment, thinking. Did he? Historical evidence suggested no, but he’d kissed John back easily enough. Perhaps his revealed preference suggested differently.
He focused on John. This was a risk, he realized. John could have said what the hell, McKay, or kissed him with enough fervor to derail conversation, or any number of other responses that precluded a genuine discussion of their relationship in the full light of day. This was John taking another, greater risk with him. With Rodney first.
“I could,” he said carefully.
“Just like that,” John said.
“I could!” Rodney said, losing some of his cool. “Aside from the obvious ethical objections, I don’t really see what the big deal is.”
John’s mouth moved, silently shaping “ethical objections,” and Rodney hurried to forestall him.
“Not that, of course,” he hurried on, “I was referring to the problem of my just being ‘gay for you,’” he made the air quotes. “I believe that’s considered a bit tacky.”
“But.” John stopped, visibly gathering himself, then spoke again in that same quiet voice. “Are you? Gay for me?”
Rodney looked at him. “That’s what I’m telling you,” he said, painstakingly phrasing his response in the simplest terms possible. “I don’t know. I think I could be. I never really thought about it.”
John twitched a little, like that stung.
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Of course you're terribly attractive,” he said placatingly, “I just wasn't really considering it on a, you know, a personal level.”
"And now you are," John said slowly, the way he said things like they believe the lava spirits guard the vessel of the Ancestors, or so you've become telepathic.
"Didn't we just have this conversation?" Rodney said, annoyed. "How difficult of a concept can it possibly be? You're a guy, I'm very fond of you, ergo I'm fond of guys."
“That doesn’t follow,” John said.
“Oh,” Rodney said with sudden understanding. “You’re nervous. You don’t think I can hack the gay lifestyle. You don’t think I’ve got the chops for this!”
“I think if you’ve never even thought about it, there’s no way you really—“ John broke off, voice low and rough.
“—want this,” Rodney finished, because even he couldn’t say want you out loud without a truth force field.
John winced anyway.
“Sorry, sorry,” Rodney said hurriedly, then stopped. It was a valid point. He’d been so distracted by the intellectual aspect he’d forgotten the visceral.
Conceptually he was on board. Physically—he thought about putting his hands on John with intent, about kissing him again. About the weight of John’s body against his chest, or between his thighs. Heat flooded him, startling in its intensity. Yes, he thought. Yes, yes, of course. An outlier was still a data point. This could work.
“Yes,” he said aloud. “I think I could. I think—no, I do.” He put a hand on John’s bicep and felt excitement rush through him.
John looked at him. “You don’t sound real sure.”
“Look, are you trying to talk me into or out of this relationship?” Rodney threw his hands out, miming frustration and, hopefully, his acceptance of the profound fluidity of human sexual behavior. “Because I was in! Totally in!”
John pursed his lips, the very picture of skepticism. “So you’re in. We’ll just go tell Ronon and Teyla you’re gay now. I’m sure they’ll be honored to discuss it with you.”
"Oh god, you're right! This is a terrible idea." Rodney blanched and grabbed John’s arm for support. John felt good under his hands. Solid. Another plus in the column for visceral attraction.
Perversely, this was what finally seemed to convince John of his good faith. John ducked his head, huffing out a laugh, then smiled up at Rodney with soft eyes. "We do dumb things all the time.”
"You're a stellar example of the genre," Rodney muttered. "It'll be like the blind leading the blind in the dark."
"By the dick?" John said hopefully.
"I think we can arrange that," Rodney muttered. His stomach gave a pleasant little twist at the idea. Unexplored knowledge always did that to him. “But later, for crying out loud. Priorities! Right this moment I have a self-concept to rearrange, and also we have—“ he stopped, scanning their surroundings with the sudden realization that he’d been completely unaware of them for the last several minutes. Nope, still unthreatening. “We have one exhibit left.” He eyed John, feeling uncomfortably diffident. “Unless you’d like to skip this one?”
“Are you gonna go all polite on me every time we make out?”
“Yes, and I’m going to hold doors and pull your chair out for you at dinner and help you into your jacket,” Rodney said, chagrined. “I was deferring to your tenuous hold on your self-definition, but I see you’d rather make smart remarks. Fine, then, last exhibit it is. Chop chop.”
He crossed the few meters to the doorway of the final building. It was mercifully small, hardly larger than a toolshed. The plaque over the doorway read “Garden of Emptiness,” subtitle unburden yourself of sensation, which was a little too close to sentience for Rodney’s taste.
“Don’t touch anything in this one,” he warned John, pushing the door open.
The interior of the room was black, silent, and curiously odorless. So much for the garden. John shone his light into the corners, but the room appeared to be exactly what Rodney had surmised at first glance: dark, empty, and boring.
He went in anyway, stopping in the center of the room and giving it a cursory scan. Nothing. “I can’t believe there’s not even a neural interface in here.”
John huffed with laughter. “What a disappointment.”
“Maybe it’s broken.”
John flipped his light off and they stood there in the pitch black, arms brushing. “Maybe it’s just stupid.”
Rodney burst into surprised laughter. Usually when John could be bothered to express outright disdain, it was directed at Rodney, but in this they were united. “Seriously, Garden of Emptiness? There should at least be a sensory deprivation tank in here.”
“This whole place sounds like an ad for a high colonic,” John said, and that was it.
They leaned against each other in the dark, whooping with laughter. Rodney felt the tension of the day, of the past week, falling away from him like dust, or maybe dead skin cells in an Ancient cleanse, and doubled over again. John’s braying laugh was so close it set the short hairs at the nape of his neck vibrating, and Rodney felt a sudden, aching rush of affection for him.
“You know it wouldn’t have been like that, if we had been with you back then,” he said, fumbling to put his hands on John. “I never would have let it be like that.”
John’s hands came to rest, strange and intimate, on his hips. “I know.” His voice was low and full of warmth.
Rodney wished he could see him, sense more of John than the feeling of his shoulders rising and falling under his palms, still out of breath from laughing. “We could go with you,” he said impulsively, “we could go to, what is it, Pride? Next time we’re back on Earth. San Francisco, maybe?”
“No, we really couldn’t,” John said.
“It’s a possibility!”
John shook him, rocking him on his feet. “Let’s just—see how it goes. Start slow. Let you—“ his voice became mocking—“‘rearrange your self-concept,’ if you’re really going to.”
“Please, I’m already two-thirds of the way there,” Rodney said airily. “I’ll be gayer than you by dinner.” He knew it wasn’t really so simple, that he would be in for second-guessing and self-examination and probably painful and protracted psychotherapy, but he knew, also, that John turning to him with his secrets, turning to Rodney first, was a prize worth doing battle for.
“Wow, by dinner? We should get on home,” John drawled. He stepped forward, pressing a button on the west wall that Rodney hadn’t even noticed.
The wall lit up with lines of blue text.
“You have ascended. Delight in the astral plane,” Rodney read in disgust.
With a squeal, the doors slid open, letting in daylight all in a rush. They stepped outside, blinking and fumbling for sunglasses. A metal box not unlike a parking meter stood in the center of the path. Rodney poked at the single button on the front, and the machine clicked twice and dropped something into the dispenser with a clinking sound.
Rodney picked up the object and examined it. It was a tiny metal pin with the grapheme that signified the abbreviation for “ascended” in Ancient. There was a magnet closure on the reverse.
Rodney held it up for John to see. “I think it’s a lapel pin,” he said dubiously.
“It’s a souvenir,” John said with great deliberation, like that somehow imbued it with either interest or style. He pushed the button, then clipped his pin to his shirt collar. “Let’s get some for Ronon and Teyla too.”
“Why? They didn’t complete the exhibits,” Rodney said.
John gave him his incredulous you’re being a dick face and pushed the button. Nothing happened. He tried again, but still nothing.
“See?” Rodney said meanly. “No truth helmet, no souvenir. You have to earn your glowy squidness here at Ascension World. At least they got that part right.”
John made a face. “Let’s get out of here.” He tapped his radio, and Rodney saw Ronon halfway across the courtyard, standing to stretch. Teyla stood next to him, pressing her hands to her lower back.
They made their way over to them. The sun had come back out and it was mid-afternoon by now. Rodney’s stomach, ignored in favor of more pressing emotional turmoil, began to growl.
Teyla smiled tiredly at them as they approached. “How was your adventure?”
John widened his eyes and thumbed his lapel pin. “We won big at the midway.” Then he abruptly dropped the smarm and reached out hesitantly. “We had—fun,” he said, patting Teyla’s shoulder. “Thanks for waiting. Both of you.”
“It was a much-needed rest,” Teyla said. She had dark circles under her eyes, and still managed to sound gracious.
“Yeah, about that, did you take my energy readings?” Rodney asked, turning to Ronon.
Ronon grinned toothily at him. “No.”
Rodney opened his mouth to protest, but John slung an arm over his shoulder and began to herd him toward the exit.
“Come on, Rodney,” he said. “You found everything there was to find. Let’s get home before dinner.” John turned back to Ronon and Teyla. “You’re eating with us, right? I thought maybe we could—“ John swallowed visibly “—chat.”
“Oh yeah, we have lots to discuss,” Rodney said, elbowing him in the ribs.
“As do I,” Teyla said, resting a hand on her abdomen.
“Great,” Rodney said with false enthusiasm. “It’ll be a bonanza of discussing!”
“We had amusement parks on Sateda,” Ronon said abruptly.
John came to a halt under the concrete entrance archway. “Well, you can tell us all about it, buddy.” He sounded happy, and his arm was still loosely around Rodney’s shoulders. “I bet they were nothing like this one.”
He grinned at Rodney sidelong, and Rodney thought, I can't wait to find out what happens with you, I love you so much, I absolutely can't wait.