Rodney's Antarctica is a lot like Siberia in that it's full of scientists who work 16-hour days and bathe once a week (twice when they're feeling social), and who would slit your throat for a fresh banana. Also, you can't go for a walk without a survival kit, but that's fine - Rodney's never really been an outdoorsy person.
John's Antarctica is miles and miles of emptiness flitting beneath him and no one sitting beside him. It's nothing like Afghanistan at all.
At the academy, everyone said it was a one-mistake Air Force. Fifteen percent of freshmen washed out. Someone knew someone who was expelled for forgetting to salute. Someone-else's brother got kicked out for ejecting from his F-15, mid nosedive. You crash your 55-million-dollar fighter jet, you better die in your 55-million-dollar fighter jet, the second-years told the new recruits. There was only one way to make it: follow every order to the letter, every time.
That was a load of crap, John discovered. He disobeyed plenty of implied orders and at least two direct ones, and still found himself on the fast track. At 23, he was a first lieutenant; at 25, a captain. At 32, he was a major and so cocky, his nickname was Ace.
The black mark went down like this:
His radio said, Okay, boys and girls, we'll have a visual in approximately 30 seconds. This is what I want: a nice, clean smash and grab. Two and Three, you'll stay in the air and watch our six. This is what I do not want: knife fights, fancy footwork, and especially any unnecessary he-fucking-roics. If I say abort, you will abort. Is that clear, Chopper Two?
John's radio said, Yes, sir!
"Yes, sir," John said.
Thirty seconds later, they were out of the dust storm, and someone had fucked up really bad; there were two tanks right under them - guns already aiming.
John's radio said, Abort! Abort now!
His radio said, We're down, we're down. Oh God, Jamison's- I think he's dead.
His radio said, Abort now. That is a direct order.
"I've got you," John said.
Lucas tapped his shoulder. "Sir, we've been ordered to abort."
"Yeah," John said. "I've got you," he told his radio.
He didn't. They were already dead when he landed.
Rodney once got a black mark for doing Evan Johnson's math homework in Grade Five. It wasn't that Rodney liked him particularly; he just couldn't stand to see a wrong answer when he knew the right one.
He was caught in the act because he did it in art class when he was supposed to be drawing an English peony.
"That was a little foolish of you, wasn't it," Miss Allard said. She made him write, 'I will not conspire with cheaters' 300 times in his notebook.
Rodney managed 50 lines before he had to stop. He wanted to cry from boredom. The punishment was out of proportion to the crime. He segued into a short essay about Evan's slow progress in the gifted math class. The school could be liable if Evan couldn't keep up, he argued.
And it wasn't that Evan was stupid - no one was stupid at Rodney's school - but everyone had a maximal capacity. It was possible that Evan was being accelerated faster than he could learn. Was there an element of pushiness here, Rodney wondered. An over-valuing of acceleration? He wasn't accusing anyone of anything, but in today's educational system, schools had to compete against other schools for funding. Perhaps in striving to create an impressive statistical portrait, this school was overlooking individual needs.
The next day, his mom was called in to the principal's office. Rodney had to wait outside in the hallway. Mrs Macklin, the secretary, gave him a chair (one of the hard, yellow ones they were supposed to be phasing out), a book to read (Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment), and a false smile. "Well, hello again," she said as she shut the door in his face.
Rodney sat in the uncomfortable chair and drummed his shoes on the carpet. He thought about Einstein's theory of special relativity. If he were moving fast enough, this meeting would be seem to be over sooner.
His mom came back while he was still working out how fast he'd have to be moving to make the meeting last 30 seconds.
"They want to move you up another grade," she said. "Miss Allard says that maybe you've got too much free time. What do you think?"
"Oh thank God," Rodney said.
A few weeks later, someone told him that Evan had been moved back into ordinary math. Rodney wasn't surprised. He was starting to realise that he wasn't just smarter than the other kids at school; he was smarter than most of the adults too.
Rodney's survival kit is:
1 mountain tent (plus 10 tent stakes, 6 ice screws, 2 snow flukes, and a hammer)
1 sleeping bag
1 insulated mattress
1 bivy bag
1 collapsible snow shovel
1 snow saw
1 50-foot-long parachute cord
1 first aid kit
1 signal mirror
2 pairs of wool socks
2 pairs of wool mittens
3 cooking pots
1 cook stove (with repair kit)
17 mechanical pencils
1 archival-quality notepad
5 ziplock bags of coffee
1 VHF radio
1 plastic mug
1 tube sunscreen
1 quarter of a chocolate bar
6 and a half food bars
2 food bar wrappers
14 dehydrated meals
1 very sharp pocket-knife
1 copy of Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read
John's survival kit is:
1 portable CD player
1 copy of Blood Sweat and Tears by Johnny Cash
1 M9 Beretta
A month into Grade Six, Rodney had found three people worth talking to: Mr Washington, the science teacher; Miss Gordon, the math teacher; and Jinny Chen.
He met Jinny on one of those too-hot days that turned ordinary kids into bullies, and bullies into crazed killers. In the sanctuary of the library, Rodney curled up in the alcove between the French books and the journals.
Mel Perkins had gotten to the new Scientific American first, as usual (the top corners of the physics pages were all folded down), but Leigh Davies hadn't yet (there weren't any sticky fingerprints, and the letters page was still there).
Jinny caught him quietly tearing out an article about making artificial muscles from pressurised rubber. Rodney was planning to build a giant, humanoid robot for the August science fair. He'd already designed the lasers that were going to shoot out of its eyes. It was a definite winner. He was going to the Canada Wide Science Fair again for sure.
"Hey!" Jinny said. She ripped the journal out of his hands.
Rodney jumped up guiltily. His first impressions were: oh shit, busted! tall, Chinese, girl, tall, very tall.
"What- what's your problem?" Rodney said, when his heart had slowed down. "I thought you were the librarian!" He reached for the magazine, but Jinny lifted her arm higher - apparently to taunt him from her freakish height.
"You're the kid who went to Canada Wide last year, aren't you?" she said accusingly.
"That's right," Rodney said. He was flattered and not a little mollified that his fame had travelled to a whole other age group. He stopped trying to kick Jinny's shin. "I came second," he added smugly. "I probably would have come first, but I think the winner had a relative on the judging panel. I mean, please - my concept was inflatable spaceships - revolutionary! Hers was 'look at my pretty bacteria colonies'. Any fool with a petri dish and a mouth swab could have done it."
"Whatever," Jinny said. "You play chess?"
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Well, golly, let me think," he said. "Is that the game with the black and white board?"
"Good." Jinny passed the magazine back to him and whipped out a little magnetic travel board. Then she kicked his ass in 17 moves.
"I thought I might make an atomic bomb for the science fair," she said idly, as they set up the pieces for a second game. "You want in?"
John disobeyed one other direct order two months before the black mark that sent him skidding all the way to Antarctica.
It was a two-chopper mission. John was alone in his MH-53. Mitch and Dex were in the Black Hawk behind him.
John's radio said, Base to Chopper One.
John said, "Copy, Base. This is Chopper One. Over."
Major, your mission has been scrubbed. Return home.
John said, "Base, I'm having some trouble with the radio. Say again."
Major, your mission has been scrubbed. The boys are pinned down behind the bridge, and we've detected enemy tanks crawling all over it. Return to base immediately.
John said, "Mitch, Dex, you guys having radio problems? I'm hearing a kind of crackling noise."
There was a short pause. Chopper One, this is Chopper Two, Dex said. He sounded like he wanted to laugh. Colonel Haasbroek keeps breaking up. Mitch thinks it's the mountain - some kind of interference.
John grinned. "Roger that," he said. "We'll proceed with our last received order as planned."
Return to base now, Major!
There was another pause - a longer one. We're following you over the bridge then, sir?
"Negative, Chopper Two. I'll fly alone and collect our men. If anything shoots at me, you shoot the hell back."
Later, after John had returned to base and washed off the blood and grime from the mission, and the thin layer of dust that coated everything out here, he went to face Haasbroek to get thoroughly chewed out.
After that and later still, he went to the officers' mess to get methodically plastered. (Maverick, he thought to himself, in Colonel Haasbroek's voice. Cult of personality. Responsibility of leadership. Not your father's son.)
Major Darawan of the rescued Special Ops team found him at the bar. "Major Sheppard," he said. He gripped John's hand tightly. John blinked up at him through the fog of two Kabul specials and three whisky sours. "Thank you. I'll remember this for the rest of my life."
This is how they meet:
"Major John Sheppard. I'm your pilot," John shouts over the squalling wind. He holds out his hand automatically to shake, but the other guy doesn't reciprocate. After a moment of blinking, John realises it's because both the guy's hands are occupied - a giant chocolate bar in one, an apple in the other.
"Rodney McKay," the guy calls back. He doesn't even look up at John - too busy chipmunking food into his mouth.
Anyone who volunteers to live in Antarctica is a bit strange almost by definition, but spend too long in the place, and you start getting even stranger. Maybe you start talking to yourself. Maybe you stop talking. Maybe you stop bathing. Long-timers call it the Weirds. This guy has it bad, John thinks. He watches, half awed, half concerned by the speed with which the food is disappearing. It's like watching a normal person eat in fast forward. "I'm pretty sure there'll be toast or something at the next place," he says. "Eggs. Maybe cornflakes."
"This isn't my breakfast, Major," Rodney says through the chocolate. He looks up finally. "This is in case we crash - a last meal if you will."
"Well, I'm flattered," John says. He bites his lip. He wants to laugh, but he suspects that he's the straight man in this conversation. "I'll do my best to keep us in the air."
"Oh, don't take it personally." Rodney waves the apple core dismissively.
"No, hey. Completely impersonal. I mean me- Well, say the engines cut out, we're spiralling down-" John makes his hand do a little nose-dive, "maybe we're tilting, whole chopper rattling like it's gonna break apart. I'd rather have an empty stomach. But-" John drops his hand "-that's just me. You enjoy that last apple."
Rodney glares at him but it's an absent-looking glare. "I will," he says. "I did." He peers into the open helicopter door. "You got any other food in there?"
"I'll see what I can do," John says with the straightest face he can manage.
He finds some dusty, old MREs under the passenger seat, and Rodney tucks into them with an enthusiasm that's frankly disturbing. When he's done with the second rubbery omelette, he sticks his finger into the packet of instant coffee and licks it clean, eyes closing ecstatically. "Mm," he says. "Mmm." Maybe he's possessed, John thinks, wonderingly.
After the coffee licking, though, he's pretty human, and a pretty chatty human. It turns out he's a physicist, with a higher opinion of his own abilities than anyone John's ever met. "You're talking to the pre-eminent astrophysicist in the world," he says. And "I'll probably win two Nobel prizes by the time I'm 45." And "I've thought about having myself cloned for the greater good."
John finds it weirdly charming. He smiles all the way to the top-secret-already-forgotten-it's-there base.
Jinny Chen really knew how to design a science project. Over two months, she and Rodney built their own atomic bomb - not a working model, they said irritably, every time someone raised an eyebrow.
The result was brilliant - the perfect balance of hard science and precise engineering. It was so perfect that Rodney secretly investigated testing it for real. Alas, he discovered that U-235 was almost as hard to come by as a nuclear testing site. In the end, he just had to take comfort in his own certainty that it would have worked beautifully. It was a work of art.
The two of them practised their acceptance speech in Jinny's bathroom. "I especially appreciate the prize money," Rodney's thank you went. "I plan to use it for the betterment of all humanity." By this, he meant the giant robot with the laser eyes. The schematics were still under his bed.
Jinny wanted to spend her share on a string art kit (she had her heart set on a Siamese cat design), pink go-go boots, and a View-Master with pictures of the solar system. She'd decided not to include this information in her part of the speech. "Need to know only," she said to Rodney primly.
As it turned out, they barely had a chance to unroll their first poster before three men in dark glasses ushered them out of the exhibition area, and into a tiny, stuffy office.
"Agent Slater, CIA," one of them said, as soon as he shut the door. He pointed them at a couple of plastic seats. "Your parents are on their way."
He refused to say anything more, so Rodney and Jinny played chess while they waited. Rodney got his ass kicked in 23 moves. He was definitely improving.
"Wanna take me on?" he said to Agent Slater. "I'm way better than she makes me look."
Slater took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Your parents are on their way," he said again. He sounded as toneless as a robot from the Twilight Zone. Perhaps someone's science project had escaped into the wild, Rodney thought. He bit his lip. Was that a laser in the guy's eye, or was it pinkeye? He hoped he hadn't been scooped.
Jinny challenged him to another five games to kill the time. She won in 16 moves, 31 moves, 17 moves, 186 moves, and 247 moves.
In the middle of the next game, Rodney's mother burst into the room with two more dark-glasses guys. "Rodney? Rodney, are you okay?" She glared around the room. "Would someone like to tell me why the hell my eight year old son is being held by the CIA?" Her face was a weird pinkish colour.
Agent Thompson stood up. "Ma'am, did you know that your son built an A-bomb for the science fair?"
Rodney's mother spun around to face him. Thompson actually took a step back. "You did not really say that to me," she said. "It's just not possible for that much stupidity to be contained in a normal-sized head." She put her face right up against Thompson's. "It's not a working model!"
Thompson took another step back. "Actually, ma'am, with the addition of uranium-"
"I'm sorry, did I say that as though I was interested in your response? Rodney, Virginia, we're leaving."
"Ma'am, I have to insist that you remain where you are. We have good reason to believe that your son is a member of a secret pre-teen organisation known as 'Youngsters Overthrow and Unite Through Heroism', aka YOUTH."
Rodney sat up straighter. This could be even more exciting than winning at the fair, he thought.
Sadly, the whole thing turned out to be dull, dull, dull. There were no harsh lights, no torture instruments, and no polygraph machines. Instead, they spent four tedious hours waiting for Jinny's parents to fly in from Ottawa, while Rodney's mother made vague but menacing threats to sue.
"I'm just doing my job," Thompson said a few times, sounding miserable. The other agents were wise enough not to engage at all.
After the first hour, someone brought in a packet of cookies and a pitcher of water. Rodney's mom picked up a cookie and sniffed it suspiciously. "Lemon," she said scathingly. "My son and I are both extremely allergic. I could be sick just from having breathed it in. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
After the third hour, Thompson said a little defiantly, "Anyway, how did they make a bomb if they were working alone?"
Rodney's mom rolled her eyes. "They're geniuses, you moron." That set her off into a long tirade about the difficulty of being a gifted child in a society that wanted everyone to be utterly, mediocrely the same. She digressed into the evils of an obstructionist government, and then - neatly - into a lecture about the difference between Canadian and American libertarianism. "And you people don't even have jurisdiction in this country," she was saying, when Jinny's parents finally arrived.
They were both lawyers, so everyone went home pretty soon after that.
On the flight home, Jinny challenged Rodney to one more chess match. Perhaps she was tired or maybe the airplane turkey sandwich disagreed with her; Rodney won in 93 moves.
John probably should have been court-martialled after the second incident. Haasbroek made it clear he'd have liked nothing better. But apparently, someone spoke to someone, spoke to someone, spoke to John's father. (Though no one ever said this directly.)
"You'll get a written reprimand, as will Sergeant Lucas," Haasbroek said. He sounded as though he were gritting his teeth. "Now pick a base, and by God you better make it far away from mine."
John closed his eyes and thought: somewhere far away from this place with its dust and blood and people he hadn't saved. He thought of the most far-away place he could imagine.
"Antarctica," he said.
Against all safety regulations, John likes to hike up to Scott's Cross alone, just before dawn. He's been to every continent on Earth, but in his 35 years, he's never seen anything as beautiful as an illicit sunrise over McMurdo. The wind stings his face. There's no dust. Everything is clean and cold and bare; there's nothing out there but the horizon.
Today, he gets back in time for breakfast - the free choices are oatmeal with canned pears; a bright orange breakfast burrito; and, joy of joys, creamed beef on toast. John buys himself an apricot granola bar ($4) and a wrinkly green apple ($6).
He picks up his schedule from the deputy base commander ("Still like it here?" she says. "Still like it here," John says).
His schedule looks like this:
John asks no questions and is told no lies. Officially, he and a handful of Air Force reservists are Antarctica's entire military presence. Unofficially - and he'd bet his life on this - he's been transporting marines and civilian adjuncts for the better part of six months.
The marines travel in pairs, and say nothing except "Yes, sir," "No, sir," and "Can I help you with that bag, sir?" The civilians are all scientists and clearly unused to keeping military secrets. Without even wanting to know, John has learned that the project director is a woman named Weir, and that these aren't the usual Antarctic scientists. There's no talk of drilling or geology or weather patterns in John's passenger seats, nothing about ozone holes or penguins. Instead, these are geneticists and physicists and engineers.
John tries not to think about it too much, but he's pretty sure they're building a weapon down there - something so dangerous and morally dubious that the rest of the world can't know about it. John almost can't bear to know about it himself. He reminds himself that the scientists are from all over the globe. That it doesn't make sense for weapons technology to be so widely shared. He tries not to listen too hard to his own common sense.
32279SGA is a strange place even aside from its inhabitants and their questionable activities. Once, as he's leaving, John thinks he sees colours washing over the main dome - reds and greens and blues. Another time, he hears a woman's voice in his head as he's about to land. Veni, she says invitingly. We're waiting for you, John. John checks his altitude. He checks the cabin pressure, the oxygen level then the altitude again. Nothing's wrong. It's fine. He's fine, he tells himself. Never even happened.
Today, his civilian scientists are quiet. The flight is unremarkable. There's no loose talk about base pairs or flight trajectories - thank God.
As he prepares to land ("better have your belts on, boys and girls"), John sees a red dot in the snow. It gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it's Rodney McKay - Rodney McKay running towards them, shouting, his face contorted with some urgent emotion.
John lands and fumbles with his seatbelt. His heart thuds. Something's happened, he thinks. Something's happened with the weapon. He glances around, and yeah, his passengers think so too. They're all white-faced and shaken. R. Zelenka looks like he's going to throw up.
Rodney reaches the chopper just as John wrenches the door open. "Major!" He's gasping for breath. "Major! I'm glad I caught you. I've got-" he fumbles inside his jacket, "I've got about a hundred bucks. Any chance you could bring back some fruit? Maybe some chocolate too? Cadbury's if possible. Oh, hey-" he waves casually at John's passengers. "Hey guys." He points at one of the base's spider arms. "Security clearance thataway."
"Fruit," John repeats, after his passengers have all stumbled out - luggage hoisted over their shoulders, legs wobbling. "Fruit, like-" Fruit like a code word, he wonders? Like a code word meaning, 'Weapon has malfunctioned - world destruction imminent'?
"Fruit like apples, oranges, bananas." Rodney sounds slightly impatient. "Maybe some coffee if you can get the good stuff. And I meant that about the Cadbury's. If all you can find is that Nestle crap, I really don't want it. I'd rather you spent the money on an extra tomato or something."
"Tomato. Gotcha," John says carefully. "And other than the fruitless situation... Everything's okay?"
Rodney blinks at him, as though he thinks John is a really strange guy. "Everything's fine," he says.
When John was ten years old, he ran away to join a circus that had set up tent outside the Hanscom Air Force Base.
One of the clowns hauled him unceremoniously back home. "Found another one," he told the guard at the gate.
The guard, in turn, had an airman escort John to his street.
"So," the airman said as they walked, "the circus, huh?" He smiled at John tentatively. "I used to love the circus when I was your age. Course, I didn't have any of the skills you need. One time, I tried fire-twirling with my mom's broom - nearly burned the whole house down."
John shrugged even though he was kind of interested. Fire twirling. "I can juggle a bit," he said.
"Yeah?" The airman looked impressed. "That's pretty cool."
John shrugged again. They walked a little.
"So..." the airman said after a minute. "How's everything at home?"
John felt himself tensing up. "Fine."
"I know your dad can be difficult," the airman said. "He-"
"Look, I just wanted to see the elephant, okay?" John interrupted. "I was coming right back."
"Okay," the airman said. "It's just funny, because the clown seemed to think you weren't coming right back."
"Well, the clown got it wrong."
"Yeah," the airman said gently. He gave John a little sideways grin. "They so often do."
Rodney once kicked a clown in the nuts. He was only four at the time, but he remembered it with a fondness that kept him warm on cold nights - of which there were many in Siberia.
John thinks about Rodney McKay on his morning hike.
Fruit, he thinks. Apples, oranges, bananas. Chocolate. Maybe some coffee if he can get the good stuff.
It's the end of the month at the grocery store, though; all they have left are apples, peanuts, and some greenish potatoes. And the apples are pretty gross - soft with brown scars. John picks through them to find the sort-of-okay ones.
"Had no idea you were this choosy," says Pete from behind the counter. He's been stacking and restacking seven cans of Spam since John arrived. Right now, they're in a kind of arrow formation. John guesses the job must get pretty boring.
Pete waggles his eyebrows like he knows something John doesn't. He's another guy with a serious case of the Weirds. Today, he has a stuffed parrot on his shoulder. It looks at John beadily like it knows something John doesn't as well.
"Picky, picky," Pete says in a bird's voice. He tips the parrot back and forth like it's talking.
"Yeah." John looks at Pete then back at the bird. "Had some time to kill. But you know what? I think I've got all I want now."
At the counter, Pete rings up the change and John blinks at his watch. He's - wow he's killed an hour sorting through apples. It's strange how time can get away from you in a place like Antarctica.
At the base, Rodney is gushingly, almost insultingly, grateful when John passes him the small crate, and fifteen dollars in change.
"Thank you so much," he says. "I just- I really appreciate this. Wow, red and green! Thank you, I-"
"You thought I was going to take your money, didn't you," John accuses. He's more amused than insulted, he decides. "You thought I was going to steal it."
"It was a possibility," Rodney says defensively. He clutches the crate to his chest like he's afraid John's going to grab it back.
"So, I was going to, what - hide out behind a glacier with your hundred bucks?"
John grins at him - he can't help it. "Remind me never to rob a bank with you."
"You know," Rodney says, "I have something like five witty comebacks for that, but-" He smiles, and his whole face lights up. "You brought me apples."
It's a really nice smile. John's heart misses a beat. He tries to keep grinning, but his mouth feels wrong. He mentally punches Pete's stuffed parrot in its stupid, smirking, knowing face.
Back in his quarters, with Johnny Cash telling him, "don't take no guns to town, son," John cracks open a $200 bottle of Glenlochy scotch and wonders if this is his own manifestation of the Weirds. He hasn't wanted a guy since he was fourteen years old, and stupid enough to think that getting sucked off on a stained sofa meant he was loved.
Johnny says, "well the mean things you said don't make me feel bad."
John pours himself a double even though this scotch supposed to be for very, very, very special hooray-I-survived-being-eaten-by-a-bear-today occasions. This is special enough, he reasons. He's 35 years old. He's a special-ops-trained, former POW. Yesterday, there wasn't anything he didn't know about himself. Today, he has to think about it.
He counts stuff off on his fingers. Fast cars, fast planes. He'd take Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald and Doug Flutie's Hail Mary to a desert island. And if the chopper ahead was shot down, he'd give everything - his life, his career - to bring his men home. He likes: music (country), food (junk), women (brunettes), sports (football). Doesn't like: avocados, clocks that tick really loudly, men (except for that one time).
(Funny genius scientist) - (potentially evil, weapon-of-mass-destruction creator) - (eats instant coffee out of packet) - (not particularly attractive) - (a man) = Obviously an isolation-induced aberration. John needs to get laid.
Rodney's family was a family of artists. His father was a painter. His mother photographed found objects, and took great delight in what she called 'the everyday grotesque'. Her exhibitions were filled with decaying apples and unwashed dishes and dirt tracked in on the kitchen floor.
She particularly loved capturing people from their worst angles, when they least expected it. ("Stop smiling," she would say to the children at Rodney's birthday parties, "you're ruining the shot.") By the time Rodney was old enough for school, his bedroom walls were papered with monstrous images of himself - one here, with his eyes half shut zombie-like; one there, mouth full of squidgy fruit. Through his mother's camera lens, he was always hideous. (Or perhaps through his mother's eyes, he was always beautiful - art was confusing like that).
When Rodney was nine years old, his sister Jeannie was born. She was an accident; Rodney was supposed to have been an only child.
"This is Jeannie," his mother said when she arrived home from the hospital. She held her up for Rodney to see.
"Hello," Rodney said. He touched Jeannie's hair gingerly. Her face was red and angry, and her eyes were clenched tight like she wanted to scream. "Hello there," he said again, in case Jeannie hadn't heard him the first time.
"She won't be able to talk for a while yet," his mother added.
"Oh," Rodney said. He abruptly lost interest.
He found himself practising the piano a lot. It had a perfect order: two semiquavers in a quaver, two quavers in a crotchet, sixteen demisemiquavers in a minim. Rodney would close his eyes and count. It was utterly precise.
Not much else had order after Jeannie was born. She screamed and cried. She was messy. Rodney's mother stopped taking photographs.
"I'm busy," she said when Rodney asked why the bathroom looked like a bathroom again, rather than a darkroom.
"Your mother's busy," his father confirmed. "And so am I." He flicked a few more reds and blues at his canvas.
His mother didn't seem busy. She spent hours staring at her old photographs. There was one in particular that fascinated her - Ants in the Sugar Bowl. One afternoon, she stared and it and stared at it for hours. Rodney couldn't get her to stop. "Mom," he said hesitantly. He put his hand on her elbow. "Mom," he said louder. "Mom!" She didn't even twitch. This is what crazy is, Rodney thought. His heart banged in his chest. He pinched her - not very hard. She didn't move. He hit her arm hard enough to make a sound. She didn't yell at him. She was as still as one of her own photographs.
Rodney crept back to the piano. He played Carlos Chavez's Sonata No. 3. It was in 2½ /4 time, so it required a lot of concentration.
A few hours later, his mother appeared. She touched his shoulder to stop him playing. "I'm making spaghetti," she said. "Do you want white sauce or red?"
Rodney didn't look up at her. He could tell she wanted to pretend nothing had happened. He frowned hard at his sheet music so he wouldn't burst into tears or anything stupid like that. "Red, I guess," he said.
When John was twelve, his father was deployed to Egypt, and his mother started collecting cans: soup, soda, corn, Spam. "Everyone needs a hobby," she told John philosophically.
In three months, the cans had spilled out of the kitchen and into the hallway - stewed tomatoes and baked beans as high as John's waist.
John started making his friends come in through the back door, herding them straight to his room. "Stay here," he'd say if they wanted a drink. Shannon Timms caught him once, shifting peaches in syrup so he could open the fridge. "It's for a food drive," he said before she could ask.
In six months, the cans were encroaching on the living room. In nine, John was picking his way between SpagettiOs and tuna fish just to get to bed.
His mother had changed her mind by then. "There could be a terrible war," she said. "You can never be too prepared."
"Dad's tour will be over soon, huh?" John said once.
This didn't have quite the effect he'd hoped. His mom brought home a crate of creamed beef the next morning. ("Your father loves creamed beef"). It was time to switch tactics, John realised.
"What if there is a war?" he said. "What if people come loot us? Maybe we should bury it."
It took him the entire summer vacation, and then two more months for the grass seeds he'd scattered to grow into smooth lawn.
The cans were still in the ground when John's father came home in November. As far as John knew, they were still there when the family packed up for Offutt Air Force base in Nebraska.
He's in freakin' Antarctica, so John does the next best thing to sleeping with an actual woman. He buys a huge stack of porn.
Pete says not a single word as he rings up John's change, and neither does his bird. They've both been in Antarctica far too long to judge.
John carts the whole brown-papered package to his room, locks the door, and then pours himself a glass of his rapidly-diminishing scotch. He hopes he isn't almost killed by a bear any time soon. At this rate, he'll have nothing left to celebrate with.
He starts with Playboy because it's a classic. But the centrefold girl's name is Karii, which throws him. (Why two 'i's, he wonders. Why not one? Why not three?) He takes his hand out of his pants and reaches for Hustler.
And Hustler is better. Olivia on page 16 is straddling a motorcycle - an apple-red Ducati 748. John sighs appreciatively and slides his hand down his stomach, circles his palm over his cock - nice and light, just how he likes it. He thumbs the crisp hair below his navel. He pictures himself lying between Olivia's thighs just like the Ducati.
Five minutes later, he's still pretty soft, and flipping frantically through Penthouse. Women are hot, he reminds his dick. And they smell amazing. He pumps himself faster.
An hour later, the porn is on the floor, and John is drunk and coming hard to the mental image of Rodney McKay on his hands and knees. The imaginary Rodney moans and John moans with him, as he pounds into Rodney's ass.
He wakes up the next morning drooling into his pillow. When he cracks an eye open, he sees Karii looking back at him, waving hello with her breasts. It's not even a bit hot. He goes back to sleep.
The second time he wakes up, he's straight again. Karii is hot. John celebrates with a nice, long jerk-off session, alternating between whimpering at how good it feels and cursing the Glenlochy. It's evil. It's gay-making. There's a reason the Scots wear skirts.
By the age of three, Jeannie was still red-faced and inclined to scream. She had so much personality that everyone else in the family withdrew a little to make room for her. To make more room for themselves, they pushed at each other.
Everything became Rodney's fault. He used up all the coffee. He was too loud. He left toast crumbs on the kitchen floor.
He joined the algebra and chemistry clubs so he wouldn't have to go straight home from school. At home, he played the piano and played the piano and played the piano. One night, his father raised his voice above Jeannie's. "Rodney, stop that awful noise!"
He apologised straight after, but Rodney thought he knew genuine irritation when he heard it.
"I'll never be a professional player, will I?" he said to his piano teacher the next week.
Of course you will! Michael didn't say. Instead, he looked humiliatingly relieved. "You're a wonderful technical player, Rodney," he said. "You practise very hard. A fine, clinical player, but you don't have much feel for the music." He sounded oddly gentle for someone who'd suddenly started ripping Rodney's heart out by the root. "I don't think you have the artistry to be a concert pianist."
"I don't?" Rodney said numbly.
"No, but it doesn't mean you can't still enjoy playing. You may not reach a professional standard, that's all."
"Whatever," Jinny said unsympathetically, when Rodney told her the next day. "I always thought you were wasting your time with that music bullshit. Stick to physics, man. Less qualitative."
A few weeks later, Rodney's piano teacher phoned him. "I'm sorry, Rodney. I had no idea you'd take it this badly."
"What do you mean badly?" Rodney said. "I just wish you'd told me sooner. Do you have any idea how much catching up I'll have to do if I'm going to be the next Newton, let alone the next Einstein? My career may never recover."
"What if I give you a free lesson? Two free lessons, to make up for the weeks you missed?"
"It's too late," Rodney said briskly. "We sold the piano to buy a telescope."
He'd wasted enough time as it was.
Nebraska seemed slower than Massachusetts, and John slowed down to meet it. He developed an unhurried, drawled way of speaking that gave him plenty of time to think and - happy bonus - irritated the hell out of his father.
Two years after he arrived, he took up the saxophone because he thought it'd help him pick up girls. He picked up his saxophone teacher instead.
The guy's name was Michael. He was eighteen years old and he drove a Ferrari-red 1983 Z750 Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle. 16-valve, 4-cylander engine, top speed of 155mph, and zero to 400 in 10.522 seconds. John fucking loved that machine.
The first time they had sex, Michael drove him out to Fontenelle Forest. It didn't occur to John until later that it wasn't spontaneous. At the time it felt like it was. They were riding, helmets off, 100mph on the interstate, and then they were kissing desperately in a dark little cove of trees, feet tangled in gooseberry bushes. There didn't seem to be anything in between.
John didn't learn much about music, but he learned how to jerk another guy off and how to give head - down on his knees in Michael's little apartment. He watched porn with Michael on Michael's couch, and he learned that guys could get fucked.
"I don't do that shit though," Michael said, and John agreed that he didn't either. He would never. They watched little blond fags getting dicked by men with handlebar moustaches and huge, red cocks, and jerked themselves off until they came gasping into their own hands.
One night in bed though, John closed his eyes, and ran a fingertip down the crack of his own ass. He thought about Michael putting his dick there. He thought maybe he was the kind of guy who would do that.
John walked to Michael's apartment the next afternoon. His saxophone case knocked against his knees and his heart knocked against his chest. His mouth was dry. He wiped his sweaty palms on his jacket. He wondered how he'd get the words out when he asked for it. He imagined Michael's face. He thought he'd never been this scared, this excited before.
Michael buzzed him in, but a girl with short, reddish hair answered the door. She was wearing pink, lacy panties and nothing else.
"Hey," John said. He dragged his eyes from the panties to the girl's chest to her face. He'd never seen a naked girl outside of Playboy before. He didn't know what he felt.
"Hey," she said back.
"Oh. John," Michael said behind her. He padded over to them. "Did you sneak a peek?" He sounded teasing, like they were sharing a joke. "How 'bout I get a raincheck on your lesson?"
The next day, John sat through a science class, a Spanish class, and an art class. At lunchbreak he thought he'd get a burger. He found himself at Michael's apartment instead.
"You don't want to do this anymore, do you," he blurted before Michael could say anything.
Of course I do, Michael didn't say. Instead he shrugged. "You're fourteen years old, man. It's just a thing we were doing."
John swallowed. He forced his face to look bored and maybe a little amused. He could feel the real things later, he told himself. He smiled away his humiliation.
"Nothing personal," Michael added. "Hope you didn't think it was anything more."
"No. Sure," John said. He found himself a girlfriend the very next day.
Fresh food is flown in from New Zealand every few weeks. The kitchen gets most of it, but today the little grocery store is awash with ripe pears.
"Someone messed up the order," Betty-at-the-counter says. "Fifteen friggin' tons of pears. We don't even have room for them. Pete and I had to store the overflow in our quarters."
John buys a box and eats pears for three days - ecstatically at first, licking up the juices that drip down his wrist, and then with lessening enthusiasm. By Friday, he can't even think the word 'pear' without feeling sick.
On a whim (probably) or maybe to test himself (five days of being straight and counting, now), he takes the leftovers with him to the fortress of secretude. "Package for Rodney McKay," he says to the guard at the gate.
The guard won't touch the pears, even when John shudderingly bites into one to show him that they're not camouflaged grenades. "Dr McKay's going to have to sign off on it," is all he'll say.
Top secret research facility, John reminds himself. He feels like kind of an idiot.
Rodney appears after a few minutes, looking distracted and irritated and John's already staring at his pouting mouth. "I was doing something important," Rodney says to the guard. He blinks when he sees John. "Oh, hey," he says. He looks like he's trying to remember John's name.
"Hey. I um. I brought you some pears," John says. Rodney looks at him and the guard looks at him. And they both know, John thinks. They know and the parrot knows and crazy, crazy Pete knows. "I thought you'd like them," he adds lamely.
Rodney blinks at him, and the distracted look disappears. "Pears!" he says. "Yeah! I- yeah! Thank you." He takes one out and bites into it right there. It's obscene. Rodney makes a soft sound of pleasure and smiles up at John. Juice runs down the back of his glove. He leans down and licks it. John can't breathe. "Good," Rodney says, mouth full of pear. He swallows. John watches his Adam's apple tremble. There's still a little juice on his glove. Rodney sees him looking. "Oops," he says. He brings his hand up to his mouth, and licks again. It's porn. "What do I owe you?" Rodney says.
"No, you-" the words choke in John's throat. He tears his eyes from Rodney's sticky hand. "I bought way too many," he says. "And they were almost free - pretty much free. Anyway, I-" He points at his chopper. "I'll see you round."
Rodney opens his mouth and then shuts it again. "Okay," he says finally. "See you. Thanks."
He definitely hasn't been repressed and closeted for 21 years, John tells himself when he gets back to McMurdo. He's not that guy at all. He's self aware. He's with it. If he had nephews, he'd be the cool uncle. If unperturbable was a word, he'd be the dictionary definition. "As unperturbable as John Sheppard", people would say. He's a completely open-minded, extremely perceptive guy who just happens to be straight. Pretty much straight, anyway. Mostly straight.
John's black mark went down like this:
Lucas said, "Sir, did you hear me? We've been ordered to abort."
"I'm not leaving them down there," John said. He tilted the chopper. A missile screeched past his window. He glared over at Lucas. "How 'bout you? You leaving them down there?"
Lucas swallowed nervously, but John already knew he'd capitulate. All the new kids worshipped the ground John walked on. It was what made him a good leader, whatever Haasbroek said. (Cult of personality). "Are you leaving them down there, Sergeant?" John repeated, harsher.
Lucas met his eyes. "No. No, sir!"
"Good," John said. "Because they're not dead. We're bringing them back."
Even before he landed, though, he could see that two of them were dead.
Turney and Jamison, John thought. Too small to be Nicholson. He scrambled over to the Black Hawk under Lucas's covering fire. "Nicholson!" he shouted. "You in there?" He saw a leg - moving? Not moving?
Not moving. Nicholson. Half of his chest was gone. He stared up at John, wide-eyed.
Something exploded nearby. John flinched reflexively. Lucas wasn't covering. He was on his knees next to the other two bodies. He didn't move when John gestured for him to get back into the chopper. And he didn't move when bullets sprayed over his head.
John slipped one of Nicholson's tags from his neck. He fired back at whoever was firing at them, and then he was moving, shoving Lucas back into his seat.
Engine on. Blades spinning. They were outta there.
Above the clouds, John jerked Lucas's face up with his free hand. "You hurt?" he said roughly. Lucas blinked at him. "I said are you hurt, Sergeant?"
Lucas blinked again. "I couldn't- I couldn't find their tags, and there wasn't anything- I couldn't tell them apart," he said.
John squeezed Lucas's shoulder, and turned back to the controls. "You did good. Don't worry about the tags."
"Are we going to get court-martialled?"
"The important thing," John said, "is that we did the right thing."
Rodney's black mark could have gone down like this:
"Son, I want to thank you," General Hammond said. "If we hadn't listened to your warnings, the entire state of Colorado would be a blackened crater right now. I'm going to personally recommend that you be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom."
"You were right," Major Carter said to him, later. "I was too personally involved, and I can't thank you enough for preventing me from destroying the gate. I'm just glad the General listened to you and not to me."
Rodney waved his hand. "Think nothing of it," he said generously.
It went down like this:
"Your plane leaves for Russia in an hour," Hammond said.
Rodney stared at him in disbelief. "Russia?" Carter was about to blow up the mountain because she was too stubborn, too personally involved to think about the consequences, and they were sending him to Russia. This was the worst, most dangerous kind of science - the kind that punished doubters and relied on hope rather than observable, tested facts. Plus, Russia - land of potato soup and other potato-based dishes that Rodney was too outraged to think of right now. "I'm not going to Russia!" he spluttered. "You know what the food is like in Russia?"
But an hour later, he was on the plane, and an hour after that, Carter was phoning to tell him smugly that her plan had worked. Colorado was still standing. Teal'c had come through the gate unscathed, and she hoped Rodney enjoyed the pickled fish that would undoubtedly be his dinner. "Oh, and unfortunately, we blew up the Russian DHD. They may not be too thrilled to see you," she added.
They weren't. Rodney was met at the airport by a very junior director of the FSB. "Dr McKay?" she said. "You've been assigned to a new research base in Siberia. But I brought you some lunch to eat before your next plane leaves."
"Great," Rodney said. He'd drunk a couple - maybe five - of the plane's little champagne bottles by then. He was feeling no pain. "Is it pickled fish by any chance?"
"Right. Da." The director looked surprised. "How did you know?"
"Oh, I'm always right," Rodney said. "Pretty much always. Most of the time."
"Give me a lift back to McMurdo?" Rodney says, when John arrives the next day with D. Kavanagh (US), Y. Yamato (Jap), and R. Yuchengco (Phl).
"Uh." John's never taken anyone back from 32279SSGA before. "Am I allowed to do that?"
Rodney rolls his eyes. "No, I'm a violent escapee from a secret Antarctic prison. And why am I even telling you when someone else could be telling you." He turns around. "Yo! Security guy!"
"What?" Security Guy looks up from processing Y. Yamato and smiles with exaggerated patience. "What?"
"Tell Major Paranoid here that this isn't Alcatraz. He can take me to McMurdo."
Security Guy raises his eyebrows. "You can take him," he says to John. "Please take him."
On the ride over, Rodney chats happily about all the food he's going to buy, and how he'll use it to bribe and taunt his co-workers. John keeps one eye on his instruments and the other on Rodney's mouth.
The trip seems shorter than normal. When they arrive, John gets out first and helps Rodney down from his seat. He puts a hand on Rodney's hip to steady him. He can't feel anything at all through the quadruple-layered clothes, but he imagines Rodney's skin is burning hot. His own skin tingles.
"So," Rodney says, when both feet are on the ground. He surveys McMurdo. The white sheds. The other white sheds. The blue sheds. "What do people do for fun around here?"
John does hiking for fun. Rodney barks out a surprised laugh. It's a nice laugh.
"Oh wait, you're serious," Rodney says.
Turns out they have nothing in common whatsoever.
It was a bit pretentious, but when Rodney was 13, his favourite number was 2132049 - 1, the largest known prime. He wrote it out on computer paper - all 39751 digits - and wrapped it around the walls of his room where his mother's photographs had been when he was nine.
Sometimes, when he didn't want to be somewhere, John thought about Einstein's special theory of relativity. He calculated he'd have to be flying at 65720439mph to spare himself his father's favourite lecture - Why John Will Never Get Anywhere in Life. (At that speed, John thought, you could go pretty fucking far.)
Rodney bounces out of bed, whistling happily. It's Monday. Shower Day. Two glorious minutes of warmish water and frantic scrubbing. Beautiful, beautiful Shower Day. He slings a towel over his shoulder. "Raindrops keep falling on my head, bop bop," he sings, as he locks the door (he has a stash of Mars Bars under the bed - you can't trust scientists with temptation like that). "But that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be turning- bah!"
There's a guy standing right in front of the door like a creepy stalker. "Hi," he says.
Rodney backs up a step. "Hi." It's one of the new guys. "Eric?" he hazards.
"Kavanagh," Eric says. "As in Dr Derek Kavanagh." He waits an expectant few seconds, and then scowls - apparently because Rodney hasn't recognised his name.
Rodney sighs to himself. The guy's probably won a couple of minor prizes - a Steacie Fellowship, maybe - and now he thinks he's God's gift to the Ancients program. Like Rodney has time to keep up with the scientific community's wrong-headed physics 'breakthroughs' when it's all been disproved five times over in his own (admittedly unpublished) articles. He twirls his hand impatiently. "And? What do you want? What?"
Dr Eric thrusts a fist-thick folder at him. "I have some suggestions for making the astrophysics department run more smoothly."
"Oh goodie. I'll get right on that," Rodney lies. He steps around him, and heads for his wonderful, wonderful shower.
The guy's there again the next morning. "Have you had a chance to look at my suggestions?" he says.
Tuesday isn't Shower Day, so Rodney isn't in such a good mood. "Look, Carmichael-" he says.
"Whatever. My ZPM simulations have priority. You have suggestions about that, let me know. Otherwise, you're between me and my coffee, and that's not a smart place to be.
"Wednesday is Shower Day again. "Hi there!" Rodney waves at Kavanagh with his soap bar. "I read your suggestions, thought they were all bad. Especially chapter three."
"So, I take it you're not going to read them?"
Rodney beams. "Nope."
On Thursday, Kavanagh follows Rodney from the toilet block into the mess hall and then into Rodney's lab. He explains each of his suggestions point by point ("since you explicitly stated you weren't going to read them"), and keeps on explaining, even when Rodney puts his hands over his ears and says "la la lalalalalalala."
By 8am, Rodney has already drunk his daily ration of four coffees (implemented when the last two-month supply ran out after six days), and he's gotten no work done at all. He hates Kavanagh with all his heart and his kidney and his spleen - basically, all of his major organs.
After breakfast, Sheppard arrives with a chopper-load of new recruits like a shining, shining angel from heaven. Rodney can't rush across the snow fast enough. Kavanagh follows, nagging, and crunching rhythmically behind Rodney like something from The Terminator.
"Major Sheppard!" Rodney says. "Major Sheppard, I have to go back with you. To uh-" he adds when Sheppard raises an eyebrow, "to welcome the new arrivals."
Sheppard looks around at the new scientists clutching their dufflebags - a tall guy with red hair who looks like Beeker, a woman with coke bottle glasses, a French guy. "To welcome the new arrivals," Sheppard repeats slowly.
"The next arrivals," Rodney amends quickly. "The next set of arrivals. Welcome to you guys too," he says to Beeker.
Sheppard looks bland and a little amused, but then he always looks bland and a little amused. Rodney sometimes wonders if there's anything going on inside his head at all.
"Dr McKay!" Kavanagh says.
Rodney clutches Sheppard's arm. He's a desperate man. "I have to be in a place with unrationed coffee. Please, I have to-"
"Okay," Sheppard interrupts.
"Okay?" Rodney says.
Sheppard shrugs. "Sure."
Kavanagh says, "Can I-"
"Nope," Sheppard tells him. He picks up a bag and tosses it easily to the French guy. "Only got room for one."
Rodney thinks he might be in love. "Eric, will you show the new guys to security?" he says gloatingly.
Kavanagh stares at him for a second, looking delightfully thwarted. Then he turns and marches back to the base, leaving big stompy footprints in the snow.
By the time Rodney was fourteen, he was the black sheep of the family. His mother had gone back to her photographs, his father to his paintings, and at five, Jeannie was already a sculptor, carving little animals out of wood and placing them around the house like a cat offering freshly killed gifts.
Every time she made a new one, Rodney's mom and dad held off arguing long enough to say, "Oh, what a pretty wooden penguin", or "What an astonishingly life-like squid", or "Nice crab!" (Jeannie had quite a thing for sea-life). Then they hid the knives in ever-more cunning places.
Once, Rodney found a paring knife slipped between the pages of the phone book like a pressed flower. Another time, he found a cleaver behind one of his father's paintings - balanced precariously across the hanging wire.
In much the same way, he discovered Jeannie's deep religious conviction.
He came home to find his parents mid-argument. This wasn't unusual, but his mother rounded on him and thrust a wooden cross in his face like he was a vampire - that hadn't happened before.
"Did you know about this?" she demanded.
Rodney had recoiled in surprise, but he leaned in now to look (and also to prove he wasn't a creature of the night). The cross was beautiful. The detail was exquisite. Rodney could see each individual blood drop on Jesus's hands. It was definitely Jeannie's work. "What's the problem? Looks pretty good to me," he said.
The problem, it turned out, wasn't really the cross at all. ("It is beautiful work, if wholly derivative," his father assured him.) The problem was the letter of gushing thanks that had arrived in the mailbox that morning.
Dear Ms McKay, the letter said, we are deeply grateful for your generous donation to the church. Your order of a:
- Madonna and Child Nightlight (cat#823884)
- Eternity With Christ HolyBear (cat#823132)
- 7 x Candle of Life (cat#800001)
- Gift of Grace Child Sweatshirt (cat#823199)
- The Fifth Day of Creation Stained Glass Window (cat#928039)
- St Francis of Assisi Watch (cat#823818)
- 22-Carat-Gold-and-7-Diamond Crucifix (cat#928192)
will be filled shortly. We have enclosed our catalogue of Christian rock and sermons on tape should you wish to donate further.
The credit card bill had come at the same time.
"This is your fault," Rodney's mother said. She pointed at Rodney's father with the cross in one hand and the damning bill in the other. "It's that school you insisted on!"
"It's the Caravaggio excursion you insisted on," Rodney's father shouted. "I told you his use of light was too potent for an impressionable young mind. I told you we should have taken her to see the Paul Sandby-"
"Paul Sandby? You know how I feel about watercolour!"
"It's not the school," Jeannie interrupted from where she was perched up on the kitchen bench. She had a wooden spoon in her hands, and it was gradually becoming a solemn, bleeding face. "It's not the school and it's not Caravaggio. It's Reverend Love."
It turned out that Reverend Love was a television evangelist who broadcast sermons three times a week. ("I told you we shouldn't have gotten a television," Rodney's father said). Jeannie mused that if only their mother had known her place, and stayed at home like a good wife should, Jeannie would never have discovered the truth about the Lord. God certainly worked in mysterious ways.
Rodney's mother threw out the television that same afternoon, and for the next few weekends, she and Jeannie and Rodney's dad visited the National Gallery of Canada, paying special attention to the Impressionists. Rodney stayed home and made a mini hovercraft. He was the envy of his mathletics club until Dobson Myer built a full-sized one for the science fair.
John's mother turned to religion while John's father was serving in Tehran. It was a short tour, so she didn't have time to do much more than stock up on saint cards and rosary beads and framed prints.
John's father didn't say anything when he got home, but when John came downstairs the next morning, all the Madonna and Child pictures were gone.
"Well, it was all a bit ostentatious, wasn't it," his mother said when he asked her later. "We don't need that sort of thing in this household."
It becomes a joke between them - how little they have in common.
"Football," John says, apropos of nothing, "goes beyond sport. It's a game of myth."
Rodney rolls his eyes like he's heard it all before. "Oh please. Football is a game invented by grunting, pre-tool cavemen to while away the time between bear hunting and finger painting."
"Gladiators facing off against each other," John insists. He waves his peanut butter toast for emphasis. "The great mano a mano of our time."
"Hockey," Rodney says, leaning in and raising his voice as though that will help his misguided argument, "is poetry. Poetry with big sticks. And men sliding around with knives on their feet." He smiles and sighs as though he can't express the true beauty of hockey in mere words, then crams the last of his creamed beef on Spam on toast into his mouth. He's back in McMurdo today - to help welcome the new arrivals again, he said on the ride over. But, sitting at the breakfast table in their brand new coats, Chiang L. (China) and C. Russo (Ita) don't look like they feel very welcome. Or very well.
"Will... all the food be like this?" Chiang L. asks tentatively.
John grimaces. "Just wait till they run out of ketchup."
Rodney blinks out of his glazed state. "Don't even joke about that." A look of panic crosses his face. "They won't really run out of ketchup, will they? I mean. It lasts forever: tomatoes, vinegar, it's a vegetable. Oh hell-" He darts away. When he returns, he's tucking a squeeze bottle inside his coat. "What?" he says defensively when John looks at him. "Like you've never stolen a bottle of ketchup before."
"Well- Okay, I have," John admits. "But I was way more discreet."
John flies the three of them to SGA - Rodney up front with a can of Spam cradled protectively on his lap, Chiang and Russo in the back muttering unhappily to each other - probably about creamed meat and other perversions.
When they land, John gets out to help with the luggage. Rodney tips his head back against the seat like he's going to take a nap. "Check in with security over there," he says, waving imperiously. "I'm going back with Major Sheppard."
John rolls his eyes. "McKay." He leans into the open door. "I have to load up on some garbage before I go."
Rodney shrugs. "Okay." John looks at him. "Uh," Rodney adds reluctantly, "would you like some help?"
John grins. "You know what? I think I would."
Rodney whines a whole bunch, but works surprisingly hard. He carts at least as much as John does, turning doggedly from the helicopter back to the storage shed back to the helicopter again. John starts to feel kind of guilty.
The guard at the shed looks amused as he ticks off each numbered canister. "Don't say a word," Rodney says to him. He tosses another canister into his trolley like it's a coke can. "What?" he says, when John winces.
"Just- There could be anything in there."
"Anything like empty coffee cans?"
"Like spent fuel rods. Asbestos."
Rodney laughs out loud. "Spent fuel rods? Asbestos? "
"You never know," John says. "Or hazardous chemicals."
"Well, obviously, I can't officially put your mind at ease, but-" Rodney shakes his head and chuckles. "Asbestos."
"Okay, shut up now," John says.
"Just let me know if you start breathing funny."
"I said shut up."
Rodney keeps making cracks for the next half hour ("You okay? Was that a cough?") By the time they're done, John doesn't feel guilty at all.
"So yeah," he says while Rodney's stacking the last of the canisters into his trolley. "I'm not actually scheduled to fly back here till Monday. What?" he says when Rodney glares, "I needed help - these things are heavy."
"But I didn't buy all the stuff I wanted," Rodney says. He doesn't stop stacking. Apparently, he's skipping past indignant anger and moving straight from whining into more whining. "What am I supposed to do when I run out of coffee?"
"You could ration yourself. Six a day maybe."
"Clearly you've never experienced caffeine withdrawal. And- why am I arguing? Flying people around is what you do - you're an air chauffeur. It's your job to take me."
"Funny." John tilts his head thoughtfully. "I'm pretty sure it's not my job to ferry you back and forth when you have the munchies."
Rodney blows out a breath - a little ball of fog in the cold. He's quiet for a moment. John waits patiently. "Okay, how about this," Rodney says. "Do me a favour and I'll do you one."
John has a vivid and unwanted image of Rodney on his knees, mouth dark and open. He forcibly shunts it aside. "Oh really?" he says. He hopes he sounds at least a little disinterested.
"I can fix things - broken radios. CD players."
"Nothing I have is broken," John says. He starts shoving his own trolley towards the chopper. It's really freaking heavy. After a few feet, the wheels dig into the snow and stop turning. John walks around and kicks one of the front wheels. When he walks back, the thing still doesn't move. He grits his teeth in frustration. He suddenly wants Rodney to do something - anything - that Rodney would never choose to do. He wants Rodney to feel this frustrated. He turns around. "I'll take you to Mactown if you come hiking with me."
"Okay, that's just sadistic. Ask me for something reasonable."
John swallows. His throat feels dry. And he is sadistic. "I want a hiking buddy - take it or leave it."
Rodney stares at him for a long moment. "Fine," he says.
John blinks in surprise. "Fine," he says. "I want to go now."
Rodney is still staring at him. "Fine."
John blinks some more. He feels like he's won something. He's not sure what. Rodney retires to his quarters to lick his wounds, and presumably, to change. John goes to sit in the pilot seat and ponder what the hell is wrong with him. He's never wanted a hiking buddy, let alone one who'll complain every second of the trip.
It's a long wait. John huddles in his coat. He contemplates flying back on his own. He looks at his watch. He looks at his watch again. He looks at it again.
Eventually, Rodney reappears wearing the puffiest, orangest parka ever stitched together by blind clothes makers. "Jeez, McKay," John says.
Rodney hands him a survival kit. It's bulging at the sides. "Just shut up."
On the flight to McMurdo, Rodney details his demands. "One hour of hiking. That's half an hour in one direction, and half an hour back. The sun sets at 1900 hours. That's in exactly six hours time, and by then I expect to be cosy and warm in my own quarters, sipping coffee, and eating one of my brand new, delicious power bars that you'll personally have bought for me. We don't stray a single step from the flagged route, and you don't touch my VHF radio. Also, if we fall down a crevasse, I will beat you to death and eat you."
John nods. It's a deal. Half an hour each way is about enough time to get to Scott's Cross if they walk fairly fast. At the firehouse, John fills out the we're-going-hiking-and-if-we're-not-back-by-nightfall-we're-probably-dead form. Rodney adds his name and signs it. He hasn't said a word since he made John borrow one of the firehouse survival kits ("You can't possibly be carrying enough food in that backpack.") His mouth is a straight, grim line.
"Okay then," John says a little awkwardly. "Shall we?"
Outside, the sun is high and bright in the sky. Rodney slowly thaws under it.
"I haven't been outdoors in- well in an embarrassingly long time," he says. He sounds almost apologetic. He can't seem to stop looking around at the buildings and the snow and the sky. "I used to go walking a little," he adds. He takes off his woollen hat, and scrubs his hand through his hair. "There's a park near my apartment. I ate lunch there sometimes. Okay, once. I ate there once. But it was quite pleasant."
By the time they get to the base of Observation Hill, the grim lines around Rodney's mouth have relaxed. He tears open one of his survival kit chocolate bars. "You should get me apple and walnut bars," he says with his mouth full. "And maybe cranberry and pecan."
"I prefer the apricot," John says.
Rodney swallows his mouthful. "I'm shocked by our divergent tastes."
Back in McMurdo, it had been almost too warm for a coat, but the wind picks up as they start to climb. Rodney stumbles and slips on the loose gravel and snow. "Oh yeah, I can see why this is a popular pastime," he says.
John grabs his wrist to steady him when he slips the second time. "Okay?" he says.
"Shut up, I'm thinking about coffee," Rodney snaps. He stops abruptly and sniffs the air. "Do you smell pollen?"
"We're in Antarctica."
"Because I'm allergic."
"We're in Antarctica."
"Ragweed pollen can travel up to 400 miles with the right winds."
"Will you just keep walking?" John says, exasperated.
"You're getting me some Mars Bars now too," Rodney says. He hoists himself higher. "Apple walnut," he mumbles to himself. "Pecan."
Higher up, the wind blows in heavy gusts that buffet them sideways. Volcanic rocks are strewn like litter. They pass the old nuclear reactor, and then it's all steep, steep climbing. There's snow everywhere now, and Rodney's panting more than talking. His cheeks are bright red. The wind makes his hair flutter crazily. He grins and holds out his hand to help John around a tricky boulder. "I can almost see the appeal of this," he gasps.
John grips his hand, and scrambles up. "Really?"
Rodney shakes his head. "No, I think you're completely insane." He lets go of John's hand, but he doesn't stop grinning until they get to the summit.
Up top, the wind dies down suddenly and miraculously. Rodney wipes his sleeve over his face. "I'm dead. But I'm in so much pain, I haven't realised it yet. You seriously do this for fun?"
John points wordlessly beyond the edge.
"Oh," Rodney says. He walks to where the ground ends in a sharp drop. "Oh wow." He turns a slow, wondering circle, staring out at McMurdo, Mt Erebus, Scott Base, and the white nothingness of the Ross Ice Shelf. White Island, Black Island. John's runway. Nothingness. More nothingness. McMurdo again. Mt Erebus.
"You should see it at dawn," John says. He knows he's smiling dopily. He doesn't care.
"Holy shit." Rodney laughs and shakes his head. "We're in Antarctica! God, we're in Antarctica!"
John smiles wider. He closes his eyes and tips his head back. The air feels like sandpaper. His fingertips ache with the cold. He loves this place. He thinks if he died here, he'd die happy.
John isn't sure how long he stands there, mesmerised by the emptiness, but at some point he blinks and he's back on the ground. There's fog at his feet - thick enough and white enough to walk on. John has a moment of disorientation. He lurches forward a step, jerks back. The shadows are too dark, he thinks. The sky is too dark.
Rodney's looking at the cross now, fingering the inscription where it says, "To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield." He looks wistful. "Those early explorers were something, weren't they."
John nods. "Yeah, they were." His watch says 1600 hours. It's definitely too dark. "Uh, I may have some bad news," he starts to say, but Rodney's radio crackles to life before he can finish.
"Mac Ops... Weather..." it says.
The wind starts again suddenly like it's been on pause. Dry snow swirls around John's knees above the fog.
Rodney is already shaking his head. "I knew this was going to happen."
"You knew the radio was going to come on?"
"I knew we were going to die up here!"
"We're not going to die," John says. "No one's ever died on Ob Hill." He looks around, assessing the terrain. "You're way more likely to get run over by a bus."
"Oh God, you're one of those people who says things like, 'you're more likely to get attacked by a cow than a shark.' Well I'll tell you. I'd rather get attacked by a cow. At least I'd have some chance of punching out Daisy's lights."
"...develop into...return to..." the radio says.
"I just wanted coffee," Rodney says. "And then I was going to spend the afternoon working. And maybe watching Kaminski's Incredible Hulk DVDs. You bribed me into coming up here."
"Hey, here's an idea. Let's get hell off this rock and you can do the blame thing later." John snatches the radio from him. "Put your hat on."
"How is putting my hat on going to help?"
John rolls his eyes. He clicks the radio. "Mac Ops, this is Sheppard. Please say again." He clicks the radio off. "Fine. Give me the hat, and I'll put it on over the hat I'm already wearing, and maybe I won't have to hear you talking."
The radio says: "...develop into Condition 2... suggest you return to Mac..."
"Roger that," John says. He shoves the radio into his backpack. "Come on."
"Wait, you rogered that? I didn't roger that."
"McKay," John says warningly.
"Okay, okay!" Rodney pulls his hat on, and starts scrambling to the trail.
They make it about half way with snow blowing faster and faster before the storm roars in for real
"Well," John says. "This just got interesting." He can't see below his knees. Rodney is a flash of orange and movement behind swirling white.
"Major," Rodney says. He sounds carefully not panicked.
"It's a white-out."
"I know what it is. What are we going to do? This could last hours. Days. We'll be dead from exposure before anyone finds us. If we don't fall down and break our necks first."
John bites his lip. He'd be fine if they were flying, but in a jet, he'd have instruments, radar. Right now, he isn't even sure which way he's facing let alone where the flagged route is. He takes a deep breath. "All right," he says. "We could climb up."
"Please tell me there's an 'or' coming."
"Or we could climb down."
"And door number three?"
"We stay here and hope it dies down."
"Door number four?"
John glares even though there's no way Rodney will see the glare. "There aren't an infinite number of doors."
"I'm really not a fan of the other three."
"I guess we could set up one of the tents."
"You know, I always thought I'd die in a car accident. Or maybe of a heart attack. This is so much worse."
"Or I could shove you off the edge right now."
"You know which way the edge is?"
"Then stop with the empty threats," Rodney says. "Let's get a damn tent up. I need a coffee so bad-"
"That you'd eat it out of the packet?"
"That you should seriously shut up and help me with the tent already.
"They could probably rebuild civilisation with the contents of Rodney's survival kit. A fairly nice civilisation actually, with video games and Tang.
John finds a good, sharp knife and cuts off ten feet of parachute cord. "Just in case we lose each other," he says. He ties one end around Rodney's waist, and loops the other end around his own waist.
"Hey, that's ingenious. So when you fall off the edge, I will too."
"So if I fall off the edge, you can drop down limp, and we'll both survive." John pulls the knot tight. It isn't easy with wet mittens. "Okay. I'm going to circle you. Hopefully, there'll be room to put up the tent right here."
"This really, really sucks."
"Just don't wander off," John tells him. "You're my anchor."
"Oh thank you, because I'm so stupid I didn't understand the concept of you circling me."
While John crawls around, feeling in front of him for cliff edges and crevasses, Rodney calls out helpful things like, "I'm eating one of the chocolate bars now" and "Aren't you glad I reminded you to bring a survival kit?" and "Can you get a move on? Man dying of exposure here." It feels like forever before John smacks headfirst into the stake he used to mark the beginning of the circle.
"We can set up the tent now," he shouts. He rubs his head. He suspects this is going to be a long day.
It takes another forever before they get the tent stakes hammered in and the tent put up - anchored with snow flukes, Rodney's snow saw, and the biggest mound of snow John can shovel on top. Then, John makes Rodney sit inside the tent and press against the base of the walls while John packs snow and gravel against the outside.
At the end of it, they collapse in the tent on the coldish ground sheet - John coughing up snow and dirt, Rodney staring blankly up at the ceiling. John hasn't felt like this since basic training.
They lie there for quite a while. At some point, the radio crackles. John fumbles it out of his pack. "Sheppard here," he mumbles.
"Major... you? Expected... ten minutes ago."
"Roger that, Mac Ops. We're stuck on Observation Hill. We're fine, though. Got a tent up - we're going to wait it out."
"Roger that... out."
John lets the radio fall out of his hand.
"We should take off our coats," Rodney says.
"Yup," John says.
"Maybe get out the sleeping bags."
They lie there a while longer. John wonders whether he can light the cook stove in a little tent like this without poisoning them both.
"There was this episode of the Twilight Zone," Rodney says, interrupting his wondering, "where a man suddenly finds himself on a movie set. And he's playing himself in a film. His whole life is suddenly just a film. I only saw half of it, always wondered what happened at the end. I guess now I'll never know."
John groans. "We're not going to die, Rodney." He sits up finally, and starts stripping off his wet gear. Mittens, coat, outer pants, shoes, socks. He wrestles his sleeping bag out of the kit and kicks it open.
Rodney sits up too, unbuttons his jacket. "Katabatic winds, Major. Antarctic winds with the force of a hurricane. They gather speed by rolling down mountains."
"Seriously, the only way you're going to die today is if I kill you."
"We're on a mountain."
"We're on a hill, and in a couple of hours, we'll be off the hill and buying you Mars Bars. Also, I made a windbreak. We'll be fine."
"But how tight did you pack that snow?"
"Tight," John says. He roots around until he finds some dry socks and mittens. He climbs into his sleeping bag. "You think I can light the stove?"
"No vents, no spot detector." Rodney unrolls his own bag and crawls in. "The carbon monoxide would kill us both before the water even boiled. Oh man-" He makes a sound that's somewhere between a fuck-me-harder grunt and a moan. "Warm. Oh God, this is warm."
"That's what I thought," John says. He tries to ignore the porn noises. They're sardines in a very small tin. Rodney's close enough to jerk him off, close enough to kiss. John rolls over so he's facing the wall, but if anything that's worse. He can hear Rodney breathing behind him. It's as intimate as if they were sharing a bed.
Rodney shifts and his knee pokes John's back and John feels it right down his spine. His breath catches. He imagines Rodney's mouth on the back of his neck. He squeezes his eyes shut. This isn't him, he thinks. His breath doesn't catch if he doesn't want it to. He doesn't think about things he doesn't want to. He breathes in, he breathes out. Nice and steady. After a moment, he's back in control. His breath is calm without him having to work for it.
Behind him, Rodney makes a little rustling noise like maybe he's sliding a hand down his pants. And then a louder rustling noise like he might be jerking off. John can't take it. He rolls back over.
Rodney's sitting up in his sleeping bag, writing furiously on a notepad.
"What are you doing?" John says.
"Oh, just some stuff," Rodney says. He doesn't stop writing. The first page is already half covered with equations - nothing John recognises.
"Stuff?" John says. He's curious and unreasonably irritated and Rodney smells so goddamn fucking good. He's going nuts. He's losing it out here.
"Stuff that people might need. Stuff that shouldn't die with me. Do you mind? I really need to concentrate."
John closes his eyes. The writing/rustling sounds like jerking off again. He opens his eyes. Rodney shifts, nudging John's shoulder. John rides out the shiver of pleasure like he'd ride out pain in the middle of a mission. Rodney shifts again, bumping John's arm. He starts his next line of messy equations. He shifts and nudges, shifts and nudges.
John pulls his hands out of the sleeping bag, so he isn't tempted to brush them over his cock. If he could just- Rodney shifts nudges, shifts nudges, shifts nudges. John grinds his teeth. Every touch feels like a warm hand on his cock. He's being jerked off in water-torture increments. He could come from this, and it would take hours, weeks.
Rodney's pencil flies across the page. He doesn't hesitate or scratch anything out; just writes and writes and writes and flips to the next page, scrawling stuff that people might need, stuff that shouldn't die with him like he's writing a grocery list.
John can't look away, and it makes no sense - this infatuation. Rodney's nothing like John's type. Back home, John wouldn't look at Rodney twice in a crowd. He certainly wouldn't be lying here, enthralled by him, needing him. John doesn't need anyone.
He forces his gaze to the ceiling. He thinks: The four forces on an aircraft are lift, thrust, drag, and weight. Lift equals the coefficient times air density times velocity squared over two times the wing area. Thrust equals force over the mass flow-rate equals one plus the ratio of fuel-to-air times the exit velocity minus the free stream velocity. Drag equals the coefficient times air density times velocity squared over two times the reference area. Weight equals mass times gravitational acceleration.
He thinks: If an F/A-18A Hornet is cruising at 700mph...
When he turns his head, his mouth is right next to Rodney's thigh.
"Rodney," he says. I really want to suck your cock.
Rodney doesn't stop writing. He flips the page over, and writes: For background, see Gaul's work on stellar dynamics. "When I said I needed to concentrate, I of course meant please interrupt me whenever you feel like it."
His elbow knocks John's shoulder, and John's cock jerks in response. John bites off a grunt. He can't take it. He's so goddamn hard. He's losing his mind. "Stop!" he says. He sits up. "Stop. Stop."
Rodney stops, but only to roll his eyes at him. "You're bored already? I guess we could play tic tac toe. I mean, it would take up a page, so we'd be depriving humanity of an entire branch of sub-atomic physics, but if you really need some entertainment-"
John leans in and kisses him. Rodney makes a startled noise, and then they're really kissing and Rodney's mouth is hot and wet and open for him. And John's never been hungry like this before. He wraps his hands around the back of Rodney's neck, tips Rodney's head back so that the angle is better, so that John can take what he needs. He jerks back.
"Uh." Rodney's still holding the notepad. He looks dazed. "I- uh. Wow. That was-"
"I don't." John swallows. His throat feels rough. The storm outside fills the silence. "I don't have feelings like this."
"You- Oh." Rodney quirks his mouth wryly. "Right." And now he does put down the notepad.
John has no idea what to say. Apparently neither does Rodney. They watch the dark silhouette of a snow-clump slide down the roof. John thinks he might be able to make it back to Mactown if it's just him. It couldn't be harder than sitting in this tiny freaking tent with the man he just kissed.
Rodney clears his throat. His mouth is a tight, unhappy line, and John wants to touch him so badly that he can feel Rodney's lips against his fingers like a phantom ache. "It occurs to me," Rodney says, "that in an awkward situation, being stuck in a small tent in the middle of a violent snowstorm could have some drawbacks."
John shakes his head. "I'm sorry."
"Yes. Well. You don't have feelings like this," Rodney says. He picks up his notepad, puts it down again. He isn't looking at John.
"No, I- I haven't had feelings like this. I haven't wanted this. In a long time," John grits out. The nudging wasn't torture. This is torture - this explaining himself. "And now I- I don't know."
Rodney doesn't answer, still doesn't look at him. The silence is unbearable. Then Rodney says, "Before I came here, I spent eleven months in Siberia. Yes, I know. But one afternoon, in the middle of a working day, I had a mini orgy with three lab techs on a frozen beach. And, well firstly, you seriously don't want to know where I got frostbite. But secondly, it wasn't something I'd normally do. Well. I don't think so anyway - maybe I would except the opportunities don't arise." He pauses and smiles. "It was really quite something."
John digests this. "You think I have some kind of what- ice fever? Antarctic-induced temporary gayness?"
"How should I know?" Rodney says dismissively. "Do I look like a therapist? I'm just saying don't beat yourself up, Major. People sometimes do inexplicable things. That's why we don't make good science projects. As far as I'm concerned it never happened. I say - what gay kiss in the emergency snow shelter?"
"Oh well that's... very understanding of you."
Rodney waves a hand. "I might blackmail you into flying me around a few times. I'm only human."
John laughs a little shakily. "That. That would be fine."
It makes sense for it to go down like this, John thinks, as Rodney recovers his notepad from under his coat and his pencil from under John's sleeping bag. When the storm ends, he'll take Rodney back to the weapon-in-progress. And two months from now, he'll ship out to Australia or Germany or Korea or the Gulf. And this will just be the time he went a little nuts out on the ice.
Rodney scratches out three equations he's just written. He has nice hands. "I'm so glad we were able to handle this like adults," he says.
John nods absently. "Me too."
"And I'm particularly impressed with myself," Rodney says. He crosses out another equation in the middle of writing it. "Because usually I'm a total slut."
God, John thinks. And if he had it together for a minute there, he's lost it again. Rodney as a slut. John's dick loves that idea - strains painfully against his briefs. John thinks: Rodney on his hands and knees, begging for it. Rodney working John's mouth with his cock, hands fisting John's hair.
And Rodney's saying, "-out of all the people who've come on to me, you're at least top three - maybe even top two - in terms of hotness. I mean, you're-" he shakes his head appreciatively. "You are really hot. You are really, really freaking hot, and-" He coughs. "Well anyway, it was for the best, because at this stage of my life, I really don't want to have to deal with someone who doesn't even know-"
John can't take it. "I want to suck your cock," he blurts out.
"-whether he likes men." Rodney says. He blinks - deer in headlights, and his pencil rolls out of his hand. "You- um." His eyes drop to John's mouth.
John knows how to seduce someone. He smiles at them, he flirts with them. He takes them out to dinner. Now though, here, with Rodney, he has none of that finesse. This isn't seduction, this is blunt-force desperation.
Sweat trickles down the back of his neck. The tent is shivering and snow is pushing at the walls, but John feels hot all over. He can't breathe. "Rodney," he says. "I'd really-" He shapes the words, but his voice dries up. He tries again. "I want to suck you off. I can't stop thinking about all the ways I want to-"
"Okay," Rodney interrupts. His eyes are dark. He grimaces at John apologetically. "Told you I was easy."
"Okay," John says - or thinks he says. Maybe he doesn't say anything. He's already kissing Rodney again - and God, been he's been starving for this. He slides his tongue into Rodney's mouth over and over and over until they're both breathing in hitching gasps. And John can't catch his breath, but he can't bring himself to stop. He whimpers in protest when Rodney pulls back.
"I uh." Rodney flushes. "If you want to- You'd better. Soon."
"Oh," John says. He huffs it into the side of Rodney's neck, pressing a grin against the same spot when Rodney shudders.
"It's not that- Look, it's been a while," Rodney says a little defensively.
"Yeah?" John bites gently and that gets him a fantastic sighing noise. He turns Rodney's face and kisses him again before he can answer. He pulls back, and puts a gentle hand on Rodney's chest, presses him onto his back.
"God," Rodney says. He lifts his hips pleadingly. "Come on."
John works Rodney's fly open with the one hand. He flicks open a button, two buttons. Three. Eases him out. And he can't believe how much he needs this. How much he's missed the weight and heat and musk of another guy's cock. He can't help himself: he bends down and licks the head of it, eyes sliding closed ecstatically at Rodney's loud groan. He's going to come in his pants, he thinks.
When he glances back up, Rodney's staring at him, mouth parted, looking fascinated and maybe a little disbelieving. John grins up at him. Opens his mouth and slides down slow, slow, so Rodney can see exactly what he's getting. Rodney makes a choked noise, and John slides down deep as he can take it - a little deeper than that. His throat spasms and his eyes water, and he can already feel a twinge where his jaw is going to ache later, but even that feels fucking fantastic. He backs off and when he slides down again, he doesn't choke at all. Like riding a bike.
He wants to draw this out - thinks he could suck cock all day. But Rodney's already groaning like he's going to die. Like he's been nursing that erection for a while. John sucks him and sucks him and it's so fucking perfect. This right here is heaven, he thinks - this hard dick working his throat. He comes moaning around Rodney's cock, humping Rodney's sleeping bag. And Rodney rides his moans, thrusting up into his mouth.
Rodney loses it pretty soon after that - pushes hard once, twice, three times. "Fuck," he gasps. "Fuck, fuck, fuck." He tips his head up, face tight, and then he's pulsing in John's throat.
They both lie there panting a while. Rodney stares at the ceiling. John stares at the wall. Eventually, Rodney turns his head to look at him. "That was. Wow," he says. "That was great. That was really, really, really great. I mean hiking. Who knew?"
John laughs. His mouth tastes like Rodney. He feels drunk. "Who knew," he echoes.
John gets into his sleeping bag, and they doze a bit after that. It's darker when John wakes again, and still snowing hard. There are more dark silhouettes above them, but the roof seems to be holding up. John shuts his eyes and then opens them again. He drags himself up, pulls on his pants and his coat, his socks, his shoes, his hat, his gloves. He wraps a scarf around his mouth, and digs out a snow shovel from his kit. Then he goes out to scrape off the snow clumps that haven't managed to slide off. When he comes back in, the tent smells like sex. He slides into his bag, and Rodney wakes up just long enough to roll closer.
"Mm," he says to John. "The roof."
"Taken care of it," John says. He kisses Rodney's ear. "Go back to sleep."
They doze. When John's awake again, it's night. He stares into the blackness, and after a while, the sound of Rodney's snores shifts from vaguely annoying to kind of sexy. John presses a kiss to what might be Rodney's sleeping bag, then higher up on Rodney's sleeping bag, then what's probably Rodney's jaw.
"The roof," Rodney whispers suddenly, making John jump.
"I scraped it down," John whispers back.
There's a light bumping noise and then a rustling noise and then more bumping, and suddenly, John can see. Rodney has a flashlight in his hand. He shines it at the ceiling.
"I just said I scraped it down," John says in his normal voice.
"Well, I'm sorry if I wanted to check," Rodney snaps. "I mean it's not like this shelter is between us and certain death or anything."
John rolls his eyes but then Rodney has a hand on his chin and they're kissing. When he pulls back, John's forgotten what he was annoyed about. He unzips his own sleeping bag. Then he grins his most charming grin and unzips Rodney's bag nice and slow and porn-movie and Rodney's already breathing unevenly. Rodney's fly is still open. John closes his eyes for just a second.
When he opens his eyes again, Rodney's asleep - snoring into John's neck. John slides a hand into Rodney's bag sleepily. He strokes his ribs, his arm. He closes his eyes.
He wakes up with his fist around Rodney's cock and Rodney's already moaning in his sleep. John squeezes him gently and Rodney moans louder. His breath is fast and hot against John's neck. John squeezes and releases and Rodney's eyes flutter open.
"Hey," John says.
Rodney mouth works for a second, as though he's forgotten how to do anything but make porn noises. "Uh. Hey," he says.
John licks at the underside of Rodney's jaw. Kisses the corner of his mouth. Lets Rodney fuck his hand. He watches Rodney's face grimace and relax and grimace. Rodney huffs loudly and gracelessly and it's the hottest thing John's seen in his life, which is weird, because John's dated women so gorgeous they didn't seem real.
John squeezes him tighter, and then Rodney's really humping John's fist - eyes wide and unseeing. And there's nothing unreal about him, with his soft, sedentary body and his mussed hair and his flushed, unshaven face.
"Yeah," John whispers. He presses his forehead against Rodney's collarbone. "Yeah. Come all over my hand."
Rodney groans - hot and dirty - and spurts into John's fist. "Holy crap," he gasps.
John smiles against Rodney's shoulder, feels a kiss pressed into his hair. Then another kiss. "You are a-freakin'-mazing," Rodney says.
John lifts his head for a proper kiss. Then he unzips Rodney's sleeping bag the rest of the way, and crawls over to straddle him, brings his own bag over to blanket them both.
"You're still dressed," Rodney says, reaching for him. "C'mere." He flips open John's fly and pushes down his pants and his sticky underwear. John kicks them off the rest of the way, and then helps Rodney out of his own pants.
"Is there um-" he says, while Rodney's still struggling with the kicking-off part. "Stuff."
"Survival kit," Rodney says.
John strokes Rodney's bare hip, and stretches over him to root through the bag. He pulls out a signal mirror, a plastic mug, socks, food bars, a paperback novel, more food bars, a handful of pencils, MREs, more MREs, another pencil, another pencil, more MREs - how many fucking MREs does a person need - until he comes up with a sunscreen tube.
"Now I know where pencils go to die," he says, shaking the tube. He uncaps the top.
"Mm," Rodney says distractedly. He's running his hands up and down John's thighs with a flatteringly smug cat-with-the-cream expression. He holds a palm out for the sunscreen. "Did I mention you're hot?"
"Couple of times," John says, grinning. And then Rodney starts jerking him off - slow and hot and slick - and he can't hold onto the grin. All his mouth wants to do is moan.
Rodney is shockingly good with his hands. He jacks him until John's making embarrassing, helpless noises and pushing up blindly into Rodney's fist. "Come on, come on," John mutters. He puts his hand over Rodney's to make him go faster, but Rodney just pushes him away, and then lets go of him altogether.
"What? No!" John says, and he knows Rodney's hand is gone, but his hips keep humping thin air for a few seconds like his body is on time delay. "Your hand," he protests. He can hear the whine in his voice.
Rodney taps his thigh, sending little shivery jolts right through John's body. "Kneel up," he says. "Come on," he slides a hand up John's side. "Let me turn over. I want you to fuck me."
"Oh," John says. He licks his lips. "I- Oh. Okay."
Even Rodney turning over between his thighs is almost enough to make John lose it. He clenches his teeth and tries to think about things other than his cock sliding into Rodney's perfect, round ass, and God, he thinks, when Rodney settles onto his stomach it is perfect. He runs his thumb down the crease, and Rodney groans.
John slides a single finger in first. That gets him a nice moan. Two fingers make Rodney grunt and start to shake. John strokes his side. "Okay?" he says.
"Okay. Yes, yes. Do it," Rodney says impatiently. "Do it already!"
So John spreads him and pushes in - gently, then a little harder as he realises how easily Rodney's taking him. He pulls out, pushes in again and again until Rodney's shaking and making mindless noises like he loves this so much he's going to die. And John feels the way Rodney's hips move as he pounds into him, and he thinks there's no way he could ever get enough of this.
Afterwards, when he's recovered enough to speak, Rodney says: "So have you done a lot of ass fucking?"
John chokes. "What?"
"Obviously, I mean with women," Rodney says, rolling his eyes. "Don't start getting all freaked out."
"I'm not freaked-" John says. "No, I haven't done a lot ass fucking with women."
"It's just that you seem suspiciously good at it. Like you knew what you were doing."
"Well, I guess I'm just a natural," John snaps.
"I guess you are," Rodney says. He sounds slightly disgruntled.
John wakes up again disoriented. He's too cold and the light is wrong - a flashlight? - and there's someone next to him. John hardly ever stays the night.
He wakes up a little more, and thinks Rodney, and just thinking his name kind of stirs his cock a little, even though he's pretty much as sated and empty as he's ever been.
Rodney's on his back making little snorey noises through his mouth. John's chest hurts suddenly. This is it, he thinks. Later today, he'll have an illegal, long shower and he'll go back to work and his crazy Antarctic gayness will be over.
Rodney wakes up while John's still looking at him. "Hey," he mumbles.
John smiles. "Hey." He leans in and kisses Rodney gently. Then he scoots down and kisses Rodney's collarbone, his shoulder, his chest. He licks the lines of Rodney's ribs. Rubs his teeth over the curve of Rodney's stomach, pushes his nose into the curls above his cock.
Rodney's cock nudges John's chin. "Wow," Rodney says. He laughs shakily. "Can't believe I'm getting it up again."
John isn't sure when he was last happy like this. His jaw is still aching but he sucks Rodney down hard and fast and messy, and slides a couple of fingers in, which makes Rodney buck his hips and grunt desperately. He's still loose and slick from John's cock, and John moans just thinking about it.
"Fuck, fuck yes," Rodney gasps.
John fingerfucks him and sucks him and it's kind of weird - doing this without getting hard himself, but it's a good kind of weird. He thinks: cock, cock, cock, he fucking loves cock.
The next morning, John wakes up in the tent alone. He scrambles out of his sleeping bag, heart pounding. "Rodney!" he shouts.
"Yeah?" Rodney calls back. So he hasn't fallen off a ledge or wandered off in hypothermic delirium. John gasps in relief and finishes putting on his coat. It's still damp from the day before.
When he gets outside, the sun is just rising from behind the mountains.
"Hey," Rodney says. His hat is off again, and his hair is bedhead-messy. He has his hands in his pockets. "I was about to wake you. Look at that." He jerks his chin at the new day.
"Now that's something," John says. The sky and the snow are turning pink. He comes over to where Rodney's standing. "That's really something."
"Yeah, it's something all right," Rodney says. "So-" he smiles hesitantly. "I guess. Last night was probably a one-off thing, right?"
John licks his lips. He can still taste Rodney's mouth if he thinks really hard about it. "Right," he says.
Rodney breathes in sharply. "Because you don't have feelings like that."
"Right," John says again. He looks out at the ice and the snow and his beautiful endless runway. There's nobody around for miles, he thinks. If he's not safe here, where will he ever be safe? "Actually, no," he blurts. "I feel- I'd like to do it again." It comes out a little hoarse.
He's due to ship out in three months, he thinks. He can give himself three months.
Rodney's first kiss gave him mono. He was out of school for a month.
His second kiss was with Dave Glezer. His third and fourth and fifth were with Mitchell Armin and Mitchell Armin and Rick Hird and sometime after that, he stopped counting.
Jeannie caught him with Andy Campbell.
"I saw you kissing a boy," she said when he came home one night from school.
"How amazingly exciting for you," Rodney said. "Now, get lost. I've got a couch to lie down on and a television to monopolise."
"You kissed a boy and now you're going to hell!" Jeannie added, trotting after him.
Rodney groaned. "Oh God."
"You're going to hell for that now."
"Oh my God."
"And for that!"
Rodney closed his bedroom door in her face.
After Angie Balani in fourth grade and Karen Rogers in fifth and Sal Linden and Grace Douglas and Janie Eller and Michael, John's first kiss was with Penny Lucas. They were on a rollercoaster, Omaha laid out below them like a picnic. John kissed her as the carriage jolted down. The kiss wasn't nearly as good as the drop.
Afterwards, he kissed Penny maybe five more times, but he lost count of how many times he went to the amusement park that year.
It wasn't even a particularly good rollercoaster - once, while John was waiting to get his ticket punched, a long, wooden bolt fell off the rails. The attendant kicked it under the ticket booth like it happened all the time. "Want a free ride?" he said to John.
None of that mattered once John was flying downhill though. He closed his eyes and imagined he was in a jet - a gorgeous F-104 Starfighter. Or on a different rollercoaster maybe. A much better one.
Sheppard is the hottest mouth-breathing bus driver slash garbage collector that Rodney's ever met, and the guy even has a crush on him - bought him pears for God's sake. Rodney lorded those babies over the genetics guys for two whole days.
Of course, Rodney would never follow up on what they'd done in the tent. At best, it would be inappropriate. At worst, it would be an invitation to espionage and a long tedious investigation that would result in Rodney being black marked (again!) and sent back to Siberia with 'slept with spying journalist posing as pilot' stamped on his file.
He kisses John on the mouth the next time he sees him.
"Oh," John says. He sounds surprised and a maybe little pleased.
"Oops. That really wasn't supposed to happen again," Rodney says. "Oh come on," he adds, as John's eyes narrow. "We're the original odd couple. Peanut butter, maple syrup. Hockey, football. Canadian, American. Cat person, dog person. Wine, beer. Cadbury's, Hershey's. Intellectual-"
"In conclusion?" John interrupts. He has a familiar vaguely amused, vaguely irritated look on his face. Rodney inspires that look in a lot of people.
"In conclusion, we have nothing in common," Rodney says. Intellectual, not intellectual.
"I can maybe think of one thing," John says. He leans in and cups his hand under Rodney's jaw, encouraging him to open his mouth. He slides his tongue in. Rodney whimpers a little. "One good thing," John murmurs against Rodney's mouth.
"Okay, one thing," Rodney agrees. He can't believe how great he feels. Fortune favours the irresponsible, he thinks giddily.
John was good at some things but excelled at nothing. He enjoyed watching football but was too skinny to play. He loved fast cars and fast planes but had neither the intelligence nor the work ethic to become a pilot. He thought he might like to drive trucks. He was a grunt, his father always said. Destined for gruntsville.
He explained this to Miss Gordon, his math teacher and careers counsellor (except for the grunt part). She scrunched her face up thoughtfully. "I'd like you to take a test," she said. "Now, if you have the time."
At their next session, she tapped her pencil against the desk and smiled at him. "Wanna know what you scored?" she said. When John shrugged, she leaned forward. "Put it this way. With the tiniest amount of effort you could get into any college you wanted. Hell, just come to my math class. That's all you have to do."
Maybe nothing would have come of it. But that week the Hurricanes played the Eagles, and Doug Flutie threw a Hail Mary that sailed right over the astonished faces of the Hurricane's back line. Eagles 47, Miami 45 and no time left to play.
John turned up for his Tuesday math class for the first time in - well ever. Miss Gordon grinned at him as he slunk in, and then - perhaps she was a sadist - she gave him a little wave. John cringed. He could feel his coolness melting away like snow in the sun. After school, he told himself, he was going to go smoke up behind the sheds and then check out the new bikes at Vince Motorland. Possibly, he'd spit. (But only if Vince wasn't looking).
The class was fascinating and frustrating - math classes always were. It was like Miss Gordon was speaking in a language that John almost knew. He struggled to follow her explanation about calculating the area of two connecting circles, but there were too many gaps between the things he understood.
Nothing had changed, he realised. Clearly, the test had been some kind of mistake.
He made a break for it as soon as the bell rang, but Miss Gordon got to the door first, blocking John's path in a move that might have impressed Doug Flutie himself. "John, could you stay back?" she said. "It'll just take a minute."
She waited until everyone had left before she started. "I was an army brat too," she said conversationally, shutting the door behind Penny Lucas (glaring) and Jamie Rook (mildly curious).
The next few hours of John's life flashed before his eyes in a montage of excruciating chitchat and - God - student-teacher bonding. He backed up a few steps, reaching for his backpack. "I'm sorry," he said, trying to sound reluctant. "I really can't-"
"Oh, you can," Miss Gordon said. She smiled at him sweetly. "You have detention."
"Detention?" John said. He opened his mouth. He'd showed up for the damn class and this is what he got? "For what?"
"Good point." Miss Gordon tapped a finger against her mouth. "Let's see. You haven't managed a full week of classes once this year. But then there's the cigarettes I know I'll find in your backpack. No, no, let's go with the classic: you have detention for not showing up at my class that time three weeks ago."
John glared at her. Not for the first time, he wished he had some kind of superpower. Maybe eyes that shot laser beams.
Miss Gordon looked longsuffering, like she knew just what he was thinking. "John, I know this isn't how you wanted to spend your afternoon. And believe me, not how I wanted to spend mine either. But I know what it's like to move around a lot and miss out on classes. I know what it's like to be in one school, and you're going to do fractions next term. But then you move to Connecticut and they've already done it. Then you move to Florida and you miss algebra. You move to New Hampshire and you miss the start of calculus. Pretty soon, even if you're really, really smart, you start to think catching up is just too much work."
She looked at John expectantly. He raised an eyebrow, and then realised she was waiting for some kind of reply. "I guess," he said.
"So I thought to myself, I'll take a look at his past quizzes - see where his weaknesses are. Help him catch up. But while I was looking, you did the strangest thing."
She went to the blackboard, and wrote: Question 5. Using a ruler and the grid provided, prove your answer to question 4.
She turned to look at him. "I showed everyone how to do that. You draw a neatly-ruled triangle on the grid and count the squares inside."
"Oh," John said.
"But I guess you missed that class, because this is what you did."
She handed him his test. It said:
"Oh," John said again.
"Yeah, oh. And it is the right answer. I worked through it while I was watching Miami Vice - this was the night before I made you take that Mensa test, in case you were wondering. So either someone taught you a pretty obscure proof of Heron's formula using Pythagoras' Theorem, or you solved it yourself during a 30 minute test. And you know what? Considering your intelligence, I'm betting it's the latter. I'm betting you're the most naturally gifted student I've ever had. And here's the thing. You haven't been doing real well in my class, which, quite frankly, reflects badly on me. So, I'd really like it if you could tell me what you missed. For example, say you missed long division-" her voice rose at the end as though she were asking a question.
"Long division?" she said again.
John shrugged. "Yeah," he admitted. It came out as kind of a grunt.
"Ha!" Miss Gordon said. "I knew it! You'll love this one!"
John caught a glimpse of Jamie in the little door window and winced. This, right here, was the death of his cool. 'Dearly beloved. Killed tragically before its time,' he mentally wrote on the gravestone.
"Can't you give me worksheets or something?" he begged. "Why do we have to do it here?"
"Ride through the pain, John. I thought you wanted to be a pilot."
"I never told you I wanted that!" John said. He was pretty sure he'd never said it out loud.
Miss Gordon rolled her eyes. "You intimated, while making wistful, puppy dog faces-"
"-that being a pilot might be - oh, how would a fourteen-year-old boy put it? Okay, you guess. C'mon. Long division. What else?"
John sighed and closed his eyes. "All that stuff about sin, cos, and tan," he said. She was right. Sometimes, you just had to resign yourself to the pain.
He wrote to his father about it later - he was in Nicaragua that year. "I passed the Mensa test," he wrote. "Turns out I'm smart!"
His father sent back an Air-Force-issue postcard. "I was wrong all along," John imagined it saying. "Guess you really are the old man's son."
It said: Intelligence is nothing when you lack self-discipline.
John read it three times. It was the same each time. Nothing personal. Hope you didn't think it was anything more.
John kept his father's letters in a shoebox in the back of his cupboard. He took out the other two now - lined them up together like divination cards.
1. John: Just a few lines to say that I arrived safe and sound. I hear they got some new equipment at Hanscom. If you work hard at school, I'll take you for a spin when I get home.
2. John: It's a tough place to be, where I am now. The people are very poor. Lots of kids running around.
3. Intelligence is nothing when you lack self-discipline.
John rearranged them. Intelligence is nothing. It's a tough place to be. I'll take you for a spin. He rearranged them again. Just a few lines to say that, where I am now, you lack self-discipline.
Self-discipline, John's father always said, had made him a special operations pilot only three years after graduating high school.
John put the letters back in the cupboard. He felt bored and maybe a little amused. And he'd made up his mind.
He was going to do it in two.
Rodney once got an autographed letter from Wayne Gretzky. Rodney had sent him a long thesis about how he was going to revolutionise hockey stick technology. He let spill quite a few patentable ideas and blueprints. But it was Wayne Gretzky. Who was the technology for, if not him?
Wayne Gretzky's letter said:
It's always great to hear from a fan! If you'd like to get regular updates about me, why not join my fan club. You can even use the envelope enclosed.
It came with an autographed picture, so Rodney was pretty happy all in all.
John is determined to make the most of his three months of gayness. He flies Rodney back with him every few days, and they fuck in John's quarters, in storage rooms, in bathrooms. Once in an emergency shelter on the Castle Rock Loop trail. John doesn't know what Rodney tells his superiors. He doesn't think about it.
Rodney calls him 'Major', even when they're in bed. John finds it kind of weird at first.
He says: "When I'm fucking you, and you call me that, it's-"
"Freaky. Like I'm at work, but having sex at work."
"Kinky," Rodney says, sounding much too intrigued.
After a while though, John doesn't mind it. It makes it all feel like it's not really him touching Rodney's mouth, not really him saying "I love it when we do this." They could be any two anonymous guys.
After the black mark, John's nickname was DF - Daddy's Fuckup, but before that it was Ace. After years of doubting himself, John could suddenly do no wrong. At the academy, there wasn't a class he didn't breeze through, or a plane he couldn't fly like he was born to it.
By his second year, it had all gone to his head a bit. He slept with sixteen women in six months. His longest relationship was with Julie Miller, and only because she was interstate for three weeks before they called it quits. John brought her a picnic basket with cheese and grapes and champagne, and they both agreed that they liked each other, but it wasn't anything to get serious about. All of his break-ups were amicable like that.
At college, Rodney had a 4.4 grade point average and the nickname Ace. By the end of his freshman year, he was a minor celebrity. His chain-smoking, 71-year-old math professor, who'd flown a P-63A Kingcobra over Dresden, actually cried when Rodney chose to major in physics.
In his sophomore year, he had groupies, and he slept with pretty much all of them. He was only human after all. (And there were only four of them.)
In his junior year, the CIA found him again.
It happened as he was vacillating between getting a Mars Bar or a Snickers from the machine downstairs. A blonde woman with large round glasses tapped him on the arm. "Rodney McKay?" she said. "Agent Janice Matherson, CIA. Could I speak with you for a few moments?"
In one of the library study rooms, Matherson leaned comfortably against the wall. "Mr McKay, would it surprise you to know that we have quite a comprehensive file on you?"
"Well, no," Rodney admitted. "What does it say? 'Boy, we sure screwed up on that A-bomb thing; how terribly embarrassing. P.S. his mother is scary'?"
"Well-" Matherson hesitated. "That is how you first came to our attention, yes. But," she assured him, "you're no longer under surveillance. Uh. Not for that, anyway. Currently, we're more interested in your scholastic achievements. Particularly your recent work."
"Huh." Rodney smiled a little smugly. "It's nice to see that you guys are on the ball. So," He twirled his wrist. "What's the job?"
Agent Matherson shook her head. "This isn't the kind of job offer where I give you information, and then you say yes or no. It's more... the other way around."
"You're kidding?" He frowned. "You're not kidding. What are you saying - you want me to be a spy?"
Agent Matherson actually snorted. "No. God, no."
"What?" Rodney said indignantly. "You're saying I couldn't be a-, no, you're right, even I can't say it with a straight face."
"We can't all be brilliant liars and cheaters," Matherson said sympathetically.
"So- wait, you know I do men, right?" Rodney said. He thought he should get that out of the way. Because there was no way he was giving that up for some stupid spy agency job.
Matherson raised an eyebrow. "I'm shocked. You've been so discreet."
"It's just that last night, when I was-"
"Look," Matherson said quickly, "it'll be a very challenging role with an excellent salary. Full medical, four weeks annual leave, free travel, a fully tricked-out lab, and all the budget you can eat. Plus, you can finish your degree course on our dime."
"Huh," Rodney said. He wiped the corner of his mouth. He hoped he wasn't drooling. "That's- huh."
Matherson nodded. "I understand it's a lot to take in. And we're willing to give you a week to think it over before we approach someone else. I can also answer questions of a general nature."
"Questions- Wait- Approach someone else? Approach someone else like who? Like Jerry Tan? Because you know I can theorise rings around him. And don't even think about getting him to calculate anything on paper unless you want to- Hey, why didn't you say anything about a retirement plan?"
Matherson blinked. "There's a great retirement plan."
"Oh yeah? Like the kind of great retirement plan where I spend my twilight years sipping Mai Tais in Hawaii, or the kind where I get a lovely black body bag all of my own."
"Body-" Matherson rolled her eyes. "Right, because we're actually the mafia."
"Ha," Rodney said absently. "So... Not a spy, tricked-out lab. You probably want me to build some kind of super-weapon, right? Something that could destroy the planet and half the solar system with it?"
"Would that be a deal breaker?"
Rodney started to make a joke of it, and then frowned. He imagined his own defence-budget-funded lab, complete with cowering, white-coated minions. Telescopes, computers. Then he pictured a politician somewhere distant, blowing up the planet with weapons that he'd created. "I think it would be a deal breaker," he said wonderingly.
"I'm surprised to hear you say that."
"Actually so am I," Rodney said. He felt quite shaken by his own high moral standard.
"Fortunately," Matherson said, "it's not a deal breaker for us." She smiled suddenly. "I hope you accept the job, Rodney. I think you're our man."
And Rodney was their man. He finished school and completed a doctorate on their dime. He got a lab full of cowering minions, and an office with a view of the courtyard fishpond. He wrote on the hypothetical properties of exotic matter and the physics of micro black holes.
Then, one day, they brought him an impossible Star Trek gun that made matter disappear like a David Copperfield party trick. You can't ask any questions, they said. You can't talk about it with anyone. Oh, and if you could reverse engineer a prototype, that would be great.
And then, one much later day, they took him to a dark, soundproofed room in Langley, Virginia, and a hard-bitten military guy showed him videos of a team walking through a wall of water. When the water disappeared, the team was gone.
"Don't worry, kid," the military guy said when Rodney wiped at his wet eyes. "Took me like that too."
So it's like this, O'Neill says. There are aliens with glowing eyes and a penchant for eyeliner out to destroy the planet, but fortunately for us, some other aliens (who are kind of dead but kind of not) left a bunch of weapons in Antarctica (of all places), and one of those weapons nearly blew us out of the sky (nice flying by the way). Any questions?
After John flies the General back to McMurdo, he and Rodney hold an emergency meeting in Rodney's quarters.
"So they want me to go," John says.
"Bad! Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad!" Rodney says.
John nods fervently. It was supposed to have been a torrid, but very, very brief affair, he thinks, through a wobbly haze of panic. And now they could be, what- spending the rest of their lives working together? With no way of ever escaping each other? He thinks he's going to be sick all over Rodney's little room, which - he stops, distracted. Rodney's room. He hasn't seen anything of Rodney's before. He looks around curiously. It's incredibly bare: bed, desk, computer, chair. It could be John's own room.
"So, obviously we can't have any more sex," Rodney blurts suddenly.
"Obviously," John agrees.
"Because it was supposed to be an affair."
"A short affair," Rodney says. "A short secret affair. And I should have guessed something like this would happen. Every time. Every time I have sex, something goes horribly wrong. Like one time, this guy painted edible chocolate on himself, only there was some kind of lemon flavouring in it, and well - let's just say that stomach pumps were involved, and I haven't been able to watch 9 1/2 Weeks since. Plus, there was another time, I was in the middle of blowing my college roommate, and the roof fell in. And I know objectively that it was termites, but you really have to wonder about the timing. It's like I have a sex curse." Rodney frowns suddenly. "Why aren't you more freaked-out by the aliens and the wormholes and the space weapons?" he says, sounding accusing. "A lot of people cry when they hear about the whole we're-not-alone-in-the-universe thing."
"In fact," Rodney says, sounding tetchier, "extremely hard-assed, tough, muscled military guys have personally told me that they cried."
"Huh," John says.
Rodney glares at him. "It was an incredibly, intensely meaningful moment for me," he snaps. "The culmination of many, many years of childhood hopes and Star Trek watching. And just. You think that in your lifetime, you'll see a set number of things, achieve a set number of things. You think you'll be a cog - a large cog, but a cog - in the linear, predictable evolution of your field. But-" he waves his hand "-suddenly, the universe has opened up - and not just literally - though obviously literally. There's technology and math and science out there that's centuries ahead of us. It's all new and uncharted and I get to explore it. Me."
John grins fondly at him. He reaches out to touch Rodney's arm, then stops himself. And Rodney sees the movement. His expression sharpens.
"So. The sex thing," Rodney says. And John winces. We've worked it out already. Stop talking about it, he wants to say. Let's just forget it even happened.
Rodney says, "I mean. You have the whole Air Force thing. And we obviously don't want me kicked out of the program over my unbelievably stupid, world-security-risking affair with the hot garbage-delivering mailman, that-"
"Wait-" John holds up his hand. "You think of me as the mailman?" He's weirdly hurt, even though it's not like they've had any deep discussions or anything. He hadn't realised he'd wanted Rodney's approval until now.
"Really hot mailman," Rodney says apologetically, like that makes a difference.
"Well." John flails for something to hurl back. "I thought you were an evil scientist hell-bent on destroying the world with an evil new weapon of your own evil design."
"Wow, that's... insulting." Rodney pauses. "Or flattering. I don't know which."
They're quiet for a moment.
"On the other hand," Rodney says slowly. "The sex was good." He pauses like he wants John to agree.
John can't look at him. He swallows. He has a flash of last night - Rodney bent over the foot of John's bed, his legs spread, his naked ass ready for John's cock.
"It was good," Rodney says again uncertainly. "So maybe- maybe we shouldn't stop."
"I think we have to," John says. He clenches his fists so he doesn't have to feel them shaking. So, I guess I'll go then, he thinks he should say. Except then they're kissing again. Still. Already. And John thinks just one last time.
This was how Rodney's mother died:
"Hello?" Rodney said. He was expecting it to be Jamie. They weren't dating or anything, but Rodney had blown him in an empty tutorial room, and pretty much blown Jamie's mind as well - if he was the kind to congratulate himself, which he was.
It was his sister. "When can you get here?"
"When can I get where?" Rodney said impatiently. Jeannie always made him impatient.
"Dad- well, you know what Dad's like. So, I'm going to need help with the arrangements. I'm not even sure what I have to do. Rodney, I don't even know what I'm doing. When are you getting here? Because I can't do this on my own. Please don't make me do it on my own."
"I know, I'm sorry. Of course you'll help me. Of course you will. I don't even know what I'm talking about. I'm such a mess."
"Jeannie! I honestly don't even know what you're talking about."
"What do you mean you don't know? I just told you! Mom died."
You didn't tell me, Rodney wanted to say. You were the one who made the mistake, not me. He found himself crying instead. "I'll be there as soon as I can," he said.
This was how John's father died:
I hope this letter finds you safe. It saddens me to tell you that your father passed away last Saturday. When your tour ends, please forward your address. There are some things of your mother's I'm sure he'd want you to have.
He lost the letter. If he hadn't, he might have sent her his address, eventually.
Once they get back to the States, Rodney has a million hours of work to do in 300 hours of actual time. John, on the other hand, gets a couple of weeks to sit around and second-guess his decisions.
The USAF puts him up in a nice hotel room in Colorado Springs because he has nowhere in particular he wants to go. He gets free room service, free cable. He spends a lot of time eating popcorn and lying in bed watching The Incredible Hulk.
He goes out a few times - once to a park, once to an art gallery.
At the park, he tosses a coin. Heads, it's a good idea. Tails, it's bad. Heads. He tosses again. Tails. He doesn't know what that means.
Another time, he goes to the mall, where there are more people pushing past each other and smacking small children and eating burgers and buying shoes than John's seen in eleven months. John watches them. There's a whole universe out there, with wormholes and spaceships and super-villains. And then there's Earth, he thinks - shoes and burgers, all these ordinary people with their ordinary lives. It hits him suddenly: he fucked a man, he let a man fuck him.
He goes back to the hotel, to his turned-down bed and his duffel bag of Johnny Cash. He watches The Hulk and orders room service fries and ketchup.
Rodney calls him. "I had a pretty bad day," he tells John's answering machine. "We're running out of time with the Ancient-Earth tech integration, and I haven't told anyone else this - but I don't think I can do what they think I can do."
"Hey, call me!" Rodney says another time. "I have a rare free afternoon Saturday!"
"Ground Control to Major Sheppard - call me about Saturday. I'm freaking exhausted and I really need some R&R."
"Seriously, if you don't call me, I'll make you regret it. I know where you live."
On Saturday, Rodney barges into John's room right in the middle of The Hulk being kidnapped and taken to a booby-trapped desert island
"I locked that," John says. He doesn't get out of bed.
"Yeah, hi, former employee of the CIA," Rodney says. He marches over and snatches the remote from John's hand.
"Hey!" John says, less mildly.
Rodney rolls his eyes, aims the remote, then sees The Hulk. "Ooh, good episode!" He lowers the remote and drops down onto the foot of John's bed.
They watch it for a while. The Hulk gets mad. The Hulk hurls things. Rodney says: "Four days to go, huh?"
"Mm," John says noncommittally.
"So-" Rodney laughs in a way that's probably supposed to be light-hearted "-I was looking through the files, and - funny thing - your name isn't on the final departure list."
John grabs another handful of popcorn. "I haven't made a decision."
"Really," Rodney says. The Hulk bellows in fury. He knocks over a small tree. "Is it because of. Well, you know. Because that would be a really stupid reason."
John swallows his popcorn. It doesn't want to go down. "It's not because of that."
"Right," Rodney says. "Of course not." His back is to John, but even his back is expressive. Right now, John thinks, Rodney's back is miserable.
They watch The Hulk fall into a pit, cleverly disguised by a pile of leafy branches. A normal person would have walked around it, John thinks. That's the problem with superheroes - they tend to rely on their powers. They don't think strategically, if they think at all.
"There's stuff I have to weigh up," John adds.
"Yeah, well-" Rodney turns his head, and he sounds hurt, but he looks pissed off. "Then you're an idiot."
"Oh, I am?" John says.
"Yeah. You are. I don't know if you've noticed, but we're about to embark on the greatest adventure in the history of humanity. Of course you want to go. You're dying to go. And I'm sorry if you're sexually confused and blah, blah, blah. But you're also the only person who can properly operate the technology. So get a goddamned grip."
John grits his teeth. "Believe it or not, there are a whole bunch of reasons why I might not want to go on a one-way trip through a freaking intergalactic wormhole to live out my life in a place that - hell, for all we know - might not even exist anymore. In which case, it'll be a very, very short life."
"Yeah," Rodney says. "The stupid, wimpy oh-no-I'm-gay reason." He shakes his head. "I did kind of wonder why you didn't freak out again after that first time in the tent. And now I know. It's because you were saving it up for now."
"I'm not-" John has to stop so he can force his voice to sound calmer. Sometimes, Rodney gets under his skin even when John thinks he's prepared himself. "I'm not freaking out."
"Right," Rodney says bitterly. He doesn't bother to school his expression. Or maybe he never learned how. "Well, I can't stay. Some of us have a whole bunch of preparatory work to do, so-" He stands up and punches a few buttons on the remote. The television switches off. He tosses the remote back to John. "I'll see you round. Or not."
John tries everything, but he can't get the television back on again. The staff can't do it either, not even with the manual, not even when they borrow a remote from one of the other rooms. "Did you spill something on it?" the manager says suspiciously.
The next morning, John hikes the thirteen-mile trail up Pike's Peak. At the summit, he looks down at Colorado and its tiny houses, tiny trees. It's not Antarctica, but it's quiet and it's cold. His head feels clearer. He's freaking out, he thinks.
The first time Rodney fucked him, they were in John's quarters at McMurdo, in John's bed. John stared at the bare wall front of him and shook and gasped while Rodney stretched him open with an aching slowness that was almost more torturous than pleasurable.
When Rodney's blunt cock finally nudged into him, John was whimpering for it. He came as Rodney mouthed kisses on his shoulders, without anything even touching his cock.
Later, he thought his body had never been that out of his control before.
John stays the night at Pike's Peak. When he gets back to his hotel, there are three messages and a stony-faced marine waiting for him.
The marine has an envelope which he refuses to give to John without confirming his identity via fingerprint. Five fingerprints. Random fingers from each hand.
"Been waiting long?" John says.
The marine looks straight ahead. "I'm the third shift, sir."
"Ah," John says. The marine doesn't move. "You can go," John adds. "Unless I'm under guard."
The marine salutes him, and says sincerely, "No sir! Thank you, sir." He practically runs to the elevator.
Inside the envelope is:
As you can see, I've put together a pro/con list for you. As I write this, there are 36 hours until we leave. There's no reason you can't still join the program.
The messages are:
"Major, this is Dr Weir. I understand you haven't confirmed your departure. If there's anything you'd like to discuss with me, if you're having concerns... Please let me know. My secretary has instructions to put you through immediately."
"This is General Jack O'Neill. Major, I personally don't care whether or not you go, though I'm not too impressed by your indecision. Make a choice and inform Dr Weir. And that is an order."
"It's Rodney. Well, we're going tomorrow, and I take it you're not going with us. I thought I'd have lunch in the park outside the Mountain this afternoon. You could come and eat a sandwich with me. If you're not busy."
John thinks if he had a Pro/Con list, it would look like this:
He takes a cab to Rodney's park. He'd assumed Rodney would be hard to find, but he's sitting right there on a bench, eating a sandwich so fast that it disappears in four bites. As John approaches, he pulls another two slices of bread out of a bag and grabs a cheese square from the seat next to him. He puts the bread and the cheese together, squirts ketchup over the whole thing, and eats the new sandwich in four bites. It's the same ketchup he stole from the mess hall in Antarctica.
Rodney seems pretty shocked to see him. "Hey!" he says, with his mouth full of cheese and bread and ketchup.
"Hey," John says.
"Hey," Rodney says again. He moves his cheese. "You want a seat?"
"Sure," John says. He sits. "So." And this is really turning out to be an illuminating conversation. "IIGOMUHSWRM?" He'd converted the letters to numbers in his head (997151321819231813). It didn't seem to signify anything.
"Oh." Rodney coughs. "If I get over myself, unbelievably hot sex with Rodney McKay."
"I didn't want to out you or anything. So I just used the acronym."
"Well, that was. Thoughtful."
"I can be thoughtful," Rodney agrees. He makes and eats another sandwich: bite, bite, bite, bite, gone.
John grins a little. "Is that seriously one of your last meals on Earth?" he says. "Because I would have gone with a nice turkey sandwich. Maybe roast beef. Nachos without guacamole. "
Rodney starts assembling another sandwich. "Yeah, I guess it is. Could be one of my last meals ever. The number of ways I could die tomorrow is, well-" He offers the new sandwich to John. "Hungry?"
John takes it. "Thanks." And it actually doesn't taste too bad - even with the ketchup. "I used to love this cheese," he says. "My father would never buy it. When my friends came over, I had to slice our cheese in front of them. I felt so uncool."
"Hey, me too!" Rodney says, mouth full again. He grins. "That's, what, two things we have in common?" He looks down at his bread. "I bet there's more. If you came to Atlantis..."
"Yeah," John says, "both being in another galaxy, we'd have that in common."
Rodney looks up again, and there's way too much hope in his face. John shakes his head. And he hasn't cried since he was ten years old. He doesn't want to break his run now. "It's one way," he says helplessly. "There's no going back."
Rodney draws in a shaky breath. "You know what," he says. He starts making another sandwich. "I don't have time for this. I've had to oversee the development of seven different research projects from three different disciplines at the same time as making a 10,000-year-old ZPM interface with not-incredibly-well-programmed-to-be-honest Earth systems. I still have to pack, finish four hours of reprogramming by midnight tonight, and remind the girl across the hall that my cat is allergic to salmon. And I'm leaving the damn galaxy tomorrow. I really do not have time for one last attempt at convincing you to come with us. So." Rodney brushes crumbs from his knees and stands up. "Goodbye. Maybe you'll see me in a history book some day."
He leaves the sandwich, the bread, the cheese, and the Antarctic ketchup on the seat next to John. His shoulders are hunched as he walks off. He doesn't look back.
John picks up the sandwich and chews on it, thinking about his list. Pro: Rodney McKay. Con: no turning back.
The truth is, he thinks, he isn't freaked out about the gay thing. The truth is, this sort-of fling with a mad scientist who thinks he's dumb is the best thing he's got going in his life, even when they're not doing it any more.
He finishes the sandwich and makes another. A last meal, he thinks. His last meal with Rodney, or his last meal on Earth.
He hears, "Major!" while he's still buttering the bread with ketchup, and looks up to see Rodney running hard towards him. Rodney stops at their park bench, and doubles over, hands on his hips, gasping for breath too hard to get any words out. John looks at his sweaty face and thinks: yes. And he almost wants to laugh at how easy the decision is after all.
He puts his hand on Rodney's arm. "Yes," he says, before Rodney can speak. "I'll go with you. I want to go."
Rodney puts his hand over John's and squeezes it hard. Then he sucks in a huge breath and straightens up. "Great," he pants, nodding fast, still winded. "Okay, I really have to get back to work." He turns to go, and then turns and walks backwards. He's beaming. "I just wanted to say," he says. "Bring the ketchup."
After they don't drown horribly in an alien city under a zillion gallons of alien ocean, they have a getting-to-know-you party on one of Atlantis's balconies.
The canapes are pretty good. Rodney particularly likes the little kebabs. He's eating his eighteenth one when John tugs him aside.
"Hey," John says. And he looks pretty tired, Rodney thinks. But maybe not so bad, all things considered. John pulls his hand out from behind his back. "I brought you something." There's a perfect green apple in his hand. "I haven't had a chance to give it to you."
"I like apples," Rodney says, which is kind of a stupid thing to say, but it makes John smile.
John puts the apple in Rodney's palm and closes his fingers around it. "Me too."
Rodney's Atlantis is a lot like Antarctica in that the coffee is rationed and the technology is Ancient and he's likely to die on hikes with Sheppard.
John's Atlantis is two hundred people who trust and respect him. It's going home to Rodney McKay. It's nothing like Earth at all.