“Oh, God,” Rodney breathed, fingering the material. “This is totally the wrong color. Eggplant! I said eggplant, dammit!”
Talia, Rodney's assistant, nodded briskly. “I know. I've already called the supplier. They apologize profusely, and say they'll do anything to make it up to you.”
“And you told them?” Rodney asked, raising his brows.
“That we would never be dealing with their sorry asses again.”
“Good,” Rodney said. “Call Kandel and Sons. See what they can do on short notice.”
Rodney looked at his watch. “Four o'clock.”
Talia nodded, then spun on her heel and disappeared. Rodney turned his attention back to the preparations for the photo shoot.
“No, no, no, no!” Rodney strode forward and yanked the hat off Miriam's head. “You've got it on backwards, what is the matter with you?” He made an impatient noise and jerked upwards with his thumb; Miriam huffed, but obeyed him, rising to her feet so that he could put the hat on the right way.
When he was done with her, he surveyed the room and swiftly realized something was wrong. “Where's Hans?”
“He quit,” Miriam muttered.
Miriam flinched, but stood her ground. It was an annoying trait in her. “He quit. Said he'd accepted an offer from Dior. Said they didn't yell at people all the time at Dior,” she added testily.
“That backstabbing – ” Rodney cut himself off. “All right, fine, let me think.” Not only was he without one of his male models, he was without the best male model he'd worked with. There was no way he was going to find someone to fit into the clothes, either; although he wasn't excessively tall, Hans was notoriously long-waisted, and needed every damn thing custom-tailored. Nothing that Rodney had prepared for him – his best work, incidentally – would drape properly on any of the other models.
“Mr. McKay?” Rodney looked up to see the photographer's head poking around the dressing room door. “Are we ready to begin?”
Rodney could feel the stabbing headache begin behind his eyes. Wonderful. “No, no, we're – all right, yes, they are. Get started on them, but leave out anything you had planned for Hans until the end.” He pushed past the photographer, already flipping open his phone.
“Where are you going?” the photographer demanded.
Rodney stepped into the elevator. “I have to find a man!” he shouted as the doors shut.
The front office of Fractal Fashions was all gleaming black marble floors and brushed steel, relieved by a huge bank of stained glass windows along one wall. John tried not to let that weird him out as he walked up to the reception desk. “I'm here to see Rodney McKay,” he said, smiling at the receptionist, who was, predictably, a knockout.
She eyed him critically, and John's opinion of her beauty dropped a couple of notches. “Do you have an appointment, Mister – ?”
“Sheppard. And yes, I did, uh...” He peered over the desk, trying to read her monitor.
The receptionist squinted at her computer, then at him. “I don't see your name here, Mr. Sheppard.”
“You don't? Well, that's strange,” John said. “I could have sworn I booked one.” She leaned back in her chair and gave him the fish eye. “Look, Rodney and I go way back – ”
“You have no idea how many times a day I hear that,” she drawled.
“ – okay, now you're just being mean – ”
“Really, Mr. Sheppard, you have to understand that Rodney McKay is the most highly regarded intellect in the fashion industry today – ”
“No offense, but isn't that a contradiction in terms?”
“ – and he doesn't have time for – ”
“You're here already?” John turned and saw Rodney McKay striding toward him, his familiar scowl darkening the cavernous room. He'd never been so glad to see anybody in his life.
“Hey, Rodney, buddy,” John said, smiling. “Good to see you again.” He reached out a hand as if to clasp Rodney's shoulder.
Rodney stopped short just outside of touching range, though, and John's hand dropped. “Well, that's lovely, thank you. I've never seen you before in my life, but we'll let that pass.” Before John could think of a response to this, he realized Rodney was looking him up and down a little like a rancher at a cattle auction might inspect a prize steer. “God, I can't believe it. That agency actually got something right.” His gaze rose to John's face. “Although you're a little long in the tooth.”
“Hey,” John said.
Rodney flipped a hand at him. “It's fine, it's all right, we can retouch your face. Your body is perfect, and that's what I need most.”
“Glad I can oblige you,” John muttered, trying not to feel panicked. What the hell was Rodney contemplating?
“Okay, that's enough small talk. I need you upstairs, in the dressing room, and naked as soon as possible. Think you can do that?”
John gulped. “Do I have a choice?”
“Well, then,” John said, shifting from one hip to another, “uh.”
Rodney made an impatient after-you gesture with his hand. After a frozen moment, John forced his feet to move.
John held up the pants. “You gotta be kidding me.”
Rodney glared at him. “I'm sorry, is it your place to be questioning my design decisions?”
“It's just that, um. They're leather. And – kind of shiny.”
“Yes, thank you for that astute observation. Would you put them on, please?”
John sighed and started to get into them. Jesus, the legs were really skinny. “Are you sure you don't remember me?”
“Listen, Mister, ah – ”
“Sheppard. John Sheppard.” Okay, now to try to figure out a way to get these done up without cutting off all the blood supply to his dick. Wow, laces? How would that even –
“Sheppard. How can I put this delicately? I may be a genius, but even I can't be expected to remember every pouty-lipped piece of manmeat that crosses my path.”
John drew himself up, ignoring the way the leather chafed parts of him he really didn't want chafed. “Pouty-lipped piece of manmeat? Where the hell do you get your dialogue from, Jacqueline Susann novels?”
Rodney lifted his chin. “All right, so that was a little florid.” His gaze lowered, then fastened on a spot just below John's already pretty low waistband.
“You – um. I forgot to tell you.”
“You shouldn't be wearing underwear with those pants.” John looked down and realized his boxers were clearly showing above the leather.
Shit. This was going to be a lot more work than he thought it would.
“Okay, would you please...” John pointed at the door to the dressing room.
Rodney stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, then rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. What kind of model are you? Models don't have modesty.”
“Well, this one does,” John growled. “I'll see you in the studio.”
“Really, I – ”
“McKay. Get. Lost.”
“Going,” Rodney said, sulkily.
After he was gone, John wriggled out of the pants, then shucked his boxers. His naked reflection stared back at him reproachfully.
“I am not pouty-lipped,” John told his reflection. His reflection stuck out its lower lip. “Oh, shut up,” he snapped, shimmying back into the pants again.
“Okay, no, not going there,” John said, dodging out of the way of the woman with the eye pencil.
“That's what the models get for this shoot, and you're a model in this shoot,” the woman observed testily.
“Hey, I let you do the blush and the foundation, but there's gotta be a line somewhere and I am drawing it, lady.”
Mercifully, Rodney waved his hands when the woman tried to swoop in again. “No, he's right,” he said. “On Hans, fine, on him, it doesn't work.”
“He's pretty enough,” the woman observed.
Rodney eyed him. “But he's too – ” John glared at him “ – mature for the club twink look. That's enough makeup.”
“Thank Christ,” John breathed, practically vaulting up out of the chair. “Could you take my picture now and get it over with?”
Rodney snorted. “In a hurry to get somewhere?”
John sighed. “No, actually.” Truth was, he didn't know what the hell he was going to do after this. But staying here seemed pointless, especially when Rodney clearly had no idea who he was.
“Then relax and come here.” John looked up, surprised at the low tone of command in Rodney's voice. Rodney held up a silky black shirt for him to put on, and John walked toward him, then turned and slipped his arms into it. Rodney smoothed the material on his shoulders, the glide of his hands so gentle it was almost a caress.
“Turn around,” he said, softly, and John did, as if in a trance. Rodney bent his head and began doing up John's buttons.
“You know, I've been dressing myself for a long time.” The words were meant to be sarcastic, but his tone was as soft as Rodney's.
Rodney's fingers brushed John's belly, making the muscles twitch. “This material is easily wrinkled,” Rodney explained. “I know how to handle it; you don't.”
John looked down at the top of Rodney's head. “You really don't remember me, huh?”
Rodney's head snapped up, and for the first time today, John saw something like fear cross his expressive features. “No,” he murmured. “I'm – I'm sorry.”
John shrugged, trying to make it seem like no big deal even though his heart was hammering in his chest. He hated that he'd been the one to put that look back on Rodney's face, that he'd made Rodney afraid. “It's okay,” John soothed. “Don't worry about it.”
Rodney nodded, then stepped back. “Well, you're all set.”
John looked down again; there was a small patch of belly peeking out above his waistband. “You forgot the last two buttons.”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Are you sure you're a model?”
John pursed his lips. “I'm not sure of anything, McKay.”
“Well, never mind. When you're wearing my designs, nothing can go wrong. So get in front of that camera and strut your stuff.”
“Strut my – ”
Rodney sighed. “Yes, yes, clichéd, I know. Just – go?”
John turned to where the photographer was eyeing him with a lusty gleam in his eye.
“Oh, God, kill me now,” John groaned.
Rodney disappeared right after the beginning of the shoot, and John worried he wouldn't see him again for the rest of the day. But he reappeared about twenty minutes later, and when they moved one of the lights to get a different shot, John spied him sitting off to the side, watching. There was this weird intensity to his gaze that made John feel chilled and overheated at the same time.
“Now get sexy for me,” the photographer crooned. “You know what I want.”
John wasn't sure. He'd been trying for sexy in all of the pictures so far, but he suspected that most of them were just going to turn out looking constipated.
“No, no,” the photographer said, “with your hands behind your neck. You know, the 'fuck me' pose.”
“The what?” John demanded.
The photographer sighed. “Never mind, never mind. I keep forgetting you think you're straight.”
John ground his teeth together, then linked his hands around the back of his neck. His elbows jutted out toward the camera, and he felt like a dick.
“Now, tilt your head back a little...yes, yes…that’s it, oh my God, give it to me…”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Rodney said suddenly, rocketing to his feet.
The photographer stared at him, baffled. “What’s the matter?”
Rodney chewed on a thumb. “That’s – that’s not the look I want for him.”
The photographer huffed, “That’s the look that works for all your other models.”
“Well, he’s not like any of the other models, in case you hadn’t noticed,” Rodney snarled. The photographer actually took a step back at that, and John had to bite his tongue to keep from grinning.
“Look, come here,” Rodney said, and then John was being led gently by the elbow to a spot behind the backdrop. God, he hadn’t realized how hot it was in front of those lights.
“The agency didn’t send you, did they?” Rodney asked, and John’s heart dove for his shoes, because shit, shit, he’d done a crappy job and now Rodney was going to fire him and he’d never see him again.
“Okay, here’s the thing. If you just show me what to do, I’m sure I can – ”
“No, you’re fine, you’re doing fine,” Rodney said, and John let out the breath he’d been holding, “but you’re not a model, are you?”
“No,” John admitted. He debated with himself as to how much to reveal, then said finally, “I’m a pilot.”
Rodney’s face crumpled at that, and he pressed his fingers to his temples. “What’s wrong?” John asked, concerned.
“Just my headache,” Rodney murmured, and John's gut clenched. Okay, that had obviously been too much information.
“So you tell me,” John said, trying to steer the conversation back to safer waters, “what do you want me to do?”
Rodney looked up. “Just – be yourself,” he said simply. “Act naturally.”
John scratched the back of his neck. “I'm not used to acting natural in front of a camera and a whole bunch of lights.”
“I could tell,” Rodney drawled. “Obviously, we're going to have to do something to make you forget about the camera.” Rodney paused, clearly unsure of how to make that happen.
“Talk to me,” John blurted.
Rodney frowned. “What?”
“Sit beside the photographer and talk to me. Tell me a joke. Talk about the weather, I don't care.” He looked Rodney right in the eyes. “Tell me the story of your life.”
Rodney's cheeks flushed slightly, and his jaw worked. “Well, I don't know that I – ”
“Rodney, please,” John said, his voice low, “I need you.” Rodney's eyes widened at that, and now John was the one blushing, because that hadn't come out exactly as he'd expected. But what the hell; it seemed to be the first thing he'd said that had really gotten through.
Rodney finally nodded. “Yes. All right, fine. If that's what you – um – need.”
“Thanks, buddy,” John said, unable to resist squeezing Rodney's shoulder briefly. Rodney stared at him, surprise written all over his face, then shuffled off to move his chair over beside the photographer. John took a deep breath, then steeled himself for the bright lights again.
Once John stopped caring about how ridiculous he must look, he actually started to have fun with it. He'd never been conceited about his appearance, but judging solely from the amount of attention he'd gotten since the acne had cleared up, he knew he wasn't all that bad to look at. He also knew that he'd put on a fair amount of muscle mass in the last couple of years, and was in about the best physical shape of his life. So if they wanted him to strut his stuff, he could do it without feeling like a total moron.
Rodney was a big help in that department. Once he got going, he had John smiling and even laughing with his antics. He might claim not to recognize him, but Rodney knew exactly what John would find funny, from his impressions of Dark Helmet to his rant about reality TV.
It was the first time it really hit him that neither of them laughed enough.
John was just zipping himself back into his jeans – God, he'd missed his boxers – when Rodney knocked on the door to the dressing room. “Are you decent?” Rodney called.
John chuckled. “Yeah, Rodney, mostly.”
Rodney poked his head around the door, his mouth twisted in a sardonic smile. “I wouldn't want to compromise your virtue.”
John contemplated throwing his t-shirt at him. Putting it on over his head instead, he said, “That's okay, I'm a model now. We don't have any virtue.”
Rodney didn't say anything to that, and when John turned around, he saw him fidgeting with an envelope in his hand. “Do you think you can get any good pictures out of that session?” John asked.
Rodney looked shocked. “Of course! John, you were – don't you have any idea how – ” He cut himself off abruptly.
Smiling, John leaned a hip against the dressing table. “How what, Rodney?”
Rodney's cheeks colored, and John couldn't help enjoying his discomfort. “Oh, well. Now you're just asking me to feed your ego.”
“Model, remember?” John said, smirking.
Rodney huffed at him, then handed him the envelope. “Yes. And now it's official.”
“What's that?” John asked, but Rodney only flapped the envelope at him until he took it. He ripped the end off and pulled out a check. “Uh,” John said, because holy shit, it was for ten thousand dollars.
Rodney bounced on his toes. “Aren't you glad you sacrificed your virtue?”
“I don't – Rodney, this is a crazy amount of money for what I did.”
“Don't be stupid,” Rodney told him flatly. “If you hadn't happened along, this whole shoot would have fallen apart, and I wouldn't have made the Vogue deadline. You were – you were perfect. Thank you.”
John winced, because the irony of it was a little too much to take. “Dammit, Rodney, I should be the one thanking – ” He caught himself just before he said too much, because the confusion was already crossing Rodney's features, and the pain would be next, and Jesus, he would not do that to him again. “Look, I'd better get going. I'll see you around?”
Rodney nodded. “Certainly. Be sure to leave your contact information with my receptionist.”
“Sure,” John said, knowing he wouldn't be able to give Rodney's receptionist any phone number she could use. He hesitated for a moment, wishing he could think of something to say that would make everything right, that would make him somebody Rodney would remember, but in the end he decided to leave the battlefield with his tail between his legs. At least he knew Rodney was okay – sort of – and still very much himself – sort of.
The rest, he decided, as he nodded to Rodney and headed for the door, would have to wait.
John opened the meeting with, “Rodney thinks he's starring in Funny Face.” Elizabeth, Heightmeyer and Carson all stared at him. “What? My mother liked Audrey Hepburn.”
Elizabeth steepled her fingers. “John, it would be helpful if you started from the beginning.”
So he did. He told them all about Rodney McKay, genius fashion designer, and his fancy-ass office building, and his many extremely well-endowed minions. More reluctantly, he filled in his part in the play, too. He may have left out a couple of essential details, like the no underwear and the eyeliner, but he tried to be as accurate as possible.
When he was done, they all turned to Heightmeyer, who sat silent, obviously absorbing John's story. John rubbed absently at the spot on his arm where Carson had attached the monitors to him.
“Well?” John said, after the silence had started to drive him nuts. Elizabeth shot him a sharp look, but Heightmeyer only shook her head.
“To be honest, I don't know what to tell you,” Heightmeyer said. “I have theories – ”
“I'd love to hear them,” John said, the frustration bubbling over, “because right now, Rodney is lying in a pod in a coma, and we don't know why the hell he isn't coming out. Carson says he's fine, physically – ”
“John,” Elizabeth warned.
“ – but I'm here to tell you he is not fine mentally, and I'd kind of like your expert opinion on why that is.”
Heightmeyer regarded him levelly. “From what you've told us, it seems as though the Rodney you met in the virtual environment he's created – as different as that environment is from his real-world experience – is still very much himself. I'm truly not sure how much emotional or mental damage he's sustained.”
“He thinks he's Ralph fucking Lauren!” John exploded.
“But he's still Rodney,” Heightmeyer persisted. “He's still in charge, at the top of his game, highly regarded in his field.” Her mouth quirked. “And still, from the sound of it, inclined to be domineering.”
“Still a pain in the ass, you mean,” John muttered, conceding her point.
“Somehow, though,” Carson said, “Rodney never struck me as someone interested in haute couture. How could he have constructed such a complex reconstruction of the fashion industry?”
“Well, I'm no expert either,” John said wryly, “but I'd say he made it all up out of movies he's seen. The photographer was pure Austin Powers, and the outfits?” John rolled his eyes. “Pure disco.”
“Even so, I can't think of a profession that's more diametrically opposed to what he's doing now.”
“Maybe that's exactly why he's chosen it,” Heightmeyer mused. At John, Elizabeth and Carson's startled looks, she added, “Carson has already established that Rodney is sufficiently healed from his injuries; the virtual environment has served its intended purpose. There's no reason why Rodney can't come out of his coma and leave the simulation; the difficulty is that he may not want to come out. After all, being the head of a fashion empire is much safer than the position of chief scientist on Atlantis.”
They all digested this for a few moments, though for John it was kind of like regurgitating a meal he'd already eaten. It wasn't as if he hadn't already come to this conclusion on his own, but up until now he hadn't wanted to admit it to himself.
Rodney didn't want to come out. And ultimately, the responsibility for that lay squarely on his shoulders, whether anybody else agreed with him or not. What was worse, maybe John's presence was complicating matters, reminding Rodney of the reason he was in a coma in the first place.
“Maybe – somebody else should go in next,” John blurted.
Elizabeth skewered him with that penetrating gaze of hers; he really hated it when she did that.
“I don't know if that's a good idea,” Heightmeyer mused. “You've said he's already complained of headaches when you tried to make even oblique references to his real life; if we try to reintroduce more familiar faces, it may set him back even further.”
If I go in again I could set him back so far he'll never come out, John thought about saying, but he kept his mouth shut, knowing it would be dismissed. And if he wanted to be honest with himself, he knew it was just whining. This was supposed to be all about Rodney's hang-ups, not his; the last thing they needed was to start exploring his guilt and anger over all this.
“I agree,” Elizabeth said. “You've found a way to insinuate yourself into his world; I doubt that any of us would be as successful.”
“Are you trying to say I look like a male model?” John demanded.
“No, of course not,” Elizabeth said, and for God's sake, there was a twinkle in her eye that made him want to scream. “You look like a highly respected Air Force colonel...who could be mistaken for a male model.”
“Thanks,” John muttered, “that makes me feel loads better about myself.”
When John left the briefing, he found his feet leading him back to the stasis room. He was absolutely exhausted – all that pouting and posing was hard work, dammit – but he couldn’t let himself sleep until he’d checked on Rodney. In the last three weeks, that had become a habit with him.
Well, not only with him; when he got there, Teyla was sitting beside the softly glowing pod, one hand casually placed on the clear cover over Rodney’s head. As he entered, she looked up and smiled at him, then used her other hand to massage the back of her neck. “Hello, John.”
“Hey,” he said. “Long time no see.” He cast a glance at the matching pod beside Rodney’s, now dark and open to the air. They’d discovered the auxiliary medlab a couple of months ago – half a dozen pods nearly exactly like the ones they’d found on the Aurora, only these were set up as healing environments for recovering patients. It had become Biro’s pet project, and she’d had it up and running and functional within weeks. John just wished they hadn’t ended up needing it so soon, and certainly not for Rodney.
“Tell me more about Rodney,” she said, patting the bench beside her; he hadn't been able to tell her much when he emerged from the pod beyond the fact that he'd found Rodney, and he was okay. John sat and filled her in as best he could considering that the world of high fashion made about as much sense to her as Will Farrell’s success did to John.
“Do you think he is – trying to escape his life here?” she asked, when he was finished.
John shifted uneasily, not wanting to confess his own doubts on the subject. “Maybe he’s just looking to take a little vacation,” he hedged.
Teyla eyed him for a long moment – these women could see right through him – and then placed her free hand on his arm. “It was not your fault, John.”
John sprang to his feet. “Okay, let’s not – ” Christ, he had to go back in there tomorrow and not think about this, not think about the way Rodney had looked, body broken and strangely small as he lay face down on the floor –
“John,” Teyla said, more firmly this time, and John shook himself. “He was trying to save you.”
“Well, he did a shitty job of it!” John yelled, surprised at the strength of his own fury. “All he had to do was say, 'Hey, the ceiling is falling in,' and you know, I would have moved.”
“He clearly judged that you would not be able to get out of the way in time,” Teyla said, her voice back to soothing, “and that you would be hurt, perhaps even killed.”
“So instead, he nearly gets killed himself,” John snapped. “Great trade.” She opened her mouth to say something else, then closed it and regarded him sadly. John looked at Rodney, but that was even harder than looking at Teyla, so instead he placed a hand beside hers on the top of the pod, briefly, before leaving.
In the morning, Ronon was sitting watch over Rodney's pod. John had passed a restless night, and he wasn't in the mood for small talk; good thing Ronon sucked at small talk. All John got was a nod and a grunt; he nodded and grunted back, and then reluctantly turned his attention to Rodney.
He'd been hoping for a miraculous recovery, hoping that he'd get here in the morning and Rodney would be sitting up and inhaling the first of five extra-tall lattes. “No change?” John asked.
“He twitched about an hour ago,” Ronon said, “but I think it was just gas.”
“Great,” John sighed. Biro finally saw him and bustled over to him as she busily input information into a datapad.
“Ready to rock and roll?” she asked.
“Yeah,” John said, resigned. “Hook me up.”
The receptionist treated him a little differently than she had the last time. “Where the hell have you been?” she snarled.
“Happy to see me?” John asked sweetly.
“No, of course not. I love the looming threat of unemployment and destitution.” She stabbed viciously at a button on her phone, then said, “Talia. He's here.” A pause. “I know. And lo, the heavens opened and the angels sang, for he was come at last.”
It hadn't surprised John that Rodney chose to surround himself with lots of good-looking people. However, it did surprise him to find out that all of them were apparently just as sarcastic as he was.
“Wait here,” the receptionist ordered, after she'd hung up the phone. “Talia will be right down. She'll take you to him.”
“Seems like a lot of fuss considering I was only here yesterday afternoon,” John said, a little sulkily.
The receptionist glared at him. “It's been over a week,” she snapped. “Where have you been all this time, face down in some twink's lap?”
John shifted. “Why does everybody assume that I'm – easy?”
The receptionist only stared at him balefully, and that gave John a few precious seconds to think. While John had been here in the VE with Rodney, they seemed to have experienced time at the same rate, but obviously, with John gone, anything was possible. That meant that if he went away again, months could pass inside Rodney's head. What was worse, in the intervening time, Rodney might decide that his subconscious could produce a better John than John could manage. He wasn’t sure why Rodney hadn’t just gone ahead and conjured up a replacement before this, if he was that agitated at having lost him. But whatever the reason, it was painfully clear that John couldn’t risk leaving the pod again, for fear of being shut out of Rodney’s virtual existence completely.
Rodney's assistant arrived and promptly led him up the Deco-style grand staircase (with lighted panels in the risers, John noted) and into an elevator that whisked them to the top floor of the building. Here, there was no sign of the hustle and bustle of the lower floors, only blissful silence.
Well, almost; as Talia led him into the inner sanctum, John picked up the faint sound of the ocean. It wasn't the roar of the surf pounding against a beach, but the softer sound of waves lapping up against a solid surface – a wall, maybe, or a pier. Since he'd been outside the building and knew the ocean was nowhere near this place, John figured it had to be one of those New Age CDs, piped in through what was no doubt a very expensive audio system.
Rodney’s office was actually a spacious luxury apartment that occupied the whole top floor of the building. Rodney being Rodney, and this being his fantasy scenario, John expected to find a bevy of big-breasted blondes in French maid’s outfits bent over tables, pretending to dust, but every room they passed through was empty. Here, the décor reminded him even more of Rodney’s former address, though there were warmer touches – an oak Mission-style grandfather clock, splayed at the base, a PS3 hooked up to the plasma screen TV in the living room. The kitchen was a gleaming vision of brushed stainless steel appliances, cherry wood cabinets and dark green marble countertops. John thought it looked familiar, then realized he recognized it from the cover of that old copy of House Beautiful that had been kicking around the mess for months. He didn’t know why, but it saddened him to learn that Rodney’s vision of the perfect home came half from Atlantis and half out of a magazine, though he knew his own vision wouldn’t be much different.
She led him to Rodney’s bedroom-cum-study, a huge space with – yep – another set of floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows along one wall. Rodney was hunched over a drafting table facing the windows, his t-shirt stretched tight across his bowed back, the way he used to sit in the lab. He was sketching something, his hand flying over the paper, and there were papers strewn all over the floor at his feet. Belatedly, John wished he’d thought to bring him a coffee, though he wouldn’t have had a clue where to get one.
“Looks like the boss man is in dire need of another cappuccino,” Talia murmured, startling John. Had his thought made that happen? And why the hell did he suddenly feel like Keanu Reeves? Pitching her voice louder, Talia called, “Guess who came to pay you a visit?”
Rodney whirled around, and in the process nearly fell off the stool he was sitting on. As he caught sight of John, his eyes widened in shock, then cycled through relief all the way to irritation.
Yeah, that was Rodney, all right.
“Why didn't you tell me he was here?” Rodney snapped.
Talia smirked. “Because I wanted to bask in the warm glow of your approval,” she mock-simpered. Rodney opened his mouth to say something, and she added, “I'm just going to go get you a lethal dose of caffeine, 'kay? Be right back.”
After she was gone, John stood there, unsure of what to do next. Rodney was looking at him like he'd come back from the dead, and for a bizarre moment, he wanted to – well, walk into Rodney's space and just breathe on him.
It was possible that all this time spent in Rodney's imaginary environment was fucking with his head.
“You came back,” Rodney said finally, and that sent chills up John's spine, because Rodney's voice was soft and hesitant, not like Rodney at all, or maybe more like Rodney than John had seen before.
“Yeah,” John said, taking a couple of steps forward now. As he got closer, he realized that a lot of the papers on the floor were actually photographs. Closer still, and he saw they were all photographs of one person.
They were all photographs of him. But even though he was about as far from an expert as you could get, he could tell they weren't the typical fashion poses. They were shots that had obviously been captured just as Rodney had said something funny, because John was either laughing or smiling or he'd ducked his head to hide his grin. He'd always thought he must look stupid when he did that, and he did look kind of goofy, but Rodney obviously didn't mind, because he had a lot of pictures of John doing just that. He was surprised, actually, at how flat-out happy he looked in these; it wasn't the face that had been greeting him in the mirror most mornings of late. The existential question, since the photographs were essentially figments of Rodney's imagination, was whether this was how he really looked, or just how Rodney happened to see him.
And if that was how Rodney saw him, then – well. That was pretty much where John's powers of deduction broke down, because he had no idea what the hell that meant.
“These were all shots Vogue had rejected,” Rodney explained. “I told them to use them, but they argued no one would be looking at my clothes if they printed these.” He nodded at the floor. “I could see their point.”
John had the good grace to scuff his toe against the carpet at that. “Well, that's really – uh – thanks,” he said, intelligently. Rodney fidgeted uneasily, apparently as much at a loss as John was, and then he moved to the side and John got a good look at the sketch on Rodney's easel.
“Wow,” John murmured, involuntarily, because he hadn't known Rodney could draw like that. Come to think of it, maybe Rodney couldn't draw in real life, but he evidently had some talent here, because geez, he'd made John look even better than he did in the photographs. He'd drawn one of his new clothing designs on him, and unlike the leather pants, this outfit didn't look ridiculous on him. The shirt was collarless and simple, almost mediaeval, and the pants were low-slung but comfortable-looking.
“I haven't been sleeping very much lately,” Rodney confessed. “I've been, ah, well, you might say I've been inspired – or perhaps obsessed – but not in a creepy way, I swear.”
John chuckled, then stepped forward and inspected some of the other designs. In one of them, he looked like he was wearing a suit of armor. He raised an eyebrow at McKay, who strode forward and snatched the drawing from the pile.
“I did say I was sleep-deprived,” he snapped.
“Yes, yes you did,” John drawled.
Rodney flushed, then bent down and started picking up all the photos.
“Hey,” John said, quietly, not sure of what else to say.
“I know I look like a stalker,” Rodney said, “but I'm not. It's what I do. That doesn't make it – ”
“Rodney, Rodney, stop it,” John said, squatting down and grabbing at Rodney's hands. Rodney froze, then closed his eyes.
“Look, I don't think you're a stalker, all right?” John realized at this point that his thumbs were stroking the backs of Rodney's hands, but he decided to let them keep on doing what they were doing. For whatever reason, Rodney was getting himself worked up, and John didn't know what kind of effect that would have on his real-life physical condition. It was important that he go with the flow on this, let Rodney take the lead, not push too quickly. He didn't quite understand everything that was going on in Rodney's head, but he needed to back the fuck off now, or Rodney would kick him out and that would be the end of trying to help him. Maybe it would be the end of anybody trying to help him.
Searching desperately for the right thing to say, John murmured, “I like the pictures, and I like the sketches. I'm just not used to seeing myself – well, the way you see me, okay? That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it. It's – flattering.” Which was true, and it occurred to him that if a woman had bestowed this kind of focused, intense attention on him, John would be more than flattered.
He blinked. Oh. Oh, wow. But that couldn't –
“Well,” Rodney was saying, clearly mollified, and just as clearly oblivious to John's minor freakout, “I'm glad you – don't think I'm insane.”
“Hey, I didn't say that,” John said, grinning, and this time Rodney got it, because he rolled his eyes and stalked off to the living room, where he snatched up his phone and ordered Talia to bring them up pizza and beer, “and none of that pallid American crap you bought the last time,” and John laughed because if nothing else, at least Rodney was still Canadian.
John convinced him to play Madden NFL Football on the PS3 until the food arrived – “I could have sworn I didn't have that game,” Rodney mused, and John smiled a small, private smile – and then they chowed down on double pepperoni and talked about Rodney's impressive collection of cheesy sci-fi movies, because it was safer than talking about anything else.
“You don't have Spacehunter?” John demanded, affronted. “How can you not have Spacehunter?”
“Oh, God, no,” Rodney groaned. “Molly Ringwald? Please.”
John picked up a case and waggled at him. “Whereas Soylent Green is a classic for the ages.”
“How can you not like Charlton Heston? He parted the Red Sea.”
“I liked Yul Brynner better,” John admitted. Pointing a sauce-stained finger, he intoned, “So let it be written, so let it be done.”
Rodney snorted around the mouth of his beer. “To carry that off, you need a lot less hair.”
They ended up watching Dark Star, which John remembered as a truly fucked up movie about a ship full of space-wacky people, their cryogenically frozen captain and a alien made from a beach ball. It turned out to be even more fucked up than that, and John was soon alternating between helpless laughter and shaking his head in wonder. Compared to that, their lives on Atlantis were pretty normal.
John convinced an increasingly droopy Rodney to stretch out on the couch. Rodney made a token protest when John sat on the floor with his back against the couch, but John just snorted at him and said, “Rodney, the carpet's three inches thick, don't worry about it.” Halfway through the movie, he felt the soft, tentative brush of Rodney's fingers against the back of his neck. His heart kick-started, beating triple time; God, this was just like middle school, when Tanya Kozinski had invited him to watch Star Wars on the big Betamax in her basement, and they'd ended up necking until he'd tried sticking his hand under her shirt and she'd slapped him into next week.
“Oh my God, I forgot about the surfer,” Rodney moaned.
“You forgot the surfer? That's the best part,” John said, leaning back into Rodney's touch, almost unconsciously. Rodney's fingers froze for a moment, then boldly carded into John's hair, and John had to stop himself from purring. It had been so long since someone had touched him with intent – okay, scratch that, it had been so long since someone he'd cared about had touched him with intent – that he felt his body responding in spite of himself.
John turned his head, and Rodney was staring at him, his eyes huge and bright in the glow of the plasma screen. John thought this is one good way to stay close to him, and then it's not like it counts and finally you could lose him forever if you let him out of your sight. He reached up and placed a hand on Rodney's cheek, and the stubble wasn't really a surprise, but Rodney's soft oh was, and it turned out to be easier than he thought it would be to bring their mouths together.
Rodney seemed to sense his reservations, or maybe he had some reservations of his own, because he started slow, his hand resting lightly at the back of John's head. He didn't press in or paw at him or mash their faces together; he just angled his head and brushed his lips back and forth over John's. John got frustrated with this after about thirty seconds, and held Rodney's chin still with his thumb while he proceeded to suck Rodney's lower lip in between both of his. Rodney made a strangled sound at that, and his arm hooked around the back of John's neck and his mouth opened and wow, that was Rodney's tongue. John tried sucking on that instead, and then the grabbing started and shit, it was better than Tanya Kozinski's basement, because when John stuck his hand up under Rodney's shirt, finding warm skin and the soft surprise of hair, Rodney just sighed, “oh, yes, please,” and there was no slapping at all.
Both their shirts came off pretty quickly after that, and Rodney stared at John's chest for a few seconds before spreading his palms over his pecs and thumbing his nipples. John opened his mouth to tell Rodney not to bother, but then Rodney leaned down and took one between his teeth and sparks exploded behind John's eyelids. “Holy shit!” John exclaimed, clutching at Rodney's shoulders like a fainting virgin in the middle of getting her bodice ripped. Rodney chuckled and bit down harder, and John's dick sat up and took notice. At some point after that, John might have shoved Rodney down on the couch and done some biting of his own, which prompted Rodney to squirm and moan under him, causing his thigh to come into contact with the front of John's trousers, encouraging John to rub against said thigh as shamelessly as a rutting schnauzer.
“Christ, that's – ” Rodney breathed, his hand scrabbling at the button on John's jeans. John reluctantly lifted up to give Rodney better access, and hey, since there was a little space between their bodies, he figured he might as well be magnanimous and do the same for Rodney. With a considerable amount of fumbling and cursing, they managed to get one another's pants open just enough to reach inside, and then, oh, oh wow, that was Rodney's dick, hot and thick and incredibly soft-skinned, a living thing in his hand. He braced himself on an elbow – thank God for Rodney's humongous expensive couch – and pushed his face into Rodney's neck and started to stroke just as Rodney's hand wrapped around his cock. John opened his mouth against Rodney's skin and licked and sucked hungrily as they started to move together, Rodney undulating under him like the surface of the sea.
“Oh, oh John, please,” Rodney panted, breath puffing against his neck, and that was it, that did it; John went off in Rodney’s hand, his hips stuttering and jerking as he came. Rodney whimpered and licked wetly at John’s earlobe and pushed up frantically with his hips, losing his ocean-perfect rhythm completely.
“That’s it, Rodney, c’mon, yeah,” John growled, and Rodney thrust up one last time and held himself there, his fingers opening and closing helplessly on John’s shoulder. John could feel him come, and it wasn’t as – as weird as he’d thought it would be, to feel Rodney’s warm wetness spill over his fingers as he continued to stroke, more gently now, soothing Rodney through it until he shuddered and collapsed back onto the couch. The thing was, John had stanched Rodney’s wounds, felt the blood well up between his fingers; as bodily fluids went, this was a lot easier to take.
When John finally lifted his head from Rodney’s neck – it was getting kind of hot in there – Rodney blinked up at him blearily, and John leaned down and kissed him briefly before pushing off him.
“Are you leaving?” Rodney blurted. John looked down at him; he was flushed and there was a sheen of sweat on his face and his hair was a mess. Rodney was a wreck, and John's dick, which was currently damp and cooling rapidly in his sticky boxers, actually perked up at the sight of him.
In answer, John reached out a hand. Rodney stared at it for a second, then took it, and John braced himself and hauled him off the couch and onto his feet.
“C'mon, genius,” John said softly, tugging at his hand before letting it drop. “Time for bed.”
Rodney broke into a grin at that, but then his face fell again. “Wait, so just to clarify, that means you're staying, right?”
John slung an arm across Rodney's shoulders and pulled him close. “Can't think of anywhere I'd rather be,” he murmured in Rodney's ear, leading him to the bedroom.
In the morning, Rodney was dead to the world, sprawled out across his gigantic bed with about as much grace as a bearskin rug. John decided to let him sleep a while longer while he went off in search of breakfast. Not surprisingly, he found Rodney's fridge full of Molson and junk food, so he closed the door, thought hard, and clicked his heels together three times for good measure. When he opened it again, it was stocked with eggs, bacon, butter, coffee cream, and the fixings of a kickass Greek omelet, the feta already crumbled and the tomato pre-cubed. There was homemade strawberry rhubarb jam just like his grandmother had used to make, and there was freshly ground coffee stuffed in the back, expensive by the nearly intoxicating smell of it.
Sometimes this virtual reality shit rocked.
Rodney snorted awake when John waved the plate under his nose. “Oh my God, I love you,” he breathed.
Time stopped for a couple of seconds, and when it started again, Rodney was staring up at John, wide-eyed and terrified, and John was staring back, his own expression probably not all that much better. John wondered how he'd missed the fact that Rodney blushed a lot, though again, that might very well be a figment of Rodney's imagination.
“I made an omelet,” John said, stupidly. “Sorry, I haven't made one in awhile; I wasn't sure – ”
Rodney yanked the plate out of his hands, then set it on his lap and promptly dug into breakfast with an enthusiasm that rivaled devotion. After watching him for a few stunned seconds with something like fondness curling lazily in his chest, John shook himself and left the room. Coffee, he definitely needed coffee – although it wasn't real coffee, and oh, hell, he told himself, just stop thinking.
Rodney emerged before John was through his first cup, sporting a silk dressing gown, an empty plate and a wide, lopsided grin that John had missed more than he wanted to admit. He snagged Rodney by the wrist as he walked past John on his way to the sink, then leaned in and kissed him, and okay, that had just kind of happened spontaneously. Rodney stiffened with shock for a moment, then returned it eagerly. John heard the plate clatter onto the counter, and then he was being shoved against the marble while Rodney bracketed his hips with his broad hands and kissed him back like his mouth contained the secrets of the universe.
“Sorry,” Rodney said, pulling back. “That was just a good morning kiss, I know, but I wasn't sure if you were going to pretend last night never happened, and when you, well – ” he looked up at John from under his lashes “ – I, um, got a little carried away?”
John was still busy remembering how to breathe and using the kitchen cabinets to hold himself up, so it took him a little while to process Rodney's apology. “Don't, uh, don't worry about it,” he said finally, waving a hand weakly.
Rodney smiled, then pointed a finger at the bedroom. “Well, I'm just going to – shower, and then I was going to – look, okay,” he said, “promise you won't go anywhere? Because the caffeine hasn't quite kicked in yet – obviously – but when it does, I'd like to discuss something with you. Something, ah, related to business.”
John's mouth quirked. “Rodney, I know I was good last night, but you don't have to pay me.”
“Ha ha,” Rodney said. “Seriously, don't go, okay?”
“Well, I don't know,” John said, moving back into Rodney's space, “maybe you should keep an eye on me to make sure I don't disappear,” and holy shit, what was he doing? God knew he could come up with another excuse for sticking around Rodney during the days that didn't involve their having to be naked – it was the nights that were the problem. He didn't need to keep up this charade twenty four seven; Rodney was only going to be in the next room.
The only snag was that he'd enjoyed being with Rodney last night, being near him, reassuring himself of Rodney's vitality and warmth, and apparently his subconscious was convinced he wanted to keep on enjoying it as much as possible. Rodney seemed to be having an equally good time, and this was all about making Rodney feel good, feel safe with John, safe enough to come back with him when the time was right.
And after all, he reasoned, if he ever did manage to convince Rodney to return to the real world, it wasn't like either of them would want to keep doing this. Rodney had never shown any indication he'd wanted to jump John's bones before this, and John had never even thought about guys except for that one time in college, and to appreciate that yeah, some men were empirically more good-looking than others. Virtual sex didn't make them gay; it didn't make them lovers. It just made them –
Well, okay, maybe it made them a little gay.
Rodney's eyes widened. “You mean you want to – ?”
John took hold of his hips and tugged him in close. The silk brushed against his arms, and Rodney's mouth brushed against his as John leaned in. “I could do with a shower, too,” he murmured. “How about you help me soap my back?”
John could feel Rodney smile against his lips. “I think I could manage that.”
“I need you to come to Paris with me.”
John stared up at the ceiling as he lay, mind blown, on Rodney's big-ass bed. “Sure,” he said affably.
“Really?” Rodney squeaked.
John blinked. “Hmmmm?”
“Oh my God,” Rodney breathed, and suddenly John's field of vision was filled with Rodney's scowling face. “Sex makes you stupid, doesn't it?”
“Duh, Rodney, I'm a guy.” John sighed and sat up. So much for afterglow. “What did you say?”
“I said I need you to come to Paris with me and be in my spring fashion show.”
John frowned. “I don't remember that last part.” His brain scrambled to make sense of what Rodney had said. “Be in your fashion show. As in...”
“As in parade around on a runway to annoying techno music in front of strangers, yes,” Rodney said impatiently. “What do you say? I'll pay you a ridiculous amount of money, but since that doesn't seem to impress you much, I don't know what else to offer.”
Okay, this was getting completely bizarre. It had been crazy enough to enter the virtual environment and find out that Rodney had decided he wanted to be a fashion designer, and further to find that the two of them seemed to enjoy rubbing their dicks up against one another. But now, to think that Rodney apparently wanted nothing more than to dress John up in little outfits he'd made especially for him – he was no psychiatrist, but that had to mean years of therapy for both of them.
But the bottom line was that no matter how weird it got, it was John's responsibility to stick close to Rodney as long as it took to get him out of here safe and sound. And if that meant leather pants and suits of shining armor, John would wear them gladly.
“I say, bonjour Paris,” John told him, smiling.
Rodney stared at him, mouth half-open. “Wait, what? Yes? You're saying yes?”
“I'm saying yes, Rodney.”
“Oh, well, that's – ” Rodney took John's face between his hands, leaned down and kissed him soundly, and by the time he let him go John was chuckling. “That's – oh my God, I have a week before we leave and I have so much to do.”
“Where are you going?” John heard himself complain. No, it wasn't a whine, but he admitted to himself that it was close.
Rodney was already rummaging in his walk-in closet; shirts and pairs of pants were flying out the open door. “Downstairs to the shops! I have to take those designs to the patternmakers.”
John rolled over onto his stomach and let his body melt into Rodney's incredibly soft mattress. “'Kay,” he said, “wake me if you need me,” and within five minutes he was fast asleep.
Within six minutes, Rodney was shaking him on the shoulder. “Get dressed! You need to come with me.”
“Mmmphhhh,” John groaned.
Another shake had John rolling back over and glaring up at Rodney. “Don't look at me like that. You have to be measured.”
“And after I'm measured?” John grumbled.
Rodney looked down at him with a sort of fond exasperation that was entirely like the old Rodney. “Then you can have your nap time, Colonel.”
John pushed himself up on his elbows and stared at him, but Rodney didn't seem to have realized what he'd just said. “Okay,” John said slowly. He waited for a moment, but when Rodney remained silent, only flashing him an impatient look, he sighed and rose to his feet.
The next few days passed in a haze of fittings, bad movies, takeout food and sex. During the days, John was poked, primped, prodded and plucked to the point where he wanted to punch something. During the nights, he and Rodney sat in Rodney's apartment and watched Zardoz and Westworld and Logan's Run – that is, until the necking and the fondling distracted them. On the fourth day in, John tried what he was sure had to be the worst blow job in the history of humankind, but Rodney didn't seem to notice the lack of skill, because he was too busy whimpering and clutching at the sheets and coming.
“Sorry, that wasn't so great,” John said afterward, leaning up for a kiss. He'd pulled off just before Rodney came, and a stripe of come had landed on his cheek. He wiped it off with a finger, then licked it experimentally. Huh.
Rodney groaned, and John looked down to see that Rodney's gaze was darting helplessly between John's mouth and John's finger. Slowly, giving Rodney time to object, John slid the finger between Rodney's lips, shuddering as Rodney sucked it clean.
“Christ,” John breathed, shoving his cock up against Rodney's lightly furred thigh over and over again until Rodney took pity on him and tried a bad blow job of his own that had John seeing stars.
Two days before they were due to leave for Paris, Rodney abandoned him to the clutches of Stuart, another one of his many assistants, who taught him how to walk.
“Okay, you've got a good amble going,” the guy said, “but we need to turn it into more of a strut.”
“Excuse me?” John asked.
“Just a little faster, sweetie.” Stuart waved a hand in the general direction of John's belt. “Though you’ve got just the right amount of hips in it – don’t lose that. Let's see you try it again. Janine!” he yelled. “Roll the music!”
John closed his eyes briefly as the beginning of I'm Too Sexy boomed out for the fifteenth time that day.
“Now, strut!” Stuart ordered.
“Strutting,” John murmured, firing off a quick salute before proceeding.
The next day, Rodney's new designs were ready, and John expected to be delivered into the hands of Stuart again. But instead, Rodney covered every surface in the apartment with clothes, and spent the afternoon – well, dressing him. And undressing him, though he was so matter-of-fact about it he might as well have been John's doctor instead of his – his whatever he was. Rodney looked him over from head to foot each time, but it was with a clinical detachment, and usually involved Rodney sticking a couple of dozen pins everywhere, shortening this and letting that out.
“Thought you measured me already,” John drawled, as Rodney was on his knees in front of him, turning up his cuff. Rodney glared up at him from the floor, and Jesus, okay, that was hot. John widened his stance a little and grinned down at him. Rodney's gaze flickered downward, then back up to his face.
“Working,” Rodney said firmly, and John deflated in more ways than one.
By the time they got to the last outfit, John was balling his hands into fists to keep from reaching out to Rodney and stripping him out of his clothes. John recognized the shirt right away – it was the mediaeval-looking one that had been part of the top sketch. The material was like nothing John had ever worn in his life, so soft and light it raised goosebumps as it moved against his skin. “What's this made of?” he asked.
Rodney smiled. “It's called shokra. You like it?”
John nodded, but in his head the warning bells were going off. A couple of months ago Elizabeth had signed a trade agreement with the Ligarians, and shokra had been part of it. He remembered it because at the time he'd wondered what the hell they would want with five hundred yards of handwoven Pegasus Galaxy cloth. Now he knew – the stuff had to be more valuable than the finest silk. Just like the slip the other night with John's rank, Rodney seemed oblivious to the fact that he was using a reference that didn't make any sense in the reality he'd created for himself. If John had a degree in psychology, he might be able to figure out what this meant – whether it was an indication that Rodney really wanted to remember his old life, or whether it was indicative of absolutely nothing.
John took a deep breath, debating with himself before saying, “Cool. Where's it from?”
Rodney stared at him blankly for a moment, then rubbed at his temples. “I – I don't remember,” he stammered, and John silently cursed himself – again. “Is it important?”
Yes, it's fucking important. “No,” John said aloud, “it's not.”
Rodney relaxed visibly at that, then set to work. After a few seconds' inspection, he murmured, “It's perfect.”
“No pins?” John asked.
“Hmm.” John reached for Rodney and tugged him to his feet. “That means I can do this without worrying about stabbing you,” he murmured, hooking an arm around the back of Rodney's neck and pulling him up against his body.
“I really sh- should get these clothes downstairs so they can be altered,” Rodney said, sounding not at all eager to do that. Sensing victory was imminent, John bent his head and licked the side of Rodney's neck. Rodney whimpered and bucked in John's arms.
“Later,” John growled, his other arm wrapping around Rodney's waist and grinding their hips together. Christ, it felt like he'd been hard for hours.
“Okay,” Rodney squeaked, and then he was thumbing John's nipples through the soft, soft material, and shit, it was like having twenty nipples instead of just two. John groaned and bit down on the skin over Rodney's jugular. Rodney started to lift the shirt off him, but John stopped him.
“Leave it on,” he croaked.
Rodney's head jerked up. “What? You – oh,” he said, as realization dawned. “You like this stuff, hm?”
John squirmed in Rodney's hold, sensing he'd lost the upper hand somewhere along the way.
Rodney let go of John abruptly and headed for the entrance to the apartment. “Take that one off, you'll wrinkle it,” he ordered.
John made an undignified sound of protest, but Rodney waved a hand at him and said, “Relax, I have more,” as he let himself out, and John hastily obeyed, stripping as he headed for the bedroom.
He was sprawled buck naked on Rodney's bed when Rodney returned with a couple of yards of dark red fabric balled in his fists. John lifted his head. “Jesus, do you think you've got enough?”
Rodney's response to that was to fling the material over John's body, covering him completely from the top of his head to his feet. “Hey!” John exclaimed, but Rodney clapped a hand over John's mouth through the fabric, then rubbed over John's lips with his fingers, the material forming a barrier between them.
All the breath left John's body in a whoosh as the sensation slammed into him. Holy shit, that was intense.
John's neck was next, fingers trailing downward, and John arched into it, moaning. The material wasn't completely opaque, but he could only make out the dull outlines of shadows as Rodney moved over him. Shoulders, arms, chest, ribs, belly – everything got its own special treatment, until John was reduced to a quivering set of overworked nerve endings. The shokra magnified every sensation, making him so turned on he could barely breathe.
He was both anticipating and dreading the moment when Rodney touched his dick, but Rodney detoured around his groin completely, taking a trip down his legs instead. When he brushed the material over John's toes, John actually whimpered, and he'd never had a foot fetish before. The faint tang of his own sweat and heat and sex, trapped under the material, wafted to his nostrils. He had to be leaking like crazy by now, and just shifting his hips against the gossamer cloth nearly made him come.
“Jesus, Rodney,” John gasped, when Rodney touched his inner thighs. “Just do it already.”
He felt the mattress dip on either side of his knees, then the weight that told him Rodney was straddling his legs. John wanted to push the fabric off his face so that he could see what was happening, but he stayed where he was. Somehow, he guessed Rodney wouldn't be as uninhibited if John could see what he was doing. And right now, John was all for uninhibited.
“You want me to do it?” Rodney asked. His voice was husky, like he'd been running.
“Yeah,” John breathed, though he wasn't so sure what he was agreeing to anymore.
Rodney shifted his weight against John's legs, and John slid his hands out from under the material so that he could get a good grip on the mattress. The first touch was so light he wasn't sure it had even happened, but the next touch, Christ, the next was warm and solid and perfect, the material stretched tight around his most sensitive skin, and John bowed up off the mattress –
John felt Rodney's hand slide up his cock, then back down again, up and down, and man, there was something different about this, something he couldn't quite figure out without looking. He reached down to find Rodney's hand with his and jerked in surprise when his fingers collided with soft hair.
“Fuck,” John said, because that wasn't Rodney's hand, that was his mouth, Rodney was sucking him off through the cloth, and he was going to come right now, thank you very much.
Rodney didn't let him go until John was totally spent, and when he was a twitching, boneless mass, he felt Rodney lower himself on top of John and shove his dick into the hollow of John's hip, his thrusts frantic and uncoordinated. Just before he came, he yanked the material off John's face and kissed him and kissed him, and John wrapped an arm around his back and held him as he came apart.
“So,” John said, when Rodney had rolled off of him and lay gasping on the mattress, “I'm starting to see the upside of the fashion industry.”
“I thought – you might,” Rodney panted.
John had never been to Paris before, but his concept of it was pretty much exactly as it looked in the virtual environment: pure 1950's musical, like seeing the city through a soft focus lens. The streets were wet but there was no rain actually falling, every single woman they passed was drop-dead gorgeous, and the city was clean and Technicolor-bright from the gutters to the rooftops. It occurred to him that Rodney had probably never been here either, if this was his vision of it, but by now he wasn't really sure what parts of this environment were Rodney's and which parts were his.
It further occurred to him that he had no clue how to get through to Rodney, how to jar his memory without causing him more pain. Ordinarily, he'd say a headache or two would be worth it if it bought Rodney an express ticket back to reality, but he couldn't be sure forcing the issue wouldn't cause him to withdraw even further. Worse, what if pushing Rodney to remember caused a more serious physical problem in the real world? He could end up doing more harm than good.
He wished, briefly, that he could leave the pod and spend just half an hour talking to Heightmeyer, but he knew exiting the VE for any length of time could mean losing Rodney forever. Besides, he had a sneaking suspicion he'd have to tell her about the change in his and Rodney's relationship, and that was the last thing he needed to explain right now. Hell, she'd probably end up explaining it to him, or tell him he had to stop, because Rodney was in a vulnerable position right now, and fucking him, even in a virtual reality environment, was tantamount to taking advantage of him. Yeah, she'd trot out the 'tantamount' all right, and John would feel like a creep and a molester, even though Rodney had been doing his fair share of molesting – and man, he needed to stop thinking about this before his brain exploded.
That night, John leaned on the railing of the balcony of their hotel room, a palatial suite overlooking – what else? – the Champs-Elysées. The city stretched below him, an intricate pattern of lights and sounds, honking horns and the soft thumpa-thumpa of a far-off discotheque. He felt a sharp pang of homesickness before he remembered he hadn't really left home.
Home, John thought. Although the two of them had never had any heart-to-heart discussions about it, John knew that Rodney looked on Atlantis as his home as much as John did. If he hadn't been sure of that already, the architecture of Rodney's office would've convinced him of it. Maybe that was the key; maybe that was the way to get through.
But once again, he found himself running into a wall. What was he going to do, casually bring up the city in conversation over breakfast? “So hey, I was jogging by the West Pier yesterday, and I was thinking you might like to come out there with me sometime. We could watch the sun rise and make out until it's time for the morning department heads meeting.”
And that would be a stupid thing to offer, John said to himself, considering their desire to make out at the drop of a hat was going to disappear as surely as this make-believe life the second they emerged from the pods.
John turned to see Rodney standing behind him, his body silhouetted in the light from the open doorway. “Hey,” John said.
“Are you all right?”
John tried to smile and probably wasn't all that successful at it. “Never better. How about you?”
“I'm exhausted, actually,” Rodney answered. “That flight took a lot out of me. Do you mind if I turn in early? Without, um – ” he waved a hand in the general direction of John's crotch, and John had to smirk at that.
“Without what? Servicing me?”
“Yes, very funny,” Rodney huffed, folding his arms.
“Listen,” John said, walking into Rodney's space and tugging his arms apart so they could settle around John's waist, “I don't know what you think this is, but we don't have to – you know – every night, okay?”
“'You know'?” Rodney asked, incredulous.
That pissed John off. He'd only had trouble with the word because what they were doing together – well, it didn't feel like anything John had experienced before, and it wasn't even real.
“Okay, fuck, are you happy?” John snapped.
Rodney flinched at that, and John cursed silently. “Not particularly,” he muttered, dropping his hands and stepping back. “Good night.”
“Rodney – ” John began, but Rodney was already gone. John let him go, lost in his own thoughts of kissing Rodney's shockingly soft mouth while the sun rose over Atlantis, and shit, he was in so much trouble here. They both were.
He crawled into bed a couple of hours later, when he was relatively sure Rodney was asleep. He was, but his sleep was fitful; he tossed and turned, nearly poking John in the eye when his arm shot out unexpectedly. “Rodney, wake up,” John murmured, dodging another flailing arm to reach out and shake him gently.
“John,” Rodney said, almost a whisper; at first John figured he'd wakened him, but then Rodney screamed, “SHEPPARD!” in the exact same bloodcurdling voice he'd used as the ceiling was caving in.
John wasn't sure how he managed it, but suddenly he was holding Rodney as tight as he could, calming his thrashing until it subsided, until Rodney lay shuddering in his arms. His lips pressed against Rodney's temple, he murmured I'm okay and I'm right here and It's gonna be okay even though he wasn't sure about that last part at all.
Rodney didn't wake up – or if he did, he gave no sign – and was soon snoring gently, his muscles relaxed and loose. John slackened his hold, but kept close, watching over him until his eyes couldn't stay open any more.
They didn't talk about it in the morning, though whether that was because Rodney was avoiding the subject or just didn't remember, John wasn't sure. Once again, he wasn't sure how to approach it himself, so he just let it drop.
The fashion show was a huge red-carpet event with hundreds of guests. John's palms started to sweat when he caught sight of the crowds outside the theatre. This isn't real, you moron, he reminded himself sternly. You're not really here. Just keep telling yourself that and you'll be fine.
He was whisked away by Rodney's coterie of makeup and hair people the minute they set foot backstage, and he was proud that he put up with their ministrations until they declared him fit for the public. Rodney arrived with his first outfit hot off the presses just as they were finishing, and they scurried away as soon as they saw him.
“Hm,” Rodney said, pointing a finger at their retreating backs. “You notice they do that a lot whenever I show up anywhere?”
“No, I hadn't,” John lied.
Rodney waved a hand. “Anyway, not important. Are you ready?”
“I will be as soon as I get dressed,” John said, nodding at the hangers still in Rodney's hands.
“Oh, right,” Rodney said, holding out the clothing.
“Can I actually dress myself this time?” John said, arching a brow.
“Yes,” Rodney said, jiggling the hangers. John grinned and took it from him.
Despite having psyched himself up for this, John was still nervous as hell by the time the music started and they pulled the curtain back. He'd never done anything like this before – hell, he'd never even tried karaoke.
Now strut, John said, putting his best foot forward.
“Oh my God, you were amazing,” Rodney breathed.
“Nnnggghh,” John said, because Rodney had John's pants open and was currently on his knees and breathing hotly against John's dick.
“Seriously, I wanted to do this halfway through the show.”
“In front – oh, yeah, like that – of everybody?” That was a little deflating; he thought he'd seen Joan Rivers in the crowd, and just – yeah, no.
Rodney licked a stripe up the underside of John's cock, and John's brain went offline for a few seconds. “No, not in front of everybody,” Rodney growled. “Nobody else gets to see you but me. Also, Joan Rivers was there. Total turn-off.” As if to make up for it, Rodney wrapped a solid hand around him and promptly went to town; John's head thudded against the dressing room door.
“Gonna – stop talking now,” John panted. Rodney made a humming noise that John assumed was agreement.
An embarassingly short time later, as John lay in a rumpled heap on the floor, having just experienced about the best orgasm of his life, Rodney kissed him soundly and said, “Look, I know you have this – other job, but I don't suppose you'd consider working for me on a more permanent basis? I mean, the money's ridiculously good, and I do offer a dental plan.”
John blinked up at him stupidly. “Can I – can I think about it?” he croaked.
Rodney's features betrayed a brief flash of disappointment before settling into a parody of nonchalance. “Of course, of course,” he said, waving a hand. “Take as much time as you need.”
“Thanks,” John said, pulling him down into a kiss, while inside his gut felt like it was being twisted into knots, because for a few crazy seconds, he'd actually considered saying yes.
Rodney was not the problem. Rodney had never been the problem. If John had been doing his job, the job he'd fucking come here for, Rodney would be out of the pod by now, safe and sound and healthy. The problem was John, and the fact that he'd been coming up with excuse after excuse to not push too hard, excuse after excuse to keep things just as they were.
Excuse after excuse to stay here, because he was the one who didn't want to leave.
Apparently just like the Oscars, big fashion shows had gala celebrations. But in Rodney's world, the food was just like the stuff John's mom had made for Tupperware parties when he was in middle school. When Rodney had sufficiently filled up on cocktail wieners wrapped in Pillsbury dough and deviled eggs and puff pastries filled with cheddar and mayonnaise, John dragged him away from his adoring fans and bustled him into a taxi.
“I didn't even get to the bacon-wrapped scallops!” Rodney complained. John shut him up with a kiss that quickly got downright dirty, and after they broke for air Rodney added, “Well, I can always have some next time.”
“Want to fuck me?” John murmured.
Rodney pulled back to stare at him, and John tried not to let the sudden surge of panic show on his face. “Is that a trick question?” Rodney demanded.
“Yeah, Rodney, I was only kidding, sorry.”
Rodney's face fell. “Really?”
John leaned into Rodney's space until he was pressed up against the door of the taxi. “Rodney.”
“Oh, God, yes, yes, yes, please,” Rodney babbled, hauling John down and kissing him so hard John wondered if he'd ever get to breathe again.
For all of Rodney's eagerness, he was hesitant when they got back to the hotel. He disappeared into the bathroom, and a short time later John could hear the shower start up. Meanwhile, John stripped and put on one of the fancy black satin robes provided by the hotel. He thought about how it would really be great if the hotel provided lube, and lo and behold, there it was in the nightstand drawer. He hadn't bothered to ask for condoms; somehow, he figured this was pretty much the definition of safe sex.
That assumption went the way of the dodo when Rodney emerged from the bathroom, pink-skinned from his shower, his hair sticking up in sixteen different directions. No way was this safe, John realized, heart suddenly pounding; hell, he'd flown combat missions that were less risky than this.
Trying to disguise his nervousness, John stretched out where he lay on the bed and casually unknotted the tie of the robe. “Maybe I should take a shower, too,” he drawled. “I got sweaty doing all that strutting.”
Rodney walked over to the bed, but made no move to get on it. John arched his eyebrows at him in a question, and when he received no response, his conscience got the better of him. “Rodney, look, if you don't want – ”
“I've never done this before,” Rodney blurted.
John pushed himself up on his elbows. “Well. That makes us even.”
“Oh, God,” Rodney breathed, sinking onto the mattress on his knees. “You mean neither of us knows what he's doing?”
“We can take it slow,” John said, trying to be reassuring, and wait a minute, shouldn't that be Rodney's line?
“Shouldn't that be my line?” Rodney asked, and John couldn't help but chuckle at that. “What? What's so funny?” Rodney demanded.
“We are,” John grinned, rising up to capture Rodney's mouth, feeling the relief wash through him when Rodney responded. Rodney's hand was already inside his robe, stripping it off his shoulders and peeling it away from his body as they sank back onto the mattress. It didn't seem like Rodney had any qualms about John's lack of a shower, because he buried his face in John's chest and sucked on his nipples until John was making deep, desperate sounds in the back of his throat.
Scraping together just enough presence of mind for a complicated maneuver, he shoved himself up on one elbow, catching Rodney off-guard and toppling him sideways. Rodney landed on the mattress with a squeak of protest and started to lever himself up, but his mouth slammed shut when John swung a leg over him and straddled him.
“Okay,” Rodney panted after a moment, nodding frantically, “that works, that definitely works.”
“I can tell,” John said, wiggling in Rodney's lap. Rodney collapsed back onto the bed with a groan.
John indulged himself by undulating a little more, and then he leaned forward and reached for the lube. He was a little daunted when he realized he wasn't sure what came next. An old girlfriend in college had tried sticking her finger up there once, but it hadn't done much of anything for him, and he'd stopped her before she could attempt anything too adventurous.
John felt Rodney's cock pressing insistently against his inner leg. Things were about to get a lot more adventurous – if John could ever actually make himself move.
“Do you want me to – should I – ” Rodney offered, and John practically sighed in relief, because great, at least someone was making a decision. He nodded and passed the tube to Rodney, who squeezed a little onto a finger, then smeared it around. John shuddered, not entirely with pleasure, when it hit him that Rodney was going to stick that in him.
Rodney frowned at him for a moment, obviously considering the physics and the angles and such; John could almost hear the gears grinding. “Scootch up a bit,” Rodney ordered finally, beckoning to him with the clean hand.
John stared at him. “'Scootch'?” Way to kill the romance, Rodney.
“Come on, come on,” Rodney urged, wiggling his fingers again. John sighed, but did as he asked, wriggling halfway up Rodney's torso.
“Okay, so, I'm going to – ” Rodney murmured, sliding his arm carefully between their bodies and angling this way and that until he found the approach he was looking for. John felt Rodney's finger brush against his right cheek, smearing lube everywhere it wasn't supposed to go. “Shit, shit,” Rodney breathed, “sorry, I have to,” and reached for the lube again.
“Hang on a minute,” John said, levering himself up and off Rodney, who looked stricken. “It's okay, I'm just trying to think of a better – hmmm.” John eyed the headboard. “Sit up and move down the bed, will you?”
“What are you – ”
“Rodney, do you want to fuck me or not?”
“Moving down,” Rodney announced, sliding down the bed on his ass. John smirked, then traded places with him, kneeling facing the headboard.
“Oh,” Rodney whispered.
John rested his elbows on the top of the headboard, then lifted up onto his knees, spreading them wide as he did. Rodney didn't need an engraved invitation; he was plastered against John's back in a heartbeat, kissing, nibbling and sucking on the back of John's neck with all the greed of a vampire.
This time, John didn't even feel the finger until it was brushing his entrance. The sensations were nothing like the other night with the shokra, but they weren't exactly bad, either. All he had to do was stay loose, stay relaxed, and he'd be fine.
Loose went out the window when the tip of Rodney's finger breached him. Rodney let out a breath he'd probably been holding for a while, and John closed his eyes, willing himself to open up. It was stupid that he even had to tell himself to do it – really, his body's parameters should have been as easy to reshape as the rest of their environment. There was no reason for him to experience anything but pleasure at what Rodney was doing, but then, it wasn't really his physical constraints that were the problem here. He'd never been all that good at letting someone else inside, literally or metaphorically. And there was part of him that said if he had this, he was going to have it all – the struggle and the pain, the rough, warm weight of Rodney as he pushed his way past John's barriers.
Something told him this was going to be the only chance he was going to get.
“Is this okay?” Rodney asked, finger frozen exactly where it had been a minute ago. “Do you want me to stop?”
“Rodney, you haven't even done anything yet.”
“I – ”
“Deeper,” John ordered, gritting his teeth. “Push it in deeper.”
John felt Rodney's forehead press against his shoulder, then the gusting exhale of a breath, and then he did as John asked. John forced himself to push back into it, so that Rodney's finger slid all the way in in one smooth motion.
“Oh, I – ”
John ignored whatever Rodney said next, because he was too busy trying not to freak out. It's not real, he kept telling himself, but he knew that was bullshit. Somewhere inside Rodney's head, he was imagining his finger buried in John's ass; that was real enough. Inside his own head, Rodney's finger felt like it was two feet wide; this was not fun. He looked down at his dick and confirmed that it, too, was not enjoying itself.
“This isn't doing anything for you, is it?” Rodney whispered. “I'm terrible at this, I know – ”
“Rodney,” John growled, “just – relax.”
“Shouldn't that be my line?” Rodney asked, beginning to withdraw his finger.
“No!” John exclaimed, reaching back to grab at Rodney's wrist. Rodney began to protest, but John held him motionless while he pushed himself back down onto Rodney's hand, then up again until only the tip of his finger was inside. He was going to make this work, dammit, if he had to do this all night –
Then on the third trip down, John canted his hips slightly and okay, holy mother of – “God,” John breathed, head snapping back as sparks flew behind his eyelids.
“Did I get it? Did I find it?”
“Rodney – there's no – talking,” John gasped, aiming for that spot again and again and again until his cock was definitely back to enjoying itself. “Okay, okay,” he said after a time, “ready for another one.”
“Another what?” Rodney demanded.
“Yes, yes, right, of course,” Rodney babbled.
“You know something?” John said, chuckling in spite of himself. “Sex makes you stupid.”
“Thank you,” Rodney snapped.
John laid his head back on Rodney's broad shoulder. “Nah, don't worry, it's a guy – ohhhhh, Christ,” he groaned, because Rodney had just shoved two fingers into him and it was – fucking – fantastic.
Rodney nuzzled and bit John's earlobe as he started up a rhythm that had John panting and shivering in under a minute. He'd never been this turned on, and when Rodney replaced his fingers with his cock, pushing in slowly, his arm a solid bar across John's chest, John thought he might like to stay here forever, surrounded and surrounding, no end in sight.
Jesus, they had to get out of here. But not yet, he thought, as Rodney moved in him, breathing his desire against John's skin, not just yet.
This time, the nightmare was John's.
They'd known that section of the city wasn't completely safe, but Rodney had argued that if they waited for the structural engineers to give them the green light, they'd be old men. John had to agree with him, because they'd been in places with a lot more water damage, and nothing had happened to them; the engineers, all of them city-bound, did tend to be overcautious. Or maybe he'd just been as eager to check out a secret Ancient weapons lab as Rodney was.
Still, he was on the alert for any sign of danger as Rodney powered up the independent server that housed – they hoped – some real hope of fighting the Wraith or the Replicators effectively. The Ancient who had owned the lab was, according to the main database, completely bonkers, but the crazy people tended to come up with some pretty revolutionary ideas when the time was right. If ever there was a time for a mad scientist, this was it.
The scene played in his head, unstoppable. “Oh my God, this is incredible,” Rodney breathed.
John temporarily abandoned his study of the ceiling over Rodney's head, focusing on Rodney instead. “Good stuff?”
“Good, yes, I think possibly great. She was a genius – quite likely an evil genius, but still – I can already see two designs that could prove promising.”
“Guns? Bio-weapons? What?”
Rodney made an impatient motion with his hand. “Both. Neither. It's complicated.” He looked up at John, an awed smile on his face, and for a moment, John was right back in those first days on Atlantis, when Rodney had been practically bouncing on his toes and ordering John, Daffy Duck-like, to “Shoot me, Major! Shoot me now!” with his arms waving and a huge grin on his face.
John had been too wrapped up in his own head to register the exact moment when Rodney's smile turned to horror, but it was a split second too late, because Rodney was already moving toward him. He heard the sharp metallic snap from overhead that told him something very bad had just happened, but he didn't have time to look up; Rodney was practically flying across the distance between them, shoving John to the floor just as end of the girder let go and swung down like a door on a hinge. John watched, helplessly sprawled on the floor, as it caught Rodney across the back and felled him like a tree.
“John! John, wake up!”
John thrashed his way to consciousness like a drowning man fighting to reach the surface; when his eyes finally opened, he saw Rodney staring down at him, expression stricken.
“Oh, God,” Rodney said, stroking his face, “I didn't want that to happen here. Not to you.”
John frowned at the cryptic comment. “What do you mean?”
Rodney looked away. “I – um. You – ah, that is, you – you remind me – yes, that's it, you remind me of someone.”
John rolled his eyes; Jesus, Rodney was the worst liar ever. Still, this was the first time Rodney had acknowledged he looked familiar, so John propped himself up on one elbow and said, “Yeah? A friend?”
Rodney shifted nervously. “Yes.”
“What happened to him?” John prodded.
“He, um – ” Rodney sat up and twisted his hands together. “He died.”
John's heart stopped beating for a second. “How did he – ”
“Look, do we really have to go over that?” Rodney snapped. “It's not important. He's gone and you're – we're here, and we can stay here as long as we want.”
John slowly eased himself to a sitting position beside Rodney, not wanting to spook him; in the meantime, his brain was running at supersonic speeds, trying to fit together the several important puzzle pieces Rodney had just dropped in his lap. Piece number one: Rodney thought his own nightmares were somehow transferring themselves to John's head, which made no sense. Piece number two: Rodney remembered him, maybe had remembered him for a while now. Fact number three: Rodney thought John was dead, but hey, there was a new John to take his place, one who didn't live in the Pegasus Galaxy and risk his life twice a day, whose most challenging mission was to strut around a stage and look good in tailor-made outfits.
Suddenly, everything slotted into place, and the big picture nailed John right between the eyes. This had never been about Rodney being afraid to return to his old life. This had been about Rodney not wanting to contemplate an Atlantis without John, because he thought he'd been too late to save him.
Which meant that not only did Rodney know he was living inside a dream world of his own making, he thought the John lying in his bed was a figment of his imagination. Jesus.
“Rodney,” John said slowly, and God, where to start? “I'm real. I'm here. I'm not dead.” He reached out and clasped one of Rodney's hands in his, as if to prove it.
Rodney stared at him. “Yes, of course you are,” he said, blinking, and John knew he didn't believe one word of it.
“Look, okay – ” John took a deep breath, let it out “ – yes, there was an accident. We were in an Ancient weapons lab, and a piece of the ceiling came down. But you saved me – there wasn't a scratch on me.”
Rodney buried his face in his hands. “Please stop. Stop telling me what I want to hear.”
“You weren't so lucky,” John rasped, voice suddenly gone hoarse. “You had – a lot of broken ribs, and a concussion that had us worrying about brain damage. After he'd done all he could, Carson put you in the stasis pod to heal. It took a couple of weeks, but now you're all fixed up. You're all fixed up, and you can come out of the pod anytime you want.”
“Who are you, really?” Rodney hissed, suddenly glaring up at him with reddened eyes. “Doctor Heightmeyer?”
John had to smile at that. “You honestly think Heightmeyer would let you get into her pants?”
“Oh, God, I don't know what to believe anymore,” Rodney breathed.
John reached out and tentatively stroked Rodney's hair. “Believe in this. Believe in me. It's time to come out, Rodney. Time to come home.”
Rodney drew a couple of long, shuddering breaths. “Okay. All right,” he said. Looking at John, he smiled faintly and said, “You go first. I'll be along.”
John shook his head. “You still suck at lying, Rodney. You go first.”
Rodney scowled at him. “Fine,” he said, crossing his arms, I-Dream-of-Jeannie style and disappearing.
John rose to his feet, then walked over to the window. After one last look at the Arc de Triomphe backlit by a Technicolor Paris dawn, he closed his eyes and took the express flight home.
There was a lot of noise as the lid slid back from his pod, and once John figured out that it was happy noise, he took a few seconds to breathe through the relief so that he wouldn't be a total basket case when they finally realized he was awake too. When he had put himself together enough to sit up, one of the nurses scurried over and unhooked him, murmuring apologies to him as she did so. John waved away her concern and stood on wobbly legs just as Carson turned away from Rodney's pod with a huge grin on his face.
“You did it, Colonel!” Beckett was halfway to grabbing him by the shoulders when looked up into John's face. John wasn't exactly sure what he saw there, but he imagined it must be the expression you'd wear if your best friend had just died.
God, he couldn't let Rodney see that on him; it wasn't his fault John couldn't have this anymore. He did his best to wipe it off his face, and hoped he'd succeeded when Carson's frown cleared.
“Yeah,” John said, “is he okay?”
“He's weak, but he'll be right as rain in – ” Carson cut himself off as they both heard Rodney yelling at Biro to let him out of the damned pod, already.
“Sounds like his lungs are working fine, at least,” John drawled, and Carson laughed and excused himself. From between the various bodies arrayed around Rodney's pod, John could see that the pod lid had been removed and Ronon was helping Rodney to a sitting position.
“Where's Jo – Sheppard? Where is he?” Rodney's voice was getting higher with every word, and John put on his best mask and stepped forward.
“Hey, quit yelling,” John said, squeezing in beside Ronon and Teyla. “I was trying to get a nap over there.”
Rodney stared up at him, his face still pale but looking a hell of a lot better than it had the last time John had laid eyes on it. “God,” he breathed, “oh, thank God.”
“Told you you could believe in me,” John said, and then he looked down and realized his hand had closed over top of Rodney's and was squeezing it tightly, and shit, there were over half a dozen people watching him hold Rodney's hand.
“I – yes,” Rodney said, as John let go as nonchalantly as possible, “I never doubted you.”
“All right,” Carson said, “much as I hate to be a party pooper, we need to get you back to the medlab, my lad. And Colonel,” he added, as John tried to make an escape. “I'd like to examine you as well, if you please.”
“I'll be there,” John said, as they loaded Rodney onto a gurney and wheeled him out, Ronon and Teyla trailing behind. When the last of the medical team had left, John turned back to Doctor Biro. “Just out of curiosity, Doc, how long was I in there that second time?”
“A little over eighteen hours,” Biro said. “Why?”
John shrugged. “Just curious,” he answered. Less than a goddamned day, he thought; that was all it had taken to – “Thanks, Doc.”
“Thank you,” Biro said, placing a brief hand on his arm. “We were all so worried about Rodney.”
“Yeah,” John said ruefully. “You and me both.”
Carson poked and prodded at John for a while, but soon released him; after a quick check-in on Rodney, who was suffering through some poking and prodding himself, he shuffled back to his quarters and slept like the dead.
When he awoke, the sun was setting and he was sluggish and disoriented. It took him a while to figure out where he was, but it came back to him when he nearly rolled right off the edge of his cot. Man, it was going to take a while to get used to narrow beds again.
Not to mention sleeping alone, John thought, then banished the thought ruthlessly. No point in getting all maudlin over something he'd been doing for years.
He was just trying to decide if he was hungry when he heard his doorchime sound. Swinging his legs over the bed, he scrubbed his hair into something resembling its normal state and thought the door open.
Rodney was on the other side, and John wasn't sufficiently prepared for the surprise of seeing him. He knew his expression had given him away again when Rodney stepped through the door and started talking before it had shut behind him. “I'm sorry, I'm really, really sorry,” he said, wringing his hands.
John rose to his feet. Might as well be standing for the fun part. “What for, Rodney?” he asked, wearily.
“For – what you had to go through to get me out of there.” Rodney darted a glance up at him, then looked away again.
John lifted a shoulder. “It wasn't so bad. I got to strut my stuff on the catwalk. Not too many Air Force staff officers can put that on their resumé.”
Rodney winced. “Well, yes. But that actually wasn't what I was talking about.”
John resisted the temptation to put his hands on Rodney's shoulders. “Way I remember it, I kissed you first.”
“Because you knew I wanted you to!” Rodney blurted.
“Yeah,” John admitted. “But it's not like...” Suddenly he felt like the worst kind of heel, and something of a coward, and he heard himself say, “Rodney, while I was there, I wanted it too.”
“While you were there,” Rodney parroted, quietly, his gaze on the floor. “Not now?”
“Geez,” John said, rubbing at the back of his neck, “what is this, an interrogation? That was – it was like a dream, some kind of Fred Astaire movie. You and me, we're more like –”
“Dark Star?” Rodney asked, one corner of his mouth lifting wryly.
“Not quite that fucked up,” John said, pointing at him. “Without the beach ball, maybe.”
“We're both pretty smart, or so I've heard,” Rodney said softly. He looked up at John, and John froze, caught in the intensity of his gaze. “We could write our own script.”
Rodney took a step closer, his eyes never leaving John. “What do you think?” he asked, and although he seemed confident, there was a flicker of fear in his eyes. John could take a lot, but he couldn't stand to be responsible for that look any more, so he put his hands on Rodney's shoulders and tugged him closer until he could draw him into his arms, until he could find out that kissing Rodney in reality was even better than the fantasy.
“Wait a minute,” John said, as they pulled apart, “which one of us gets to be Audrey Hepburn?”
Rodney cocked his head. “I was thinking that I could be Charlton Heston.”
“Which would make me...”
“The ape, yes,” Rodney said, smirking.
John smirked back and shoved Rodney backwards until his knees caught on the side of the mattress and he flopped onto John's bed. “Careful, Rodney, or I won't show you my banana.”
“Oh my God,” Rodney sighed, dragging John down on top of him, “we're perfect for each other.”
“And they both lived happily ever after,” John agreed, brushing his own smile against Rodney's grinning mouth.