All his life, he had listened to the city.
As a small boy, he had been warned and chastised and then punished for straying near its boundaries; that place no longer concerns us, he was told, and it should not concern you. But nothing would deter him, and eventually it became something he was known for, an eccentricity among a collection he gathered around him over the years like the herds of flagisalli that were his charges once he grew to adulthood. His chosen role as pastoris allowed him the opportunity to shun others of his kind, and for others to shun him.
He told himself he liked it better that way. None of his large friends pressured him to meditate, or reflect on the path to Ascension; he could do as he pleased, and fly with them under the water, so quickly that he could barely breathe. It was as close to another plane of existence as he was likely to get, but it was enough for him.
Still, there were days when he swam alone to the edges of the sleeping city and listened. There had always been a faint pulse of life deep inside, a heart that beat so slowly he could not hear it, only sense its movement; but there was also another rhythm, one that seemed to come from the very metal and stone and glass of the city itself. It was beautiful, more beautiful than the music that came from the throats of his friends, and there were times when he lost hours listening to it, days, his fingers spread toward the shell around the city, yearning to touch its surfaces, feel its life.
But the music was fading, and soon, if nothing was done, it would die out altogether. Only someone with a true heart, courageous and strong, could bring the city back from the brink of death.
He had never been a praying man, but sometimes, at night, as he lay dreaming among the pods, he wished for such a hero.
And one day, he arrived.
“Oh, God, we're all going to die!”
Sumner's NCO – Rodney thought his name was Gates – clapped him on the shoulder with such force that he stumbled. “None of that, Doc,” he said, good-naturedly, but there was an edge beneath it. “You're gonna come up with a solution for this, I know it.”
“How do you know that? You can't know that!” Rodney exclaimed, eyes wide.
Gates – or maybe it was Bates – leaned in and said, in a low, quiet voice, “Okay, I don't know you're gonna do that. But I know you've got to, because if you don't all these people – including you, by the way – are gonna lose our one way back to Earth.” He flashed his teeth at Rodney. “Now how's about you start becoming part of the solution instead of part of the problem, huh?”
“Yes, well, all right,” Rodney said weakly, because that grin was more than a little disconcerting, “I suppose I see your point.”
“Good man,” Bates said, whacking him on the back for good measure as he strode off.
Rodney took a deep breath, let it out, then repeated the exercise a few more times until his palms stopped sweating. Then he turned on his heel, away from the window with the two hundred feet of ocean pressing down on it, and stalked off to find some way to prevent the loss of the city of the Ancients a scant hour after they'd walked into it.
Of course, as much as Rodney would have liked to have claimed the credit – and all right, might have succeeded if Zlink – Zenel – that Czech guy hadn't made him feel guilty about it – he had actually had nothing to do with the fact that the city decided to pop to the surface like the biggest cork in the history of the universe, right before the force field could collapse completely and kill them all. Even two weeks later, it was still a mystery how the city had known to power up those systems at the crucial moment. Rodney supposed they would find the answer in time, but for now there were much more pressing questions, such as what the hell they were going to study next.
The galaxy seemed peaceable enough. In the desperate hours before the city had risen, Rodney had picked a gate address at random and found a race of people known as the Hoffans who had advanced to about a 1920's level of technology. It was surprising, in a totally uninteresting way as far as Rodney was concerned, that ten thousand years hadn't resulted in any more progress than that, but right then they'd been more worried about finding a refuge from drowning than pondering the societal development among the peoples of Pegasus. The Hoffans had been welcoming, and that had been more than enough.
Rodney's focus since the city had risen had been divided between trying not to get killed by the various perils to be found in a ten-thousand-year-old alien city, and fixing the plumbing. Really, he couldn't believe it was only now starting to dawn on them that it might have been an idea to bring along some people who were handy with a wrench and a pair of pliers, and who, say, didn't have a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and thus have better things to do than fix the showers. Eventually, when he received his twenty-seventh e-mail regarding a clogged Ancient toilet (which he saved in a special folder named 'hell is other people'), he threw a small but highly effective hissy fit, and as a result Weir and Sumner agreed to dig up some military-type personnel who knew their way around a U-bend. Rodney then went back to his lab, forwarded the e-mail to Weir, closed his laptop, and took the rest of the afternoon off.
He had planned to spend as much time as possible asleep, but he also wanted an opportunity to see more of the city he'd been fixing nonstop since the moment they arrived, so he took a walk out to the east pier, part of the first major city sector cleared by the teams. Zlinka had declared it structurally sound, and while he was no doubt very good at what he did, he wasn't Rodney. It wouldn't hurt for him to double-check, even in an informal way.
The heavy doors leading outside parted with a deep, metallic grinding sound – probably the result of a misalignment. Rodney put it on his mental to-fix list and stepped through. And then he stopped dead.
“Oh, wow,” he murmured.
The pier stretched out before him, a wide avenue big enough for the Prometheus to use as a landing pad, and beyond that stretched the sea. The smell of salt was familiar and welcome. He'd never lived near the ocean, but he still had fond memories of the summers his family had spent on vacation in the Queen Charlottes, mainly because he could sit by the water at night and listen to the steady rhythm of the waves, a sound much more pleasant than the screech of his parents' voices raised in their latest argument. He could also lie back and see the bright broad swath of the Milky Way, something he could never do in Toronto. Here, he realized, the light scatter from the city would also be minimal; perhaps later tonight he could come back and lie beneath a completely new crop of stars.
As he walked closer to the edge of the pier, he saw that there was a broad stairway leading down to the water. It looked intact, and he seemed to remember the report saying it was safe. Rodney had a sudden, inexplicable desire to touch the ocean, as though doing so would finally make this fantastic journey real. Before he could think better of it, he was walking down the steps toward the water.
On the second-to-last step, close enough to the waves to feel the spray, his foot suddenly slipped right out from under him. His arms flailed uselessly as he toppled backwards and struck his head against one of the steps. He had just enough time to think oh, that's just perfect before he slid beneath the waves and everything went black.
Things got a little hazy after that. He awoke spluttering and choking, with a headache the size of Jupiter making itself known inside his no doubt fractured skull. Gasping for breath, he took stock of his situation: he was lying on his back on one of the broad steps closest to the water, but had no recollection of how he'd gotten there. He was fairly certain, however, that there was no way in hell he'd hauled his unconscious body out of the water and up the steps. Through the pain, it occurred to him that he must have been rescued; perhaps he’d managed to radio for help, though he couldn’t remember doing it –
But it had taken over half an hour for him to walk from the tower to the pier. Even with a medical team racing toward him at top speed, he would have drowned long before help could have arrived. So who had saved him?
Still lying on his back, Rodney tried to lift his head. When the pain smacked him squarely between the eyes, he remembered, right, probable concussion, you twit, and lowered it back down to the step, groaning. Okay, fine, no lifting, but he could probably turn it, so after a few moments of breathing shallowly through his nose to calm the pounding, he did just that.
And promptly saw a wet, half-naked man staring at him.
He was submerged in the water to mid-torso, elbows and forearms resting on the step just below Rodney, and he was watching Rodney with open curiosity, head cocked slightly. When he saw Rodney turn toward him, he treated him to a small, pleased smile. He was – well, rather spectacular, actually. He had a narrow face framing startlingly complex hazel eyes, a strong nose, and a mouth most supermodels would die for, all of it topped by a shock of black hair. His chest was lean but not overly muscled, tanned like the rest of him and dusted with hair as dark as that on his head.
And then it occurred to him: this man was a stranger. Granted, Rodney wasn't exactly the most observant person when it came to other human beings, but he had a fairly good handle on the faces of the other expedition members by now; there just weren't that many of them. And Rodney was certain he had never seen this man before. He would have remembered, if only because the guy was the type of person you found yourself gawking at like a moron until they yelled at you to quit staring at them.
The man didn't seem to be bothered by the attention, however, because he reached out and cupped Rodney's cheek with a surprising gentleness. Rodney sucked in a breath at the unexpected contact; the stranger's hand was extremely warm, though Rodney guessed it was a question of relative temperature, since he himself was chilled and shivering from the water.
Rodney licked dry lips, trying to ignore the pain in his head long enough to form words. “Who – who are you?” he managed. The stranger didn't answer him, just cocked his head again like a dog listening to human speech. Then, his fingers sliding over Rodney's cold skin, he leaned forward and touched their lips together, the pressure so light that Rodney couldn't quite believe it was happening. Too soon, the stranger drew away, and Rodney felt the cold steal over his lips again.
“I wish you'd tell me your name,” Rodney murmured. The stranger smiled, and this time Rodney imagined it seemed a little sad. Then his brow knitted and his gaze turned inward in a look of intense concentration, and Rodney gasped at the sudden, piercing trill of sound that drove through his brain like a spike and momentarily whited out his vision. When he could see again, the stranger was gone.
Rodney could feel himself losing consciousness once more, and he knew that it was probably very dangerous to give in to it, but there wasn't a damned thing he could do to stop it. He closed his eyes and let himself float away on the memory of a phantom kiss.
When Rodney opened his eyes again, he found himself staring at a ceiling instead of the open sky. “Oh, thank God,” he breathed. He turned his head experimentally; the pain was still there, but it was far in the background, doubtless beaten into submission by large doses of powerful drugs. He had no problem with that at all.
“It's good to see you back,” Carson said, approaching his bedside with a smile. “How are you feeling?”
“Like my head's been used as a football,” Rodney murmured, “but all in all, a thousand times better than the last time I was conscious.”
After Beckett and the nurses had poked and prodded at him sufficiently, flashing lights in his eyes and practising other feats of medical quackery, Carson pulled up a chair and sat beside Rodney's bed. “What happened, Rodney? Do you remember?”
Rodney opened his mouth, closed it again. “I went for a walk on the pier, and my foot slipped on the damn stairs. I went down and hit the back of my head –” He reached up and found all his hair where it should be, and no bandages. Well, that was something, at least.
“Well, that explains the concussion,” Carson said thoughtfully. “Not serious, luckily; you've a tough skull. Still, I'd like to keep you under observation a couple more days, just to be sure no swelling develops.”
“How did you know I was in trouble?” Rodney asked, hitching himself up experimentally on the pillows.
“About five hours ago, an alarm we'd never heard before started blaring all through the control tower. Gave us quite a scare, I can tell you. At first no one knew what the bloody hell it was, and then Dr. Zelenka managed to call up the appropriate screen on the Ancient console. A spot on a map of the city, your exact location, was flashing red. It led us right to you.”
Rodney frowned. “But the subcutaneous transponders weren't designed to interface with the Ancient systems.”
“It had nothing to do with your transponder. It – well, I know it sounds mad, but it was as though the city understood you were in trouble and let us know.”
Rodney remembered the look of concentration on the stranger's face and the head-splitting sound. Could his rescuer have been the one to raise the alarm? But how had he managed it? Some sort of telepathic connection with the Ancient tech, maybe?
Rodney closed his eyes briefly. And maybe his concussion-addled brain had dreamed up the whole thing.
“Rodney?” Carson sounded concerned.
“Nothing,” Rodney said, eyes still closed. “It hurts to think.”
“Of course. Get some more rest,” he said kindly, patting Rodney's arm. After he left, Rodney opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling again, his mind too broken to think clearly, until frustration finally yielded to exhaustion.
“I'm very displeased with you, my son.”
A sigh. “Father, you'll excuse me if that doesn't exactly surprise me, considering you've been telling me of your displeasure for over thirty cycles now.”
“You've been warned time and again not to venture to the city of the surface-dwellers –”
“You do realize,” he gritted, cutting his father off, “that if I hadn't gone this time, a man would have died.”
“A man not of your own kind!” his father practically spat. “We left them behind when we chose our own path here. Their lives and their deaths no longer matter to us.”
They matter to me, he yearned to say, but didn't; it would be useless. His father would only laugh if he tried to tell him of the fear he'd felt when the man had slipped, unconscious, beneath the waves, the relief that had washed over him when he'd seen those astonishing blue eyes open, the simple joy of touching that unfamiliar face. How he'd roar with laughter to hear his son say, Please. Don't you see? I've been waiting my whole life for this.
Instead, he folded his arms and said stubbornly, “There have been no surface dwellers in the city for thousands of cycles. They can't be the same people we once knew.” He took a deep breath. “What harm could it do to meet with them, find out –”
“Find out what?” his father demanded. “That they want to start another war with the wraith, or perhaps never finished the last one? That they wish to revive their tiny, diabolical machines and rain destruction on our heads again? No! There is nothing they can offer us, and now that the city is inhabited and has once more risen to the surface, it's even more imperative that we shun it.”
“I won't be dictated to like a child any more,” he said, slowly. “This is – important to me. I don't expect you to understand.”
“Now it's you who fail to surprise me,” his father said coldly. “You've chosen to do as you please for some time now, no matter how much pain it causes your family –”
“Let's not pretend that I care any more for your pain than you do for mine,” he snapped, making his father's eyes go wide with shock and anger. “Besides, you have another son, one who's perfectly willing to be bent to your will.”
“You take a very cavalier attitude toward your duties,” his father accused. “I had hoped that by now you'd have had enough of this ridiculous desire to – to herd animals –”
A mirthless smile, a shrug. “I can't help it if the flagisalli have more interesting things to say than the Praetor's council.”
His father turned an interesting shade of purple at that. “Fine. End your days as a menial, if that's all you care to do with your life. However, the other transgression is no longer to be borne. I'll ask you one final time: will you promise never to go to the city again?”
An image of the man from the other day flashed before his eyes; he could see the seawater beading on his eyelashes, the brilliant, startled blue of his eyes. He thought, briefly, about trying to explain to his father the mysterious pull the city of the surface had exerted on him since childhood, the unshakeable feeling that his destiny, for want of a better word, lay in the air and not in the water, but it would be pointless. He stared his father down. “No, I don't believe that I will.” Or can.
His father looked almost triumphant at that, and for a moment, he knew real fear. “Then you leave me with no choice, my son.”
In all, Carson kept Rodney in the medical bay for two days, during which time he gained three and a half pounds and lost what was left of his mind. Zelenka – yes, all right, he could learn names – eventually – wasn't a bad sort, really, but by now he was probably plotting a takeover of the science department along with Gaul and Abrams as Rodney lay there, eating blue Jell-O (God, they'd run out in three months, and then where would he be?) and getting fat. It was maddening.
When he was finally released, he made a beeline for the lab, only to find everyone gone. He tapped his comm and barked, “Zelenka? Where the hell are you?”
There was a crackling sound, then Zelenka's clipped vowels came through on the headset. “In northern section of city,” he said, a little shortly. “Working.”
“Oh, fine,” Rodney snarled, though inside, he felt dejected. He'd been looking forward to that expedition. “Find anything interesting?”
“No,” Zelenka sighed. “It has been very boring.”
“Well, that's – too bad,” Rodney said, beaming.
“Try not to be so happy that I am miserable,” Zelenka warned.
“I wasn't!” Rodney exclaimed, straightening as though Zelenka could see his posture was less than perfect. “I mean, I'm not.”
“How are you feeling, Rodney?” Zelenka asked.
Rodney was thrown by the question. “I – I'm fine,” he managed. “Why do you ask?”
There was a pause. “Oh, I don't know,” Zelenka said, sarcasm masking another emotion Rodney wasn't equipped to name. “Perhaps because we were actually worried about you?”
“You were?” Rodney asked, his voice squeaking oddly. “I just – well. I wasn't that badly hurt.”
“Yes, this we did not know when you were wheeled past us all, unconscious,” Zelenka snapped.
“Oh,” Rodney said, oddly pleased. “Well. Um. Thank you.”
“You're welcome,” Zelenka said, more gently this time. “At least there is one good thing to come of this. We knew the dangers when we signed onto this expedition, but we have been lucky so far, too lucky, and we forgot for a time that we are very far from home. You have reminded us that we must be careful, and for that, we should be grateful.”
Rodney had no idea what to say to that. “Well. I should let you get back to work,” he managed lamely.
“Yes, I suppose so,” Zelenka sighed. “If I am to die of boredom, I may as well get it over with.”
“Do you want me to come out there?”
“No. Save yourself. I have prepared notes from Elizabeth's and my study of the database. They are saved to the network drive – several possible ZPM sites offworld for your review. Sumner has asked that we give him a 'top ten list.'”
“Good,” Rodney said, already powering up his laptop. “I'll get on that right away.”
“Do not overextend yourself first day,” Zelenka warned.
“Yes, mother,” Rodney muttered. “I was concussed, not brain damaged.”
Rodney heard Zelenka mutter something in Czech, and then the line went dead. As Rodney logged in and opened the file, he started humming to himself, already distracted by the work that lay before him.
Radek and his team paused on their way back from the northern section to admire the view of the sunset over the ocean. It was truly a spectacular city, and they were living an adventure beyond anything he could have dreamed in his wildest childhood fantasies. It was good to remember these things after a day such as this one.
He was just beginning to feel the knot gripping his shoulders begin to loosen when he heard Kusanagi gasp in shock. “What is it?” he asked, turning toward her.
Kusanagi was staring out the window, but instead of contemplating the sunset, her gaze was angled downward, to the broad open thoroughfare below them. “Um,” she said, pointing, “am I crazy, or is that a naked man standing down there?”
Radek followed the line of her pointing finger. “You are not crazy,” he said, slowly.
“Okay,” Simpson said, with an appreciative leer, “I think our day just got a hell of a lot more interesting.”
Four hours of work had exhausted Rodney; he swung by the mess, snagged a sandwich and a couple of cookies, and stuffed them in his face as he staggered to his quarters. He was about to collapse onto his blessed prescription mattress when Elizabeth's voice sounded in his ear, startling him. “Rodney?”
“Yes, what is it?” He realized he sounded a little short, but dammit, he'd been looking forward to sleeping in his own bed.
“Could you take a break from what you're doing for a moment? We have a little bit of a – situation I'd like your input on.”
“Fine, yes,” Rodney sighed. No rest for the indispensable. “Where are you?”
“The brig,” Elizabeth said.
Rodney frowned. “We have a brig?”
Elizabeth sighed. “I'm afraid we do now.”
He did not like the older one; he had pale, cold eyes like a muraena and his words were clipped and harsh, so like the cadences of Father's commands. The younger one was silent. Both seemed uncomfortable with him until they found him coverings like their own, which he found strange.
Every once in a while he stared down at his new lower limbs, not having had much opportunity to study them until now. He decided they seemed terribly ugly and clumsy, and he didn't like the way they only bent in certain places. He wiggled the little pegs on the ends, and the older man barked at him angrily.
It hadn't occurred to him that they'd speak an entirely different language, but of course that was only logical. Every now and then he thought he heard a familiar word, but his ears weren't yet used to being surrounded by air rather than water, so he couldn't be sure. He'd tried to speak to one of the others who'd found him, the ones who dressed like the blue-eyed man, but they'd covered their ears with their hands and winced in pain at the sound of his voice. Obviously, he'd have to study their language, and adjust his volume and pitch level considerably, and he didn't want to risk hurting anyone else for the time being.
The younger man stepped forward and spoke to him in softer, measured tones. Clearly they'd decided to try another strategy, but this one wasn't destined to be any more effective. He tried to convey his intent through expression, eyebrow movements and gesture, but the younger man didn't seem to understand, and after a while he sighed and shook his head.
Suddenly, he heard a furious voice that made the muraena's sound like music in comparison. He stepped aside to get a look at the entrance to the room in which they were keeping him, and saw his blue-eyed friend stride through, accompanied by a dark-haired woman. The face that had been so pale with cold and shock was nearly purple with rage, and that soft, kissable mouth was a tight, hard line. Their gazes locked, and those beautiful eyes widened in surprise and recognition.
And then the man drew a deep breath and began to shout so loudly that he shook the bars around them.
“Release this man immediately!” Rodney demanded, pointing at the stranger with a finger that was admirably steady. He was pretty pleased with himself, really; he'd progressed from oh God he's real oh God to righteous indignation at the highhandedness of the US military in about three seconds.
Sumner didn't seem as impressed. Folding his arms, he drawled, “Oh, yeah? You know this guy, Doc?”
“Yes, I do,” Rodney said, with a little less fervor.
Elizabeth blinked at him. “You do?”
“Yes. He saved my life on the pier the other day. If he hadn't been there, I would have drowned.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “I don't remember you mentioning him in your report on the accident.”
Rodney lifted his chin. “That's because – that's because I though he was a hallucination,” he said, with as much bravado as he could muster.
Sumner was actively scowling now. “Excuse me?”
“I'd suffered a head injury!” Rodney snapped. “He seemed real at the time, but afterward, I convinced myself that he was –” too good to be true, Rodney didn't say “– that I'd imagined him.”
Sumner opened his mouth to speak, but Elizabeth silenced him with a look. “Rodney,” she said slowly, “do you remember anything about this man? Where he comes from, whether he spoke to you at all?”
“He didn't speak,” Rodney said. “And he was there when I first woke up, sitting and watching me. I have no idea where he came from.” Rodney snapped his fingers. “Maybe he came through the gate!”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Dr. Zelenka has scanned the gate logs for any signs of unscheduled activity since we arrived. There's been nothing.”
Rodney deflated. He'd already scanned the DHD logs for activity that might have occurred prior to their arrival; there'd been none since the Ancients left, as they'd expected.
“What about the mainland?” Elizabeth speculated. “The database on the planet says there's a large land mass to the southwest of our position.”
Radek shook his head. “It's over two thousand kilometers from the city.”
“Then where does he come from?” Sumner demanded, exasperated.
There was a beat as everyone exchanged glances, each waiting for the other to answer that question. Rodney looked at the stranger, whose gaze was riveted to him, his expression open and curious. He was wearing a pair of ill-fitting BDU trousers that looked ready to slip down his hips and a black t-shirt that, by contrast, seemed painted on, outlining the lean muscles of his torso. Coloring when he realized he'd been gawking, Rodney raised his eyes to the stranger's now unmistakably amused face; surprisingly, Rodney found himself smiling, too.
“Well,” he said, taking a step forward, closer to the stranger, “there's one thing I do know: he's not staying here.”
Sumner bristled. “Now, wait just a minute. This man is a potential threat –”
“No, you wait,” Rodney snapped, turning to Elizabeth. “Elizabeth, this man is no more a threat to this expedition than I am. He saved my life, and I happen to think that says something about him. I'm sure as hell not going to stand here and let Sumner repay him for that kindness by locking him up.”
Elizabeth didn't answer right away, and Rodney was annoyed to find himself holding his breath. “All right,” she said. “I personally don't think he belongs here either.”
“Doctor Weir,” Sumner began.
“But,” Elizabeth added, with a hard look at Sumner, “I can't simply choose to obey my personal feelings. So he will be placed under guard as long as he stays on Atlantis, or until we can find a way to communicate with him and determine his intentions.”
“You're basically exchanging one prison for another,” Rodney muttered.
“Not exactly,” Weir said, arching an eyebrow. “The guard will accompany him only when he's not in your quarters.”
“Oh, well, that's –” Rodney stopped dead. “My quarters?”
Both eyebrows were raised now. “You're vouching for him. If you don't want him christening our new brig, I think you should shoulder some of the responsibility.”
“Well, I –” Rodney looked at the man, who was still regarding him calmly, as though there was no one else of interest in the room. Rodney wasn't used to being the center of someone else's attention like that, and the thought he might be on the receiving end of it for hours at a time was disconcerting, to say the least. The stranger took a step toward him then, as though sensing his misgivings, and placed a hand on his arm. His gaze was calm, steady, but there was something there behind the eyes, something that was enough like a plea to make Rodney feel like a complete asshole. Whoever this guy was, he'd saved Rodney's life, and Rodney guessed he was a long way from home. He couldn't turn away from him, leave him here in this cold, lonely cell.
“Yes,” Rodney said, swallowing at the warmth of the stranger's touch, “yes, of course. I'll be glad to do that.”
Rodney stood staring at the cot Bates' men had set up in his quarters. It was sitting beside Rodney's bed, bedclothes neatly folded on it. Someone had also scared up a few more pieces of clothing for him: BDUs, a sweater, a pair of pajamas.
The last time he'd had a roommate, he'd been an undergrad at Northwestern. The guy had been a football player, and snored so loudly that Rodney had taken to napping in the afternoons after classes so he wouldn't die of sleep deprivation.
God, this was going to be a disaster.
He turned and saw that the stranger was inspecting the toothbrush he'd been given as part of a hastily assembled necessaries kit. As Rodney watched, he turned it over in his hands, flicked the bristles with his thumbnail, then raised it to his face and began combing his eyebrows with it.
“Oh – uh, no,” Rodney said, stepping forward hastily and intervening, “it's a toothbrush. You put it in your mouth.” He took it from the stranger's unresisting fingers, then bared his teeth and mimicked brushing them. “For cleaning. Uh. Your teeth.”
The stranger inclined his head once, and Rodney wondered if that was his version of a nod. Then, with absolutely no warning at all, he leaned forward and kissed Rodney, softly.
Oh, okay, thought Rodney, because even after discovering the stranger was real, he'd still been sure he'd imagined that part. The stranger's mouth was as warm as the rest of him, and his breath was sweet and strangely floral – no need for a toothbrush there, no sir – and Rodney found himself moving closer, chasing that heat, his hands gliding up that ridiculously tight t-shirt to map the planes of that firm chest. When the stranger's hand settled gently at the back of Rodney's neck, thumb sliding absently against his skin, Rodney made an undignified noise and tilted his head, and then they were off and running.
That is, until Rodney's pulse rate shot up and his head let out a warning throb that had him gasping in pain. The stranger pulled back immediately, concern written all over his face. He touched Rodney's cheek lightly, and Rodney shook his head.
“Sorry, sorry – it's not you, it's my –” he waved a hand at the back of his head “– when I fell the other day, I got a concussion, and dammit, you don't understand a word I'm saying –”
Rodney halted abruptly when the man laid two fingers against his lips. His gaze was fond, which made no sense at all, because they'd barely even met, and Rodney had never been one to inspire fondness.
Rodney took a hasty step backward, stumbling slightly. “Do you want to – um. Watch a movie?” He went to his desk and grabbed his laptop, then sat on the couch. “They're a form of entertainment where I come from. It might be – uh. Educational for you. In the ways of – Earth people.”
The stranger sat down beside him, his leg touching Rodney's. Rodney gulped and turned his attention back to the screen.
“How about –” Rodney squeaked, then cleared his throat. “How about Star Wars?”
Rodney awoke disoriented at first, because when he opened his eyes he was looking at his bed instead of lying in it. Also, the pillow under his head was kind of bony. Blinking, he twisted his neck so that he was looking straight up.
“Hi, Rodney,” the stranger said, smiling down at him.
“Oh, my God,” Rodney said, sitting up. “You can talk.”
The man's eyebrows drew together, and oh, no way should Rodney find that attractive. “I could always talk,” he said, “just not in your language.”
“Right,” Rodney said. “Yes, of course. Sorry. Out of curiosity, though, how did you learn our language so quickly?”
The stranger shrugged. “I watched movies. I stayed up all night.”
Rodney blinked. He couldn't remember anything after Obi-Wan got the chop. “You learned English from watching Star Wars?”
The smile was back. “The whole trilogy. And then I went looking on your computer for other stuff.”
Other stuff. No, he couldn't mean – “Uh. Did you – find anything that was kind of – ah –”
The stranger's grin widened. “Well, I watched one that didn't have much dialogue in it. It was pretty educational, though.”
“Oh, God,” Rodney groaned.
The stranger tilted his head. “Why do your people like to make films showing other people having sex? Are some of you not allowed to have sex of your own?”
Rodney flushed. “Well, a lot of us don't get to have sex with people that attractive. Or flexible. Or – talented.”
The stranger's mouth turned down. “That's very sad. But not as sad as the scene in Empire Strikes Back where Han was frozen. I cried at that part.”
Rodney stared at him. “What's your name?”
The man shook his head. “It's difficult to pronounce without making your ears bleed. The closest Ancient equivalent would be Opilio.”
“Opilio,” Rodney repeated.
Opilio nodded. “But you could call me Opie if you want.”
Rodney blinked. “Uh. No.” At the other man's frown, he added, “Trust me, there are reasons.”
Opilio shrugged again. “It's not a big deal. Can you think of a better name?”
“Well – what do you do back where you come from? For a living, I mean?”
Opilio seemed to think about it. “I was a – herder.”
“An animal herder? A shepherd?”
“Yes,” Opilio said cautiously.
“That works, that totally works. Shepherd, we'll call you Shepherd. Okay, first names, first names.”
“Can I be Han?” Shepherd asked eagerly.
Rodney cringed. “I'm sorry, it's the same as the Opie thing – kind of hard to explain. Just trust me.”
“How about Jar Jar?” Rodney stared at him, horrified, and Shepherd laughed. “That was a joke, Rodney.”
“Oh, yes, very funny,” Rodney muttered.
Shepherd bumped him with his shoulder. “You pick one, then.”
“Well, it's completely boring, but you – look sort of like a John to me.”
“Ajohn? I like that name.”
“No, no, just John. John. John Shepherd.”
“You're cute when you get all flustered,” John said, treating him to a mischievous grin.
“I take that back,” Rodney snapped, ignoring the way his stomach flipped. “You're totally Han.”
By the morning, every single person on Atlantis had heard about their new visitor, and the only thing that had kept half of them from camping outside Rodney's door to catch a glimpse of him was the rather forbidding-looking marine Sumner had assigned to stand watch outside Rodney's quarters. She was an impressive deterrent as they walked through the halls, too, though even she wasn't enough once they reached the mess.
After the fifty-seventh person (Rodney wasn't exaggerating; he'd been counting) showed up to introduce themselves and gawk and make idiotic small talk with the handsome, mysterious alien, Rodney stuffed the last of his pancakes into his mouth, poured his third cup of coffee to go and dragged John along to see Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was pleased to learn their guest could now speak for himself, but Sumner was practically orgasmic over it. Rodney could see the colonel was clearly itching to give John the bare bulb treatment, but Elizabeth, bless her, was just as clearly in charge of the questioning. John handled it all beautifully until Weir started asking specific questions about how he'd ended up on Atlantis.
John looked at his hands. “I was banished,” he said softly. “I'm no longer welcome among my people.” Rodney noticed that this wasn't quite the answer to her question. Elizabeth clearly picked up on it, too: she opened her mouth, but Sumner spoke before she could get a word out.
“So you're a criminal,” he said. He sounded almost triumphant.
Rodney scowled. “That's not what he said.”
“It's implied,” Sumner insisted, turning back to John. “Why were you banished?”
John looked up at him. “My father is an important man on the ruling council. He and I disagreed on – my chosen path in life.”
“Your own father banished you?” Rodney asked, astonished.
John shrugged. “Could have been worse. He could have been Darth Vader.”
Rodney could feel Sumner and Weir do a spit-take. “Um,” Rodney said, “we – watched some movies last night. He – well.”
Elizabeth folded her arms and leaned back against her desk. “Mr. Shepherd...”
“All right,” she said, smiling slightly, “John. Please understand, it's not that we want you to feel unwelcome –”
“It's just that you have to protect your people from harm,” John finished for her. “I know. My people are also afraid of strangers. People unlike themselves.”
Weir straightened. “It's not that we're afraid, exactly...”
John shook his head sadly. “I'm not condemning you, Doctor Weir. I'm only saying that – I understand.” He looked up at her. “I've been up all night and I'm very tired. Would you mind if we continued this conversation later on?”
“Not at all,” Weir said gently. John rose to his feet, but stopped when she laid a hand on his arm. “One more thing, though – if I get to call you John, it's only fair that you should get to call me Elizabeth.”
John watched her carefully for a moment, then returned her smile. “Thank you, Elizabeth.”
“Sleep well,” she said, and John left, his uniformed escort close behind him. Rodney moved to follow them, but halted when Elizabeth called him back.
Suddenly, irrationally furious, Rodney rounded on her. “What? Would you like to interrogate me, too?”
Elizabeth didn't react. “He learned English in one night, Rodney.”
“Star Wars is highly educational,” Rodney shot back, folding his arms.
Another measured look. “I need to know that you'll put the interests of this expedition first. That you won't let your gratitude blind you to –”
“Oh, for –”
“Yes, of course, are we done now?”
Elizabeth inclined her head, and Rodney fled.
Rodney caught up with John about halfway back to his quarters, but then, John wasn't walking very quickly. As though picking up on his mood, Rodney remained silent the rest of the way to their quarters, for which John was grateful.
He hadn't been lying to Elizabeth; he really was exhausted, mentally and physically, by the events of the past few days. His less-than-warm reception on Atlantis was only a small part of the cause. Sumner's words had brought the truth he'd been avoiding back to him: he was a common criminal, or at least had been treated like one. Instead of simple exile as he'd expected, his father had pressed for the use of the Device, transforming him permanently, irrevocably, a fate only visited on their most irredeemable deviants. He could remember, vividly, the sudden, overpowering fear of being surrounded by water, the terrifying sensation of his lower body becoming weak and useless. It had been his brother who had finally taken pity on him and pulled him the final dozen yards to the surface, where he'd emerged, choking and gasping, shaking with horror and rage at everything that had been taken from him in the span of an instant.
When they reached Rodney's quarters, Rodney palmed the door control and ushered him inside, then stopped just inside the door. “You should take the bed,” he said. “I mean, I won't be using it, and it's more comfortable. The mattress is prescription.”
John wasn't familiar with the last word, but he nodded. “Thanks.” He looked up when he felt Rodney's hand brush his arm. Rodney looked unhappy, miserable even, and John's heart twisted in his chest.
“I'm sorry,” Rodney murmured. “I shouldn't have let them – grill you like that.”
“It's okay, Rodney,” John said, trying to smile. “I've had a lot worse, believe me.”
Rodney hesitated, his gaze searching John's face, and then he reached up and cupped his cheek. John was suprised to find himself leaning into it shamelessly. He'd never been one to need gestures of comfort from others, but for some reason it was easy to let Rodney give this to him. Closing his eyes, he felt Rodney's lips press against his, chastely.
“I'll see you later. If you need anything, just tell the marine outside to contact me, okay?”
“Okay,” John whispered. Rodney looked into his eyes one last time before releasing him, and then John was left alone with his thoughts. Luckily, Rodney's mattress really was as comfortable as promised, and he was soon so deeply asleep that not even his memories could trouble him.
Rodney came home from his lab and another incredibly frustrating day of trying to make Ancient tech work for him – his engineered gene was only so effective at opening the Pandora's box that was the city, and Carson was still afraid to use his natural talents – to find John still sleeping soundly. Quietly, Rodney tiptoed over to the cot and sat down so that he could get a better look at him.
John was curled on his side, clad in only a t-shirt and boxers, the sheet and comforter tangled around his feet as though anchoring him in place, and his hands were splayed oddly, fingers spread wide. He didn't snore, merely breathed evenly, silently, his narrow chest rising and falling. Rodney's gaze dipped to see that the t-shirt had ridden up to expose his belly button and a hairy strip of stomach, and then lowered to follow the graceful curves of his ass, thighs and calves.
God, he was beautiful. Utterly, absolutely beautiful, and all right, maybe Rodney had lost his objectivity, but right at that moment he would have bet his life that John had no evil intentions, that he was exactly as he appeared: a lonely man in need of a home. Rodney got that, because until he'd stepped through that wormhole and set foot in this extraordinary place, he'd been that man.
Rodney had no idea how long he sat on the cot, watching John sleep, but eventually, John cracked an eye open and looked right at him. He didn't seem startled to see Rodney there, merely smiled and stretched his arms above his head. Rodney made a point of not glancing down to see if the t-shirt had ridden up.
“How did you sleep?” Rodney asked.
“Great,” John drawled. “Thanks for the loan.” He started to rise.
“No!” Rodney exclaimed, grasping John's shoulder to hold him down. “I mean – keep it as long as you like.”
John glanced at the hand on his shoulder. Rodney told himself to take it away, but it wouldn't budge, and after a moment John arched an eyebrow at him. “Doesn't seem fair,” he murmured.
“Me stealing your mattress.” He pursed his lips as though pondering something. “Maybe we could share.”
Rodney's heart pounded in his chest. “Oh.”
“How's your head?” John whispered, as Rodney drew closer.
“I took some Tylenol 3s,” he murmured, leaning across the space between them. “Painkillers,” he added, at John's confused look. “I'm good, I'm wonderful –”
John hooked an arm around his neck and surged up and Rodney fell forward and they were kissing, messily and hungrily, and it was wet and sloppy and fucking amazing and Rodney kneeled at the side of the bed so that he could get closer, closer to John. John made a noise in the back of his throat, curiously high-pitched, but the vibrations seemed to travel right through Rodney's blood and bones all the way to his cock, and suddenly he needed to be touching John's skin with his own right now.
John helped Rodney out of his shirt, then helped Rodney take off John's t-shirt, and by the time he was fumbling with the buttons on Rodney's pants, they were both breathing hard. Rodney's palms skated up John's smooth sides, his nails scratched across John's chest hair, and John groaned and shoved his own boxers down and grabbed Rodney's hand and pressed it firmly against his hard cock.
Rodney gasped, overwhelmed by John, by this, by all of it. Pressing his cheek against John's thigh, Rodney watched his hand close around the solid length, squeezing the shaft, occasionally brushing the head. John was uncut; Rodney had only ever done this with two other men before, and both of them had been circumcised, and that had been approximately a million years ago, but he wasn't going to let that deter him. Grasping the base firmly, he lifted his head and licked at the head of John's cock.
“Oh,” John breathed, his hand stroking through Rodney's hair. Taking this as a good sign, Rodney slid the flat of his tongue down the underside, then back up again, teasing the slit. John moaned and leaned back, and Rodney began to suck, slowly, taking his time relearning this again.
“You're – Rodney, I –” John stuttered, caressing the side of Rodney's face with shaking fingers. Rodney increased the pace, taking more and more in on every downstroke. Suddenly, John's hips lifted off the bed, and he was coming without warning, releasing his pleasure in bitter spurts across Rodney's tongue.
Rodney pulled off and fumbled for a handful of tissues – he wasn't quite up to swallowing yet – and rested his head against John's thigh, panting. John tugged at his shoulders, and Rodney clambered up onto the bed, settling on his side. He tried to find a position that wouldn't involve his poking John in the stomach with his erection, but it was a narrow bed, and there was only so much room.
John leaned in and kissed him. “You taste like the sea,” he whispered when he pulled back.
“I taste like you,” Rodney said, horrified as soon as the silly words were out of his mouth. John didn't seem to mind, though, merely kissed him even harder, tongue thrusting deep. Rodney whimpered and rubbed his cock against the rough hair on John's belly, shameless and needy.
“We should take care of that,” John murmured, and before Rodney could figure out what was happening, John had rolled over onto his stomach.
“You – you mean –” Rodney's hand stroked the length of John's spine, over the curve of his ass.
John sighed languidly and dropped his head on his folded arms. “Yes. Please.”
It was that breathy 'please' that galvanized Rodney into action; he was off the bed like a shot, digging in the drawer for supplies he'd honestly figured he wouldn't be needing anytime soon. His fingers were clumsy with need; it took him three tries to flip the cap on the lube and four tries to tear the condom packet, but eventually he was kneeling between John's spread legs, painfully hard, watching two of his slick fingers disappear inside John's furnace-hot body.
“Now,” John gasped, rocking up onto his knees, “now, Rodney,” and Rodney couldn't do anything but obey. He kissed John between his shoulder blades, then lined up and guided himself inside.
“Okay?” Rodney asked. “Are you okay?”
John’s back arched, then dipped, and then he pushed back and Rodney watched as John took all of him in one smooth motion.
“I guess you're okay,” Rodney whispered.
“Rodney,” John growled, and then Rodney was moving, drawing out and pushing back in, moving in John like the tide of the endless sea surrounding them.
John woke late that night with a start. Once he’d managed to calm his racing heart, he realized that Rodney lay in his arms, nose pressed against his shoulder, breathing shallow and regular. As he turned his head, Rodney’s hair tickled the underside of his chin, and John found himself reveling in that simple sensation.
Rodney, he thought, smiling to himself. All these years, he’d convinced himself he preferred to be alone because there was no other choice, but now that he was here, he knew he’d been waiting for this, for the chance to touch and be touched, to see Rodney’s face flushed and joyous with desire, to live this quiet, early morning moment. The future might be uncertain and unknowable, but this was worth risking everything. He closed his eyes, intending to drift slowly back to sleep carried along on the current of Rodney’s soft breaths. Before he could, however, he finally heard what had awakened him.
The heartbeat had changed.
As the city had risen, John had finally heard the city's pulse, sped up to normal rate, pumping life back into the halls and rooms and spires. Since he'd arrived, he'd noticed it had slowed once again, but now it was different. Weakening, fading, crying for someone to hear it.
As though urged on by a force beyond his control, John untangled himself carefully from Rodney's sleep-warm body and dressed in the dark, then padded out into the hall on bare feet. The guard outside was a new one, a young man who seemed surprised to see him.
“Hello,” John said, sticking out his hand in the way he'd learned. “I'm John Shepherd.”
The young man gripped his hand and shook it. “Lieutenant Aiden Ford.”
“I need to go for a walk. Is that okay?”
“Fill your – uh, boots,” Aiden said, glancing at John's feet. “I just have to come along, all right?”
John smiled. “Sure.”
“Where are we going?”
John closed his eyes for a moment, listening, then started walking. “Hell if I know, Aiden.”
They walked for over an hour, until John could feel Aiden vibrating with impatience beside him. Finally, they reached a door, and John knew this was the place, for the pulse was pounding in his ears, his blood, his bones.
He laid a palm against the door. I know it hurts. I’m coming.
“Uh, Mr. Shepherd. Is this the place?”
John blinked, and was surprised when tears rolled down his cheeks. “Yes,” he said, roughly. He thought open, and the doors parted.
“Hey, how did you – ” Aiden stopped, brought up short, John imagined, by the old woman standing before them in the dimly lit chamber, her skin as pale as death itself.
“You should call your Doctor Beckett,” John said. “Quickly.”
Five days later, everyone was exhausted from the emotional roller coaster, none more so than Elizabeth, who'd gotten to see herself die of old age, and then had attended her own funeral. Rodney's brain was torn between wanting to run in fifty different new and exciting directions thanks to all they'd learned, to screaming out his horror at all they'd learned. For the first time in his life, he wished he had an off switch, just so that he could get a few hours' uninterrupted rest.
After finding the other Elizabeth, John had hovered on the edges of the situation, a quiet presence that had steadied Rodney, given him comfort. Now, as they sat on the couch together, Rodney with his tie loose and jacket finally gone, John still in his borrowed suit, Rodney realized he hadn't told John how much that had meant to him. He turned and saw that John was staring straight ahead of him, gaze hollow and distant. It chilled him to the bone.
“John?” No reaction; Rodney placed a hand on his arm, and John jerked, startling them both. “Sorry, sorry. You just – are you okay?”
“I don't know,” John said, hoarsely. “I miss her.”
Rodney frowned, confused. From what he'd seen, John had barely spoken to the other Elizabeth, and he'd only known her for a few days. Nevertheless, it was clear John was in pain, and it bothered him that he had no idea how to fix it. “I'm sorry,” he said helplessly.
John took a deep breath, let it out. “What now?”
“Well, I was going to change and head to the lab. She gave us lots of fascinating information, and I don't want to waste a moment. It seems – disrespectful – not to get right to work. Does that make sense?”
John smiled faintly. “I understand, Rodney.”
And wow, Rodney had to be hallucinating the 'you' in there, he knew that, but something in John's gaze and his soft tone made his heart do cartwheels, even in the state he was in. “You should come, too,” he blurted.
John frowned. “Me?” There was surprise in the word, and something else: a spark of interest, Rodney hoped.
“Yes, you. You've got some kind of special connection to the city, just like you had to Elizabeth.”
John shifted, clearly uncomfortable. “I wouldn't say special –”
“I would. When I was hurt, it was you who raised the alarm, told the city where to find me. How did you do that?”
John shook his head slowly. “I don't know,” he said. “I've always –” he clamped his mouth shut. “I don't know.”
Rodney leaned in. “Would you like to find out?”
John looked at him for what seemed like an eternity, while Rodney held his breath.
“Yes,” he said finally. “Yes, I would.”
“Rodney!” Elizabeth cried out, as John went head first over the balcony railing.
John bounded to his feet and waved his arms. He felt giddy and happy and alive, like the eager four-year-old he’d once been, clinging to the back of a baby flagisallus. “I'm all right!” he shouted.
From above, Rodney beamed down at him, and the sight was more beautiful than the sun breaking through the waves on a summer morning.
Yes, he just might learn to love it here after all.
The following days were filled with wonders; Rodney opened the doors to the city, and John walked through into discovery after miraculous discovery. He placed his hands here, and here, and here, and the city breathed again. Late at night, John thought he could actually hear it singing.
And then Rodney took him to see the hangar.
John stared, turning slowly. “You've been saving this, haven't you?”
Rodney rocked on the balls of his feet, a smug smile on his face. “Yup. We have a couple of pilots, but they're all gene therapy recipients, and the learning curve has been pretty flat. I can't get Carson near one of these things.”
John walked up to the nearest ship and touched its hull. It seemed to vibrate under his fingertips. He thought about his flights through the water, and wondered what it would be like to fly through the vacuum of space, with nothing to hold him back, to slow him down.
“Okay,” he said, turning back to Rodney. “Let's try it.”
“This is amazing!” John exclaimed, staring down in wonder at the planet below.
Rodney nodded mutely, but in truth he couldn't be bothered with the view; he hadn't been able to take his eyes off John for some time now. There were two main reasons for this: first, as soon as John sat down, the ship lit up for him like it had been waiting for him for ten thousand years. John had spent about five minutes studying its controls, calling up HUDs Rodney had never seen before and grinning hugely, and then he'd touched a console and closed his eyes briefly and the ship had nudged forward, then up. Eyes shining, John had laughed, then sat back and proceeded to steer the ship with his mind.
However, the more important reason for Rodney's rapt attention was number two: as soon as the atmosphere thinned around them, the blue of sky yielding to stars, John's face had acquired a look that told Rodney in no uncertain terms that John had never seen outer space before. Rodney knew this because it matched the look on half the expedition member's faces the first time they'd stepped through the wormhole to Atlantis. And that blew Rodney's theory of John's origins straight to hell.
He tried to recall the exact exchange when Elizabeth had finally had a chance to question John thoroughly about his people. John hadn't actually told them he'd been abandoned on Atlantis by a spaceship, but he hadn't said he hadn't, either. Now that Rodney thought about it, he realized they'd all just assumed he'd been dropped off by a cloaked, orbiting vessel, since he hadn't come from the city or through the gate, and he couldn't have come from the mainland. Rodney had privately formed the theory that he'd been beamed down by technology similar to the Asgard devices, although he now admitted privately that he'd had no solid evidence for that hypothesis.
If John came from the Lantean world, but hadn't originated on Atlantis or the mainland, that meant he had to have come from the sea. Which was ridiculous, because people couldn't live in the ocean, and –
– just because John had turned up in or near the ocean both times –
– and had been stark naked when he was found by Zelenka's team –
John turned toward him, his expression so joyous it almost hurt to look at it. “Rodney? Are you all right?”
“Fine, I'm fine,” Rodney assured him. “I'm just – I think there was something wrong with that chicken salad sandwich at lunch.”
“Oh,” John said, smile fading. “We should go back, then.”
“Maybe that would be best,” Rodney managed.
John closed his eyes for a moment, and the ship banked gently, taking them home.
“He's a what?”
“A mermaid! I mean, a merman!” Rodney hissed, casting a look over his shoulder at Carson's nurse. She seemed to be still out of earshot, thank God.
Carson smiled indulgently. Rodney considered smacking him. “Really, Rodney. Have you been sleeping well lately?” He waggled his eyebrows. “Or at all?”
“Oh, God, please, let's agree never to discuss my sex life, okay? Just tell me, what did you find when you examined him after he got here?”
“I found exactly what I wrote in my report: that he was a perfectly normal, perfectly healthy human male. No sign of webbed toes or scales.”
“Oh, ha ha,” Rodney said. “Obviously he can change, just like –” He cut himself off.
“Just like Daryl Hannah? Is that what you were about to say, Rodney?” He leaned closer. “You do understand the difference between movies and real life, I take it?”
“In case you haven't noticed, we're living inside a science fiction movie,” Rodney snapped. “Let's try to keep an open mind here.”
“Fine,” Carson said heavily. “I believe I still have a blood sample. I'll run a full DNA analysis in the morning, all right?”
“Thank you,” Rodney said.
“Rodney,” Carson said carefully, “I know we're not supposed to talk about it, but could it be that you’re trying to find reasons to sabotage this relationship?”
Rodney's answer was to aim his most deadly glare at Carson, spin on his heel, and leave the medical bay.
The truth was that he'd been thinking precisely the same thing, but there was no way in hell he was going to admit it.
When Rodney returned to his quarters, they were empty. He looked around the dimly lit room, taking in the way John's things were now completely mingled with his own. It was more than a little frightening how easily John had fit into Rodney's life, when no one in the past had managed it with any degree of success. Really, it would make perfect sense if his ideal mate turned out to be some kind of sideshow freak.
Rodney sat heavily on the bed, placing his head in his hands.
And then he heard the singing.
“I hear that train a comin’, it’s rollin’ round the bend...”
Rodney rose to his feet and walked over to the closed bathroom door. “John?”
“And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know whennn –”
Rodney rapped on the door, hard. “John!”
The singing stopped abruptly, and there was the sound of splashing. “Rodney?”
“What's going on?”
“I'm taking a bath,” John said, as though he was explaining something to a small child, “and singing.”
“I caught that. Could you let me in, please?”
“Door's not locked.”
Rodney thought open at the door, but nothing happened. “Yes, it is!” Rodney shouted. “Come on!”
There was more splashing. “Try harder,” John said. “You need to practice your control. If you can't open doors, you're never going to be able to fly a jumper.”
Rodney frowned, momentarily brought up short. “A jumper?”
“A puddlejumper. That's what I decided to call the ships. They're shaped almost exactly like these amphibians we have where I come from that live in tidal pools –”
Rodney pounded on the door with his open palm. “Dammit, John, open this door! What's going on in there you don't want me to see?”
“Nothing!” John shouted back. “I just want you to – oh, never mind, here,” he sighed. And suddenly the door whooshed open to reveal –
John looking up at him from the bathtub, where he lay with his feet propped up on the edge. His two perfectly normal feet, attached to his two perfectly normal legs.
“Oh,” Rodney said.
John's mouth curved into a sly smile, and he crooked an inviting finger at Rodney. “Come on in, the water's fine.”
And Rodney might have been insecure, paranoid and pathologically incapable of being truly happy in a relationship, but he wasn't stupid, which was why he grinned back and started stripping with only a moment's hesitation.
“You were right,” Carson told him the next day.
Rodney's jaw dropped. “I – what?”
“You were right,” Carson repeated. “I still don't know how it's possible, but he's from this planet, and he's probably an ocean dweller.”
“You found something in his DNA?”
Carson shook his head. “Nothing other than an extremely pure expression of the ATA gene, but then we were expecting that. No, this discovery came when I took another look at the blood sample itself.” He motioned Rodney over to a large computer monitor and pressed a button. The screen lit up to present a side-by-side view of two charts. They appeared to Rodney as an indecipherable series of horizontal lines of varying lengths, but one thing was clear: the patterns were nearly identical.
“What am I looking at?”
“On the left, we have a detailed analysis of John's blood chemistry,” Carson said. “On the right, we have the latest analysis of the chemical composition of Lantean sea water.”
Rodney knew just enough biochemistry to feel a chill at that revelation. “But humans didn't evolve on this world.”
“I know. Neither did the Ancients. It's an adaptation, however, that could hypothetically result after millennia of – well, basically living and breathing in the planet's ocean.”
“Oh my God,” Rodney whispered.
“You realize we'll have to bring these findings to Elizabeth,” Carson said.
“Oh, and what are we going to say?” Rodney snapped. “'Well, Elizabeth, the thing is, he's a fish'? We don't have any proof.”
“This is proof enough. Or at least ample reason for some further questioning. If there's an entire race of people who are living right beneath us –”
“People our scans of the planet failed to pick up, so obviously they're shielded, which suggests an advanced technology.”
“And your point is?”
Rodney huffed out a breath. “John told us that his people were extremely xenophobic. You really think they're going to want to talk to us? Or do you think trying to make contact with them might just piss them off?”
“She should be told,” Carson insisted stubbornly. “His military escort was relieved partly on my recommendation. Now that I have new evidence he's not been honest with us –”
“Look,” Rodney said, desperate now, “he's not doing us any harm. Neither are they. Can we just – wait a little while? I want to see if I can get him to tell me on his own. If I can get him to – to trust me.”
“That might not happen,” Carson said, gently, “and Rodney, it wouldn't be your fault. He might have other reasons...”
“Please,” Rodney said. “Run some more tests? Rule out all the other possibilities. I have to be – I can't screw this up,” he finished, spreading his hands.
Carson watched him for a long moment. “Very well,” he huffed finally. “I suppose I must consider other theories before leaping to conclusions.”
“Thank you,” Rodney breathed.
“Don't thank me,” Carson shot back. “I don't know how long I'll be able to delude myself that I'm doing the right thing.”
The following week passed in a whirlwind of activity. Rodney and his team progressed ten times faster with John's help than they ever could have without it, so his work life was going incredibly well. His personal life included hot and regular sex with an utterly gorgeous man who seemed to like him, so really, he should have been on top of the world.
However, it was at the intersection of the personal and the professional that everything went to shit. Every night, Rodney lay in bed staring up at the ceiling, trying to think of subtle ways to broach the subject about John’s origins. But his genius didn’t extend to figuring out ways to talk to mermen about their – mermanness, and so with each new day, the subject remained unexplored.
He was in the lab, contemplating an improved algorithm for the naquadah generator-city systems interface, when beside him, John's whole body suddenly jerked.
“What's wrong?” he asked, immediately alarmed. John had been working on something they believed to be an Ancient learning toy, and for a moment Rodney feared it had harmed him somehow. John wasn't touching the device, though, and it lay before him on the table, dark and inert.
John stared off into space for a moment, then shook himself. “Nothing. Do you – mind if I take a break?”
Rodney shook his head. “No, of course not, go ahead,” and John leapt up and was out the door so quickly that he created a breeze. Radek shot Rodney an inquisitive glance; ignoring it, Rodney turned back to his laptop.
More than half an hour later, John still hadn't returned, and Rodney's blood sugar was approaching dangerously low levels. He was on his way to the mess when he received a call.
“Doctor McKay, this is Doctor Penfield.” the unfamiliar voice said. “Marine biology.”
Rodney kept walking. “Good afternoon,” he said brusquely.
“I hear you've been – working with our visitor, Mister Shepherd,” Penfield ventured, as though it wasn't known to every last soul on the station that Rodney and John were living together.
“Cut to the chase, will you, Penfield?” Rodney huffed. “They've got the really good meatloaf on today.”
“Right,” Penfield said, clearing his throat. “Well, would you be able to tell me why he's a hundred yards off the East Pier, swimming with a pod of d?”
Rodney stopped so quickly he nearly tripped over his own feet. “He's swimming with fla- what did you say?”
“Flagisallus. They're a type of fish found in the Lantean ocean – very large, sperm whale size or larger. We've been studying them, and had tagged a couple with transmitters –”
“Yes, yes,” Rodney said, snapping his fingers. “Can we please get back to the part about the man in the water?”
“One of my teammates was studying the pod's social behavior with a remote controlled camera and saw Shepherd swimming out to them about twenty minutes ago.” There was a pause. “He – I know this sounds crazy, but he seems to know them. And what's crazier is that – they seem to know him.”
Rodney turned and began running in the direction he'd come. “I'm on my way.”
Thanks to John, they'd discovered the transporters last week, and so the half hour trip to the East Pier now took less than ten minutes. By the time he reached his destination, the whales – fish – whatever – were gone, and John was well on his way back to the pier. Rodney noted with a sick sense of detachment that he was swimming in an undulating motion with his legs together and head down, only occasionally surfacing for air.
He tried to organize his thoughts, to plan a strategy. The biologists would have this on film, or rather a digital movie file. It’d be easy enough to hack into the mainframe and make that disappear, but they'd be reporting to Elizabeth in either case, and God, God, there was no way around it, he'd have to –
Below him, John heaved himself up onto the lowest step and lay gasping for air like a dying salmon. Alarmed, Rodney ran down the stairs, heedless of the danger, and hauled John up the steps. For the first time, John’s skin was much colder than Rodney's, and his arms and legs were covered in goosebumps.
“Jesus Christ,” Rodney breathed. “We have to get you to Beckett.”
“M'fine,” John managed, teeth chattering. “Just need to – get warm.”
“All right, come on,” Rodney said, leading him toward the nearest transporter, his arm tightly clasped around John's trembling, suddenly fragile-seeming shoulders.
Rodney ran a hot bath for John, and then, when he was fairly certain John wasn't going to drown in a foot and a half of water, he ran to the mess for a pot of tea and chocolate. He fed John over his weak protests, alternating between berating him and compulsively stroking his face, his ears, his shoulders, any bit of him that dared to poke up above the water.
“It helps to restore your circulation,” Rodney argued, when John glanced up at him over the rim of the mug clutched in his hands.
“I know, Rodney,” John murmured, gaze softening.
They didn't talk about it at first. Rodney used up every towel drying John off, then bundled him into a pair of his sweatpants and the warmest sweater he'd brought with him from Earth and put him to bed. When he turned to go, John caught his hand and held it fast.
“Stay with me,” he murmured. “Please.”
Rodney's heart hammered against his ribs. God, how he wanted to. “I have to get back to the lab,” he said, voice rough.
John shook his head sadly. “No. You have to report to Doctor Weir about me.”
Rodney sucked in a shuddering breath and looked down at their joined hands so that he wouldn’t have to look directly at John. “I'd rather you talked to her, after you've had a chance to rest.”
“I wish I had the time,” John said sadly, “but I don't. My brother is coming for me when the tide is high, late tonight.”
Rodney sat on the edge of the bed, his legs suddenly gone weak. “You – you're leaving?”
“I have to. My father – he's very sick. He – apparently he regrets what he did to me.” He took a deep breath, let it out. “He says he wants to see me.”
Rodney raised his head and frowned. "But I saw you - in the water. You're not – I mean, you don't –"
John clenched his jaw. "I know. I'm not as I once was."
Rodney hesitated. He couldn't believe he was going to ask this. "Can you change back?"
"No." He met Rodney's gaze. "At least - I don't think so."
"Well, you're not going in the water again without a wet suit, then," Rodney said firmly. "And scuba gear." He waved a hand at John's puzzled look. "Never mind. Just – it'll keep you safe."
"Oh," John said softly, ducking his head. "Thank you."
Rodney could feel his face heat. "I'm not going to have you drowning out there, that's all." He lifted his chin. “So you go back. Then what?”
“I was going to ask you that,” John murmured, squeezing Rodney's hand.
Rodney was surprised to find he wasn't feeling angry, merely hollow and strangely detached. Now that John was no longer in danger of hypothermia, the reality of it all crashed over him like a wave. It was easier not to fight, just to let it carry him out to sea.
“It's not up to me,” he said, as evenly as he could manage. “It'll be Elizabeth's decision.”
John's Adam's apple bobbed. “But if it were up to you,” he persisted, “would you want me to – come back? To stay?”
“What do you want from me?” Rodney whispered.
“The truth,” John said simply.
Rodney laughed mirthlessly. “Oh, well, now that's a little ironic, don't you think?” Okay, that – that was anger. Definitely. He recognized that.
John looked as though he'd been slapped. “Rodney, I didn't want to lie to you.”
“Then why did you?” Rodney asked, hating the hurt in his voice. He'd been expecting this, he told himself; he'd been smarter than this. Not surprisingly, it didn't help.
Now John looked down at Rodney's hand, still clutched in his. “My people were once Ancients – I suppose we still are. But our ancestors hated the way their comrades constantly meddled in the affairs of humans. They hated the way they set themselves above them as gods, and they were sure that arrogance would lead them to ruin. When the wraith came, and the Replicators defied them, they took it as a sign the end was near.”
“They decided to remove themselves from Atlantis,” Rodney said slowly, “from all of it.”
“Yes. They wanted a simpler life, where nothing could touch them.” He smiled thinly. “They haven't changed much. I've never wanted to live like that, so afraid to take risks – but I suppose deep down I respect it. I'd never want to hurt them” – he looked up – “or to force my choices on them.”
Rodney nodded. “Okay, yes, I get that, I do. Thank you – for explaining.”
John frowned. “Rodney – ”
Rodney tried to free his hand, but John's grip was unshakeable. “Look, I just really need to –”
“I love you, Rodney,” John said, a little desperately.
Rodney's eyes squeezed shut. “Please. Don't.”
“I've always loved this city, but I never knew why,” John continued, heedless of Rodney's plea. “Now I do. It was because one day, you would be here.”
Rodney glared at John. “For God's sake, stop,” he growled. “You don't – people don't talk like that.”
“Why not?” John asked.
“Because,” Rodney blustered, “that's like saying I'm your – your destiny.”
John arched an eyebrow in a way that Rodney had come to know meant duh, Earth man.
“Oh, for – ” Rodney huffed, “that – you can't be serious!”
“Luke Skywalker had a destiny,” John said mulishly. “Even R2D2 had a destiny. Why can't you be my destiny?”
“Because –” Rodney trailed off, took a deep breath. “Because one day you'll wake up and wonder what the hell you could have been thinking, and you'll leave,” he blurted.
John shook his head slowly. “Rodney –”
“I'm not the nicest person in the galaxy. Or the nicest person on this expedition. Or even in this room.”
The corner of John's mouth jerked. “I don't mind.”
“I hog the covers.”
John appeared to think about it. “Nope, don't mind that, either.” His thumb stroked the inside of Rodney's wrist, and Rodney sucked in a breath.
“I'm going bald?” Rodney said weakly.
John threaded his hands through Rodney's hair. “I'd better enjoy this while I can, then,” he murmured, leaning in to capture Rodney's lips with his own.
Oh, Rodney thought, hand flattening against John's chest to push him away, then curling helplessly in the sweater when John hooked an arm around the back of his neck and deepened the kiss.
“This is the truth,” John whispered in his ear, “this, just this. Rodney, please, I want to come back, I want you, this life. With you – believe me, Rodney, believe –”
Rodney thought, this doesn't happen in real life, and he thought this is crazy and don't be stupid, and then he buried his face in John's neck and told himself to shut the hell up. “Yes,” he whispered back, fingers stealing under heavy wool to touch the warm, living skin of his destiny. “Okay, I – yes. Yes.”
Two Weeks Later
“What do you call that one?” Rodney asked, pointing to a crescent-shaped cluster of stars near the southern horizon.
John leaned in and lined his gaze up with Rodney's. “Hm. That would be Medusa's Left Ass Cheek.”
Rodney snorted. “Ha ha.”
“Well, that's what I used to call it. What can I say? I'd just hit puberty and everything I saw resembled an erogenous zone.” He shook his head. “Anyway, my people forgot the Ancient names for the constellations thousands of years ago. After a while, they just stopped looking up.”
Rodney turned his head to look at John. He'd returned from his visit over a week ago, but they hadn't talked about it. Things had been stressful enough, what with Elizabeth coming close to grounding both him and Carson and Sumner pushing to have John placed in solitary confinement and fed on bread and water for the rest of his life. When John came back, he'd defused the whole situation by bringing along his brother, who was apparently the new leader of his people. He'd answered all of their questions, told them very kindly and politely to fuck off and leave them alone, and then had put his arms around John and held him very tightly while John stared off across the water, his eyes brimming with unshed tears.
Rodney cleared his throat. “I'm sorry about your dad,” he murmured.
John remained silent for a few moments. “It's okay,” he said finally. “We got to – to talk.” He took a deep breath, let it out. “He was at peace with this world when he left it.”
“That's – good,” Rodney said. “I'm glad.”
“Yeah,” John agreed. He wiped a hand across his eyes, and Rodney lifted his gaze to the stars again for a moment.
“So do you think you'd like to get up there again?” Rodney asked, completely nonchalant.
John frowned. “Up where?” He pointed skyward, and Rodney nodded. John's face fell. “You know I would. But it's not up to me.”
Rodney bit his tongue to keep from grinning. John had been on his best behavior for Elizabeth and Sumner since he'd come back. He'd worked with Penfield's team, telling them everything he knew about the flagisallus and summoning one for them to study and attempt to communicate with. When he hadn't been doing that, he'd been teaching the linguists his language and turning on every last piece of the city that people asked him to turn on. The marine biologists and linguists adored him, the physicists and engineers worshiped him, and last Thursday he'd made everyone's year by discovering some rich Ancient's secret stash of really good porn. An important cultural find, the sociologists said, while everyone else took the rest of the afternoon off and retired to their bunks.
But through all of this, Rodney knew that John had been yearning for only one thing: to be back behind the controls of a puddlejumper someday, sooner rather than later. The problem was, Sumner had been dead set against it, and Elizabeth had been inclined to follow his lead for a change.
That was, until Rodney pointed out that at the rate the ham-fisted Milky Way galaxy types were going, they'd never learn how to fly the damn things.
John propped himself up on an elbow. “You know something, don't you?”
This time the grin slipped free. “Now, why would you say that?”
“Rodney,” John warned, sliding an arm up Rodney's chest, “what's going on? What?” He pinched Rodney's nipple through his shirt, and Rodney yelped in surprise.
“Can I just point out, the threat of more nipple-pinching may be an ineffective strategy for you achieving what you want here,” he said.
“Rodney,” John growled, and the low sound went right to Rodney's cock.
“All right, all right, tomorrow Elizabeth is putting you in charge of the jumper training! Are you happy now? Because she bet me I wouldn't be able to wait until she told you in the morning, and now I'm out an entire Caramilk bar, and do you have any idea how scarce those are getting? No you don't, Mr. Man from Atlan –”
John rolled him over onto his back then and kissed him soundly, and Rodney wrapped both arms around him and held on as tightly as he could. “Yeah,” John breathed, when they finally parted, “I'm happy now.”
Rodney smiled, and John kissed the edges of it, each peck a star in a new constellation. This was so worth a lousy Caramilk bar.