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Gravel Road

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Gravel Road
By Candle Beck

 

Tuesday, or what passes for one in this galaxy, and Sheppard gets shoved into the cell and stumbles, goes immediately to his knees.

McKay is horrified in both general and specific ways. There's blood all over Sheppard's face, his eyes rolling white and his battered mouth hanging open, gasping. Behind him, the Eridani soldiers swing the heavy wood door shut, scraping sound of the bolt as it shoots into place.

"Jesus Christ!" McKay shouts. Sheppard's head tips drunkenly in his direction, and McKay is appalled to see a messy agonized grin stretch across his face, like someone's got fishhooks in the corners of his mouth.

"I feel terrible," Sheppard reports, and then pitches forward.

McKay, quick as a cat, catches Sheppard before he can face-plant onto the filthy stones. Sheppard groans, bony trembling shoulders in McKay's hands, his blood-sticky head lolling against McKay's arm. Careful, McKay lays him out on the floor, fingers wrapped around the back of Sheppard's neck.

"What, what did they do to you?" McKay asks, though he doesn't really want to hear it.

Sheppard's eyelashes flutter. "Differn't things," he slurs.

"Is it anything, anything serious? Internal bleeding, I don't know. Are you okay?"

"Sure," Sheppard says, and the stupid bastard actually smiles again, red-toothed.

"Idiot," McKay says, weirdly breathless. The urge to palm across Sheppard's face and throat is near overwhelming. "Once they take your gun, you stop mouthing off, how difficult a concept is that to grasp? What did you expect? Did they strike you as the type to be impressed by that flippant jackassery you do so well? Because--and let me note that I find it astonishing the past several years of your life haven't yet drilled this into your thick skull--that type does not exist, not anywhere, and you can trust me on this because I've been to two galaxies."

"Hey, me too," Sheppard says, clearly learning nothing.

"What were you thinking?"

A twitch like Sheppard's trying to shrug, his head rolling to the side. "Wanted to get a look around."

McKay only barely registers that, occupied with the blood still swelling from Sheppard's split eyebrow. It rolls down the side of his face, falls off his ear to patter soundlessly on the dirty stone floor, and seeing the blood drip off Sheppard like that makes McKay sick to his stomach, as bad as if one of them were missing a limb.

"Shut up. You bleed worse the more you talk."

Sheppard makes a groaning wheezy sound that panics McKay for a second before he identifies it as a laugh. Sheppard never reacts like he's supposed to; it's more infuriating than anything else.

"Shut up," McKay says sharply, and then pulls off his shirt and balls it up to press to the wound in Sheppard's head. It leaves McKay in just a thin T-shirt, and immediately he's shivering, that damp underground chill. He grits his teeth against it, eyes locked on the blood soaking darkly into the fabric.

"Long day," Sheppard confides, half his face hidden, and his voice sounds beaten up too, as if it's been dragged behind a truck.

McKay touches the fingers of his free hand briefly to Sheppard's forehead, this one irregular patch of skin that seems unharmed. Feels hotter than usual, all the blood gathering for bruises. "It won't be much longer. Teyla and Ronon are coming, and, and your dumbass Marines."

"Don' talk shit 'bout the Marines," and Sheppard is fading fast, eyes swelling closed, wrecked mouth all askew.

"Sheppard." McKay's hands hover over him, fearful of landing. "Try to stay awake."

Sheppard's face shudders, looks like the heat shimmer on asphalt. He breathes out, "Sorry," before losing his grip on consciousness, his body going abruptly slack on the dirty cell floor.

It's a bad moment for McKay, feels like watching lava swallow the planet's only working stargate, like being stranded and abandoned, something similarly rife with dread. He'd rather have Sheppard mumbling and bloody and half-incoherent instead of dead weight, any goddamn day of the week.

But this is a so-called Tuesday in the Pegasus Galaxy, where wishes do not apply. Sheppard stays unconscious all through the daring rescue and frenzied escape, slung limp over one of Ronon's shoulders as they dash for the gate. McKay is just behind, perfect angle to see the lank hang Sheppard's arms, his loose-fingered hands bumping weightlessly against Ronon's legs. It would look exactly the same if Sheppard were dead.

Not for the first time, it occurs to McKay that becoming friends with John Sheppard might not have been the smartest decision he's ever made.

*

All right, but it's not as if he had much choice in the matter.

McKay's first impression of Sheppard is mixed up with more reasonably awe-inspiring things. It's woven intractably with seeing the chair glow like Christmas for the first time, the raindrops-on-cobwebs shape of the solar system floating so delicate and precise over their heads. That picture branded into McKay's brain, complete in every detail, and Sheppard was just an unknown entity all skinny shoulders and idiotic hair, rich light pouring out around him and he wasn't even trying. It was a pretty fantastic entrance, McKay can admit.

And then they went to Atlantis. And Atlantis opened up to Sheppard like a flower to the goddamn sun.

The convolutions got worse in McKay's head. He spent too much time in those first few weeks exploring the city with Sheppard and getting shoved off balconies by him and joy-riding around their new still-blue planet because Sheppard couldn't get over the puddlejumpers. Sheppard's wondrous dim-looking face was an ideal reflection of whatever was happening inside McKay, the various foundational transfigurations to which he was having trouble putting words. As a guiding principle in life, McKay did not like things that he couldn't put words to, but nothing worked as it was supposed to on this side of the universe, because he did like Sheppard. Right from the start, and despite some very persuasive efforts to the contrary, it was frankly disturbing how much McKay liked Sheppard.

But what are you gonna do? Sheppard was designed to be liked, McKay sometimes thinks. Just fewer than three hundred people live in their city, and John Sheppard is the favorite of a good quarter of them, easy. Something about his tendency to lean, probably, and the hair and the smirk and his half-lidded almost-green eyes, all the usual suspects. Self-destructive tendencies disguised as bravery. Doubt buried in nonchalance. Charm on Sheppard's surface like oil glossing a mirror, near smiles and narrow hands, watchful eyes. Most of it is a put-on, McKay figures. If Sheppard's a mirror, he only ever shows what other people are expecting to see.

It's a blow to McKay's ego, being just one of a crowd, but here he is, maddening right along with everyone else. When he thinks Atlantis loves him, he doesn't just mean the metal and glass parts. John Sheppard is the hero of this show, and the rest of them are just around to be rescued or sacrificed, depending.

More than a little annoying, and it should bother McKay much more than it does, but, well. The flip side of the coin, the totally unexpected part of the whole thing, is that Sheppard really seems to like him an awful lot, too.

Numbers can be applied to anything (anything), and McKay is tremendous at basic observation, always has been. He keeps his notes encrypted on a single sheet of graph paper buried in the tornado of his lowest desk drawer. Sheppard comes by McKay's lab with coffee or candy 2.8 times a week; they eat lunch together 5.3. They share quarters off-world 6.9 days a month (this after throwing out the six weeks the team spent penned up in the single Wraith-secure room the people of MR5-238 were able to offer them while McKay fixed their gate, as it was the outlying East German judge of the data). Seven of the socks in McKay's drawer don't belong to him (socks, how in the world did he manage to acquire the man's socks?). McKay can read four distinct emotions on Sheppard's face, maybe not so impressive until one remembers that this is John Sheppard we're talking about here. When McKay gets to a meeting first, Sheppard always takes the seat next to him. When Sheppard gets there first, there's always an empty seat beside him waiting for McKay. They arrive together 68.4% of the time, anyway. Every time Sheppard makes one of his quippy little asides, he glances at McKay for a reaction--every single time.

It's taken a while, and a staggering amount of peril and inconvenience, but at this point McKay is about ninety percent sure that he's John Sheppard's best friend in the entire galaxy, and who the hell saw that one coming?

McKay thinks that if he had had a standard lonely-genius childhood, abused by and starved for affection from his peers, he might have once wished for such an inarguably cool best friend with whom to zip around exploring an alien galaxy, but he was never a lonely-genius so much as a genius-evenmoregenius, unfettered by such plebeian concerns as sociality, and mostly he'd just wished for the alien galaxy. It had seemed more plausible, anyway.

Turns out Rodney gets both--such is the world they've found.

Having a best friend is claustrophobic and irritating in its broad strokes--Sheppard barefoot in the hallway with another terrible action movie when McKay has work to do, Sheppard teasing him like McKay doesn't already know he slept on his hair funny (and as if Sheppard can talk), Sheppard swiping Athosian fries off his plate without even asking first, Sheppard's quick mouth curling lovingly around the name 'Meredith'--but the finer points are largely agreeable.

For instance: there's always someone around for McKay to roll his eyes at when the atmosphere of stupidity reaches a fever pitch, which is invariably. He's never realized how critical that could be, just having someone around to roll his eyes at, like regularly suffering life-threatening incompetence might be worth it to see Sheppard twitch his eyebrows and smirk back at him.

Little things. Details and trivia. The randomness of peanut butter cookies wrapped up in coarse brown napkins and poking out of Sheppard's pocket as he slouches against a desk in McKay's lab, waiting for him to get done so they can go look for Sam the almost-whale again. Johnny Cash songs get stuck in McKay's head for days on end, darkish sad stuff about trains and prisons. The information on Sheppard's dog-tags, which McKay was obliged to memorize during the endless night they spent trapped in a pit on P3Y-892, Sheppard drugged and sweating and delirious when he wasn't unconscious, his skin pale as wax and sticky to the touch, and McKay remembers pulling the chain out of Sheppard's shirt, the tags swinging back to clip Sheppard's chin and McKay breathing out thoughtlessly, "Sorry, sorry." He remembers with pinpoint clarity the feel of each tiny punched-out letter against the tip of his thumb.

Strange, of course it's strange. Whole new world, and not just literally this time. McKay isn't accustomed to sifting through the specifics and vagaries that define the lives of others. He isn't accustomed to caring about other people to the extent that the specifics and vagaries become relevant.

But then, context. Five months ago McKay got turned into sentient goo for a week. Nothing much surprises him anymore.

*

Sheppard talks his way out of the infirmary a day early, and shows up for lunch in the mess hall, muddy with bruises and swollen-lipped.

McKay glares at him. "Funny, I've just lost my appetite."

"Well, then," and Sheppard makes a grab for McKay's pudding cup, and only a ninja-fork move keeps it safe.

"No pudding for you. You look like you went ten rounds with Mike Tyson."

"A famed Earth warrior," Teyla explains sotto voce for Ronon's benefit, and McKay coughs into his fist, grudgingly amused because that's roughly accurate.

Sheppard has affixed a baleful pout, considerably more effective with the damage done making him look so pathetic anyway. McKay shifts in his chair, scowling at his tray. He's not going to be manipulated just because someone who's made his career as a professional soldier can't keep from getting his ass kicked for so much as a week at a time. Puppy dog eyes, puppy dog shiners even, are no compensation for the fundamental lack of common sense embodied by everything Sheppard is and does.

McKay has a pretty good head of steam built up about the whole thing. Meanwhile, Teyla smiles at Sheppard and says, "It is good to see you somewhere other than the infirmary, John."

Sheppard ducks his head, bashful slant calculated onto of his smile. "Yeah, it's good to be back."

"Gonna have a new scar," Ronon says, leaning forward to peer at the crooked half-moon of black stitches holding Sheppard's right eyebrow together. "Live another year."

"What?" McKay asks sharply. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Ronon chomps on a purple Denordish apple-thing, says with his mouth full because evidently in Pegasus table manners are a subjective matter, "Old saying on Sateda. Every scar earned in battle means another year added to the end of your life."

"What?" McKay glares across the table at Ronon, personally affronted by such illogic. "How exactly does that work? Every injury serious enough to leave a scar somehow improves your longevity? And no one questioned that on grounds of it being ridiculous?"

"Always so literal, Rodney," Sheppard says, lazy and reproving. "It's just an expression."

"My people have a similar saying," Teyla says as she uses a spoon to corral Chirigon kinda-walnuts off her plate and onto Ronon's. "The more marks of war a woman wears, the stronger the children she will bear."

"That makes even less sense," McKay says with conviction. Teyla lifts one elegant shoulder, unperturbed, and nudges Ronon's plate back to him.

Sheppard is carefully eating soup, tipping the spoon around his fat lip. His face is a dozen different colors, lavender and indigo and jaundice yellow. He sits unnaturally straight, shoulders tense and hovering--cracked ribs, McKay knows. Sheppard's breath is shallow but not audibly labored. He has always had a ridiculously high tolerance for pain.

"I mean, I can understand glorifying military service as such," McKay continues doggedly. "The defense of the homeland, preservation of a people, etcetera etcetera, although that's really more of an excuse for Ronon and Teyla." He stabs his fork in Sheppard's direction. "Your country hasn't been invaded in almost two hundred years-"

"Says the Canadian," Sheppard jeers.

"Excuse me, the Fenian raids!" McKay knew all those hours spent watching that Canadian Jeopardy! knockoff on the community channel would pay off one of these days. "You can take your War of 1812 and shove it."

"The . . . Fenian raids?" The eye that's not swollen shut is wide, familiar disbelief writ all over Sheppard's face. "You're seriously arguing that the Fenian raids count as an invasion of Canada?"

Briefly distracted, wondering immediately and fiercely how the hell do you know about the Fenian raids, and then McKay waves his fork around, dismissing the tangent.

"Not the point, not the point. What I was saying, if we could stay on topic for once, is that romanticizing military service seems reasonable enough to me, but why romanticize the actual physical damage? The, the scars, the mutilations, that's the bad part, the negative outcome. Why do people always want to hold it up and cheer?"

It's momentarily quiet, although McKay doesn't think for a second that he's stunned them to silence with his brilliance (most people, he's found, are too obtuse to properly appreciate the full scope of said brilliance). Teyla is smiling slightly and drinking her tea, watching them like it's a free show. Ronon looks faintly bored, slumped back in his seat with a stogie of semi-celery sticking out of the side of his mouth.

For his part, Sheppard shows only a cynical smile, dangerous and pained on his battered mouth. "No Purple Hearts in Rodney McKay's army, huh?"

"Right," McKay agrees, feeling sorta weird and shaky, his arguments wavering. "Maybe there'll be a medal for coming home unscathed, instead."

Sheppard snorts and shakes his head, looking away. McKay stares at him. There's one stray bruise on the side of Sheppard's neck, just above the collar of his shirt. It's shaped sort of like China, and McKay thinks that his thumb would cover it up entirely, odd sideways kind of thought.

"Not getting hurt means you weren't trying hard enough," Ronon says with his standard implacable surety.

McKay tightens his jaw. "That kind of talk is exactly what I'm talking about. Every meathead in this city buys into that drivel."

"Meathead?" Teyla inquires softly, and Sheppard shoves his tray so that it clatters loudly against McKay's, making him jump.

"He means me," Sheppard says. "The rest of the military contingent too, but mainly me, right Rodney?"

Sheppard's face looks funny. Lopsided bruises, cyclops eye, obscene puff of his mouth, that dark split in his lower lip, but it's not the physical, not just the things McKay can readily catalog. Sheppard seems like he might be pretty pissed off, and McKay feels a little sick, but puts that aside, goes immediately on the offensive.

"You're a handy example of the breed, Colonel, yes. Forgive me if your latest display of masochistic tactical ineptitude happens to be rather fresh in my mind."

Sheppard attempts a sneer, but twisting his mouth visibly hurts him, and he settles for kicking McKay's ankle under the table, which is dirty pool.

"One of us had to get out of that cell and get a lay of the place," Sheppard says, clipped. "I know you woulda been happy just sitting around waiting to get rescued-"

"We did get rescued!" McKay says, just a bit louder than he intended, and from the left someone (sounds like Zelenka, that rat) actually shushes him, as if that's going to do any good. "We always get rescued! Teyla beat the shit out of a bunch of guys, Ronon kicked down three doors--of course you wouldn't remember any of that, having been unconscious at the time. Just so you know, your head doesn't actually get harder the more times you get knocked out, I don't care what they told you in Pop Warner."

"I never played Pop Warner," Sheppard says, and for some reason he sounds absolutely furious, and that stuns McKay, stuns Teyla and Ronon too, widening their eyes and stilling their hands. Sheppard looks a bit taken aback himself, and kinda surly and beat-up and oldish, tired. He curls his hands (discolored knuckles, scabs and fixed dislocations, because god forbid Sheppard stop putting up a fight even if it's ten to one against) around the edge of the table, and doesn't say anything else, doesn't look up.

McKay opens his mouth, no idea what he intends to say (something petty and awful and unforgivable, no doubt), but luckily Ronon speaks up before he can.

"What's Pop Warner, like a head-smashing game? Can we play that instead of golf?"

Sheppard's head comes up, and he blinks at Ronon for a second before starting to laugh, idiot, agony hunching his shoulders and screwing up his face even as guffaws chortle out of him. Ronon glares good-naturedly, arms crossed over his chest. Sheppard's breathing gets wheezy and strained, the split in his lower lip re-opening with his grin, thin line of bright red blood, and when McKay says, "Oh for god's sake," his voice cracks, but no one seems to notice.

The conversation turns to kinder things once Sheppard has calmed himself and surreptitiously palmed the tears of pain away from his eyes. McKay watches Sheppard affect his cover again, the ease of the smirk he shows Ronon, the boyish smile he saves for Teyla. There's blurring at Sheppard's edges, this sense of the picture skipping. McKay isn't sure which of them to blame for that.

Sheppard deploys the silent treatment against McKay for the rest of lunch, which is no more than McKay expected, Sheppard having wide swaths of teenage girl running through his flyboy soul. It's still incredibly obnoxious, a blank stone wall where McKay left his best audience, abruptly robbed of the only person who can be relied upon to laugh at his jokes.

McKay leaves before the rest of them, making up some excuse. He hides out in his lab for the rest of the day, where he is importuned and harried and underappreciated and misunderstood. So, nothing new.

*

Things are tense and awkward for a while.

Sheppard isn't allowed to do much until his ribs heal, no running or sparring or even flying the jumpers, because flying is something of a full-body activity for Sheppard, and he doesn't know how to turn that off. Under normal circumstances, such enforced inertia would send Sheppard directly to McKay's lab, where he would drape himself across things and whistle off-key and derail McKay's train of thought every five minutes with inanities. Pestering McKay is Sheppard's all-around Plan B.

Not this time, though. Sheppard spends his days with the Marines, leaning against the wall shouting instruction as he watches them go through their drills, trailing the security teams through the ghostly uninhabited sections of the city. McKay catches glimpses of him, spiky hair in the midst of crew cuts in the mess, Sheppard's barking laugh echoing down hallways, around corners.

A bad mood develops in McKay, black clouds. No point being subtle about it. He snaps at Miko and ridicules Zelenka and takes off the brakes as far as Kavanaugh is concerned, whole new compendia of vicious insult opening themselves up to him. Everybody starts to give him a wide berth, a forcefield, and that's good, as it should be. McKay has a headache that won't go away and the coffee keeps running out by three in the afternoon and he's millions of lightyears away from anything but cruddy American chocolate, and nobody ever understands how legitimately pissed-off he is; they just write it off, making excuses he never asked for: you know that temper of his, he's been working a lot recently, oh Rodney didn't really mean that.

One of these days McKay is going to take a golf club to his workstation, and then they'll see. Favored daydream, it exists so cleanly in his mind, shattered glass and exploded computers and shocked white-eyed faces circling all around.

It's not because of Sheppard, or the lack thereof. Correlation, not causality, and it'd be a rookie mistake of the basest kind to confuse the two.

In the jumper bay, three minutes after Sheppard walked in (face half-healed, greenish-yellow and two-eyed again), spotted McKay, turned on his heel and left, McKay says to Teyla without thinking:

"No, no, it tightens to the right, that's not even something you need an education to know, c'mon."

He's not looking at Teyla's face, focused on the warped piece of paneling they're working on, and so he startles badly when she slams her wrench down on the floor of the jumper, huge metal clang.

McKay shouts, "What!" and almost falls over before catching himself and sitting back on his heels. Teyla is glaring at him, her mouth a straight line and her eyes hard, and McKay gets a sinking feeling in his stomach.

"Do you believe that I am of less value to the team because I did not benefit from the same manner of education as you and Colonel Sheppard?" Teyla asks in a dangerously low voice.

"Oh my god, no, of course not!" McKay's hands fly, mortification churning his gut. "That was really, really not what I meant, I promise you. You're about ten times more valuable to the team than I am, everybody knows that. I was. I was just. I'm sorry?"

Didn't really mean for that to come out as a question, but the steely set of Teyla's face relaxes somewhat, slipping from immediate offense to more general disappointment, which is possibly worse.

"As someone who claims great intelligence, you should consider your words more carefully before you say them," she tells him, cold and not friends yet.

McKay nods emphatically. "I should, I really absolutely should and will. Thank you. Ah. I'm sorry, again. I don't think you're--anything. I, I think you're very smart."

He goes to pat her on the shoulder but aborts at the last minute, huffing and scrubbing his palm on his pants, badly off-kilter and that gets the slightest break from Teyla, her lips twitching.

"Thank you, Rodney," she says seriously. McKay swallows and blusters and waves it off.

All this interpersonal stuff, it's going to be the death of him, he just knows it. McKay picks up the wrench and hands it back to Teyla, wanting to get back to concrete things.

Teyla sets back to work on the panel, slim forearms flexing dusky gold in the dim light, and tells him, "You have not seemed yourself, recently."

"Yes, well." McKay clears his throat, shifts on his sore knees. "Can't be sunshine and roses all the time, can we?"

"John is very upset with you."

McKay is good, hardly reacts. Cold snap in his stomach, muscles going taut in his neck and shoulders, but you'd have to be looking really close to see it.

"I am aware of that," he says.

"How will you repair it?"

"I'm sorry, this whole thing is suddenly my fault?" McKay yanks at the busted panel, trying to jigger it into place. He's not looking at Teyla. "That's incredibly unfair. He's the one who keeps almost dying on us."

"He never risks himself without the protection of the city or one of us foremost in his mind," Teyla says. "You cannot fault him his loyalty."

"Watch me," McKay snaps, sick and tired of this conversation.

"That is beneath you, Rodney," and Teyla sounds like she expected so much better from him, his mom and sister and every girlfriend all rolled into one. It kills McKay a little bit.

"What am I supposed to do?" McKay demands, maybe only about twenty percent sure that he still occupies the high ground, forging ahead because he's unsure where else to go. "He gets enough praise and encouragement for his suicide attempts from the rest of you people. One of these days that goddamn loyalty is going to get him killed and then Atlantis will have its martyr and you'll all be happy."

Teyla doesn't hit him in the face with the wrench, but it seems like a very near thing. She gives him a look of such scathing contempt that goosebumps break out on McKay's arms, and then gets to her feet. McKay stares up at her, helplessly aware that he took flight from rationality at some point along the way there, his mouth running on as his mind shrinks back in horror. He has an awful habit of ruining things just like that.

"You are not worth my company today," Teyla tells him with the ring of plain truth, and leaves him kneeling alone on the floor of the jumper. She takes the wrench with her and everything.

McKay shifts, sitting with his back to the wall and his hands hung over his knees. He tips his head back, feeling lousy in about six different ways and wanting a do-over on the whole week. He wonders how long it will take someone to come looking for him if he just stays here, and figures that once you take Sheppard out of the equation, it might be weeks.

*

Another several days pass, improving nothing.

With the team still grounded and half of them pissed off at him anyway, McKay basically moves into his lab, commandeering a skinny rack cot from the entomologists (strange mole-like people who haven't seen the sun in months, dry hands and watery pinkish eyes) and hoarding MREs in a container marked for hazardous waste. The cot is mostly for appearances, because he's not really sleeping much. Long hours lit only by chilled blue computer light, shaky hands and sore eyes and all, and McKay might be a twenty year old doctoral student again, living tenuously by the grace of vending machines and instant coffee. It's all terribly nostalgic.

Zelenka tolerates this for three days, not bothering to hide his increasingly judgmental expressions, and on the fourth morning, lures McKay to the mess with a rumor of fresh donuts (a traitorous lie), and then locks him out of the lab.

Crackling over the radio, Zelenka tells him, "At least you must shower."

"Who put you in charge!" McKay hasn't been reduced to kicking the door, but give him another five minutes. "This is an egregious misuse of whatever piddling authority you might have been deluded into thinking you possess, and don't think there won't be consequences."

Zelenka's sigh rattles in McKay's ear. "Yes, yes, I am very afraid of you. Please get some sleep. And shower."

A gaggle of Marines goes by, glancing at McKay stranded in the hallway and trading smirks with each other, and what the hell, does the U.S. military train their people to wear that brainless expression, to what possible purpose?

He isn't going to stand here and be publicly ridiculed by colleagues and troglodytes alike. McKay hollers some of the Czech profanity that Zelenka has taught him over the years, and storms off in an impressive fashion that no one is around to see.

Feeling contrary and embittered, McKay doesn't go back to his room, instead taking a transporter to the western edge of the city, where defunct piers stretch gray arms out into the water.

Quiet and windy out there, the ocean going on and on. The spires and towers of Atlantis cast shadows on the piers, light and dark as McKay walks. This planet is approximately four-fifths the size of Earth, just different enough to noticeably steepen the curve of the horizon.

McKay calms down. Smells like salt and metal out here, electricity and dark matter. He begins to construct his revenge on Zelenka, which will be far-reaching and merciless and possibly involve box turtles (Zelenka's secret fear, foolishly revealed during the harvest festival on M4R-830 with the alien homebrew that later tested at 140-proof).

A whining growl is McKay's only warning before a red and silver RC car goes zipping between his feet. He maintains his balance only through great effort, and whirls to find Sheppard not ten feet away with the controller in his hands, hip cocked out. McKay rages inwardly. There's no justice in the universe.

"What are you doing?" McKay asks, not too accusatory to his own ears but Sheppard's eyebrows still tighten.

"Killing time." Sheppard's face is pretty much healed, his mouth a regular shape again. He's back to slouching even as he stands, so his ribs must be better too.

The RC car (the flames on the sides hand-painted by Sheppard seated cross-legged on the floor of his room while McKay was at the desk, installing miniature rocket boosters on his own car) whirrs behind McKay, weaves between the two of them. Sheppard's thumbs twitch almost imperceptibly on the controls, his eyes following the car.

"The traction on the new wheels is awesome," Sheppard says distractedly.

McKay is staring at him, finding it difficult to stop. "Yes, well, as expected."

There should be more there, but McKay's mind goes blank. Not blank, precisely, but blurred, overexposed, like the sun is shining in his eyes though it's not, it's behind the city. He looks at Sheppard's slim wrists and then up to the sloping line of his shoulders, and McKay's mouth is dry, his eyes hot, not at all certain what's going on right now.

"You're not making too many friends right now," Sheppard tells him with unbearable nonchalance.

McKay clenches his hands into fists. "Oh well, stop the presses."

Little smirk tipping Sheppard's restored mouth, making something turn over in McKay's stomach. "Even worse than usual, is what I hear."

"From whom?"

Sheppard shrugs. "Sources."

McKay scoffs. "Ah yes, unnamed sources, how very trustworthy they are."

"Unnamed to you," Sheppard says with a mean grin.

The RC car revs mockingly at McKay's feet, and he thinks about kicking it into the ocean, but then he wouldn't be able to steal the wheels off it later.

"If Zelenka is fomenting rebellion, he might at least have the balls to do it to my face," McKay says, scowling.

"That seems like a less than effective way to foment rebellion," Sheppard points out, and McKay hates that, so goddamn clever all the time.

"What do you care, anyway?" McKay mutters.

"I care." Sheppard sounds wounded, but that's not real. The wind has shoved his hair to the side, steep soft-looking angles.

"Right," McKay snorts. "I'm sure worrying about my social standing is keeping you up nights. You being Captain Popular of Atlantis Junior High, and all."

"So hostile," delivered with another one of those heartless smirks, and what Sheppard needs is a good smack, McKay's hand itching at his side. "I'm only trying to help, you know."

"I don't know that."

"Jesus, McKay." A breath punches out of Sheppard, and he lets the controller fall, the car going silent. "What crawled up your ass?"

"Nothing, nothing, what," McKay says fast. "Just because some of the incompetents in my department like to whine, that doesn't mean-"

"Oh give me a break," and Sheppard is glaring at him, that awfully familiar why-the-hell-was-I-hanging-out-with-you look creeping into the edges of his expression. "This is all since Eridanus. You're pissed at me, and you're taking it out on everybody else."

"I can't be pissed at you and everybody else at the same time? That runs directly counter to years of experience, I gotta say."

"I don't even know what's got you so worked up," Sheppard says. "What, you just got the message that the job is a little dangerous?"

"It's not--you don't-" and there are few things McKay hates more in this world that incoherence, the words backing up in his throat, too thick to come out one by one. Sheppard affects him so easily, it's insane.

McKay huffs in a deep breath, looking past Sheppard to the high knife-like towers of their city. Sheppard waits him out, watching McKay in that way of his that might as well be audible.

"You're military," McKay says once he's got it in order in his head. "You know about acceptable risks."

"Uh, yeah," Sheppard answers in the dumb guy voice that McKay can't stand, but he's not going to get into that now.

"That's fine, whatever. Obviously there's a degree of peril to everything we do out here, obviously that's part of the appeal or else none of us would have stepped through in the first place. Acceptable risk. But then there's the stuff that you pull, which is different: it's pointless and unnecessary and potentially fatal, it's unacceptable. For example. Letting the Eridanis beat the shit out of you just so you could get out of the cell, get a look around? That's an unacceptable goddamn risk, Colonel, do you get that?"

It sounds pretty good coming out of his mouth, confident and well-reasoned and strident, and McKay thinks maybe he'll get away with this for once, but then he sneaks a glance at Sheppard's face and it's like quarantine protocols kicking in, every door in Atlantis shunting closed at once. McKay bites his tongue, tries to brace himself.

"Thanks, McKay," Sheppard says, but of course he doesn't mean that, he never means what he seems to. "It's great to hear how totally fucked you think my judgment is, that's really neat."

"That isn't what-" I was trying to say, but McKay swallows it back, suddenly not sure if it could be taken in any other way. It might have been exactly what he was trying to say, just sounds worse coming from Sheppard himself. "I mean. You, obviously you have your good moments as well."

Sheppard sneers, and the RC car growls in abrupt counterpoint, making McKay start because he'd forgotten about it and it sounds like a tiny man-eating creature when you're not expecting it.

"Fantastic. I get to die a horrible death from self-inflicted stupidity, but I also have my good moments! I'm all cheered up now." Sheppard bites off a huge joyless smile.

McKay throws up his hands, his throat tight. "I don't even know why I bother talking to you."

"Yeah, search the fuck out of me," and Sheppard is turning away, jerking his head weirdly like he's spotted a bee or something. The RC car zips after him, a perfectly trained pet. Tossed over his shoulder like a flicked cigarette, Sheppard says, "Don't hurry back or anything, Rodney. Everybody's getting by just fine without you."

McKay turns towards the ocean rather than watch Sheppard go. He can feel his blood moving, overly hot and sluggish. He's aware that his face is burning, his heart pounding like Sheppard had actually taken a swing at him, and maybe that would have been better.

"After all, that last thing was pretty cruel," McKay says to the water, and the wind is bad enough that he can't even really hear it himself.

*

The next day, Ronon collars McKay outside the mess and drags him against his will to the gym.

Half an hour after that, McKay lies on his back on the sticky blue mat, panting up at the ceiling.

"Better," Ronon says, not even breathing hard.

McKay sucks in air through his open mouth and glares at him, one hand flat to his sternum where a bruise in the shape of Ronon's fist is even now shading into existence. His legs feel watery, all that ducking and rolling and bracing against Ronon's weight. There's a fabric burn on his elbow that tingles like hydrochloric acid.

"You should be running with me and Sheppard," Ronon says. "You breathe like an old woman."

No doubt McKay's comeback would have crippled him, but sadly he lacks the air to properly deliver it. He settles for making the obscene Satedan gesture that Ronon taught them years ago. Ronon grins sharkish, and fires the gesture's female equivalent right back at him.

McKay recovers slowly, thunder dying out in his ears, his skin rattling and flushing and cooling. Ronon brings him a bottle of water that's incentive enough to get McKay sitting upright, and Ronon hunkers down next to him, his dreads swinging and making McKay think of wind chimes.

"I'll have you know that I have excellent lung capacity," McKay tells him once he can without his breath hitching. "I took a spirometer test at McMurdo and ranked off the charts."

"I don't know what that is," Ronon says and then raises a hand to cut off McKay's explanation. "Wasn't asking."

"Yes, well. If you'd prefer to labor in ignorance, no skin off my nose." McKay sniffs, takes another long drink of water.

Ronon is giving him a well-worn look, you-Earthlings-say-the-strangest-things, but he grunts good-naturedly, gets to his feet and offers McKay a hand. McKay could do with another few minutes on the floor, but even in the Pegasus Galaxy machismo is a force to be reckoned with, and so he allows Ronon to haul him up.

"Are you coming to dinner tonight?" Ronon asks as they're putting their shoes back on.

McKay suffers a flash, sitting around a table with the team and Sheppard ignoring him just as cool and easy as everyone else who ever has; it's just McKay so who cares if you pretend he's not there?

"Ah, no, no, I think not," he answers, kinda fumbling with it. "I'm, I've been very much engaged with these, these energy simulations, an effort to redistribute the power flow in the city to establish more streamlined emergency protocols, it's really, it's quite important that I, I attend to it," and god knows McKay could have gone on in that vein for whole minutes longer, but Ronon's smirking at him, and it curls an uncomfortable fist in McKay's stomach, weird hinky expression that Ronon obviously learned from Sheppard, and for whatever inane reason that shuts McKay up.

Ronon quirks his eyebrows, makes a vague growl that's irritating in that it illuminates exactly nothing, and waits until they're in the hallway, about to go their separate ways, before asking, "Sheppard doesn't like you anymore, huh?"

McKay freezes, physically and internally and mentally, really in all ways. He stares down the hallway to the transporter, where two military personnel are leaning on the wall talking and sharing a Hershey's. Too far away to hear and he doesn't know why he cares anyway. The water bottle he's still holding crinkles in his grip.

"That. That is an extremely uninformed analysis of the situation," McKay says after a moment.

"Yeah?" Ronon says, sounding simultaneously bored and expectant.

"Yes. Yes. He doesn't--it isn't dislike, he's just mad at me." That sounds unaccountably self-defeating, so McKay adds, "And I'm mad at him, of course. It's a, a, a mutual kind of thing."

"Huh," Ronon says, managing to convey volumes of skepticism in it.

"It's true," McKay says weakly. His skin feels like it's trying to crawl away.

"You'd know better than me," Ronon says, suspiciously agreeable. McKay glares at him.

"I'm sure people occasionally got into fights with each other on Sateda. You can quit acting like this is some freaky Earth behavior the only purpose of which is to amuse you."

A faint grin flickers across Ronon's face. "Okay."

"You're really very annoying," McKay mutters, and heads for the transporter, gritting his teeth and nodding stiffly at the military guys. Ronon follows him in, and leans against the wall in a way that feels mildly accusatory.

"It'll blow over, anyway," McKay says to the glowing map, city all spread out under his hand.

"Hope so," Ronon answers. "Sheppard's no fun anymore either, all moody all the time."

McKay blinks, briefly shaken. "That probably doesn't have anything to do with me."

Ronon huffs a little laugh. "Stupid."

The impudence. McKay turns to give Ronon a vicious look. "I'm one of the smartest people you'll ever meet."

That's just plain fact, but it doesn't keep Ronon from shrugging and half-grinning and replying, "Still sound pretty stupid to me."

The transporter comes shuddering to a halt, saving McKay the trouble of responding, and he fires Ronon another glare before stalking away without bothering to say goodbye.

The rest of that day is no better. By the time McKay is choking down a Powerbar with one hand still on the keyboard, 3:27 in the morning and red-eyed and all alone, he has picked out half a dozen fatal flaws in the logic of friendship; he could write a goddamn thesis.

*

The first mission the team is sent on once Beckett greenlights Sheppard is a dangerless milkrun to T9X-829. They're going with aspirin and multivitamins and band-aids (somehow no one anticipated how valuable the simple genius of a band-aid would be in a galaxy where a majority of the people live in caves and mud-huts), to offer for trade at the big interplanetary market.

McKay furthers his ongoing campaign to win Teyla back onto his side by bringing her a package of powdered mini-donuts from his private stash (even in another galaxy, the person has yet to be found who can resist powdered mini-donuts). Ronon scowls murderously until McKay sacrifices one of his own donuts to the cause of group morale (and not getting his face smashed in), and they eat in the back of the jumper, licking their fingers like kids. Sheppard flies and sometimes when McKay looks up Sheppard is looking back over his shoulder at them, expression inscrutable.

The people on T9X-829 call themselves the Lejardan, and in addition to the market, they're in the middle of their bi-annual games when the team from Atlantis shows up. There are fields and pits and rings all writhing and a-grunt with women and men engaged in half-recognizable sports, field hockey combined with rugby, pseudo-judo heavily featuring elements of classical ballet, Greco-Roman wrestling hilariously infused into something that appears to be condensed capture-the-flag.

Teyla navigates the sprawling market like she was born to it, and soon enough they're seated on animal hides in the magistrate's tent, passing wooden plates of food back and forth.

The Lejardan magistrate is a pretty good guy, tall and stodgy with a gray raw-boned face and an always vaguely aggrieved air. It's clear that he adores Teyla like a daughter, which helps put everyone at ease.

"You are all welcome to participate in the games, of course," the magistrate tells them.

Ronon makes intrigued pre-verbal sounds, while McKay stuffs his mouth with bread (the odds of planets in Pegasus having naturally occurring yeast spores in the air work out to approximately 23.8% chance each time through the gate, so McKay's not inclined to take it for granted). The other Lejardan ministers get in on the act of describing the various athletic perils on offer, which McKay largely tunes out until Sheppard starts asking questions too.

"So, it's more points if you hit here?" and Sheppard chops slow-motion at the juncture of Ronon's neck and shoulder. "And here?" Another blow moving through molasses, digging into the center of Ronon's sternum, and a totally foreign feeling churns slowly in McKay as he watches Sheppard pretending again.

"The daclav," one of the ministers says with a nod, gesturing to his own neck, and then chest, "the rasleem."

"Cool," Sheppard says with an eager tone that scrapes the wrong way down McKay's spine.

"Surely you're not actually considering this?" McKay hears himself say, too loud. Everyone looks at him.

"I mean," McKay says, and then stops, blinking at the faces staring back at him, feeling his ears go hot. The Lejardans are polite and inquisitive, but there's dire warning all over Teyla's face. Sheppard, god only knows what's going on in Sheppard's head.

"It sounds great," McKay makes himself say, fashioning a painless look to go along with it. "The colonel is just. He's just recently recovered from an injury. That's all I meant to say."

Sheppard's mouth curls up almost exactly like a smile, his eyes hard. "Rodney's always looking out for me," he says, sweet as sugar, and McKay could throttle him sometimes.

Ronon enters the tournament, and they spend the rest of the afternoon watching him fight on swept-clean circles of dirt. He keeps knocking his opponents unconscious but still only squeaking by on points, flashing happy white-toothed snarls with his dreads whipping as he ducks and rolls and comes up elbow-first.

McKay wanders away after not too long of this. Violence is enough of a leit motif in his life that he doesn't need to spend his leisure time on it too. The games and market are as crowded as any single place he's been since coming to the Pegasus Galaxy, which is mostly due to Zelenka and Chaturvedi fixing the long-range sensors in this solar system six months ago, somewhat tempering the ever-present threat of gruesome death from above. Every shape and shade of person, tiny kids darting around like moths and guys laughing over blue liquor and traders bartering rapid-fire. Domesticated animals closer to llamas than horses baa petulantly in the background, crazy singing red chicken-things in wire cages serenading McKay as he goes past.

At the edge of the market is a rough line of trees, and McKay finds it easier to think the farther away he gets from the dimming rabble of humanity. Undergrowth crunches beneath him, thin bark flaking off like ash when he touches a tree trunk.

Eventually there's a break, a small open rise in the land with tall yellow grass for McKay to plop down in, digging a Powerbar out of his vest because he never stops being sorta hungry.

The sun is setting on the other side of the planet, and on this side there are two moons staggering into the sky, white half-coins gaining definition as it gets darker. McKay has been waiting approximately thirty-five years to get to a place where there are two moons, ever since he first saw the Earth's and wanted immediately to see another one.

It's peaceful and unhurried for all of five minutes, possibly a new record, and then Sheppard shows up.

He just appears, one crackling footstep and then his lanky dark form folding down next to McKay's in the grass. Sheppard's knees bend like jackknifes. A sigh rustles out of him as he settles in.

McKay is profoundly startled for about ten seconds, staring at Sheppard with a blown-open look on his face, and then he gets his wits about him.

"Colonel. Fancy meeting you here."

Sheppard tips his head, not really looking at McKay because there are two moons and all. "I honestly think a pack of wild boars might leave a more subtle trail to follow than you do."

"Well," and banter, easy ping-ponging banter that he never has to so much think about but where is it now, his mind jamming. "There, there wasn't any point in excessive stealth, was there? Having no reason to think anyone might want to follow me, after all."

"Teyla sent me after you."

"Oh." McKay is suspicious at once. He gives Sheppard a sidelong look, watching him methodically snap long stiff blades of grass into tiny pieces. "Why did she do that, do you think?"

One of Sheppard's shoulders hitches up. "I guess she was afraid you might accidentally start a war."

"Ha ha," McKay says with little to no humor. "Do you plan out these little bon mots ahead of time, or what?"

"That one wasn't even very good," Sheppard answers, and McKay flaps a hand at him, annoyed.

"Is Ronon going to win the Mudball Olympics?"

"Maybe not. They finally found some guys in his weight class."

McKay makes a dismissive sound. "There's being evenly matched physically, and then going up against someone with about fifteen years of professional soldiering and killing Wraith on his resume. I'm putting my money on our guy."

"I'll tell him that," Sheppard says with glancing smile that hits McKay's eyes like sunlight off car chrome, and other things that don't exist on this side of the universe.

A moment passes, the moons climbing the sky. Sheppard has his hands hanging off his knees, his face tipped upwards, and McKay finds himself looking at the line of Sheppard's throat, the ducking slide of his Adam's apple and the hollow under his jaw.

"Also," Sheppard says eventually. "I never intended to enter the damn tournament, I just wanted to know how it worked."

"Right, yes, whatever," McKay mutters, twisting his fist in the dirt on the side of his body that Sheppard can't see. "As if it would be so out of character for you."

"You gotta stop that overprotective stuff already," Sheppard says, and McKay jolts like he's been pricked, his eyes widening.

"It's not. Overprotective, that's a terrible word for it."

"Yeah? What would you call it?"

"Common sense, I would call it. I would call it a reasonable level of concern predicated on a pattern of excessive recklessness and traumatic near misses."

Worse things battle for space in McKay's mind. He could be so easily cruel, dig into those carefully concealed soft places on Sheppard, get him angry, get rid of him that way. McKay could be left alone again with the two moons and yellow grass, have some room to breathe.

McKay bites the inside of his lip instead. He doesn't want to fight with Sheppard right now.

"You act like it's something new," Sheppard says, sounding similarly cautious with his words, shaping each one. "We've been out here better than three years now, and I don't think I've gotten any worse at not getting myself killed. Why's it suddenly bothering you so much?"

McKay shakes his head because he honestly doesn't know. Something to do with the Eridanis shoving Sheppard into that cell with his face covered in blood, how Sheppard had fallen to his knees and met McKay's eyes and smiled at him like it was any other day, hey buddy how you been, that pretty fishhooked smile that was maybe the worst thing McKay's ever seen in his life, and what's that mean, what's he supposed to do with it?

McKay clears his throat. "Maybe it's like. Saturation. Maybe the accumulation is the point. It's been three years. We've come to. Rely on you."

A pause, and McKay realizes in an absent kind of way that he's holding his breath. In his peripheral vision Sheppard's fingers work down another stalk of grass, breaking it into pieces smaller than confetti.

"You have, huh," Sheppard says in a low voice, and McKay fights off a shiver.

"Yes, yes of course, we all do. Everyone."

Sheppard's hand still, bits of grass sprinkling down. McKay is aware that Sheppard's eyes are on him, and it seems incredibly important that he not look back in turn.

"Except you're the only one mad at me right now."

That's not true. McKay's chest hurts with how very much that is not true.

"I wouldn't call it--I'm not mad," McKay says.

"You do a really good impression then."

"I don't," and McKay stops, sucks in a quick breath. "I don't really know what to call it, actually."

Sheppard makes a small noise that kinda falls and agrees with him, know what you mean, and that's weird because Sheppard can't know what McKay means if McKay doesn't know what McKay means. He forgets himself and looks over at Sheppard, catching Sheppard looking back, all soft and strange around the eyes.

A breath sticks in McKay's throat. He says, "I think I'd go crazy if you got killed," without planning it, without even knowing that it was there to be said.

Sheppard's eyes go wide, his face blanking at once and something shuts hard in McKay. He flinches and goes cold and rips his eyes away from Sheppard, lifting them desperately to the sky.

Then Sheppard's hand is on his face, Sheppard's rough fingertips sliding clumsily over McKay's jaw, and McKay turns back to him against his will, his mouth twisted in a hard line but Sheppard doesn't care, Sheppard kisses him anyway. Off-line and quick and scraping sweet, Sheppard's lower lip dragging against his own, and then Sheppard pulls back, looking dumbstruck.

McKay gapes at him. His mouth tingles and feels unwieldy, as if it would be swollen to the touch. Sheppard kissed him. Heat uncoils in McKay's stomach, flushing his skin as he watches Sheppard's face turn slowly red, and they must be feeling the exact same thing right now, their bodies in an echo loop.

"I, uh," Sheppard says, and then cuts himself off, stymied. He fishes for words, and McKay stares at his mouth, imagines the soft shape of it crumpling, breaking, kissed too hard.

"Why did you do that?" McKay asks slowly.

Sheppard shakes his head, a frantic edge shivering through his eyes. "I don't know," and his voice cracks, shocking them both. Sheppard clears his throat harshly, sounds painful, and then he's scrambling to his feet, one hand jerking out a fistful of yellow grass. "Sorry."

"No, hey," McKay says, meaning, don't go, you idiot, and maybe a little bit, don't be sorry, but Sheppard is already into the trees, shoulders up and head down, unreachable.

*

In the forty-two hours that pass before McKay sees Sheppard alone again, he has time to think things through.

It's an exhaustive endeavor. He has to start at the command chair in Antarctica, Sheppard's curious dozy expression and the irrational spikes of his hair, and then the gleefully young look on his face as he leveled his gun at McKay's invulnerable chest, the heavy slap of his hands shoving McKay over the railing in the gateroom. The first time they went on a mission together, the first time Sheppard saved his life and the first time McKay returned the favor, the first time Sheppard stole some of his food. All the way back, and then forward again.

Was there evidence that Sheppard had wanted to kiss him? Further to the point: was there evidence that McKay had wanted him to?

Initial conclusions: yes, and yes.

It's incredibly demoralizing. As a general rule, McKay prides himself on being much more self-aware.

Evidence in support accumulates endlessly inside his head.

There's Sheppard miles asleep on the floor of the jumper after flying it for thirty-one hours straight, his T-shirt dragged halfway off, one arm free, Sheppard's bare chest bisected diagonally with soft black fabric, and there's McKay fixing the control panel and carrying on a one-sided conversation with Sheppard's unconscious form, letting his eyes skitter over Sheppard's body whenever the panic started to get to him.

There's McKay frozen to the ends of his fingers and the tip of his nose, because Wraith ships had been spotted on the far side of the solar system and they'd had to divert power from climate control to cloak generation, and there's Sheppard appearing like magic with coffee steaming in his hands even though they'd run out weeks ago. There's McKay thinking that Sheppard was a cold-induced hallucination, smirky look-what-I-got-you smile on his face like something McKay might have dreamed about once, and the agonizing sting of the warm mug against his numb skin, every nerve coming hugely alive.

There's the too-small tent on M8Z-235, lying back to back with Sheppard and arguing about popular science fiction, and when Sheppard laughed McKay could feel the burring off-rhythm of it, Sheppard's knobby shoulder blades pushing against his own where their sleeping bags were scrunched down. There's McKay with one hand under his cheek and his eyes closed, trying to picture Sheppard's face because it didn't happen very often, Sheppard laughing like that.

There's that time McKay woke up from the coma to find Sheppard asleep in a chair at his bedside, which he had chalked up to luck of the draw, seeing as how it was bound to be a teammate keeping vigil with him and one in three is pretty good odds. And there's McKay weakly flicking a paper cup at Sheppard to wake him up, and how when Sheppard opened his eyes and met McKay's, he grinned, not a smirk or halfway but a full genuine grin crunching his eyes at the corners and showing the one crooked tooth that almost always stayed hidden, and how the sight of it made McKay feel even better than the morphine.

Christ on a crutch. It might have been blatantly obvious.

McKay could not be more annoyed. As demanded by the dictates of due diligence, he forces himself to compile a list of the most excruciating kind, a list of stuff he should have already known.


1. You are theoretically infatuated with your best friend, someone who:

a. plays dumb despite being very (relatively) smart
b. has a death wish
c. for his career chose 'hired killer'
i. in a military that forbids homosexuals
d. speaks irony as his first language
e. argues that flux capacitors are a plausible technology (cf. playing dumb)
f. has a Y-chromosome
g. kissed you first

2. WHERE IS YOUR BRAIN?
The list is not super helpful. McKay can't even figure out if it's in some kind of order, if there's a hierarchy to this disaster. The sheet of paper gets balled up around a loonie and chucked into the ocean, because McKay has been feeling melodramatic recently. Another thing that can probably be blamed on Sheppard.

McKay spends thirty-seven of the forty-two hours in his lab, doesn't let Zelenka throw him out this time. McKay isn't sleeping, so he's much harder to get the drop on.

Most of the first night is devoted to the gay thing. Twenty-plus years on from puberty, it's almost entirely unexpected, something he long since stopped worrying about.

There have been two (2) incidents in McKay's life that might now seem to resemble foreshadowing: his chess camp roommate when he was fourteen, beaky slick-haired boy who lived and died (and mostly died) by the Two Knights Defense, and the unskilled mutual handjob they'd shared on the cold linoleum floor of the college dorm where they were staying that summer, and how they didn't really talk much after that; and the night janitor of the physics building where McKay essentially lived during his first doctoral studies, a young quiet Latino guy who started taking his breaks in the lab after McKay offered him a cup of coffee one night, and eventually pulled McKay into a supply closet to give him a slow thoughtful blowjob that McKay was too sick with exhaustion and theoretical physics to protest. McKay forgot the chess camp roommate's name years ago. He wants to say the janitor was called Javier, but don't quote him on that.

Not much of a foundation, clearly. McKay hasn't kept numerical track of his sexual encounters since he was twenty-three (or twenty-six if you want to get pedantic and count mental tallies), but he's pretty sure those two random homosexual interactions are statistically insignificant compared to the thousands of women that have paraded before and behind (mostly behind) his eyes.

But he thinks about Sheppard that night.

It's an idea that's been put into his head and McKay was of course designed to extensively consider the ideas put into his head.

Awake on the rack cot, staring up at the low pulse of blue set into the walls that is the city's version of running lights, McKay considers Sheppard.

Sheppard has a sleepy-seeming face and hands that dangle as if the screws connecting them to his wrists are perpetually loose. His eyes are not green but something close to it. He is lean and pointy and his knees are funny-looking. He has hair on his chest and legs and face, scratchy stubble that McKay has a distant memory of, sandpaper on the inside of his wrist when he was searching for Sheppard's pulse. There is a formless scar on Sheppard's neck from the Iratus bug, and another like a silver ruler line drawn over his shoulder, from the time Ronon's knife slipped a bit as he was cutting Sheppard's bonds. Sheppard's mouth, the odd crushable shape of it, soft lower lip that McKay can suddenly imagine the head of his cock sliding over in stunning detail. He can imagine how Sheppard's eyebrows would pinch together as he concentrated, sucking McKay in so carefully, eyes flicking up to check and make sure he was doing okay. McKay can imagine the small wet noises from the back of Sheppard's throat and the heat of his tongue and the cautious slip of his fingers tracing the parts of McKay that he could reach. He can imagine rocking his hips forward, pressing deep as Sheppard's eyes flutter gratefully shut, and McKay's hand winds through that beautiful mess of hair.

McKay drops back into himself, gasping. He has one hand shoved down his pants, tight grip around his erection which is already damp and quivering, and Jesus Christ.

So, all right. Maybe he does want to make out with Sheppard a little bit. Human sexuality is a spectrum, and somewhere along it every one of us must lie, and McKay gets giddy and lightheaded for a minute, biting his tongue and twitching in his hand as he thinks about Sheppard lying somewhere along the spectrum of human sexuality.

He's losing his goddamn mind. Luckily, McKay's always been adaptable. A belated attack of bisexuality isn't going to be the thing that ruins him, that he can state pretty confidently.

But then, during the second night, which is a haze of power differentials and black dredged coffee and the mini candy canes left over from the holidays making his mouth buzz and freeze with peppermint, an apocalyptic thought occurs to McKay.

If they're best friends and they want to have sex with each other, then they probably fit a few other definitions too.

McKay gapes at his computer monitor, a candy cane hooked in his lower lip, forgotten. It's not possible, surely.

Hands shaking (he really needs to get some sleep), McKay starts a new list.

It's much shorter than the first, because after writing the first line McKay is obliged to let the pen fall from nerveless fingers and stare blankly into space for awhile.

1. You are theoretically in love with John Sheppard.

Not to mince words, but the thought is fucking terrifying. Worse than Wraith or Goa'uld or Replicators or the entire weight of the ocean resting blackly on top of his crippled jumper, worse than anything else so far in the macabre extraterrestrial carnival that is his life.

And on top of that, flatly astonishing. John Sheppard, of all the people in this galaxy and the other. After every hazard, every near-death experience, every alien piece of fruit that hasn't killed him: John motherfucking Sheppard for the win.

Obviously there is no way this ends well. McKay isn't certain where his surety on the matter comes from, but there's coalescing dread in his stomach and a thick feeling in his throat, and one thing that has been drilled into him pretty goddamn well by this point is to trust his instincts.

McKay destroys the second list over a Bunsen burner. Even sunk to the bottom of the sea wouldn't be gone enough for him this time.

*

Badly adrift and getting worse by the minute, McKay seeks assistance. If television hasn't been lying to him all these years, that's what friends are for.

Teyla and Ronon are conveniently located in the same place, squaring off with sticks in the gym. McKay watches them for awhile, and almost loses his nerve. They're all balletic and swift and fierce, easy grunting breaths and the flat packing sound of a landed blow, the wicked grins the two of them fire back and forth. Teyla is bright with sweat, glowing, her slick shoulders twisting out of Ronon's radius. He snarls affectionately and fluidly sweep-kicks her legs out from under her instead, her body hitting the mat and rolling, popping right back up. McKay finds it ridiculous that these people even talk to him.

He waits until they take a rest, stooping to snag the two water bottles off the floor. Teyla takes hers with a breathy thank you, and finishes half the bottle in one long swallow. McKay notices that he's staring at her smooth moving throat, and some annoying little voice in his mind hollers, see still straight! as if that's freakin' relevant at the moment.

Ronon looms, baring his teeth in the caveman equivalent of a friendly smile. "You wanna take a turn?"

"Good lord. No, no I do not at all want to take a turn getting the stuffing beat out of me by either of you. Thanks for asking, but no and then no some more."

"All right, nobody's twisting your arm," Ronon says with a bite like maybe he kinda wants to twist McKay's arm, and who the hell taught him that particular idiom, anyway? God help them all if Satedans turn out to be literal-minded.

"Ah," McKay says. "I was actually hoping to--that is, I wondered if you might have a minute to. Talk?"

The formality of it is weird and off-putting and McKay kinda winces. Teyla's eyes narrow, giving him a closer look as she swipes a towel over her face and neck.

"Of course, Rodney," she says. "You wish to speak with the both of us?"

A quick glance at Ronon because McKay will probably never get over thinking of him as the wild card in their motley little band, but he nods because the team thing has come to mean a great deal to him against all expectations, and anyway, no one in Atlantis knows Sheppard better than these two.

"Here, let's, um," McKay says, leading them to a transporter and then to the edge of the city. It's paranoia, no doubt, that sense he has of eavesdropping American military around every corner, but this conversation is going to be traumatic enough even without anybody within two kilometers of them.

Teyla and Ronon are curious and quiet on the trip out, exchanging a few looks that McKay is irrationally relieved to see are free of malice.

They end up on a balcony overlooking the piers. They're a hundred feet up or so, just stuck to the side of one of the city's spires in the vicious wind. McKay scans the ocean for whales without thought.

"Rodney?" Teyla says, and McKay turns back to them. "It is good you asked us to talk. You have seemed greatly distressed recently."

"Also you've been more of a jerk than usual," Ronon adds, earning an admonishing look from Teyla that has him raising his eyebrows and spreading out his hands, all innocence.

"Thank you, yes," McKay says. His eyes dart between the two of them and then up, away. He swallows a few times, staring at the steep rise of the spire above them, dagger against the sky.

"I've been. Well. Distressed, as you say. And, ah, I think it will probably not surprise you to learn that it's, that is, the situation involves, um."

He trails off, appalled to realize that he's blushing, and Ronon helpfully finishes for him, "It's about Sheppard, right?"

"Ah." McKay feels behind him for the balcony rail, grabbing hold with one hand. "That may be superficially accurate. I mean, if you insist on dumbing it down a whole bunch."

Ronon smirks, tipping his head to indicate oh I insist. The wind has his dreadlocks thudding against his shoulders, whapping into his face. McKay thinks uncharitably that hair like that has to be the least sensible style possible for a guy with Ronon's day job.

"What is the root of your disagreement with him?" Teyla asks, her eyes all lit up with that problem-solving gleam of hers.

McKay tightens his grip on the balcony rail, cold metal cutting lines across his palm. "It's. Complicated."

"You make things complicated even when they're not," Ronon says.

"That is not true," McKay snaps. "At least, not, not this time."

"What has happened?" Teyla asks again, patience like a secret weapon.

"It's. There's." Nothing, McKay's got nothing. This is much harder than he anticipated it being. His face screws up with frustration, the insides of his cheeks sucked between his teeth.

Teyla and Ronon wait him out. It's a new experience for McKay, having people around who know him well enough to just wait, not sneering or laughing at him behind their hands, just watching, keeping an eye.

McKay takes a few deep breaths. He kinda turns away so he can look out over the piers. When they first got here, he used to look for seagulls automatically, just because back on Earth where there were piers and ocean, so followed the birds. He got over that awhile ago.

"Sheppard did something strange," McKay says. He glances at them in time to see them glance at each other.

"He does a lot of strange things," Ronon says equably, arms crossed over his chest like a gate.

"Stranger, and you can trust me on this. Whole new level of strange. Exponentially strange."

McKay waves his hands around to demonstrate how truly outré the whole being-kissed-by-Sheppard thing was. Teyla and Ronon glance at each other again, and then Teyla lifts an eyebrow at McKay that feels faintly accusatory.

"It would be easier to give you our advice if we understood the specifics of the situation," she says.

"Yes, I'm sure it would," McKay mumbles, looking down. "Sadly, that's not really something I can offer at this particular point in time."

"Why not?"

"It's not--it's, it's. Personal?" and McKay hates his own uncertainty, the creeping falling quality to his voice.

Ronon makes a rough sound that's part laugh and part growl of impatience, and asks, "Can I skip to the end here?"

"Ronon," Teyla says warningly, and McKay shoots a suspicious look at her.

"It's stupid," Ronon says, glaring at McKay as if he's somehow at fault. "They're both stupid."

"Excuse me," McKay says hotly, but Ronon only leans forward and says, "He kissed you, didn't he?"

McKay kinda whites out, shock so pure it takes his sight away, and when he comes back to himself Teyla is reading Ronon the riot act and Ronon is scowling like a freakin' carved idol, hunching his shoulders and giving McKay an assortment of dirty looks. McKay is reeling, feels like he's been knocked upside the head and thrown through a stargate without knowing the address.

"Wait wait wait," McKay says, batting at Teyla's arm because coordination is way too much to ask of him right now. McKay's head feels blown open, his eyes enormous and white. "How did you know that? Does everybody know?"

"No, of course not," Teyla says in her soothing put-down-the-gun voice. She lays a kind hand on McKay's shoulder. "Ronon knows you both very well, that is all."

McKay blinks at her, insanely off-balance. "And you--you know us too."

"Yes."

"So you think we're, we're. You think that too?"

Teyla hesitates and then her mouth sets, her steady eyes a metal alloy color. "I have suspected at times that there might be a . . . depth of feeling between yourself and the colonel that you had not yet explored."

"Oh my god," McKay says, effortlessly interpreting that as three years of sexual tension that everyone recognized but you, dumbass. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because it is not my business," Teyla says with a sharp look back at Ronon, who stubbornly refuses to look abashed. "It is for the two of you to work out as you will."

"Yeah, because that's going so well." McKay scrubs his face with his hands. "What am I supposed to do now?"

"Seriously?" Ronon asks, all disbelief and exasperation. "Aren't you supposed to be smart?"

"Is that what you call helping!"

Ronon shakes his head, a minor laugh escaping and making his shoulders hitch. McKay would totally take a swing at him because it is not funny, but of course Ronon could squash him like a bug, and so he only balls his fists up and steams.

Teyla is much better at reading the room. She pats McKay's elbow, a painstaking look on fond concern on her face. "I believe you must have this conversation with John."

"Conversation's not what you need to have with him," Ronon says under his breath, and without looking away from McKay, Teyla stomps hard on his toe. Ronon yelps, which would normally be very amusing but McKay's brain is collapsing in on itself at the moment, so he can't appreciate it.

"No one else can claim to know what form the love between you and John takes," Teyla says as something vital in McKay short-circuits. "But you do not need to fear that he will scorn you, or belittle your friendship."

"How do you know?" McKay asks in a distressingly breathless tone.

"Have you ever actually met the guy?" Ronon says, still with that my-god-what-a-moron look on his face that McKay is much more accustomed to dispensing than absorbing. "He'd cut off his arm before letting any one of us get hurt."

"That, that is such ridiculous hyperbole I can't even begin to parse it for practical meaning," and McKay's hands are in flight again, his throat choking up.

Ronon shrugs. "Fine. Don't believe us and be miserable instead."

"And you're supposed to be my friends!" McKay shouts, maybe panicking a little but who could blame him?

"We are, Rodney," Teyla says with absolute certainty. "As is John, I promise you. You have nothing to fear from him."

"I really don't think that's true," McKay says desperately.

"C'mon, McKay," Ronon says, reaching out to cuff his shoulder with one giant ape paw. "What's the worst that could happen?"

McKay's mouth opens but only strangled sounds come out; there's so much wrong with that statement McKay can barely process it. Ronon grins and looks like an overgrown wolf cub and gives McKay a hardy little shake.

"Just gotta man up, buddy," Ronon tells him, and for just a second the biggest regret of McKay's life is ever making friends with any of these people.

*

But they're probably right.

After leaving Ronon and Teyla, McKay is almost hallucinating from the accumulated effects of insomnia and life-warping stress. He goes back to his room, showers and doesn't even have the energy to dry off, T-shirt and boxers clinging to him like cellophane as he faceplants on his bed. He sleeps like the dead for six hours, which isn't really enough, and wakes up around dinnertime from a dream about Sheppard's hands pushing his damp shirt up, Sheppard mouthing over his ribs.

The image lodges in McKay's mind, sense memory so strong it's like something that actually happened, callused fingertips on his chest, the trembling brush of Sheppard's hair on his stomach. McKay is impossibly distracted, and trips over exactly nothing in the hallway, sprawling full-out in front of a botanist and a security team, cold city floor bruising the heels of his hands. All the air in his lungs punches out of him, leaving an empty place behind.

McKay picks himself up, dragging the shreds of his dignity around him and not making eye contact with anyone. Clearly this is not sustainable.

The mess hall is serving the Pegasus Galaxy equivalent of turkey sandwiches, but Sheppard's not there. Teyla is eating with Kate Heightmeyer by the window, and evidently McKay is wearing his ongoing mental breakdown on his face like a white flag, because she only puts him through half a minute of agonizing small talk before mentioning casually that Colonel Sheppard had said he was going to the armory only just a moment ago.

Seems a longer walk than normal. Usually McKay can at least get a mild intellectual thrill at such irrefutable evidence of the theory of relativity, but the distraction thing has not let up much.

There is a Marine stationed outside the armory, one of the absurdly young ones whose head perches awkwardly on his skinny neck, and he smiles that dumb cornfed smile, saying, "Hey, Doc, you lookin' for the colonel?" and jamming a thumb over his shoulder at the door.

McKay maintains his vaguely aggrieved poker face, huffing past the Marine with a quick, "Yes, yes, excuse me."

The armory is gray and blue and always dimmer than it should be ever since lightning hit the power conduits in this section. There is a rack of tac vests and a big cage full of weaponry, and it's eerily hushed until a triple-crack of gunshots shatters the calm. McKay jumps most of the way out of his skin, and stalks down to the end of the firing range, pulse tangibly too fast in his veins.

Sheppard is in the last stall, big shiny red earmuffs clamped over his head. He doesn't notice McKay at first, eyes focused on the murdered paper man at the end of the shooting line. Sheppard squeezes out another few shots and McKay's skin vibrates, the hair on his arms standing on end.

Needing a moment to get his heart rate under control, McKay studies Sheppard, the converging lines of his forearms and the slope of his neck and the fraction of his face that McKay can see, his angling cheek and narrow jaw, and McKay could recognize him from this godawful angle even if there were a hundred men lined up in identical black uniforms with their weapons raised.

This is a terrible idea, McKay thinks for about the six thousandth time.

He waits until the gun clicks empty (because why go asking for trouble), and then says, "Sheppard."

Sheppard's shoulders tighten, and he pulls the earmuffs down to hang around his neck. He looks back at McKay, face perfectly regular and therefore unreadable, but McKay sees his throat move as he swallows fast.

"Hiya Rodney."

"Yes, hello." McKay fidgets, eyes darting from Sheppard's face to the gun in his hand to the safety of the walls. "Ah. How have you been?"

"Fine," Sheppard says. "And how are you?"

"Fine, fine," and sweet mercy, this is excruciating. McKay tugs at the edge of his shirt, gnawing on the inside of his cheek and doing everything he can not to stare at Sheppard's mouth.

Sheppard gives him a sidelong look, and then busies himself with popping the clip out of his Glock, inspecting it and chocking it back into place. This is the John Sheppard version of fiddling with his shirt hem, McKay realizes, and he relaxes the slightest bit.

"Ah. So," McKay says, trying very hard. "I've always been in favor of addressing things that are incredibly obvious and distracting, where do you stand on that?"

There's a rough moment there when Sheppard freezes and his eyes dart around like a cornered rabbit and the gun wavers in his hand, and McKay experiences dread on a whole new level, but then Sheppard's forehead smooths out and his mouth gets small. He shrugs, not really looking at McKay.

"Yeah, whatever."

"Oh well, thank you, what a generous concession." McKay stops himself before he can snipe any further, remembering abruptly that the working hypothesis is that he's in love with this guy, and should perhaps act accordingly. He sighs inwardly.

"So," McKay tries again, staring intently at Sheppard's left ear. "That thing that happened."

Sheppard won't help him out. He switches the gun from one hand to the other, and then back again, thumbing the safety on and off, little clicks. His ears have turned bright red, and McKay has never seen Sheppard this nervous, it's fascinating.

"You should know," McKay says, kinda reedy but if he stops to clear his throat he'll lose all momentum, "it's not the kind of thing that happens to me all that often. The, obviously there's you being a guy, that's new. But even on a, a broader scale, I'm just not the type who gets randomly kissed by people I thought were friends."

Somehow that's wrong; Sheppard's face collapses minutely, almost undetectable but of course McKay is watching him pretty closely. It's in the break of his eyebrows, the instant shudder of the muscle in his jaw flexing. Like someone kicked him in the shins while he was trying to keep a straight face.

"I said I was sorry," Sheppard says, sounding kinda toneless.

"Yes, you did," and McKay hesitates, wanting to ask if Sheppard was still, but the possible answers are pretty scary. "I didn't. Didn't mean it as a bad thing, actually."

Sheppard doesn't say anything for a second. He's staring with disturbing intensity at McKay's shoes, which are not special shoes or in any way deserving of such scrutiny.

"How'd you mean it, then?" Sheppard asks.

"Just, it was unexpected. That's all. Not necessarily in a way that's entirely negative or, or, or entirely positive, which is just--the world doesn't exist in binary, you know."

"You don't say," Sheppard says in that tone that makes him sound a bit slow.

"Yes, so hopefully you'll excuse me for having a reaction slightly more complex than just good or bad."

Sheppard shrugs, still looking away. It's exceedingly strange to be having this kind of discussion with him, for McKay to have butterflies in his stomach and damp itchy palms and a dry mouth, and be looking at John Sheppard instead of someone more feasible. The tension between them is so specific, so totally damning.

"Weird stuff happens sometimes, McKay," Sheppard says. "I wouldn't read too much into it if I was you."

He holsters his weapon and moves to leave, but that's clearly a no, and McKay grabs his arm. Sheppard goes perfectly still, a breath hitching audibly in his chest.

McKay is struck dumb, but just for a moment. He doesn't let Sheppard go. Sheppard has the sleeves of his uniform shirt rolled up like always, so McKay is touching the bunch of fabric and the hollowed bare-skin place inside Sheppard's elbow at the same time.

"Can't help it," McKay says. "The reading into it, I mean. It's how my brain works, it, it's intractable."

"Yeah," Sheppard says, breathing out. His gaze is angled sharply down, staring at McKay's hand wrapped around his arm.

"You presented me with a problem," and McKay hears how he sounds kinda frayed at the edges, uneven. "Or a, a, a question. A hypothetical. Something previously unconsidered, but that's not--we live on the far side of a wormhole, I think 'previously unconsidered' has lost some of its stigma." He swallows. "So I. Considered."

His thumb twitches in the hollow of Sheppard's elbow, and Sheppard twitches like a circuit completing, his eyelashes flickering as he looks briefly at McKay.

"And what were your findings?" Sheppard asks softly, so soft it's like he doesn't really want McKay to hear him, but to hell with that. Willful denial has taken them about as far as McKay is going to allow.

"It's a bad idea," McKay tells him, and then flattens his other hand on Sheppard's chest and pushes him a few stumbling steps backwards until he hits the wall.

McKay stops, flustered by the solidity of Sheppard's body under his hands, the physical thud of his back meeting the wall. Sheppard's mouth is open slightly, his eyes very wide.

"Um," McKay says. He's close enough that he can feel Sheppard's boot against his toe. The lack of space between them crackles, shivers like heat warping the air, and Sheppard isn't trying to get away, not even a little bit.

"Bad idea," McKay says again, searching for his footing. "Your goddamn military's medieval regulations would be deterrent enough, like I'd ever want to stick my hand in that pot of crazy. But it's worse that that, do you see?"

He gives Sheppard a thumping shake, rattling him because he needs to get it, it's incredibly important. Sheppard's mouth makes a faint oh, one hand coming up to hook onto McKay's arm and McKay waits for Sheppard to shove him away but that doesn't happen. Sheppard just holds on to him, pliant against the wall, and McKay's mouth is bone-dry, his hands itching on the rough black of Sheppard's shirt.

McKay forges bravely ahead, this wild feeling growing like a weed in his chest that maybe he's going to get away with it. "I was already overly invested in you, I think that's been well-established. Do you have any idea how unsettling it is to realize that you would actually willingly die for another person? To actually want to say to the alien bad guys, 'take me instead'? What am I saying, of course you don't. Martyrdom is your default setting, isn't it?"

"McKay," Sheppard says hoarsely, but McKay can't listen to him right now, can't stop or move back.

"Shut up, shut up, just let me--let me explain it."

Sheppard looks like he wants to argue, that familiar flashing defiance in his eyes. McKay bears down on him, increases the pressure just enough, just saying please, and Sheppard subsides.

"I can't blame you for it," McKay says painfully. "I mean, I can. I'd like to. But I won't. Because it's a part of you, either the suicidal part or the hero part, flip a coin, but it's. I mean. You've always been like that. And I wouldn't--I don't want you to change."

Sheppard's eyes get big for a second, and McKay flushes vibrantly because he didn't necessarily mean for it to come out like that, all romantic and I-love-you-just-the-way-you-are, it's not like that. He's about eighty percent sure.

"It's infuriating," McKay says, hardening his voice in an attempt to regain the thread of the plot. "The distraction, have I mentioned the distraction element? I can't work with only half my brain. Don't think for a second that I'm not incredibly aggravated by this whole turn of events."

"Yeah, you seem pretty worked up," Sheppard says, and his hand tugs at the bend of McKay's arm, just enough to bring him an inch or two closer, which means a lot when they're already right on top of each other.

McKay sucks in a quick breath, eyes jumping from Sheppard's mouth to the shadow place under his jaw, the smooth line of his throat. This is actually going to happen, McKay is beginning to realize. Singing feeling like adrenaline starting up under his skin, heat traveling in his blood. Sheppard is watching him intently, the look on his face more like a dare than anything else.

"Of course, what did you expect," McKay says, disturbingly breathless. "You have to warn me. I'm not, I don't do well with surprises, has that really managed to escape your attention thus far?"

"No, I noticed," Sheppard answers. His thumb presses into McKay's arm. "Maybe it took me by surprise too."

That brings McKay up short, and he just blinks for a few moments, his fingers twitching in Sheppard's shirt. It honestly hadn't occurred to him. He's so accustomed to thinking of Sheppard as affably devious, shielded and machinating behind his dimwitted zoomie facade. Sheppard doesn't let things just happen to him.

"So wait," McKay says. "We're both completely oblivious? For three years? That can't be good--maybe it's all the head injuries."

It seems halfway plausible to McKay, in that he's grasping desperately at straws, but before he can give it too much thought he is distracted (again, some more) by Sheppard laughing.

McKay feels it through his hands braced on Sheppard's chest, a burring sensation that travels up his arms and settles down under his ribs. Sheppard's eyes are scrunched shut, head tipped back and his teeth flashing white, that stupid snorting laugh that Sheppard usually hides behind his hand because the face that accompanies it makes him look about sixteen years and drunk for the first time.

McKay gapes at him and momentarily considers that he should get mad--clearly this is no laughing matter--but then his eyes stumble down to the shuddering line of Sheppard's throat, and without making any kind of conscious decision McKay finds himself leaning forward, pressing a hard kiss to the revealed underside of Sheppard's jaw.

Sheppard's laugh chokes off into a high-pitched gasp that would be hilarious under normal circumstances, and his head thunks back against the wall. McKay mouths down Sheppard's neck, arousal flooding through him because Sheppard's skin tastes wonderful, and he's so strange and scratchy against McKay's lips, so impossibly hot, and at some point all the space between them vanished and now they're pressed flush, one of Sheppard's legs sneaking between McKay's. McKay can feel Sheppard's lean thigh pressing in and up, and his knees go weak.

Sheppard's hands slide up, clumsy, and cup around McKay's head, pulling him up and fitting their mouths together for a real kiss. Sheppard just kisses the hell out of him, holding McKay's face right where he wants it and sucking on his tongue, wet and deep and kinda frantic, like maybe Sheppard thinks he's only got one shot at it, which is stupid, always so stupid all the time.

McKay's has a hand in Sheppard's hair (at last) and a hand knotted in the front of his shirt, and pushes at him until they drag apart; it takes way more effort than seems reasonable. Sheppard is breathing hard, his mouth looking shocked and pink and only half as crushed as McKay wants it to be.

"All right," McKay manages, noticing with a visceral thrill that Sheppard's eyes have gone very dark and are locked on his lips. "Hypothesis confirmed."

Sheppard hums, not very interested, and leans in again. Somehow McKay summons the strength to hold him back, keep him pinned to the wall.

"We should, ah, relocate," McKay says, although it's becoming difficult to remember why, what with Sheppard's leg moving so sinfully between his own, and Sheppard's hands falling to his waist.

"'kay," Sheppard says, and steals a darting kiss, a drive-by kind of thing that leaves McKay's mouth feeling blistered.

"No, seriously," McKay says, and manfully peels himself off the colonel. "We're in the damn armory, John."

Sheppard was already in the process of angling back in, but he stops when McKay says his first name because the number of times that's happened can probably be counted on one hand. McKay's face goes red even though it's fairly ridiculous: you can make out with the guy and fantasize about fucking his mouth, but you can't say his name?

"So, so," McKay says hurriedly. "Ah. You know how I hate to resort to cliché but, um. Your place or mine?"

"Yours," Sheppard says, absolutely sure with no hesitation at all, and that's the craziest goddamn thing that's happened all day.

*

Neither of them knows what they're doing, is the main problem.

They sit side by side on McKay's bed, taking off their shoes, which takes Sheppard twice as long, those giant stomping boots of his, and McKay rubs his hands anxiously on his thighs as he waits, curls his bare toes.

"Just--have you ever?" McKay says, and Sheppard's immediately jerking his head side to side, eyes locked on the boot in his hand. His ears are dark red.

"Not. As such," Sheppard says, and it seems to cost him a lot. "There's always. Places. On the base, places you can go. Ammo bay or the maintenance shed or, or wherever."

He clams up, mouth thinning, but McKay's already got the scene painted pretty vividly in his mind, dark out-of-the-way places in military installations where an anonymous soldier would be waiting on his knees, and Sheppard (ludicrously young in this particular vision, slat-skinny and long-necked and awkward), pulling open his belt and unzipping his fly, leaning with one hand braced on the wall as his head falls forward.

"Ah," McKay says, proud of himself for managing that much. His hand is on Sheppard's back, he realizes in a thickening haze. Sheppard's feet are bare, shifting on the floor like he's cold.

Sheppard shoots him a lidded look, the tip of his tongue darting out to wet his lips. "I think I'll probably be able to figure it out, though."

So, naturally, McKay kisses him again.

They do that for a long time, slow and careful and bizarrely proper at first but then Sheppard puts his hand under McKay's shirt and pushes him over at the same moment, and it tilts abruptly into fast and hard and messy, Sheppard's teeth on his lower lip, Sheppard's tongue twisting wickedly around his. McKay is flat on his back with Sheppard's weight braced on him, stony dig of Sheppard's elbow into his sternum robbing him of breath, but that would probably be happening anyway, so McKay doesn't mind. He doesn't stop kissing Sheppard because it's like he can't.

It gets briefly weird again when McKay resurfaces to see that they've rolled and Sheppard's on the bottom now, with his uniform shirt unbuttoned all the way and thin black T-shirt underneath shoved up to his arms. McKay kneels up, opens his hands on Sheppard's stomach, where there are shuddering muscles and smooth warm skin and a scattering of hair that's softer than he ever anticipated.

"Um," McKay says, going still.

Sheppard looks up at him, hips twitching, breathing unsteadily through his mouth. "What?"

"Oh I don't know," McKay says distantly, staring at his hands on Sheppard, how pale and big they look. "Sometimes you look around and it's like, hey we're in another galaxy."

Long slow blink from Sheppard at that, his lips moving silently as if working his way through an equation. He looks incredibly good lying on McKay's bed with his shirts open and rucked up to show his bare chest, his hair smashed even worse from the rolling around. McKay wants to push Sheppard's legs apart and lie between them. He wants to suck him off and fuck him and wrap an arm around his body from behind, press his cheek flat to the nape of Sheppard's neck. Amazing things.

"Is that supposed to be a metaphor for something?" Sheppard asks. His hands are busy tugging McKay's pants open. "In addition to being the factual reality of our lives?"

"Maybe," McKay says, voice all breathy and screwed up and he decides to stop talking about it because he can't concentrate, this is too good and he's kind of afraid it's gonna kill him.

He can't rip his eyes away from Sheppard's working hands. The first cautious slide of Sheppard's fingers against his dick sends a jolt of pleasure through McKay, boxers thin and chafing as Sheppard finds his way, the hard pressing tips of his fingers under the head, wide palm grinding softly against him. Panting, McKay's hips make jerky thrusts into Sheppard's hand, and Sheppard grins his victory grin, cheshire and sweet.

Somewhere along the way one of them gets Sheppard's pants undone too, and his briefs shoved off his hips so McKay's hands can go there instead, shaping the warm curves of bone under Sheppard's hot skin and watching how it makes him shiver and gasp.

"Wow," McKay says, dumbstruck. "You're really. This. I mean, good god, John."

And Sheppard barks out a laugh, which makes him sound kinda crazed because he's groaning too, and subtly writhing, and stroking McKay off so clumsily, wrong angle and too tight and muted by his shorts because Sheppard hasn't even gotten to skin yet, and it doesn't matter at all; this is already in the top ten of McKay's sexual experiences, and rising fast.

"Yeah, 's going pretty good," John says, then sucks in a shaky breath as McKay runs one hand from his hip to the inside of his thigh, and arches on the bed in a way that is patently unfair. "You gonna keep calling me that?"

McKay drags his eyes off Sheppard's cock, full and red-dark and wavering tautly above his belly, and up to his face. Sheppard looks thoroughly debauched already, swollen mouth and black half-lidded eyes, a tiny trueish grin curling his lips, and McKay lunges for him abruptly. It dislodges Sheppard's brilliant hand and he loses his own grip on Sheppard's thigh, but that's acceptable because they're kissing again, eager and unskilled licking at each other's tongues, pressing their bodies hard together.

"You want me to?" McKay asks when he tears away for a breath.

Sheppard pushes a hand down the back of McKay's slouching pants and under his shorts to palm his ass. "Eh, either way," he answers.

McKay splits the difference between a gasp and a moan, and kisses him again. They're rubbing off on each other with their dicks out and their clothes still on, primitive and graceless and still so ridiculously hot, Sheppard's tongue in his mouth and both of his hands on McKay's ass now. Sheppard's cock feels like a brand against him, searing hot-wet on the naked dent of McKay's hip.

"Sheppard," McKay pants against his lips, trying it out, and Sheppard gasps and shudders gratifyingly against him, rocking up into McKay all ragged and off-rhythm.

"Yeah, that works too," Sheppard manages, each word pried out of him and then he's moaning low and urgent, starting to lose it. One hand slips off McKay's ass and up under his shirt, holding him close as he grinds up hard, pure selfish intent, breath rasping hot on McKay's cheek, mouth moving and gnawing toothlessly across his jaw, and then Sheppard's whole body tightens as he groans deep and comes all over the both of them.

Sheppard goes lax seconds later, slumping onto the bed with his face flushed and his eyes closed. It takes seeing Sheppard's eyelashes flutter against his cheekbones for it to actually register with McKay, Sheppard just came against him, this is what Sheppard looks like after he's just come, and McKay fuzzes out momentarily.

When he returns to himself, Sheppard's pants and briefs are hanging around one ankle and McKay's hands are on his thighs, holding his legs open for McKay to grind wildly against him. Sheppard jolts on the bed, holding McKay's hips and watching him intently with glazed eyes, perfect pink mouth.

McKay rasps his fingers through the hair on Sheppard's legs and bends down to kiss him. Sheppard lifts his head, eager, tilting his face up to McKay's and for whatever ridiculous reason that's what does it for McKay, just Sheppard's chin tipping up, his lips already parting. Pleasure wrenches through McKay and his balls draw up, dick jerking as he comes in pulses on Sheppard's slick stomach, gasping into his mouth.

It's so good, dizzying rush that feels like stars exploding, his body fragmenting into matter and light. McKay soars; he blacks out.

He regains consciousness when Sheppard makes a thrumming disgruntled sound and heaves McKay off him using mostly hips and legs. McKay thumps onto his back, breath whooshing out of him and his spent cock trying to crawl into his body as it meets the open air. McKay drags his shorts and pants up from where they'd been shoved down to his thighs, sticky and soon to be uncomfortable but hopefully he'll have a few more minutes of afterglow before it gets too bad.

Sheppard is breathing deep and regular, and McKay stares up at the ceiling, same ceiling he's been staring up at for better than three years but it looks distinctly different with Sheppard lying beside him.

"Well," McKay says, because the silence thing has never really impressed him much. "That appears to be a viable option, I'd say."

A little snort from Sheppard, and then he rustles, hiking his leg up so he can pull his pants off his foot. He drops the pants off the bed but keeps his briefs, slides them up and wriggles around getting them on, his shoulder pressing on McKay's before he sits up.

McKay just watches him, feeling dulled and entranced as Sheppard strips off his uniform shirt and then his T-shirt too, leaving him almost entirely bare in just the gray scrap of his briefs, and McKay has never seen anything better than that, not once in all his travels, nothing close.

"It was okay," Sheppard says with a darkling smile, shifting to untuck the covers and insert himself beneath them.

McKay stares some more. "What are you doing? And what the hell are you talking about, 'okay'?"

Sheppard smirks, punching a pillow into shape under his head, McKay's pillow, and tells him, "Sleep, Rodney. Good for a growing boy."

"I. You," and McKay stops because it's doing weird things to him, seeing Sheppard tucked all bare-shouldered into his bed, stealing his pillow and everything. He gets up, and Sheppard's eyes narrow slightly until McKay starts getting undressed.

He stays in his boxers and T-shirt because it just seems safer that way, and slips under the covers. Sheppard is a spectacular presence, for all that he's not doing anything but sharing the bed with McKay and breathing occasionally. He's incredibly close to naked, and when McKay's arm presses against his, he can't stop himself from letting it slide farther, right onto Sheppard's bare stomach, which flexes and gives beautifully under his hand.

Sheppard sighs, a quiet happy sound, and McKay barely has to move to get his lips on Sheppard's shoulder, breathing out warm against his shoulder.

"Was better than okay, asshole," McKay mumbles.

"You think?" Sheppard says in that obnoxiously careless tone of his, and McKay pinches him, makes him jerk nicely.

"Why I even put up with you," McKay says, and mouths absently at the curve of Sheppard's shoulder, wanting a taste now that he isn't so perilously distracted. "Turn off the lights."

Sheppard doesn't move or speak, and the lights dim down to almost nothing, blue shadowy smears over the doors to the bathroom and the hall. McKay traces his thumb along the ridge of Sheppard's lowest rib, better sense of it now that he can't see anything.

"Just saying," and McKay only wants to keep feeling his lips move against Sheppard's skin, the slow tidal rise of his chest under McKay's arm. "This is probably the most annoying thing that has ever happened to me."

He's slipping, heaviness clouding in as he edges towards sleep and Sheppard is no better, voice fogging as he says, "I feel the same way, sweetheart."

"Oh my god, never call me that again."

Sheppard makes a scuffing laughlike sound that burrs in his chest, and sorta rolls towards McKay, tangling their legs together and clonking foreheads. McKay huffs, surprised, and Sheppard kisses his cheek, the corner of his mouth, fond unpracticed kisses that tug knots loose in McKay's chest. He clutches at Sheppard's side, swallowing fast and hard.

"You're just going to have to make it up to me, I guess," McKay says, shaky and overcome and probably not fooling anyone.

He can feel Sheppard smiling against his cheek. "Whatever you want, Rodney."

Terrible thing to say, terrible hope breaking like dawn, and McKay spreads his hand wide on Sheppard's smooth skin, palming over the structure of his bones. McKay has honestly never felt like this before, and he doesn't say anything for more than a minute, mind whirring at quarter-speed, hoping that John will fall asleep first and things will stay just as they are.

And then McKay figures that as long as completely illogical and unprecedented wishes are coming true today, he might as well go all out, and whispers to him, "Don't die. Never die."

"Okay," Sheppard whispers back, and he's almost gone; he's not telling the truth. "Promise."

*

They sleep for a few hours, conked out and dreaming in parallel near-nightmare tracks, and then McKay, more used to occupying the center of the bed, rolls right out onto the floor.

He wakes as soon as gravity grabs hold of him, lands with a meaty thump and a strangled, "What!"

His knee got racked pretty good, and McKay hisses between his teeth, lying on his back and folding his leg up against his chest so he can rub the sore spot. McKay's thought patterns are scattered and disconnected, mostly ow and floor and why, and he's forgotten about Sheppard entirely until the man sticks his head over the side of the bed and says:

"New to the whole bed thing, are you?"

McKay scowls and blushes fiercely, memory flooding back in once presented with Sheppard's narrow shoulders and hairy chest, the more-lopsided-than-usual cant of his hair and his mocking expression.

Sitting up to slightly improve his position, McKay weaves his fingers together over his kneecap and says, "You take up much more space than seems reasonable."

"Yeah, think I've heard that before. C'mon."

Sheppard thwaps the bed, offers McKay his hand. McKay allows himself to be pulled up, but then he just sits on the bed instead of getting back under the covers. Sheppard gives him a questioning look, sitting there with the sheets around his waist, a hickey on his throat that McKay stares at for too long before realizing he was the one who put it there.

McKay moves his eyes quickly away, swallowing. The clock on the table shows that it's past midnight.

"So, ah. Little weird, no?" McKay says.

Sheppard shifts in his peripheral vision. "Now is when you've chosen to freak out?"

"No! What? Don't be stupid." McKay glances at him, and Sheppard's fake pouting face still irritates him, but also makes him reach out a hand to pat his side with something that might resemble reassurance. "It's just, that is, now we're sleeping together, yes?"

"Yes, McKay," Sheppard drawls and leans back on one arm, stretching out his chest and stomach and McKay averts his eyes before realizing that he's allowed to stare now; Sheppard intends for him to stare.

"And, and, ah. Um. How is that going to. Work?"

Sheppard shrugs with one shoulder. "Like normal, I figure. 'cept with more blowjobs."

"Oh, um," and McKay is tragically detoured by the prospect of blowjobs. "That. Yes." He shakes his head briskly, biting the inside of his cheek. "You're being really obnoxiously casual about this, by the way."

"I'm a casual kind of guy."

"No, you aren't," McKay says without thinking, and sees a moment of doubt snap through Sheppard's eyes, minor tension tightening his shoulders and chest that McKay can only make out because he's not wearing a shirt.

McKay flaps his hand. "That is, you put on a good show. You pull it off most of the time, that cocky devil-may-care shit, and it obviously works for you on a surface level. I've just had the opportunity for. Closer study."

"Oh yeah?" Sheppard says, and his mouth is curled like a sneer, which worries McKay so he moves swiftly to cut it off.

"It's all right," McKay says, the wrong thing at first because Sheppard glares at him, nobody asked you, which is facetious and poorly-reasoned; as if McKay needs to be asked. He waves his hands some more.

"Again, not necessarily a bad thing. We're really going to have to work on this kneejerk tendency of yours towards the negative. When I say you're not casual, I only mean that stuff affects you, which is, in case you've forgotten, the natural response to stuff happening. Heaven forbid you ever react to something like a normal human being, I know, but here we are. So, so, so when something matters to you, you keep it a secret. Or, well. You keep it safe, I suppose would be the kinder interpretation. That whole stoic protector thing. No one else gets to see or know what's going on under the surface because the things under the surface are yours. Which is okay. It's good."

Sheppard attends McKay's little speech closely, suspicious at first but that melts out of him, and his mouth twists up in a better way. "Thanks for the seal of approval."

"Don't mention it," McKay says.

"I don't know if I like you psychoanalyzing me, though."

"Well, that's hardly fair. You hide the things that matter to you, I over-think them. Different strokes, etcetera. I really think we should adopt a live and let live attitude about it."

Sheppard shakes his head and looks down, but he's smiling, a flush rising up his neck. "Okay."

"See, you say that like you couldn't care less, but I know better."

"Okay, Rodney," Sheppard says, and McKay grins at him, knocked on his ass when Sheppard grins right back.

They just sit there on the bed beaming at each other like morons for a few seconds, and then McKay says, "Are you hungry, I think I'm hungry," and Sheppard says, "Yeah," before leaning forward and biting a kiss off McKay's mouth, quick and then gone as Sheppard slides out of bed.

Watching Sheppard get dressed is fascinating for reasons that McKay cannot pin down, gangly legs vanishing inside his pants, hair springing up out of his T-shirt. McKay touches the strip of skin at the small of Sheppard's back, and then gives the shirt a tug to get it to fall straight, and Sheppard quirks a smile at him over his shoulder.

They walk down to the mess hall and it should probably feel weirder than it does, this post-sex post-nap going-to-get-a-snack thing that they're doing, but mostly it seems regular. They argue quietly, contentedly, Twinkies vs Ho-Hos, things they can't get anymore but don't particularly miss that much. Sheppard didn't bother to tie his boots, just tucked the laces into the tops, and one of them has escaped and trails behind him.

There are a few people still around, Marines on skeleton shift in the hallways, insomniacs hunched over laptops in dim-lit labs, and then in the mess hall there are Teyla and Ronon, over by the window.

McKay waves at them from across the room. Sheppard is inspecting the crackers and hard Blidurnian cheese that the mess is always trying to get rid of at the end of the day, and McKay leans in to tell him, "They know about this whole thing, also."

Sheppard looks at him sharply. "What?"

McKay grins, just impossibly endeared to Sheppard's stupid pessimism and senseless hair and scraped-up late-night voice and everything else. It's probably mostly to do with the sex.

"I didn't tell them, if that's what you're thinking. Well, maybe it can be argued that I broached the subject, but really Ronon was the one who jumped to conclusions. Which happened to be the correct conclusions, fortunately enough. Also, it turns out that Teyla's the only one of us who knows anything about discretion, big surprise there, am I right?"

"McKay," Sheppard growls, and McKay puts a blue fruit on his tray, saying distractedly, "Eat that, it's got potassium," before heading over to their teammates.

Teyla and Ronon are playing the game McKay thinks of as little dominos, small wooden tiles with white crosses painted on them, arranged in squarish reaching pictograms. McKay has never quite followed any of their explanations about the game; he's seen four year old Pegasus kids playing it effortlessly and suspects that you have to be born into it.

There are dark shadows under Teyla's eyes--probably having nightmares again, and she won't talk about that, but she'll let Ronon keep her occupied with children's games and circular stories that lack morals. She smiles tiredly as Sheppard and McKay fill the table's other two seats.

"Good evening, John, Rodney."

"Hi Teyla."

"Not really evening so much as night, but yes, hello."

Ronon clicks a tile into place. "You guys can't sleep either?"

McKay's foot kicks up against Sheppard's under the table. Sheppard kicks him back, shooting him a minor scowl that warms under McKay's skin, settles neatly into his veins.

"We were watching a movie," McKay lies happily. "Really good one."

"There were robots," Sheppard adds.

Teyla hmms, places her next piece with delicate fingers, and Ronon grunts, intrigued. Teyla gives McKay a gently assessing smile.

"You look better, Rodney," she says. "Far less weary; it is good to see."

McKay's face heats and he flicks a dismissive hand, pushes a stale cracker into his mouth so he'll have an excuse not to answer.

Sheppard's hand sneaks into McKay's field of vision, snagging a cracker off his tray and saying, "Yeah, he's a heartbreaker, ain't he?"

McKay jerks a look up at him immediately, lines like wires drawn taut on his face because it's the kind of thing Sheppard used to say with a sneer, a cleanly loveless smirk, and McKay can't imagine what it'll do to him if that's the look on Sheppard's face right now.

But Sheppard is grinning at him, lavender-colored seeds in his teeth, sweet-eyed with the bruised shape of McKay's mouth visible just over his shirt collar. He stomps on McKay's toe under the table, and god help them both, because it feels like true goddamn love.

"I am quite sure that Rodney will do his utmost to avoid breaking any of our hearts," Teyla says in her eminently reasonable fashion.

"I will, you know," McKay says, lightheaded as John's ankle slides against his under the table.

"Breaks my heart that you can't fight with sticks," Ronon mutters, but grins feral and bright when McKay makes an offended noise, friendly jungle cat kinda look. "But I'll get over it."

"Thank you so much," McKay says, saccharine. "I'll just be over here saving your life with my tremendous intellect on a daily basis, don't mind me."

Ronon delivers a brotherly punch to McKay's shoulder that might have left a dent. "Thanks, McKay."

Sheppard licks a bit of juice off the side of his thumb, and McKay is just as perilously distracted as he was before they had wonderful teenage-style sex. It should probably upset him, because nothing has changed and Sheppard still has that kamikaze pilot who lives in his head, and when confronted with him McKay still can't keep a train of thought on the rails for the life of him, but hey. Wonderful teenage-style sex apparently makes up for a lot. And maybe sometime soon they can have wonderful adult-style sex too. The whole universe is constructed out of possibility all of a sudden.

"Nobody's gonna break anybody's heart," Sheppard says.

"I will agree to that," Teyla says, and then reaches across the table to smack Ronon's hand down from where he's picking his teeth with a game tile.

Ronon smiles at her, boyishly apologetic, and then says, "Yeah, I'm in."

"Well, if everybody else is doing it," McKay says, and feels like they should shake hands to seal the deal, pinkie-swear or something. Instead they exchange sneaky side-eyed smiles and press their elbows together, sitting too close even though there's enough room for all of them.

Sheppard's hand darts forward again, filching the last of McKay's crackers, and he raises a scowl to see Sheppard chomping away like Bugs Bunny with a carrot, wearing a goofy unguarded expression of joy that creases the corners of his eyes and colors his ears. That look crash-lands in McKay like a meteor, scorching his earth and forever changing the face of him. He has to look away, just to catch his breath, and his gaze is drawn inevitably to the high windows of Atlantis beyond John Sheppard's grin, where the sky is sieved with silver stars marking out all the places they have yet to go.

THE END