The Ancients, Rodney was relatively sure, had never had to deal with shopping carts.
He didn’t have a lot of evidence for this, true, but sweating out the small details was more truly the domain of the barely talented, and Rodney certainly didn’t want to rob them of one of their few justifications for employment.
To think of the many, many wasted years he had spent worshipping at the altar of the revered ‘Ancestors’. Ooh, the Ancients. With their flying cities and Stargates and fancy invisible spaceships. Not so impressive when you realized how much time they saved by not having to deal with the soul-killing effects of urban sprawl. Too many strip malls and condos popping up? Just pick up your flying city and pop it down in a nice calm spot of ocean with a whole new galaxy to exploit. Not much better than carnies when you thought about it, except with the Ancients you didn’t even get the overpriced fried dough to go with the dime store chicanery.
The cart in question bucked in his hands and attempted to swerve in two different directions at once. Which was theoretically impossible, but Rodney wasn’t convinced that the laws of physics applied once you’d crossed the threshold into this particular capitalist nightmare.
Abandon all sanity all ye who enter here.
Rodney wrestled the cart forward with a penetrating screech of wheels. A mother trailing three children glared at him, but he just gave her his least apologetic smile and felt better almost immediately.
There was a reason John usually did the shopping.
With the help of the in-store computer, the tragically dim store employee he’d found in aisle five, and the tarted up floozie who’d ‘stumbled’ into him in dairy, Rodney had managed to track most of the stuff on The List. Otherwise known as a bunch of stuff that Rodney considered more plate garnish than food. John had e-mailed him a copy earlier that day, with a second copy sent to Rodney’s secretary because he was basically an asshole. Rodney would have almost certainly remembered even without Paul nearly tackling him on the way out the door. Quite possibly in the middle of the night but he would have remembered. Probably.
Rodney scanned The List again. John could be so cranky when he forgot even the smallest thing or twelve.
He dove into his coat for his phone and pressed the first number on speed dial.
“Hello, Rodney,” John said.
“Why am I buying a mini-muffin pan?”
“Washington’s great, thanks for asking. Elizabeth says hello.”
“Ha-ha. Seriously, though, mini-muffin pans?”
“Well,” John said. Rodney could practically see him shuffling his feet from over the phone. “There’s this thing I want to try.”
“Oh God, you’ve been watching cooking shows again, haven’t you?”
“O’Neill got bored one day. Somehow we ended up at a cooking demo in Pentagon City.” He paused for a second. “He was right, though. Elizabeth didn’t think to look for us there.”
“I told her not to leave you two unsupervised.”
“Teal’c came along,” John said—as if this made everything better. “That man sure does know a lot about teflon.”
“Well, I’m not buying a micro quiche whatever, so forget about that.”
After eight weeks of only knowing where John was half the time, and talking to him maybe one day in five, and, most critically, absolutely no sex whatsoever, Rodney could think of a few things that they needed more than to indulge John’s inner Julia Child. Fortunately Rodney had been patching up John’s slipshod approach to supplies for years now and knew just when independent action was required.
Rodney heard a woman laugh somewhere in the background. “Where are you?”
John sighed. “At some kind of dinner. I forget what it’s even about.” He sounded excruciatingly bored. Rodney completely failed to feel petty for being happy about that. “Elizabeth wants us to go for drinks afterward with Senator Hanson.”
Senator Hanson—“Isn’t he the one who spent all of Elizabeth’s birthday party ogling your ass?”
“No, that would be you.”
“Hmmph. Well, tell Elizabeth I don’t want her peddling your sexual favors for anything less than a ten percent increase in the science budget. Radek said he’d like to do some more hiring.”
“And they say romance is dead. Anything else you’d care to pass along, Heidi?”
“Umm, don’t kiss on the mouth? I hear that’s important.”
“You have got to stop treating that movie like a documentary.”
“And don’t worry,” Rodney said. “I’m sure everyone cries the first time. Elizabeth won’t think any less of you.”
“I wonder what Chaya’s up to these days,” John said. The bastard actually sounded wistful.
Rodney finally managed to grapple the cart down the appropriate aisle. The one advantage of shopping this close to campus was that certain sections of the store could be guaranteed to be well stocked. Too well stocked, one might argue, Rodney thought, surveying the bright array of sexual paraphernalia before him. He fervently approved efficiency in all endeavors, but the idea of being able to purchase your Doritos and your vibrators all in one convenient location might be taking the whole one stop shopping thing a little too far.
Progress marched ever on.
“What do you think of leather collars?” Rodney asked. John did look good in black.
“For you or Senator Hanson?”
Well there was one sexual fantasy crossed forever off the list. “Never mind.”
Rodney sighed and picked out their usual brands, wondering what such foolish consistency said about their sex life.
Which was, of course, the exact moment his senior graduate student and her only-slightly-more-sentient-than-cheese boyfriend chose to round the corner of the aisle.
For a tiny person, Kheryn Rossi had a surprisingly piercing voice.
“Was that Kheryn?” John asked brightly.
“I have to go,” Rodney said, snapping the phone shut.
He should have been expecting this. The large red letters spelling out “MegaMart” at the entrance had made it quite clear that he was entering the third circle of hell. Truth in advertising, right there. He had no one to blame but himself, really.
“I thought that was you,” Kheryn chirped. Her boyfriend, at least from what Rodney could discern of him through greasy locks of neon blue hair, looked like he might be wishing for death even more than Rodney was. At least Rodney didn’t have to suffer alone for once.
Once upon a time, Rodney had had great hopes for this girl. In her essays she’d seemed normal, dedicated, with a quite impressive resume and the very rare ability to think in creative terms undamaged by the pap they spewed in most undergraduate physics curriculums. Then this heavy metal pixie had shown up, ‘artist’ boyfriend in tow, with her neon tattoos, blueberry bubblegum addiction and complete disinclination to be cowed by Rodney at all. Rodney’s dreams of academic bliss had abruptly shattered. He still did not know how their relationship had survived. Particularly after he made the very, very grave mistake of letting her meet John. In retrospect, their instant bond seemed pretty much inevitable, given their mutual passions for horrible sci-fi, college football, hoverblading at terrifying speeds all over campus, and in general driving Rodney ever closer to insanity.
“The Colonel’s coming back tomorrow I guess?” Kheryn asked, gesturing at the lube in Rodney’s traitorous hand. She smiled at him again, all sugar and spice and everything nice. Women were such horrible liars. “I was wondering why you gave us the weekend to finish our pre-proposals.”
Rodney knew he shouldn’t have succumbed to that moment of generosity. You give and you give and you give. “Actually, I was just stocking up for my honeymoon. Dr. Keita and I have decided to elope to Hawaii.”
Kheryn swallowed her gum. Rodney’s evening was looking up already.
“We’re registered at Tiffany’s,” Rodney said helpfully, “if you’re looking to buy a small gift.”
Kheryn raised an eyebrow. “What about the Colonel?”
“Oh, John?” Rodney asked, tossing the lube into his cart with what he hoped was breezy unconcern but probably looked more like heartburn. “Pretty is all well and good, but eventually I felt I needed a relationship based on something deeper than cheap physical attraction.”
He very obviously did not look at the boyfriend. “I am sure you understand."
Her eyes narrowed. “No, actually, I wouldn’t know. We don’t all live lives of shallow thrills like you, Rodney.”
Rodney nodded. “Yes, I’ve been very lucky, haven’t I?”
Cheese boy shifted on his feet and pushed at Kheryn’s arm. “Umm, Kheryn? The party?”
Kheryn just rolled her eyes at him. “Andy and CJ plus a case of beer isn’t a party. It’s Thursday night.”
She turned back to Rodney. “I guess I’ll be seeing you in class tomorrow?”
The lump shifted again and kicked their cart. Rodney wanted to kick him. But John would hear of it eventually and that could only end in disaster.
Rodney nodded and Kheryn allowed herself to be pulled past him with an apologetic smile. The boyfriend was mumbling again before they’d gone more than five feet.
Rodney looked down at his list filled with its boring heart-healthy food that John had probably scribbled over for an hour at least for all that he always pretended he just dashed them off. John could be stupidly obvious at times.
Maybe Rodney had time to pick up a stupid tiny tart pan after all. If John’s inner Julia Child burned the house down, well, they had insurance for a reason.
* * * * *
The Wraith War lasted twelve years. It sounded so finite on paper. Sometimes Rodney would read a description in the paper—a skeletal outline of bare facts lasting no more than a few paragraphs--and be surprised at how small it could seem, how easily condensed, when viewed from the safe distance of another galaxy.
His memory of it was so much messier. The lines in the paper—dates, names, important battles—seemed to have so little to do with what they’d experienced at all. Twelve years. So much longer than Rodney had thought it would take, really, even in the first year when there had been so few of them stranded so far from help and home
But one day Rodney found himself on the bridge of the Daedalus next to his team cheering himself hoarse as they watched the hulk of the last remaining Hive ship go up in flames. He didn’t remember much from that night beyond the way they’d clutched at each other, disbelieving. And Sheppard, oddly touchable, looking at the three of them standing together, his smile just a little bittersweet. Rodney had always meant to ask him, afterward, if he’d known what was coming, but somehow he never did.
* * * * *
Rodney knew he shouldn’t have stayed after faculty coffee. It was just that Abrams was just so very incredibly wrong and Rodney didn’t know if he would be able to sleep that night knowing such wrongness had been allowed to continue uncontested. At least his team in Atlantis had come up with creative ways to fail at life. Wondering how, how, they could leap to such conclusions had at least given him something to ponder while keeping the city from exploding the third time that week. And every once in a while they’d pepper it up by being right about something. Abrams landed at merely pedestrian incompetence, which was boring as well as frustrating.
But really, Rodney should have known better. Lingering after mandatory fun activities like Friday coffee always ended in disaster. Usually these were minor to moderate, but this had to rank at least at the level of getting stuck on that planet of sentient cockatoos, if not quite at blowing up 4/5ths of a solar system. Abram’s spiral of inanity had wasted precious minutes. Precious minutes where John had been left unsupervised with his graduate students rendering God knew what damage. Bad enough that John and Kheryn already had some kind of compact—which they totally did, no matter how many times they laughed about it, the liars--but Rodney drew the line at letting them bring Ana Maria and Jianyu into their coven.
“So where do you think Rodney’s hidden himself?” John’s voice drawled down the hallway.
“I’m sorry, Colonel.” Kheryn’s voice practically vibrated with regret. “But the professor has run away with Dr. Keita. He said they just couldn’t take pretending anymore.”
Rodney sputtered to a stop in the doorway to his office, his response to this indignation temporarily halted because . . . dress uniform.
John was standing up nearly straight like the Colonel he was supposed to be rather than the Teen Beat idol he played on TV. He looked like every cliché ever written about a man in uniform, all shiny medals and crisp blues. He didn’t wear the uniform very often. Rodney needed warning before it made an appearance.
John sighed. “I knew it could only be a matter of time.”
Kheryn made sympathetic noises while Jianyu and Ana Maria looked like they didn’t know whether to laugh or run in terror.
“Oh, please.” Rodney said, jolted out of his reverie.
“It’s all right, Rodney,” John said, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t want to force you to keep living a lie. I’ll console myself somehow.”
“I think I might know some people who could help you with that,” Kheryn chimed in.
Rodney just bet she did. Ever since they’d come across some creep attacking a freshman in the dark walkway behind the physics building late one night and John had shown him just what over thirty years’ service in the Air Force can train you to do in terms of grievous bodily harm, John had been campus hero number one. John and some of the former members of his command then offering to teach free self-defense lessons two evenings a week when it was clear the campus administration wasn’t going to do much had only sealed the matter. Rodney saw his acolytes everywhere. They carried sticks. He was pretty sure there was a t-shirt.
It didn’t matter that Rodney had been the one to call the police, or had argued uselessly with the dean for hours for more lights and security, or had been the one to tape up the great hero’s knuckles later that night and then to deal with his ferocious mood the next day. But that was his fate, to do all the real work and yet remain forever unsung.
“Yes, yes, we’re all very amused,” Rodney said, crossing to John’s side preemptively when Jianyu began to look a little too enthusiastic about the whole consolation idea.
John’s mouth quirked and the splay of wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened. His fingers brushed Rodney’s wrist and slid down to caress his palm in a quick warm hello. Which was totally cheating but Rodney had learned a long time ago that John fought dirty.
Rodney suspected that he probably had some very stupid expression on his own face, but he couldn’t really bring himself to be annoyed about it considering that he was very likely about to get spectacularly laid in a few hours. And again, dress uniform.
“You about finished here, professor?” John asked, two of his very distracting fingers drawing abstract figures in the curved space of Rodney’s palm.
Rodney forced himself not to swallow. “Quite.”
The students were all staring at them avidly as if they expected the two of them to begin having sex on the desk at any minute. While the perks of sleeping with John were pretty much self-evident, there were times when Rodney found this whole business of being the physics department’s token gay very tiresome.
“I assume that you all have work to do,” Rodney said. “You know, the work you’re doing to ‘earn’ those inflated stipends that the dean insists I pay you?”
John settled a hand on Rodney’s shoulder, its familiar weight stupidly distracting.
The students merely exchanged long-suffering looks and did not move. He knew he should never have let any of them meet John.
“Well, kids, it’s been fun,” John said in that ‘why no it’s not an order but we both know you’ll do it anyway’ tone of his.
The students shared another look, a collective shrug and then filed out the door with a little wave from John.
John moved his hand up to curl around the back of Rodney’s neck and he swayed in a little closer.
“Miss me?” he asked, like he didn’t know the answer to that one already.
“You were gone?” Rodney said, looking over the overflowing contents of his desk with something like despair. “I guess I did notice the dishes were piling up.”
John’s laugh puffed warm and intimate across Rodney’s neck. His hand on Rodney’s neck flexed once, briefly, and then disappointingly dropped as John moved away.
The pile of papers on Rodney’s desk waiting to be marked refused to indulge him by disappearing so he stuffed them haphazardly into his ancient backpack and threw in the drive with the downloaded articles he’d been sent to review. He only hoped that in some kind of freak accident his publisher had lost his contact information because there was no way he was going to fit dealing with her edits, finishing up the articles, grading, and John in one weekend, and he knew off that list what was going to be knocked off first.
John did what he usually did in Rodney’s office—which was to pick up priceless Ancient artifacts and make them light up just because he could.
“I brought you something,” John said, not looking away from the bookshelves.
This was more surprising. John’s attraction to bright shiny objects wasn’t new, nor his penchant for bringing them around for Rodney to play with when he got bored or found something particularly cool. Rodney’s lab in Atlantis had been littered with things that John had charmed off the archaeologists in the eternal unspoken war between the real scientists and the cultural tourists. But here on Earth, where one didn’t turn around and trip over Ancient technology everywhere you went even if you were John Sheppard, these little tokens of John’s made far fewer appearances.
“Oh?” Rodney said, striving for deliberately casual. John reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a gold cube that fit neatly into the palm of his hand. Rodney leaned over John’s shoulder to get a better look, but closer examination didn’t reveal anything beyond the squared, crystalline surface of the object.
“Congratulations. You’ve rediscovered iron pyrite. Which does, come to think of it, put you above half of my department in terms of scientific achievement. Ever thought of going tenure track?”
But then John tilted his head and the edges of the cube wavered and then diffused into a nimbus of gently swirling light as soft, distinctly alien music filled the room. John’s teeth caught his lower lip and the light began pooling in his hand, flowing over and around his fingers, writhing about like a living thing.
So, not iron pyrite then.
Rodney cupped his hand around John’s and the light where it touched him felt cool, with a not-quite-liquid tangibility. It buzzed along his arm and sparked faint tingles of pleasure down along his nerve endings that made him hyper-aware of the shape of John’s hand in his, the warmth of his skin, the solid feel of him beneath the muffling layers of clothing between them. He turned his face into John’s neck, inhaling skin and soap and the starched cotton of John’s dress shirt.
Eight weeks. Christ.
“Elizabeth thinks it might be the Ancient version of those stress relief balls,” John said, oblivious to Rodney’s reaction. “But it is so much cooler than that. Watch this.”
John tilted his head just a fraction of an inch further, the light in his hand convulsed, and then the unmistakable sound of “Uncloudy Day” replaced the earlier music. The light picked up the beat of the new song, pulsing along in a punctuating rhythm. Rodney found his physical hypnosis broken with a nearly electrical shock, though warm notes of pleasure still throbbed up his arm where the light touched it.
“It can play any song I can think of.” From John’s tone of voice this was clearly meant to be the most awesome thing in at least the last week, and okay, it kind of was, but still.
“With an entire universe of music to choose from, you chose Willie Nelson. And yet some people still insist that you make an excellent role model.”
John smirked at him, completely unrepentant. His long fingers closed over the writhing light in his hand, cutting both music and light to an abrupt halt. When John opened his hand again the golden cube had reappeared, still looking perfectly innocuous.
Rodney plucked the object from John’s palm and took it to examine in the light from the window. It was solid, slightly warm. Some kind of hard light? Despite its crystalline appearance, it didn’t seem entirely Ancient. And yet it had responded to John.
He turned it over in his hand, but each side appeared the same. “How does it work?”
“You wouldn’t like it nearly as much if I could tell you that.”
“True.” Rodney brushed a thumb over the surface of the cube. It felt irregular, real, and there was none of that sense of banked potential that you usually got from Ancient tech. But there, when he concentrated he felt a spark of something, something unfamiliar, something different, and God how long had it been since he’d had something truly new, something to solve just because? It could be some kind of hybrid, Ancient in origin but evolved through some other unknown culture. Despite the many worlds that showed Ancient influence, they hadn’t found many technology fusions between Ancient and other, and if this really was something like that . . .
“So, I guess you like it,” John said.
Rodney glanced up from the artifact to find John rocking forward on his toes, looking entirely pleased with himself. Which he probably had a right to, because as far as spontaneous gifts went, rare and possibly illegally acquired alien technology beat out chocolate and flowers any day.
Rodney set the device on the bookshelf beside a few of John’s earlier offerings. The pull of the cube and its mysteries was undeniable, but there was something else, not new though even after all of this time still a little surprising, that he was more interested in just then.
Rodney hooked his fingers in John’s belt loops and tugged him forward. John’s eyes crinkled up again as his lopsided smile made another appearance. He was still smiling when Rodney kissed him, slow, unhurried, a grounding Rodney hadn’t felt in too long. John let out a low pleased hum as Rodney mouthed up along his jaw, the strangely vulnerable naked patch of skin behind his ear. Rodney slid his hands up John’s back underneath the jacket, pulling at John’s shirt as he went. The uniform was, God, yes, really hotter than it should be, but Rodney kind of preferred John a little rumpled, and he definitely liked to be the one who got to do the rumpling.
“I guess we can safely take that as a yes,” John said, groping Rodney’s ass pretty shamelessly considering that the office door was still wide open. But they could do that, here, where the only risk was someone getting a bit of a show. And really, considering how little action half these people got, that could only be considered an act of charity.
“Yes,” Rodney said, backing up with some reluctance. “We can.”
* * * * *
In a distressingly predictable turn of events, Rodney’s publisher had not, in fact, suffered a freak accident that resulted in the loss of any contact information. She had instead put that information to repeated use, leaving numerous messages on Rodney’s cell and a particularly strident succession of threats on their home phone. Rodney didn’t think Nora was actually capable of half of the things she mentioned, but he didn’t know how willing he was to put that to the test, especially as his first line of defense appeared to find the situation not so much “alarming” as “really, really funny”.
John leaned against the doorway to Rodney’s home office and very obviously stripped off his uniform jacket.
“Call her back,” he said. He started on the buttons of the shirt, revealing a widening vee of naked skin. “I have a few plans for later and I’m going to want your full attention.”
And, hey, way to send mixed messages there. But Rodney called her back. Some of those threats sounded ominous, if anatomically improbable.
One phone call, three ultimatums, two inquiries into Rodney’s mental health, eight absolute refusals to water down his perfectly clear prose into something more digestible for the masses, one reminder of whose best-selling first book had paid for the addition to Nora’s house, and forty-five minutes later, Rodney got off the phone and very deliberately turned the ringer off.
A brief search located John in the kitchen. He’d taken a shower and the uniform had been replaced by John’s favorite t-shirt and jeans. The shirt was ancient, worn soft and thin with repeated washings. The jeans too, showed wear, with a hole in one knee and long threads that trailed over John’s bare feet.
Rodney held deep, deep affection for the uniform, but this John held another place altogether.
Rodney leaned in the doorway of the kitchen and watched John put dinner together. A pile of chopped fruit sat in one of the heavy bowls Teyla had sent them for their unofficial kind-of anniversary. John was currently occupied with peeling what looked like miniature red koosh balls and popping their translucent white flesh onto the cutting board.
“If you’re hoping to get rid of me, you might have just said something,” Rodney said. “Though poisoning does have an old fashioned appeal.”
“They’re not citrus. They’re rambutans,” John said equably. “Different family altogether.”
“Thank you, Dr. Botany.”
“I had them in Korea. In the summer, these kids loaded down with baskets of them just appeared everywhere. We must have had hundreds of them.” John smiled, soft and a little inward, which was when Rodney knew he’d be eating them after all. “You couldn’t get them fresh in most of the States before we left.”
John’s knife sliced quickly through one of the odd fruits, cutting off a small bite.
“Come on,” he said. “Try it.”
And because somehow Rodney had become a small pathetic man who had absolutely no ability to resist that particular expression on John’s face, he did. Definitely crisper than he’d expected, with a general impression of sweetness and just a slight tang of something more exotic underneath. It reminded him of that drink the Celosi made for the greeting of new visitors and old friends alike.
“Yeah,” John said, eyes warming from memory. “From M3X-5457.”
Rodney took a second, larger piece and licked the juice from his fingers when he was done.
“There’s chicken marinating,” John said, moving back to the cutting board. “I thought maybe a fruit salad, some of that wine your sister sent us?”
Rodney was thinking take-out actually, something instant and in the neighborhood that left time for other agendas. But it was just an instinctive thought, easily suppressed.
Six months ago Rodney had started to get a tingling sensation in his left hand, and the doctor had given him a long stern speech about hypertension and stress and caffeine. The words “heart attack in a year, tops” may have come up. Rodney had briefly considered panicking, but he’d heard the same verse from Carson and it hadn’t killed him yet. Hearing this particular conclusion, John had gotten very stiff and distant and had stayed that way for days and days until Rodney finally put two and two together and summed up to John being very freaked out in his usual, annoying I’m too stoic to admit it way.
So The List and its twenty-three kinds of produce and fruit for dinner. John’s cooking was more competent than extraordinary, but with John obsessively reading labels and filling up their shelves with new cookbooks and trying to make it up to Rodney by constantly attempting something new, Rodney felt a little obnoxious complaining about the menu. If a few of John’s attempts ended in mild to moderate failure, Rodney didn’t complain about that, either. John could be astonishingly stubborn when he chose to be, and the idea of standing in his way was really too exhausting to bear contemplation. And sometimes, John would throw aside the cookbooks and mix up some oddly tempting exotic dish he’d run across somewhere in his strange, nomadic life. If John were in the right mood and Rodney offered to help, he’d maybe get a story about small mountain towns in Italy or the open markets of Marrakesh to go with the food, a small window into the John that had been, stupid and wild and so much younger than the one who’d stumbled into a chair in Antarctica and sent Rodney’s life veering off into terrifying new dimensions.
Rodney ranged behind John and tucked his chin over John’s shoulder. The rhythm of John’s knife as it sliced through the rapidly dwindling pile of fruit didn’t falter, but John leaned back against him and tilted his head so Rodney could get at his neck. Rodney ran a hand up John’s side, slipping a finger into a large rip in the seam of John’s shirt.
Rodney moved his mouth up to John’s ear. “How was Washington?”
John grimaced. “Horrible. I don’t know why Elizabeth is always calling me up for these things. I’m just so bad at it.”
“You are,” Rodney said, nodding vigorously. He totally completely was. The only person Rodney knew who was worse at the whole lobbying thing was Rodney himself. Well, and Daniel Jackson, but that went without saying. The only difference was, when John stood there and looked confused and dug himself into deeper and deeper holes, people always seemed to feel vaguely ashamed of themselves for even thinking of taking advantage and rushed to help him to make up for it. Or else they assumed the floundering was a carefully orchestrated cover for something more devious and gave into his requests just to spite him. The uniform and the still-boyish charm despite the rapidly graying hair didn’t hurt either.
Rodney didn’t ask about the six weeks before Washington. He knew the vague details—liaisons with Pegasus cultures who made treaties with individuals, not societies, and were suspicious of the changeover of power on Atlantis. Rodney himself had to go along once a year, revisiting the Ybreth of M8X-9054 to honor the treaty they’d made in the last years of the war with the Wraith. Elizabeth had promised that she wouldn’t send John anywhere dangerous, but Rodney had heard that one before. Every time John went off to Atlantis, Rodney spent the entire time half-expecting to get the call that magic gene boy had somehow managed to touch some previously innocuous artifact and zapped himself into an alternate dimension or had Ascended himself or something equally disastrous.
John had worked his way through all of the fruit and was now scraping all of the rinds into a neat pile in the middle of the cutting board.
“The chicken’s marinating, you said?” Rodney said. He slipped a hand up under John’s shirt and down into the loose waist of his jeans, finding only bare skin beneath. Yes, rumpled John was definitely Rodney’s absolute favorite.
“It needs an hour at least,” John said. His breath hitched a little when Rodney slid his hand lower. “Maybe two.”
“Mmm,” Rodney said against John’s neck.
John twisted himself around and let Rodney press him further against the counter. Rodney ran his hands up over John’s skin, tracing out the sweep of ribs and the hard jut of his shoulder blade. His mouth had the same sweet-exotic taste as the fruit.
“Can we please get to the part of the day where you fuck me?”
“Yeah,” John said raggedly, “I think we can do that.”
Rodney fumbled at his own shirt, frustrated at the row of tiny buttons. This is what he got for dressing for looks rather than for sex this morning. The fact that John had gone back to an enthusiastic exploration of his mouth didn’t help.
Rodney tore himself away from John long enough to breathe.
“Wait, wait,” he said, yanking the shirt finally just over his head. He pulled free in time only to see John uncoiling himself from his draped position against the counter. And then he found himself in a controlled tumble towards the floor, John landing on top of him with a slight oomph.
“I am not having sex on the kitchen floor,” Rodney said. But then he realized that they were both approximately horizontal, he was half out of his clothes, John’s mouth was doing some fucking amazing things to that spot on his collarbone, and that John had somehow simultaneously managed to get Rodney’s belt open and was making quick work of the fastening on his pants. Which was, basically, exactly where Rodney had been wanting to get for the past eight weeks.
“Okay,” John said, and then he hooked his fingers into the waist of Rodney’s boxers and yanked them and his pants down and off in one smooth maneuver. He looked down at Rodney’s suddenly naked body, teeth glinting in a smile that was sharp and feral.
Rodney felt a shiver of anticipation curl up his spine, leaving him a little breathless in its wake. He knew that look.
John’s own shirt went sailing off in the direction of the table and then he shucked his jeans in a little hip-slithering maneuver that could have been the star feature of its own porno.
He slid up Rodney’s body again, stopping to press his lips against seemingly random spots: a brief kiss to the inside of Rodney’s splayed knee, a hard sucking bite on one hipbone, a short nuzzle into Rodney’s chest, a surprisingly soft press of lips to Rodney’s inner wrist. Rodney slipped his hand into the thick hair at the back of John’s head and pulled him up the rest of the way, reveling in the slide of John’s naked skin against his.
“Still don’t want to have sex on the kitchen floor?”
“Oh, shut up,” Rodney said, and silenced him in the most effective manner he knew. He hooked a leg behind John’s and thrust happily up against him a few times before John groaned deep in his chest and rolled away.
“Wait, no, not like this, okay?”
Rodney sucked in a deep breath and nodded. He rolled over and up onto his knees as John dove for his discarded pants. Rodney looked back over his shoulder to see John triumphantly pulling out a tube of lube and one of the bright condoms Rodney had purchased in his MegaMart adventure.
And then John was moving between Rodney’s knees, spreading them with his own just to the edge of comfort. Rodney shivered at the light touch that ran up the tight stretch of his inner thighs. Somehow John had figured out how much Rodney liked this position, spread out and opened, the burn in his thighs just enough to keep him grounded.
John moved his hand from Rodney’s thigh to heft his balls in knowing, easy possession. Rodney startled at the feeling of a slick cool finger in the cleft of his ass only to still at the slight, warning tightening of the hand between his legs.
“I thought about this,” John said, the cool knife’s edge slipping back into his voice. His finger slid around Rodney’s entrance, pressing slightly but not quite enough.
“Thought about this?” Rodney managed to gasp out when it became clear that John was waiting for his participation here.
John’s finger finally pushed in, just one, though it felt much bigger. He moved it in and out a few times before twisting it and pushing just there. Rodney took a deep shuddering gasp but still couldn’t move, not with John still holding him with his other hand. John moved his finger in a smooth easy rhythm, pressing again against the same spot inside. He rubbed his thumb in firm easy circles in the space behind Rodney’s balls, the dual stimulation sending ratcheting pleasure spiraling up Rodney’s spine until he was shaking with it.
“I pictured you, how hot you’d look, just like this.”
The finger inside of him pressed even harder and Rodney had to dig his fingers into the hard linoleum beneath his hands. He couldn’t, however, suppress the tight needy groan, nor the deep panting breaths that followed. God, John would see, he’d fucking know just what each press of that finger was doing to him.
“In all those treaty meetings, in the hotel room,” John said.
He moved the hand between Rodney’s thighs up to slide in a barely there tease up the base of Rodney’s cock, but Rodney still couldn’t move, could barely fucking breathe.
“Today, in the shower.”
“In the shower? You mean, you . . . “
“Jerked off, yes,” John said easily. “I wanted this to last.”
“That’s cheating, you cheater.” Rodney’s voice choked off, his brain unable to move beyond John’s hands and the thought of him, naked and wet in the shower, those same hands touching his own body.
“Oh God, I’m going to . . . please.”
John’s hands gripped his hips, his knees pressing Rodney’s just a fraction wider, and then oh Christ, finally, finally. He moved in just a few inches, shifted his hips and pressed again, cock following the motion his finger had established. Only it was thicker, fuller, the thrusts with more power behind them. Rodney felt himself split open, used, but it wasn’t enough.
Rodney thrust back, breaking John’s grip on his hips. He pushed forward and then back again, not caring about the sudden burn, fucking himself on John’s cock until he felt John’s hips pressed tight and hard against him.
Rodney grunted and pushed back harder, needing more. It was good, so damn good, but he still needed more.
“Come on,” he ground out. “Fuck me.”
“Rodney,” John said, calm shattered. His hands settled on Rodney’s hips again, but this time he moved with him, hips moving in a hard jarring pace that Rodney felt all the way up his spine.
He felt himself spiraling out of control, each thrust sending him closer and closer. John wrapped his slick fingers around him and Rodney thrust into his grasp, John tightening his grip almost to the point of pain as Rodney shuddered and came.
John slowed behind him, riding out the last spasms of Rodney’s orgasm. Rodney heard him take one messy breath and then another, his hips rolling to a halt.
He fell forward across Rodney’s back, propping himself up on one hand. Rodney could feel him, still hard and tight inside of him, hips grinding against him, breath ragged and hot against his ear. John sent his free hand skittering across Rodney’s chest to find a purchase on Rodney’s collarbone, stopping briefly to tease one nipple. Rodney locked his arms, desperately trying to keep his quivering muscles from collapsing.
They stayed like that for a moment, but then John groaned and his hips twitched against Rodney’s. He moved in a short, powerful rhythm, barely pulling out before thrusting in again. His fingers tightened on Rodney’s collarbone, pulling Rodney’s body back against him. His teeth scraped against the knob at the top of Rodney’s spine, and Rodney let his head fall forward, offering himself up.
He tightened up, squeezing John’s cock inside him as tightly as he could. John shuddered and the precise rhythm of his thrusts immediately got messier, less controlled. Rodney pushed back against him once, again and then he felt John jerk inside him, the fingers on his collarbone digging in hard enough to bruise.
John collapsed on top of him, their combined weight at last sending them to the floor. John let out a long almost sobbing breath and rocked a few last times into Rodney’s sprawled body before falling still.
Rodney lay there beneath him, enjoying John’s solid weight. He flailed about with his hand until he found John’s and gripped it.
It was a while before John moved, but even then it was too soon. He slipped free of Rodney’s body with a soft apologetic kiss to the bite on Rodney’s spine and flopped down beside him.
Rodney didn’t move, still too relaxed and fucked out to contemplate even so much as opening his eyes. John trailed his hand down the sweaty plane of Rodney’s back, pausing only briefly at the cleft of Rodney’s ass before continuing down. He pushed two fingers into Rodney’s body, slick and easy from what they’d just done. Rodney spread his legs wider, enjoying the combined sharp twinge and slow muted pleasure from the movement of John’s hand.
“Somehow I always forget how good you are at that,” John said. He moved his fingers in and out a few more times, but then withdrew with a little caress of Rodney’s ass.
Rodney peeled his eyes open to find John’s eyes on him, his smile so doofily happy that Rodney couldn’t help but kiss him.
“We should take a shower,” John said.
“I’m not moving.” But he let John take his hand and lead him up and away to their bedroom even so.
Afterward they lay on the big specially-ordered bed that dominated their bedroom. John, warm and malleable after sex, let Rodney push him onto his back in the center. Rodney sprawled along one side, happy to use John as his own body pillow.
Rodney let his fingers trail up over John’s hip, over the hairy skin of his belly and chest. It had surprised him, in the beginning, this need to touch him. Rodney was a man used to indulging his petty surface wants all his life, but never this, this deep bone hunger that could fill you again and again but still flare up at the smallest moments; the slow tilt of a smile, the burn of stubble against his face, or even the most casual brush of bare skin against his own.
He’d never expected to find it, not here, not so late in his life, when he’d had only a few glimpses of what it could be in all the phases of his life before John.
The John who had shown up all that time ago in Antarctica had been painfully, desperately pretty, and there were times Rodney still regretted not having him. But this John, scarred and slightly boney and not really at all young, was Rodney’s in ways that lost John could never have been. Rodney slid against him, enjoying the casual erotic thrill of the press of John’s hip against his spent cock, and turned his head into his shoulder. John slipped his fingers into the loose curls at the base of Rodney’s skull and massaged away the last wisps of tension there.
“I missed this,” John said, wriggling into the bed.
“Yeah,” Rodney said, missing, for a moment, what that note in John’s voice precisely meant. “Those torture devices the army calls beds should be outlawed.”
“No, that’s not . . . I mean yes, the beds are terrible, but that’s not what I meant.”
Rodney lifted up enough to consider John’s face, frustrated and serious.
“I wasn’t talking about the bed,” he managed finally.
“Oh,” Rodney said. “Me, too. God, me, too.”
And then John pulled him down to start it all up again as the lengthening afternoon sunshine threw light and warmth across them both.
* * * * *
Ronon started disappearing not long after that last night on the Daedalus. The rest of them had been swept up in the duties of a suddenly expanding Atlantis, the team missions dwindling to nothing. Rodney heard that Ronon joined in other missions, but that was nothing new, nothing of concern. Except when he started not coming back. For days at first, then weeks, then longer. He’d appear in their lives as abruptly as he’d left, exhausted and usually in need of medical attention from some fight he wouldn’t speak about.
“I don’t know how to give him what he wants,” Sheppard said. They were watching a Charlie Chaplin movie—a favorite of Teyla’s. Despite the third beer dangling from his fingertips, he looked ragged, jittery, all sleepless energy bottled up.
Teyla leaned forward and placed a hand on his shoulder, keeping him there with them. “You cannot give him what he cannot find for himself. I do not believe we can do anything more for him but to be here when he chooses to turn to us.”
“He’s searching for Wraith,” Rodney said.
Teyla inclined her head. “I believe that is so. We have reports of individual groups of them, traveling in packs and attacking small villages. Their numbers are not great--without the queens on the Hives, we do not believe they can reproduce. But the fact that they are there still troubles Ronon. I do not think he will be able to rest until they are gone.”
Sheppard stayed with them for the rest of the movie, but the jittery look hadn’t gone. The next time Ronon reappeared, Sheppard started going out on missions again, keeping Ronon practically leashed to his side. Ronon settled into his shadow, looking mostly relieved. Rodney pillaged the Ancient stores for whatever cool weaponry he’d been hiding from Sheppard and dumped it on Ronon in the world’s least subtle bribe. He dropped broad hints about the new stuff they would figure out “any day now”, like how to put together a personal shield or how to punch up that matter transfer gun they’d found so it could make huge chunks of whatever it was aimed at disappear. In between missions, Teyla would sometimes appear through the gate and take Ronon with her back to Athos. Rebuilding the place seemed to give Ronon a sense of purpose that the re-settling of Sateda had not.
It didn’t last more than a few months, which was longer than Rodney had been expecting, really. Sheppard’s team had only been gone a few hours when the offworld activation claxon blared, drawing Rodney at a run from the lab. Ronon appeared in the gate in a storm of bullets, a bloodless Sheppard draped over one shoulder. The rest of the team didn’t return at all.
“Michael was waiting for us. It was a trap,” Ronon said, pulling Sheppard down from his shoulder with a care that contrasted sharply with the bleakness of his expression. There was a lot of blood.
Carson’s team came and took Sheppard away, leaving Rodney and Ronon standing there uselessly in the gate room. He’d thought, stupidly, that they were done with this.
They sat in Carson’s office, not speaking.
Elizabeth came in for a while and Radek just long enough to distract Rodney for a blessed fifteen minutes with a report from the lab. He heard the off-world activation alarm echo down the hallway and not long after that Teyla appeared in the doorway. She sat next to Rodney and placed her hand on his.
“That bullet,” Ronon said after a few minutes, “they weren’t aiming at him.”
If Rodney hadn’t been so angry—at Sheppard, for being too stupid to move away from bullets instead of into them, at Ronon for being the one to drag Sheppard out there in the first place, at Elizabeth for letting him, at himself probably most of all—he might have recognized the confession for what it was.
Instead, he just sat there in sullen silence. What surprised him was that Teyla didn’t speak either, just turned her head away.
Of course miracle boy got through the surgery just fine. Rodney wondered, like he always, always did, why they even bothered worrying any more. Sheppard had a near-brush with death. Must be the third Friday of the month.
The three of them stood at the end of Sheppard’s bed. He looked pale and diminished, the drain tubes leading from his body a garish invasion. Teyla went to stand beside him and took one slack hand in both of hers.
“I found Ford,” Ronon said lowly. “He’s recruiting a team to fight against the remaining Wraith. There’re more of them than Sheppard thinks. And Michael’s still out there.”
Rodney didn’t say anything.
“You can tell him that, when he wakes up. It might . . . it might help.”
“You can tell him yourself,” Rodney said. “You owe him that much.”
“Yeah,” Ronon said.
But Ronon was gone within the hour. He didn’t come back.
Sheppard’s recovery took a long time. Usually, he made a restless if ultimately obedient patient, unhappy at confinement and inactivity. This time he just lay in bed, alternating between snappish impatience, muted apology, and worst, a kind of spiritless nothingness where he’d just stare at the ceiling unspeaking for hours at end.
“We’ll find him,” Rodney said one afternoon in the infirmary when the conversation lulled into silence for the third time in five minutes. He didn’t know how to deal with a Sheppard who wouldn’t tell him what to fix. He looked across the bed to Teyla for support, but she only looked back at him in frustrated sympathy.
Sheppard turned to meet Rodney’s eyes, a small un-smile twisting one corner of his mouth. “He doesn’t want to be found.”
In thirteen years, it was the first time Rodney thought he’d ever heard Sheppard admit defeat.
They still looked of course. Rodney didn’t think Sheppard was capable of not trying to rescue his people, even if it mostly was from themselves. The teams came back with rumors, sometimes, of a pack of remnants from Wraith-culled planets. But the rumors spread and multiplied as the people of Pegasus learned they’d pay for information, and whatever trail they might have found was quickly mired in a swamp of false leads.
* * * * *
“The report is coming out in two months,” Elizabeth said. They were sharing a cup of coffee, just the two of them, after a late meeting in Elizabeth’s office.
“I am aware of that, yes,” Rodney said, wondering if he ought to be concerned.
Everyone was aware of that. They’d had meeting after meeting after meeting about it. The telling of the Big Secret. The fact that the Stargate program and Atlantis weren’t going to be withheld from the public anymore. Rodney had been briefly annoyed until he remembered he could finally publish. His publication list was going to double within three months. Dozens, no hundreds, of so-called “scientists” all over the world were going to find their work obsolete overnight. God, it was going to be fantastic.
If Elizabeth thought he’d forget about that—well, she must be slipping. They did say the memory was the first thing to go.
She was looking at him with that slightly bemused patience that always managed to be mildly insulting in ways Rodney couldn’t quantify.
“They’re going to tell it all wrong.”
He shrugged. “And that has what to do with us? We’ll just ignore them like we always do.”
She shook her head. “They’re going to want to change things, turn Atlantis into some symbol. We need someone who’s going to tell the truth—all of it—about what we did here. We need someone to fight for us.”
“I don’t think Daniel Jackson has managed to get himself permanently killed yet—though, granted that could change at any minute. For a trumped up translator, he’s pretty good at making himself into a giant pain in the ass. Let him do it.”
She nodded slowly. “He’ll help, but I was thinking of someone else.”
“Oh?” Rodney asked, safe in the knowledge that this was not a job for Rodney McKay.
Rodney snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t be taking leave right now. We have that trade with the Dunar to set up and who’s going to negotiate? Sheppard?”
She put her hand over his on the balcony railing. “It’s not a leave, Rodney. It would be permanent. I thought you deserved to be the first to know.”
He gaped at her. “You can’t be serious.”
“The war took too long,” she said, exhaling in a rush. “And somewhere along the way, I became a wartime consigliere. If we met the Athosians today? I don’t think I would have befriended them. They have no weapons, nothing we can obviously use. I would have passed them by. That’s not what this city was supposed to be about.”
“So we’ll start handing out cupcakes to all of the unlettered savages we meet. We can have tea parties with them for all I care. That doesn’t mean you have to leave.”
She shook her head. “We talked so much, back then, about what we wanted this city to be. The war is over. It can be that now. But not under my watch. And not, especially, when I can do so much more for Atlantis back on Earth.”
She smiled at him. Her eyes were very bright. “My replacement is my choice, not the committee’s. She’s her own woman, she won’t let them bully her. But she’ll need help. Your help, Rodney. I need you to do that for me.”
“A month. I didn’t want to give you and John time to argue me out of it.”
“You don’t know us very well if you think that’s going to stop us.”
“I know that you’ll try,” she said, and this time her smile was more genuine. She patted his hand again.
“You won’t mention anything to anyone? I want to be able to tell John myself.”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “Like I am going anywhere near that one.”
She settled against the railing, easy again.
“You never did expect this to last forever,” she said. And that was true, except that he had.
“With my staff? It’s a miracle we lasted this long.”
She smirked and all of a sudden it was thirteen years ago, just the two of them trying to build a city together. “You picked them, Rodney.”
He grimaced, knowing it was a little strained. “Please, don’t remind me.”
Her hand tightened on his and they stood there, coffee going cold.
* * * * *
“Should I even ask?” Rodney said. When he’d left this morning John had been, while mentally no more sound than usual, at least physically in one piece. John now had one wrapped ankle, an ice pack on one knee, and a heavily bandaged arm.
Rodney did not consider this an improvement.
He thought wistfully of other professors who must be coming home to dinner on the table, maybe a nice glass of wine handed to them by their adoring wife when they came in the door. But no, he had to be the one with the boyfriend whose idea of fun didn’t include anything without a high probability of permanent maiming.
John peeled an eye open. “Probably not.”
“It’s cute that you think that question was anything other than rhetorical.”
John just blinked up at him, looking very piteous for a man who knew sixty different ways to kill someone. Rodney rolled his eyes, but picked up John’s feet very carefully and then deposited them on his lap after he sat down. Yes, a bottle of Labatt would have been perfect, maybe something from the grill. A little fooling around before dinner. Something to reward him for an entire day of dealing with the walking brain dead.
“I don’t really want to talk about it,” John said, sounding mulish.
“Let me see if I care about that. Umm, no. Try again.”
John shrugged. “We were playing paintball out on Jones’s farm.”
Paintball. Rodney should have known it would be something like this. It was yet another of Elizabeth projects—forming a mentoring program for the children of soldiers killed in action through the Stargate program. John being the same mental age as most teenagers, he made a perfect fit. Usually this involved things not likely to be dangerous even with John involved, but once a month they headed somewhere in the pursuit of violence framed as fun.
“And here I thought the point of that particular exercise was to avoid serious injury. My bad.”
The line of John’s jaw tensed and then relaxed. “There was a ravine.”
Of course there was.
“The edge turned out to be a little unstable.”
“Then, well, someone had thrown some junk in the bottom. And I sort of landed on it.”
Rodney felt his stomach contort itself into a familiar acrobatics. And his doctor actually thought it was his diet that was causing his high blood pressure. “How do you sort of land on something?”
“It was just my arm.” John shifted a shoulder slightly. He seemed to think this a perfectly adequate answer.
God. He deserved a medal for putting up with this, he really did. “You really were dropped as a child weren’t you? You could have landed on your head. There could have been brain damage. Then I’d be stuck lugging around some drooling vegetable for the rest of my life, and I don’t remember signing up to date asparagus.”
“I was wearing a helmet.”
“Oh great, so all I have to worry about now is you dying of internal hemorrhaging. That is so much better.”
“It’s not that serious.”
As John’s definition of “not that serious” comfortably encompassed everything from head injuries to bullet wounds, Rodney found this statement somewhat less than reassuring. And John did seem a lot more sullen than he should after an entire day of endangering his life in spectacularly unnecessary ways.
“Forgive me if I’ll want an actual doctor’s opinion on that.”
“It’s a sprained ankle and a couple of bruises. I think you can let it go.” John snapped his mouth shut and turned away. The corner of his jaw tensed again and then the curves of his lips compressed into a thin line. Usually after one of these episodes John bounced around as if multiple contusions were nothing extraordinary. It was nauseating. Or else he just pouted and looked pathetic until one of his innumerable conquests fluttered over him and brought him chocolate and something shiny to play with.
“Hey,” Rodney said, placing a carefully conciliatory hand around John’s undamaged ankle. He swept a thumb under the arch of John’s foot, pressing slightly. John didn’t say anything, but Rodney had been dealing with this particular mood for twenty years now, and John wasn’t the only one who fought dirty. He kept up the sweep of his thumb, increasing the pressure slightly, and waited. A while.
“I’m sorry,” John said finally, relaxing slightly under Rodney’s hand. “It’s stupid.”
“As most things are with you, that doesn’t appreciably narrow the field. Care to define your terms a bit?”
John’s expression turned vaguely rebellious again for a brief moment, but then he sighed. “It’s just, well, this was a lot easier ten years ago.”
Rodney almost laughed, but then he remembered he might like to have sex again sometime in the near future. John’s ego wasn’t exactly a secret. He still got up every morning at some ungodly hour to go running, and the exercise room at the back of the house was certainly not for Rodney’s sake. Not that Rodney was going to complain about it. Not when he got to wake up on the weekend to find John’s sweaty t-shirt on the floor and John in the shower, all pliant flesh and naked golden skin waiting to be touched.
“Yes, you’re quite decrepit. It’s an embarrassment really. I think I only put up with you out of habit.”
John snorted, and he looked up to face Rodney again.
“At least your team could blame their loss on the old man they have to tote around,” Rodney said. “What do they do, draw straws to see who has to baby-sit you each week?”
John’s eyes narrowed. “I didn’t say we lost.”
“You fell into a ravine.”
“I climbed out.”
“Duh. Of course! Why ever would I have thought otherwise? Oh maybe because you have a broken ankle. And probably tetanus from whatever trash you landed on. Not to mention that you obviously have brain damage after all.”
John’s mouth quirked up as if Rodney were the crazy one here.
“One, it’s sprained not broken and two, I don’t have tetanus.” His expression twisted into something more rueful. “Just a lot of stitches.”
“And yes,” he said when Rodney opened his mouth to protest, “I had an actual doctor look at it. One with real degrees even.”
“Hmmph. Carson has degrees. I think they hand them out with crackerjacks,” Rodney said, eyeing the bandage on John’s arm. Stitches. A sprained ankle. Probably a lot of bruises under the t-shirt. It could be worse. He could probably afford to be magnanimous about it.
“So, this hospital with this alleged doctor, it magically had no communication devices of any kind?”
John put on what he probably thought was an innocent look. “Not a one.”
“Dangerous, you’d think, for a hospital. And I guess you left your phone in the car? As did, I’m sure, every other person you were with? And everyone else in the hospital presumably?”
John squirmed a little. Ha. “We were three hours away. There wasn’t anything you could do. And you had that seminar with the guy from Chicago.”
“Please. I think I have my priorities in better order than that.”
John looked spectacularly unconvinced. “You’ve been talking about this Adwale guy for weeks.”
Yes, well, the fact that the first fifteen minutes of Dr. “I won a Nobel at 28” Adwale’s seminar had been entirely devoted to how much his career depended on the groundwork that Rodney had done in manipulation of vacuum energy had been a highlight of the day, if not the entire seminar series. Especially with all of his colleagues trapped there being forced to listen to it. The genius behind Dean Edward’s insistence on faculty attendance at seminar had never been so clear. He owed the woman an apology. Or at least a nice muffin basket.
Rodney moved his hand from John’s foot to encircle one bony ankle. “They record all of the seminars for posterity. I could have watched it later.”
Rodney decided now was not the time to mention that he’d already watched it over, some parts multiple times.
John shrugged again and shifted uncomfortably. Usually this was a sign that Rodney’s allotted five minutes for reacting to John showing up suddenly sporting bruises, stitches or any other signs of mortal injury were coming to a close. Fortunately Rodney had learned to ignore most of John’s hints ages ago. Sometime a reputation for obliviousness had its advantages.
“Does that hurt?” he asked, gesturing at John’s arm. The twisted ankle and knee he could deal with. It was the whole puncture wounds from assorted rusty garbage thing that was kind of sticking.
“Maybe a little,” John said, though he managed to look disgustingly cheerful about it. “The kids were pretty impressed when they saw the piece of metal the doctor pulled out of my arm.”
“That will make such a charming anecdote for the next holiday party,” Rodney said, only half in irony. The loudly expressed self-congratulatory tolerance of Rodney’s choice in sex objects did tend to take a nose dive after John pulled out one of his “how I survived on a Wraith hive ship for three weeks with just a knife and a couple of power bars” stories. That and the fact that Rodney won the hottest faculty spouse contest hands down were pretty much the only redeeming things about faculty socials.
“Hungry?” John asked.
“Is that a hint that you want me to go out and get you something to eat? Because if you think I’m going to the store you can think again.”
But John was shaking his head. “I had the guys pick up some take-out from Yum Wok on the way home. They know your favorites by now.”
Rodney brightened. “Four and Eleven?”
Oh, seventeen. How could he have forgotten seventeen? John must have been expecting Rodney to have been a lot more irritated about all this if he was allowing them to have fried stuff and all that salt in one night.
“We can watch the seminar if you want,” John said. “Considering that I’m kind of stuck here and there’s at least one copy on your laptop by now.”
There were two actually, with three more on his external drives. Backing up important data was the duty of the conscientious scientist, after all.
“We don’t really have to,” Rodney said, feeling himself flush. “I’ve already seen it.”
“That’s okay,” John said, shifting his foot in Rodney’s lap with some purpose. “Watching you gloat kind of turns me on.”
Well then. “I guess I’ll be getting my laptop, won’t I?”
The corner of John’s mouth curved up and he shifted his foot again. Okay, so maybe the whole adoring wife thing was a little over-rated. Rodney didn’t even like wine all that much.
Rodney got up, replacing John’s legs on the couch carefully. He bent down and picked up the cold pack on John’s knee. It had, of course, gone completely room temperature. They could cross to distant galaxies in a matter of seconds and build weapons that destroyed planets with a thought, but they had yet to figure out how to make a cold pack that actually stayed that way. Given John’s strange confusion of physical activity with fun, they had to keep a supply of the things in the freezer.
“For the record,” he said, looking over the damage from John’s day out, “you are an idiot and very high maintenance. But I guess I am glad you don’t have tetanus after all.”
“That’s so touching, really.”
Rodney just shook his head and trudged off to the kitchen in search of food and medical supplies. He thought maybe they had some of that chocolate John liked in the back of the freezer.
“Hey,” John called after him, “There’s beer in the fridge if you want some.”
Beer, numbers four, eleven and seventeen, a kind of horny John and an hour seminar devoted to how Rodney really was a mad genius. Sometimes, as it turned out, it really was good to be Rodney McKay.
* * * * * *
About three months after Elizabeth left, Teyla brought her fiancée home to meet the in-laws.
Rodney was not pleased.
They’d only just started to find their new dynamic in Ronon’s absence. For months the three of them had retreated from each other in a kind of self-protective silence. Or at least Rodney had been avoiding them. Teyla was off-world most of the time anyway, and any time the three of them were together it only reminded him of the fact that there used to be four. There were reports, a few of them reliable even, of a band of resistance fighters tracking the bands of remaining Wraith from world to world across the galaxy. One such report had included the description of a tall, brutally efficient Satedan who’d asked for news of the Lanteans. But each of these reports had been months’ cold and growing colder. They were no closer to finding Ford’s gang than they had been twelve years ago when he’d first disappeared. Teyla, Sheppard and Rodney had been left to renegotiate the remainder of their team, and Rodney had just been finding his footing before Teyla dropped this bombshell.
She’d been dropping hints for a while. For months, it had been Inaro this or Inaro that. Sheppard claimed they’d met the man—twice even, but Rodney did not remember this.
“His people and mine had been trading partners for decades,” she tried to explain. “But when his planet was culled my people thought they were lost. It was only a year ago that we found them again.”
“Hmmph,” Rodney said. “Usually the Wraith are more thorough.”
Sheppard kicked him under the table.
“What?” Rodney said. “Also, ow.”
“Inaro became the leader of his people after they were evicted from their home,” Teyla said, more stiff than she’d been since their first few months together. Rodney belatedly realized that she was nervous. “He and the other Neriti have been very helpful to us in re-building. We knew each other, a little, as children, and when he returned it was like finding that time again. It is not often we have been able to reclaim things from the Wraith.”
Rodney just bet he was helpful.
“You like him,” Sheppard said, as if this was at all relevant when there were so many more important questions to ask, like, “Is he a sociopath?”, or “Have you met his mother yet?”, or “Who the hell does he think he is?”.
Teyla smiled. “Yes,” she said almost shyly. “I do.”
This was apparently good enough for Sheppard. Rodney had never been so disappointed in him.
Two weeks later, Teyla appeared through the gate in the company of a few of the Athosians and a tall dark-haired man. Rodney supposed you’d probably call him attractive, if one went for perfect coffee skin and swimmers’ builds. Rodney had to admit he didn’t look much like an evil space robot, but then, the Asurans had been awfully tricky at first, too.
“Welcome to Atlantis,” Sheppard said in his most ridiculous, I’m absurdly cute and harmless and everyone totally loves me voice. Rodney would be annoyed except he’d seen it work too many times.
“And you remember Dr. McKay,” Teyla said, with an almost-glare at Rodney.
Inaro and Rodney exchanged quick nods. Rodney felt that should take care of his hospitality responsibilities.
“Would you like a tour?” Sheppard asked. That at least explained his insane cheeriness. He loved showing off Atlantis like other people loved thrusting pictures of their squalling spawn on unsuspecting lab managers.
“It would be an honor.”
“You should love this,” Sheppard said, leading him away. “Rodney and his team are building me my own invisible cloak. Teyla said you used to have something like that on your planet.”
“Yes, but it was more like a small shield to hide small objects. You have something powerful enough to shield an entire person?” Inaro said, suddenly looking as excited as Sheppard was.
Rodney could protest that he was building the personal invisibility device for the security of Atlantis, not for John Sheppard’s personal amusement, but who was he kidding?
“They seem to be getting along,” Teyla said hesitantly as they watched Sheppard lead her gigolo man-bot away.
“Yeah,” Rodney said. “Bringing him here was a total mistake. Don’t they have a Vegas in this galaxy?”
Teyla frowned. “It has been taken over by the Genii. Everyone agrees it is no longer the same.”
They spent the rest of the day in the lab. Teyla helped him out taking readings on his new experiment. It wasn’t anything terribly important and Rodney didn’t really need help, but it was . . . nice, spending time with Teyla, especially now that he knew that time was going to be shared from now on.
Inaro and his tour guide appeared briefly just after lunch.
“You told me this place was a city of wonders,” Inaro said, taking her hands. “But I did not imagine nearly so much.”
“I haven’t even shown him the jumpers yet,” Sheppard said.
Rodney smirked. “They’ll think you don’t love them anymore.”
“C’mon,” John said to his new BFF. “The city looks even better from the air.”
“Definitely a mistake,” Rodney said as they tromped away again, Inaro’s excited voice already asking about jumper speeds.
“I had expected this to be a little more difficult,” Teyla said. If Rodney didn’t know better, he’d think she was almost put out by that.
“I don’t like him,” Rodney said. “Are you sure he’s not an Ancient? It would explain why Sheppard’s panting after him.”
Teyla blinked, but then smiled and patted his shoulder. “He is not one of the ancestors, I promise you. But thank you for that.”
They caught up with Sheppard and the boyfriend in the mess after dinner. Inaro had a giant mound of popcorn in front of him and five empty beer bottles.
“You were right,” Inaro said, smiling up at Teyla. “Popcorn is delicious.”
He seemed a little buzzed, if not quite drunk. Teyla pushed a stray clump of his tight curls off of his forehead as if she couldn’t quite keep her fingers from them.
“Yes,” she said, “it is.”
She sat down beside him, their fingers twining together in such easy companionship that Rodney felt abruptly alone for all that he was sitting in a group of three other people.
“Beer?” Sheppard asked, offering Rodney a bottle. His foot brushed Rodney’s under the table almost certainly on purpose, but it only made Rodney feel worse.
Teyla and Inaro spent a few days on Atlantis, allowing Teyla to show him her own view of the city and its people. They went back to Athos on the fourth morning. Sheppard and Rodney stood together, watching them go.
“He’s not good enough for her,” Rodney said.
“Of course not,” Sheppard said. “But who is?”
Teyla and Inaro appeared a few more times before the wedding, sometimes apart. Rodney had to admit that Inaro had been a lot of help in ironing out some of the bugs in Sheppard’s invisibility cloak.
Rodney expected him to be some kind of idiot warrior pretty boy, but it turned out the Neriti were builders and no more fighters than the bulk of the Athosians were. They’d lost much of their knowledge in their nomadic flight from the Wraith, but they still retained more technology than most Pegasus cultures and Inaro knew how to both build and use it.
So, probably not a malicious mandroid after all. Or an Ancient or a disguised Wraith or anything other than a lucky bastard who was getting something far more than he deserved.
* * * * *
The weather on Athos the day of the wedding was crystal clear and beautiful, the leaves on the trees just beginning to take on their post-harvest gold. Despite his reservations about the groom, Rodney was happy.
Teyla deserved to have a perfect wedding.
“You look handsome,” Elizabeth said, a flirtatious glint in her eye. Ever since she’d returned to Earth, she’d seemed somehow more approachable, easier. It made Rodney a little too aware of how good she looked in that dress. Actually, if Rodney were to be honest with himself, he was a little afraid of this more provocative Elizabeth. She’d brought Bra’tac, who fit in with the Athosians like they were lost cousins. Rodney told himself they were just professional friends, but this was a hard illusion to maintain what with the glint in Bra’tac’s eye every time he looked at her in that get up.
Only Rodney and Sheppard came without dates. Rodney tried not to think about what that meant.
“Reminds me of my wedding,” Zelenka said as they watched everyone come together in the gathering twilight.
“Yes, because they have so many perfect, flower-bedecked meadows in Caesar’s Palace,” Rodney said. At least Zelenka had had the decency to do the right thing and elope. Rodney hadn’t even had to buy him a present.
“There were trees.”
“Don’t worry, Rodney,” Zelenka said, smiling at him in too-perfect benevolence. “Someday it might happen for you. At this time, does not seem likely, true, but somewhere there must be a woman stupid enough.”
Rodney did not dignify that with a response. Zelenka drifted over to his Amazon of a wife, who, in violation of every law of drunken weddings between perfect strangers Rodney had ever heard, was both unbelievably hot and a genius evolutionary biologist who just happened to be a big enough name to get instant clearance to the Stargate program.
The groom appeared down the path from the settlement, almost tripping over his own feet and grinning in blinding stupidity. Rodney hoped Teyla knew what she was getting into. Teyla seemed more sensible than most, but women got so obsessed with this whole wedding business. He didn’t see why they couldn’t have just continued on as they had.
But then Teyla walked down the path after her soon-to-be husband, and Rodney got his answer to that. Even for Teyla, she looked stunningly beautiful, smiling and almost as young as when they first had met. She looked, simply, happy.
Inaro stood beside Halling, looking as if he could not imagine how he had convinced someone like her to come to stand beside him. Rodney felt his throat tighten. He hadn’t really allowed himself to imagine what this really meant. Teyla had been spending less and less time on Atlantis as the settlement of her people took more and more of her time, but she had still been there, still a part of the city even on days Rodney didn’t spend any time with her. But after today, she was going to belong to someone else, too.
The Athosian ceremony was far shorter than its Earth counterpart. The woman announced her intention to take the man as her own, took his hand before the assembled people, and then Halling formalized their union by tying their linked hands together with an intricately woven strip of cloth.
At the feast afterward Rodney sat next to Sheppard, the last remaining holdouts of the original team. Inaro and Teyla circulated the tables, awkwardly feeding each other one-handed with their other hands still bound between them. He laughed and whispered something in her ear, which had her smiling a little wickedly. Rodney had to finally admit that they looked good together. Inaro had managed to keep his people alive for fifteen years as nomads in a distrustful, war-torn galaxy. It was just possible, just, that he might be a good match for her after all.
“Always the bridesmaid, eh Rodney?” Sheppard said, looking a little rueful himself.
“Thank God.” But today Rodney couldn’t quite work up any energy even for pretend distain of what they were witnessing.
Elizabeth came along and claimed Sheppard for a dance. They looked good together, too, negotiating a path through the dancers to the unfamiliar rhythm of the Athosian music. Sheppard had admitted once that he’d taken ballroom dance in college with a girlfriend. Rodney had stopped mocking him for it as soon as he noticed the googly reaction of half of his staff.
Rodney sat there, drinking his gratifyingly strong alcoholic concoction in morose silence. Once upon a time, he would not have been alone. Once upon a time there would have been an amused low voice mocking Sheppard’s terribly concentrated face as a slightly evil Elizabeth mock-flirted with him. Or to point out Radek’s moony face as he slow danced in wretched junior-high-dance fashion with his wife. The two of them, Ronon and himself, had long been accustomed to sitting on the sidelines drinking heavily and pretending they weren’t dancing because it was beneath their dignity, not because the pair of them were hilariously horrible at it. But now beside him there was only a conspicuous void.
The tune changed and Sheppard nearly fled from Elizabeth. In their place swept Teyla and Inaro, drifting about in a lyrical swirling motion that reminded Rodney vaguely of what he remembered of Viennese waltz.
It was easy then, sitting there alone, to admit that he’d always been a little bit in love with her. From earliest days, she’d been beautiful and strong and brave and so much more forgiving of all of them than any of them had probably ever deserved. They’d celebrated together and starved together. They’d suffered sunburn from alien stars and walked under alien moonlight through the ruins of a city so old it had been abandoned even before the Ancients had come anywhere near its shores. They’d lost battles and friends and sometimes even themselves, but in the end, they’d won their war. There was a part of him, he thought, that would always belong here with her, no matter where he might go from here.
Out of habit he looked up and found the star that held Atlantis in its orbit. It was there where it always was, second star to the right, straight on until morning. He’d thought they might always continue like that, Teyla and her lost boys tromping to adventure after adventure.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been wrong, and that had been a dream more foolish than most.
A shout drew Rodney’s thoughts away from their inner spiral.
And there was Rodney’s own personal Peter Pan being swamped by a tribe of real feral children. John Sheppard, the one unchanging center to Rodney’s chaotic universe. There, since this apparently was a night for drunken honesty, was another dream, just as foolish though even after all this time never one Rodney had ever been able to quite exorcize. But it was an old desire, comfortable with time, and if it twinged a little sharply at times, it was at least a familiar pain.
Rodney briefly considered rescuing him, but Sheppard seemed to be holding his own. Two of the girls were twining some of the wedding flowers into his hair, and more urchins of indeterminable gender were pulling on his jacket trying to get his attention. Sheppard just endured all of this with easy aplomb, listening to each childish tale with appropriate seriousness.
Eventually he looked up and noticed Rodney staring at him. His eyes narrowed, probably seeing, as always, more than Rodney would like him to. He stood and made his way over, trailing children behind him like some mad Pied Piper.
He loomed briefly over Rodney, one child hanging down his back, another clomped onto his leg.
“You look ridiculous,” Rodney pronounced.
Sheppard just grinned, shifted the child from his back around to the front and sat in the empty chair beside Rodney. She immediately curled into his chest in childish exhaustion.
He looked good, was what Rodney really thought. Easy and relaxed in ways he rarely was despite the binding lines of the uniform. It made Rodney want things he usually didn’t let himself dwell on.
Which meant that he’d had far too much to drink.
The children buzzed around them, bored of ceremony and unhappy at having their hero’s attention stolen, even for a minute.
“Why don’t you go and find a good spot?” Sheppard told them. “We’ll be along in a minute.”
They looked at Rodney suspiciously, but then trailed off into the night leaving only the child in Sheppard’s lap behind.
Sheppard reached forward and touched Rodney’s arm. Rodney told himself it didn’t mean anything. Sheppard touched people all the time.
But the hand tightened and didn’t move away. “You okay there, Rodney?”
Rodney sighed. “I hate weddings.”
Sheppard tilted his head. “At least this one has good booze.”
Rodney allowed this was true. Inaro’s people distilled a pale strange fruit into a sweet, sharp drink that Rodney suspected probably packed more of a punch than he was feeling yet.
“Come on,” Sheppard said, patting Rodney’s arm. He stood up, easily shifting the sleeping weight of the child to his shoulder. “The kids want to build a fort.”
“It’ll be fun,” Sheppard said. It sounded nothing like the sort. But Rodney stood up. Watching Sheppard’s semi-drunken efforts at construction might prove entertaining at the least.
As they reached the edge of the clearing, they were stopped by Teyla and Inaro.
“Are you enjoying yourselves?” Inaro asked a little formally. From his expression it looked like it was desperately important that they were.
Rodney realized he might just be a little overwhelmed by them and their role in Teyla’s life. It made him feel better, somehow.
“Sure,” Sheppard said. “Who doesn’t like a party?”
“I see you have made a new friend,” Teyla said, indicating the child in John’s arms.
“Oh,” John said. “This is Kyara. She’s promised she’ll marry me as soon as her mother says okay.”
“It’s about time someone made an honest man out of you,” Rodney said.
Teyla glared at him in mock disapproval.
“You have always been that,” she said, cupping John’s cheek. They leaned forward, touching heads over the child.
“And you as well, Rodney,” she added, pressing Rodney’s shoulder. Rodney felt his throat tighten again and had to look away.
“Where are you going?” Inaro asked.
“We’re building a fort, wanna come?” Sheppard asked.
“We could not leave the others,” Teyla said, frowning.
“It’s your party,” Sheppard said.
“I must admit, I have become tired of dancing,” Inaro put in quickly, proving he was more observant than he looked. “And the children should have supervision.”
Teyla’s mouth curved into a wry smile Rodney knew very well. “That is true. Very well, a short break with the children would be welcome.”
And so the four of them plus the sleeping Kyara went off together, the mingled shrieks of the Athosian and Neriti children leading them on.
* * * * *
Rodney sat at his desk and stared balefully at the rain-drenched landscape outside his windows. He had not planned on being here today. He had planned on cozying up in the den with the giant stack of appearance requests. He’d known that the opening of Atlantis to the public would garner a lot of attention, but somehow he had underestimated it. He had fan mail. Buckets of it. It had gotten so bad he’d had to hire an undergrad to go through it and sort out the serious requests.
Some people thought it was rude not to at least read all of the letters, but Rodney had better things to do with his time than to decipher the well-intentioned but grammatically challenged scribblings of the adoring public. At least his fans were sane, decent people if sometimes a little simple, unlike someone else’s who were clearly a little unhinged. John had just happened to mention on Ellen that he liked to cook, and now bored hausfraus all over the country were sending him recipes. Which was bad enough, but last week he’d actually found John mailing some of his own back.
“Julia Hausbek said she’d send us her recipe for either gumbo or jerk chicken in exchange for the falafel one. Which sounds better to you?” John had actually asked, chewing on the end of his pen. His fingers were already stained blue. “You liked her bean salad, remember?”
Rodney considered his options. Or, more pointedly, the state of their liquor cabinet.
“Julia Hausbek?” he asked faintly.
John frowned. “We met her at the photoshoot. It was only three weeks ago.”
Oh yes, the photoshoot. At People. The one with his boyfriend’s picture that would be appearing clutched in his students’ hands in two months.
“Chicken. Definitely chicken,” Rodney said, giving in. There wasn’t enough alcohol in the world to make him forget this conversation. Besides which, everyone knew okra was the work of Satan.
Once upon a time John had killed people for a living. Rodney missed those days.
He’d fled to his office, happy to have a place to retreat. But that was last week.
Today he was decidedly less pleased to find himself here. Instead of carefully weighing each flattering request for his attention in the comfort of his own home, he was marooned in his own office on a Sunday afternoon after traveling through the crappiest weather they’d had in weeks.
Somehow this had to be John’s fault. Okay, sure he had told Rodney he was having people over to watch the game, and he’d possibly mentioned that some of the students from his class were coming, and yes, right there on Rodney’s desk calendar was a reminder—Sunday! Football!—written in John’s anally precise hand followed by a smiley face with its own scribbled tuft of hair sticking every which way. But he had not mentioned that this event would take up their house for hours and hours and basically completely ruin Rodney’s hopes for a productive Sunday.
So Rodney had come here to the relative saneness of campus. He’d been a little mollified when he’d seen all of his graduate students huddled over their desk in bloodshot misery. But he was a professor. He had tenure. Everyone knew that was your ticket to getting your weekends back. It was one of the few reasons he tolerated faculty coffee.
He stared balefully at the window. After a few minutes sleet pellets starting knocking against the glass.
Rodney knew he should have stuck with his first instincts. Despite Jeannie and John’s bemused protests, fate most surely did hate him.
He dug into his backpack and yanked at the first stack of letters his assistant had helpfully organized for him. At least he was getting something done, not sitting around with ardent co-eds and ex-soldiers watching a bunch of men crash into each other in pursuit of a ball.
He worked his way through the stack, carefully setting aside those that could be met with a polite refusal and those few that looked interesting enough for further consideration. He’d gone about a quarter of the way through when he was distracted by a light knock on his doors.
Kheryn stood there with unusual hesitation. “Do you have a minute to look at something?”
Rodney frowned. “Is it those calculations I asked you to do on Friday? I wouldn’t have thought you’d have any problems with those.”
She shook her head. “No, it isn’t, and no, I didn’t. It’s something else.”
She handed him a few pages of notes scrawled in about twelve types of brightly colored pen. The ways she reminded him of John sometimes creeped him out a little.
“I had an idea, a couple months ago, about how the gates can connect so quickly, even between here and Pegasus. I think . . . I think I might have found the answer.”
Rodney snatched at the papers, mind racing. It was an old problem. They’d figured out long ago that the gates worked by folding space, so that you traveled a very short distance between each connection and could therefore travel in effect faster than the speed of light. But they’d never figured out how the gates could make that initial connection without being eternally tuned to every gate in existence, which violated everything they knew about how the gates operated and would take an infinite amount of energy to maintain.
She bent down to look over his shoulder.
“I thought maybe it had something to do with quantum entanglement,” she said, voice stronger. “You know, maybe a violation of the no communication rule? There was that paper out of Lorenza de la Fuente’s lab, remember?”
“Yes, yes,” Rodney said, waiving her to silence. He skimmed over her notations. It seemed impossible, and it wasn’t quite right, but there, yes, he could see how stunningly simple it all was. A problem of decades, unraveled here in just a few pages of messy notation.
But it couldn’t, it couldn’t. People had worked on this. He’d worked on this. The answer couldn’t be this, not a half-dozen raggedy edged pieces of notebook paper covered margin to margin in sprawled rainbow ink.
He had to sit back for a moment. He would never have thought of this. Of course, no one had. But Kheryn had this habit of taking these wild leaps into the unknown, smashing together ideas and theories that everyone knew had nothing to do with each other. Usually, she was wrong, but not always, and she was getting better. These intuitive jumps of hers were more and more often landing her on solid ground.
It wasn’t a skill Rodney had. Sam Carter had had it. John, in his strange perpendicular way, sometimes did, too.
Rodney had tried once, flinging himself off comfortable pathways in pursuit of something he alone was sure was right. The better part of a solar system had paid for that attempt. He hadn’t tried again.
“Your math, as always, gets sloppy at the end. I’ve told you to watch that.”
“But it’s good? The basic idea?” She placed a hand on the back of his neck and leaned in further.
Rodney looked at her, the smooth appealing curve of her neck, the wide earnest eyes so unlike her, the slight flush to her oh so young, beautiful skin. She smelled very, very good. Her hand stuttered just a bit on his neck and he realized, at last, something very important about her. About cheese-boy and settling, about what a girl like this was doing in a stuffy office on a Sunday afternoon, and how perhaps the confusion of youth was maybe not all it was cracked up to be.
He felt a spark of near-temptation, but it was just that, a flash of flattered fantasy that fizzled in the same breath. He forgot, sometimes, how very young she was.
She saw him looking at her and jerked away, flush deepening. But she caught herself.
“You’re a little overwhelming sometimes, is all,” she said, rueful shrug bringing out the Kheryn he knew. “God, you’re Rodney fucking McKay, you know?”
Good girl, he thought.
“Of course I know,” he said evenly. “It remains, however, that your math is sloppy and I cannot allow the good name of Rodney fucking McKay to be attached to just anything.”
“But I’m right, aren’t I?”
“Possibly,” he said. Her expression remained determined. “Okay, probably.”
She smirked and took the pages back again.
“Clean up your work there at the end and bring it back to me later in the week. You might have enough to present in Oslo next month.”
She turned to go.
“Kheryn,” he said, stopping her when she reached the doorway. She paused and looked back over her shoulder. “Good work.”
She nodded, tightly pleased, and skipped off.
Rodney sat there for a long moment just staring out the window. After a while he packed up his things and headed back out into the rain.
As predicted, there was all manner of riffraff scattered across his living room and kitchen. John sat in the center of the couch, battling two ex-Marines for possession of the popcorn.
Rodney boarded himself up in the office, grateful for the soundproofing that kept the noise to a muffled hum.
It was a little ridiculous in a man with as many decorations to his name as Rodney had, but there had always been something more, one last thing he’d always wanted to accomplish before he was done.
It was something private, something he thought maybe only Zelenka might understand. In the last few years, his ambitions had started to fold themselves into smaller spaces. He had the kind of career people were already writing books about. He was known world-over as a hero (or as a godless devil depending on your point of view), an intrepid space explorer who’d boldly gone where no man had gone before. He was celebrated, fought over, the highest paid speaker in the university circuit.
But before John, before Atlantis or even the Stargate program, Rodney had been a scientist. His heroes, growing up, had numbered Einstein and Bohr amongst the usual childish obsessions of Batman and Luke Skywalker. He’d wanted in some small way to stand among them. To come up with something startling and new, some fresh way that changed the way they looked at the world forever.
Oh, he had papers. Hundreds of them at this point. But that was just Ancient science deconstructed to be made accessible to the less brilliant human brain. He was a translator, not inventor.
But this thing of Kheryn’s—it started with Ancient technology but the implications went so much further. God, if she was right . . . it meant faster than light communication that could span galaxies. And she was just at the beginning of her career, just launching herself. Even if this particular spark burned out, Rodney knew with dull certainty that there would be other, brighter sparks. Just as he knew with the same certainty that such things were beyond him now. He didn’t have the drive, the fresh perspective. There were too many other things—his university obligations, his continued work for the SGC, John, taking up too much of his time and energy.
There was not going to be any new McKay unifying theorem to hang amongst the greats.
He sat there, staring out the window, trying to come to terms with this.
After a while he heard the office door open. The noise from the game filtered in briefly, but then the closing door shut it out again.
“I brought you a cupcake,” John said.
“I had to fight three people for it, I’ll have you know.”
“I’m sure it was very brave of you.”
“It was,” John said. “You’re talking to the walking wounded, here.”
Rodney looked up and was startled to find that John really did have a large scrape across one cheekbone and there was a jagged ugly cut along his hairline.
“Christ,” he said. “Come here.”
John sat down on the couch and let Rodney fuss over him. The cut looked ugly, but it wasn’t bleeding so Rodney settled down again.
“You do know it’s supposed to be cake or death, not both?”
John shrugged. “Tara brought them.”
Well then, that was a different matter. Their neighbor’s fluffy chocolate icing was absolutely worth a scuffle, especially if Rodney didn’t have to do any of the scuffling.
Rodney took the proffered cupcake but didn’t eat it.
“Hard day at the office, dear?” John asked, tone ironic though his expression said otherwise.
“I don’t know,” Rodney said. John dropped an arm along the couch behind him in an act he probably thought was subtle.
“Kheryn brought me this idea—it was nonsensical, something every respectable physicist would have known as crap immediately.”
“And I think she might be right, what’s and. It’s crazy, it should never work, but it does.” He slumped back into the warmth of John’s arm. “And I think, no I know, I could never have thought of it. That’s what’s and.”
It was, Rodney decided, possibly time for honesty. “She’s just starting, and she comes up with something I could never in twelve careers have done.”
“Rodney, you’re being ridiculous,” John said, sounding amused. Rodney should have known he’d never get it. “Of course you’d have thought of it. You always do.”
Rodney blinked and looked up at him, seeing nothing beyond absolute unquestioned certainty in John’s still-amused face. John’s mouth quirked and he shook his head, like Rodney was the crazy one here.
Of course, it had always been this way. In John Sheppard’s strange world, there was no problem that Rodney could not fix. Since day one, that stupid, absolute, crazy, blindingly necessary faith that had been bent a few times but never broken. Rodney had wondered back then just what Sheppard saw in him, to be so certain when even Rodney himself had never quite believed his own press. Sometimes he thought he’d pulled off half of their crazier schemes just because he hadn’t wanted to lose that, whatever it was.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “This is bigger than that. This new thinking of hers—it’s not the kind of mind that comes along every day.”
“Rodney,” John said with exaggerated patience. “You trained her. You don’t think you had anything to do with that?”
Rodney thought about that. “Oh.”
Perhaps there was another way to look at this. “My name will go on the papers.”
“And I’ll be the one to introduce her in Oslo. Oh, we’re going to Oslo by the way.”
“Cool,” John said.
“You know those idiots on the admissions committee didn’t even want to give her an offer? To think, she could have ended up in John McCullough’s lab over at Maryland. A whole lifetime wasted on the decision of one committee.”
Rodney settled deeper into the warmth of John’s arm and ate his cupcake. “I still don’t like her boyfriend.”
John snorted and tightened his grip. “That makes two of us.”
A particularly loud ruckus came in through the soundproofing on the door. Rodney had forgotten about the game.
“You can go back out there, if you want.” He was pretty happy here tucked up against John’s easy warmth after being out in the rain, but people were always telling him it was rude to leave your guests alone.
“No,” John said. “I have something to tell you.”
Rodney twisted around to get a better look at his expression. He didn’t look unhappy, but there was something Rodney didn’t know if he liked in his tone.
“Colonel Makeba sent a report,” John said, indicating the other side of the office with his chin.
There, on John’s barely used desk, sat the thin green folder that signaled one of Makeba’s reports. John’s replacement was a decent, if overly officious man. Generally news arrived through official channels. The folders only arrived when the news was of a more personal nature.
Rodney frowned and slumped back against the cushions of the couch, wondering whether he needed to be worried. “Bad news?”
“No, no,” John said. He swallowed hard, eyes suddenly bright. “Ronon’s back. He came to Athos three weeks ago. He said he was finally ready to come home.”
* * * * *
When Rodney was young, his criminally negligent parents had a bad habit of dumping him and Jeannie off with their nana for the day. Nana had droned on at length on any number of subjects, but the favorite of these had been to warn them to be careful what they wished for. Or else what goes around comes around—whatever that meant—though she tended to save that particular speech for the days one of them called child protective services.
Rodney had always wondered what she could possibly be on about—how could the attainment of an invisible jet car be anything other than ridiculously awesome? But as it turned out, perhaps he should have listened a little better—and wasn’t it just like the old bag to get her revenge by being right after all.
Once the secret of Atlantis was out, the city bloomed, practically overnight. Rodney finally had what in the beginning he thought he wanted—a full team of passably competent, energized people with the time and resources to delve into actual discovery and not play at emergency engineer. Whole sectors of the city that had been deemed too strange or dangerous had been opened up. For the first time since Antarctica, he could spend days in the lab, only passing out for a few hours at night, with no threat of impending doom or stupid “let’s trump through endless swamps to trade for bean paste” missions interrupting things.
“You know,” Rodney said to Teyla on one of her visits. “No one’s shot at me in months. I can’t even remember the last time I had to run anywhere, let alone for my life.”
Teyla smiled at him, as beautifully mysterious as the first day they’d met. She bent forward, pressing their heads together, something she’d rarely done. And then she kissed his cheek, something she’d never done.
“I know, Rodney,” she said. “I miss it, too.”
Rodney had to admit that the new people were not entirely useless, but they took up too much of everything. They took up space at the empty lab benches without filling the holes the Wraith had left, their voices echoed down corridors that before only Radek and Rodney had seen. Their projects multiplied like rabbits in the lab, eating up more and more of Rodney’s time in meeting after meeting as he attempted just to keep up with lab management. Aparna Chaven, Elizabeth’s hand-chosen successor, turned out to be worthy of the position, but she didn’t have Elizabeth’s hand’s off approach. She liked reports, she required a dizzying array of information and asked disturbingly penetrating questions. She did not, as it turned out, take well to being told to “shoo”.
About this time Rodney’s body decided that middle-management wasn’t torture enough and started to outright rebel. He started smelling strange chemical odors everywhere. Atlantis had never been Earth, the aroma of her sea heavier, more metallic. Before it had been pleasant, a subtle daily reminder that hey, they were living in an alien galaxy! But now it pervaded everywhere, in his quarters, seeping into his clothes, tainting the smell of his food. The Earth/Pegasus food hybrids the kitchen, once Rodney’s favorites, now just tasted wrong. Rodney had to start hording his junk food supply from Earth in his room in case the day came when he couldn’t choke down food in the mess at all.
Brain tumor, no doubt about it. Best to give into basic fact and face it like a man.
“You don’t have a brain tumor,” Carson said.
“Do the test again.”
Carson sighed. “We’ve done it three times. Other than a need for exercise, you’re as healthy as a horse.” He blinked at Rodney. “When’s the last time you talked to Dr. Heitmeyer?”
Rodney locked himself in his office. If he was dying of some unidentifiable brain disease beyond Carson’s limited ability to diagnose, he’d better make sure posterity got as many of his thoughts as possible before he cracked up entirely.
One of the members of the lab pestilence knocked on his door an hour later. Rodney ignored them. When the next one tried, he sound-proofed the door.
Zelenka sent him a message the next day:
r.zelenka: When the brain fog kills you, can I have your twizzler supply?
Rodney considered it. Trust Zelenka to get to the heart of the matter. But no, he needed to focus.
The day after that, the door of his office swooshed open and Sheppard leaned against the doorframe like the easy city-seducing hooker he was.
“C’mon, buddy,” he said. “I think it’s time we went for a walk.”
Rodney went. He’d get no peace, otherwise.
Sheppard led them to the nearest transport, his easy arm around Rodney’s waist the only thing keeping Rodney upright. Sheppard smelled like he usually did—a familiar, not unpleasant combination of laundry detergent and gun oil. In the transporter, Rodney pressed his face against Sheppard’s neck and just breathed. Up close he smelled even better. Rodney stopped himself before licking Sheppard’s skin to see how he tasted, but it was a near thing.
Sheppard just cupped the back of his neck and let him. “We’re almost there.”
The transporter opened on one of the higher towers in Atlantis, high above the sea and its not-quite-rightness. The sun was setting far across the ocean, painting everything in glowing light. Sheppard pulled them in a half-stumble away from the transporter and out onto a deck. Rodney breathed in deep. He straightened sharply, his back yelling its protest.
“I smell pizza,” he said. “If I’m wrong, just do me a favor and lie to me, okay?”
Sheppard laughed and shook his head. “Yes, there’s pizza. Fresh delivered straight from Earth.”
There it was, sitting on the deck, an honest to God pizza box. And next to it, a six-pack in a bucket of ice.
“Oh my God,” Rodney said.
“I thought you’d like it.”
Rodney fell to his knees in the closest he ever came to worship.
He inhaled the first slice without even really tasting it. He’d never been so hungry in his life. The second piece went more slowly, each bite savored, enjoyed.
He took another bite, suppressing a moan. Perfection. Warm dough just the right amount of greasy, perfect amount of cheese and just the exact balance of acid in the sauce. No weird metallic taste, no strange odors, just a classic pepperoni pizza.
Sheppard reached across and took a piece of his own.
Sheppard gave him one of his strange sideways grins. “Delivery charge.”
He flopped down beside Rodney on the deck and bit into his pizza.
And that was when it hit him. The Revelation. The kind only three days without sleep and spiking glucose levels could give you.
Sheppard was frowning at him. “Are you okay there, Rodney?”
Rodney could only gape at him. “I figured it out.”
Sheppard’s frown deepened. “I think you need a nap.”
“I do not need a nap.” Well, okay, a nap sounded pretty great, but after pizza. “I don’t have a brain tumor.”
Sheppard nodded as if this made sense. “Never thought you did.”
Rodney flopped back against the wall, brain racing. He chewed on the pizza, barely noticing it. Sheppard settled in closer, his shoulder and thigh brushing Rodney’s in easy companionship. Rodney felt a familiar twinge in his chest and for the first time, didn’t immediately suppress it. In the beginning, it had been so much harder, this thing he had for Sheppard. Keeping his hands to himself had seemed almost an impossible task at times, especially when the idiot had to keep doing stupid things like being smart and wearing tight black clothes and saving Rodney’s life all the time. Later, it became easier, something to take out and look at once or twice a year, the rest of the time insisting to himself over and over again that he was over that. There were so many reasons why it would be such a horrible idea: the city behind them, the team, the rank in front of Sheppard’s name, the implications for Rodney’s own career.
Usually this was the point where Rodney told himself he’d gone too long without sleep and looked away. But this time, he didn’t. This time he let himself look at the long curve of Sheppard’s neck, the swell of muscle beneath the omnipresent black t-shirt, the way his holster curved around the shape of his thigh. Sheppard noticed him looking and didn’t say a word.
“I’ve had offers,” Rodney said, coming to a sudden conclusion. “From Earth, I mean. Universities.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Sheppard said slowly.
“They want to give me my own lab, my own projects, more money than even I can dream of. And students—I could get them before they’re totally ruined. One of them is even offering to give me my own building.”
Sheppard nodded. “Sounds pretty good. You’ve been bitching you want more time for your own work for months now. What’s stopping you?”
“It wouldn’t be Atlantis,” Rodney said beginning to realize that he was actually serious about this. “So no more alien labs in a totally new galaxy. And I’ve put in a lot of work here getting those monkeys in lab coats down in the lab to remember they’re supposed to be Earth’s best and brightest at least some of the time. It’d be a shame to waste it.”
“There are things . . . that is to say, people. I couldn’t just leave everyone behind.”
Sheppard shrugged. “There are people on Earth—Elizabeth for one. Things too. Like Ben and Jerry’s. Or Cinnabon.”
“I’m trying to tell you that I’d miss you, you jackass.”
“I don’t see why.”
Maybe Rodney had been a little too quick to dismiss that whole brain tumor thing.
“Seeing as how I’d be living with you and all,” Sheppard continued.
Rodney snapped his mouth shut. Tried to speak and then stopped again.
Sheppard raised an eyebrow. “You were going to ask me to come along, weren’t you?”
“You can’t,” Rodney finally managed. “It’s impossible.”
“I’ve been eligible for retirement forever. Nothing to it.”
“But the city and your job and—I’m trying to be noble here!”
Sheppard put his hand along Rodney’s jaw and stroked his thumb across Rodney’s cheek. Rodney turned into his palm, unable to resist reacting to the touch.
“Maybe I’m tired of noble. Maybe I’ve been tired of it for a while.”
“Oh,” said Rodney.
John watched him, a small shy smile on his face. And so the first time Rodney kissed John turned out to be on the highest tower of Atlantis, the setting sun coloring John and the city in bright streaks of gold, pink and a lurid orange. When Rodney closed his eyes, even years later, he could still see John there, a bright shape against a candy sky.
The first time he woke up to John’s body curling sweet and warm around him was the very next morning, John a comfortable presence along his side, their limbs in a tangle of post-coital exhaustion. He ran a hand up John’s side, already addicted to the way John pressed into his touch. He pulled himself in closer, enjoying the slide of skin on skin, and thought, maybe, it was about time he got started on the rest of his life.
* * * * *
They built their home by the sea. It wasn’t anything either of them had discussed. But when the idea of a second home came up—a retreat from reporters and obligation and the usual invasions forced upon the suddenly famous—a place on the ocean just seemed the natural choice.
They came here when they could, as often as duty and scheduled trips and the university schedule allowed. It was a space as near their own as probably anyone could claim, their only neighbors on the island an older couple more bemused than excited by the identity of the new pair next door.
Rodney blew the steam off his hot chocolate and took a cautionary sip before returning to his journal article. It was hard paying attention. He looked down at John where he lay sprawled across his lap, half-slumbering after a day romping about on the beach with the neighbor’s grandchildren. He ran a hand through John’s hair, far more tempted by the satisfied curl of John’s still very pretty mouth and the way he arched cat-like into the touch than by the distant demands of the board of editors.
But the notes must be finished today.
Tomorrow, Teyla was coming, and she was bringing Ronon and the children with her.