John Sheppard was a live-and-let-live kind of guy. Laissez-faire, they called it, when they felt like being fancy. He had nothing against taking action, per se. He could wield a firm hand when the situation demanded. Just last month Lance Corporal Acosta had been patient zero in an Atlantis-wide outbreak of space clap, and John had had to trot out the Colonel Sheppard voice and glare, not easy to maintain when the most obvious symptom was hilarious blue freckles. And no one who'd lived through the Genii invasion or the Wraith siege could ever doubt John was a man who could Get Things Done.
Still, given his druthers, John preferred just to let life happen. It had worked for him pretty well so far. Most of the good things in his life, Atlantis and Rodney included, had come to him through this hands-off approach. Some people (Rodney) might say he led a charmed life.
The habits of a lifetime probably went a long way toward explaining why John found himself (figuratively) paralyzed now. At least the recent developments meant he was going to have plenty of time to get himself together.
When the Azria of P8X-738, the planet otherwise known as Azz (which as far as John was concerned would never stop being funny), had found themselves with a gate that couldn't be dialed in at all and out only sporadically, thus effectively cutting off their many trading partners including Atlantis, they'd asked specifically for Doctor McKay to come fix it for them.
If the Wraith had still been a threat, Woolsey would never have agreed. But they'd been substantially neutralized more than seven months ago in a series of Coalition offensives that had come to be known across the galaxy as the Great Mending--which was rather poetic, John thought, even if it did make Pegasus sound like a sock with a hole in it. The few remaining Hives in the galaxy had slunk off somewhere to lick their wounds (metaphorically, John hoped). He had no doubt they'd regroup someday, but for now Pegasus was safer than it had ever been.
Which apparently meant it was okay to lend your Chief Science Officer out for a vanity house call. John didn't mind. The Azria grew a blue fruit that tasted a lot like watermelon and produced something that was so much like maple sugar candy as to make no practical difference. John kept a bag of it near at hand at all times especially for Rodney-bribing purposes. They also had an actual organized professional sport league--not football, but close enough with three goals and a triangular field. For months John had been itching for a chance to study the game's intricacies with an eye on someday fielding a competition-level Atlantis team--in the interest of interplanetary relations, of course. So as trading partners, John was more than happy to go the extra mile for the Azria.
Rodney, naturally, was always flattered to be asked for by name. Enough so that he claimed not to mind the journey required to reach P8X-738 from the nearest functional gate, orbiting an unpopulated moon at the edge of Azz's solar system, approximately seventy-four hours away by puddle jumper. They couldn't use the special hyperdrive-enabled jumper because it had broken down again, but Rodney remained sanguine about the journey. John packed extra maple sugar candy, just in case.
Woolsey was greatly pleased with Rodney's Atlantis spirit, and suggested this mission should be just the two of them, a suggestion John was more than happy to take. He shuddered at the idea of Ronon and Rodney in an enclosed compartment for that long with only the thin alloy of the jumper's hull keeping Ronon from hurling McKay into the vacuum of space. And Teyla would probably be happy for the time off with her family. Besides, this was John's chance.
Nearly half a year ago Rodney had followed him back to his quarters one evening and kissed him without saying a word. John, who'd been tying himself in knots for months wondering how to do that exact thing, had been so relieved to have the decision taken out of his hands that he'd just kissed back hungrily, tangling his hands in Rodney's soft hair and breathing him in, never asking why then, on an ordinary day, after a dull mission. They hadn't spent more than a handful of nights apart since. It was easily the best relationship he'd ever had. John was comfortable admitting that--in his head, if not quite out loud.
But lately something had seemed just a little off. It tickled at John somewhere in the back of his brain. An unfamiliar urge had started catching him at the oddest times. Rodney would grin over waffles at breakfast, or wave his arms ridiculously in a meeting, or come home from the labs smelling like coffee and circuitry, and John almost--he wanted to--
John knew he could leave well enough alone as usual. The urge might fade, or else resolve on its own in months or years. But somehow that wasn't good enough this time. John wanted to do better, for Rodney.
It was a hell of a time to get in touch with his feelings, after forty years of happy emotional stuntedness. John had a sincere and overwhelming desire to ignore the whole thing, balanced only by an equally strong urge to run. Which made the jumper ride perfect in a now-or-never engines-on-fire kind of way.
John was going to have three solid days in the jumper. There would be no chickening-out now--no last minute reprieve from the governor. John was determined to do it.
He was going to tell Rodney that he loved him.
It wasn't like there was any need to rush things. John had three days, after all.
So the first day in the jumper hadn't been a banner day for John's emotional growth.
If you ignored that, the actual day had been great. John had gotten in several hours of instrument flying and a blow-job in the pilot's chair. He'd had to massage Rodney's cramping thighs afterward, but it was totally worth it, especially since he'd taken advantage of the opportunity to massage other things as well.
After that Rodney had settled in, eager to finally get some writing done on the paper he'd been working on sporadically as long as John had known him--something about gamma ray bursts and giant stars--or maybe gravity, John had never been sure. It took Rodney just under three hours to get bored and restless, which was about what John had been expecting. He'd been ready with maple candy and the secret laptop loaded with Halo Four he'd hidden in one of the under-seat storage compartments. Then John had gotten in a few more hours of flying, trying out some sick maneuvers he'd worked out with Lorne--anti-climactic with inertial dampeners, but Rodney had refused to let him turn them off--before checking the jumper's course and retiring to the back so he and Rodney could eat beef teriyaki MRE's and fuck.
Yeah, a great day.
And he still had forty-nine hours to make his declaration.
John had let a coin toss bring him to Atlantis. His Air Force career had begun as a whim to piss his father off. A year into their marriage, when Nancy couldn't stand him anymore, she'd angrily pointed out his pattern of letting everything in his life slide until it was too late to change his course of action, even if he'd wanted to. John couldn't deny it, though he preferred to think of it as going with the flow.
Nancy never understood that even though he liked to drift with the tide, John always knew when the time had come to act. And the time had definitely come now. There was no sense in delay. He was ready to say the words to Rodney.
John took a breath. Then another. One more couldn't hurt.
Rodney gave him a funny look. "Are you all right?"
John kept breathing.
"I know the re-circulators supposedly create an unlimited supply of air for the jumpers, but I'd just as soon not test the theory, if it's all the same to you."
John could do this. The way to go was to rip the band-aid off in one fell swoop. "Rodney?"
"Yeah?" The funny look hadn't gone away, but it was starting to be tinged around the edges with real concern.
It was only three little words. Eight letters. John was going to kick their alphabetical asses, and then he and Rodney were going to have sex or whatever it was people did after life-altering avowals.
Three words. John opened his mouth to speak. "Wanna play cards?"
"Sure," Rodney said. "Gin rummy. But no counting cards."
"How do you count cards in gin rummy?"
Rodney made a noncommittal hum. "You'd find a way."
John won five out of seven hands, ignoring Rodney's suspicious looks, and after that they watched The Shining on a laptop. John had brought the movie along for the express purpose of making crazy Jack Nicholson faces at Rodney, but he just wasn't in the mood.
There were forty-two hours left.
Rodney was starting to go stir-crazy, repeatedly pacing one end of the jumper to the other. John had offered him a flying lesson, but Rodney had refused in favor of working on his paper in the aft compartment. John could tell it wasn't going well by the excruciatingly slow pace of his typing.
Like dripping water.
Exactly every third tap, like clockwork, Rodney let out a low disgruntled hum. Tap. Tap. Tap. Hum. Tap. Tap. Tap. Hum.
He couldn't actually be typing that way, could he? Surely he was just doing it to drive John crazy. Tap. Tap. Tap.
John held his breath waiting for the hum, then nearly collapsed in relief at the silence. Thank God. Maybe Rodney was finally through with the--
John twisted around in the pilot's chair. "Will you knock it the fuck off?"
It was possible John was a little stir-crazy too.
"Make me," Rodney said, which was pretty juvenile for a genius.
John refused to be baited. He reminded himself he was in love with Rodney. The urge to shove his nose backward into his skull would pass.
He took a moment to let his pulse slow before slowly walking to the rear. He let himself enjoy, just a little, the nervous look that crossed Rodney's face.
John was career military. He'd been in smaller spaces for longer periods of time. He knew what to do.
He started out with a little jogging in place, just to loosen up. The jumper wasn't big enough to run in, of course, but there was plenty of space for push-ups and sit-ups. John figured he'd knock out a couple hundred and then maybe do some jumping jacks or something.
"What are you doing?" Rodney's voice came out as a squeak as John dropped to the floorspace between the two benches. He barely managed to yank his feet out of the way in time.
"I know you skip an awful lot of PT, McKay." John grunted, throwing in a hand clap just to show off. "But I'm pretty sure even you can recognize a push-up."
"Stop that. You'll get all sweaty."
"Kind of the point." John's pectoral muscles were going to hate him tomorrow if he kept up the claps between each push-up, but it was driving Rodney nuts.
"I don't know if you've noticed, Sheppard, but there's no shower in this thing."
"Didn't bother you last night." John flipped over for some crunches.
"That's different. I couldn't have made it through grad school without mastering the art of fucking in less than ideal circumstances. But I refuse to live with the manly stench of your calisthenics."
He took a sniff, wrinkling his nose as if to prove his point. He was being dramatic. The circulators would scrub any odor out of the air. As for John himself, he wasn't too objectionable--yet. He surreptitiously sniffed his armpit to make sure.
"Oh my God," Rodney said. "I can't believe I'm sleeping with you."
"Can't you?" John's body was starting to feel loose, muscles burning pleasantly. He grinned up. "C'mon, McKay. There's enough room down here for partner sit-ups."
"Oh you have got to be--hmm."
John looked up to find Rodney eyeing him speculatively. He let his legs fall open a little, which was terrible form, but seemed to be working if the hungry look in Rodney's eyes was anything to judge by. He closed his eyes and continued his crunches, letting his hips rise a little each time at the end. There was a strangled noise and Rodney was suddenly on top of him.
"Get off, McKay." John made his voice do that growly thing Rodney couldn't resist. "Wouldn't want to get any manly stench on you."
"Shut up," Rodney said, and kissed him.
Oh yeah, this was great, this was perfect. John pretended to do one more sit-up, just so he could feel Rodney's chest against his and press their groins together.
Rodney groaned, already hard. He backed away a little. "Sit up."
"That's what I was doing before you interrupted." John smirked.
"Oh my God," Rodney said. "Sit up right now and do not say another word until we're done."
John laughed, but he knew when it was in his best interests to obey an order. He raised himself to his elbows. Rodney ripped off John's t-shirt like it had personally offended him and got right to work on his pants.
Leaning back, gazing up at Rodney's flushed, determined face, John felt a powerful wave of affection. It occurred to him that now would be the perfect time to say what he had to say. He smiled a little, and opened his mouth.
"Not one word," Rodney said.
Rodney finished stripping John and quickly shucked his own clothes, batting John's hands away when he tried to help. And it was strange, because John was never very vocal during sex--it wasn't usually a time when he felt like talking, but now that he couldn't speak, the words kept bubbling through him, struggling to break free.
I love you, John thought as Rodney's hand closed on his cock. So much.
He ached to tell him. It would be so easy to say now, as Rodney stroked him with feather-light pulls that were perfect but not nearly enough. He reached for Rodney, getting a hand on his cheek.
"Just lie back," Rodney gritted out in that tone that meant he'd pushed all the way past turned on and was approaching incoherence. "Just let me--"
Yes, John wanted to say. Anything you want. He settled back, letting Rodney touch him, letting the waves of pleasure wash over his body. Rodney stroked his shoulder, his thigh, the insole of his foot. He trailed a hand through John's chest hair until his fingers curled around a tight nipple, spreading a shock of feeling from John's groin to his toes.
Rodney, Rodney, Rodney, John chanted in his mind, head reeling, feeling almost drunk. It wouldn't be so bad if the words slipped out now. It would be good. Important, even. But he didn't want to tell Rodney when he felt like this--barely in control of his own body, falling apart under Rodney's hands. When he finally said it he didn't want Rodney to mistake the words for a careless utterance in the heat of the moment, not even for one second.
Rodney's lips closed around the head of his cock. John moaned, which seemed to be allowed, thank God, and gripped a hand in Rodney's hair so tight it had to hurt. Rodney swallowed him down, and John banged his head against the floor, coming hard.
If his mouth could have formed the words, nothing could have kept him from saying them to Rodney then. He felt wrecked, wrung out. Rodney moved away, which didn't seem fair, but John didn't feel capable of doing anything about it.
When he was finally able to lift his head he saw Rodney leaning back on his heels, gazing hotly down at him, hand moving furiously over his cock. John had just enough time to reach out a shaky hand before Rodney came all over the both of them.
It wasn't as bad as Rodney had made out. There weren't showers, but they had medical wipes. They managed to get clean.
That night, after John inflated the extra firm camping mattress and they lay together with only the auxiliary lights glowing softly from the cockpit, John was sure the time had come. Thirty-one hours to go, his brain provided helpfully.
"Rodney," he said.
"Go to sleep, John."
"No. There's something I've been wanting to say."
John suddenly couldn't stand the idea of saying something so important to Rodney without seeing his face. He sat up, fumbling for his flashlight.
Rodney groaned at the light, so John aimed it at the ceiling. It gave a soft glow. "Rodney," he began.
Rodney rolled toward John, glaring at the flashlight. "It's bedtime, not Campfire Hour."
"I have something I want to tell you."
Rodney struggled to a sitting position and looked warily from John to the flashlight and back. "It's a ghost story, isn't it? You're trying to fulfill some childhood boy scout camp fantasy. At least tell me you didn't hide your guitar somewhere."
"What?" John blinked.
"Fine." Rodney gave a long-suffering sigh. "I'll go first, but only because the anthropologists found a repository of Ancient fiction two weeks ago."
"You're joking." John couldn't understand how this conversation had gotten away from him.
"Do I ever joke about anthropologists? Doctor Furcal did the translation. And let me tell you, the Ancients were into some seriously creepy stuff."
This was too good to miss. John lay back down and let Rodney's words wash over him. He still had all day tomorrow.
He had to laugh when Rodney grabbed the flashlight and held it under his chin. Rodney shot him a glare for form's sake but seemed pleased as he began to speak in a low tone.
"There once was an Ancient with the most beautiful black hair in all of Atlantis..."
John woke with an alarm blaring in his ears. He was in the cockpit before he even realized he was moving. Rodney was already there, plugging his tablet into the adapter.
"What is it?" John mentally called up the HUD.
Rodney made the hand slash of working now, so John paged rapidly through systems on the HUD. The drive pods were fine. Control systems were okay. The jumper appeared to be on course.
Rodney was still tapping away on his tablet. John concentrated a moment and the alarm shut off.
"Thank you," Rodney said with feeling.
"Rodney?" John asked a little impatiently when no explanations were forthcoming.
"Yes, yes," he said with an air of distraction. "I can see you there. You're very good at the hovering."
John gritted his teeth and waited. Rodney's expression was closer to the disappointed frown he wore when ten-thousand-year-old equipment chose willfully to let him down than the crazy eyes of absolute focus he pulled out when they were facing imminent death. Finally he sighed and sat in the co-pilot's chair.
"So," John said carefully after a long moment. "Not a false alarm?"
"There's an unexplained drain in the jumper's powerplant."
"That doesn't sound good."
"No," Rodney agreed. "I like power. I'd go so far as to say it's one of my favorite things when I'm flying through space."
"What's causing it?"
"Excuse me, did you not hear me use the word 'unexplained?'" Rodney started typing again, viciously punching the keys.
John winced sympathetically--Rodney hated when he couldn't explain something. He wouldn't take kindly to assurances he'd figure it out, so John went straight for the important question. "How fast is the drain?"
"If we keep losing power at the rate we are now, we'll be a drifting hulk in--" Rodney checked his tablet. "Sixty-three hours?"
John instantly relaxed. Plenty of time--that made his decision easy. "I'll set a course back to Atlantis."
"I know Azz is closer, but if there's something wrong with the jumper we need to go back."
"Oh, no, no, no--"
"Rodney." He used his best McKay-handling voice. "The Azria won't be any help with the jumper. If you can't fix it with what's on hand there, we'll be stuck. We can't depend on getting their gate operational." Rodney opened his mouth to object. John knew from long experience it was best to head him off at the pass. He put a hand on his shoulder. "I know it sucks, but it's the right choice, Rodney. I'll buy you a beer when we get home."
Rodney shrugged off John's hand and held up a finger. "First, it's my beer." He wiggled a second finger in John's face--up close they looked like tiny angry twins dancing. "Second, we don't have enough power to go back."
"You just said--"
Rodney used a fist to kinetically illustrate the jumper. Less cute was his other hand, held in the familiar gesture of shut up and don't argue. "The jumper's traveling toward Azz at more than twelve million kilometers an hour. Reversing direction toward the space gate would expend twice the power we'd use stopping relative to Azz. There's no going back now."
"Not to mention the fact that the speed of the drain is increasing roughly exponentially in relation to our total power expenditure."
"No, I really think you ought to mention that."
"Look, you know jumpers operate on a reserve of energy, right?" He didn't wait for John to answer. "When that reserve falls the basic functions start requiring more power."
John didn't remember that little factoid being part of the Jumper 101 seminar Rodney and Zelenka ran twice a year. "Well that's just--stupid."
"Take it up with the Ancients. When the jumpers are fully charged it effectively gives them extra power for--that's not the point. The point is the more power we use now, the faster the rate of the drain, until we approach zero. I can write you an exponential function if you feel like wasting time."
That was the trouble with geniuses, they never said the important things first like normal people. John bit his tongue. Yelling at Rodney wouldn't help. "All right. Let me try again. How much power can we count on having?"
"Power expenditure is a non-linear system, Sheppard. There are too many separate variables to--"
He looked down at his tablet. "If we shut down everything non-essential? I think we can make it to Azz."
"We might even be able to land."
"Re-entry through atmosphere eats up lot more power than simple forward momentum. You know that."
John rubbed the back of his neck. "So we might or might not have enough power to get to P8X-738. Where we might or might not have enough power to land. In which case we might or might not end up as a--"
"Lifeless drifting hulk, yes. Unless we ran out of power during our approach to Azz. Then we'd probably just burn up. But that's unlikely," he added quickly.
John sighed. Over the years he'd gotten skilled at using Rodney as his own personal risk assessment scale. He was panicking only slightly, and not trying to look noble or stoically brave, all good signs. "And that's all you know."
"Non-linear system, Sheppard. Variables. It all depends on--"
"Never tell me the odds." John took the pilot's chair.
"Oh, you are so not Han Solo."
John shot him his best cocky flyboy grin. "Don't give me ideas. I'm picturing you in the gold bikini right now."
"Stop that," Rodney said. But he leaned toward John a little, and put a hand on his shoulder.
"John," Rodney said a little while later.
"Yeah?" John turned to Rodney, smiling at the way he glowed blue in the dim light of the HUD.
The lights had been the first to go when Rodney shut down the non-essential systems. The artificial gravity was next. The novelty of floating around in the darkened cockpit had worn off a lot quicker than John had expected, and they'd mutually agreed to attach the seat harnesses John had made standard equipment after one too many rough landings. The shutdown kept Rodney from fooling around with the crystals in the back in an attempt to fix the drain. All he could do was watch his tablet, where the power level was represented by a steadily decreasing red bar. That had to be tough on him, but John was glad to have Rodney close.
"We've never tested it, but Radek and I theorize the jumpers have a fail-safe to keep life support on. You know, in case we reach critical power limits."
"It's only sensible."
"There's a few crystals in the life support array we've never been able to map functions for. I'm positive one of them is the fail-safe. Well, pretty sure. Mostly."
"So worst-case scenario, we sit in space for a couple of days, wait for Lorne to come give us a tow."
"Right." Rodney nodded vigorously. "Well, not a tow, we'd have to do an EVA. I ever tell you how much I hate those?"
"Couple of times."
"Oh. Well, I just thought you'd like to know. About the fail-safe. I'm pretty sure it's there. Well, sixty percent sure. Fifty-eight.
"Rodney." John laughed. "You suck at comforting."
Rodney huffed, but John could tell he felt better. John felt pretty good too, and suffused with affection.
With the power drain, Rodney wasn't completely sure when they would reach the planet--he started talking about recursive functions whenever John tried to ask, and seemed just about ready to pull out a pencil and paper--but John didn't think they were too far off their original schedule, which would mean they'd arrive at P8X-738 in somewhere under twelve hours.
If John said what he wanted to say now, Rodney would be convinced he was only saying it because he thought they were going to die. It would be impossible to explain to him how that wasn't true. John knew this wasn't how his number would come up--not here in a jumper with Rodney, not when he was so quietly happy for no reason at all.
But he knew Rodney. Rodney would convince himself it was some kind of deathbed confession, and it would take John years to persuade him he meant it. No, it was best to wait just a few hours longer. Just until Rodney knew they were safe.
John smiled at Rodney, asleep in the co-pilot's chair. He'd wanted to wake him when they'd passed the planet that was the nearest neighbor of P8X-738. It was unusual to find a ringed giant so close to the center of a solar system. The solar heat made spectacular storms rage in swirls across the surface, and it had been an amazing sight. But Rodney needed his sleep. He rarely got more than four or five hours a night on Atlantis. Later, when everything was settled between them, he'd take Rodney for a ride to share this. He'd let Rodney show him the red and orange rings, and he'd even make himself listen when Rodney wanted to explain what they were made of.
Rodney chose that moment to let out a booming snore. It made something in John feel soft and protective. He was in love, all right.
"Son of a bitch," Rodney said in a tone of wonder. "We got here."
John stared ahead. P8X-738 was barely a pinprick through the windshield, but getting closer every second.
He grinned and stretched to punch Rodney on the arm, just because he could. "Knew it all the time."
Rodney rubbed at his shoulder. "There's still the re-entry."
"Is it really re-entry if it's the first time we've flown into the planet?"
Rodney was busy with his tablet. "Yes, well. Mere language can't hope to keep up with you space heroes."
The red bar representing the power left in the jumper looked pretty good to John's untrained eye. After a moment Rodney stopped typing and looked up. "There are two choices."
"That's one more than we usually have," John said cheerfully.
"We can enter an orbit, wait until we miss our check in, and hope there really is a fail-safe and we still have life support when Lorne comes looking for us."
The end of the thought was easy to finish. "Or we can burn through the last of our power, fly into the atmosphere, and look for a nice place to land. What do you say, Rodney? Do we have the power?"
Rodney looked down at his tablet, though John was sure he could recite everything on the screen from memory. "Probably? I think? If the drain remains predictable throughout the entry, which it's entirely possible it won't."
"Good enough for me. Forward it is. We're already pointed that direction anyway." John turned to meet Rodney's eyes. "Agreed?"
Rodney looked nervous, but resolved. "Enjoyable as this trip has been, I don't think I could spend another three days in here without strangling you in your sleep."
"Aw, me too, McKay. Okay, then. Here goes."
John brought the flight plan up on the HUD. He took a breath. Part of him wanted to tell Rodney he loved him and see if he could get a quick kiss for luck. Too bad there wasn't time for that. He settled for another friendly punch instead.
"I told you we'd be fine," Rodney said ten or so minutes later. "Didn't I tell you?"
"That's exactly how I remember it," John said agreeably.
He hadn't wanted to take the time for a finesse landing in the Azrian main plaza which had been the original plan way back when, so he'd put down in the first empty field he'd seen. Luckily there was what looked like a barbed wire fence between them and the curious curly-haired cow-things the next field over.
He should have jumped up the moment they landed, anxious to escape the confinement, eager to breathe real air, but for some reason John didn't want to leave their jumper quite yet. His body felt suddenly heavy, like it had forgotten the feel of gravity, but it was more than that. This tiny space was theirs. When they left it they'd belong to the world, to the galaxy, again.
Rodney seemed to feel the same way. He'd turned his head to smile at John, but hadn't made a move to undo his harness. "I'm going to make the Azria give me the best room in their finest inn, and I'm going to order room service on account--two of that fried chicken thing they served us last time--and then I'm going to crawl under the covers and pretend this jumper trip never happened. Then maybe--maybe--I'll fix their gate."
"Uh-uh." John shook his head. "We're going someplace without walls around us. Beach, maybe."
Rodney grinned at him, too happy to bother with his usual objections to sand and sun. He checked his tablet. "We even had six percent more power than we needed, can you believe it? As soon as I get the Azria's gate working I'm getting Radek over here and we are running every diagnostic we know on this piece of junk. And then we're inventing new ones."
"Rodney--" John's voice caught in his throat.
"Fine. I'm sorry I called it a piece of junk. I know you have some kind of unnatural relationship with the jumpers."
"Rodney," John said again. They couldn't stay here much longer. In a few minutes they'd have to leave the jumper and rejoin their lives. This was it--John's last chance, the end of the road, so far past the point of no return he was almost through to the other side. The only way now was forward.
He kind of felt like throwing up.
"John, what's wrong?"
Nothing, John wanted to say. I'm good. I'm great. I love you.
But the words wouldn't come, no matter how much John meant them. He could feel his heart pound in his chest.
"We made it. You can't be broken now. Put your head between your knees."
Maybe if he just closed his eyes for a moment. Somewhere past the blood rushing in his ears he was dimly aware of Rodney calling his name. He heard a metallic click, then felt a hand on his back.
There were cool fingers on his cheek. "Let's get you out of here."
He opened his eyes and Rodney was there, bending over him. His harness fell away.
"I'm all right."
"I love you."
And just like that John felt fantastic. He couldn't wait to say it again. "I love you."
"Um." Rodney looked poleaxed a moment, then suddenly shoved a finger into his chest. "Wait, is that why you've been acting so weird? You were trying to express your feelings?"
John felt himself flush. "Maybe."
Rodney stepped back. "Jesus, Sheppard, am I that hard to love? I'd be insulted if I didn't know how much emotional turmoil it must have taken for you to overcome your natural inertia."
"McKay," John tried to growl. He was horrified to hear his voice crack somewhere in the middle.
Rodney froze. He looked down at John and his whole face suddenly changed. The next thing John knew he was being grabbed by the elbow and hauled roughly into his arms. John felt Rodney's hands on his back, in his hair, and it was so perfect he had to laugh, great guffaws bursting out of him.
Rodney pulled his head back and squinted at him. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Rodney." John felt something ripple through him, light and airy as joy. "You're supposed to say you love me too."
"Well, yes." Rodney sounded puzzled. "Obviously. Didn't you know that?"
John did. But it was still nice to hear.