John was ignoring McKay. Ignoring the crossed arms, ignoring the tight slant of the mouth, ignoring the glowering lowered brows. Ignoring the eye rolls, ignoring the occasional indignant huffs and sighs. And especially ignoring the smell of real, actual fresh coffee from the mug at the man’s elbow.
He wasn’t about to ignore the bitching, though.
“Really, Major,” McKay said, “this is appallingly basic and a waste of—-"
“We are not going over this again,” John said. “I made Peterson do push-ups, I’ll do the same to you. If you’re interested in not wasting your time, you’ll close your mouth except to ask relevant questions you really need answered. I assure you, everyone else in this room will also appreciate it.”
“Yeah, shut up, McKay,” said a woman scientist. Simpson, John thought.
“I’m done zipping your people into body bags,” John said. “So, as I was saying. Sight picture. Breathing control. Safety protocol.” He checked them off on the whiteboard as he went. He’d commandeered one of the whiteboards from a science lab; apparently Sumner hadn’t requisitioned one, preferring, incredibly, to do everything in PowerPoint. Despite being a career soldier John was not as enamored of PowerPoint as most. Sure, he could hack it, but for this sort of thing, it was better to draw. He knew from experience that many, many people zoned out the instant you pulled up the first slide, and he would bet anything most of the people in this room had done precisely that when first taught these materials. He unfastened the padded case and pulled out the handguns inside, setting one down on the table in front of each person in the classroom. “Each of these weapons has a tag with it, with its serial number. Write your name on the one that belongs to your weapon, and I’ll collect them. You are to carry this weapon with you everywhere for three days. Know where it is at all times. Do not leave it anywhere. Do not do anything stupid with it. Maintain it. And I have booked each of you into practice slots at the firing range. You may switch slots around to suit your schedule, but you are to clear it with the rangemaster. Skipping sessions is not allowed. This is three days, people. And there will be a test at the end.”
He supervised while they all filled out the little tags, and put them neatly into the folder he’d Velcroed into the top of the case. There was some shuffling and grumbling and mumbling, but everyone cooperated. McKay glared and glowered, acting as though John had personally wronged him, but signed the tag with a flourish, and John noted that he wrote PhD., PhD. after his signature. What a dork.
It surprised John that the thought was accompanied with such fondness. Well, he supposed it was nice for once to not be the dorkiest one in a room. And he’d really gotten used to Rodney over the last couple of months. They shared a bathroom, since the good rooms with the balconies didn’t have ensuite bathrooms, and the guy wasn’t actually at all a bad semi-roommate. And their senses of humor were shockingly compatible.
He waited until everyone had filled out the little tags, put the folder away, and then turned to the whiteboard again. “Now,” he said, and wrote MAINTENANCE on the board. “Each of the holsters with those weapons has a cleaning kit in it. Guess what? Those aren’t decorative. To avoid a firearms malfunction, you need to clean those pistols every day, or every time they’re fired. You all have a more advanced grasp of chemistry than I do, I am sure, and so I do not need to explain to you why this is so.”
A man had his hand up, and John paused, regarding him. Phillips? He wasn’t sure what department the man was with. “Yes?” he said.
“I just wondered,” the man said, slightly nervous, “I’d heard we were worried about an ammunition shortage. Are we going to be okay?”
John gave the guy a friendly grin. “We are indeed gonna be okay,” he said. “The mission where Lt. Ford broke his leg last week? We established a secure supply for the last of the materials we needed to reload our own bullets. So while we still have to be careful with some of our weapons, the 9mm pistols I just handed out to you all have, as far as we’re concerned, an unlimited supply of bullets. Just make sure to save your brass casings whenever you get the chance. Those are tricky to make. But the bullets themselves, we have sorted out.”
“Ah,” Philips said, comprehension clearing his expression. Several other people nodded slowly; it had become clear to them too. John realized that there was probably some sort of conspiracy theory blossoming among the scientists about why they were all being retrained so intensively now.
He let his eyes slide over toward McKay, who looked even more exasperated, but smug underneath that, and realized that part of McKay’s huffing and posturing had been to reassure the others. If he had been wide-eyed and frightened and eager, they would’ve assumed the rumors to be true.
Or maybe John was imagining it, and McKay really was just being a pain in the ass. He filed his suspicion carefully away: he’d always figured McKay just hid behind the Bad With People label, and the suspicion was rather frequently reinforced. “So we’re truly, genuinely just doing all these retrainings because now there are enough bullets for it, and I have the downtime while my teammate is injured. So calm yourselves and focus. Maintenance is even more important when you’re working with handloads; you’re at far greater risk for firearms malfunctions, hang fires, squibs, misfires, duds and the like, and having your weapon in perfect working order can help reduce the risks.”
Someone giggled, and someone else echoed it, and John looked with perfect patient blankness at the group until one of the gigglers raised her hand. “Yes?” he said blandly. He knew she was a botanist but he couldn’t remember her name.
“What’s a squib?” she asked, and her companion giggled again.
John blinked. “A squib is, um,” what was so funny? Several people were laughing now. “What?”
“A squib is the non-magical offspring of a pair of wizards, in the Harry Potter universe,” McKay said, dry with annoyance.
John raised his eyebrows. “Ah,” he said. “I had that on my to-read pile but it was over the weight limit for my McMurdo transport. Unfortunately a squib in real life is a charge that didn’t have enough primer to get it down the barrel, so it’s lodged in your gun, and if you try to fire another round, your gun’s gonna explode and take your hand off. We’re gonna have a session on that later. For now all you gotta know is if you’re expecting it to go bang and it goes click instead, keep it pointed downrange and call for help. Know what, I need you all to focus on me again, so repeat what I just said. If you’re expecting it to go bang and it goes click instead, what do you do?”
“Keep it pointed downrange and call for help,” said Simpson, too fast, looking smug.
“Thank you,” John said blandly. He pointed at one of the women who had been giggling and was still grinning. “Can you repeat the whole phrase?”
She looked like a deer caught by headlights. “Um,” she said.
“I lost you at squib,” John said. “I knew it. Can anyone catch her up?”
There was a ragged chorus of the whole sentence, and John wrote it on the board. Predictably, a wiseass asked, “What if it’s just unloaded?”
“Then you probably weren’t really expecting it to go bang,” John said, still writing. “You should always be ready for it to go bang, of course. But we’re gonna go through all the troubleshooting you can do on your own a little at a time. First off, just remember to keep it pointed in a safe direction, and eventually the person you’re gonna call for help is gonna be yourself. But for right now, it’s whoever’s in charge of the range, or whoever’s the military guy or, um, woman on your team.” He waved a hand. “And if it turns out the thing was unloaded, then good, you don’t have a problem. Better that than assuming it wasn’t loaded and blowing your fool head off or, worse, someone else’s.”
They made their efficient way through loading and unloading, clearing the chamber, chambering a round, clearing the weapon, and then John made them all field-strip the guns and clean them, then reassemble them. He kept his personal sidearm holstered the whole time, and demonstrated the process on a dirty 9mm he’d used at the firing range a little while before, while finalizing the curriculum for this class. (He carried a hi-cap Colt 45 single-action that he'd bought himself, which was kind of a hot shot gun but he was kind of a hot shot so there.)
Eventually they all made their way to the door, and John erased everything from the whiteboard and wrote the introductory notes to begin the next session. He was gonna pawn the rest of these off on Ford once the guy had his walking cast. Supposed to get it tomorrow or so.
He got the whiteboard set up, finished the rest of his bottle of water, and turned around, to find McKay still sitting at the table, arms crossed over his chest, weapon still sitting in its holster on the desk.
“Permission to speak, Major?” McKay asked, acidly formal.
“Christ’s sake, McKay,” John said, “what?”
“I forsee disaster with all these guns lying around,” McKay said.
“I have forseen all the disasters I could see my way to,” John said, “and I figured these people are all supposed to be geniuses. I have the serial numbers written down. All the magazines I gave you-all are marked with little paint dots. If anybody’s careless with the equipment, I’ll know who it was, I have Elizabeth’s permission to chew their asses out, and I’m gonna sic Bates on ‘em to do it so it gets done right. You want a good ass-chewing, you get a Marine sergeant with an axe to grind to do it.”
“Bates has an axe to grind?” McKay asked.
“Of course he fucking does,” John said. He scrubbed tiredly at his face, glanced at his watch. An hour. If he snagged his laptop he could get some paperwork done and eat a late lunch before the next session. He unplugged the laptop and brought it with him. “His CO got shot by some fuck-up of a flyboy he doesn’t know from Adam, and he’s in a distant fucking galaxy with no way home. I surely do understand his point of view.” He paused at the door. “I’m going to go eat a goddamn sandwich so if you’re through sulking I wouldn’t mind some company, but if not, I’ll see you later.”
McKay hesitated a moment, but when John left the room, McKay was behind him, and he wasn’t sulking anymore.
Ford was leaning on his crutches and had an unguarded look of pain on his face.
"G’wan,” John said. “Get outta here.”
“I’m fine, sir,” Ford said stubbornly.
“I got orders from Beckett not to let you stand longer than an hour, max,” John said.
“I was on the stool,” Ford protested. “Foot up and everything.”
“Yeah but you’re not now,” John said. “Get back to your quarters and take your horse pill, I’ve already made you teach three classes today.”
“Yeah but this is what I do,” Ford said. “Everybody else is bitching about this initiative. I’m like the only person who’s totally psyched. Don’t make me miss out.”
John gave him a sidelong grin, ignoring the twinge about his newfound unpopularity. “I get that,” he said, “but I also want you to heal up quick, and that means following the doctor’s orders. Anyway there’s not much left to do here but make sure everybody completes their test rounds. Hand me that clipboard, you’re relieved.”
“Yessir,” Ford said, and John saw him almost salute and decide against it, so he traded grins with him and walked up to stand behind the current shooter. There were four or five scientists milling around, two loading magazines and one inspecting her completed target. Dr. Dickinson was firing, first a free shoot focusing on aim, and then second he’d shoot another magazine in rapid-fire on a new target. He was obviously still doing the free shoot, firing slowly and squinting downrange after each one.
He was a nice enough kid, not one of the ones who’d given John trouble so far. John paused to look at the target of the woman who’d just fired. “That’s a good cluster,” he said. “Doesn’t matter that it’s a little off-center. As you get to know that weapon, you can adjust. Well done. That’s progress.”
She gave him a look full of adoration and he favored her with an almost-flirty smirk back. Some of the scientists, more females than males but narrowly, could still be won over by the Flyboy Hunk routine. John tried not to overdo it, but a little judicious application of eyebrows and lip-biting greased the wheels a little here and there. No harm in it. She took the target with her as she left. “Don’t forget to maintain your weapon,” he called after her, and pulled on his ear protection as he stepped forward to watch Dickinson.
Dickinson turned to see him as he ejected his magazine and pressed the button to bring the target forward for inspection and replacement. There was a smattering of holes low and to the left, then a scatter up and to the right. “Looks like you overcorrected a little,” John said, shoving one of the ear pieces up.
“Yeah,” Dickinson said glumly, unhooking the target and giving it a once-over, tight-lipped.
“Eh,” John said, “it’s all progress. The point is, you’re more comfortable with the weapon. And I’d say on pretty much all targets, even this level of accuracy would be a healthy deterrent.”
Dickinson was immune to flirting, but liked approval, and smiled cautiously. “Except Wraith,” he said. “From what I’ve heard.”
“Eh well,” John said, “not much deters them. We’ll get into more tactical placement of bullets once everyone’s comfortable with rapid-fire and general handling.”
Dickinson nodded, ejected the magazine and replaced it with the full one. John eyed the gun barrel, noting that it was fingerprinted and dirty. He’d bet the guy hadn’t been cleaning the gun. He was going to seek him out the next morning and make a point of inspecting the weapon to make sure it was clean, and if it wasn’t, he was selling the guy out to Bates. Nice kid only got you so far.
John stepped back, settling his ear protection into place and thinking about how nice it was to have a real honest-to-God Marine sergeant to be Bad Cop. He’d never been that good at it himself, but Bates had no problem at all with it. And he was no slouch, brains-wise. Not John’s first choice for a candlelight dinner, but he could’ve done much worse with a head of security. Sumner hadn’t been an idiot at all to have picked him out, and it was a damn shame, a crying goddamn shame, the guy had lasted so briefly. John had been perfectly prepared to slouch around and piss the guy off; he’d been counting on finding something he was good at so he could stay out of the guy’s way. Shooting him hadn’t been in the plan, and replacing him, well. That one wasn’t even in wildest dreams territory. At least it hadn’t been a disaster so far.
Well, ok, but only sort of a disaster.
John hit the timer, and Dickinson started the rapid fire. Bang, bang, bang, bang, click. Dickinson flinched, hesitated, looked at the gun in bewilderment, and turned toward John.
“Keep it pointed downra—“ John yelled urgently, and then it went off.
The impact spun John around, and he landed on his hands and knees. There was no pain, and he blinked for a moment, wondering if somehow he’d managed not to— oh no, that pattering sound was blood, and it wasn’t— nope, it was his. Something was really wrong with his left thigh, huh, the same one where he had the rod and pins from the broken femur. Hm.
Dickinson was yelling, Ford was yelling, McKay was yelling— what was McKay doing here? John rolled to sit on his butt, tore the already-ripped fabric of his blood-soaked pants to expose the wound, and stuck his thumb in to press down where blood was spurting. That was a major blood vessel. Not the femoral artery or John would already be dead, but a big one nonetheless. That was a whole shitload of blood. Dickinson was slipping in the blood, slipped and fell and thankfully set the gun down, muzzle downrange, and knelt to stare in horror at John’s face.
Oh right, John still had his ear protection on. He pulled it off and the room got a whole lot noisier. He yanked his radio headset out of his shirt pocket, stuck it on his ear, and keyed it. Nobody was talking on it, which was annoying, because that was probably the first thing they should do.
“Medical team to the firing range,” John said, thinking that he didn’t have a whole lot of time before he bled to death, at this rate. Nothing hurt and he didn’t really feel dizzy but then, he wasn’t feeling anything yet. He kept his thumb jammed down as hard as he could into the wound, pressing down.
“Roger that,” said Beckett’s welcome voice. “Someone yelled something a moment ago— what’s the nature of the emergency?”
“Firearm malfunction,” John said. “One victim. Gunshot wound. Left thigh. Massive bleeding.” If this had happened offworld he’d never have survived it. Of course, his odds were probably about even right now. There was a damn lot of blood on this floor, and more coming.
“It’s damn good to hear your voice,” Beckett said. “We’re already on our way. Someone yelled that you were the one who’d been shot.”
“Oh,” John said, “I was, it’s me bleedin’ out on the firing range floor. RH positive, Beckett, and I’m gonna need a lot of it. I got the blood vessel pinched shut but my fingers are slippin’. It’s a mess, Doc.”
“Christ,” Beckett said.
“What happened?” Dickinson asked. “How did I do that?”
“It was a hang fire,” John said kindly. “Sometimes with a dirty weapon or an inexpert handload or both, the powder doesn’t ignite right away. Do me a favor, stick your thumb right there and press down as hard as you can. Harder than that.”
“I killed you,” Dickinson said, horrified, but pressed down. “Oh my God. I did this.”
“Yeah but not on purpose,” John said, “and that puts you head and shoulders over everybody else who’s ever shot me.” He focused on breathing for a moment.
“Jesus Christ,” Dickinson said.
“And now you’ll never forget to keep your weapon pointed in a safe direction in event of a hangfire,” John said, and then Beckett was cursing at everyone and he let himself pass out.
Unlock, unlock, John thought at the door as hard as he could. Open. He heard the click as it unlocked, but it refused to open, no matter how hard he concentrated, which admittedly wasn’t very hard. His throat was closing up and his breath was only coming in a tight wheeze and this was bad, really really really bad. With perfect clarity he could see, in his mind’s eye, his radio resting on the nightstand beside the bed, as bad as miles away from the bathroom floor where he was now. He’d dropped his crutches in the dizzy spell that had sent him crashing to the floor, and he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t—
He lay on his back with his head arched back, struggling to get just a little more air, just a little, Christ he was a moron. It was the antibiotics, it had to be; he’d started itching the day before, and had come up in welts, but he’d just figured it was one of those things. He shouldn’t have taken this morning’s dose. Oh God he was going to die on the bathroom floor and it was so fucking stupid. He even had an Epi-Pen. Two of them. Ever since Rodney had joined his team and he’d confirmed with Beckett that the allergies were real. He’d used it on him once offworld, and it was awful, but ever since then, yeah, he kept an Epi-Pen around.
In his room. Down the hall. God he was fucked.
The door hissed open. “Oh,” McKay said, then, “Sheppard?”
John wheezed at him, rolling his eyes— darkness was crowding in and he couldn’t even get part of a breath, he was passing out, and McKay said, “Shit!” and left.
He lost a minute or two then, and suddenly someone was stabbing him in his good leg, and he sucked in about a teaspoonful of air and rolled his eyes as open as he could get them. “Stay with me,” McKay said. “Hey. Stay with me, Sheppard. Count back from thirty with me and you’ll be okay. Okay? Twenty nine, twenty eight, twenty seven—“
John let the numbers wash over him for a moment, lost in the struggle to breathe. McKay had pulled his head and shoulders into his lap and had a hand on his neck. By twelve, John had figured out that McKay was either bracing his jaw for better airway clearance, or taking his pulse, or both. By eight, he’d remembered that he was wearing a towel and a bandage and that was it, and the towel was probably not really on him anymore after all the thrashing. By one, he realized he was breathing, and that felt amazing enough that he stopped worrying about being naked on the bathroom floor with an astrophysicist.
“God,” McKay said, “what are the odds that you’d almost die twice in a week?”
“High,” John wheezed, “but I hadn’t— expected—“
“What on earth gave you this reaction?” McKay asked, looking around. He found the towel and to John’s relief, slung it over him.
“Antibiotics,” John said fuzzily, tucking the towel back around his hips. “Help me sit up, this floor’s fucking freezing.”
“Give me your radio,” McKay said. John shot him a disgusted look, and he finally connected the dots. “Oh. Right. You don’t have it. Well, I dropped mine while pawing around looking for my Epi-Pen.”
John closed his eyes and just breathed for a minute. “I feel like shit,” he said, realizing he was shaking.
“Believe me,” McKay said, “I know. I gotta call Beckett, you’re still pretty messed-up. But you’re breathing and that’s something.”
“Yeah,” John said. He was breathing better and better, though his heart was still pounding. “Shit.”
“Can you sit up?” McKay asked. “I gotta go get the radio.”
“Yeah,” John said. McKay half-dragged him and propped him against the wall. He was only gone a minute, but John was shivering uncontrollably by the time he got back.
“Oh dear,” McKay said, “that doesn’t look so good.”
“F-fuckin’ f-f-f-freezing in here,” John managed.
“You’re in shock,” McKay said. “It’s like, 25 centigrade in here.”
Just then Beckett and two guys with a gurney came swarming in like the world was ending, and John protested feebly but let them strap him to the thing and cart him off to an ordeal of being poked, prodded, injected, vomiting in a mortifyingly embarrassing fashion all over Carson, getting pumped so full of God-knows-what that he almost vibrated off the bed, and finally not being allowed to go to sleep.
Gradually the fuss died down, and Elizabeth came to see him and made somewhat awkward and bizarrely indirectly snide conversation that John didn’t really remember. He did note she had her sidearm in a belt holster. It made him feel better to see it.
He pointed at it. “How many bullets in the magazine?” he asked.
“Fourteen,” she answered.
“When did you last clean it?”
“Last night,” she said. “I promise.”
“Good,” he said.
“Poor Dickinson,” Elizabeth said, “he came to me in actual tears over the whole thing. He hadn’t cleaned his gun and he’s convinced that’s why it malfunctioned.”
“I’d noticed, actually,” John said. “I was gonna call him on it the next day.”
“That’s not why it happened, is it?” Elizabeth asked.
John rode out a hard shiver. “Hard to say,” he said. “Dirty guns are more likely to malfunction. Inexpert handloads, like we’re firing now, are more likely to malfunction. Could’ve been either. Could’ve been that the powder got damp somehow. Could’ve been a lot of things. I’m not mad at him. I wasn’t mad at the time. It’s fine. He should probably talk it out with Heightmeyer. And clean his damn gun like I told him to.”
“The joke has by now been worn out that you’re not doing this for your health,” Elizabeth said dryly.
“No shit,” John said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m probably going to violently throw up, or maybe have a seizure.”
“Oh dear,” she said. “Should I get Dr. Beckett?”
“Naw,” John said, “I already puked on him. Get somebody I haven’t barfed on yet. I like variety.”
“Um,” Elizabeth said, “okay,” and left the room.
“I was kidding,” John called weakly.
It took John almost 24 solid hours of sleep, plus 8 or so of infirmary routine and physical therapy and its aftermath, to go stir-crazy again. “McKay,” he said into the radio, about fifteen minutes after the man had exploded into a rant on the command channel. “McKay, this is Sheppard, come in.”
“What do you want?” Radio protocol wasn’t exactly at the top of Atlantis’s hierarchy of good manners.
“Just checkin’ to see if you had an aneurism yet. I worry, sometimes.”
He grinned gleefully at Beckett as the doctor walked by, flinching away from the torrent of profanity flowing down the command channel.
After a moment, Elizabeth’s voice said, “Doctor Beckett.”
“Beckett here,” the doctor answered, standing with his hand on his hip at the foot of John’s bed.
“Is Major Sheppard still in the infirmary?”
“Yes, he is,” Beckett said.
“Maybe you need to find something to entertain him so he stops poking the scientists on the command channel.” Elizabeth’s voice was dry.
“Consider him released,” Beckett answered, and clicked off. “Major Sheppard, do you think you can avoid dying if I let you go?”
“I’ll stay away from the scientists,” John said, already reaching for his crutches.
“You do that,” Beckett said. “Though, to be fair, just now, one did save your life.”
John tilted his head in acknowledgement, levered himself up to his feet, and swung out down the hallway, barefoot and in scrubs, rather than waiting for someone to bring him clothes.
“"I'll drink it! Let's have a bottle of rum!" shouted Pierre, banging the table with a determined and drunken gesture and preparing to climb out of the window. They seized him by his arms; but he was so strong that everyone who touched him was sent flying. "No, you'll never manage him that way," said Anatole. "Wait a bit and I'll get round him.... Listen! I'll take your bet tomorrow, but now we are all going to —’s.” "Come on then," cried Pierre. "Come on!... And we'll take Bruin with us." And he caught the bear, took it in his arms, lifted it from the ground, and began dancing round the room with it.”
John put his finger in the book and raised his eyes to the door. “It’s unlocked,” he yelled, sparing a moment’s thought for how his mother would have scolded him for ‘hollering’. She would have pronounced it with that dry precision that had marked her humor, and probably would have ruffled his hair afterward.
The door hissed open and McKay came in. “Are you suitably entertained?” he asked, raising his eyebrows and dropping his eyes to the book. John was noticeably not very far into it.
“No,” he said, letting the book close and putting it down. “Russian nobles were as big idiots as everyone else. I don’t really feel like reading about idiots just now.”
“Then come on, Major,” McKay said. “You’re going to prove to the scientists that you’re not a militaristic jock asshole.”
John reached for his crutches obediently, but as he gathered himself to stand, looked up dubiously. “This isn’t going to get me killed, is it?”
“I wouldn’t have saved your life yesterday if I planned to take it today,” McKay said, with particular lofty prickliness.
“Fair,” John conceded, and got awkwardly to his feet.
“So, um,” McKay said, “does your leg still hurt a lot?”
“I’ll take you plinking sometime,” John said. “Shoot some empty metal cans with that .9mm and get a look at the exit wound, might give you some idea of whether my leg still hurts a lot.”
“Was it really Davidson’s fault?” McKay asked. “Someone said he’d admitted he never cleaned his gun.”
“Dickinson,” John corrected. He shook his head. “It was an accident,” he went on, “and I wasn’t even mad when it happened, so let’s not talk about whose fault it is, and just let it be.”
“I said it was,” McKay said, “because I knew a bunch of people were slacking about cleaning their guns.”
“I knew they were too,” John said, “and I had planned to address that, but I suppose the drastic approach works.” He sighed. “Fuck shoes. Where are we going and do I have to have shoes on?”
“No,” McKay said, “and no, we’re going to the seventeenth-floor lounge.” He gave John a once-over. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in anything but uniforms or scrubs before.”
“These are my pyjamas,” John admitted. Track pants and a wrinkled black t-shirt. He squinted at McKay. “The scientists are pretty convinced about this militaristic jock asshole thing?”
McKay shrugged. “There’s a lot of resentment about the guns thing.”
“While I was coming out of surgery I heard the nurses talking about how maybe it served me right to get shot,” John said. He sighed. “Hell of a thing.”
“They did not,” McKay said, stopping short in the hallway and staring in horror.
John shrugged. “Something about putting a stop to my asinine power trip? I dunno. I was semiconscious at the time.”
“Assholes,” McKay muttered, resuming their, to John, annoyingly slow progress down the hall. “Well, for what it’s worth, I was a jerk during the classes, but I’ve been doing the marksmanship exercises and trying to make sure my people all do.”
“Means a lot, Rodney,” John said, the name slipping out and surprising him. To cover his reaction, he reached for the transporter. “Seventeenth floor, you said?”
Elizabeth stood in the entryway of the seventeenth-floor lounge for a long moment, shocked into complete silence, before anyone noticed her.
“Ah,” Zelenka said, pushing his glasses up his nose. “Doctor Weir.” The room was full of scientists, many still in their blue uniform shirts. Grodin was on the coffee table with Kolesnikova, doing some sort of dance. McKay was balancing on one foot on an end table, poised as if to leap from it. Several others were prostrate with either laughter or drink. The sound that had attracted her was the laughter, and one braying, almost donkey-like guffaw that rang out in their midst, which she realized now with some alarm belonged to none other than Major Sheppard, who was lying on a couch absolutely helpless with mirth.
“Shit!” Grodin said crisply, and leapt off the coffee table. A general scramble ensued, but Major Sheppard made no move to get up; his braying laughter subsided into helpless squawks punctuated with actual giggles.
“Rodney!” Elizabeth said, desperately stern so that she didn’t shriek with laughter. “I told you to make sure Major Sheppard didn’t die, not finish him off yourself!”
“Oh,” McKay said, falling off the end table. He scrambled his way upright but listed slightly leftward as he spoke. He was fucking hammered. “He’s fine. I just, I thought we could keep an eye on him, and if we drank enough maybe nobody would shoot him.” He dissolved into laughter on the last two words, hard enough that he sprayed spit everywhere and collapsed slowly onto the floor, setting Sheppard off into another round of hideous braying laughter.
It was almost sweet, how horrible his laugh was.
“Where on earth did you get the booze?” Elizabeth asked.
“’S’not booze,” Sheppard wheezed, interrupting himself with giggles. “They tol’ me iss solvent. Inss— indus— insustal solvent.”
“It sure is,” Elizabeth said. She snapped her fingers and held out her hand. “Share, Zelenka.” She’d seen the guilty twitch behind his glasses. Maybe it was reflex, but Zelenka knew everything; if he wasn’t behind it, he knew who was.
“I warn you,” Zelenka said, and poured her a carefully measured dose in a small plastic cup, cutting it about half with terrifyingly red liquid, “is truly industrial solvent, but will not blind or kill you.” His eyes flicked up toward her. “Well, in moderate doses,” he amended.
Sheppard squeaked and gasped, trying and failing to sit up. “Major Sheppard,” Elizabeth said, “you are going to have a really truly awful hangover tomorrow.”
“No ranks,” Kolesnikova said. “I am sorry, he is just Sheppard right now.”
Sheppard tried again and managed to sit up, wincing and using both hands to move his bad leg off the couch. “John,” he said, and he sounded a little mournful. “Nobody ever calls me that.”
“Someone get him some water,” Elizabeth said, worried. She accepted the plastic cup from Zelenka, sniffed at it experimentally, then held her nose and tossed it back in one go, wincing at the burn but swallowing gamely. She hadn’t had any alcohol since that bottle of champagne O’Neill had rolled through the gate. The Athosians had the knowledge of winemaking, but had no time or facilities to set it up, and it was too much of an extravagance to trade for when they needed basic necessities.
When her eyes stopped watering she saw that McKay was sitting next to Sheppard on the couch and was tenderly helping him drink from a canteen. The two of them should hook up, she thought absently, before it struck her what a completely improper thought that was and also what a logistical nightmare it had the potential to present. But they both struck her as such lonely men, and if she couldn’t have Sheppard, which she couldn’t (she really couldn’t, she reminded herself sternly), somebody should. Preferably where she could watch.
“What the hell was in that?” Elizabeth asked.
“Industrial solvent, Dr. Weir,” Zelenka said. “Russian antifreeze.”
“If we’re going without ranks,” she said, “it’s Elizabeth, so spill it, Radek.”
“There is a still,” Zelenka said.
“Radek!” Irina Kolesnikova rattled off several words in Russian, and Zelenka spat something back.
“Irina,” Elizabeth said, “it’s all right, I officially know nothing.”
“Me too,” Sheppard said, swaying against Rodney. “I had a bad inneraction with my meds. Thasss all.” He was trying to do his normal charming eyebrows thing but lacked the coordination to pull it off properly. Instead he looked, well, charmingly drunk.
“I hope you did not,” Elizabeth said. “We’ve had quite enough of that already.”
“He’s fine,” Rodney said. “I’m keeping an eye on him.”
“Maybe you had better continue to do that,” Elizabeth said. She put the empty plastic cup down and stood up. “I will leave you all to your entertainment. I just had to investigate the ruckus. Good night, everyone.”
“Good night, Elizabeth,” Irina said. Then, after a moment, “We will invite you next time.”
“Beware,” Sheppard said. “They play weird games.”
“Do they,” Elizabeth said.
“I kept winning Daddy Issues Bingo,” Sheppard went on.
Elizabeth had planned to dismiss whatever he said, but had to address that. “Did you say Daddy Issues Bingo?”
“We do not call it that,” Zelenka said, a little too hurriedly.
“’Stotally what it is,” Sheppard said. “Everyone on this mission had fucked-up childhoods.”
“Yeah, but no,” Rodney said, “yours was exceptionally fucked-up.”
“Had a great childhood,” Sheppard protested. “Just, a shitty dad.”
“You have a strange definition of great,” Rodney said.
“Hilarious, in retrospect,” Sheppard said. “Okay, okay, okay,” and he gestured toward Elizabeth, “here’s a good one, when my wife and I got divorced my dad got rid of me and kept her. God’s truth, put her in the will and disowned me. Not even making that up.”
“Christ,” Elizabeth said.
“Yeah,” Sheppard said, a little gleefully, but there was a hard edge to it, “thing is, he’d already disowned me, so he couldn’t disown me again, so you can imagine how pissed my brother was, going from sole inheritor to having to share it with my ex-wife. Fucking hilarious.”
Rodney, improbably, was laughing. “It is, kind of,” he said defensively, finally noticing Elizabeth’s expression.
“Good Lord,” Elizabeth said.
“I mean, Radek’s father used to get drunk and beat him,” Rodney said. “That’s not funny. By comparison, Sheppard’s dad is relatively harmless.”
Sheppard nodded, though his face clouded. “Well, there was a bit of that too,” he said, quieter, “but you’re mostly right.” He forced a grin. “We’re the Pony fuckin’ Express out here.”
“Yeah,” Rodney said. “Orphans preferred.” Elizabeth knew Rodney’s parents were both dead, but it struck her that she’d never heard a word about Sheppard’s family before. She’d meant to research him but had run out of time.
She shook her head and backed toward the door. “Good night, all,” she said. “Rodney, make sure Sheppard gets to bed safely and doesn’t die.”
Sheppard winked at her and she finally let herself laugh as she turned away and went down the hall.
“Okay,” John admitted, crutch under one arm and Rodney under the other, “I’m pretty wasted.”
“I told you the last four ounces of that shit were a terrible idea,” Rodney said. His body was warm and solid, incredibly comforting to hang onto.
“I think the first six ounces were a terrible idea too,” John pointed out, and giggled. He had to stop doing that, but he was too drunk to rein it in. And too drunk not to be enjoying physical contact far too much. Nobody touched him except in emergencies, and he liked it that way, insisted on it, but God, his nerves were starving. Rodney’s hand on the side of his waist was the best fucking thing ever, and he didn’t have enough resistance in him not to lean into it, not to wish Rodney would move his hand up and touch his ribs, touch his chest, his neck, his jaw. God.
He was in a lot of pain, his leg throbbing deep and sickly-hot with careless overexertion. And he had to pee, badly, but he knew he couldn’t possibly stand up to do it unsupported. It was a tricky situation, and he pondered it as they limped down the hallway. It wasn’t enough to distract him from how goddamn great it felt when Rodney’s hand slid, quite accidentally, under his t-shirt, and broad capable fingers spread across his bare skin, holding him up. He fisted his hand in the shoulder of Rodney’s t-shirt to keep himself from wrapping his fingers around Rodney’s neck and pulling him in close.
“Hurts pretty bad, huh?” Rodney asked, darting him a sidelong look.
“Nah,” John lied. Well, that was sort of true. It had hurt pretty bad when it happened. Now it just hurt sort of really bad. “Mostly I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to go pee.”
“Christ,” Rodney groaned. “If I have to hold you up for that I really don’t know what I’ll do.”
“You might have to,” John said solemnly. “I promise I won’t make you hold my dick.” He grinned. “But if you want to, I mean, that’s cool.”
Rodney actually had no answer for that for a long moment, but finally slanted a narrow-eyed look at John. “Thought you weren’t gay,” he said.
John said lightly, “Not straight either,” and it was the first time he had ever said anything like it, ever, in his life, and it felt kind of awesome, or maybe he just felt awesome because he was drunk and in the coolest place in the universe and the smartest guy he’d ever met had big warm hands holding him up. And the scientists had thought he was funny and none of them seemed to really actually resent him over the guns thing and maybe, just maybe, if he could avoid getting himself killed, he could be good at this job.
“What?” Rodney squawked, but didn’t let go of him, and John leaned on him heavier and grinned. “Sheppard, are you fucking with me?”
“Not at present,” John said.
“Are you hitting on me?” Rodney asked, and stopped then, catching John when he staggered. They slid sideways into the nearby wall and John let his back go flat against it so he faced Rodney directly, his arm still trailing around Rodney’s ribs, fingers curving against his back.
“Only if you want me to,” John said.
Rodney had one arm braced against the wall, and turned to stand a little closer. “You’re really drunk,” he said.
“Drunk man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts,” John said. Though he hadn’t ever thought about this. He hadn’t gotten farther than an idle appreciation of McKay’s company, an unexpectedly keen fondness. He licked his lips and Rodney was looking at his mouth. It was such a long time since he’d played this game, he wasn’t sure anymore how it worked, and he’d never played it with a man, didn’t know how to read their tells like this.
“Really?” Rodney asked. “You’ve been thinking about this?”
“Maybe,” John said. “I didn’t think you were into it though. You’re always on about blondes.”
“I’m not blind,” Rodney said. “You’re the single hottest human I’ve ever met. And yeah, I’m about a 2 on the Kinsey scale.”
“I don’t know what that is,” John admitted, and he was watching Rodney’s mouth now (wide, a hard line, softening in contemplation), and he really didn’t want to move from this position, but he had to. “But I do know I wasn’t lying, I really need to pee.”
“That means I’m bi,” Rodney said. “The Kinsey scale.”
“Huh,” John said. “I didn’t know there was a way of quantifying that.”
“Oh, yeah,” Rodney said. “Zero to six, with zero being exclusively heterosexual and six exclusively homosexual.”
“Okay,” John said, “I really gotta pee. Get me to the balcony, I’ll hang onto the railing.”
“Oh you are not pissing off a balcony,” Rodney said.
“Watch me,” John said.
It took some finangling but he finally got himself out onto the balcony. Rodney refused to come with him. He hung onto the railing and managed not to pee on himself. The cool night breeze sobered him up a little bit, but not much. What the hell was he doing, hitting on McKay? He was the chief science officer and a crucial part of John’s gate team, he really couldn’t fraternize with him. And where did this sudden gayness come from? Well, okay, that wasn’t all that sudden. John had spent his whole life knowing that there were faggots and then there were guys who weren’t, and he was a guy who wasn’t, but like an awful lot of the guys he knew who weren’t, there were things he did sometimes, things he thought about, things he did with other guys who weren’t. He hadn’t done much, and a lot of what he had done (more usually, had done to him) had transparently been about power instead of sex (and boy, did John know the difference), but the stuff he’d thought about… well, that and the stuff he hadn’t let himself think about.
Like McKay’s mouth.
No, he told himself sternly, and put his track pants back to rights. He was gonna go back in there and put himself to bed and chalk it up to too much industrial solvent. He stepped through his door and McKay was right there, and grabbed him to keep him from falling over as his crutch slid out in surprise.
“Oh, hey,” McKay said, “I was just coming to get you,” and he had his arms around John and his mouth was right there.
“Hey,” John said, and honestly he had no idea if he’d moved closer or Rodney had, but then McKay’s tongue was in his mouth and sliding across his teeth and he let his jaw open and kissed him sloppily back, shocked at the sensation of stubble against his face. Rodney’s hand slid up his back under his shirt.
“We better get you off your feet,” Rodney said, and hauled John down onto the bed with surprising strength, then gently arranged him, propping up the injured leg, tugging John’s shirt up and off over his head.
“Okay,” John said dizzily, and he hadn’t realized how bad his leg hurt until he was off it. Oh Christ he felt amazing right now, and Rodney’s hands were warm on his sides, moving up to his ribs, big capable hands. Nobody’d ever touched John like that; Rodney was bigger than he was, heavier, broader; lying down, John’s couple extra inches of height were insignificant. He stared up at Rodney, a little dazed; the reading light by the bed was on, but it was dark otherwise, and the light caught Rodney’s shocking blue irises. “Come here,” he said, and put his hand on Rodney’s shoulder and pulled him down to kiss him again.
It had literally been years since John had kissed anybody. Nobody since Nancy. And he’d been married to her so long, together so long before that, he didn’t remember what it was like to kiss a different person. He’d kissed a guy that one time, but it had to have been twenty years ago, and things had gone rapidly south after that. Rodney tasted like the sour aftertaste of too-sweet cherry Kool-Aid, tasted like another man’s mouth, tasted like living human, and his heart was going like mad under John’s hand on his neck. And McKay thought he was hot, he really thought John was hot.
Rodney pushed himself up a little, keeping his mouth on John’s, and reached down between them, slid his fingers under the waistband of John’s track pants, laughed into John’s mouth as he realized there were no underpants under the track pants. “Commando,” Rodney said.
“Well,” John answered, and despite himself, his voice had gone all hoarse and breathy, “I am one, right? Also it’s hard to do laundry on crutches.” He lost even the breath he had as Rodney’s hand closed around his cock, which was definitely in a state to appreciate it. “Jesus,” he wheezed, and shuddered up into Rodney’s grip.
“God damn,” Rodney said, and John had his hand up Rodney’s shirt, down the back of his pants, feeling skin, feeling hair— body hair, that was weird, a hairy belly against his. He couldn’t get the angle to touch Rodney’s dick. He didn’t know if he was ready for that. It was there, it was hot and hard against his hip, it felt kinda big, and John bit his lip and didn’t let himself be nervous. He knew how to handle a cock, he’d had one for thirty-something years and he’d gone to a boys’ boarding school, been in the military, spent most of his life surrounded primarily by other men. They weren’t tricky. He’d seen plenty.
“Shit,” John said, “yes,” and thrust up into Rodney’s hand as Rodney tightened his grip.
“I thought maybe you’d be too drunk for this,” Rodney said.
“Hell,” John said, breathing harder already, “I’m Irish, I can do anything drunk.” He struggled with the button on Rodney’s khakis. “Okay except maybe that.”
Rodney laughed, let go of John’s dick, and unfastened his own pants and shoved them down. John dimly heard him kick off his shoes and then he was nudging John’s knees apart, kneeling between them and pulling the track pants up and off his body, down his legs, discarding them awkwardly. John kicked his good leg helpfully even as he felt his body tense up. Rodney would want to fuck him now, and he really, really really, really didn’t know if he was up for that, even drunk as hell.
John chewed his lips and looked up at Rodney. Nicer body than he’d expected, burly and broad-shouldered, a little soft at the middle but smooth powerful lines like a seal or something. Thing was, he was very, very male, pale-skinned and hairy and with a big hard erection sticking straight out at John, darker than the rest of his skin and twitching a little with every beat of his heart. This was— it was weird, and John was a champion at not thinking about stuff but this was pushing even his limit.
“God,” Rodney said, eyes raking avidly up and down John’s body, “oh my God,” and he shoved backward down the bed and suddenly had John’s cock in his mouth. John jerked up against him with a muffled groan, astonished at the sudden wet tight suction.
Rodney set to work with his hands and his tongue and his mouth, and John swore and twisted his hands in the sheets. If he weren’t so drunk he would’ve already come; as it was, the alcohol-induced numbness would probably buy him another minute and a half or so. Shit, Rodney was good at this, and John reconsidered his assumption that it couldn’t at all be difficult. He had no idea. Fortunately, he was drunk enough that sloppy enthusiasm would probably carry him through when it was his turn.
Rodney did something incredibly clever with his tongue and John swore again and bucked up against him. Rodney grabbed John’s hips and swallowed him down, all the way, and John trembled and let his head fall back. “Oh,” he said, “oh God, oh God I’m close—“
Rodney pulled off and gave him a wicked grin, twisting his hand up the shaft, mouth obscenely wet and glistening red. John choked off a louder sound and shuddered hard, coming forcefully in Rodney’s hand, all over his own belly, making a mess.
He lay utterly limp, shocked with satiation, for a moment, gasping for breath. “Christ,” he managed after a little bit, blinking dazedly. Rodney ran one hand up and down John’s side, tracing the lines of his ribs, of his hipbone, down his hip to his thigh, almost absently. John hadn’t had an orgasm from anything but his own hand in a long time, and even that he hadn’t had much of— depression, then stress, then exhaustion, tended to make that sort of thing a lot more infrequent than (he privately worried, sometimes, when he let himself think about it) was typical.
“God, look at you,” Rodney said, shifting a little, and John became dimly aware that Rodney was jerking himself off with his spunk-slick hand. Rodney’s expression was almost awestruck as he stared at John.
John was used to people flirting with him and knew he was commonly held to be good-looking, but nobody had ever looked at him like this. Not even Nancy; she’d definitely found him hot but she’d never acted like just looking at him was enough. Not like this. He licked his lips, watching Rodney watch him, almost as drunk on the endorphins of orgasm as he was on the awful industrial solvent. “Let me,” he said, and Rodney moved up a little but didn’t stop moving his hand over himself.
“God, Sheppard,” Rodney said, and it was like was helpless, unable to stop or look away. John watched him, watched his cock pumping through his slick fist, precome already leaking from the head down the shaft, licked his lips and thought about sucking on that, swallowing it down. “Oh God. Sheppard, you’re so fucking hot.”
John shoved himself up on an elbow, crashing his mouth into Rodney’s with an awkward click of teeth, and grabbing blindly until he found Rodney’s cock, shoving his hand aside and jacking him hard and fast. “Yeah,” John said, “Jesus, McKay—“ The other man’s cock was hard and hot in his hand, slippery with John’s come and his own precome, and John bit Rodney’s lip. “C’mon,” John said, “give it to me, Rodney.”
Rodney made a choked noise into John’s mouth and shuddered hard against him, then groaned breathlessly as he came. Hot wetness spattered down John’s arm and across his chest and stomach. He had a moment’s distant thought that he should probably be grossed out, but instead he lay back and watched as Rodney humped against his hip and squirted everywhere.
“Agh,” Rodney said, shuddering hard, still coming, “shit, Jesus, Sheppard, oh.” He let his head fall against John’s shoulder, aftershocks shivering through him. “Oh shit. Oh shit, Sheppard.” He breathed heavily for a moment into John’s neck, and John lay still, catching his own breath.
“Yeah,” John said, his voice down to a whisper. Not gonna think about how weird this was, just gonna enjoy the novelty of having a warm body against him, the weird internal warmth of affection and endorphins and not being alone.
“Ugh,” Rodney said suddenly, raising his head, “that’s a mess.”
So much for afterglow. “Don’t care,” John said fuzzily.
Rodney sighed, and heaved himself up out of the bed. “Gotta clean up,” he said.
John mumbled incoherently, but couldn’t find words to ask him to stay, and in the sudden cold absence as his sweat— and the come all over him— started to cool, he felt a little twinge of weirdness creeping in around the edges of his not-thinking-about-it-ness. Rodney came back with a warm damp washcloth and sponged John off, and the weirdness faded at the still-awed look on McKay’s face. “God,” Rodney said, following with his eyes as he wiped a streak of come from the line at the edge of John’s hip, where the muscle cut in toward his groin, “you’re definitely the hottest living thing I’ve ever jizzed in or on.”
John had to laugh, at that. “You sure know how to make a guy feel special,” he said, and shivered pleasantly as Rodney rubbed the washcloth across his softened dick.
“I try,” Rodney said, quirking a half-grin at him as he stood up again. John thought about sitting up and finding the blankets, but his leg was throbbing and he really didn’t want to think about moving. After a few minutes Rodney came back and sat on the edge of the bed. “Sheppard, you better drink some more water,” he said.
“I’m gonna be sorry tomorrow anyway,” John said, but sat up on an elbow and took the proffered canteen anyway. It was freshly refilled with cold water and John drank deeply, knowing his hangovers were worse now as his thirties advanced. Rodney watched him, sort of absently, and John tried not to be self-conscious about it but failed. He wanted to suavely ask Rodney to stick around for the night but his bed was tiny and he knew he was going to be in screaming pain with this leg tomorrow morning. He laughed instead, looking down.
“You gonna get weird about this?” Rodney asked nervously.
John looked up. “No,” he said, “that’s not what I—“ He sat up the rest of the way, put his hand around the back of Rodney’s neck, and pulled him in and kissed him again. Rodney was tense a moment, but then opened his mouth and returned the kiss, and John set the canteen down on the floor and pulled Rodney down to him. “I’m gonna be hung-over as fuck and hurtin’ bad with this leg,” he murmured, licking at Rodney’s lower lip. “I definitely overdid it. But that’s all I meant.”
“Oh,” Rodney said. “Okay.” He propped himself on an elbow, body pressed warm along the length of John’s. He’d put his pants back on, but not his shirt, and he was hairy and solid and soft against John’s skin. He was still looking at John like he didn’t really believe he was there. “So you’re not gonna freak out about this?”
“No,” John said. He let himself run his fingers along Rodney’s collarbone. “No, I had a really good time tonight. Thanks for draggin’ me away from War and Peace.”
“Anytime,” Rodney said, and sat up. He shook out the blankets they’d kicked off the bed, tucked John in, set the canteen on the bedside table, and found John’s little bottle of painkillers and set it next to the canteen. “Well, sleep tight.”
John laughed, watching Rodney find his shirt on the floor and pull it on over his head before going out the door.
He didn’t see Rodney the next day at all. He did find his other crutch leaning against the wall outside his door in the morning, along with the omnibus bound edition of the first three books of the Harry Potter series. He laughed and left the book in his room as he went about his day. Even injured, there was a lot John had to do.
Elizabeth sat with him at lunch. “How are you?” she asked a little pointedly, looking him up and down. John chewed on his sandwich thoughtfully for a moment, and gave her a crooked grin when his mouth was no longer full.
“Better than I’ve any right to be,” he said. “McKay took good care of me.”
“You’re far more chipper than I’d expected,” Elizabeth said, picking daintily at her sandwich and indulging in some elaborate eyebrow choreography.
I got laid, John thought, but didn’t say. I’m finally over being terrified of being a faggot. He didn’t say that either. He especially didn’t say I think I have the worst crush of my life on McKay. That one wasn’t even safe to think. “I had fun,” he said. “I was kinda worried the scientists were all too mad at me to be civil, but most of ‘em seem to be on the page I’d hoped they’d get to.” He shrugged. “And I wasn’t all that drunk, I just— seriously, if you’d been there for the thing that started me laughing, you wouldn’t have been able to sit up either. Jesus it was hilarious.”
“Daddy Issues Bingo?” Elizabeth asked.
John shook his head. “That wasn’t even it,” he said. “Oh God. It’s that Kolesnikova— she can make anything into a drinking game. Hell of a wit. And the shit she and Zelenka and McKay were saying to each other in Russian…”
"Don’t you speak Russian?” Elizabeth regarded him over the edge of her coffee mug.
John nodded. “I do,” he said, “but none of them know that. Air Force didn’t train no fool.” He tapped the side of his head. “It was all I could do to keep a straight face for some of it. Their code name for me is hilarious.”
“Code name,” Elizabeth said.
“Well yeah,” John said. “To use my name would give it away. They call me…” He pondered how to translate it. “In Russian it alliterates so it’s funnier. Kinda translates to Captain Crazypants only it’s slightly more obscene, inexplicably.”
Elizabeth looked alarmed. “I worry what their nickname for me is,” she said.
John shrugged. “Didn’t come up,” he said. “I’ll tell you if I find out and it’s funny, though.” He shook his head. “Kolesnikova also called me something along the lines of Little Pouty Guy but I think that was just when I was drunk. I hope that was just when I was drunk. I really don’t need that one to stick.” He chewed meditatively for a moment before adding, “I don’t pout, do I?”
“Rarely,” Elizabeth assured him, which wasn’t really all that reassuring.
He caught a glimpse of Rodney in the morning, passed him coming out of the bathroom, clad in a ratty bathrobe and toweling his hair. “You done for the moment?” John asked, gesturing at the bathroom door with the hand holding War and Peace (since the other one was holding the single crutch he was down to using, somewhat against Beckett's advice). “I kinda need a little while in there but if you need more time, I can wait.” As a seasoned campaigner John knew the importance of coddling one’s digestive system when necessary, and one of the many pains in the ass (literally) about being injured was the toll inactivity and painkillers took on the innermost workings. He knew better than to try to rush through a morning’s constitutional. One of the perks of Atlantis’s sparse population was that you could usually find an out-of-the-way restroom if you needed to take your time, but with his leg in this condition he wasn’t about to go exploring.
Rodney nodded sympathetically. Not for nothing, but he was a pretty seasoned campaigner too. “I’m good,” he said, then caught sight of the book. “Did you get the book we left you?”
“Yeah,” John said, “but I’m rationing it out— I can’t cheat on War and Peace until I’m at a good stopping place. If I set it down mid-chapter I’ll never get back to it. And I’m the faithful sort, I finish what I start.” That wasn’t a dig. That wasn’t a dig. Christ, John wasn’t going to get passive-aggressive.
“Meyers was horrified you hadn’t read Harry Potter because of weight restrictions, so she agreed to give up her copy for a little while.” Rodney gestured nervously. “Ah, well, have at it, I gotta get,” and he hooked his thumb over his shoulder.
“Sure,” John said. “See ya around.”
He wasn’t letting himself feel hurt that Rodney was treating it like an awkward drunken hookup. He really, really, really wasn’t going to let himself feel hurt. Because it couldn’t have been anything more anyway. There was just no way. So he’d be best off following Rodney’s lead and pretending it never happened until he could push it away and not think about it anymore.
With tremendous relief John stuck the bookmark into War and Peace and put it down, turning to pick up the Harry Potter book instead. If this book had been loaned to him as a gesture of kindness, the least he could do was read and return it promptly. It wasn’t the only one, now; the omnibus edition of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had turned up along with a scrap of paper with a directory on the network and a password, which he recognized as the repository of ebooks Zelenka had mentioned in his and Kolesnikova’s shared horror that he was voluntarily exploring Russian literature. He really had to learn the other scientist’s name now, Hanks or Hayes, anthropologist or maybe linguist, who’d admitted to owning the Guide omnibus. But Harry Potter first. It was a kid’s book, for Chrissakes, and if he was an invalid; if he couldn’t burn through it in less than a week the scientists would think he was some kind of subliterate moron. But he knew he couldn’t just skim it. He’d have to get all the references. Jeez. It was like homework. But it was a pretty easy read, so he’d barely finished his (cold) cup of tea and was already three chapters in when the door chimed.
“It’s unlocked,” he said, not raising his voice much in an attempt to be genteel. He thought ‘open’ at it, and either it worked or the person at the door opened it.
It was Rodney. “Hey,” John said, lighting up despite himself, and set the book down. Rodney came in and shut the door behind him. “Hey,” he said, grinning unevenly. “You’re reading it.”
“I figured I’ve got a better chance at not being hunted to extinction by the scientists if I at least have some basic grasp of their culture,” John said. “Not that I can bitch about people shooting their commanding officers, because pot, kettle.”
“Sumner would certainly never have had your sense of humor about it,” Rodney said. He came over and sat down in the chair by the bed, folding his hands in his lap a little nervously.
“I have a suspicion Sumner was a good dude,” John said. “And I had a pretty solid plan to just stay the hell out of his way.”
“He was kind of a dick,” Rodney said, “but then, again,” and he hooked a thumb at himself, “pot, kettle.”
John laughed, and maybe he was way too happy, but at least Rodney wasn’t avoiding him. He’d been not letting himself worry about that either, that the thing Rodney was apparently qualifying as a drunken hookup would make it too awkward for them to stay friends. “My reading material keeps piling up,” he said. “It’s like homework. But if I’m gonna make War and Peace last the whole mission, I gotta take it slow.”
“Zelenka said he was going to give you access to the ebooks he brought. He was laughing about how useless the Russian-language ones were gonna be, but I suddenly remembered reading in your qualifications that you do speak Russian.” Rodney gave John a keen look.
“Captain Crazypants, reporting for duty,” John answered, in his flawless Russian. His vocabulary was far from complete but he’d had the accent beaten out of him before a covert retrieval op there.
“Jesus Christ,” Rodney said, chagrined.
“Please don’t tell Kolesnikova or Zelenka,” John said. “Please. There is so much potential for fun and pranks here. Please tell me you didn’t tell them.”
“I didn’t,” Rodney said. “Yet.”
“Sweet,” John said. “Let’s see if Kolesnikova comes up with any better pet names for me.”
“She was calling you… something about pert buttocks,” McKay said. “I didn’t catch the whole thing. Zelenka had picked up on the little pouty guy one.”
“I hope that one doesn’t stick,” John said. This would be a good time for Rodney to flirt again if he was going to. Christ, John was such a girl. Next he’d be asking didn’t it mean anything to you? Oh God. Instead John said, a little petulantly, “I don’t pout!”
“You do, sometimes,” McKay said. John scowled. “Don’t worry, it’s cute.”
“Cute,” John said. “That’s the aesthetic I’m going for.” There really wasn’t any way to bring up their torrid gay hookup and ask if Rodney wanted to do it again only maybe in an ongoing fashion. Shit, Rodney couldn’t keep a secret to save his life. But they were cut off from Earth, so, seriously, who was going to haul him up on that kind of code violation? John weighed his options, but there was nothing he could say without sounding like a teenage girl.
“Explains a lot,” Rodney said.
“Speaking of which,” John said, in a flash of inspiration, “about the other night, you and me…” He wrung his hands together, chewed his lips, giving Rodney an overwrought, indirect, pleading look. Rodney looked alarmed and uncomfortable. “I think— I don’t know— Rodney, can you get gay-pregnant from giving a handjob?”
“You ass,” Rodney squawked, and grabbed John’s pillow and socked him with it. John fended it off, howling with laughter, and rolled off the bed, wishing like anything for a water pistol. As it was, he realized immediately that standing up was a terrible idea. Rodney dropped the pillow in alarm. “Sheppard!”
“Oh,” John wheezed, still laughing, “I must’ve gotten dizzy. I think it’s my delicate condition.”
“You can’t get gay-pregnant from a handjob,” Rodney said. “That’s not even a thing.”
“I went to Catholic school, Rodney,” John said. “I don’t know how gay babies are made.”
“You’re an ass,” Rodney said, but kindly forbore from hitting him with the pillow.
“Seriously, though,” John said, “you can teach me about gay birth control, right? Because I’ve honestly never wanted to put my dick in a guy’s ass the way I do with yours.”
Rodney looked dumbstruck at that, and put the pillow down in his lap, blinking. “I uh,” he said, “I uh, um— Wow, my brain just rebooted. I don’t know if it’s ever done— uh, done that before. I uh—" He stuttered back to life, looked cross, and said, “Sheppard, quit messing with me.”
“I’m not,” John said. “I mean, not at the moment.” His mouth felt slow and stupid, the way it did whenever he wanted to say serious things, and he fumbled, eventually, “I kinda— I mean— I know it’s weird and we can’t, like, date or anything, but, um—" He squinted, scrunched up his face. “But you seemed kinda into— and I really, the idea is— I mean, maybe just as an occasional thing, kinda under the radar, just once in a while maybe— do you wanna, um, fuck?” Christ, could he have put any more subordinate half-clauses in there? That wasn’t even a sentence. But it was as vulnerable as he had the strength to make himself.
Rodney blinked at him and John squirmed uncomfortably, raising his eyebrows and making a face— shit, that was the puppy-dog face, not the come-hither face, was he begging now? He realized his eyebrows were doing their own ridiculous dance and schooled his face back to neutral as the silence went on.
“Or, you know, we can write it off as a crazy drunk one-time thing,” John said hastily when he decided Rodney had been silent too long. “I mean, whatever— it’s up to you. I just thought— you know, what with almost dying a lot, sometimes a man just wants to hang onto somebody a little bit sometimes.” That was better. It sounded more manly and less teenagey. Or did it?
“Are you seriously asking to fuck me?” Rodney asked. “Or are you fucking with me?”
“I’m, seriously,” John said, off-balance. “Wait, what? Or whatever— I mean, if you don’t— if you don’t do that— I meant generally, not specifically. I don’t— dicks in asses is just a, you know.”
“Oh my God,” Rodney said, “you’re serious.”
John wondered, inwardly writhing in an agony of embarrassment, if he could figure out a way to set himself on fire with his mind. There was probably an ATA-sensitive system nearby gone haywire and he could start a fire or maybe explode something. And then afterward claim that there had been hallucinogenic gas being released. That’d be great. I have no memory of that conversation, McKay, are you sure you weren’t hallucinating too? I thought I was talking to a giant squid about canasta. Man you should get your head examined, that’s a weird thing to think I’d ever say. Yeah, perfect.
He was so preoccupied with trying to start a fire with his mind that he didn’t at all expect McKay to get into the bed, to straddle him and push him down and kiss him, and he dropped his book and made an undignified almost-squeaking sound and nearly fell off the bed.
It was even better sober. McKay’s mouth was hot and wet, his tongue clever and aggressive. John let his head fall back against the pillow and opened up, surrendered to him. It was hot, it was really fuckin’ hot, which definitely made up for the fact that it was weird as fuck. Rodney was so big, so substantial, so male, his broad shoulders and big arms covering John easily. It both freaked John out and turned him on, and he was so hard so fast it made him dizzy.
“God,” Rodney said, grinding his erection into John’s hip and talking almost directly into his mouth, “oh God, you can fuck me if you want. That’s not what I was objecting to. I just couldn’t believe you were serious.”
John shoved his mouth up into Rodney’s, enjoying this new and novel way of shutting him up, and entertaining a momentary startlingly-hot fantasy of shutting him up at a senior staff meeting this way. It wasn’t something John would ever actually do; he hated public displays of affection even though they turned him on unreasonably. Hotter in theory and very occasional practice than as a habit. But just grabbing Rodney mid-rant and taking his mouth and maybe pinning him down on the conference table and— John twitched a little, turned on almost past bearing, and without any conscious input he blurted, “Fuck my mouth.”
“Jesus,” Rodney gasped, hips lurching against John’s, “I almost just came from you saying that.”
John laughed, wriggling against him, dizzy with arousal. “I want it, Rodney. I want you to put your cock in my mouth until you’re almost there and then I want to fuck your ass until you come everywhere. I want you to come until you can’t think. I wanna watch it.”
“Oh God,” Rodney said, a little wild-eyed. “Okay. Okay, I’m on board with this.”
John grinned. “Awesome,” he said. “I got other stuff I want to do but not with this leg.”
“Right,” Rodney said. “Okay. Right.”
John kissed him aggressively, holding his head and driving his tongue in deep, and Rodney pretty much melted for him, going pliant and letting his head rock back. God it was hot. He had a completely different set of urges than he did with women. Well, not completely; Nancy’d had a strap-on she’d used on him a few times, to astonishing (at the time) effect— mostly in his mouth— but the things John wanted now weren’t at all the same things he’d wanted then.
He broke off. “Strip,” he said roughly into Rodney’s ear. “C’mon.”
“Okay,” Rodney gasped. Liked being bossed around. Surprising. John grabbed the hem of Rodney’s shirt and tugged it up. Rodney rolled off him and shucked shoes, pants, boxers, and stood by the bed, cock hugely erect. His grubby white socks were not enough to spoil the effect. “You,” Rodney said, “you, uh—“ and gestured.
John pulled his shirt off over his head slowly, watching Rodney watching him. He grinned and slowly unbuttoned his pants, slowly slid them down over his hips. He had underwear on this time, wash-faded blue boxers; he left them on because they were nearly transparent anyway, and a little bit of mystery never hurt anything in bed. “C’mere,” he said, reaching out and taking Rodney’s hand.
Rodney settled obediently with his knees pretty much in John’s armpits, straddling John’s chest, and John propped himself up on the pillow and, with a moment’s hesitation to prepare himself, licked cautiously at the head of Rodney’s slightly intimidating erection. Jeez, it was right in his face, like— hey, he’d asked for this. Give the hindbrain what it wants, John.
“Fuck,” Rodney whispered, “John, you’re— God, I’ll never need to watch porn again.”
John grinned, licked his palm, and closed it around the shaft of Rodney’s cock, opening his mouth to suck the head in. It was hot, even warmer than his tongue, and velvety, alive, slightly salty, similar to Nancy’s strap-on only in shape and different every other possible way. And Rodney’s responses were so immediate, so hard-wired. It was immensely gratifying. John tried a few things with his tongue, with his lips, and Rodney gasped and shivered and twitched, the long muscles of his thighs twitching and tensing and moving, his ass taut under John’s hands. John took him a little deeper, a little deeper, and it was so different to do this with real flesh than with unyielding silicone.
Translation of theory to practice was going so well that John moved to his next theory, which was trailing his fingers through all the drool which was starting to accumulate and sliding them down behind Rodney’s balls. Now these were different— he had no experience with balls besides his own, and the handling was obviously much different. This was the part where he’d always just kinda stuck his fingers in Nancy’s pussy and gone for the G-spot/clit two-way press to seal the deal. Obviously this was going to be different. Rodney squirmed and groaned a little as John carefully, carefully teased slippery fingers around his asshole. John raised a questioning eyebrow and Rodney, hands braced either side of John’s head, blinked at him for a second before moaning, “Yes,” and thrusting a little into John’s mouth.
“Mm,” John said, opening his jaw a little, and carefully, so carefully, pressed the tip of his index finger into Rodney. Rodney made enthusiastic noises and semi-uncontrolled little jerks of his hips, which was hot, and John slid in deeper, took his thick cock as far down his throat as he could manage. Holding his breath helped, rolling his eyes back a little helped and Rodney seemed to find it hot. It wasn’t long until he had a second finger in Rodney, and was carefully timing his breathing with Rodney’s faster, shakier hip jerks.
“God,” Rodney moaned, “oh God, oh God John, I, oh—"
John shoved his fingers up, deep into Rodney, and pulled his mouth off him at the same time, just escaping being choked by an involuntary, powerful thrust from Rodney’s hips. “You gonna last until I get inside you?” he asked hoarsely.
“Only if it’s now,” Rodney panted. “Oh God. You need to fuck me now. So hot, John. So fucking hot.”
John tongued at the head of Rodney’s cock, lightly, teasingly, and crooked his fingers. He knew assholes were pretty similar from female to male, so there was some good stuff right around here somewhere. Rodney’s hips stuttered and he moaned sharper, and John grinned. Yeah, right about there. “Now,” Rodney gasped. “Ah. God.”
The only reason he had lube and condoms was that Beckett had pressed them on him, solemnly and intently, at some rather recent point before an offworld mission. John hadn’t really known what was up with that at the time, and he honestly still didn’t, but he wasn’t mad, that was for sure. He’d stuck them in his nightstand, and he gestured at it a little distractedly with the hand that wasn’t knuckle-deep in Rodney.
“Top drawer,” he said.
“Okay,” Rodney said, and leaned over, and fumbled in the drawer. “Um.” He pulled out John’s sidearm.
“Not that,” John said. “Maybe if you wanna play a game later but it’s not my thing. Next to it.”
“Ah,” Rodney said, rummaging, and produced the little strip of foil packages, and the small tube. “Be prepared.”
“Always,” John said, and twisted his fingers, making Rodney gasp and jerk. He licked the head of Rodney’s dick one more time before pulling his fingers slowly out of Rodney’s ass.
Rodney shimmied down John’s body, kneeling awkwardly over him, and stared a moment at his boxers-clad pelvis. “Yeah,” Rodney said distractedly, “okay,” as if he was making a decision, and stuck his fingers in the waistband of the boxers, jerking them down. “Wow.” John was just about as hard as he’d ever been. But he had just enough self-possession to say, “Maybe take your socks off too,” as he worked his boxers down his legs and kicked them off his good foot.
“Ha,” Rodney said, “right,” and pulled them off awkwardly. It shouldn’t have been hot but it was.
“Fuck,” John said, “c’mere.”
Rodney straddled John’s thighs and ripped a condom packet open with his teeth. He opened the lube and slicked up John’s cock, then rolled the condom down and stroked him, hard, base to tip. John hissed, rolling his hips up into the contact. Rodney had his tongue between his teeth and flicked his gaze up to John’s face. “I’ve never done this before,” Rodney admitted, running his lubed fingers around his asshole.
“Really?” John asked, shoving himself up on an elbow.
“No,” Rodney said.
“I thought you were bi,” John said.
“I’m kind of… inexperienced at… a lot of things,” Rodney admitted.
“Well,” John said, “I’ve done this before, but not to a guy. Both theory and practice should be about the same.”
“Yeah,” Rodney said. “I, ah,” and he bit off the next words as he slid his fingers into himself. “Jesus I want you.”
“Not Jesus, buddy,” John said, “but c’mere and we’ll see what else I can get you to say.”
“Ha,” Rodney said, and moved forward. John let him do awkward shuffle of positioning, and bit his lip as Rodney settled against him. “Okay,” Rodney said, “okay,” and pushed down.
“Shit,” John said as he slid in, and let his head fall back against the pillows. Rodney’s hands settled on his shoulders, gripping tightly, and John wrapped his hands carefully, gently around Rodney’s hips. “Shit, Rodney. Yeah.”
Rodney groaned wordlessly as he sank with agonizing slowness along John’s length, letting his head roll back on his neck, eyes closing and face going tight, then slack. John bit his lip and stayed absolutely still, though his breath came fast.
“So hot,” he said hoarsely. “So tight. God, Rodney.”
“Yeah,” Rodney said shakily. John watched his own cock disappearing into the other man’s body, watched Rodney’s erection bobbing with his heartbeat. At last Rodney’s body was resting flat against John’s. A shudder went through Rodney’s body and John groaned, feeling it from the inside. “Oh God,” Rodney panted, leaning forward a little, staring blankly through John. “You’re— you’re inside my body.”
“I am,” John answered, staring up at him. His eyes were so, so incredibly blue, wide and blank, and his mouth hung slightly open, uneven, slanting. Rodney shuddered again, and moved against John, rolling his hips, and the sensation unfurled up John’s spine, up and out down his limbs to his fingers, curling them around Rodney’s hips, down to his toes, warm through his gut, uncoiling up the back of his neck and making his face go slack. He caught his breath and moved with Rodney, a little more intently, a little faster, and Rodney was moaning now, exquisite little breathless cries as they moved together.
“Oh fuck,” Rodney said, “oh, oh Sheppard, oh yes.” He moved harder, faster, shoving back against John and pulling up a little to shove himself down again. John wanted to intensify his movements too but the sharp ache in his thigh held him down, tamed him, and he let Rodney set the pace.
“Yeah,” he murmured, “Rodney.”
Rodney cried out a little sharper as he quite obviously found a good angle, and started shoving himself harder down against John. “Oh fuck,” he said, “oh fuck, yes, inside me, fuck, oh God!”
“C’mon,” John murmured, and licked his hand and wrapped it around Rodney’s cock, his enormously erect and leaking cock. “Ah, c’mon Rodney.”
“Ah,” Rodney said, “Jesus fuck, Sheppard, oh God, oh God, oh yes,” and he was fucking himself hard on John’s cock, shivering and tight and hot and perfect, and John’s hips were jerking without his conscious input. “Christ, Sheppard, yes, yes—“ Rodney bucked and shuddered, thrusting forward into John’s fist, backward onto his cock, his whole body twitching as he came, striping thick gobs of ejaculate across John’s belly and chest.
“Rodney,” John gasped, grabbing onto his hip hard and driving helplessly up into him. “Oh fuck, Rodney.” He gritted his teeth against whatever hideous noise was trying to explode from his throat and instead made incoherent grunting noises as his whole body seemed to turn itself inside out deep into Rodney’s body.
“Oh,” Rodney sighed, sounding deeply satisfied, muscles gone lax and head drooping down toward John’s, “oh yes, oh… Sheppard, yes.”
John raised shaking hands to Rodney’s shoulders and pulled him down, catching his mouth for a breathless, brief kiss. He was trembling, floating and blissed-out on endorphins, and the distant clawing pain of his leg was insignificant. Rodney kissed him back, slow and shallow and lingering. It was incredibly sweet, and John was disconcertingly racked with an overwhelming impulse toward tenderness, to gather Rodney to him and murmur sweet things and pet him and generally behave in completely ridiculous ways.
He took a breath and gathered himself fuzzily, looking up into the bluest, bluest eyes, hazy with bliss. Something behind his ribs twisted and he had to obey the impulse to cradle Rodney’s square jaw in his hand, rub a thumb gently across one high cheekbone. “Hey,” he murmured.
Rodney shivered. “Jesus,” he said drowsily, “Sheppard, I can still feel your pulse in my ass.”
“Heh,” John said, and bit his lip, finding the base of the condom. He knew better than to pull out fast.
“Oh weird,” Rodney said, eyes going wide.
“I’m takin’ it slow,” John said, “relax and don’t clench.”
“Weird,” Rodney said again, voice higher. “It— oh weird.”
“You’re okay,” John said.
“I feel like a tube sock being turned inside out,” Rodney said, voice still a bit high. “Or like, or like I’m— oh jeez.”
“It’s okay,” John said. “You’re not makin’ a mess. It’s okay. C’mere.”
Rodney laughed, too sex-mellowed to stay uptight. “It’s not like you could be a whole lot more of a mess than you already are,” he said, and shivered as he drew a finger through one of the streaks of come on John’s belly. “Holy shit, look how far I shot.”
“You almost got my face,” John said. “Pretty impressive, Rodney.”
Rodney blinked one more time as John finally slipped free. “Uh,” he said.
John grabbed his t-shirt from the floor. “Guess I gotta do laundry,” he said, and swiped at the mess on his chest.
“Ugh,” Rodney said, shivering once more. John must have made a concerned face, because he grinned suddenly, satisfiedly. “Shower. I want a shower.”
John grinned back lopsidedly. “We could share,” he said. “If, er, if you don’t mind helping my gimpy ass.”
“Hey,” Rodney said, “yeah, that’d, yeah.” He collapsed slowly sideways, careful of John’s bad leg, and stretched out next to John in the impossibly narrow bed. John caught an arm around his shoulders, pulling him in, pressing their somewhat-sticky bodies together. “Gimme a minute, I need to get my strength back.”
John laughed. “Yeah,” he said. His heart had slowed, and he could feel himself sliding off toward sleep.
“Nononono,” Rodney said, “don’t pass out on me, Sheppard.”
“Heh,” John said, and turned his head to catch Rodney’s mouth again. “Nah. Man, that was awesome.”
Showering wasn’t as awkward as John had thought it might be; Rodney pressed him playfully against the wall and washed his back for him, and was gratifyingly horrified at the raw tender pink flesh of his newly-closed wound.
“Oh my God,” Rodney said, tracing gingerly at the edge of the exit wound in back.
“Yeah,” John said, letting water drip down his nose. “Kinda took out a chunk. Beckett did a hell of a job putting it all back together. It’s pretty amazing I didn’t bleed out though.”
“I should mention how incredibly badass you sounded about the whole thing,” Rodney said.
John laughed. “I kind of go off into a different place in a crisis,” he said. Rodney kissed his neck and helped him turn around, settling his shoulder against the warm tile.
Rodney ran a speculative finger down the long thick old scar on the front of John’s thigh. This part’s a lot more healed,” he said.
“That’s an old scar,” John said.
“Really?” Rodney bent to examine it.
“Had to have a rod put in to stabilize the bone,” John said. “Broke it when I got thrown out of a helicopter.”
Rodney blinked at him, at such close range John had to put out a hand and wipe his thumb across that lower lip. “Who threw you out?” Rodney asked.
“Gravity,” John said. “Got shot down, and thrown clear in the landing.” He shrugged. “Saved my life, everyone else burned to death. I’d already been shot twice but I was still conscious.” He grimaced. “You know what, I don’t really wanna relive that one.”
“Can’t blame you,” Rodney said. John shuddered, remembering the screams of his crew, blood on the instrument panel, blood in his eyes, and pulled Rodney’s face closer to drown it out, taking his mouth gently.
Rodney leaned against him as he leaned back against the warm wet tile of the wall, enjoying the sensation of the hot water and Rodney’s water-slick body, shorter and broader and sleeker than his own, powerful and sturdy. “‘Sweird,” John mumbled, hands bracketing Rodney’s jaw, fingers by his cheekbones and thumbs by the corners of his mouth, the edges of his palms and his little fingers resting against Rodney’s neck, brushing the junctions of his collarbones.
“What’s weird?” Rodney asked.
“Liking this,” John said. “Liking you. I didn’t expect…” He looked up from Rodney’s mouth to his eyes, and Rodney was regarding him quizzically, a little warily. “Kinda figured by this point of my life I was done with the real big surprises. Like, y’know, liking cock.”
“There’s more to me than my fabulous erection,” Rodney said, grinning.
“I know,” John said, and for a strange gut-twisting moment he wanted to say something crazy, wanted to profess unfeasible devotion, and it was weird echoes of Nancy on the Ferris wheel with the antique diamond ring he’d missed a car payment scrounging for, only it was a bitchy astrophysicist in a shower in another galaxy and it was also a terrible, stupid idea. So instead John leaned in and murmured, “For one, you have an amazing ass.”
“I know I do,” Rodney said, smug. “You’re not the first to notice.”
“That’s not what you said while I was inside it,” John said.
“Ah,” Rodney said, and shivered a little, happily, “you were the first to experience it firsthand from that perspective, yes, but not the first to notice.”
“Did you think I was talking about what it looks like?” John murmured, playfully nuzzling at Rodney’s neck just under his ear, licking at the warm water flowing there. “I was talking about its inner beauty just as much as its outer appearance.”
Rodney laughed ticklishly. “You dick,” he said.
“I’m serious,” John said, mock-wounded. “I’m starting a fan club.” He ran his tongue along the edge of Rodney’s jaw, so delicately as to avoid being abraded by the stubble there— weird, said the one little detached part of his brain that was still convinced he was completely straight (and boy, it had missed some stuff over the years, now that he thought back on it)— and then sucked just a little bit on the tendon of Rodney’s neck, not enough to leave a mark but enough to suggest it.
“If you give me a hickey I’m giving you one on your forehead,” Rodney said peevishly, though he didn’t pull away.
“Yeah that’d be a bad plan,” John said, nuzzling regretfully and pulling away with one last, lingering lick.
“We kinda have to be, uh,” Rodney said against John’s hair, “uh, kinda discreet, huh?”
“Yeah,” John sighed. “You know how gossip gets around places like this. And I mean, who’s gonna haul me up on charges out here? But if we ever make contact with Earth again—“
“Of course we will,” Rodney said, a little brittle-sounding, and John made a note, McKay’s scareder about this than he lets on, and mentally upped his estimation of Rodney’s bravery yet one more notch.
“Then all it takes is one innocent comment in hearing range of the eighty bajillion people who want me out of the Air Force, and I’m toast,” John said. “So, yeah, discreet is probably good.”
“But not so discreet as to, y’know, not do this,” Rodney said a little hopefully.
“Nahh,” John said, but he was too afraid to look at Rodney’s face, afraid he’d show how badly he wanted this. He was afraid even to let himself feel how badly he wanted this. Not the sex— he wasn’t so old that it didn’t matter, but he wasn’t so young as to obsess about it anymore— but the companionship. Someone to touch him, someone to care about his scars, someone whose mouth knew the taste of him.
It’d be nice, he concluded, if this worked out, and said, “My fingers are getting pruney.”
“Yeah,” Rodney said, and sighed. “I should… I was running some simulations and said I’d be back to check on them tonight. I should go do that.”
John thought the water off, and braced himself carefully against the wall, shaking wet hair out of his face. “I gotta finish Harry Potter fast enough that what’s-her-name doesn’t think I’m subliterate,” he said.
Rodney laughed. “Good goal. Hey, give me your laundry, I gotta do mine later and I’ll do yours too.”
“You don’t have to do that,” John said, disproportionately pleased.
“Well,” Rodney said a little shyly, “I keep adding to your laundry pile,” and he gave John a truly wickedly filthy look as he wrapped the towel around himself.
John bit his lip and laughed. “That you do,” he said. “Well, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Just leave me a duffel by your door, I’ll grab it when I go down later.” Rodney handed John a towel and paused, blinking at something above John’s eyebrows.
“What?” John asked self-consciously.
“Your hair is already standing up,” Rodney said, and reached carefully out to tousle the wet mop of it.
“It does that,” John said. “I told you. You’ve seen the bare hair products shelf for yourself. And provided photographic evidence to the masses, and collected on all the bets.”
“That I have,” Rodney said, and watched it. John could feel a couple of the cowlicks prickling as they shed enough water weight to spring upward. “But I’ve never actually watched it happen in realtime.” He shook his head, and retrieved John’s crutch from by the door. “Here, I gotta get going. You’re okay on your own, right?”
“Oh,” John said, “yeah, I’m fine,” and he made his way back to his room and let himself bask, just for a little while, in the unaccustomed warmth in his midsection.
FIVE YEARS LATER
The sheer concussive shock of the explosion sent Rodney flying and dazed him for a few moments, though he didn’t lose consciousness. He scrambled, eventually, to his feet, coughing, coughing, scrabbling out from under debris and broken bits of architectural things that oh God he hoped weren’t structural, blinking in the dim half-light of intermittent emergency lighting. The last thing that had happened was John’s hand on the back of his shirt, literally throwing him through the door, and he had no idea how far he’d slid and been propelled by the explosion, but Sheppard should’ve been right behind him.
Rodney keyed his radio, but realized that the headset was damaged; it came apart in his hand. “John?” he tried, and coughed in the dust. He stumbled around until he’d oriented himself and stopped dead as he realized part of his disorientation was due to the fact that the doorway behind him was so much rubble, the room half-collapsed. “John!” John had to be in there somewhere. Rodney scrambled back across the debris, suddenly frantic. “John!”
He heard a rattle and a small sound, and zeroed in on it as well as his ringing ears would allow. Something rattled again, and there was a clatter as small pieces of rubble fell away. “John,” he said one more time, and clambered over a fallen beam, under a chunk of former ceiling, and then he was at the source of the clattering: one bloody hand, part of a shoulder clad in a torn shirt, and John’s face, pinned between a chunk of concrete and the remaining bit of wall, skin white with dust, mouth shocking red and eyes dark hollows in the half-light.
“John,” Rodney said, and grabbed at the hand. John squeezed back, squinting his eyes; he couldn’t move his head and even the arm belonging to the free hand was pinned in place. John made a quiet little coughing noise, and moved his mouth, and the half-breath that came out almost silently might have been Rodney’s name.
“Oh God,” Rodney said, “don’t talk, I’ve got you, we’ll get you out of there.”
“Ruh,” John tried again, feeble but stubborn, “dneh.”
It wasn’t that John’s lips were red, Rodney realized, but that he was bleeding from the mouth, blood collecting in the corners. “Oh God,” Rodney said, and John was looking at him, John knew how bad it was. “John,” Rodney said, and held the motionless, bloody hand in one of his, and wiped delicately at John’s face with the other, blotting dust out of his long lashes and clear of his eyes. “I shouldn’t have been so greedy,” he murmured. “I got three charged ZPMs, I shouldn’t have tried for a fourth.”
John’s mouth twisted, and blood ran down from the corner; it was a rueful smile, Rodney recognized the expression even if it fell a little short of its usual. “Oh well,” he whispered. He was only breathing in shallow, soft gasps; from his blank, slightly shocked expression, he was in terrible pain. “Just— bad luck.”
“Don’t talk, John,” Rodney said again, running his thumb along John’s lower lip, wiping away the blood there. John watched his face.
“Rodney,” he breathed. “Hey. You’re my medical proxy. I know you know what to do.”
“We’ll fix you,” Rodney said.
“Sure you will,” John said, and gave him a ghastly smile. His tongue was working distractedly at the blood in his lower teeth, those slightly-crooked lower teeth that went with the little jog in his once-broken nose, the little raised bump of a colorless beauty mark next to his nose, the scar below his lower lip and the other one across his cheekbone, all the little imperfections that once, a long time ago, Rodney had mapped with his fingers and his tongue and had known so well. So long ago.
“But if you don’t,” John went on, “you gotta promise me you’ll pull the plug. Don’t hang onto me as a souvenir. And don’t— don’t let ‘em send me back to Earth and keep me in the back room of some hospital so they can forget about me.”
“I won’t let them send you back to Earth,” Rodney said.
John squinted, pain creasing his face; he might have tried to move. “Promise me,” he said, harsher. “Promise me you won’t let ‘em send me back to Earth. Either fix me or unplug me.”
“It won’t be that bad,” Rodney said fiercely. “It won’t come to that. I promise.”
“Promise,” John whispered, and closed his eyes for a second, forehead creased, mouth twisted in a grimace as he tried to breathe. More blood dripped, faster now; at least one of his lungs was filling up.
“I promise,” Rodney whispered. It was no good, Sheppard’s radio was inaccessible. He couldn’t stand here and wait while Sheppard bled out internally. “I have to go get help, John. I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t,” John wheezed as sharply as he could, and grimaced, laboring for a shallow breath. “Rodney, don’t leave me. They know where we are. Don’t go.”
“I,” Rodney began, but saw John’s face and subsided. “All right.” He put his hand back against Sheppard’s cheek, cradling his jaw.
“I never knew this,” John said quietly, “but I guess I’m terrified of dyin’ alone.”
“You won’t die,” Rodney said. “Hang on, John. I can’t resurrect you but there’s so much I can do as long as you’re alive.”
John’s mouth quirked in a silent, breathless laugh, and he closed his eyes. “I’m a selfish sack of shit, Rodney,” he murmured.
“What?” Rodney blinked at him, taken aback.
“All I keep thinking right now is that hey, there’s a bright side to this,” John went on. Blood was running out of the corner of his mouth, down Rodney’s wrist.
“There’s no bright side to this,” Rodney said desperately.
“Sure there is,” John said, and he opened his eyes and looked at Rodney for a moment before looking down and away. “I don’t have to stand up at your wedding and fake-smile and look good for the photos while you marry her.”
Shock went through Rodney’s already-battered midsection with such force he almost fell. “What? I thought you liked Jennifer!”
“I like her just fine,” John whispered, still not looking at him, “I just don’t like her with you.”
That was just unfair. “I know you don’t like that she’s always trying to change me,” Rodney said.
“I tell myself that’s it,” John whispered, “but I know it’s not.”
“Then what the hell’s wrong with her?” Rodney demanded. “Seriously, now is not the time—“
“I’m jealous, Rodney,” John said, forcefully but near-silently on a shallow exhale. “I’m so fucking jealous. She can be what you need and I can’t, I never could have, and I’m just glad this is killing me so I don’t have to live through any more of that.”
Rodney blinked at him stupidly, guts as hollow as if he’d had them ripped out. “What?”
“I gotta pretend like I’m happy,” John said. “Like it’s nothing to watch her touch you, like I never could, and watch your face light up— God.”
“You,” Rodney said, but just then there was a bang and a clatter and he heard Zelenka’s voice, the combat engineers, the rescue teams, and they were already firing up power tools, and John’s eyes sank shut and didn’t open again.
“You need to sleep,” Jennifer said, trailing her hand along the back of his head and down his jaw as she came to stand next to him. Rodney grunted, but didn’t bat her away. “You’ll think clearer tomorrow.”
“I’m close,” Rodney said.
“What are you looking for?” Jennifer asked.
“I’ll know it when I see it,” Rodney said, scrolling slowly through the listings, as he had been for three hours nonstop.
“You don’t know?”
Rodney paused, rubbed his face, looked up. “I know,” he said, “I just can’t explain.”
“Something to help Colonel Sheppard,” Jennifer said. Rodney nodded. “Listen, his condition hasn’t even stabilized. He’ll more than likely wake up on his own within a couple of days. Let’s get a baseline, then we can see what kind of experimental technologies we can use on him.”
“You said he’s got bad spinal damage,” Rodney said. “Pretty high.”
“Yes,” Jennifer admitted. “He… won’t walk again, not by any medicine I know.”
“And he won’t breathe without a ventilator,” Rodney said.
“He might,” Jennifer said.
“But that means no talking,” Rodney said.
“If he doesn’t breathe on his own, he can’t speak, you’re right,” Jennifer said. “But it’s so early yet, we don’t even know what might begin to happen once the swelling subsides.”
“I’m not leaving him unable to communicate,” Rodney said. “Not in this city. Not when he’s the strongest ATA user we’ve ever seen. He can turn lights on and off and open normal doors with his mind. There’s got to be some kind of communications device, at least, that he can control with his mind.”
“I’m sure there is,” Jennifer said gently, “but it can probably wait until he regains consciousness, which may be a couple of days yet.”
“I have to do something now,” Rodney said raggedly. “It doesn’t matter. I have to do something now.”
“I’m doing the best I can with him,” Jennifer said.
“I know you are,” Rodney said, and he rubbed his face again, turned, and picked up her hand. “I know you are, Jennifer, and I’m glad it’s you. I can trust that you’re doing the best job possible. But he’s my best friend and this happened to him because he was saving my life after I screwed up the safety protocol on that damn ZPM charging thing. I’m grieving that and I have to take some time and do something and feel like I’m making a difference.”
Jennifer’s face was twisted with something, and sad. But she ran her fingers through Rodney’s hair, pulled his head against her midsection in a kind of hug, and caressed his face. “I understand,” she said. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have snapped.”
“You’re fine,” Rodney said, closing his eyes and resting his head against the warmth of her body. “I just, I have to do this. I won’t sleep, otherwise, or I’ll have horrible nightmares. I need to work until I can rest. And I have to feel like I’m accomplishing something. But I’m not judging anyone by it. Just myself.”
It was after 4 am when Rodney made his way, vibrating with caffeine and tension, down to the infirmary. The form in the bed was absolutely still but for the mechanical rise and fall of its chest, powered by the ventilator; the heart monitor beeped steadily as if it measured time as a machine too.
Rodney couldn’t really think of it as John. His hair was gone, he was wrapped entirely in bandages, except for a few patches of skin that showed— some of his forehead, an eyelid, part of a shoulder, a forearm. What little skin was visible was either dead white, or stained with bruising or disinfectant or both.
“Hey,” Rodney said softly, standing by the bed. “I don’t know if this’ll work but I brought you something.”
The ventilator swoosh-thumped, the heart monitor beeped, and John stayed motionless. Rodney could have been speaking to the wall. Well, he pretty much was. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly, “that I didn’t listen to you. You were right and I was wrong, and I’m sorry for it, more than I can say.”
There was no answer, a profound stillness. Rodney bent closer, wriggled a hand in among the tubes and the mask where the ventilator fit onto John’s face, and found a cheekbone, a patch of skin, a mostly-closed eyelid. He thumbed along the edge of John’s face, above the strap holding the breathing mask on, above the collar stabilizing his damaged neck, and stroked over where his sideburn should be, up to where his hair should be. They’d shaved him down to nothing— there was some kind of skull fracture, or the suspicion of one, Rodney remembered. There basically weren’t any parts uninjured; John even had broken fingers, torn fingernails, broken toes.
His skin was cool, dry, lifeless, like the rest of him. Rodney realized he was crying, and pulled his hand back to wipe his face. “Anyway,” he said. “You don’t talk much but that doesn’t mean I can stomach the idea of you being mute.” He pulled the little device out of his pocket and considered the still form. Finally he untucked the blanket, found one of John’s feet, and snapped the device in place around John’s bony ankle. “If this device works the way I think it does, when you wake up I’ll be able to talk to you. If it doesn’t, well, then it won’t do anything.” He already had the other half of the device around his wrist, and he checked it.
The inset stones glowed blue at the contact with John’s skin, and Rodney watched the part on his wrist to see if it reacted. The blue glow there might have been a reflection; he cupped his other hand around it to check, but it had died down in John’s half of the device by then, and he couldn’t tell.
Nothing happened. After a few more minutes Rodney turned and dragged himself to his quarters. He kicked his shoes off, took off his jacket, and fell asleep half-in his unmade bed.
Rodney woke a little disoriented, jetlagged and sore, and lay a moment staring up at the ceiling and trying to remember where he was. It was before dawn, and the distant streetlight outside striped the ceiling with the shadow from the blinds. A car went by, and he sucked in a deep breath and yawned, hitching a little as it pulled at the sore ribs on his left side. About the time he sat up Rodney realized he wasn’t in the driver’s seat here at all, and moreover, this was definitely not his body. The body sat up, scrubbed fingers through his hair, rubbed his stubbled face, and pushed gingerly to his feet. The long muscles of his thighs ached with the distinctive burn of the aftermath of too much sex, and the shin of his left leg throbbed with the dull ache of a healing fracture or deep bruise. But the center of gravity was all wrong, the shoulders too narrow, the waist and hips narrow, the legs skinny, and Rodney couldn’t direct at all, couldn’t look. He was a passenger in someone else’s body.
The body stumbled a little, uncoordinated after having been deeply asleep, but caught himself deftly and padded out to the bathroom. The floor was carpeted thickly, dark blue carpet, and a hand against the wall for balance narrowly missed a framed photo there. It was blurry and Rodney didn’t get a good look at it but it looked like a snapshot of a sunset in a desert, maybe, with the crisp silhouette of some kind of heavy equipment in front of it, maybe a big field gun or something.
He made his unerring way to the bathroom, and Rodney realized he was stark naked except for some kind of necklace. They went to the toilet without a pause at the mirror, and Rodney wondered why he was watching a man pee. It didn’t really give him any more information than he’d had before— he’d known this was a male body, thanks— though now he knew what it felt like when this body emptied an apparently quite full bladder. Still no pause at the mirror, though Rodney caught a flash of pale skin and dark hair in the reflection, and the man climbed into the shower.
Rodney had no idea if he knew this person or not, and the guy’s hurt ribs and injured leg were starting to drive him nuts. He wondered if it was significant at all. It was an efficient shower, which wasn’t surprising— nobody whose thigh muscles burned from sex like that was going to bother jerking off in the shower the very next morning. But Rodney kept catching glimpses of body parts and thinking perhaps, perhaps this body was familiar. Perhaps. The hands in particular, long-fingered and delicate, capable, curving thumbs and roughened knuckles— but maybe it was the power of suggestion, maybe Rodney was wishing he knew what was going on so hard it was influencing him.
Still. He stepped out of the shower, grabbed a towel, and finally, finally paused in front of the mirror, toweling his face and then letting the towel fall.
Rodney wasn’t totally astonished to recognize Sheppard. It was definitely John Sheppard, regarding himself briefly and without pleasure in the mirror. He looked blankly at himself, then down and away, finding shaving cream, finding a razor. Rodney watched John watch himself shave, and realized that this wasn’t current. John didn’t quite look like this anymore. He didn’t have the scar on his cheekbone, a souvenir of one of the many times he’d been knocked around. And there was no gray in his hair, not even at his temples. He had the thinner face Rodney remembered from the first days of the expedition, the narrower jaw, eyes not quite so deep-set, fewer creases around his eyes.
He drew the razor up under his chin and Rodney noticed: no Iratus scar. There was nothing; his neck was smooth and regular.
This was pre-Atlantis, then. It had to be. Unless this was just John’s residual self-image. Is this how he remembered himself? Without the scar, and younger?
He rinsed his face, dried off, ran his fingers through his drying hair critically— it was short, shorter than Rodney had ever seen it. Almost regulation, in fact. Might even have been regulation. Unimaginable. But there it was. Surely this was not how John dreamed about himself, with a regulation haircut that on him just looked sort of awkward and dorky. No wonder he’d grown it out the instant he was out of sight of anybody who gave a shit.
He shed the towel, hung it up neatly, and wandered back down the hall, limping a little, trailing his fingers along the drywall. It was a tastefully-decorated house, navy carpet and cornflower-blue walls, a series of artfully-arranged photos in coordinated but unmatching frames on the walls. John didn’t do more than glance at them, but there were a cluster of framed snapshots of planes and things that Rodney realized John must have taken himself— lots featured desert landscapes and guys with goggle tans making stupid faces. He went back into the bedroom and straight to a dresser, easing it open to find a pair of boxers, a clean t-shirt. Suddenly he paused, and stared at a jewelry box sitting on top of the dresser. Rodney couldn’t tell what in the jumble of jewelry he was staring at so intently, but he could feel the tightness in John’s chest, could feel the way his heart had kicked up suddenly. There was something upsetting in this jumble of mostly gold jewelry.
John reached out and deftly fished out a ring, a plain gold band, and then another one, a gold band set with three stones in an elaborate Art Deco kinda setting. Both rings were too small for him, and it was only then that Rodney noticed John had a ring on his left ring finger.
John turned the two rings over in his hands, then closed a fist around them, dressed hurriedly, and left the room, sparing a single glance at the bed.
Rodney didn’t get a good look but he could tell there was someone in it, someone with very long dark hair spread out across the pillow.
John put the rings down on the kitchen counter. It was a nice kitchen, suburbanish, immaculate, stainless steel double sink and clean white refrigerator, white enameled stove (gas), white microwave, gray tile floor, gray countertops, white walls and a set of matching bright red canisters set under the pale wood cabinets beside a gleaming white coffeemaker. John made coffee somewhat inexpertly, as if he weren’t sure where anything was in this kitchen, opening three drawers before he found the silverware, opening two cabinets before he spotted the canisters on the counter labeled “coffee” and “sugar” next to the “flour” and “tea” ones.
It was then that Rodney noticed that there was a pair of nylon hose on the floor, near the sink. Beside them was a pair of women’s underpants, blue and lacy. A short distance away lay a bra that matched them, and as John turned with the coffee carafe to get water, Rodney realized there was a woman’s suit jacket crumpled on the counter, and the matching skirt on the floor. Well then. And yes, there was the blouse. And one high heel, obviously kicked off, and the other, a ways away.
Guess that explained some of the sore muscles. John dumped the water in the coffeemaker and pushed the button, then picked the rings up and walked away as the machine gurgled to life.
He went into a cozy living room, with a pair of arm chairs that matched the sofa— muted blue plaid— and more of the deep blue carpeting. The walls here were a pale yellow, and hung with paintings Rodney didn’t recognize. John sat down on the couch and rubbed at his face, looking at the rings in his hand.
Rodney had no idea what he was thinking, but his shoulders were hunched, high and tight and miserable, and he was chewing fiercely on his lips as he turned the rings over in his hand. The one with the stones was beautiful— the three stones were a diamond, a sapphire, and a ruby, and they looked real, the sapphire almost black but with a living blue light in it, and the ruby with a deep blood sheen beneath the surface. The diamond was small but well-cut; Rodney knew more about that than he had, since he’d spent so long shopping for Jennifer’s ring. It wasn’t an expensive rock, particularly, but it was a beautiful ring, obviously antique, probably quite valuable in its own right. The sapphire was exceptionally beautiful.
John sighed, put it down, and turned the plain gold band over in his fingers. That was obviously a wedding band, obviously not his. It was inscribed inside, and Rodney was glad when John tilted it and read it, rubbing his thumb over the texture of the engraving. Love is a burning thing, it said.
It fucking figured, Rodney thought as he recognized it: Johnny Cash.
There was a scuffing noise behind him but John didn’t turn his head. “Coffee,” a woman’s voice said, hoarse and cracking, though it was obvious she was exaggerating the effect for humor. She shuffled into the kitchen, but John didn’t look up from the ring. Rodney could feel his jaw tighten. “Mmm, coffee,” she said. “Hey, John, did you get any of this yet?”
“No,” he answered hoarsely, and it came out tight and a little sharp.
“I’ll get you some,” she said. Drawers opened and closed, spoons clinked. “You know, John,” she said, “it’s Saturday, you don’t have to get up at five am.”
John didn’t answer, and in a moment she came in. “What are you looking at?” she asked. He didn’t look up, didn’t answer.
She let her breath out and sat down beside him. “They don’t fit,” she said, reaching across him to set the coffee mug down, then showing him her left hand. “I bought a cheapo decoy. I wanted to see if my weight would stabilize before I got them resized.”
She did indeed have a ring on her left hand, a thin gold band. It didn’t look like anything in particular. The one in John’s fingers now was heavier, thicker, more obviously expensive.
John’s gaze flicked up to her face. She was gorgeous, even sleep-puffy as she was; probably not quite thirty, full mouth, even features, heart-shaped face, brown hair, and slender, tall and slender. Rodney could feel John hesitating, could feel his teeth sliding over his lip. It felt good when he did it, in a way it never had for Rodney. Well, it had felt good to bite John’s lips, but that didn’t bear thinking about.
He shook his head. “You look great,” he said, “but you looked great before. You really don’t need to be losin’ weight.”
She laughed. “It wasn’t on purpose,” she said.
He raised an eyebrow. “The only thing in the fridge was nonfat sugar-free yogurt,” he said, and Rodney could feel him squinting in disgust.
“Fair enough,” she conceded. “But I like that stuff.”
“Ick,” he said. “Girl,” and he shook his head, “you need to eat real food.”
“I was,” she said. “Mostly. I take care of myself while you’re gone, John, you know that. I’m used to it by now, right?”
He looked away, back down at the rings, and Rodney felt him gritting his teeth. “Yeah,” he said. “I dunno. I, yeah.”
“I really was,” she said. “But I went off the Pill because it was making me crazy, and that made me drop a bunch of weight.”
John raised his eyebrows and nodded, then shot her a look. “Did you go back on it?” he asked, and Rodney felt his gut clench in sudden worry or nervousness.
She shook her head, and Rodney watched sudden realization break in a wave across her face. “Then— what?” John asked, gut clenching tighter. She shook her head again.
“I wasn’t expecting to,” she said, and paused, and finally said, visibly astonished, “I forgot.”
John stared at her and she stared back at him, and Rodney put the pieces together— scattered underwear, John’s evident recent injuries, the rings— he’d obviously just come home from a deployment, and this was the mythical, fabled wife, and she was way less of a bitch, and way prettier, than Rodney had always secretly hoped.
After a long moment John took a breath, flinching a little as it strained his ribs, then let it out slowly, still staring at the woman. She was really, astonishingly beautiful. “So,” John said.
She dropped her gaze then, and looked down at her lap. “So,” she said. “I don’t know. Maybe we’ll be lucky. I just, I completely forgot. I didn’t think you’d be home until April so I just wasn’t thinking about it.”
A long moment of silence passed and John fidgeted with the rings. “It’s not that I don’t want kids,” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper. “And it’s not that I wouldn’t want ‘em with you. But I—“ He swallowed. “If I do, I wanna be there. And I can’t, Nancy. I can’t. As soon as I’m asymptomatic with this concussion they want me in Afghanistan. I got a little time, a couple weeks maybe.”
“Concussion,” she said, alarmed. “You never mentioned a concussion.”
“It wasn’t a chopper crash,” John said, gaze fixed on his hands. “I can’t tell you much but I had a real bad landing, opened a parachute too late. I did it on purpose, Nancy, they were firing on our chutes and everybody else got shot in midair. But I, the ribs and the shin, I got off easy, but I was disoriented and they had to keep me under observation for four days to make sure they had the brain bleed under control.”
“How long has it been?” she demanded, audibly upset.
John glanced sideways at her. “Two months,” he said. “Almost.”
“They didn’t call me at all,” she said. “They didn’t say anything at all to me.”
He shook his head. “I called,” he said. “Day or two or three after Christmas. I was out of the woods, I figured. No point telling you much. Anyway the whole thing was classified, I shouldn’t’a even been in the air, so I had to wait for them to give me the official story of what-all happened before I could say more than ‘hi’.”
“Why you?” she asked finally. “Why does it always have to be you?”
John didn’t answer for a long moment, turning the engagement ring over and over in his fingers, feeling the prongs where the stones were mounted. Finally he looked up. “Out of the six guys I’m the only one that made it back,” he said. “I’m really good at what I do, Nancy. Even brain-damaged. I’m the only reason the mission didn’t totally fail. I can’t tell you what I brought back with me but it meant the other guys didn’t die for nothin’.”
There was a long moment of silence. “They told me it was a chopper crash in Afghanistan,” she said. “What did they tell the wives of the other five guys who didn’t make it back? Total lies, too?”
John looked back down at his hands. After a moment he reached out and took her hand in his. “Does it matter?” he asked, not looking up. “One of the other guys survived the landing, but he was gut-shot. I found him and tried to stop the bleeding but I couldn’t. He tried to keep me conscious. He told me about his wife and his two little daughters. It took him four hours to bleed out. I stayed with him so he wasn’t alone.” He shook his head. “I’m not gonna tell his wife. He died screaming, and it was horrible. And she doesn’t need to know that. Yeah he talked about her, yeah he said sweet things about her, but the thing is, there’s no possible way she’s dumb enough to think that there would’ve been two captains of roughly equal rank, two pilots, in the same helicopter in Afghanistan for a routine patrol. There’s no way I could’ve been there if what the Air Force told her happened had really happened to him.”
Nancy squeezed John’s hand. “John,” she said.
John shook his head. “How the hell would it help her to know that?” he asked, his voice tighter, more intense. “How would it help? I tried to give him water and it just… came back out. He was hamburger. His stomach acid was burning his other internal organs— it was agony.” He shook his head, and Rodney could feel his mouth twisting. “They told her it was quick and that is all she needs to know. If I die like that, I want everyone who loves me to think it was instant. I want them to lie to them. Because nobody should ever have to think about that kind of shit. When you’re hurt that bad you’re not even a person anymore. You’re just meat and terror, and the fewer people who know that, the better.”
“You’d even cut me out of that,” Nancy said. “You’d lie to me, in the end. And think you’re doing me a fucking favor.”
John didn’t answer for a moment, gritting his teeth. Nancy sat quietly, patiently— she knew John pretty damn well, Rodney realized, and she knew this tell— she knew he was nerving himself up to say something, working up to expressing an emotion. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty but it was fucking precious, Rodney well knew.
“It’s not… it’s not lying like that,” he said finally. “Not for untruth. Listen, I know— I know what it’s gotta feel like from the outside, but it’s not— it’s survival, Nancy. It’s— when you’re a soldier, you have to put on this kind of, kind of persona, and you do these terrible things. You face death like it’s just a job, you kill other people for your job, you make absolutely ruthless decisions about who lives and who dies and you do absolutely fucking brutal things, I mean knives in people’s eyes kind of shit, dropping bombs on running people kind of shit, popping an eight-year-old boy between the eyes with a rifle bullet kind of shit, and you have to do it in this place where none of it bothers you. It’s just your job, you’re a machine, you’re a monster.”
“That’s fucking awful,” Nancy said.
John nodded. “If you’re used to it, it’s not. You have to be— you have to have this other place, where you go, and it’s okay to do these things. You don’t hesitate and you don’t worry about it and when somebody orders you to do something you just fucking do it, and you don’t think about it, it’s not your job to think.”
“But what’s left of you?” Nancy asked, horrified.
“That’s where you come in,” John said, and he wrapped his other hand around hers and hug on. “The ones of us who don’t lose our minds, what we do is we have this other place in our minds where we can go. We put the whole rest of the world in there, and it’s waiting for us when we take off the, the armor, the mask, the monster. When you’re done with your job you don’t think about it, you go back to the other things and you think about them instead. Captain Sheppard goes out there and shoots guys in the face or whatever, and when he’s done, there’s this safe little, uh, little pocket kinda, where John lives, and John has a wife and she’s smart as a whip and pretty as the sunrise and she loves him and everything is okay. So when it’s all over he goes there and lies in his bunk and there’s the rest of him, there’s his real self, there’s Nancy, and he can think about her and think about how if she were here she’d tell him it was okay and she’d pet his hair and he’d get to be John again.”
“John,” she said, and her voice was thick.
He looked at her. “It’s a shitty deal for you,” he admitted. “I know it is. I can’t make it any better for you. I have to do what I do, Nancy, can you at least see that? And it’s— most of that shit, nobody should know about it. We don’t want our wives, or whoever, to know about it. We want them to be safe, and tie us back to being normal, and the less they really know about what we do, the better, because nobody should have to know the things I do.”
She nodded slowly, looking down at his hand, and they sat in silence for a little while. He finally set the rings down on the side table and picked up his coffee cup. It was perfect drinking temperature, but John drank his coffee with more cream and less sugar than Rodney liked. Or, at least, Nancy made it that way. Or maybe things just tasted different to John. He drank half the cup straight down, and held the mug between his fingers, warming them and watching Nancy.
“I was sure you weren’t coming back this time,” she said. “I was sure of it. And I had everything planned out, John. I was going to lose my mind, have a nice long mental breakdown, maybe go into a psych ward for a week or so. Scream and rant, rip some hair out, cut myself maybe. Get some amazing hardcore drugs, the shit where they basically reprogram you. That’s what I was gonna do, once they told me you were dead.”
He took a sharp breath, let it out slowly, said nothing, but watched her mutely.
“Once I’d basically nuked my brain back to zero, I’d start over. I was working really hard at my job, building up connections, building up a good reputation. People like me, people rely on me, people think I’m really good. That’s all so they’ll cut me slack, when the breakdown happens. Cuz I’ve had my shit really together, John. Really together. I went off the Pill because it was making me less stable. It does that to some women, and it was doing it to me. I needed to be really together. Up until I got that news, then I was allowed to lose it all, to just freak out, and start over. Get it out of my system.”
John turned the mug in his hands, put it down, and put out his hand. Nancy took it, but twined her fingers around his like she was inspecting his hand for injuries.
“Then I was gonna start over,” she said. “Get my career all set, pick up where I left off, aim high. Meet somebody stable, pleasant, moderately ambitious, maybe smart, but most importantly, okay with me making more money than him, and okay with me doing what I want and not just being a good little wifey. Not too pretty. Not dashing, not flashy. Don’t need any more of that, I’m all set with excitement and sparks and all that. No, I want sensible, and respectful, and predictable. Marry him, settle down, have two or three children, and live a really boring life. No more drama. No more suspense. And then I could sometimes revisit that little place in my mind where I’d had a handsome, dashing young captain for a husband, who died tragically, when I was young, in my wild days, and that would be the worst thing I’d ever had to go through.”
She looked up. He was staring at her, but dropped his gaze, and in a moment, he nodded. “Well,” he said, “I sure screwed that one up, didn’t I?” There was a tight miserable cold knot in his chest that Rodney could feel. It was heartbreaking.
“No!” She pulled her hand out of his and put it against his cheek instead. “Christ, John, no! I don’t want you dead.”
He laughed tightly. “That’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me,” he said.
“Don’t you see?” she said. “It was all insane! Insane, John! I was completely lying to myself that I was fine and together. Who the fuck plans for their beloved goddamn husband to die? Who plans a goddamn nervous breakdown? Who fucking goes almost fifteen years as a sexually active adult without ever making a mistake with birth control and then does something so completely insanely boneheaded as what we just did?”
He didn’t answer for a moment, then looked up at her, leaning his cheek into her hand. “I dunno,” he said, “a nervous breakdown sounds pretty good to me right about now.”
She stared at him, and God, Rodney recognized that expression, he’d worn that expression himself plenty of times. “Well,” she said, a little shakily, “I hadn’t really planned anything for today, we could do that.”
John quirked his eyebrows, and Nancy made a sound that could have been either a laugh or a sob, then pulled him close and kissed him (her mouth was as soft as it looked, Rodney noted with interest, and then was ashamed of himself). He put his arms around her, and rested his cheek against her head. They sat like this for a long time, her arms around his waist and his arms around her shoulders.
Finally he pulled away and got up. “If you’re having a nervous breakdown you get to drink before noon,” he said, and went into the kitchen.
And Rodney was with him, and then suddenly he was sitting in his own bed back on Atlantis in a dark room, alone.
And the bracelet on his wrist was flashing blue.
That hadn’t been a dream. That had really happened to John. That was probably the mythical divorce. And it was absolutely nothing like the way Rodney had always vaguely expected. He’d just sort of figured John had never made an effort and the mythical, unicorn-like ex-wife had never appreciated him anyway. He’d really never expected her to lose her goddamn mind over John Sheppard.
But then he’d come pretty close himself a dozen or so times to losing his own goddamn mind over John Sheppard, so it wasn’t all that surprising, or shouldn’t have been. Rodney rubbed at his face and shoved himself up out of bed. It was like six in the morning; he’d probably spent almost the entire time he was asleep in John’s dream, there. He went and relieved himself, and stared at himself in the mirror for a long moment as he washed his hands. He really should take the thing off. He wasn’t communicating with John, he was reliving memories, and not necessarily relevant ones. If John were around to know about it, he’d be furious.
Him not being around to be furious didn’t bear thinking about.
Rodney stumbled back to bed and sat on the edge, picking at the latch on the device. He couldn’t focus well enough to get it off. Eventually he flopped over on his side, and picked desultorily at it for a few moments longer until suddenly he slid into sleep again.
A warm body crowded close against his, hands firm around his waist, broad shoulders and big arms above him, around him— it was almost frightening, and his heart kicked up and his hands came up to wrap around those shoulders— but then a mouth joined his mouth, a tongue licked across his lips and into his mouth, slick over his teeth, and he was being pressed down into the bed, head rocking back into the pillows with the force of the kiss.
“You maniac,” said the person above him, breaking off the kiss for just a moment to say it. It was Rodney’s own voice, and Rodney realized with a shock that the person above him was himself. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
Rodney laughed, only again, it wasn’t him, it was the body he was in, and he already knew it was John, he remembered this, remembered saving John’s skinny ass from being human-sacrificed on that stupid planet— almost the first mission after they came back from Earth with John’s shiny new rank— remembered coming back and throwing John into his bed. John had been so different that day, so unexpectedly yielding, so needy even; he’d asked Rodney to fuck him, and it was the first time they’d done that.
From John’s point of view it was completely different. Rodney remembered being confused and turned-on and concerned and a little pushy, remembered how astonishingly vulnerable John had been, how beautiful, how luminous even; it was the closest he’d ever felt to John, and one of the most intense sexual experiences he’d ever had.
But from John’s perspective— he was terrified. His heart was racing and his palms were sweating and cold, he was breathless and panting and trembling on the edge of control, not just from arousal but unmistakably fear. Rodney had never realized how much bigger he was than John, once you subtracted their height difference (which being horizontal effectively did)— his shoulders were much broader, his torso thicker. He still thought of himself as kind of a little guy, but he’d outgrown that long ago.
John was tense around the edges but Rodney could feel him making himself let go, making himself offer no resistance; memory-Rodney’s mouth worked its way across his collarbone and up his neck, and wow— he knew he’d liked to bite gently at the Iratus scar on John’s neck and it always got a reaction, but feeling it was different. It sent a bolt of spiky discomfort right through John’s body, as if there were a wire inside it that connected to his belly button. Wow. Rodney had always kind of thought John liked it when he did that, but if it felt like this— well, it also made his cock go from half-hard to all the way instantly, and that was weird and unexpected.
“I knew you wouldn’t let ‘em kill me,” John murmured.
“What if I hadn’t made it in time?” Rodney demanded.
“Not gonna happen,” John said. “You’re always there for me.”
“But what if I weren’t?” Rodney asked, almost angry, and it was strange to so clearly remember how he had felt, and now feel it from this side.
John laughed, and it went from tight to lazy as he did it, as if he were making a decision to go with it. He rubbed his erection against Rodney’s hip and bit his neck. “That’s not how it works,” John said. “Sometimes you just gotta trust. I never trusted anybody like I trust you, Rodney.”
“That’s very touching,” memory-Rodney said, “but it’s hardly the basis for an entire tactical approach.”
“Sure it is,” John said, and here it was, Rodney remembered this moment. John bit Rodney’s ear, and said, “Fuck me, Rodney.”
It was so strange experiencing it from this point of view, feeling it from the inside; he didn’t know what John was thinking, but he was a lot closer from this perspective; could feel every response intimately, and could feel the strange tightness inside John’s chest that had to be emotion, the little gasping inhalations of astonishment. He’d understood at the time, he’d thought, how big a deal this had been for John, to let him in like this, but he hadn’t grasped the full extent of it, hadn’t understood just how physically and emotionally vulnerable John was leaving himself.
And at the time he’d been too distracted to pay attention to the seeming gibberish John had muttered; he hadn’t understood a word of it then, he knew. Because John wasn’t just saying Rodney’s name, as he crested closer and closer to orgasm. He was saying I love you, oh god, Rodney, I love you. And after the wave broke, as John came shuddering down into a trembling almost-stillness, that wasn’t just gasping for breath; he was trying not to cry. And now, as memory-Rodney came inside him and John wrapped his arms around Rodney’s head and fought for composure, he was murmuring, you’re mine, you won’t leave me, stay with me, Rodney.
Rodney woke, and sat up, and began determinedly picking at the fastener of the device on his wrist, pausing occasionally to wipe the tears that were rolling down his face. Because yeah, he hadn’t heard a word of what John had said at the time, and had kind of freaked out the next morning about how emotionally intense that had been, especially when John remained poker-faced. So the next week when he’d casually mentioned that he was thinking of asking Katie Brown out, and John had shrugged with a weird full-body twitch and said oh sure, she’s kinda cute, like it was no big deal, but then hadn’t spoken to Rodney for a week… well, Rodney had figured it was because of the comment about Batman and had apologized effusively while John was cornered in a jumper on a mission the week after that and had thought no more of it.
John, you asshole, Rodney thought, as the device finally came free, if I’d known you were a serious option I’d never have looked anywhere else.
As it happened, it was Jennifer who discovered the device on John’s ankle, and Rodney was sitting by the foot of the bed on a stool drinking coffee and trying not to hover. "What’s this?” she asked, immediately turning to Rodney.
“How’d you know I had anything to do with it?” he asked, and she just looked at him until he produced the other half of it. “It’s supposed to be a communication device. It lit up when it touched him so I figured I’d let it do what it would do.”
“And where did you put the other end of it?” she asked, with an air of resigned patience.
“On my wrist,” Rodney said.
“Did it do anything?” Jennifer asked.
“Yeah,” Rodney said.
Jennifer waited, and finally broke first and said “What did it do, Rodney?”
Rodney fidgeted uncomfortably. “It let me experience some of Colonel Sheppard’s memories.”
“Did he know you were there?” Jennifer asked.
Good question. “Nnnnn… it wasn’t interactive,” Rodney hedged.
“So…” Jennifer trailed off. “Not much of a communication device, really.”
“Just the one way,” Rodney admitted. “Although that could be because John’s unconscious.”
“It could be,” Jennifer admitted, then relented. “Did you at least get any sleep?”
“Yeah,” Rodney said. “It started working while I was asleep. I thought maybe it was a dream but I was definitely Sheppard, and from other things he’s said, I think it was something that really happened to him.”
“A mission?” Jennifer asked.
Rodney shook his head. “No,” he said. “There was a second event too, that I saw, and I was present for that one at least.” He rubbed self-consciously at his hair. “It was weird to see myself through someone else’s eyes.”
“Was it a traumatic event?” Jennifer asked. “Something related to his condition?”
“No,” Rodney said, trying not to blush. “Though… both events were… um, emotionally charged conversations, I think? And it was… I probably shouldn’t violate his privacy any more than I already have. At least I’d been present for one of them.”
“Is that why you took the device off?” Jennifer asked.
Rodney nodded. “I thought it best,” he said.
“Sheppard loved me,” Rodney blurted miserably, and Jennifer looked up at him from the laptop screen— they were watching their weekly Battlestar Galactica episode together on her laptop— and frowned.
“I… yes, Rodney,” Jennifer said.
“Wait, you knew this?” Rodney demanded.
Jennifer looked sideways, as if there were someone else in the room she could appeal to. “Yes,” she said.
“What do you mean yes?” Rodney asked, overwhelmed.
“I mean I knew that Sheppard loved you,” Jennifer said. “Everyone knew that. I mean, he caught bullets for you all the time, stuck up for you to anyone who so much as looked sideways in your general direction— and I don’t like that we’re having this conversation in past tense, Rodney, it’s not like you to give up.”
“I don’t mean like that,” Rodney said, waving his hands. “I— there’s half a dozen people he loves like that. I mean, he loved me, romantically, was in love with me. The whole time. I thought we were just buddy-fucking, and he was stupid in love with me.”
Jennifer stared blankly at him and it occurred for the first time to Rodney that this might not be the safest topic for him to pursue with his girlfriend. He deflated, letting his hands fall, and said, very subdued, “I’m really bad with people.”
The next day, Sheppard regained consciousness. Or so Jennifer said. Rodney rushed down and stood by his bed, but he didn’t look any different. “His eyes were open, before,” Jennifer said, a little apologetically.
“Was he really conscious, though?” Rodney asked.
“Oh, he’s conscious now,” Jennifer said. She pointed at the monitor he was hooked up to. “Brain activity. He’s awake.”
“Oh,” Rodney said.
“He suffered some brain damage,” Jennifer said softly, sympathetic. “I don’t think it’s that severe, but it’s impossible to tell. Unfortunately he’s completely paralyzed except for parts of his face, and those are more or less immobilized by the ventilator mask and the bandages. It probably hurts to open his eyes.”
“Oh,” Rodney said again.
“Once the swelling subsides he may regain more mobility,” Jennifer said. “And once we can take some of these bandages off. Certainly the pain will be less, and he’ll be able to see, at least. Most likely. Once all of that stabilizes, we can start seeing what our options are. At the moment, even brief consciousness is massive progress. His odds of survival have gone way up.”
Rodney stepped a little closer to the bed, looking down at the tiny scrap of John’s face he could see. One eyelid and a bit of cheekbone, a piece of an ear. “Your odds of survival have gone way up,” he murmured, just to see if John could react at all. The eyelid might have twitched, but it might not have. Rodney couldn’t tell.
Rodney slipped the device back onto his wrist after he brushed his teeth. He sat on the edge of his bed, in his boxers and a t-shirt, and watched to see if the stones lit up. They did, a dim flicker running along the edges in sequence, then steadying into a low blue glow. But nothing happened, so he lay down and cleared his mind, and unsurprisingly, fell asleep; he was running on less than four hours in three days at this point, so— it was why meditation never really worked out for him. If he had that kind of time he’d rather be asleep.
He shouldn’t be doing this, he knew. So far there had been no communication. It was just like spying, only it was also torturing himself. But he couldn’t stay away. And maybe if John weren’t in a coma, he might be able to interact. Maybe. Rodney had a pretty good instinctive feel for Ancient tech, and sometimes just knew things about what they were for, and he had a feeling that if John’s mind was more active, it might not just show him memories. But then, it might be wishful thinking. Rodney did a lot of that too.
He dreamed, eventually, and after various perambulations through his subconscious, found himself in a rowboat in the rain, as he sometimes was. Rowing frantically and fruitlessly through a thunderstorm toward a distant Atlantis, with a whale circling below him, and the familiar panic beat at him, but he remembered the time John had come into the boat with him, and sure enough, when he looked to his right, there was John.
“This isn’t so bad,” John said, smiling affably.
“I’m me,” Rodney said, astonished, poking at his chest; he remembered being in John’s memories, and all of that sort of thing, and also how this dream had ended, so he looked over the side in dread for the whale. “Shit.”
“Hey,” John said, perturbed, “don’t rock the boat. Is this a dream?”
“Yeah,” Rodney said, “only it’s my dream, Sheppard, so I’m really not sure what you’re doing here this time.”
“Yeah,” John said, his face crinkling wryly in confusion, “I’m wondering that myself. There’s no evil twin.” He whipped his head around suspiciously, then said, “and no clowns.”
“Oh good,” Rodney said.
John leaned more carefully and looked down. “No whale either,” he said.
“Don’t speak too soon,” Rodney said.
The rain slowed, then pattered to a stop. “Huh,” John said.
“So, um,” Rodney said nervously, “what’s the last thing you remember?”
“What, before this?” John blinked. “Hm.”
“Yeah,” Rodney said. “There’s a chance you’re unconscious and I’m communicating with you using an Ancient device. There’s also… a chance you’re conscious.”
“Fuck,” John said, looking like someone had just shot his dog.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Rodney said, miserable. “You’re, you were right about not trying the device again, you were right about not taking the safety protocols entirely offline, you were right that we should’ve run when it first started going wrong, and you saved my life by slinging me out that door, and God, John, I’m so fucking sorry.”
“Fuck,” John said again, and he rubbed a hand across the back of his head, shedding water and making the improbably thick fuzz of the shorter hair on the back of his head stand out straight. “A building fell on me. I remember that.” He squinted sidelong at Rodney. “Do I still have legs? I couldn’t find ‘em.”
“Um,” Rodney said, “I don’t,” but he relented, “oh God, John, yes, you still have legs. The Ancient device we have is wrapped around your ankle. The one that’s not broken.” John nodded, eyebrows raised. “Hm,” he said. He looked thoughtful a moment, then slanted Rodney another glance. “So, what, this thing lets us communicate in our sleep, or what?”
“I’m almost definitely asleep,” Rodney said. “You?”
“Eh,” John said wearily, “I don’t know how to tell.”
“You were in a coma for two or three days,” Rodney said.
“How long’s the device been active?” John was too perceptive by half, Rodney thought, not for the first time, but it was a good argument for this being real and not an actual dream or hallucination.
“Um,” Rodney said, “well, define ‘active’, really. I mean, I put it on you… two days ago, and at first it did nothing, and then, well, I um, I saw some of your memories from your perspective which was kind of, um, weird, and then I took it off but I put it back on after Jennifer said you weren’t in a coma anymore.” He gestured nervously with the hand not holding an oar. “Not, um, not that that was actually apparent, but she said your brain waves, you know.” He trailed off because John was staring at him. “Your brain waves,” he tried again.
“You saw some of my memories from my perspective,” John said, in that really careful way that meant he was about to bite your head off or maybe actually just deck you, and Rodney had a moment to wonder what would happen if he fell overboard.
“Um,” Rodney said, “not on purpose.”
“Right,” John said, teeth gritted. “Like what?”
“I saw, um, you and me, one time,” Rodney said. “That one time, um, right after your promotion, with the, when I rescued you from being a human sacrifice. That was— it was astonishingly hot. I’m, I mean, I never really thought about— I have really broad shoulders.”
“Yeah,” John said, but he didn’t look any softer or fonder.
“I, um, it seemed to me that, um, that whole thing was kind of different from your perspective,” Rodney said. “It was, um— You know, sometimes, it’s pretty hard to hear, when someone’s murmuring sweet nothings, what those sweet nothings actually are. And it turns out I kind of get really distracted when I’m about to climax. So I, um, I hadn’t heard what you’d actually said then. And now I feel like a massive idiot and a clod and a—"
“McKay,” John gritted, and Rodney stopped short, sneaking another look at him. “If it had been important to me that you heard me, I would have repeated it. I knew you couldn’t hear me.”
“Oh,” Rodney said, the wind taken right out of his sails.
“I made a decision pretty much right from the beginning of, of us,” John said, waving a hand dismissively, “and I stuck to that decision.”
“From what you said to me right after the explosion, um, it seemed like maybe you kind of regretted that,” Rodney said. “And thought maybe, um.”
John rubbed his face. “Rodney,” he said, “I was dying, and kind of out of my mind, and yes, at a time like that, a man kind of… clings to things.”
“Ah,” Rodney said. “So you— no, that still makes me kind of an asshole. All of it.”
“I’m not ever going to wake up, am I,” John said suddenly.
“You’re awake now,” Rodney said.
“I was awake for like twenty minutes total today,” John said, “in half-minute increments. And I could move one eyelid and that was the sum total of it. I’m on a ventilator, I could tell that much. There’s nothing left of me, is there.”
Rodney sighed, looked at his hands. “There’s… they don’t know how much is left,” he admitted.
“That’s why you were looking for a communication device,” John said. “That’s why you’re communing on the astral plane or whatever instead of just fucking talking to me. And that’s why you’re so goddamn determined to be consumed with guilt over this.”
“Guilt is my very, very least favorite emotion,” Rodney said. “Disappointment’s a pretty bad one, but guilt is worse by far, because it’s really hard to rationalize it away.”
“So I still have legs but it doesn’t really matter if I do,” John concluded ruthlessly.
“We don’t know yet,” Rodney said. “Seriously, I’m not just saying that, Jennifer keeps telling me we have to wait for the swelling to subside to assess how bad the tissue damage is.”
“Yeah,” John said, mouth twisting bitterly. “Listen, I know you know what it says in my medical proxy documents and all that. I trust you to fix me if it’s possible, but I don’t know if I can trust you to know when to give up. Don’t leave me hanging out on a ventilator with one fucking working eyelid in a dusty back corridor in a secret hospital because you can’t fix me and can’t accept that you can’t.”
“I can fix you,” Rodney said. “Anyway it might not be that bad.”
John gave him one of the full-rubber-face skeptical looks, flat mouth and lowered eyebrows and narrowed eyes. “It’s that bad, Rodney. Don’t fuck around.”
“Doctor McKay,” another voice said distantly, tinny, “Doctor McKay, do you copy?”
Rodney sat up. The lake was gone, the boat was gone, John was gone, and he was in his bed, and it was the middle of the night, and his headset was squawking on his nightstand. He fumbled it into place. “McKay here,” he said fuzzily.
“McKay, I am sorry to wake you,” and it was Zelenka. “Damaged pier has shifted and I need you to help me with power management situation, I cannot manage engineering team and power team both.”
“I’ll be right there,” Rodney said wearily, dragging himself out of bed.
About six hours later he dragged himself down to the infirmary. “You look like crap,” Jennifer said, pausing to look at him over the top of her tablet. “Have you slept, like, at all?”
He had come to see John, actually, but now it struck him that stopping by to see his fiancee was probably a smart thing to do. He dropped into a chair and looked pathetic. “No,” he said.
“I moved that device thing to John’s wrist,” Jennifer said. “I was worried it might cut off circulation on his foot. Are you still trying to connect with it?”
Rodney blinked, and remembered it was still on his wrist and she could see it. “Oh,” he said. “I was, yeah, I tried again. If he’s not in a coma, it works, sort of. If I’m asleep, apparently. I was able to speak to him, though it was kind of weird, and I don’t know how to tell if it was a dream or not.”
Jennifer looked down at her tablet for a moment. “He’s been conscious intermittently today,” she said quietly. “He can move both eyelids, and perhaps focus his eyes somewhat. Some of the swelling is coming back down, and I should be able to start evaluating what kind of permanent tissue damage we’re looking at.”
Rodney nodded nervously. “I’m, ah, I’m his medical proxy,” he said.
“I know,” she said, “that’s why I’m telling you this.” She shifted her tablet to the other arm and reached out to touch Rodney’s face. “You look so tired,” she said. “You should maybe go to bed and come back down in a couple hours. I’ll know more then anyway.” Rodney shook his head. “I’m down here now,” he said, “I might as well stop in and see him, especially if he might be aware.”
“Teyla was sitting with him for a while,” Jennifer said. “She managed to have a short conversation with him, using the blink once for no and twice for yes method.”
“Morse code,” Rodney said, narrowing his eyes in thought. “I know John knows it.”
“Teyla doesn’t,” Jennifer said, “and neither do I.”
“Hmm,” Rodney said. “I can come up with something.” That would be easy as anything, to come up with a device that observed John’s blinking and translated it into Morse code and from there to some sort of readout in English. He could probably even make it speak aloud. That would be a couple hours’ work, tops, and relatively trivial, but he was too tired right now to design it, and anyway, John might not need it once he started healing. He shoved to his feet, and Jennifer, looking reluctant, led him into the room.
John was still horrifyingly white and still, swathed in bandages; one leg was in traction, he was propped strangely and there were drainage tubes everywhere from all the surgeries for the various crushed organs and things, perforated lungs and the rest, and the ventilator mask still covered most of his face. “It’s kind of a miracle that he’s alive,” Jennifer said.
“I know that was your hard work,” Rodney said. “I can’t, I can’t even appreciate enough how hard you and your team worked to save him.”
“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “But don’t thank me until we figure out what we can salvage.” She went to the monitor by the bed and checked a few things. “Rodney,” she said softly, “his eyes are open. I think he’s conscious. John, can you hear me? Twice for yes.”
Rodney came in time to see the second blink. John’s eyes slid from Jennifer to him. He could only really see one of them, but the pupil moved, the greenish iris contracting. “Hey,” Rodney said quietly. “Did you speak to me, in a rowboat maybe, about six hours ago? Blink twice for yes.”
The eyelid fluttered, closed, then opened and closed, very deliberately, twice. Rodney looked at Jennifer. She looked back, eyebrows raised. “I knew it wasn’t a dream,” Rodney said. “We talked about his medical proxy wishes. My dreams are never that boring. They’re boring, but never that bad.”
John blinked something, and Rodney watched attentively. “N— O — W— H— A — L — E,” Rodney translated from Morse. “No whale. Right. Oh God.” He was unexpectedly close to tears.
Jennifer put her hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right,” she said. “Believe it or not, you’re improving steadily, John. Longer periods of consciousness, better lucidity, there’s a lot less brain damage than there could have been. Tonight or tomorrow we’ll do another scan and start evaluating our options.”
“W—H—A—T—K—I—N—D—O—F—O—P—T—I—O—N—S,” John blinked laboriously.
“What kind of options,” Rodney said. “Hey, for Morse, I could speed this up with left eye for dots and right for dashes. I could rig together a translator in like, two hours, maybe three tops, depending on what kind of interface I can come up with and what parts are in stock.”
“There may be a lot of options,” Jennifer said, “and there may be fewer, I don’t know yet. Surgery and experimental treatments, some kind of baseline on what we can expect to fix itself, there might be some alien tech kicking around, I will consult with some specialists. I have a few emails out for preliminary fact-finding. Colonel, Rodney, I have to say, it doesn’t look good, but it doesn’t look too bad yet either.” She was looking at the monitor, and Rodney realized she was going back through readings— she’d gone back seven hours, and was paging back and forth through the timeline. “Huh,” she said. “Your device is definitely having a notable effect on his brainwaves. It’s really interesting but I don’t know what it means yet. But, at any rate, it seems to be an effective means of communication.”
“Good,” Rodney said. “Again, John, I’m sorry about the creepy thing with the memories. I didn’t mean for that to happen at all.”
John looked at him and managed to roll his eyes. “Hey,” Rodney said, beaming. “That was a real expression.”
John blinked twice. Jennifer frowned at something on the monitor, looked at John for a long moment, and then said, “Rodney, you really should go get some rest. With any luck, you won’t need to make that Morse decoder. John, I know it doesn’t feel like it, but the more you rest, the more you heal. I know you don’t have much of a choice, but your body is healing.”
John blinked twice, and Rodney reluctantly turned away and went back out into the main room. “Go get some sleep, sweetie,” Jennifer said to Rodney, pulling him close. He let her, and rested his cheek against the top of her head, swaying a little with exhaustion. “And take that thing off, it’s not letting you sleep properly and I think it’s putting stress on the Colonel.”
Rodney nodded wearily. “I’ll take it off,” he said, and shuffled off down the hallway, back toward his quarters.
He took the thing off to shower, and climbed into bed gratefully, but lay awake for a while, tossing and turning. Finally he reached out and grabbed the device, snapping it onto his wrist before he could think better of it. After that he sank easily into sleep, and actually slept for some time, quiet and dreamless.
“Hey,” a voice said quietly, after a little while, and Rodney stretched, yawned, and turned over.
He was lying on the steps at the base of the central tower, near the little bay that looked like a reflecting pool, and John was sitting next to him. He looked like himself, like he had just before the accident, gray glinting at his temples just a little, tired lines around his eyes.
“Hey,” Rodney said sleepily, and pushed himself up on his elbows. “How are you?”
John shrugged. “Completely paralyzed and on a ventilator, and unlikely to improve,” he said. “I can hear Ancient tech, Rodney, I could understand what that scanner was reading. Jennifer doesn’t know it, but I do. Those nerves are all severed. There’s no technology we currently possess that can do more than regenerate small amounts of neural connections.”
“Hmm,” Rodney said, still waking up, and he suddenly shoved himself up, and snapped his fingers. “Sam Carter,” he said.
John raised an eyebrow. “Sam Carter,” he said.
“Healing device,” Rodney said, frowning furiously. “If I— crap, I don’t have a tablet with me here. Something in an SG-1 mission report. I’ll have to look it up.”
“Hm,” John said, sounding odd, and Rodney looked up at him. His face looked pinched, strained.
“John?” Rodney moved closer in alarm. “Are you all right?”
“Nnn,” John said, and then fell over, twitching and shaking. Rodney caught him and eased him to the ground, alarmed. John cried out as if in pain, curled up tightly, and suddenly pain exploded across Rodney’s ribs and he curled double, gasping.
“You little goddamn wiseass,” a voice snarled, and hauled Rodney up by the arm, dragging him across the floor. The new person was huge— or no, Rodney was small, skinny and no more than five feet tall, gangly and bony, and the man’s arm wrapped almost all the way around his bicep and flung him up the wooden stairs. He fell, painfully, and the man hauled him up. “Go to your goddamn room, you little shit.”
“Dad,” Rodney pleaded, “no, I didn’t—"
The man threw him again and he stumbled, smacked his face against the ornate bannister, and his nose started bleeding. He grabbed it with his shirt, scrambled to his feet, and ran across the Oriental-carpeted hallway, trying desperately not to cry, but his eyes were watering like crazy from the pain in his face and his arm, his skinned knees, his ribs where he must have been kicked. He darted through a door and shoved it closed behind him, at the last second keeping it from slamming with a desperate grab that bruised his fingers so he could ease it soundlessly shut instead, and then set his back against it, slid down it, put his bleeding face down on his knees, and cried as silently as he could, biting down hard on his lips to keep from making any sound.
Rodney blinked up at the ceiling of the infirmary, and was disoriented for a minute. He was partly numb, his whole left arm and shoulder throbbing dully; he was propped up on a half-reclined bed, and Jennifer was sitting next to him, carefully arranging instruments on a metal tray, hands gloved.
He tried to say something to her, but instead his voice came out flat and drawling. “Nerve block’s definitely taken effect, if you wanted to get started.” It was John’s voice.
“I’m just getting set up,” Jennifer answered, smiling politely. She almost never made that face at Rodney; it was a little bit cool. “This is gonna take forever and I don’t wanna have to scrub up again because I had to stop and get something in the middle.”
“Guess I made a mess again,” John said blandly. Jennifer shrugged, still stiffly fake-friendly— it was subtle, but Rodney was familiar with her moods pretty deeply by now. She didn’t really want to be here.
“Well,” she said, “it’s your body, not mine. I don’t mind cleaning it up nearly as much as you’re going to mind dealing with it.”
John’s eyes were fixed on the door, not on Jennifer, and as someone went out, it swished shut. John spoke immediately, intensely: “We never dated.”
“What?” Jennifer almost dropped her forceps, but caught them with a startled curse.
“I know he told you,” John said, still intense. “He said he was going to. Nobody else knows. But I wanted to make sure you really understood. It was never really a relationship. We never dated.”
Jennifer stared at him a moment, visibly taken-aback, then composed herself and looked away at his injury. Rodney didn’t remember vividly a time when John had been injured, but he knew he’d told Jennifer about some of the stuff he and John had done, and he knew around that time John had gone missing for a couple days, and had come back while Rodney was in the labs, and Rodney hadn’t seen him for a day or two. He knew he’d made a point of stopping by and seeing if he was okay. There’d been talk that he’d been tortured while he was captive, but he’d seemed fine to Rodney, and Jennifer said he hadn’t been badly hurt. He’d acted a little strange afterward but Rodney had figured it was the inevitable awkwardness of John knowing that someone knew about them. He’d understood, it was just— when someone asked about sexual partners, it was a bad idea to lie. She had a right to know.
Whatever she was doing really hurt, though. John wasn’t flinching or giving any sign, but it really felt like he had a lot of skin missing. It was decidedly unpleasant. “I, okay,” Jennifer said. “You’re, um, you’re sure the nerve block is in effect, right? I’m not hurting you?”
“You’re not hurtin’ me a bit,” John said, smiling tightly. Liar, Rodney thought, astonished; it hurt like fire.
“You sure?” She glanced up.
“Totally fine,” John said. “Those painkillers are startin’ to kick in as well. Figured I’d better pounce and say what I had to say before they make me loopy.”
Jennifer nodded, pushing the magnifier into place with her elbow and beginning some fiddly stitching. John wasn’t looking at his own injury, which both made it easier and harder on Rodney; easier, because even macho Sheppard didn’t like to look at himself bleeding, but harder because in Rodney’s head this must be a truly massive injury, and he’d been so sure the man wasn’t even hurt he now felt like a complete ass.
“Does it matter?” Jennifer asked finally, doing something exquisitely painful
“Yes,” Sheppard said, letting his head fall back against the pillow, looking away. “I’m no threat to you. He… he’s never, you know… loved me. It’s not like that. It was the same with his previous girlfriend— we were friends, and that was that, and if he was with somebody we just were friends, and if he wasn’t, sometimes we fucked. But that was it.”
“Hm,” Jennifer said, tugging on something, and Sheppard almost flinched, tightening his jaw against the pain. A few moments passed, and Sheppard was sweating a little, cold sweat just along his hairline and down the back of his neck. Jennifer had to have caught on that he was lying about the nerve block, but Sheppard wasn’t looking at her so Rodney couldn’t tell. “Are you telling me this to make me feel better?” she asked finally. She was a little bit angry, Rodney rather thought; oh, she knew Sheppard was hurting, but she wasn’t going to do anything about it.
Rodney hadn’t realized she had that in her.
“Yes,” John said tightly, still not looking at her.
“How is knowing that going to help me?” she asked. She was working steadily, stitching him, but Rodney felt like she was usually more gentle. Maybe he just wasn’t usually this badly hurt. But there was a certain force to her movements that didn’t seem at all necessary.
It was disturbing.
“Like I said,” Sheppard said, intent, and he looked at her now. Her jaw was set, her eyes hard. “I’m not a threat to you. It’s not like he’s gonna throw you over to come back to me, since it wasn’t like he was with me in the first place. Make sense?”
Jennifer looked down at her work, biting at her lip. “I’m not entirely following you,” she confessed, speaking slowly, “but I do appreciate that you’re trying to be kind.” She was being a little gentler now. Maybe she was done with the part that required pulling so damn hard.
There was a kind of distant floaty feeling, Rodney realized— that had to be the way painkillers affected John. It was recognizable, though different from how it felt when he was on them.
“Noticed you were uncomfortable,” John said, and his tongue felt thick and made him slur a little. “Avoiding me. Figured, y’know, I should clear that up.”
“Mm,” Jennifer said, biting her lip and looking intent. She made a small sound of annoyance and pulled hard at something, sending a jolt of pain through Sheppard, who closed his eyes but didn’t react otherwise. “I don’t know that it makes me any happier to know that.”
“Why not?” John asked, opening his eyes, then blinking hard. “Means he’s not, like, on a rebound or anything. Way less awkward than if we’d had a torrid, like, passionate affair and a bad breakup, right?”
“Right,” Jennifer said slowly, “but I don’t… I don’t like thinking that Rodney’s the kind of guy who keeps a bit on the side for when his relationships inevitably fail.”
Rodney felt John flinch, even though Jennifer’s hands were still for the moment. “It’s not like that,” John said. “Not at all. I’m not, like… I’m not waiting around…”
“But when he and I break up you’ll take him back,” Jennifer said flatly.
“No,” Sheppard said, but it sounded weak. “No, I won’t take him back. Because I never took him in the first place.”
“That’s not what he said,” Jennifer snorted, then visibly clamped down on herself. Sheppard didn’t react; Rodney thought he probably hadn’t even heard her, or hadn’t picked up on the innuendo if he had.
“I mean,” John said vaguely, “he and I are friends, really good friends, and sometimes, for comfort or whatever, we, y’know, we do stuff. Did stuff. But it’s not, we’re not, it’s not like that. I’m not, like, a substitute for a girlfriend.”
“Why not?” Jennifer asked, and her voice was hard. “Is he not good enough for you? If you’re such good friends surely you care about one another.”
“It’s not—“ Sheppard rubbed the back of his head with his free hand, face twisting in a grimace. “We do. I do. It’s not— we—“ He took a breath, let it out, plopped his head back against the pillow a little dizzily, and blinked at the ceiling. “I do care a lot for him. You know I’d, um, I'd do anything for him.”
“That’s where I’m wondering what the deal is, then,” she said. “If you care about him, and are sexually attracted to him, and have a sexual relationship with him, but insist that it’s not really a relationship—“
“It’s complicated,” John said, cutting her off.
“Doesn’t seem that complicated to me,” she said.
“People have complicated relationships,” Sheppard said, biting the words off with crisp precision. “I just wanted to make it clear that whatever complicated relationship Rodney and I have, it won’t come between the two of you.”
“Why are you so intent on that?” she asked.
John’s face went slack for a moment, and he said, sounding miserable, “Because Teyla made me feel like I broke Rodney and Katie up, and I’m trying to be extra-careful about it now.”
“Did you break them up?” Jennifer asked, frosty.
“No,” Sheppard said, almost pleading. “Christ. No. Blame Cadman, if anybody, not me. I swear to God, I never said or did anything, I was only ever supportive, I backed way the hell off.” He shook his head again. “I didn’t, I would never. I don’t have the right.”
The door whooshed open, and a nurse came in, spoke briefly to Jennifer. Sheppard’s eyes drifted shut, then open again. He wasn’t tracking well, and it was odd because Rodney was still sharply aware, but his body was adrift, dizzy, drugged. Sheppard’s body.
“I still don’t get it,” Jennifer said, and John dragged his eyelids open and turned his head to look at her.
“There’s nothing to get,” John said, and his voice was unmistakably sad. “I’m not in the running.”
“And this was his decision?” Jennifer asked. Her voice was softer now. “So you just figured you’d take what you could get and leave gracefully when it wasn’t on offer anymore?”
“No,” John said, but his heart wasn’t in it. “Not like that.”
“That makes him sound like a total asshole,” Jennifer said.
“No,” John said sharply. “No. He’s not. That’s not… It’s not like that.”
“Then what the hell is it?” Jennifer asked, but without heat. John was quiet for a long moment, out of it enough that he grimaced at the pain of what she was doing. She noticed, and her movements gentled a bit.
“He deserves someone like you, okay?” John said finally. “Someone who… someone who can love him back. Someone who can be seen with him, who can openly fucking admit to him in public. After the shit he’s put up with in his life, the last fucking thing he needs is yet another asshole who wants to keep him secret like they’re fucking ashamed of him.” He shook his head. “Even if I weren’t such a fucked-up person that’s still the best I could ever give him.”
John was looking away from Jennifer now, face set in disgust. The silence stretched, and finally Jennifer said, “That’s hardly fair,” quietly.
John shook his head, still not looking at her. “Of course it’s fucking not,” he said wearily. “But it’s just as well. He’s always wanted the wife and kids experience. Diamond ring and a white dress and, like, a sensible car. Someone who’s pretty when she smiles and isn’t so goddamn damaged.”
“Who’s to say I’m not damaged?” Jennifer asked. John laughed, not unkindly. She persisted, a little annoyed, “Colonel, I turned into a giant tentacle monster and gut-fucked you, that’s hardly sweet and innocent and nice.”
“Yeah,” John said, “whatever, you got better. And you’re smart, and you’re nice to people, and you care about him, and you’re actually capable of functional human relationships when you’re not, you know, a giant tentacle monster.” He gestured vaguely with his uninjured arm, which felt like it was made of lead.
“You’re smart and charming and have managed to competently lead several hundred people for several years,” Jennifer said. “And you care about him. How is that so different?”
John shook his head. “Doc, I’m so fucked-up I couldn’t do justice to a pet dog, let alone a girlfriend. Let alone a boyfriend I couldn’t even be seen so much as looking at too intently, without losin’ my job.”
“Colonel,” Jennifer said, sad and shocked. “There’s nobody here who’d ever turn you in for something like that. And even if some asshole did, there’s no way they’d really kick you out over it. They’d have to be crazy!”
John didn’t answer, and after a long moment he turned and looked at Jennifer. She was intent on her sutures, but finally looked up at him. Her expression changed when she saw his face; Rodney couldn’t guess what expression he wore. “They wouldn’t,” she insisted. “It would be so stupid.”
“You don’t really know the military,” John said, smiling bitterly. “I’ve watched it happen. There are plenty of people who’d love to see me hang for somethin’. Landry, for one. If he could get me for anything, he would. I’ve made a lotta enemies out here, Doc. And I mean enemies back on Earth. Standin’ up for Weir, makin’ people look like fools one way or another— my days are numbered, one way or another, but I’m not givin’ ‘em the satisfaction of somethin’ as easy as cocksuckin’ to kick me out for.”
Jennifer stared at him, her face a study in young, beautiful, astonished shock. “Really?”
John nodded slightly. “I hope,” he said quietly, “for your sake, that you never learn for yourself. But mark my words, if I don’t manage to get killed in the line of duty, they’ll have my head for somethin’. Eventually.”
“That’s so stupid,” she said. “That’s so stupid.”
He shrugged. “You don’t have to tell me. Anyway, it’s moot. As Rodney’s pointed out, I have the emotional facility of an autistic rhesus monkey. I don’t think I’m capable of sustaining an honest-to-god romantic relationship with anybody, not even someone I— not even if I could acknowledge them in public.” He’d obviously swallowed something else deeper, something that made his heart pound a little, and Rodney was dying to know what it was, but he couldn’t hear John’s thoughts.
“Well,” Jennifer said quietly, “for what it’s worth, Colonel, I think you’re a better person than you let on.”
“You give me a lot of credit,” John said. “I didn’t think you liked me that much.”
“Colonel,” Jennifer said, “one of the people I care most about in the world considers you his best friend of nearly half a decade. I’d be an idiot if I didn’t give you a fair bit of credit.”
John was either smiling or smirking, it was hard to tell which. “That might be the sweetest thing anybody’s said to me in longer than I care to think about,” he said.
Jennifer gave him a long look. “Well,” she said, “either that or you’re high as fuck.”
“Point,” John said, inclining his head, then letting it loll back against the pillow.
“Rodney,” Teyla said, shaking him gently. “Rodney. Wake up.”
“Gnuh,” Rodney said, and sat up in alarm.
“Dr. Keller says you need to deactivate the device immediately,” Teyla said.
“I was,” Rodney said, and fumbled for the edge of it, “I saw— did he—“ but he couldn’t finish the sentence, and Teyla shook her head in incomprehension.
“You weren’t on your radio,” she said, “and Jennifer was urgently looking for you.”
“She could’ve,” Rodney said, but he didn’t actually know if it was safe to take the device off while the wearer was in the middle of using it. He finally undid the catch and pulled the thing off. “What happened?”
“I do not know,” Teyla said, “but I think it is something to do with John.”
Rodney scrambled out of bed and dressed hurriedly, and Teyla came with him down to the infirmary. Jennifer was bustling around in some sort of crisis mode, but when she saw him she paused. “I asked you to take that device off and not use it,” she said.
“I,” Rodney said, stricken by the expression on her face, “I forgot.”
Her mouth went into a hard, grim line, and she said, “Well, I was right, apparently. It was causing strain on the Colonel’s fragile system, and a little while ago he went into a massive seizure. He’s lapsed back into a coma, Rodney. I don’t know what further brain damage he’s suffered, but it’s every bit as deep a coma as he was in initially.”
Rodney nodded, finally, as he’d abruptly forgotten how to speak, and it was only a little while later that he realized he was standing in the middle of the infirmary with Teyla’s arms around him, numb and mute. “Come and sit, Rodney,” she said softly when he took a breath and looked around. “Come and sit.”
“It was a communications device,” Rodney said, following Teyla to sit in a chair near the wall. “I could talk to John with it when I was asleep. I don’t understand how it could hurt him.”
“I know nothing of this kind of medicine,” Teyla said, calm and soothing.
“I was talking to John,” Rodney said, frowning as something came back to him. “Wait. I had an idea.”
Teyla looked patiently at him, her hands still wrapped around his. He freed one to snap suddenly. “I have to go back to the Milky Way,” he said. “I know what will help. I need to talk to Carter.”
“The healing device,” Carter said, slightly fuzzy over the comm link. She frowned. “That’s a good idea, Rodney, but there’s a problem. Didn’t you hear?”
“Didn’t I hear what?” Rodney asked, dimly aware that he was frazzled and hollow-eyed and must look demented.
“Our most proficient user of it is Vala,” Carter said. “But she either absconded with it or was abducted. She’s been missing almost a month and we’ve had no contact, no indication of who would have taken her, of what happened— she just walked out of the tent where she was working, helping SG-1 deal with the aftermath of a mine collapse on one of our allied worlds, and nobody ever saw her again. I’ve been trying to track her down but so far I’ve had no leads.”
Rodney stared at her in disbelief for a long moment before laying his head down on the desk.
John fought his way slowly out of a deep, engulfing blackness. He kept slipping back in, but there was a distant beeping noise that seemed to be fairly constant, and he kept swimming toward it, clawing his way slowly up and up. Everything had been dark for a long, long, long time, forever, and as he got closer to the surface he struggled with a profound sense of dislocation.
The last thing he remembered was talking to Rodney, but he knew that wasn’t right. He was in a hospital bed. That was a heart monitor, beeping. By the time he managed to force his reluctant eyelids open he remembered enough to know that he was stuck in this bed, he was paralyzed.
The ceiling was uninformative, but he knew it wasn’t Atlantis’s infirmary. He blinked and blinked until he could focus his eyes, and move them around, but there was nothing else he could move. Air thumped into his chest with the ventilator’s painful swish-thump, too familiar now.
An interminable time passed while he tried futilely to get his bearings. But he had a growing sense of unease: he wasn’t on Atlantis, that was for damn sure. He couldn’t hear any tech, or feel anything; the city wasn’t there at all. He strained to hear anything over the sounds of the ventilator and heart monitor, and was rewarded with a garbled, distant PA announcement, a semi-inaudible conversation from another room— a hallway?— and the echoes of people walking by, carts being rolled.
He was on Earth. He knew it. And he had a horrible sinking feeling that a lot of time had passed.
God damn it, Rodney, he thought. You were supposed to unplug me. Who knew if it had been a month or ten years? He had no way of knowing. He just knew he was still stuck in a bed like this, atrophying and wasted and hopeless.
By the time the nurse came by for an apparent routine check, John was pretty convinced that it had been years. He’d already imagined Rodney and Jennifer’s wedding, how maybe they’d made a sorrowful toast about him at some point as kind of a parenthetical aside, at how Jennifer had probably been silently annoyed at Rodney over it. Thought of Ronon and Teyla sitting at his bedside a couple of times, at no longer having access to visit him now that he was in the back hallway of some backwater unclassified veteran’s hospital in an out of the way town where the Trust would never find him. Jennifer had probably transferred him back to Earth while Rodney was distracted.
He tried to ask the nurse what year it was, but of course, he couldn’t talk, and she couldn’t understand his furious blinking, didn’t even recognize Morse code. So much for that translator Rodney had been going to make him.
“Oh,” the nurse said, startled as he blinked at her. “Oh! You’re conscious! Oh my goodness!”
John managed not to roll his eyes— that wasn’t really fair to her. He gave her an eyebrow wiggle instead, delighted to realize he could. He tried to make a questioning face, but she wasn’t paying attention. After a few minutes of checking things, she bustled out of the room, and he sighed inwardly (of course he couldn’t really sigh, on a ventilator; it continued its unperturbed rhythm regardless).
He was suddenly overwhelmingly angry, and he raged futilely for a little while. But by the time the doctor came in, an older woman he’d never seen before, it had given way to despair. He was stuck here with no recourse, no escape, no way of finding out anything.
“Hey there, John,” the doctor said, “it’s a great surprise to have you awake!”
John blinked furiously, trying to ask a question, but the doctor wasn’t paying attention at first, and then looked puzzled. She bent over. “Are your eyes dry?” she asked.
He blinked “S.O.S.” because that was the one everyone knew, and she caught on.
“Are you blinking in Morse code?” she asked, incredulous.
He flicked his eyebrows and blinked twice. “Well,” she said, “I guess that answers the question of whether you’re lucid or not. Unfortunately, my Morse code is really rusty. So I’m just going to assume you probably want to know where you are and what happened.”
John resigned himself, and blinked twice.
He slept and woke in random intervals lately, so he was asleep when his next visitor came in. “I can come back,” a voice said.
“Perhaps that— oh, no, I think he’s awake,” another voice said, and John recognized the second one, it was one of the nurses that came by all the time. “John? You have a visitor.”
John’s heart leapt. McKay had figured it out, was going to save him somehow. But even as he realized the reason for his excitement, he recognized how stupid a thought that was. And when he looked up, it was not McKay, not any of his team, not even Woolsey or Carter, not even Landry here to enjoy that John would never give him trouble again.
It was Dave. Dave Sheppard. John blinked in complete shock. “John,” Dave said, and it was the very falsest brand of his cheer. John lowered his eyebrows, and Dave abandoned the cheerfulness immediately, and his face went soft and sad. “Hey, John,” he said, and pulled up a chair.
John rolled his eyes a little, then looked earnestly up into Dave’s face. His brother looked old, so old. But it hadn’t been that long, they’d told him when he woke up; he’d only relapsed into the coma for a month or two, or at least that was when he’d shown up at this hospital. It wasn’t 2010 yet, and he clung to that. He wasn’t 40 yet. Not quite. Soon though.
So that meant Dave was 42, and ok, John hadn’t seen him in a while. “They said you’re a hero,” Dave said. “Some colonel called me.” John raised his eyebrows, questioning. “A woman,” Dave said, “I’m sorry, I should’ve known you’d wonder who. I forgot her name. I have it written down somewhere.” He put his hands in his hair, scratching his scalp, looking tired and dishevelled. “I visited you, before, for the record, but they pointed out that it was kind of a wasted effort. They said they didn’t expect you to wake up, John. And I asked what your advanced care directive said, I did, because I knew you wouldn’t want to languish on a ventilator. And they said it was some guy, some coworker, who was your medical care proxy, and he had given instructions that you be kept alive, and then he vanished and nobody can get ahold of him. So I fought, John.” Dave looked sad, and tired, and— ah. Guilty. John raised his eyebrows, understanding. “I’m sorry. I fought to get control of your medical care, and have the ventilator shut down. I tried to kill you, John.”
That’s what I wanted, John thought, and tried to remember if Dave knew Morse code. He blinked a bit, but Dave never seemed to catch on, and was really, really busy feeling guilty. Eventually Dave left, still looking awful, and John gave up, and stared at the ceiling, and thought, That’s still what I want.
Over the next week or so, John tried to meditate and Ascend. It couldn’t hurt to try, right? But he never managed to get beyond faint annoyance at the ventilator fucking up his breathing rhythm. He wished bitterly he were still on Atlantis; he could probably have convinced some of the random Ancient tech lying around to kill him, just with his mind. Here, he was stuck, and more bitter and furious by the hour. Bitterly furious wasn’t a good starting point for Ascension but he kept trying anyway.
“John,” a voice said, an unfamiliar woman’s voice. Someone’s hand touched his cheek. He opened his eyes. It was dim— it was night, and the hospital was closed, and nobody should be here. He blinked in alarm, looking up at a dark-haired woman. But he knew her. “John, wakey-wakey. A lot of people have gone to a great deal of trouble to make this happen and I want you to be awake to appreciate it.”
John stared up at the woman, brain ticking over fuzzily; why did he know her? Suddenly it clicked: Vala Mal Doran. SG-1. She’d come out to Atlantis that one time and had been nothing but trouble and John had fallen half in love with her, and not in the way people usually did. He’d wanted to keep her. She was phenomenal.
She grinned, showing a lot of teeth but also genuine pleasure. Her hair was shorter, less glossy than he remembered, and she’d always been thin but looked skeletal just now, a little haggard. “You remember me,” she said. “Nobody forgets Vala. Even though sometimes it would really suit me if they would.”
She held up one hand, and there was a device on it. “This is probably going to hurt, John, and I’m sorry. If you could try not to make too much noise, that would be great.” John stared up at her in confusion, and then the device started to glow.
It was like fire in his veins, first hot, then cold, and John’s eyes bugged out, and then suddenly he was screaming around the chest tube, fighting and struggling for breath, and Jesus Christ, his arms were moving, he could feel his legs moving.
“John,” Vala said, “John, calm down, don’t fight.”
Someone else came into the room and suddenly the ventilator shut off, the heart monitor stopped beeping like crazy, and another face John recognized appeared at Vala’s shoulder and grabbed hold of the facemask.
“Blow,” Cam Mitchell said, face grim, “as hard as you can.”
John obeyed, and Cam yanked the ventilator tube out, and John coughed, and coughed, and coughed, and dragged air into his lungs under his own power, and Cam hauled him up and let him lean on his shoulder and after a little while John realized he was clinging to him and sobbing.
“I gotcha,” Cam said, “I gotcha. It’s okay, Sheppard.”
“If you’ve got him,” Vala said dryly, “then who’s watching the door?”
“Nobody,” Cam said. “I paid a bum to create a diversion. It struck me you might not know how to handle a ventilator and I really didn’t want Sheppard suffocating after all the trouble we’ve gone to.”
“I have to hit him again, I think,” Vala said. “This should hurt a bit less, John.”
“Water,” John rasped. It was the first word he’d said in longer than he knew how to measure.
“I got it,” Cam said, and uncapped a water bottle and held it for him. Vala kindly waited until he’d finished letting the water trickle down his throat, then murmured something and he felt the strange not-heat of the device working up and down his back, fiercely tingling in his neck, his skull.
“There’s a lot of muscle atrophy,” Vala murmured, “that I can’t do much about— I can help it, John, but you’ll have a lot of work to do.”
"Don’t care,” John rasped. “Jesus Christ. Thank you. Oh my God.”
Cam was so warm, and so solid, and he clung to him, shaking like a leaf, as Vala made another pass, holding the device steady at the base of his spine for a long time. It was an overwhelming sensation, flooding up through him, out and down his limbs, up into his skull, in his eye sockets, in the back of his teeth, under his tongue, behind his breastbone, between his pelvic bones, down his thighs and through his ankles and into his toes.
She came around and stood in front of him, and the look of concentration on her face was deep and profound. He’d never seen anything so beautiful. “We need you to recover quickly,” she said distractedly, slowly, staring blankly in the general direction of his chest. “We have a rescue mission and we need you for it.”
Finally the device went dark and Vala sagged into a chair with relief that she was trying to make look exaggerated, but it really wasn’t. Using the device evidently took a lot out of her.
“What the hell is that thing?” John asked finally. He was holding the water bottle in his hand, and had managed to drink from it on his own, and it was the most amazing thing he’d ever done. He really wanted to cry but he was aware enough now to be uncomfortable at quite how much snot he’d gotten on the shoulder of Cam’s uniform earlier. He still felt like he’d been on fire, then suddenly doused: everything was numb and cold and tingling. But he could feel it, and he could move, he could move everything, even his toes. He was weak as a newborn kitten but God. He could move. He could breathe. He could talk. It was overwhelming.
“It’s a Goa’uld healing device,” Cam said; speech seemed to be beyond Vala for the moment, and she waved a hand weakly. “You have to either be a host or have been a host to use it. And it takes a lot of practice. And Vala’s the best we’ve got at it. But we had to find her first, because apparently word had got out about how good she was with it, and she’s kind of a hot commodity at the moment.”
“Rescue mission,” John said, dredging up the conversation of a few minutes prior.
“Yes,” Vala said, dragging herself wearily out of the chair. “We’ve got to get out of here. Quickly, before someone catches us. We’re not supposed to be here.”
They’d brought him clothes, and he had no idea how to put them on anymore. Cam dressed him with an efficient kindness that was kind of surprising. He and Cam had never been buddies, really; they’d only had a handful of conversations, though they’d gotten along well enough while Atlantis had been stuck on Earth and John had been a glorified temp at the SGC for a few months. But he remembered, now, that Cam had been badly injured, had had to learn to walk again, had been at the mercy of orderlies and well-meaning physical therapists, and probably knew exactly how John felt right now.
John couldn’t walk, there was just no way. Cam took one shoulder, and Vala the other, and John moved his feet the best he could and tried to lean harder on Cam since Vala was palpably trembling.
They made it out of the hospital and into a car and Cam buckled John into the front passenger seat and took off. “Rescue mission,” John said again, finishing the bottle of water. He was wiggling his toes, amazed at the sensation; they were in boots, in socks, and he didn’t even know how to process that.
“So yeah,” Cam said, “you probably have to catch up. You checked out where, back on Atlantis?”
“I don’t know,” John said. He tried to screw the top back on the water bottle, and struggled with it a moment before succeeding. “Yeah. I was awake for like a day, after Rodney blew up half the southwest pier with that stupid ZPM charger thing, and then I conked out again, and I woke up here and don’t know where I am and nobody’s explained anything. What the fuck year is it?”
“Ehm,” Cam said, and fidgeted, “Well, next year.”
“Jesus,” John said. He ran a hand through his hair, and was surprised that there was hair there. Not a lot. It wasn’t too long. He’d been out a while, though; he knew they’d shaved it off. “I asked Rodney for, like, one thing. And that was to make sure they didn’t send me back to Earth.”
“They had to,” Cam said. “Well, he had to. He had you sent here.”
“Why?” John demanded. “Why would he do that? And where the fuck is he? Isn’t he back from his goddamned honeymoon yet?”
“Oh,” Vala said, leaning forward and sounding interested, “so, tell me this— I thought you and McKay were an item.” She twirled a finger in John’s peripheral vision. “And then he was supposed to be marrying this doctor woman! What the hell was that all about?”
“We were never an item,” John said icily. “And what do you mean, supposed to be?”
“Oh, right,” Vala said, too knowingly, “that policy thing. It’s absurd. That’s what’s wrong with you Tau’ri, you know. You keep letting old men with no sense who are afraid of all the wrong things run your government and set your society’s rules.”
“Hey,” John said, “at least we mostly don’t eat each other.”
Vala sniffed. “Mostly,” she said. “But what you do is far worse.”
“We kind of have a rescue mission to plan here,” Cam said, annoyed. “Can we get back on topic?”
“Who are we rescuing?” John asked. “And can I be really hurt, for a moment, that my own team abandoned me in another galaxy and SG-1 had to come riding to my rescue and only did so because they needed me? What the hell ever happened to not leaving a man behind? I had, like, one rule and that was it.”
“Oh wow,” Vala said, “they really didn’t tell you anything.”
“Who would have told him?” Cam demanded. “C’mon now. We’re the first people with security clearance he’s even seen.”
“Tell me what?” John asked. “Christ almighty, tell me what?”
“McKay traded his freedom for mine,” Vala said. “While the rest of the SGC all sat on their thumbs, he figured out who had abducted me, and came and found me, and okay, Cam helped.”
“I sure as hell did,” Cam said, annoyed. “Except I was supposed to be the hostage, and McKay is such an idiot—"
“You’re an idiot,” Vala said. “They didn’t want you. You didn’t have any useful genes. McKay could use some of their other devices, so they agreed to trade me for him, since he was a better prize anyway.”
“And we figured,” Cam said, “once we had Vala back, with her healing device, we could come add you back into the equation. And we’ve already got Teyla and Ronon on call, so once we have you in a condition where you can fly the getaway vehicle, we can put the plan into operation to go steal McKay back.”
“Hit me with that thing again,” John said to Vala. “I’m ready now.”
But he wasn’t, of course. They had to carry him up the stairs of the hotel, and the desk concierge gave them a filthy stare. Cam had John’s shoulders, and Vala his feet, and Cam said, “Oh, you know, he’s fine, dinner ran a little long.”
John gave the guy a saucy grin and a thumbs-up, and Vala rolled her eyes at him as they disappeared into the elevator. “Your Teyla,” Vala said, “is a fantastic shopper, by the way. She deals fairly but she’s a lot better at it than me, and that’s really saying something.”
“Oh come on,” Cam said. “You wouldn’t know fair dealings if they bit you in the ass.”
“Of course not,” Vala said. “What would fair dealings be doing biting my ass? I have had a lot of things bite my ass, and they were never fair dealings, I’ll tell you that.”
“Maybe you should try ‘em sometime,” Cam said. “I hear they’re nice. Not lying to people is pretty great too.”
“Be nice to the pretty lady,” John said, “with the magical healing device that is making me not a vegetable. Or once she heals me, I’ll kick your ass.”
Vala gave Cam a triumphant look. “See? See? John likes me best.”
“Right now I’d kiss both of ya,” John said, as they dropped him on one of the double beds.
“Save it for McKay,” Cam said.
John tried several times, and managed to sit up for about half a second before he fell over. “Ha,” he said bitterly, “like that’s ever gonna happen.”
“Come on,” Cam said, “I just risked life, limb, and career to bust you out of a hospital, besides all the trouble I went to in order to get Vala and the healing device for you. I’m not exactly going to report you for violating the UMC. C’mon, John.”
“Oh,” John said, “I’m not gonna deny that I slept with McKay a whole bunch of times. I'm gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide. But he kind of— isn’t he married yet?”
“Ooohhhh,” Vala said, sitting on the bed and hauling him up into a sitting position. She arranged him expertly so that he was comfortable, and sat next to him, her body a warm comfort. She was chewing noisily, eating what John realized was probably her fourth PowerBar. “You missed all the drama, didn’t you?”
“I was just in a coma for months,” John said, “I don’t know shit, woman.”
“That doctor woman apparently told Rodney that he wasn’t allowed to torture himself with guilt over you anymore,” Vala said with great relish. “There was some kerfuffle about unplugging your life-supporting machine thingies, she said that’s what you would have wanted and McKay said he was your medical proxy and it was up to him and he wouldn’t allow it, and there was a whole big explosion about it and he had you shipped back to Earth to get you out of her wicked clutches.” Vala finished the PowerBar and licked her fingers, then opened another one. “She took exception to that and dumped him publicly and messily, he told her to go fuck herself, and then he went AWOL and vanished. Or so he tells me.” She leaned in a little conspiratorially. “I didn’t get to talk to him for long, you understand. But I got the gist.”
“It was nothing like that, Vala,” Cam said, disgusted, but then paused a moment. "Well, okay, I guess that's actually pretty close."
“Of course it was,” Vala said. “Anyway, that was why I thought you and McKay were an item, since a great deal of the scuttlebutt seemed to center over the fact that the doctor woman basically accused McKay of choosing you over her, and when I told him that if John Sheppard was willing to sleep with you you’d be an idiot to throw him over for anybody else he sure as hell agreed with me promptly enough, thereby confirming all of my long-held beliefs.” She paused, looked John up and down, and said, “Hey, I saved your life, would you sleep with me?”
“Ask me again when I can sit up on my own,” John said, “and keep the healing comin’, and we’ll definitely talk.”
“God damn it, Vala,” Cam said, “this is supposed to be a goddamn epic romance, don’t you mess it up bein’ a homewrecker.”
Vala sighed dramatically. “Cammmm,” she said. “I’ll give him back when I’m done.”
“Yeah,” John said, “McKay will share, don’t worry. Hell, he’ll probably share with you too, Mitchell, if you want to get in on this.”
“Jesus,” Cam said.
John burst out laughing, finally. “My God, you’re even more gullible than McKay. This is gonna be the best mission.”
“Dave,” Adele said, coming into the office with the cordless handset from the house phone. “Sorry to bother you but— it’s John.”
Dave blinked at her as he stood automatically to take the phone. She had the strangest look on her face. “John who?” he asked.
“John,” she repeated.
Not understanding, Dave put the receiver to his ear.
“Hey,” a voice said, and it was as familiar as breathing, easy and normal and yeah, it was John. “How you doin’?”
“John?” Dave almost dropped the phone, and when he recovered it, he sat down quickly in the nearest chair. “John, oh my God. How are you talking?”
“Look,” John said, “I don’t have a ton of time to explain. But I just wanted to say, if you get a panicked call from the hospital because I’m missing, don’t freak out.”
“It’s classified stuff,” John said, “and I’m sorry, I know that’s bullshit, and it’s all kind of bullshit. But I wanted to talk to you about a couple of things. And the first thing is, you were absolutely right to try to get custody of my medical proxy and everything. I mean, it worked out better that you didn’t, but I could see you were beating yourself up for it, and I just wanted to say what I would’ve given anything to say in that moment: you were right, Dave, it’s what I would have wanted you to do. You’re a better brother than I deserve. You tried to do the right thing. Thank you.”
“What?” Dave said again. “I— John— slow down, I’m still stuck on the part where you’re talking.”
“No time for you to catch up,” John said. “The second thing is that I need to ask you to lend me money. I’ll pay you back once I can access my bank accounts again, provided the Air Force doesn’t take everything in the inevitable proceedings following the violations I’m about to commit.”
Dave was silent a moment. “I never imagined this conversation happening, but if I had, this is not how it would have gone.”
"I live to confound expectations," John said.
"Um, literally," Dave said.
John stared at the puddlejumper in a state of overwhelmedness that surpassed any other state of overwhelmedness he’d thusfar experienced, as the cloak shimmered away. He’d become kind of a conoisseur of being overwhelmed over the last week or two or so, what with basically coming back from the dead and learning basic bodily functions again, but this was a new level.
The ramp came down and Lorne stepped out, face blank in disbelief. “Colonel,” Lorne said softly, stepping closer. John swallowed, but still had nothing to say; he just looked at Lorne for a long moment, and finally Lorne’s face split in a broad grin and he threw his arms around John.
John was a little better at hugging now, out of sheer touch-starvation, and he wrapped his arms around Lorne. “Hey,” he said.
“God,” Lorne said, “it’s so good to see you, I can’t even say.”
“It’s really good to see you too,” John said shakily. He was over being embarrassed. He didn’t have time to be embarrassed.
“I don’t care if they court-martial me for this,” Lorne said. “You go, and you get McKay.”
“They won’t court-martial you,” Cam said. “We’ve got the maintenance logs all fixed with your Dr. Zelenka. Nobody’ll even notice this baby’s gone.”
“I don’t care if they do,” Lorne said. “Godspeed, Sheppard. God, it’s good to see you.”
John grinned unevenly, and stepped into the jumper, and it lit up for him and he sat down in the pilot’s seat and didn't cry. He absolutely wasn't crying. Those weren't tears. He wasn't crying.
“C’mon,” Cam said gruffly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “We gotta pick up Teyla and Ronon and then we’ve got a rescue mission to run.”
John wiped his face on his sleeve and grinned up in fierce, watery joy. “Fuck yes we do,” he said, and took the jumper up.
Rodney was prone to hallucinations, lately. Some of the Ancient tech they had him working on was broken, and some of it was definitely messing with his head though he couldn’t tell if that were on purpose or via malfunction. There was probably a strong element of exhaustion in it; these people didn’t exactly treat him well, he hadn’t been eating right, he really wasn’t sleeping, he was constantly being threatened with torture, mutilation, and hideous death, and he was kind of starting to run out of faith in his own brilliant plan.
He’d spent most of the morning trading resentful looks with what appeared to be a land octopus, a purple one, sitting across the lab bench. He knew it was stealing things when he wasn’t looking, but he couldn’t catch the thing at it, and it kept making rude farting noises, though as it didn’t have lips, Rodney was squeamishly trying not to wonder what it was using to make the noises.
“You know,” he told it, “I was somebody, once.” It looked unimpressed. “Really I was! I was the Head of Science and Research on the Atlantis Base in the Pegasus Galaxy. I bet you don’t have the security clearance to even know that.”
The octopus looked slyly around, and then fixed him with a saucy glare and made the farting noise again.
“Ugh,” Rodney said. “You make me almost miss Zelenka and the way he used to slurp his coffee and sigh.”
This time he caught the octopus snaking out a tentacle to snag his screwdriver, and he banged his fist on the table, just missing the ephemeral tentacle. “You little shit,” he said. “You know what I gave up to be here? I’m one of the greatest minds of my generation, I’ll have you know. I don’t need you mucking around with my tools.” He deflated. “Not that I deserve any better, mind you.”
“Rodney,” the octopus said slowly, darting its eyes sideways, “who are you talking to?”
“Shit,” Rodney said, staring at the octopus. He knew that voice. “Shit, you can talk?”
“Yeah, I can talk,” the octopus said, sounding pleased. “The plan worked, Rodney.”
Rodney blinked, then looked down at the device he was holding. “I had a plan?”
“To save me,” the octopus clarified. It raised an eyebrow. “Remember?” It had John's voice.
“More guilt is the last thing I need,” Rodney snapped, throwing the screwdriver at the octopus. It ducked behind the workbench with a startled curse.
“What the fuck, McKay,” it said, and when it raised its head again, it had John’s face, and John’s hair, though the hair was a little bedraggled and kind of floppy. “I’m not giving you guilt, I’m trying to fucking rescue you.”
Rodney stared at him. It had John’s body now, and stood up and leaned on the edge of the workbench like John. “Oh this is cruel,” Rodney said, and scrambled backward off his stool. “Cruel! You sadistic bastards!”
“Shh, shh,” the octopus, now John, said, alarmed, and came toward him, hands held out. “Quiet! We’re trying not to alert them to the whole daring rescue thing. Can you come quietly? Please?”
Rodney backed away until he couldn’t back away any further, squashing himself against the cluttered stack of shelves. “Don’t wear his face,” he pleaded. “Please. God. Anything but this. I can’t— please—“
“Rodney,” the John octopus said, coming closer, “shh, it’s me, it’s really me, I’m real.”
Rodney stared at him, wide-eyed and blank. “What?”
“I get that a lot,” John said. “Remember, the whole plan, with Vala and the healing device? It worked, I got a jumper parked outside, Ronon and Teyla and Cam are watching the exits, and we’re getting you out of here. C’mon.”
“You were an octopus a minute ago,” Rodney said plaintively, letting his hands down and getting off the shelf. He reached out tentatively, expecting his hand to go right through John, but there was a shoulder there, solid and warm, wearing the familiar rugged cotton of the BDU blouse.
“An octopus, huh?” John asked, and Rodney had forgotten the fond tilt of John’s mouth sometimes, the way he could look kind. “Come here, buddy,” and he pulled Rodney into an embrace, inexpertly but tightly.
Rodney inhaled, and the spot where John’s neck met his shoulder smelled so achingly familiar, even down to the smell of unscented industrial laundry soap and cordite. “Oh God,” Rodney said, and shuddered.
“I know,” John said unsteadily. “I know. C’mere. We’ll hold each other and cry later. I promise. But we gotta get outta here first.”
“Took you long enough,” Rodney said.
John paused, pulled back enough to put his hand under Rodney’s jaw and tilt his chin up, and kissed him, rough and quick.
“Yeah,” John said, “it did.”