Ways to Die in the Pegasus Galaxy
Rating: NC-17 (kinda light) -- for adults only
Summary: Since when was sleeping together -- really, just sleeping -- some kind of a kink?
Warnings: action, snuggling, obtuseness, gratuitous hair abuse
Thank yous: To my incomparable betas, Rustler and WPAdmirer
Notes: No spoilers. Not a death story. Not mine.
Rodney didn't look all that bad, considering. Kind of shaken up, sure, but that was only to be expected, seeing as how he'd spent the last month stuck in the salt mines of Korsevin. So maybe he was a little thin, but he had all his fingers and toes, and the only thing that was wrong with him was how wide his eyes went every time he took a furtive glance over at John from the infirmary bed he was perched on.
"You're not dead," Rodney said finally, which was ridiculous, because Rodney was the one who'd been missing. Rodney was the one who should have been dead, but miraculously wasn't.
John made a show of looking down at himself. "Apparently not."
"You're supposed to be dead," Rodney said accusingly. "I saw you die."
"Well, obviously not," John said. "Since I didn't." He wasn't exactly peeved, but damn it, he'd moved heaven and earthwell, Lantea, anywayto get Rodney back. It wasn't really something he could have done if he'd been dead.
Carson distracted them both by taking what he promised was the last scan, but Rodney wasn't letting this go. As soon as Carson moved off to check his readings, Rodney's eyes went wide again. "Oh, God. I've gotten into a parallel universe somehow, one where you didn't die after all." He scowled. "Only if this is a parallel universe, where's the other me? And why were you looking for me in the salt mines?"
"Rodney." John reached out and clapped a hand on Rodney's shoulder, just to prove that this was real. "I'm pretty sure this is the same universe you were in before. You've been missing for almost a month. We lost you on M1W-472. We got separated from Ronon and Teyla and I fell into a ditch, and by the time I got out, you were gone."
Rodney stared at the hand on his shoulder, then looked back up at John. "So, no particle beam? Because the universe I was in definitely had a particle beam. One that disintegrated you. Right in front of me, I might add, which really has not been a pleasant addition to my stock of nightmare footage."
John squeezed Rodney's shoulder once and let his hand drop. "It didn't get me. I ducked. Good reflexes."
John shifted on his feet. He wasn't embarrassed about it, even if it maybe wasn't his best move ever. "I fell in the damn ditch. It was eight feet deep and slippery as hell, and it took me awhile to climb out. But hey, at least it meant I was alive to go looking for you."
Rodney made a face, but his body looked marginally less tense. "Yes, yes, it was all for the best. Except for the part where I thought you'd been disintegrated."
John crossed his arms over his chest. "Right, well, I didn't know about that part. Obviously."
"Obviously." Rodney scowled again. "You couldn't have said something? Yelled out, 'Hey, Rodney, I'm okay. Don't worry about me while they drag you off to the salt mines'?"
John rolled his eyes. "Combat protocol, Rodney. I couldn't give away my position. We were under attack by particle beam, remember?"
"Right," Rodney said morosely, looking down. "You know, technically that turned out to be mining equipment the idiots had appropriated as a weapon. And naturally, the only person who could fix it once they'd broken it was me."
John frowned. "You fixed their particle beam for them? What were you thinking?"
Rodney's shoulders hunched. "They threatened to break my fingers. I need my fingers. And anyway, I fixed it so that the maximum range of the beam is only half a meter. Kind of slowed down the mining operation, but when I pointed out it would also reduce their risk of cave-ins, they accepted it as a feature rather than a bug. I did mention the part about them being idiots, didn't I? And I had to spend a month with them."
"Three weeks, six days," John corrected. "And four hours, give or take."
Rodney's chin jerked up. "You know it to the hour?"
John just lifted his eyebrows. "We don't leave our people behind. You realize I'm not just saying that, right?"
Rodney looked away again. "Right. Except you were disintegrated, so I wasn't exactly expecting you to come looking for me, okay?"
There was a throat-clearing noise right next to them, and John glanced up to see Carson watching them with a bemused expression on his face. "Are you two done? Because I'm ready to release Rodney. As long as he eats a balanced dinner and drinks plenty of water, he's free to go."
Rodney blinked. "I'm okay? I don't have scurvy? They kept trying to make me drink lime juice even after I explained about my allergy. They thought I was faking it or something. Can you believe that?"
John suppressed a smile, but Carson just shook his head. "Your ascorbic acid levels are a wee bit low, but nothing to worry about. If you'd like an extra supplement, I have some right here." He turned and dug out a small bottle, then handed it to Rodney. "But really, you got off remarkably lightly, all things considered. Now off with you, so I can save the beds for people who are actually sick."
"Right, right, good," Rodney said, and hopped down off the bed.
John watched him, feeling weirdly reluctant to let him out of sight. It was kind of funny, because even Elizabeth had been satisfied with Carson's preliminary report, and Teyla and Ronon had left soon afterward, too, after exchanging a strangely significant look with each other. But here he was, dragging his feet for no good reason.
"You headed for the mess?" he tried, going for casual.
Rodney shot him a quick, startled glance. "Well, I was thinking about getting a shower first, but"
Right, okay, no way was John going to follow him there. "Go shower," he cut in, before Rodney could say anything else. "I'll see you later."
"Of course," Rodney said, and John was only imagining that he sounded wistful. "Later."
But as it turned out, he didn't see Rodney later, despite the fact that he'd carefully calculated the time it would take Rodney to showertwenty minutesand added in a little bit of padding for puttering and getting dressed, minus a bit of hurry-up time, given that he was probably starving. And then, right when John was about to head for dinner, he got a call from the gym, and had to go bawl out a couple of marines for giving each other bloody noses and breaking three windows when they were supposedly doing calisthenics.
John hated bawling people outand not only because he wasn't very good at it and kept finding himself wondering whether they talked about that behind his back. Mostly he just hated being the man, so in the end all he said was, "Look, just don't do it again, okay?" and supervised while they cleaned everything up.
But it was enough that by the time he got to the mess, Rodney was nowhere in sight, and John ended up sitting with Elizabeth and carefully not talking about Korsevin while they ate overcooked broccoli and Salisbury steaks that tasted more like Tava beans than meat.
"It's good to have Rodney back," Elizabeth said finally, as she stood to go.
"Yeah," John said. "Yeah, it is."
"Listen, John," Elizabeth said, far too gently. "Can you go easy on him for a few days? I know he's seeing Dr. Heightmeyer, but it's going to take him some time to get back to his old self. He seems pretty shaken."
John bit the inside of his cheek. What the hell did she think he was? "Of course," he said a little too strongly.
Elizabeth arched an eyebrow at him. "You two do have a tendency to get . . . a bit competitive. Can you lay off that, at least for awhile?"
John grimaced. So, okay, being stuck on the Planet of the Ascenders wasn't much compared to the salt mines of Korsevin, but at least he had a clue, here. "Look, I get it. I'm not going to give him any grief, okay?"
Elizabeth gave him a conciliatory smile and lifted her tray. "Thank you. I think I'm going to go see if I can track him down, just to see how he's doing."
"Sure," John said, waving her off. "Make sure he's eating his Wheaties." He really didn't know what he'd done to deserve a lecture. Okay, sure, he and Rodney could go at each other a bit, but it was all good-natured ribbing, wasn't it? And damn it, he'd just used the entire resources of the city for a month to find Rodney. Surely that ought to count for something.
But he was feeling weird enough about it that he didn't go looking for Rodney, even if he normally might have. The thing was, he didn't really remember what normal was. It actually felt kind of wrong not to be frantic anymore, not to need to spend his evening combing through mission reports or grilling Teyla and Ronon about Pegasus societies advanced enough to have particle beams.
So he spent his evening restlessly trying to relax, strumming a few chords without bothering to tune his guitar, screwing up at sudoku (in ink), and finally finding an empty balcony and staring out over the city lights for what felt like hours.
It was over. Everything was back to normal, or whatever passed for normal in the Pegasus galaxy. And maybe there would be another crisis tomorrow, but for tonight, everything was right. Everything was good, and he was finally going to be able to sleep.
There was something in his bed. John jerked awake and flailed out, and it was, God, not something, someone. Someone who made a noise that sounded halfway between a grunt and a whimper, and Jesus, that was . . .
Rodney sat up next to him. In the dim light that was Atlantis's default nighttime setting he looked sleepy and rumpled, his hair standing on end. "Okay, look, just don't say anything, all right? Not one word."
John blinked. "Huh?"
Rodney plucked at the bedcovers in his lap. At least he was wearing a t-shirt, which was more than John could say for himself. "I just went through three weeks, six days, and four hours of thinking you were dead. So I think I deserve the chance to sleep, now."
"This is my room," John said plaintively.
"Did you not hear the part about not talking? Because I distinctly remember mentioning it."
"Right," John said, and let his head fall back on his pillow. Rodney was in his room. In his bed. Which was, okay, a lot better than having him MIA, but still . . . Christ, when he'd promised Elizabeth he'd go easy on Rodney, this really wasn't what he'd had in mind.
After a long moment Rodney let out a sigh and lay back down, so close that John could feel the air warm between them. John waited, muscles tense. Rodney had to be on the very edge of the bed, because it wasn't anywhere near wide enough for two unless those two were really pretty friendly. Any minute now he would roll closer, and do what he'd come here to do. Because yes, okay, John knew he was sometimes a little dense, but Rodney was in his bed. Only an idiot didn't realize what that meant.
He should say something. Explain that, yeah, he'd missed Rodney, but not like that. Let Rodney down gently, and try to act normal. It was probably some kind of weird transference, anyway. Rodney was still working through the shock of finding John alive, and he'd misinterpreted his relief as something else. He couldn't actually want to . . . want to . . .
God. But he was here. And he'd told John not to talk, which kind of implied he didn't want to be talked out of it. So he knew what he was doing, he was in John's bed with intent, and it was really up to John to set him straight.
"Hey," John said softly. "Look, I know you had a rough monthwell, three weeks, six days, and four hoursbut don't you think . . ."
Rodney's breath caught, and for a panicked moment John thought he was going to do something horrifying like sob. And then the air whistled back out of his lungs in what was unmistakably a snore.
Rodney was asleep. In John's bed. Athe checked his watchten past two in the morning. And John was supposed to be going easy on him, so yelling or shaking him awake was probably right out.
John heaved a long-suffering sigh, rolled onto his side so that his back was to Rodney, and shoved his pillow into a comfortable lump. At least he was a pretty light sleeper. If Rodney molested him, he was sure he'd wake up. Well, pretty sure. And anyway, this was Rodney, and he'd just gotten back from the salt mines, and his snoring was . . . not all that annoying, actually.
Actually, it was kind of soothing, in a weird sort of way. Soft and steady and almost hypnoticin and out, in and outand maybe Rodney wasn't talking, but every whistling breath he took was a quiet, insistent voice chanting, I'm alive, I'm alive, I'm alive.
John had had worse nights, some of them pretty recently. It wasn't so hard to fall asleep.
John woke up alone. He sat up, disoriented, but nothing was wrong. There was no one else in the room. Except he'd kind of thought there had been someone here. Someone like . . . oh. Yeah.
Rodney had been here last night. Right here next to him in the bed. He could picture it clearly; he remembered details, like the soft wisps of Rodney's hair pointing every which way when he sat up, like the warmth seeping across the space between them, even though Rodney had never touched him.
Except . . . what was up with that? Why the hell hadn't Rodney touched him? That was just . . . weird. Well, right, it was weird that Rodney had been here in the first place, and weirder still to think that Rodney might be gay, because what about the thing with Sam Carter and the thing with Katie Brown and the constant talk about breasts and legs and blond hair? But still, if he'd been here, he should have done something. Anything else was just . . . bizarre.
John reached out a tentative hand and felt the mattress next to him, but it was cool to the touch. And the blankets weren't any more rumpled than usual. There was no tell-tale scent, no stray sock on the floor. So maybe he'd dreamed it. Maybe it was some kind of weird wish-fulfillmenthe'd wanted to be reminded that Rodney was okay, so he'd dreamed that Rodney was here.
But Rodney really was okay. He hadn't dreamed that part, hadn't dreamed storming the salt mines and cowing the miners and demanding Rodney until they brought him to the surface, thin and belligerent and heartbreakingly shocked to see him.
No, that part had been real. It had to have been.
John got up, showered, dressed, and headed for the mess. It was pretty early, but Rodney was there, sitting with Teyla and Carson in front of a tray of eggs and fruit. And even though John really had been sure, it was still a relief to see him, an easing of a tension he hadn't even realized he still carried.
Rodney looked better this morning, less pale, less tense. Well, less tense until his chin jerked up and he caught sight of John.
"Hey," John said, and damn it, he wished he knew if that meant. Was Rodney feeling guilty about having crawled into bed with him? Or just still weirded out by the fact that John hadn't been disintegrated, after all? "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine," Rodney said, and he didn't sound bad. Better than yesterday, anyway. "Well, as fine as can be expected, under the circumstances. And frankly, I wish people would stop asking me that question, because all it does is remind me that, hello, I just spent my last month in the salt mines, which is not exactly what I want to be thinking about right now."
That was just Rodney being Rodney, and John . . . didn't mind it at all. "Nice to have you back, McKay," he said, and slipped into the seat next to Teyla.
Rodney grunted and dug into his eggs and Teyla leaned forward and patted his arm with a smile. "It is indeed good to have you home."
"Yes, yes, just in time for the next crisis, I suppose," Rodney grumbled.
Carson looked over. "Now, Rodney, you're supposed to take it easy for the next few days."
"It's not like I go looking for crises," Rodney said. "It's just that they come looking for me."
"I'm putting everyone under strict orders not to bother you for anything less than the imminent destruction of the city," Carson said.
Rodney looked up, and John nodded firmly. "Zelenka's been handling the day-to-day crises for a month. A couple more days won't make a difference."
"Oh," Rodney said around his last bite of eggs. "That's, um, that's great." He looked up and actually smiled. "Hey, maybe I'll head to the lab and see if anyone has made any progress while I was gone. Not that I'm really expecting much, since I seem to be the only person who actually does any meaningful research around here. But it's entirely possible that someone may have inadvertently stumbled across something interesting."
John leaned back in his chair, purposefully not mentioning that he'd commandeered most of the scientists' time to analyze energy signatures in the search for the damn particle beam. Rodney would figure it out soon enough, and frankly, John had no desire to be there when he did. "Sounds like a regular day at the park," he said. "Have fun."
Rodney was looking . . . almost carefree, and that was the best thing John had seen since, well, yesterday. "You know what? I think I will."
John smiled back at him and took a sip of his coffee. And okay, so he still hadn't figured out if it had been a dream or not, but right now, it really didn't matter. Rodney was acting like Rodney, and that was the important thing. He was back, and he was himself, and everything was going to be okay.
And if he showed up in John's bed again . . . well, they could deal with it then. There was no point even thinking about it if he didn't.
Of course, things that seemed logical by the light of day were perfectly capable of driving you nuts in the middle of the night. John rolled over and plumped his pillow one more time, purposefully not looking at his watch. Rodney would come or he wouldn't come. Staying awake wasn't going to make any difference. And yes, okay, the conversation would be excruciating, but then it would be over and things would go back to normal and it would be fine.
But hours into it, he was starting to wish Rodney would get here already, so he could just get it over with and go to sleep. Maybe if he radioed Rodney and explained . . . or better yet, went over to Rodney's room and crawled into Rodney's bed and . . .
Okay. Wow, he was beyond exhausted, here, because that made absolutely no sense at all. He didn't want to see Rodney. He didn't want to be sharing a bedany bedwith Rodney, or talking about it, or anything.
He just wanted to go to sleep.
And to think, he'd thought things would be easier once they'd found Rodney.
In the end, he pretty much decided he'd been dreaming after all, because in five nights, Rodney hadn't showed, and there was nothing in his daytime behavior to indicate anything out of the ordinary. Even when they were pinned behind a rock together, with Wraith stunner bolts going off all around them. A very small rock.
"Hey," Rodney whispered heatedly, "watch your elbows! That's my solar plexus."
"I've just got to get the right angle," John ground out, raising his P90 another degree. "If I can get off one good round . . ."
"There are six Wraith down there," Rodney hissed. "It's going to take a little bit more than one lucky shot."
"Oh, yeah?" John said, and straightened from behind their cover in one easy push. Yup, that was the angle he needed. He concentrated his fire on a tree root wedged right underneath one of the biggest boulders on the slope, and was rewarded with a satisfying spray of splinters. And then two things happened: the boulder started to roll, and one of the stunner beams hit him full on.
The whole hillside seemed to give way as he fell, or maybe that was just the shower of sparks inside his eyelids.
"wake up, because I swear to God, if you're dead again I am never going to forgive you."
John cracked his eyes open, then jammed them shut again. It was way too bright and his head hurt.
"Yeah," John croaked.
"Oh, thank God."
There was something warm on his neck and it took far too long for John to realize it was Rodney's hand. Checking for his pulse, probably, only now that he knew John was okay, it was kind of pointless, wasn't it?
"Don't try to move," Rodney said. "Ronon and Teyla are coming with a backboard. We'll get you out of here in a few minutes."
John's fingers and calves were tingling with the familiar post-stunner pins and needles. He wiggled them experimentally, then pushed himself up onto his elbows. The brightness wasn't so bad anymore and the headache was receding into something he could live with. He could feel a twinge here and there in the rest of his body, and he undoubtedly had a few bruises, but all in all, he seemed pretty much unscathed.
"Wait, wait, I said, don't move. Didn't you hear that part? You don't know how many vertebrae you may have broken. You want to end up paralyzed?"
"McKay," John said mildly, sitting all the way up. "I'm fine."
Rodney's face was white. "You were caught in an avalanche."
John looked around. The hillside certainly looked different, what with the enormous expanse of scree strewn across it below them. There was no sign of any Wraith, but the rock that he and Rodney had been hiding behind was still right where it had been, about twenty feet above him. "I was hit by a Wraith stunner," he said. "I think the avalanche pretty much missed me."
"Oh, God." Rodney sat back, staring at him. "I can't believe it. You cheated death again." His hand came up, an accusing finger pointing right at John's middle. "I swear, if you do that even one more time"
But John just grinned at him. "Saved our asses, didn't I?"
He was on his feet and ready to go by the time Ronon and Teyla arrived.
His shoulder was warm. John rolled his head on his pillow, turning toward the warmth. A nice, comfortable warmth. Damn, he needed to sleep like this more often. He hated when his shoulders got cold. But he was warm. Warm everywhere, not just where his shoulder was touching . . .
John froze. Rodney was in his bed again. He didn't even have to look to know for sure. It felt like Rodney, a solid presence against his shoulder, a soft in-and-out whooshing of breath.
Okay. Right. Now was the time to shake Rodney awake and deliver the speech he'd rehearsed six days ago, the one about how they needed to maintain a professional working relationship; how he liked Rodney, just not that way; how he was flattered, really he was, and it wasn't Rodney, it was him.
He could do this. He had to do this. It was the right thing to do, and damn it, if he didn't do it, Rodney might start making assumptions. Or crawl into his bed again. Or . . .
He hated things like this. But why the hell Rodney had lulled him into a sense of complacency by staying away for five days, then showed up only when John was exhausted and aching from their first normal mission in . . . oh.
Oh, God. That was it. That had to be it. Rodney was here because John had almost diedwell, Rodney thought he'd almost diedand that was a helluva weird sort of aphrodesiac, but he'd done it twice now. And this time he'd touchedright, just shoulders, and Rodney was wearing a t-shirt again, so it wasn't even skin to skin, but still, there was touching going on. Warm, comfortable touching. Which was still going on because John hadn't moved, and neither had Rodney.
John forced himself to pull away, forced himself to roll over with his back to Rodney. He could still feel Rodney's warmth seeping treacherously across the blanket-covered space between them. He was right on the edge of the mattress, his knees hanging over empty air. He had to say something. He had to. But Rodney wasn't actively molesting him, and what were the chances he'd have another brush with death anytime soon? Rodney would be gone in the morning and they'd both pretend it had never happened. No harm, no foul. He could live with that.
John shifted, easing back onto the mattress just enough that his knees weren't in danger of any drafts. He wasn't touching Rodney. It was fine. It was going to be fine. Nothing was going to happen.
He fell asleep to the steady sound of Rodney's breathing.
It was funny how the things that didn't bother you in the middle of the night could drive you nuts during the day. For three days, Rodney acted perfectly normal. He ate the usual meals with John, ranted the usual rants, quipped the usual quips. He didn't show up in John's bed even once, despite the fact that John tossed and turned every night, waiting for him.
So, right, Rodney was going the innocent-until-proven-guilty route, like he'd thought John hadn't even noticed, or that John was dumb enough to assume he'd dreamed it twice. And John was too busy kicking himself for having chickened out of ending this for good to actually call him on it.
But the worst part of it was that John was starting to question his logic. Maybe it wasn't really the almost-died thing. Maybe Rodney had been there for some other reason, and maybe he was going to show up again when John least expected him.
After all, he had only two data points, and as Rodney himself would say, two data points may indicate a trend, but it takes at least three to confirm it.
Not that he was really thinking about that when the little bot they'd always assumed was the Ancient version of a Roomba started shooting at people.
"Coleman and Dravinian are trapped in a room in sector G on the South Pier," Elizabeth related over the radio, rapid-fire. "They've got a door between themselves and their attacker, but it doesn't sound like it's going to hold for much longer."
John sprinted for the nearest transporter. "McKay! I need you to seal off that section."
"Working on it," Rodney's voice came back. "Give me fifteen seconds."
"Wait 'til I'm in," John clarified, and he was imagining that Rodney's voice sounded sour when he said, "Right, waiting."
In a moment John was in the transporter, in another he was stepping out of it. "Now, Rodney."
"It's sealed. Just . . . don't forget to duck, okay?"
"You got it," John said. There was a whirring sound from the corridor to the left, and John turned toward it. "Sheppard out."
The bot looked just like it always had, small and round and innocuous. It came trundling down the corridor and John backed into a side hallway. He didn't think the thing could actually see, but . . . shit.
A bolt of energy crackled past his ear, and he took off down the hall, dodging left and right as more energy bolts scorched by him. He needed . . . right, there was a corridor branching to the left. John dodged around the corner, fired a couple of rounds blindly back at the bot, and then sprinted ahead only to find himself smack up against one of Rodney's sealed doors. Crap, crap, wait, stairs. He took them two at a time and slid to a halt at the top, listening for the bot.
It was down below, whirring in the corridor he'd just left. So maybe it couldn't climb stairs. Maybe he was safe. And then he heard an ominous clanking noise, and risked a quick glance down the stairway. He fired and ducked left, quickly enough that the energy bolt didn't even singe him. But he'd seen enough. The thing had grown three long, spidery legs and was levering itself up, stair by stair.
Right. So it wasn't quite as fast as it was nasty, but it was working on it. John yanked out his life signs detector and breathed a quiet sigh of relief when he saw two dots that had to be the besieged scientists, one level down.
"Coleman, Dravinian, you still there?"
"Colonel Sheppard," Coleman's voice came over the radio. "Thank God. We managed to get a door between us and the robot, but Dr. Dravinian is hurt pretty badly."
"Okay, I am currently luring it up one level so someone can get you out of there. Dr. Beckett, I'm going to need a medical team in Sector G, fourth level, stat."
"We're already on our way," Carson reported.
"Colonel," Coleman said. "I think it can detect life signs. It knew where we were, even through walls."
"Thanks for the tip," John said, and then, crap, he could hear that whirring again. "McKay! You can let Carson in now."
"Unsealing one door," Rodney said, but John didn't have the luxury of following any more chatter, because he was sprinting for his life again. Stairs. He needed stairs. Only he wasn't all that familiar with this section of the city and he was too busy ducking through branching corridors towait, there. Another flight up.
John pounded up the steps and paused at the top, breathing hard. He had to stop running and start figuring out a way to beat this thing, but it was damn hard to do when it was firing at him.
Right. He took another couple of deep breaths. A booby trap would probably do the trick, and he had some C4 in his vest.
He found a likely doorway and set a wire across it tight and low, working as fast as he could to rig the detonator and set the charge. Then he straightened and glanced around. The room he'd entered looked like some kind of medical lab. Plenty of tables and consoles for cover, and what looked like a row of stasis pods in the back.
He heard the bot's whirring sound and ducked behind one of the back consoles. The whirring stopped, and then there was an even more ominous clicking sound.
John dared a glance around the console, only to see the bot very carefully raising itself up on its legs to step over the wire.
Shit. He was in trouble. He was totally screwed here, unless . . .
The closest stasis pod opened immediately to his palm. He'd been able to control one of these things from the inside on the Aurora. Surely he'd be able to do the same here. And if the bot was looking for life signs, well, the best way to confuse it was to disappear.
John stepped inside the pod and closed the door.
He was flying, low and fast, hugging the rugged landscape, following its contours perfectly. He was swooping and diving and laughing with the joy of it. He was . . .
It was the strangest feeling. Something wrong, only nothing was wrong; he didn't even know what kind of craft he was flying, but it was faster than a chopper, smaller than a jumper. The canyon opened up in front of him and he dropped down into it, banked left, then right, then pulled out and over the crest. Nothing was wrong. Everything was perfect. He'd never flown this fast, this well. He'd never . . .
He had to get back. He wanted to keep flying, but he couldn't. Someone was waiting for him. Counting on him. Only he didn't know why or where, and he was flying over a river now, so low he was below the treetops on either side of him, and there was nothing but speed and beauty and rippling water beneath him and, oh yeah, Rodney.
Crap. Rodney. Rodney had told him to remember to duck, only he didn't know why. There was nothing to duck here. He was just flying. There was nothing . . .
Disengage. That was it, that was the word, and he was, shit, groggy as hell, but there was a door in front of him, a door that was opening, and, oh God, yeah, the bot, the damn Ancient Roomba, which was . . . sitting there, perfectly quiet, in the middle of the room, like it was really nothing more than an innocent little vacuum cleaner.
John emptied his magazine into the motionless disc, then kicked it for good measure. It fell into a satisfying number of twisted pieces. And then John heard the sound of boots in the corridor, approaching fast.
"Halt!" he yelled. "Don't come in here!"
Lorne skidded to a stop in front of the doorway, followed by a bunch of marines and . . . Rodney? What the hell was Rodney doing here?
"Trip wire," John explained, and dropped to his knees to defuse it.
"Nice to see you alive, sir," Lorne said.
John glanced up sharply. Lorne was smiling around the eyes, but he seemed sincere, and Rodney was staring at him kind of strangely. Oh, right, the stasis pod. "How long was I off the monitor?"
"About an hour," Lorne said, and then Rodney, being Rodney, broke in with, "One hour, seven minutes, and fifteen seconds. What the hell did you . . . oh no. No, no, no. Please tell me you did not just put yourself in a stasis pod without initializing it properly. What makes you think we would've been able to get you out?"
John grinned and finished dismantling the booby trap. "Got out by myself," he said. No way was he going to admit that it hadn't been a thing like the Aurora and he'd barely managed to break out of the dream-state it had put him in. "Anyway, it worked. As soon as the thing couldn't detect any more life signs, it shut itself down."
Rodney came in and took a look at the wreckage. "Well, so much for figuring out what it was actually supposed to be."
John lifted an eyebrow at him. "Would you be happier if it had been the one to win the cat-and-mouse game?"
Rodney . . . flinched. There was no other word for it. And he looked away, like he was angry, which was ridiculous. "Of course not," he said. "What do you think I am?"
That wasn't really a question John could answer, so John just made a face at him and turned back to Lorne. "How are Coleman and Dravinian doing?"
"Coleman's fine. Dravinian took a couple of hits, but he'll pull through. We'd better get you to the infirmary yourself, sir. Dr. Beckett's orders."
"I'm fine," John said, climbing back to his feet.
Lorne's eyebrows went up skeptically. "You smell a little . . . scorched."
John looked down at himself, but he didn't see any sign of a burn on his skin or his clothing.
"I think it's your hair. Sir."
John lifted a hand to his head. It felt . . . maybe a little lopsided. He was pretty sure there was some missing on the left in back, and when he brought his hand back down he could smell it.
"Don't worry," Rodney said, apparently recovered enough from his snit to be back to his usual, obnoxious self. "It's not like anyone's going to be able to tell the difference, anyway."
That didn't even merit a response. John rolled his eyes and headed out for the infirmary.
There was an arm slung across him. A heavy arm, right across his stomach. John opened his eyes and stared at the dark ceiling. It was just my hair, he wanted to say. I didn't even come close to dying. Except he'd gone into the damn stasis chamber, and apparently Rodney had thought . . .
Crap. John turned his head to see Rodney lying next to him, face down against the corner of John's pillow, dead to the world. His arm felt warm and a little sweaty, and damn it, this was the weirdest attempt at seduction ever. All Rodney ever did was sleep, and, well, sure, he was kind of escalating the touching thing, but he was doing it when John was asleep, and how the hell had he managed to get in here and get in bed without making any noise? John was a light sleeper. He really was. Except, apparently, when Rodney was involved.
John sighed and reached for Rodney's hand. Rodney's arm was a dead weight, but he managed to shift it off of him and down onto the bed between them. Rodney was clearly not a light sleeper, because he never even stirred.
"Rodney," John said softly. Still, nothing. Great. "You know this is nuts, right? I can't . . . I mean, I don't know what the hell you think you're doing here, but I don't . . . I'm not . . . oh, fuck it."
John closed his eyes. Rodney's breathing was soft and steady, definitely still asleep. But if he couldn't say it when Rodney was sleeping, how the hell did he expect to be able to say it when Rodney was awake?
John sighed and plumped his half of the pillow. It wasn't like he couldn't sleep with Rodney here. That was . . . really surprisingly easy. He just had to close his eyes and let go.
It was a good thing that Rodney was always gone in the morning. John woke feeling relaxed and warm and fine, and if Rodney had been there, it would have been stupid and awkward. Anyway, it wasn't like it was going to happen again. They'd had some bad luck recently. What were the chances of another berserker Roomba?
So he wasn't thinking about Rodney when the native kid came crying up to them on M4V-193. He wasn't thinking about much, except keeping up good relations with potential trading partners, and besides, it was a kitten up a tree. How hard could it be?
"Sure, kid," John said, handing his P90 to Teyla. "I'll get your kitty down for you."
He hadn't climbed a lot of trees in his life, but he'd climbed his share of rocks, and the bark was lumpy enough to give decent hand and toe holds. It didn't take long to get up into the branches, and then the going was surprisingly easy. The branches gave him plenty of places to put his hands and feet, and he could see the kitten right above him, soft and white, with huge, scared eyes and tiny little claws.
Of course the damn thing moved away when he got close to it. John was really more of a dog person, although it had been a long time since he'd had any kind of pet, but he knew enough to call to it gently. "Here kitty. Come on. I'm not gonna hurt you."
The kitten crawled further out onto the branch and hissed at him. Ungrateful monster.
"Nice kitty," John said, feeling faintly ridiculous. He glanced down, but he could barely see his team through the maze of branches. There was a flash of tawny brown that had to be Ronon's coat, and maybe that black was Rodney or Teyla's vest. They were all over near the trunk of the tree. Straight down, what he could see of the ground sloped sharply downward into some kind of wooded ravine.
"Good kitty," John said again, and straddled the branch it was on. He inched forward, one hand outstretched. And the kitten backed up again.
John eased forward another foot, then a few more. At some point, the kitten was going to run out of branch, and then victory would be his. But the kitten backed up again and again, hissing and raising its fur at him, and okay, the branch was getting a little thin to hold both of them.
John braced himself with his left arm and made a quick diving grab. He got his hand around the warm furry body and pulled it toward him. Damn, he was fast. He was good. He'd done it.
And then the branch broke.
There was no warning, just a loud crack, and then he was falling, the kitten still clutched in his hands. A branch slapped him hard across the ass, then another hit his back and then his shoulder. He was bouncing downward, and yeah, okay, the branches were breaking his fall, but it wasn't exactly what he'd call a soft landing.
"Sheppard!" Rodney shouted, his voice full of horror. And that was when John remembered the ravine.
He was still holding the damn kitten. It had its claws sunk deep into his vest, its little eyes wide, and its fur still on end. John pushed himself up out of the moldy leaves with a groan. His tailbone ached, and he was going to be one giant bruise, but nothing felt broken.
He kept one hand on the kitten and used the other to prop himself up in a sitting position. The side of the ravine rose in front of him, steep, but not impassible. He could climb it. He'd be okay. And then he heard the skittering sound of pebbles and the rush of bodies scrambling down the slope.
"Sheppard!" That was Rodney again, but Ronon was the first one to reach him.
"You okay?" Ronon asked, offering him a hand. John took it, and nearly had his arm wrenched out of the socket as Ronon pulled him to his feet.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I think I am."
"You gave us quite a fright," Teyla said, clambering down the slope to stand next to Ronon.
Rodney was hot on her heels. "I can't believe it. How do you do that? That's not even human. Nobody should be able to just"
"Here," John said, holding out the kitten, which was squirming and trying to bite him. "Do something with this."
Rodney took the vicious little thing, but instead of immediately cooing over it, he kept looking at John. "You're really . . . " and his voice cracked a little on the end of the word.
Oh, crap. He'd just . . . and Rodney had thought . . . and fuck, Rodney was going to end up in his bed again tonight. "I'm fine," John said firmly. "Come on, let's go make nice with the Lashiki."
Teyla tilted her head at him. "I think it would be better if we went back and had Dr. Beckett take a look at you. Just to be certain you are uninjured."
"That's really not necessary," John said, and just to prove it, he started up the slope.
It was a pain in the ass (literally) to have to pretend not to be hurting, but if it convinced Rodney, it would be worth it.
A thump woke him, followed by a muffled curse. John froze against his pillow. This was his chance. He could catch Rodney red-handed. All he had to do was sit up and say something.
Right. John stayed where he was, willing his breathing to stay low and steady. For a long moment, the room was silent, and John began to wonder if he'd been dreaming. And then he heard a soft rustle, and the mattress dipped next to him.
Crap. He had to say something. He had to. But the Tylenol Carson had given him wasn't doing a damn bit of good, and he just didn't want to have to deal with this right now.
There were more rustling noisesRodney was taking off his shoes, and then, Christ, his pants. Leaving his boxers on, John prayed, because the only thing he was wearing himself was his boxersyeah, okay, he'd thought about wearing a t-shirt to bed, but Rodney would notice, and Rodney would put two and two together, and then he'd know that John knew.
Really, it was easier this way.
The mattress shifted again as Rodney stretched out on the edge of the bed. Lying on his side, John was pretty sure, because he was kind of sprawled, himself, and he wasn't about to roll over and make more room.
He hurt, and Rodney . . . well, okay, Rodney was here. And maybe it was just some weird sort of kink, but at least he mattered to Rodney. He wasn't just some goon with a gun, he was . . . right, he had no idea what he was to Rodney. Obviously something, but it was starting to drive him nuts that Rodney wasn't actually doing anything.
Since when was sleeping togetherreally, just sleepinga kink? Was Rodney going back to his own room in the wee hours and jerking off? He sure as hell wasn't jerking off here, because John would have heard it. Or smelled it. Or something, anyway.
Rodney's breathing had started to slow, and John was suddenly tempted to shake him back awake and demand answers. Only if he did that, Rodney would probably leave. And right now . . . damn it, he'd fallen out of a tree, and he ached everywhere, and the only comforting thing anywhere was the warmth of Rodney's body stretched out next to him.
John rolled up onto his side, found a position that didn't hurt quite as much, and slid a tentative hand across the mattress until the tips of his fingers touched the heat of Rodney's shoulder.
There wasn't anything weird about it. He was just reminding himself that Rodney was here. And somehow the aches didn't bother him quite as much, like this.
"Absolutely not," Rodney told the florid-faced Denostrian. "We are not going down there, and we are not interested in a trade agreement that is contingent on hunting down things that shriek in the dark."
Rodney was taking a deep breath, like he hadn't even hit full voice yet. John put a quick hand on his arm. "Rodney."
Rodney glared at him, but let himself be pulled into a discreet corner. "Please don't tell me you're actually considering this," Rodney stage whispered. "You have no idea what kind of monster they have down there."
"They have beef, Rodney. Real, honest-to-God beef. We could have hamburgers. Steak."
Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "Their cows have four horns."
"It tastes right," John said. "C'mon, fighting monsters is something we're good at. And anyway, it doesn't sound that bad. So it shrieks a little. What's the big deal?"
"'What's the big deal?' Are you nuts? They've lost four people to that thing, and that's only the ones they're telling us about. There's no telling what they're hiding from us."
"Oh, come on," John said. "It'll be easy. We go down there, we do our thing, we eat prime rib tonight."
"Okay, okay, fine," Rodney said. "But if you get if any of us get killed, I will state very clearly in the mission report that this was your idea."
John clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Anybody ever tell you, you worry too much?" Because Rodney really did. No one was going to get killed. No one was going to even come close. There was going to be absolutely no need for Rodney to crawl into his bed tonight, and, seriously, he wasn't even thinking about that right now.
"Well, actually, now that you mention it, my grade six science teacher used to go on and on about . . ."
But John had stopped listening, because he was already hailing the Denostrians to tell them that their monster was soon to be history.
The catacombs were dark, damp, and smelly, and contained some kind of mineral that made their lifesigns detectors next to useless, which of course made Rodney grumble. There was no sign of a monster. Rats, sure, but none of them were bigger than a housecat, and anyway, no rat could stand a chance against Ronon's blaster.
They kept their lights trained in all directions, on the lookout for anything big enough to be worried about. Which was probably why no one was looking down at the floor.
"Shit!" John shouted as he fell. Trap doorit had to have been a trap door. He landed in a pile of dirt and rubbish, which didn't do much to break his fall because it was almost as hard as the stone floor beneath it.
"Colonel Sheppard!" That was Teyla, over the radio.
John sat up, ran his usual internal scan for broken bones or sprained anything, and tapped his radio on. "I'm right below you," he said. "Watch out for the trap door."
There was a thumping noise from above, but he didn't see any light. John climbed to his feet and shined his own light upward. About ten feet over his head he could make out a square crack in the rough stone ceiling.
"Son of a . . ." Rodney muttered over the radio. "It's completely stuck from this end. I don't see how you possibly managed to fall through it."
"Just lucky, I guess," John said. "Try levering it open."
"What do you think I'm doing up here, playing Tiddly Winks?"
John grinned into the darkness. It wasn't like Rodney could see him. "Okay, how about some C4?"
"Are you out of the blast radius?"
"I will be."
"Good, start getting there."
John shined his light around, found a corridor, and walked a good fifty feet down it, then another twenty for good measure. He waited, and waited some more, and finally Ronon said, "Sheppard, you clear?"
"I'm clear. Whenever you're ready."
Moments later a blast shook the catacombs, sending dust and grit showering down into John's hair. He made his way slowly back down the corridor, only to hear Rodney say, "Damn it!" over the comm.
"You've got to use enough explosive," John said mildly. The square crack in the ceiling looked exactly the same as it had before.
"Okay, okay," Rodney said, obviously peeved. "I'm going to try this again. Maybe if I"
A hair-raising shriek interrupted him, coming from the corridor John had been in moments ago. He trained his light into the darkness and backed slowly in the opposite direction. "Not really sure that's a good idea," he said quietly into his radio.
The shriek sounded again, closer and impossibly loud.
"Oh, God," Rodney said.
"Cut the chatter, will you?" John said, and then the thing sprang.
He didn't see much, just wings and fur and teeth. It wasn't as big as he'd expected, but it was fast, and he didn't get off more than a couple of rounds before it struck, scoring his arm and then diving away. John fired blindly after it, then stumbled back against the tunnel wall. His arm was on fire, and he could feel the blood running down over his watchband.
Pressure bandage, right. He yanked one out of his vest and crouched against the wall, balancing the P90 on his knee with his left hand while he wrapped the bandage with his right. He managed to get it on and get his weapon back in his right hand, and then the thing was on him again, shrieking and swooping.
He got off a few more rounds this time, might've even winged it, but it struck anyway, raking its claws across his head. John twisted and ducked and fired, and it flew off again with another horrible shriek.
His scalp stung, but he had a better sense of the creature now. It was going to come in for another attack . . . now. There. He brought the muzzle of the P90 up and let loose, round after round and finally, finally the thing tumbled out of the air and fell in a crumpled heap at his feet.
John stepped back and kicked it over with his foot. It looked a little like a batif bats came the size of a small retriever. But it was definitely, most definitely dead.
There was a frenzied thumping from above. "Rodney, Ronon, Teyla?" John reached to turn on his radio, but it wasn't there. His hand came away sticky, and he felt his scalp, but the scratches seemed relatively minor. Maybe the damn thing had been thrown off by his hair.
What he needed right now was his earpiece. John swept his light across the floor in ever-increasing circles, but it wasn't there, wasn't anywhere, wait, there it was. He bent to pick it up, but as soon as he got his fingers on it, he knew it was a lost cause. It felt . . . chewed. Great. He tried to tap it on, but got nothing, not even static. It was dead.
There was another flurry of thumps from above. John found a pebble on the floor and tossed it up at the trap door, but it skittered off and he couldn't tell if anyone above had heard it. In any case, there was no way to get across a complicated message, like "Try more C4."
John stepped back and took stock of the situation. There had to be another way up. And if his team decided to blow the door again, he needed to be out of the way. So the best thing to do right now was go exploring.
He heard it earlier this time, probably because he knew what to listen for. John whirled toward the shrieks and didn't even bother to aim, just fired and fired into the darkness until the creature tumbled to the floor in front of him.
So . . . not one monster, but a damned infestation. Wonderful. At least they were stupid enough to shriek. And hey, if he managed to get out of here alive, he had a snuggle with Rodney to look forward to.
John froze. Christ, he had not just had that thought. Not seriously. Rodney was . . . and he was . . . except the truth was, having Rodney in his bed wasn't nearly as annoying as it ought to be, and it wasn't like it meant anything. All they ever did was sleep.
And anyway, he had monsters to kill. John hefted his P90 and headed out.
By the time he found the stairs, he'd killed six of the things and was dragging one behind him by the feet, just to prove it. There was a door at the top, but it wasn't (thank God) locked, and he pushed it open into another dark corridor.
"Rodney?" he called. "Ronon, Teyla?"
There was no answer, and yeah, okay, he'd been off the radio for long enough that they might've given up on him, depending on whether or not they could hear the gunfire. John picked a direction at random and started walking. At some point he'd find them or find a way up. He wasn't worried about it. He was just a little tired, and his arm hurt, and all he wanted right now was to get their beef and go home.
He heard them before he saw them, heard Rodney's voice drifting down the corridor, high and tight and worried.
"not giving up, because he's down there somewhere, and we are going to find him, alive or"
"Rodney." That was Teyla, sounding, wow, almost annoyed. "I was not suggesting we give up, merely that we have already searched in that direction. If we go this way"
"I'm right here," John said, and turned the corner to find them standing in the middle of the tunnel, arguing.
Three flashlights jerked up and into his face. John squinted and brought a hand up to save his eyes, and Rodney gasped.
"Oh my God."
"John?" Teyla said. "Are you all right?"
Oh, right. Head wounds tended to bleed, didn't they? "I'm fine," John said. He held up the dead bat-thing. "Found the monsters, too. Think this'll be good for a few steaks?"
"Jesus," Rodney said, and even Teyla's eyebrows went up.
"I'll carry it if you want," Ronon offered.
"Thanks." John handed the carcass over and wiped his hands on his pants. Rodney was still staring at him, and John felt a strange tightening in his chest. "So, hey," John said. "How 'bout we get upstairs where I can get cleaned up and we can collect our beef?"
"Sounds good," Ronon said, and led the way. But Rodney didn't say a word.
It wasn't as bad as falling out of a tree. Sure, his arm hurt where Carson had put the stitches in, and the top of his head was a bit sore, but really, he'd gotten off pretty easy, all things considered. So it made no sense that he couldn't sleep.
John tossed and turnedwell, he didn't toss that much, because he was being careful of his bandaged arm, but he shifted around a lot, waiting for sleep to claim him. He wasn't thinking about the damn bats, and dinner had totally been worth it, anywaybest steak he'd had in years. It was just . . . too much adrenaline, probably. Yeah, that was it. It certainly had nothing to do with wondering when Rodney was going to show.
He woke to the sound of Rodney's voice, soft and low but not the least bit soothing.
"combination of bad luck, overconfidence, and a reckless disregard for your own life. I mean, what is that? You have some sort of weird martyr complex? Because if you had any ideaand I'm not even talking about me here. You think Ronon or Teyla wanted to be hauling your corpse out of that pit? But oh, no, no one ever tells you, or maybe you just don't listen when they do. Maybe you just"
"Rodney," John said, because if he had to listen to one more word he was going to throw something, "go to sleep."
The sudden silence was so complete that John could hear his own heartbeat pounding in his ears. Oh. Right. He wasn't supposed to be awake, here.
"Rodney," John said again, because . . . okay, so now Rodney knew he knew. So what? It wasn't that big a deal. Really.
The mattress bounced suddenly as Rodney jerked to his feet. "Right, I'll just be, you know, going back to my own room now." Rodney's voice was tight and brittle and horrible. "I'm sorry I woke you. I don't know what I was thinking, I just"
"Rodney," John said. "I don't care. Just . . . go to sleep, okay?"
Another silence that lasted an eon. Or possibly longer. "You mean, here?" Rodney's voice rose impossibly on the last word.
"Wherever," John said, because damn it, Rodney was going all weird on him. "Just . . . okay, look, I have thirteen stitches in my arm and my head hurts and would you just lie down so I can go to sleep?"
Rodney made an odd little noise, half grunt and half whimper, but then he actually sat down and very carefully stretched out on the far edge of bed. John dared a glance over. Rodney was lying on his backwhich he never didand still wearing all of his clothes.
"And take off your damn shoes," John grumbled, and rolled so his back was to Rodney.
He waited, counting breaths in the silence, until Rodney finally twitched and sat up and made rustling noises until his shoes fell, one thump at a time, onto the floor. He was obviously still wearing his pants, but that just served him right for going off on a rant in the middle of the night. When he lay back down he still seemed kind of stiff, but it was pretty hard to tell without looking.
John just lay there, staring at the dim columns of lights next to his door. Rodney was just inches awaynot touching anywhere, but, God, it wouldn't take much. Not when they were both awake. Not when they both knew . . .
Right, well, it wasn't like he wanted Rodney to touch him. It was just, shit, if you were going to make a move, you really ought to make a move. And yes, of course, in this case Rodney knew he would get shot down, and obviously he didn't want to get shot down, but that just meant they were stuck in this ridiculous situation, sharing a too-small mattress and not even touching.
It was the stupidest thing ever, but it was Rodney's fault and Rodney's problem, and the only reason John was here was because it was his bed.
He wasn't going to Rodney's room. He wasn't asking for this. He wasn't doing anything, well, apart from almost dying every few weeks, but that was totally not his fault. It wasn't like he was trying to get killed. Things just kept happening.
Right, okay, maybe sometimes he was a little bit reckless. He hadn't really needed to save a kitten or win them a tasty dinner. But it wasn't like he was risking himself on purpose in order to lure Rodney into his bed, because that would be just pointless, wouldn't it?
It took forever and a lot of incredibly convincing slow breathing to get Rodney to finally fall asleep, but at long last John heard that soft whistling snore that was impossible to fake. At long last he could roll onto his back and find a position that was actually comfortable.
Yeah, that was much better. John let out a long sigh and closed his eyes. And if his shoulder kind of brushed against Rodney's in the process, well, hey. It wasn't his fault the mattress was too narrow for two.
"I can't believe we're arguing about this."
"I can't believe you're arguing. Look, Rodney, somebody has to go out there, and Ronon and Teyla don't have the technical expertise to"
"Are you kidding me? You don't have the technical expertise! What makes you think you can fix the damn pod?"
John didn't even bother to look at him, just kept on suiting up. "Okay, listen, I'm just going to go out there and take a look at it while you stay in here and try to fix the cloak. If I can't do it, we'll switch places. Deal?"
"What if the Wraith find us? Where there's one dart, there could be thousands!"
"If you pick up anything on the sensors, you run for it," John said, checking the seal on his gloves. "Or cloak, if you've managed to get the cloak working. I've got four hours of oxygen here. You can always come back and pick me up if you have to."
"We are not leaving you floating in space," Rodney said.
"You won't have to." John settled his helmet over his head. "Because while I'm fixing the pod, you're going to fix the cloak."
"Yes, yes, of course, I just . . ."
"Come on. The sooner we do this, the less chance they're going to find us."
"John is right," Teyla broke in, putting a hand on Rodney's arm to pull him toward the front compartment. "Arguing with him will not help."
"Yes, okay, okay," Rodney said, and shook off her hand to go sit in the pilot's seat. The last John saw of him as the bulkhead doors closed was the quick, stricken glance he shot over his shoulder.
"Depressurizing the rear cabin," Rodney said over the radio.
John rechecked his suit as the air pressure fell, but everything was as it should be. "Go ahead and open her up," he said. "I'm good to go."
The rear hatch dropped open, and John stepped out of the artificial gravity and into nothingness. He attached his tether to the hull and swung out to the side of the jumper, but as soon as he saw the drive pod, he understood the problem. He'd been twisting and dodging through the trees, trying to escape the dart after the cloak went out, and he'd apparently manage to pick up a tree branch.
A very big tree branch.
It was almost funny. John braced his feet against the hull and yanked on it, but it was good and stuck, and there was no way the pod was going to be able to retract until he got it out. John reached into his toolbox for a cutter.
It took far too long to get through enough wood to free the branch, but finally, finally, he got it loose and set it free to float off into the void.
"Okay, Rodney," he said into his radio, "you can test the pod retraction now. How's that cloak coming?"
"Let's just say I'm hoping you've had more luck with the pod. Testing now."
John watched in satisfaction as the pod retracted cleanly. "Looks good from here."
"Here, too," Rodney said. "Okay, let's get you Oh, no. No, no, no. Oh, God, Sheppard, you better . . ."
"I better what?" But he wasn't waiting, he was heading back for the rear of the jumper as fast as he could.
"We've got incoming!" Rodney shouted. "There's too many of them. They're coming fast, they're coming really fast, and I have to depressurize"
"Go!" John yelled. "Damn it, go. You're a sitting duck."
"I can't," Rodney whimpered, and then John heard Ronon's voice saying, "McKay, he said go," and the drive pod extended again.
John had enough sense to release his tether and kick himself hard away from the hull. "Radio silence. You know how to find me. Now, get the hell out of here!"
The jumper eased away, slowly at first and then faster and faster, until it was only than a dot, then nothing at all. A few seconds later John saw what looked like five other dots headed in the same direction. And then nothing.
There was nothing anywhere. There was no way to know what was happening. He could imagine the scene in the jumperRodney at the helm, Teyla riding shotgun, Ronon right behind her. Rodney would do what had to be done, pull a few evasive maneuvers, take the darts out with drones, whatever. He'd be fine as long as he didn't panic, and he wouldn't panic, because he had Ronon and Teyla to keep him sane.
John . . . had no one.
What had seemed like a perfectly normal star systemplanets in their regular orbits, an asteroid belt or two, an orbiting stargatenow seemed like an incomprehensible void of overwhelming vastness. His shove off the jumper had given him a slow spin, and every few minutes he turned to face the system's sun. But the rest of the time he was floating in a vast sea of blackness broken only by the a million tiny pinpricks of light.
John dialed his life support down to the viable minimum and tried to keep his breathing slow and steady. Rodney would pull off a miracle. He always did. He'd get rid of the darts and come back. All he had to do was follow the signal from John's subcutaneous transmitter. So all John had to do was wait.
Wait, and watch the stars and the void and the slow spin toward brightness.
He was fine, really. He had three and a half hours of oxygen, maybe a bit more if he stretched it. And hey, if he made it out of here, the odds were looking pretty good that he was going to have Rodney in his bed tonight.
It was funny how things that used to bother you really didn't, anymore. Because, sure, okay, it wasn't like he wanted Rodney to have inappropriate feelings about him. But it . . . was what it was. And he was used to it now, so mostly it just felt . . . kind of nice to have someone care about him.
Of course, sometimes it was also pretty awkward, like the morning after the last time, when Rodney had gone all weird on him and tried to avoid him at breakfast. But all John had had to do was grab his arm and push him back down in his seat and start talking about their next mission, and Rodney had pretty much snapped out of it. They were fine. Everything was good. And tonight . . .
The system's sun flared in his visor, then slowly dimmed as he rotated away. Tonight Rodney would be there for sure. Even if he was still freaked out that John knew about it, he'd come. He had to.
The stars looked like dust scattered on black velvet. Like pinholes in a blackout shade. Rodney would come like always, and he'd lie there, stiff and miserable. Or maybe, just maybeif he was truly convinced that John was asleephe'd dare a hand on John's shoulder or an arm across his stomach or maybe even a foot against his calf.
It wasn't that much to let him have. It was pathetically little, really. John couldn't help wondering what Rodney really wanted, what he'd do if he thought John wanted it, too.
Weird thought. Seriously weird thought. But was Rodney big on kissing? Or would he get straight to the point? Had he done it with a lot of guys? Would he know what he was doing? Was that mouth of hishis fast-moving, fast talking mouthgood at other things, too?
God, he was really drifting here, and not just physically. It didn't matter if Rodney was good with his mouth, because John was never going to find out. He didn't want to find out. He didn't do guys, and even if he did, Rodney was . . . Rodney was . . .
Impossible. Completely impossible. He was arrogant and sarcastic and sure, he was loyal, and brilliant, and really surprisingly brave, but even if he'd been a womanokay, no, that was a seriously sick thought. Rodney was a guy, and there was no way on earth (or any other planet) that John was going to date him, or sleep with him, or . . .
Okay, right. They were going to sleep together. Sleep sleep. Just sleep. Tonight. When Rodney came into his bed. And maybe touched him. Just a little. Somewhere ridiculously innocuous like his elbow. Which was weird and stupid and it was entirely possible that he'd dialed the oxygen down too low, because his thoughts were going around in circles worse than his body right now.
The sun swung back into view, drifting inexorably across his field of vision. He had to face the possibility that he was going to die out here. That Rodney hadn't managed to evade the darts. That he and Ronon and Teyla had been taken, or worse, killed outright. Of course, it didn't really matter which, since John was floating out here, completely alone, with no way to rescue them even if they were still alive. Which meant . . .
No. Damn it, no. He wasn't going to think that way. He never thought that way. They were alive, and they were going to pick him up, and Rodney was going to give him one of those looks and then John would know for sure that Rodney would be coming to his room tonight.
It was funny how the stars weren't just white, how they were every color of the rainbow.
It was funny how he'd never even kissed Rodney, but he was pretty sure he knew what it would feel like.
It was shocking how easy it was to imagine Rodney's mouth on his, Rodney's hands on his chest, Rodney's body, heavy and eager against his own.
It was amazing how inconvenient it was to have a hard-on in a space suit.
"Sheppard, come in. Sheppard!"
He was alive. He was actually alive. Hey, wow, he had a whole ten minutes of oxygen left. "Nice to hear from you, Rodney. What took you so long?"
"Oh, God." There was a bubble of relieved laughter, and Rodney's voice went impossibly bright. "We had a little problem called the Wraith there for awhile, but we blew up the hive ship, so"
"Whoa. You blew up a hive ship?"
"Yes, well, we couldn't get the cloak to work, so it was that or be captured, and we had a rendez-vous to get to out here in the middle of nowhere."
John laughed appreciatively and possibly a little deliriously. The dot off to his left grew and took the form of a puddlejumper just as his slow rotation took it out of his field of view. He twisted, trying to see it, but then Teyla's voice was in his ear, saying, "Don't try to move, John. Rodney is attempting to match your velocity now."
"Tell him to watch it. I'm spinning kind of funny, here."
"I do not believe he needs to be told," Teyla said gently. And then he felt something pulling on him, and it was handsTeyla's hands, in a space suitguiding him into the back of the jumper.
The artificial gravity hit like a hammer, and he lay on the floor of the rear compartment, feeling like he'd gained about five hundred pounds. He was tired. God, so tired. And then hands were releasing the seal of his helmet and pressing a mask over his mouth and nose and he was breathing pure, beautiful oxygen.
"Rodney?" he said into the mask, because he was still feeling a little woozy, here.
"Rodney is flying the jumper," Teyla said. "You will see him when we get home."
"I want to see him now," John said petulantly. "He owes me a snuggle."
"Breathe," Teyla said firmly. "It will help clear your head."
Right. He needed to clear his head. Because he really was kind of loopy, and he thought for a moment he'd said the word "snuggle."
But obviously he hadn't, because it really wasn't a word in his vocabulary, and anyway, Rodney was the one who wanted it. Rodney was the one who needed it. Rodney was the one who did it. He was just along for the ride.
When Carson released him, John went straight to his room. Sure, Rodney was bound to show sometime, but he was exhausted. He flopped down on his side of the bed and was unconscious before he could even second-guess his decision not to wear a shirt.
John woke to daylight streaming through his windows. He sat up, completely disoriented. He was in his room. Alone. But he'd really almost died yesterday, which meant . . .
He hadn't woken up. He'd slept so hard he had no idea if Rodney had been here. And maybe Rodney had come, and he'd just slept through it, but maybe . . . maybe Rodney was too weirded out by the last time, and that was just . . . that was just . . .
Damn it, he hadn't meant to hurt Rodney's feelings. He didn't care if Rodney wanted to be here. As long as Rodney didn't . . . as long as Rodney kept his hands . . . as long as he still . . .
Fuck. The thing was, he remembered it. He remembered every minute of the three and a half hours he'd spent drifting, and he could still picture it, almost as clearly as if he'd actually done it. Letting Rodney kiss him. Letting Rodney touch him, letting Rodney do anything, anything at all, while the world spun from bright to dark and back again.
He didn't want it. He'd just been loopy from too little oxygen. He'd been out of his right mind. It didn't mean anything.
But he remembered wanting it. He remembered aching for it. And he still didn't know if Rodney had been here in his bed last night.
For three long weeks, John didn't even come close to dying. No one shot at him, there were no floods or fires or erupting volcanoes, and Rodney turned off the power to the malfunctioning garbage compactor on Level 7 before he could even think of pulling a Han Solo.
He didn't sleep very well, but every time he woke up, he woke up alone.
And okay, it wasn't like he was getting tired of that. It was nice to be able to stretch out, to have the whole bed to himself. It was nice not to be hurting anywhere or everywhere, and really, how many kittens could a person save?
So he was good. He was fine. He was perfectly happy. He was going nuts.
Because Rodney wasn't acting like he missed it. Rodney wasn't shooting him little glances or sighing when he walked out of the room, or really even seeming happy to see him. Rodney was acting like it was no big deal. Like it was over. And like it was just fine with him if it was, and that was just . . . just . . .
Damn it, that was completely unfair.
So, okay, maybe he wasn't exactly in his right mind when, on a reconnaissance mission to M3S-470, Rodney dropped his laptop into a half-frozen lake.
John didn't even stop to think, just stripped off his vest and jacket and shoes.
"Sheppard, what are you . . . ? Oh, no. You can't possibly . . . Do you know how cold that water is? There is ice floating on the surface over there."
"It's only going to take me a minute," John said. "It's not that deep. Besides, you just said you needed that data."
"I don't need it that much, and the hard drive is probably ruined, anyway."
"You won't know unless you have it," John said, and dove in.
The water hit him like a shock wave, and he had to surface, gasping for breath.
"Sheppard!" Rodney yelled, and even Teyla said, "John!" But he was actually getting used to it now, so he dove down, searching in the muck at the bottomreally, it wasn't that deepfor Rodney's laptop. It had to be here somewhere, but his fingers were getting numb and he had to surface again.
He shook his head and gasped and took another breath, and then he was underwater again. The damn laptop had to be down here. He'd seen it fall. It had to be close. Only he was shaking now, shaking hard, and maybe he'd underestimated his cold tolerance or overestimated the temperature of the lake, because he was starting to feel slow and stupid and really, this hadn't been his best idea ever.
He was in the infirmary. John knew that, because there was an IV tube in his hand and what felt like heart monitor wires stuck to his chest and everything smelled like antiseptic. He also figured it was nighttime, because most of the lights were kind of dim.
He had a vague memory of being worked on, of Carson's worried face looking into his eyes, of being scanned and poked and prodded. It had hurt, and he'd been pissed at them, but it didn't hurt anymore. Well, the tubes and wires were kind of annoying, but that was about it. The only thing that was really bothering him was the soft, whistling snore coming from . . . right next to him.
Rodney was there, slumped over in a chair with his feet propped on a medical cart. His mouth was open and his face was squashed sideways and he was the best sight ever.
"So I guess we haven't broken up, after all," John said softly.
Rodney stirred, snuffled, and sat up abruptly, his feet hitting the floor with a thump. "Wha ?" He looked over toward John and then did a double take. "Oh, God. You're awake."
"Seem to be," John said. "Did I lose any fingers or toes?"
"Unfortunately not," Rodney said, and when John raised an eyebrow at him: "Well, it's not like anything else is penetrating your thick skull. One of these days you're going to do something so moronic that you end up dead. Have you even thought about that?"
"It's crossed my mind once or twice."
"Good," Rodney said with feeling.
"Did I rescue your laptop, at least?"
"No, of course you did not rescue my laptop. Ronon had to haul you out, and then Teyla and I were just a little busy keeping the two of you alive to be worried about my stupid laptop."
"Oh," John said, feeling like a heel. "Sorry about that."
"You're sorry? Is that all you can say? You completely lost your head out there. I mean, what were you thinking? You didn't notice the ice?"
John shrugged, doing his best to look nonchalant. "Thought you needed it."
"I didn't need it that much," Rodney said.
John shrugged and Rodney glared at him, but didn't say anything more. After a few minutes, Rodney folded his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair, like he was planning on camping out there for the rest of the night.
"Rodney," John said, "you can't sleep here. Go back to your room. I'm fine."
Rodney shot him a hurt look. "I can't. It doesn't do any good."
Wow, that was a seriously weird fetish he had going. "Then go sleep in my room," John said. "I don't care. Just . . . that chair is going to destroy your back."
But Rodney just shook his head and looked away. "Can't sleep in your room either. I already tried that. It only stops if you're actually there."
Wait, there was something he wasn't getting here. "'Stops'? What do you mean, 'stops'?"
Rodney lifted his chin. "Okay, look, not that it's any of your business, but I sometimes get nightmares. Bad nightmares. And I just . . . I already watched you die once today. I really don't need to go through that all over again."
John lifted his head to see Rodney's face better. "You have nightmares about me dying?"
Rodney nodded. He looked pale and tense and miserable. "Over and over, in new and even more hideous ways every time. I've had them since the particle beam, but usually it's not so bad, except . . ."
"Except when I almost die," John said, and Rodney nodded.
"Crap," John said quietly, and let his head fall back onto his pillow.
He'd been giving Rodney nightmares. It wasn't any kind of fetish. It wasn't sexual at all. It was just, well, it was his job to protect Rodney, and he'd blown it, and Rodney had ended up in the salt mines. It was no wonder Rodney was having nightmares. It was no wonder he freaked out whenever John nearly died. And John . . .
Was totally screwed, here. He'd misunderstood, misinterpreted, and damn it, he'd been torturing Rodney. Torturing him all along, even if he hadn't known it. And all those things he'd pictured when he was floating free in space were figments of his imaginationno matter how real they had seemed at the time.
Damn it. He was a dumbshit. Never mind what the Mensa people thought. He was a complete idiot, and he'd been making Rodney pay for his idiocy, which was worse than stupid. It was downright mean.
There was a call button by his bed. John stretched out the arm that didn't have the IV and punched it viciously.
The nurse bustled over to his bed. "Oh, Colonel, you're awake. How are you feeling? I'll just take your vitals, and"
John gave her the most charming smile he could manage and pointed to Rodney. "McKay here needs a bed. That one right there would be good."
The nurse glanced over at Rodney, who was staring at John with his mouth half-open.
"I'm sorry," the nurse said. "The beds are reserved for our patients."
John lifted an eyebrow at her. "Well, he's going to be a patient if you don't give him a bed. That chair is going to destroy his back."
The nurse glanced at Rodney again, clearly confused.
"You can wake Dr. Beckett if you want," John said. "I'm sure he'd agree to it."
"It's not like this chair is even remotely comfortable," Rodney added, finally getting with the program.
"Oh, well, I guess we're really not very crowded tonight," the nurse said. "I suppose you can sleep there."
"Thank you," John said. It wasn't exactly reparation, but it was the best he could do right now. "Rodney, go to sleep. And, ah, Clarissa, is it? You go ahead and do whatever it is you need to do."
Rodney gave him one more odd look, and then climbed up onto the bed and stretched out as the nurse took John's pulse and checked his temperature and ran a quick scan with a hand-held monitor. By the time she was done, that little whistling snore was coming from the next bed, and John felt . . . marginally better.
It didn't make up for the nightmares. It didn't make up for thinking Rodney had some kind of weird crush on him. It didn't stop the strange churning feeling in his gut. But it was a start.
For two weeks John walked on eggshells. He did his utmost not to get in any kind of situation that might look bad, even if it wasn't all that dangerous. He tried to act normal around Rodney, which was . . . God, he didn't even know what normal was anymore. And Rodney kept giving him strange looks at the most unexpected moments.
He didn't miss almost dying. He didn't miss Rodney's stricken lookswhich, damn it, he should have been able to figure out a lot sooner. He didn't miss the flutter in his gut whenever he thought of Rodney showing up in his bed at night.
Well, okayGodmaybe he did. Because apparently, it wasn't Rodney, it was him, and that was . . . that was wrong. So very wrong. But he'd jumped to conclusions all on his own, so it was his own damn fault, and he was going to have to live with it. Live with it. Because there was no way in hell he was going to die. He'd promised himself he wouldn't do that to Rodney.
So he was being careful on M3R-274. He was keeping an eye out for trouble and he only pretended to drink the ale they offered, which made it just that much more unfair when one of the so-called "mystics"a tall woman with muscular arms that should have been a dead give-awayconked him over the head with a frying pan.
The bed he was lying on refused to stop jouncing and jolting. John opened his eyes, but that just made his head hurt worse. It smelled bad, too, like musty straw. No, it really was straw, because it was poking him in some pretty uncomfortable places.
John opened his eyes again, and this time forced them to stay open. He was lying in what looked like the back of a covered wagon. There was dusty canvas stretched above his head and straw under him and he was bound tightly, hand and foot.
He lifted his aching head enough to look out the back of the wagon, but all he could see was brown grass and wagon ruts, the monotonous landscape unrolling as the wagon trundled on. He twisted his head the other direction, but the canvas was tightly gathered, and he couldn't see who was driving or pulling the wagon.
He laid his head back down and tested the bindings. But whoever had done it knew what they were doing, because he had no play whatsoever at his wrists.
Great. He was apparently kidnapped, and there was no sign of his team anywhere, which meant . . . oh, fuck. Rodney was probably freaking out. Well, freaking out and attempting to mount a rescue, but still, this was bound to trigger his nightmares again. And damn it all, John had really been trying to be good.
He didn't think about Rodney crawling into his bed again. He didn't feel a quiver of anticipation in his gut. Because that would be wrong, and anyway, now he knew nothing was going to happen. Nothing was ever going to happen. Even if he almost, maybe, possibly might want it to.
Right, well, the only thing he could do to fix the situation was get out of here. John tensed his muscles and started to sit up . . . only to be jerked back down by the chain attached to the collar around his neck.
Wonderful. So escape was not really an option here. He was going to have to lie back, play hurt, and take his chance when he could get it.
The jouncing went on for what seemed like hours, although he couldn't be sure, since he couldn't actually see the face of his watch. But finally it stopped and he heard voiceswomen's voicesjust outside the wagon, speaking too quietly for him to understand. And then one of themthe tall, muscular one who had hit him over the headclimbed into the back of the wagon. "Hi," John said. There was no point in assuming the worst. "Look, I'm sure this is all just a little misunderstanding. What do you say? You let me go, I tell my friends not to blow your little caravan to pieces. Sound good?"
The woman stooped forward and lowered herself to straddle his legs, pinning him with her iron thighs. She had removed her mystic's robe and was wearing khaki pants and a dirty brown tunic, which looked quasi-military. Great.
"We will do it my way." She reached down to take his chin between her fingers. "You do whatever I tell you, and maybe I'll let you have a drink sometime before midnight."
John tried a smile on her. "I can be cooperative. Try me. In fact, I'd be a whole lot more cooperative if you'd take off this collar."
She tightened her fingers on his face. "Oh, I don't think so," she said, and gave him a predatory smile.
Right, she was still straddling him, and he was completely helpless here. If she wanted to have her way with himwhatever that entailedthere wasn't a whole lot he could do.
"Hey," John said, "Nothing personal, but you should know I'm taken. I've got someone waiting for me at home, and he knows how to build bombs. Very, very big bombs." Really, it was one of Rodney's most endearing qualities.
The face above him went contemptuous. "As if I would sully myself with something like you. Your blood carries the taint of the Ancestors, the ones who brought the Wraith."
Uh oh. That didn't sound good. "Look, I'm no Ancient," John said. "I'm not even from around here. Ask anyone who knows me."
"The blood tells," the woman said, and pushed herself up off him. "And the blood will spill. Tomorrow at sunrise, your life will be forfeit at the altar on Table Mountain."
"Whoa, wait a sec. Can we talk about this?"
"You will do as I say," the woman said, "or you will lie here until sunrise."
The canvas was still bright above him, so John figured he had at least fourteen hours until sunrise. It was a long time to go without a drink. "Hey, I'm easy. Whatever you say."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I am not a fool. And I am immune to your charms." And then she was gone.
John forced himself to relax and looked up at the canvas over his head, trying not think about water. He hadn't even been thirsty before. Clearly his captor was an experienced sadist.
By the time anyone came for him again, it had been dark for so long it was starting to get light again, and he was in a pretty bad way, thirsty and hungry and light-headed. It was a smaller woman this time, but she was carrying his P90, and she looked like she knew which end was which.
She climbed in beside him, cut the ropes that bound his feet, and unhooked the chain. "Come with me," she said, and, with chain in one hand and his weapon in the other, yanked him toward the back of the wagon.
John got up on all fours and stumble-crawled after her. It was hard to balance on his bound hands, but he managed somehow to get his feet in front of him and slide down the wagon steps to crumple in a heap on the ground.
There were "mystics" everywhere, men and women, some robed, some outfitted in khaki uniforms. The woman who had come for John jerked the chain and he fell forward, face down in the dry grass, so when the screaming started, he had no idea what was happening. There was the high-pitched whine that sounded like a stunner bolt, and then, oh God, the familiar thwick-zap of Ronon's gun.
When John looked up, there was a puddlejumper hovering right over the camp, and Teyla and Ronon were firing into the crowd from the open rear hatch. Most of his captors were already on the ground, and it took only a few seconds more for Teyla to take out the remaining ones with her Wraith stunner.
"Sheppard," Ronon said, and John pushed himself onto his knees as the jumper slowly lowered in front of him. Ronon hopped down, hefted him like he was weightless, and deposited him on the floor of the jumper. In a moment Ronon was beside him and the hatch was closing as the jumper took off.
"Nice of you to drop in," John managed, as Teyla and Ronon made quick work of the ropes and collar.
"It is good to see you, too, John," Teyla said, and Ronon nodded and handed him a water bottle.
John fumbled the bottle with his numb hands, then finally got it into position and gulped greedily. But there was one more thing he needed to do, needed to do now, before they were out of range. His feet were amost working, so he pushed himself up and stumbled to the forward cabin.
Rodney whirled in the pilot's chair, his eyes wide and his face white. "What are you doing up here? You look like hell."
"I need your seat," John said. "Just for a minute."
Rodney stared at him blankly.
"I need to take over as pilot."
"Oh, no, no way, not a chance," Rodney said. "Have you taken a look at yourself? You look half dead. Even your hair is flat."
John touched a still-clumsy hand to his head. Okay, so maybe Rodney had a point there. "Well then, you do it for me. You see a tabletop mountain down there somewhere? Something with an altar on it?"
"It's probably behind us."
"Right," Rodney said, and turned the jumper back in a graceful arc. He stared down at the landscape below them, and then suddenly pointed. "Oh, you mean, that?"
John leaned against the back of the copilot's chair to follow Rodney's gesture. Down below, not far from the now-visible camp, was a tall mesa. In the middle of it stood a low, circular platform, just catching the light of the rising sun. "Yeah, that. Blow that up for me, will you?"
Rodney was still pale, but all he said was, "Okay."
Moments later, two drones were streaking toward the altar. They made a sizable cloud of smoke when they hit, and as the jumper banked to leave, John could see a nice little crater where the altar had been.
"Thanks," John said, and collapsed into the closest seat.
"No problem," Rodney said, but none of the tightness had left his face.
John closed his eyes and just breathed for a moment. He was okay. Rodney would be okay, too, eventually. After all, he hadn't died this time, just like he hadn't died any of the other times.
And hey, at least he knew one thing: if Rodney was ever going to show up in his bed again, it would be tonight.
There was no way he was going to be able to sleep. John lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, willing Rodney to show. His wrists were still raw, but he'd taken off the bandages, figuring Rodney might forget about them if he couldn't see them.
He had to face the facts. This was just going to keep happening. Well, maybe not quite as bad as it had been latelythis was a string of phenomenally bad luck, even by Pegasus Galaxy standardsbut there was no way to live in Atlantis without almost dying every once in awhile. It went with the territory.
So either Rodney was going to have to get over the nightmares, or John was going to have to deal with sharing his bed. And that shouldn't be hard, really. He'd managed before. Surely it couldn't be that difficult to forget the inappropriate stuff, and just think of Rodney as . . .
Christ, he couldn't believe he'd said that. He hadn't even been thinking, it had just come out. Somebody waiting for me at home. Yeah, right.
He was going to have to pretend to be asleep. There was no way around it. It was the only way to be fair to Rodney, and he'd managed it before. He could do it again.
He was lying on his back, squeezed onto his narrow side of the bed, when Rodney finally came in. John didn't open his eyes, just concentrated on his breathing and not twitching too much.
He heard the door close, and then for the longest moment nothing at all. Then Rodney sighed and came around the bed. There were rustling and thumping noises as he took off his shoes and pants, and then another sigh as he lay down.
Not touching. Touching was apparently off limits, now. John dared to crack an eye open. Rodney was lying facing the wall, his arm tucked up to cushion his head, despite the fact that John was using no more than half the pillow.
Rodney shifted, rolling onto his stomach, and John squeezed his eyes shut again. Asleep. He was asleep. He wasn't going to bother Rodney or molest him or anything. And then he heard itnot just a sigh, but a genuine whimper. A tiny, miserable sound in the darkness.
God, he couldn't do this. He couldn't take it any longer. John rolled up onto his side, and reached out to touch Rodney's shoulder.
Rodney went painfully still, and John froze, too, his hand still awkwardly resting against the heat of Rodney's upper arm. "You're awake," Rodney said finally.
"Heard you come in," John admitted. He pulled his hand away and flopped back down onto his back. "You okay?"
Rodney snorted. "I spent my day desperately trying to rescue you from a death cult bent on sadistic ritual murder, so no, not really all that okay, here. What were you expecting?"
John let out a breath and stared at the ceiling. "Well, on the plus side, you succeeded."
"Yeah," Rodney said bitterly. "This time. What about the next?"
John didn't have an answer to that. He was never going to have an answer to that. "Crap," he said under his breath. "Look, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, okay? I just don't know how to . . . I mean, I never . . ." He couldn't even say it, couldn't say anything without give it all away. He wanted to hit something, or somebody, but the only person here was Rodney, and he'd already hurt Rodney enough for one day.
The bed shifted, and suddenly Rodney's shoulder was warm against his. "Hey," Rodney said softly. "It's okay."
"No, it's not okay," John said harshly. He wanted . . . God, he wanted to roll over onto Rodney and nuzzle every inch of him. He stayed exactly where he was.
Rodney's shoulder pressed into John's. "Well, it's not like you were trying to get yourself killed."
Christ. If he only knew. "That's what you think," John muttered.
Rodney flinched. "Oh, God. Please tell me you do not have a death wish. This is hard enough without thinking you're doing it to me on purpose."
John shook his head and dared to turn his head so he was facing Rodney. "Didn't want to die. Wanted to live."
Rodney lifted his head to look over at him. "Well, that's good to know. Because honestly, I've started to wonder. I mean, of course the laws of probability don't rule out any sequence of events as impossible, but really, this is getting too extreme to be chance."
John jerked his eyes away and stared back up at the ceiling. "I didn't mean to keep doing it," he said. "I just didn't realize it was that bad."
Rodney's shoulder pulled away like he'd been hit. "Jesus. You were doing it on purpose. I knew it! But you . . . I mean, why the hell, Sheppard? Is it that much fun to freak me out?"
"No!" Crap. That was just wrong. "It wasn't like that. It wasn't like that at all. I just . . . I didn't know. I thought you . . . but you . . . and I . . . I wasn't trying to give you nightmares, okay? It was just the only thing I knew that would make you crawl into my bed." Oh, God, he hadn't just said that. He couldn't have.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me."
John's stomach had gone strangely queasy. He sat up in one jerky movement and swung his feet over the edge of the bed. "You know what? I'll just go sleep on my couch. That's good enough for you, right? You'll be able to hear me, so you'll know I haven't bought the farm."
But Rodney's arm snaked out, catching John's arm before he could stand. "Oh, no. No, no, no. You can't say something like that and run away." And then, God, Rodney had a hand on his cheek, pulling him around.
"Rodney" John protested, but Rodney wasn't listening. Rodney was too busy tipping his head and staring at John's mouth, and then Rodney was kissing him, kissing him for real, and it didn't feel a thing like he'd imagined. Rodney's lips were softer and his stubble was more prickly and his hands were cupped around John's cheeks and John was kissing him back so hard he was never going to stop.
"Oh my God," Rodney said softly against his mouth. "Please don't tell me I could have had this any time I wanted."
"No," John said. "No. I didn't know. I didn't know." But Jesus, Rodney wanted this. He really wanted it, and he'd wanted it all along. John had been right; he'd always been right, even when he'd been very, very wrong.
"It's okay," Rodney said. "It's really okay." And it was nuts that Rodney was the one comforting him. It was totally backwards, but then John was the one pushing Rodney down into the mattress. John was the one kissing Rodney's mouth and jaw and neck and shoving his hips against Rodney's, hard.
They were both still in their boxers, but John didn't care. John didn't care about anything, except that Rodney wanted this, Rodney wanted him, and he could feel Rodney's erection through the double layer of fabric, hard against his own.
John thrust against Rodney's body, fast and sloppy. He didn't care. He didn't care. He just needed this, needed Rodney, needed Rodney to know . . .
Oh, God. He was coming. Coming fast and hard in his boxers, clutching Rodney tight and shaking all over.
"Oh wow," Rodney said. And then Rodney pushed him off and sat up to strip himself naked, so John lifted his hips to let Rodney take off his boxers, too. Rodney lay back down on top of him, still hard, still gloriously hard, and started to rub off on the inside of John's hip, slow and easy and perfect.
Rodney lowered his head so John could kiss him, soft and eager like the roll of Rodney's hips, and it was funny that in three and a half long hours of imagining every kind of gay sex he could think of, John had never pictured this.
"God, John," Rodney said, "you are so . . . you are so . . ."
"Alive," John said, and Rodney's thrusts suddenly went hard and jerky.
"Yes," Rodney said. "Oh, God, yes. Alive." And Rodney's hips stuttered and John felt him come, hot and wet between them.
Rodney collapsed down onto him and just lay there for a moment. John wasn't about to complain. But then Rodney rolled off and flopped next to him on the mattress. "Please tell me this isn't because you got hit over the head."
"Don't think so," John said. "If it's anything, it was those three hours of oxygen deprivation. Kinda did funny things to my brain."
Rodney made a strange kind of choking sound. "That's a joke, right? You didn't actually have any brain damage, did you?"
John grinned and rolled up onto his side, right up against Rodney. It meant the sticky stuff on his stomach was pressed against Rodney's side, but since most of it was Rodney's, anyway, it was only fair. "Wasn't really the oxygen deprivation," he admitted. "More what I was thinking about, to pass the hours."
Rodney blinked at him. "Me?"
John shrugged. "Didn't have anything better to do right then."
"Really? You were thinking about me?"
That was fishing, so John just lifted an eyebrow at him.
"Wow. That's just . . . wow. So you, um . . . you want . . ."
Somehow it was easier when Rodney was the tongue-tied one. "You're sleeping here. Tonight and whenever you want. That work for you?"
Rodney just looked at him and then nodded his head. "That would be good. That would be really, really good."
"I still can't believe you almost got yourself killed eight times for this."
John leaned forward and nuzzled Rodney's shoulder, just because he could. "Maybe I was just dying to be with you."
"Oh, that is not funny. That is not even remotely funny, but you just couldn't resist it, could you? I can't believe I fell for someone with such a juvenile sense of humor."
John nuzzled his way to Rodney's neck, feeling warm all over. "Hey, this juvenile sense of humor goes along with the place in my bed. Package deal."
Rodney sighed a sigh of mock-suffering and turned his face to John's. "All right. Just do me a favor and try not to die before I get the chance to enjoy it, hmm?"
"You got it," John said, and kissed him, long and slow and sweet.
Because really, when you got right down to it, it was pretty damn good to be alive.