Summary: Snide commentary takes a back seat as the crew of the Fortune head off in new directions.
Info: Things look pretty bad at one point in this story, *very bad*, but I assure you, I am constitutionally incapable of not making things better by the end.
It was Rodney's favorite part of the day. That moment of time between waking and when he really had to get up; when he could lie in bed and revel in John's closeness. Sometimes he'd watch John sleep, watch the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest, smile secretly at the faint snoring, and remind himself of how lucky he was that John was here with him. Sometimes he would drink in the little details that he was not allowed to consider when John was awake and would question Rodney's gaze with a sardonic eyebrow lifted in his direction.
The threads of silver in his sideburns that were becoming more prominent with each passing year. The crinkles at the corners of his eyes that showed when he smiled, the result of too many days squinting into bright sunlight (and not wearing sunscreen, which made Rodney nuts to think about, but he could only nag so much before he sounded like a caricature of every gay boyfriend and he was determined not to do that...). The crazy-tousled dark hair that always looked as though he'd just gotten out of bed, that Rodney knew a) was much softer than it looked and b) required far more maintenance than John would ever admit publicly. The little not-quite-mole on his cheek that Rodney referred to as a beauty mark because he knew it annoyed the snot out of John when he did so. The shadow of stubble around John's mouth and jaw, the rasp of which against Rodney's skin could take him from drowsy touching to searing need in less than 60 seconds. Though since John always looked as though he was working on two days worth of beard, it made the times he shaved just for Rodney kind of hot too. Rodney was all about variety when it came to John.
Simply looking was not enough however. It was impossible to lie that close to John Sheppard and not want to reach out and touch him as well. To slide hands over skin that was unexpectedly soft and yet feel the undeniably masculine muscle and sinew beneath it. To drape an arm over John's belly and feel the beginnings of softness there too, secretly pleased at its existence and knowing that John probably saw it as a sign he was getting old. To trace the line of hair tapering down from John's chest to the point where it widened out over his groin again, almost like a giant arrowhead pointing the way to his magnificent cock.
Because that was a fair description, in Rodney's mind. Anyone could look at John and know that he was hotness personified. The lounging grace. The rebellious hair. The eyes that shifted color with his mood and the quirky half-smile that lingered on his features. Rodney knew that he wasn't just a pretty face—he appreciated that John had a keen mind, if different from Rodney's own brand of brilliance. He also knew that John was every bit as gorgeous unclothed as presumed by his public appearance. Rodney was well on his way to being obsessed with John's cock—how it looked, how it filled his mouth, how he smelled when Rodney went down on him, the way it felt when John pressed up against Rodney from behind and the way it felt when he pushed inside of Rodney. As objects of devotion went, Rodney thought his fixation was completely reasonable.
The early morning touching was lazy and gentle. Inquiring and sleepy. At times, Rodney would doze back off again, only to wake and reach out to touch once more. Sometimes, Rodney would feel his cock stir, and no matter how recently they'd had sex before, his touching would become more suggestive and change from languid stroking to increasingly hungry pulls at John's skin with his fingertips, even as he willed John to wake up by beaming lewd thoughts in his direction.
This morning, the little signs were there that John was also becoming interested; in the sleepy way he stirred and reached back with one hand to touch Rodney as well. Which made Rodney smile with anticipation, and, if truth be told, a little relief. He and John were reaching the point in their relationship where maybe they were just a little too comfortable, a little too predictable. Rodney could remember a time when they could barely keep their hands off each other. Now, more often than not, they fell into bed exhausted, turning on their sides after a few minutes of talk and then drifting off mid-sentence. Or John would fall asleep while Rodney was reading, which would make him feel oddly domestic, sitting propped up on a pillow next to John, laptop against his knees, reading glasses on his nose. The little black and white cat, Puffin, would be curled up beside him as well, purring loudly and kneading the covers next to his leg. That they were on a spaceship hurtling through the galaxy and not at home in their cabin in the wilderness was a moot point.
Funny how the day to day business of flying a ship through space could be more tiring than the constant threat of death during their former off-world missions when they'd been based in Atlantis. Oddly enough, Rodney missed those days, the team camaraderie, the snarking with John and Ronon, Teyla's gentle and not-so-gentle remonstrations of them all, the countdowns to catastrophe, the running for their lives...
Rodney's brain latched onto that thought briefly before relaxing as he recognized the signs that John was awake and feeling frisky for a change. It was there in the hazel eye that opened and then developed a sultry gleam, in the lips that curved into a smile as he reached for Rodney again. John slid a hand across Rodney's chest and lazily thumbed a nipple, his smile growing broader when Rodney reacted as usual by pushing into John's hand.
He rolled over into Rodney, throwing one thigh across Rodney's legs and draping his arm across Rodney's chest, nosing his way under Rodney's ear for a series of kisses down his face and throat. Rodney smoothed one hand up John's leg and reached around to grab his ass and pull him into even closer contact. He could feel John's smile on his lips as they slowly kissed, could feel the lift and throb of John's cock against his thigh, causing a similar reaction on his part as well. This was definitely the best part of any day.
They both froze at the insistent chiming that suddenly could be heard in the room.
"Is that you or me?" John asked.
"Fuck me!" Rodney cursed as he realized it was his earpiece piping loudly from his pants pocket where he had dropped them on the floor the night before. He launched himself out of bed.
"Well, I was thinking about it," John said dryly, pulling a reluctant laugh from Rodney, even as he watched John drop his head back to the pillow with a resigned sigh.
Rodney fished the earpiece out of his pocket and screwed it into his ear. "I'm here. What?" he barked shortly into the radio.
"Sorry to disturb you, Rodney." To his credit, Radek did sound sorry. Or maybe he was worried about retribution, which frankly, at this moment, he should be. "It's the secondary containment field again. It's showing marked instability like before. You said you wanted to be informed..."
"Yes, yes," Rodney sounded the way any man would if he was being interrupted during possible morning sex. "I'm on my way." He was already pulling on his clothes as he spoke. John, he noted, had rolled over onto his stomach, his arms already sprawling out to make use of the space vacated by Rodney.
He crossed the room hurriedly and placing a knee on the mattress, leaned forward to kiss the back of John's shoulder. "Sorry, it's that containment field I was telling you about. Catch you later?"
John flicked a finger in his direction, seemingly intent on going back to sleep, but he wasn't fooling Rodney. He knew that John would be on his feet and getting dressed as soon as Rodney was out the door. With a sigh, Rodney left their quarters. Whatever John had been thinking of doing, it would have to wait.
"Rodney, do you have a minute?" Elizabeth's voice in his earpiece startled him briefly and he jumped, half-expecting her to be standing next to him, which sadly, was impossible for her to do. At least, not outside the holodeck.
He glanced at his watch. He'd missed breakfast; John would already be on the bridge, he might as well grab a power bar and hold out for lunch now. Not that there would be anything decent to eat then. With Jennifer and Teyla in charge of managing their food stores, and the lack of access to Earth right now, food was distressingly...healthy. Rodney had to admit he felt better and was less prone to hypoglycemic attacks on the rather spartan Pegasus Diet. And truth be told, he'd definitely lost weight too. But sometimes he fantasized about Ronon, Kaanan, John and himself sneaking off the ship to have a guys-night-out on some planet where they served succulent near-beast ribs with a generous helping of fried tormack...and all the ice-cold ale you could drink.
"Rodney?" Elizabeth's questioning voice brought him back to the present again.
"Yes, yes, of course, Elizabeth. What can I do for you?" Rodney's stomach growled loudly, but with any luck, Elizabeth wouldn't be able to hear it. He had to juggle to free up a hand to tap his earpiece—as usual he was burdened with the flotsam and jetsam of his job.
"Fortune would like a word with you. She said she'd meet you in the holodeck."
All thoughts of food vanished from Rodney's head. Elizabeth was usually the spokesperson for the ship's AI. Not since the night Rodney had revealed the cabin holodeck program as a surprise birthday gift for John had the crew actually seen the holographic representation of the Fortune's computer. And the holodeck was the only place where Elizabeth could appear in her old form as well. That Fortune wanted to speak with him in person, and apparently without Elizabeth, made Rodney uneasy.
Elizabeth seemed to read his thoughts. "No, I don't know what it's about, in case you were wondering," Elizabeth didn't sound too worried herself. But Rodney didn't know how much credence to give to that—after all, Elizabeth's consciousness resided in the AI now. Though she certainly sounded and behaved like Elizabeth, Rodney sometimes wondered just how much connection she felt with them as people anymore.
"Okay then. Well. Tell her I'm on my way." What could Fortune possibly want with him? His mind whirred and clicked with potential answers to the question as he strode down the ship's corridors.
The cabin was cold on his entry and had a faintly abandoned feel to it. Which was ridiculous, because it was a program for heaven's sake, not the real thing. It should have been set up exactly the way it had been left the last time he and John had used it. Rodney's mind flashed back to the last image in his memory—and flushed at the remembrance of John lying face down on the bed, his long, lean form stretched out languidly among the rumpled sheets, all that lovely skin exposed for Rodney's eyes alone. The smell of sex in the air...
Yeah, maybe a default 'closed cabin' setting wasn't such a bad idea. He wondered though, who had set it up. He'd have to ask Radek when he got the chance. Given the way Radek would blush and look flustered whenever Rodney openly mentioned his relationship with John, Rodney suspected it had been Radek's idea. That Rodney could openly acknowledge his relationship with John was another thing that had changed since coming on board the Fortune. Rodney wasn't sure that he didn't like it better when it was a secret. Maybe that was part of their problem now—the excitement was gone, they were too comfortable with each other. Rodney shook his head in frustration. John seemed okay though, in the times that they were together alone. More relaxed again, the way he'd been when he'd first shown up at Rodney's cabin back on Earth. Rodney didn't know just what he was supposed to fix here—but that something needed fixing, of that he was certain.
He bustled about the place, pulling on the orange fleece pullover that he'd left draped over the couch, depositing the artifact that John had identified as an Ancient puzzle box ("It's already open, McKay, you've been locking it by mistake...") on the kitchen counter, kneeling to start the fire already pre-laid in the hearth. A part of his mind was insistent that such acts were not necessary, that all he had to do was ask the computer (which was essentially Fortune, how weird was that?) to turn up the internal temperature, but by some unspoken agreement, Rodney and John had decided that whenever they were in the 'cabin' that they would treat it as though it were completely real.
Which meant being cold sometimes. Rodney sighed as he lit the kindling, shifting pieces around until he could be sure it caught. The sound of an engine could be heard roaring up to the house and Rodney got to his feet, dusting his hands and pretending that he wasn't hurrying over to the front door.
Outside, a sleek figure in a black snowsuit rode a snowmobile down the driveway at high speed, pulling up to the cabin with a sideways turn and a spray of snow. The rider jumped off lightly, removing her helmet to shake out a shaggy mane of dark brown hair. Setting the helmet on the bench of the snowmobile, Fortune raised a gloved hand and smiled in Rodney's direction before crunching her way across the frozen drive towards the cabin. She took off a set of dark goggles, revealing hazel eyes alight with excitement, her lips parting into a smile as she approached.
"That was fun," she said breathlessly, as she mounted the icy steps to the wooden deck. "I can see why John wants one." She looked like a young, carefree teenager instead of the powerful AI that she was.
"Indeed," Rodney said sourly, noting the way each word formed a vapor cloud in the air in front of him. He stepped aside to let her into the cabin and closed the door on the bright, sunlit world beyond. "What's one more thing for him to break his neck on?"
"Actually, that was what I wanted to talk with you about." Fortune's smile faded abruptly. She began pulling off her gloves and unzipping the ski suit to reveal a bright red sweater underneath.
Rodney's heart plummeted. "What? What's wrong with John? What do you know?"
Fortune shook her head, as though annoyed with herself that she hadn't predicted Rodney's reaction. "Nothing is wrong with John, at least not physically. But I am worried about him just the same."
Rodney followed her over to the couch and sank down wordlessly on its cushions to stare at her as she did likewise.
She raised a small hand briefly before folding it over the gloves and goggles in her lap. "I will be the first to admit that I do not understand humans very well at all, and even less the people of your galaxy." Her face suddenly lit up with a smile then, and Rodney was reminded of how very much she looked like John. "I've been very fortunate to have Elizabeth to bond with me. AI's are not always so lucky to have someone as stable and diplomatic as Elizabeth to serve as their conscience, so to speak. And being able to take your form from time to time has helped me understand much about you as a species."
"You needed a conscience, Elizabeth needed a body. Everyone's happy. What does this have to do with John?"
Fortune looked as though she might be trying to swallow a smile before becoming serious again. "Well, that's just it. I don't think John is happy."
"What?" It was Rodney's worst nightmare. Well, okay, not really. He could think of lots of worst-case scenarios involving John but this one ranked right up there. That John wasn't happy with him, that he was bored. A bored John was one step away from a John who did something stupid. Or equally as bad, a John who left Rodney. "What makes you say that?"
Fortune made a slight, "oh c'mon, Rodney' face that looked all too familiar. "All of Elizabeth's memories are now my own. And I have access to all your former mission reports through your database." She paused and raised an eyebrow at Rodney. "Though I strongly suspect, based on Elizabeth's memories, that many of those reports have been...creatively constructed. Regardless, things are very different now. Your team used to go on missions nearly every week. Now most of the time, John sends Teyla and Ronon on forays while he mans the bridge and you stay in the labs."
He and John had talked about this before. "There are so few of us with the ATA gene," Rodney explained. "John feels that we're needed here on board the...on well, the ship. He worries that if something happened to him, the rest of the crew would be stuck out here in the middle of nowhere." Not to mention that John had deemed Rodney's services to the ship too valuable to risk his life on missions anymore. And since Rodney wasn't keen on going off-ship without John, he'd let it slide.
Fortune nodded as though she'd anticipated this argument. "In most cases, you would be right. Had I bonded with Elizabeth in her corporeal form, her lack of the ATA gene could have grounded us from the very beginning. But because Elizabeth was in the unique position of being able to merge with me completely, that does not hold true. As you recall, we were quite self-sufficient, if a little lonely, until we discovered your puddlejumper stranded in space."
Rodney shuddered at the memory, which in turn caused him to snap, "We weren't exactly stranded."
"My pardon," Fortune said dryly. "You were crawling along on minimal life support and rationed supplies, hoping to make it to the nearest stargate before completely losing power." Suddenly she no longer sounded like a teenager but the millennia-old intelligence that she was. And a smart-ass to boot. Rodney wondered where she got that from.
"My point," Fortune continued smoothly, which reminded Rodney why it might be fruitless to argue with an AI, "is that though the loss of yourself or John would be personally devastating to us all, it would not adversely affect the expedition as it stands per se. In fact, I'm not sure that your current approach to the mission at hand is the best course of action for this expedition."
Rodney found himself blinking at Fortune in confusion. "What exactly are you trying to say?"
Fortune raised an eyebrow. "I think John is being under utilized here, as are you yourself. I think he is frustrated with our primary mission—which is to locate the missing Destiny and its accidental crew. I think that just because he is now captain of this ship, that doesn't mean he has to have welded his butt to the command chair."
Rodney snorted. "Try telling him that."
"That's not my job," Fortune said calmly. "And he's far more likely to listen to you. You know he hasn't quite accepted that I am not going to suddenly turn into HAL overnight."
Rodney choked suddenly, turning it into a cough. He had known that Fortune was becoming more perceptive over time, but when the hell had she picked up on the 2001: A Space Odyssey reference?
Fortune continued speaking as though nothing had happened. "As a matter of fact, if you started going out on missions again..." she paused suddenly, her expression becoming uncertain and shy. "Unless of course, you'd rather not..."
"No, no," Rodney was quick to correct her mistaken assumption. "You wouldn't think it to look at me, but I kind of miss the challenge." He felt the heat of embarrassment flush over his cheeks. He was never going to be able to pass for the hero type, and frankly, most days he didn't want the job. But the excitement that went with new discoveries and the often adrenaline-filled adventures they used to have off-world, as a team...Rodney was astonished to realize that he really did miss those days. And if he was missing them, then John must feel...grounded. Chained to a ship that did all the flying for them.
Fortune's face lit up. "I thought so! And if you start going on missions again, it is unlikely that John will be willing to let you go without him..."
Rodney leaned forward, feeling a conspiratorial smile creep over his face. "Oooh, that's evil. Aren't you the clever one?"
"I have a few ideas along those lines. I've been accessing some of the data files your people have stored on their hard drives," Fortune's expression was faintly smirking. "In particular, the series of television shows that are referred to as Star Trek. Captain Kirk never stays behind during the missions."
Rodney openly sniggered now. John was never going to live this one down.
"Which is why I think we need to rethink our mission objectives," Rodney concluded smartly, leaning back in his chair with a decisive sigh. The rest of the command crew sat at the briefing table, staring at him blankly.
John didn't take the bait; instead, he sat tapping his stylus against his PDA.
Teyla, fortunately, recognized a cue when she saw one. "What exactly do you propose, Rodney?"
"I'm so glad you asked." Rodney leaned forward enthusiastically again, hands in motion as he began to speak. "Look, Fortune has explained to me that without an AI-Ancient bond, the Destiny is on a pre-determined mission of its own, randomly jumping from point-to-point among the colonies and worlds established by the Ancients millennia ago."
"This is true." Elizabeth's voice chimed in over the ship's intercom.
"We know this already, Rodney," John said in his 'give me patience' voice. Rodney tried not to wince.
"Okay, so the point is, it's random. The likelihood of our being able to trace their steps and catch up to them is infinitesimal at best. Besides, we have as yet to address the matter of the ninth chevron."
"The ninth chevron?" John echoed. He looked faintly wary, as though he sensed a trap but could not quite spot it yet.
Rodney felt vindicated at finally catching John's full attention. "Yes, yes," he said enthusiastically. "You can bet your last cup of coffee that Nicholas Rush is going to be trying to unlock the mysteries of the ninth chevron and how to use it. If seven chevrons gives us travel within a galaxy and eight takes us to another galaxy, then nine must be the chevron for..." Rodney paused, looking expectantly at John.
He didn't have to wait long—he could see the moment John worked it out. The fact that he did work it out was just one of the many things that Rodney found so hot about him.
"Time," John said with a slightly awed tone of voice. He immediately raised an eyebrow at Rodney.
"So you see, it's like looking for a needle in a haystack that may or may not even exist yet." Rodney was triumphant. "Yes, Radek and I can work on an algorithm for plotting the points where the Destiny might make an appearance, and we can try to be there first, but I wouldn't hold my breath over that one. But if anyone asks, that's what we can say we're doing. As for the day-to-day stuff...well, we've got a ship. What's the harm in making some friends, establishing a network of trading partners and I dunno, doing a little good in this galaxy for a change?"
"Saving the universe?" John asked dryly. He looked like he was going to hold out for the hard sell after all.
"You were the one who suggested it originally, before we were aband...before we ever left the SGC," Rodney amended his sentence quickly. "You have some good ideas from time to time, though you wouldn't think it to look at you."
John shot him a filthy look, one that promised retribution in more private circumstances and then he glanced around the table, silently asking for input.
"We're never any place long enough to do any good the way it is now," Ronon grumbled. "Might as well be a Runner again. If we change our primary objective—it might be a good thing."
Jennifer just beamed at Rodney in a fashion that made him remember how he'd confused her earlier attentions with affection. "I think it's a fabulous idea."
The intercom made a noise that sounded suspiciously like smothered laughter.
"Elizabeth?" John queried the general direction of the ceiling with a raised eyebrow.
"It's nothing. It's just that Fortune has offered to change her name to Serenity, if that helps."
A chuckle went round the room. Rodney breathed an internal sigh of relief as he noticed John slide into a familiar slouch in his chair, one elbow resting on its back, the fingers of his right hand rotating the stylus. This was the John of the old days during briefings; one Rodney had thought he'd never see again.
"We'd need to keep moving to some degree," John cautioned, suddenly leaning forward and slapping the stylus on the tabletop. "As a single ship we're pretty vulnerable out here."
"If we made a semi-regular circuit of a limited number of worlds, however," Teyla chimed in thoughtfully, "we'd be in a position to make alliances and build ties that would effectively increase our strength."
Rodney shot Teyla a grateful smile, glad that she was there to counterbalance John's inclination to play lone wolf. He took a deep breath and launched his final volley. "Fortune believes there is another Ancient city that we could potentially use as a base of operations."
All eyes were instantly riveted on him. Rodney's fingers flashed over the console at his right hand as he pulled up the data on the over-head screen. "Argatha predates Atlantis," he spoke as the schematics lit up the screen. A familiar star-fished shaped city map appeared in bright green.
"Argatha!" Teyla exclaimed. "The city at the center of the universe?"
"Shambala," Ronon added, trading a quick glance with Teyla.
Rodney nodded. "Yes, yes, that's how the city is described in your legends. A city within a planet's core or perhaps merely underground. The Forgotten city, the Lost city. Goes by half a dozen different names. Most likely there is something to the stories, just like we always thought of Atlantis as being sunken under the sea. I doubt the city is actually inside a planet per se, but somehow its location is being shielded and protected as such. To date, we have no hard and fast data to locate Argatha, but if we make finding it a priority..."
"We'll be in business again," John grinned. Rodney grinned back, realizing with a little jolt of self-awareness that he'd do anything to see that smile.
"So." Ronon stopped Rodney in the corridor after the briefing.
Rodney could not help the little spurt of envy he felt at Ronon's sheer physical presence. He told himself that he too could look that hot, that tough and ever-so cool, provided he was nearly seven feet tall, never combed his hair and had been honed like a weapon's edge from years of being a Runner. He mentally discounted all the time Ronon spent in the gym continuing to maintain his physique and fighting skills.
"Do you think we can really find Shambala or were you just making noise to give Sheppard something to think about besides staring out the front of the ship?" Ronon looked openly disbelieving.
"No, Ronon, I always like making noise, as you put it, for the sake of hearing the sound of my own voice. Of course I think we can find it—I wouldn't have brought it up otherwise!" He paused mid-glare to look worriedly at Ronon. "So do you think John is brooding as well?"
"Sheppard always broods." Ronon was dismissive. "I just wanted to know what you think our chances were. A kid shouldn't grow up in a ship."
"I know you think he'll be missing out on the mysteries of life if he doesn't teeth on tree roots and kill his first Wraith by the age of six, but trust me, Ronon, with Teyla and Kaanan as parents, Torren will be just fine." Rodney was busy stuffing his PDA in a pocket—he almost missed Ronon's sudden stillness.
Rodney looked up sharply. "We were just talking about Torren, right?"
To his extreme surprise, Ronon seemed to flush. "A guy's gotta think about the future right? None of us are getting any younger."
"Oh. My. God." Rodney felt a gleeful grin burst over his features. "Are we talking about? Are you and..."
Ronon cut him off with a glare. "I'm saying nothing."
"No, no, of course not." Rodney held up his hands in a 'backing off' manner.
"A guy can't stay on the move forever. That's all." Ronon scowled at Rodney as though he'd said something truly insulting.
"No," Rodney agreed. "Good point." Rodney couldn't wait to tell John.
"You should start sparring with me again, then." Ronon gave Rodney a stern glare. "You were getting halfway decent and then you quit on me. I expect to see you down in the gym—no excuses." He made a growling noise and moved off.
Rodney watched him leave with a sigh. Well, he had told Fortune he'd do anything to make John happy. He realized suddenly that Ronon had given him a sort of compliment and he brightened, squaring his shoulders as he headed off for lunch.
"Rodney," Teyla said with a welcoming smile as Rodney took a seat across from her at the table. The small area that served as the crew mess hall was empty otherwise. Was Teyla's hair darker than usual? Rodney supposed that all this time shipboard could have resulted in less sun-bleaching of her hair. But it was more coffee-colored now and he could swear it used to be redder. She looked just as fabulous as ever though. Motherhood had not slowed her down one iota and she'd been back in her fighting form almost as soon as she'd delivered Torren.
Teyla raised a single eyebrow, as though she could read his thoughts but chose to ignore them. "Searching for Argatha need not prevent us from continuing our primary mission objective. In fact, searching for the missing Destiny makes for a plausible...how do you put it? 'Cover story'?"
"I know," Rodney agreed happily, before fixing a disdainful eye on the plate of fruit and vegetables in front of him. He poked at the leafy greens on his plate in a dilatory manner. His glance fell on the bottle of spicy sauce that most of the crew had taken to dousing on all food items. He cautiously drizzled a small amount over his lunch as he continued to speak. "If we go around asking about Argatha, people are either going to think we're nuts or blasphemers or worse. And this way, if the SGC ever bothers to check in with us, then we'll look like we're still doing our primary job. It's a win-win situation for everyone."
He took a tentative bite of his food; decided it wasn't half-bad and then folded his mouth around the rest of the forkful.
"How'd the last mission go?" He wasn't very distinct as he chewed busily, but long practice had made Teyla proficient at understanding him under such circumstances.
Teyla made a small face; a sure sign that she too was becoming frustrated with the lack of success with their current assignment. "John would say it was a 'bust'."
Rodney just nodded; he'd expected nothing else. "Who was your pilot this time? Lt. Davies?"
"Yes," Teyla said, looking mildly rueful. "Do not tell John I said so, but we really do miss his piloting skills. Having access to a stargate again would also lessen our dependence on the few people present with the ATA gene. As well as open our range of possible allies and resources. This is a very good plan." She paused and then hesitated before continuing to speak. "There was an unusual incident with Dr. Kusangi however..."
Rodney looked up a Miko's name, but before he could ask about the incident, he became aware of an intense burning in his throat. He hastily grabbed for a bottle of water as sweat broke out on his forehead.
"Rodney? Are you all right?" Teyla watched him with some concern.
"Sauce," he gasped. "Hot. Very hot." He began to chug down the water and then choked and coughed, tears running down his face. God, he was burning up.
Teyla quickly pushed her ale towards him. "Not water," she said, "you need alcohol to neutralize the chileetha peppers in the sauce. Hurry." To her credit, she looked more worried than amused. Ronon and John would be roaring with laughter once they'd known he wasn't in any major trouble.
Rodney snagged the bottle from her hand and latched on to it with his lips, tipping it back and emptying it down, feeling the burning ease with blessed relief.
"I'll get you another," Teyla hurried off to grab another bottle of Zelenka's latest microbrew.
Which might be why Rodney was a bit buzzed that afternoon in the labs.
It wasn't until the 'day' was almost over that Rodney remembered his aborted conversation with Teyla concerning Miko. Like Atlantis, the various crew members had formed day and night shifts on board Fortune, each gravitating to their own preferences for work schedules and co-workers. Though really, with the small crew, things were pretty flexible in general.
Day and night were relative terms in outer space however. Rodney had worked in environments that wreaked serious havoc on circadian rhythms, most notably Antarctica and Siberia, but that had never bothered him before. Now he found that he really needed the illusion of being outside in the sunlight and had come to rely on his time in the holodeck. He was starting to feel a positive itch for needing some real outdoor time, breathing non-recycled air and wasn't that simply hysterical? Anyone who knew him would be laughing if they heard him admit that. And if Rodney felt this way, then someone who was as physical as John must feel like a caged animal at the zoo.
Miko Kusangi was coming in for work as Rodney was thinking about leaving for the day and her quiet, shy nod in his direction made him pause during his compilation of notes and instructions for the shift change. He'd never really thought about what would make someone like Miko follow John into the very real dangers of Pegasus, simply because she'd been asked to join him. Rodney had suggested adding her to the crew because she was a good worker and a decent scientist and could be relied on to follow instructions without letting her ego get in the way—something not all scientists were capable of, as evidenced by their own experiences with Kavenaugh during the Atlantis expedition.
Funny, he could think of those times now as the 'Atlantis expedition', past tense. Nearly a year ago, he'd been devastated by the loss of Atlantis, the expedition recalled to Earth as being too costly to maintain without the promised rewards of new technology and weapons. Devastated, hurt and insulted too, at the attitudes of the Powers That Be in acting as though everyone involved (but somehow John in particular) was responsible for this perceived failure to deliver. Despite the fact that they'd lived, loved, fought and died for Atlantis. That they'd given their best, only to be recalled home, broken up and scattered like some aging football team bought out by new management and forced into retirement to make way for the hottest new players.
It said a lot about John that none of the people he'd asked to come with them this time had said no.
"Miko," Rodney frowned. "Teyla mentioned something odd happened on the mission this morning?"
Miko froze in the act of putting on her lab coat and then flushed painfully, shrugging into her jacket and ducking her head, nervously adjusting her thick-framed glasses as she murmured something.
"I'm sorry, I didn't catch that."
Miko flattened her lips and looked apprehensive, as though she was afraid to speak to him, which really, had always been the case as long as he could remember working with her. Tilting her chin upwards, as though gathering her courage, she spoke at last. "I thought I saw something when we were leaving the ruins we'd been exploring. I know it was impossible, but it...startled me just the same."
"What did you see?" Rodney asked curiously.
Miko chewed on her lip anxiously before giving a big sigh. "I thought I saw a...mummy."
"You thought you saw your mother?" Rodney didn't need a mirror to know that one eyebrow was reaching laboriously for his admittedly receding hairline.
Miko looked even more embarrassed. "No, a mummy. An animated corpse. Like in the movies."
"What, you mean with the rags and the moans and the outstretched arms?" Rodney gleefully provided the visuals, raising his arms stiffly in front of him and lurching in Miko's direction.
To his surprise, she shuddered and closed her eyes, holding up her hands as if to block the sight. Rodney dropped his arms abruptly.
Miko opened her eyes and met his for one stricken instant before dropping her gaze to the floor. "I was a small child when my sister took me to see a horror movie. I knew it wasn't real, but I was terrified. Seeing the mummy rise up out of the sarcophagus...for years my sister would frighten me by following me around the house with her arms just like that."
"But if you saw something..." Rodney began. They'd seen plenty of bizarre things in Pegasus; a mummy wasn't stretching it by all that much. When you added it to space vampires and Michael's zombies and parasites that rotted your brain...
Miko shook her head decisively. "No, no, it was being in the ruins that made me think of graves and curses. There was nothing there on the scanner, Dr. McKay."
"You should let Jennifer check you out all the same," Rodney insisted.
"I did," Miko sighed. "Everything checked out okay."
"Okay. Well then. You should get some rest. No, wait, you're on duty now. I should get some rest. Right." Rodney frowned at his shift-change to-do list, added one more item about the secondary containment field and hit 'save'.
When he looked up, Miko was quietly getting her workstation set up for the evening. She was placing a series of artifacts on the table in front of her—tablets that Elizabeth would later translate, some ornate little boxes and some unidentified tools that no doubt would end up on Rodney's desk for testing and cataloging at some point. A little thought niggled at the back of his mind that perhaps he'd forgotten something, but it remained elusive and he let it go. It would come to him when he needed it.
He thought idly that Daniel Jackson would have made a good addition to this particular expedition and then wondered where the hell that thought had come from? Yes, he'd gained a whole new appreciation for Daniel after having worked with him during that incident when the two of them were captured by the renegade Asgard. He knew now that Daniel really was the guy that legend had made him out to be. Brave. Smart. Self-sacrificing. Incredibly good-looking. Which was why he had no intention of every letting him anywhere near John.
An errant little image flashed before his eyes—one in which John lay naked against the headboard of the bed, slowly jacking himself off as Daniel entered their room fresh from the shower, toweling his head dry and water still beaded on his skin as he approached their bed...Rodney firmly quashed the fantasy. The competition would be too much to bear...
"So, ah, Miko," he began expansively, only to realize very quickly he had no idea where he was going with that. "Um, what made you decide to come along on this expedition?"
Miko looked blankly at him for a moment, as though she did not realize exactly what he was referring to, and then her face cleared. "You asked me to come."
It was on the tip of his tongue to say that no, it was John; only Rodney had been the one to recommend her, so technically he had asked her to come. And then it struck him. Miko hadn't come along because she was willing to follow John through the metaphorical gates of hell. She'd come because she'd follow him. It was a very humbling moment. He cleared his throat. "Ah, well, yes. I knew you'd be a good addition to the team."
Miko beamed at him as though she's just been given the Nobel Prize. Rodney made his excuses and desperately bolted from the room.
"Hey." Rodney came into their quarters, shedding clothes as he walked, pausing long enough to toe off his shoes before dropping face down dramatically on the bed. John was already stretched out on the mattress, propped up and reading a battered paperback, bootless, though still dressed in his black BDU's. From the ipod's little speakers, Johnny Cash could be heard singing as though through a tin can. Back at the cabin in Canada, Rodney had indulged in a proper stereo system and his passion for classical music. John's tastes were pretty eclectic; combining their musical archives as well as their reading material had been one of the things Rodney had loved best about those early days when John had moved in.
He turned his head on the mattress so that he could look at John.
"Hey," John smiled back, setting the book aside. Puffin came trotting in the room from some unseen location and bounded up on the bed effortlessly, walking up Rodney's legs to settle with a loud purr in the small of his back.
"Rotten cat," Rodney said without heat.
"Smart cat," John replied. "Hey, I heard you had a little experience with some hot sauce this afternoon."
"You are not allowed to laugh. I could've asphyxiated." Rodney reached over and picked up the book, lifting his head slightly to read the title. "Terry Prachett again? Not that I'm complaining, but what happened to that Kindle I got for you before we left Earth?"
John yawned. "I use it. I like it. But nothing beats the feel of a paperback in your hands."
"Really?" Rodney waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "Nothing?" He could tell he was going to have to shift the cat momentarily—his back really didn't like him lying in this position for very long.
John scrunched down the bed so that he was eye level with Rodney and rolled up on his elbow to prop his head with one hand.
"Come to think of it, you're right. There are lots of things that beat out the paperback." John's grin was lazy and familiar. And mine, Rodney thought with a sudden burst of possessiveness. All mine.
"I should say so." Rodney said with mock-huffiness.
"Like...?" Rodney prompted. Honestly, getting this man to talk sometimes...
John shifted onto his back, folding his hands behind his head and addressing the ceiling. "Like...ice cream on a hot day. The way it melts down the side of the cone and over your fingers before you can eat it."
Rodney could hear the grin in John's voice. He pushed himself up on his side, tipping a disgruntled Puffin off his back, so that he could raise an eyebrow at John.
"Like...flying a small plane on a cloudless day and having the whole world spread out before you." John continued his catalogue slowly. Rodney noted the rare imagery and thoughtfulness of John's words, even as he knew John was being deliberately obtuse.
John tipped his head so that he could give Rodney his trademark little half-smile. "Like when we walked into Atlantis and felt the city wake up with each step that we took."
"You felt that; I didn't have the active gene then, remember?" Rodney reminded him sourly. "Besides, we were talking about what feels better in your hands than a paperback book."
John pulled one hand free from behind his head and reached for Rodney, tracing his fingers down the side of Rodney's face. The act made Rodney want to hold his breath, so certain was he that John was about to make a joke out of it and yet so moved at the same time by the wordless gesture.
Puffin began a low growl.
John pulled his hand back. "What's gotten into the Puffball?"
"I don't know," Rodney frowned worriedly and started to sit up.
Puffin suddenly arched up into the classic Halloween cat mode, and stalked sideways to the foot of the bed, ears flattened against her skull. She was staring off into main living area of their quarters. She uttered a keening, yowling noise that made the hair on the back of Rodney's neck stand up. She hurtled off the end of the bed and thundered into the other room.
"What the fuck?" John swung out of the bed and to his feet, stopping just long enough to grab his gun out of its holster on the side table, before following the cat.
Rodney was close on his heels, wishing desperately for a baseball bat, which was stupid, given the fact that he too had a gun registered to him. Somewhere. He just couldn't remember where he'd left it. Which would make John spit nails with anger if he knew. Especially since, though he was still a toddler, Torren was a child, and they all needed to be thinking in terms of his future safety. Provided they lived long enough for that to be an issue. Rodney crept along behind John, feeling oddly vulnerable in just his t-shirt and boxers and hoping John wouldn't ask where his gun was located...
The lights came up to full strength as John entered the main living area. Puffin was on the table near the door, a thin line of fur still raised along her back, but not as puffed up as before.
"What's up with you, cat?" John said as he reached out for Puffin. She swatted at him angrily and he narrowly missed getting clawed.
"Redirected aggression," Rodney explained, a note of apology in his voice. "Maybe we should just leave her alone for a while."
"Sure. But redirected from what?" John shot one more glance in the cat's direction, tension still present in the lines of his body, in the way his hands were clenched at his sides, as though reaching for a non-existent gun. He looked at Puffin again who was now grooming furiously, one hind leg stretched out in front of her as she smoothed her fur back down. He turned back towards Rodney with a little shrug. He seemed to visibly relax as well.
"Where were we anyway?" His voice dropped into a low register as he walked up to Rodney and rested his forearms on either side of Rodney's neck.
"I'll show you," Rodney said salaciously, working his hands up under John's t-shirt and sliding his palms across all that warm skin.
The first indication Rodney had that they might have a serious problem was a few days later, when Radek came charging into the lab like his coat was on fire. Even more wild-haired than usual, Zelenka had been incoherent as he'd flown into the lab, coming to a halt to whoop for air, hands on his knees. When questioned, he could only point at the corridor and babble curses (or maybe prayers, Rodney was never sure which) in Czech.
Rodney had found himself considering (again) that maybe John and Ronon's habit of carrying arms with them all the time was really a good idea. It had just never seemed necessary on board the ship before.
Armed with a hand held fire extinguisher, Rodney had crept to the door. It had opened on an empty corridor.
"You want to explain?" Rodney had said sarcastically, waving the fire extinguisher at the hallway.
This time he'd been pretty sure Radek was cursing.
"I tell you," Radek had said as he hastily poked his head out the door and looked around, "there were wolves."
"Uh-huh," Rodney had said in his fake oh-so-patient voice. "In the corridor. On board Fortune. In the Pegasus galaxy. Wolves." He'd let the words themselves speak volumes.
"I know what I saw!" Radek had fumed, taking off his glasses to shake them at Rodney before polishing them with vigor and slamming them back on his nose, his whole body quivering with indignation. And fear, Rodney had realized. Real fear.
He'd touched his earpiece. "John? I think we have a problem."
At that point, people had begun to report their own experiences, most having felt too foolish to mention them before. The majority of them had felt that it wasn't anything worth mentioning—the sensation of being followed, a sense of seeing something out of the corner of the eye that was not there. Most of the crew were ashamed to admit if they had seen anything unusual, because of the nature of the 'visions'. Invariably, they were of some deep-rooted fear, often one from childhood. It had made it easier to dismiss as just a bad case of the boogey-mans, until the visions had become more realistic.
Rodney was incensed. "What is wrong with you people?" he bellowed, glaring roundly as the crew gathered around him and John on the bridge for a ship-wide briefing. "None of you are new to Pegasus; you know the kinds of things that can happen here. You should have been reporting every little incident, no matter how small, no matter how inconsequential you thought it might be..."
"Um, Rodney?" John's interruption was uncharacteristically subdued. He rubbed at the back of his neck as he continued speaking quietly in an aside to Rodney, as though no one else could hear him. "You remember that little incident with the Puffball the other night?"
Rodney gaped at him a second and then snapped, "In case you've forgotten, we are the people other people report things to. So since we were directly involved, there was no reporting necessary." He paused as something occurred to him. "Wait a minute; that means that Puffin saw it too, whatever it is."
"Which means we are not dealing with a crystal entity like before," Jennifer chimed in seriously. "Not something that appears in our nightmares, yet it still feeds on our fears. And worse, it can make us see things that are not there. Not something transferred person to person..."
All eyes sneaked a glance at John.
"How many times do I have to apologize for that?" John said grumpily. "Okay then, what are we dealing with? When did the first incident take place?"
Gradually, through interviews and questioning, they were able to pin down the Puffin incident as being the first true occurrence on board.
"Though I believe we can count the incident with Dr. Kusagani on the planet as well." Teyla added.
"It does seem to fit the pattern of what people are describing," Jennifer agreed.
"Okay, here's the plan," John spoke with confidence and authority. Rodney had to wonder just how he always managed to do that, to sound as though he'd had his plan all mapped out in advance and then convince everyone that it was going to work, all while looking impossibly cool. "Everyone stays in groups of two or more, no exceptions. Rodney, you take Radek and Miko back to the lab and go through the artifacts recovered from that last mission, see if you can figure out what we're dealing with and how to contain it."
"We'll go over the mission log and video footage as well," Rodney added thoughtfully. "Maybe something was caught on camera that wasn't noticed at the time."
John nodded. "Everyone else needs to report in shifts to Ronon and myself in the armory. We've got some new handguns that you'll need to get checked out on. These are Ancient in design, but can be used by everyone. The important thing here is that we all become familiar with them and that we keep them set on stun. Since this thing can make us see things that aren't there, we need to be sure that we don't shoot each other."
As people began to slowly shuffle out of the room (and really, Rodney could understand why the military gave specific commands to get things moving, like 'dismissed'), Rodney sidled up to John.
"New weapons? Ancient weapons? And I'm just finding out about it now? I guess that means the honeymoon really is over."
John shot him a sharp look. "I just found out about them a little while ago myself from Elizabeth."
"Ah, a gift from Fortune then."
"Yeah," John said darkly. "I just wish I didn't feel like the ship was holding out on us half the time—not coming forth with useful information until some new crisis." He stalked off before Rodney could protest on Fortune's behalf.
"Wait a minute." Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose and then rubbed gritty eyes with one hand before leaning in to stare at the manifest again. "One of these boxes is missing here."
They'd been at it for over an hour—Miko going through the video footage, running it through the computer looking for anomalies while Radek and Rodney went through the artifacts and tablets, translating with Elizabeth's aid once everything had been scanned into Fortune's computer. Rodney was developing a killer headache and he could not remember when the last time he ate. Which was not conducive to his ability to play well with others or his higher brain function for that matter.
Miko and Radek looked up from their cataloging simultaneously at his words.
"Missing?" Radek questioned. "How can that be? You yourself have issued strict orders that nothing we find off-world or of Ancient origin be taken out of the labs."
Even before Radek finished his sentence, Rodney knew where the other box was currently located. In his own mind he could see it, clear as day, sitting on the kitchen counter of the cabin, where he'd forgotten it the day of his conversation with Fortune. He'd only taken it out of the lab to quickly run it past John for an opinion as to its function—he'd meant to return with it right away to the labs. But he'd left it behind, his mind on John and how to fix things between them. He felt the full heat of embarrassment suffuse his face. "I know where it is," he said shortly. "It will just take me a minute..."
"Rodney!" Radek protested.
"I just wanted to show it to John. It had the Ancient locking mechanism, remember? The one I couldn't open?" As it had turned out, the box was already open, and Rodney had been locking it by mistake. Instinctively, Rodney knew it was the key somehow. He turned to Miko.
"On that videotape, who handled the boxes? I know that you and Teyla took the tablets—what did you do with the other stuff?"
Miko's response was to pull up the video screen and fast forward towards the end of the mission, when they were returning to the jumper.
"Wait! Stop it there. There! No, back up," Rodney commanded, pointing excitedly at the view screen until Miko had isolated the section of video in question. "Freeze it there."
Miko paused the image. On the screen, Lt. Davies was carrying several of the ceremonial boxes in his arms as he walked up the ramp into the jumper.
"When did you see the mummy?" Rodney asked Miko. "Was it before or after Davies began to handle these boxes?"
Miko frowned, trying hard to remember. "I'm not sure, but I know it was after we all began to leave the ruins and head back to the jumper. We made more than one trip though. We were all carrying something by that point."
"I've got to get that box," Rodney said as he pointed at the view screen again. "See that writing on the side? I'm betting there was something in that box. Something Davies accidentally released. And we need the box. Radio John and let him know what we've found so far. I'll be right back."
"You should not go alone." Radek folded his arms and looked sternly at Rodney. "Take Miko with you."
Rodney could tell his attempt not to flush with embarrassment was largely unsuccessful. It was bad enough that he'd broken his own rule against removing artifacts from the labs. But he really didn't want the others to know that he'd taken it to the cabin instead of to the bridge, or even his own quarters.
"That would leave you alone. And don't suggest next that you both come with me. I need you to get a hold of Davies and find out what he was thinking or doing when he handled that box and if he noticed anything at the time. And Miko, you need to focus on the time stamp around when Davies first starting moving stuff. Run a UV and heat filter. See if you can pick up an energy form not visible to the naked eye. I'm pretty sure if I see a whale in the corridor, I'll know it's not real."
He stalked out of the door, making 'I'll be right back' gestures with his hands.
Feeling ridiculous and knowing that John would be pissed if he knew, Rodney entered the holodeck and found himself approaching the cabin in the usual fashion—by coming up the driveway. It was his preferred method of entering the cabin program because it felt the most like coming home to the cabin for real—but Rodney realized it would have been quicker to have paused outside the deck and reprogrammed the entrance for the bedroom, the way they'd entered that night when Rodney had revealed the program to John in the first place.
Although, in all honesty, Rodney thought as he ploughed his way through the fresh snow, sliding a little in his shipboard footwear and feeling the icy grip of slush embracing his ankles, the truly sensible thing to do would be to shut the program down. Then, instead of slipping his way to the front door and up the frozen stairs into the cabin, the Ancient artifact would have been sitting on the floor of the empty deck and he could have simply walked over to it and picked it up.
Sometimes you just needed to maintain your fictions, though.
Rodney needed the cabin to be 'real'. It was where, short of Atlantis, he'd been the happiest in his whole life.
So instead of dashing in and out with the box in hand, Rodney took the few extra minutes he needed to enter the cabin, stomp the snow off his shoes as he waited for his eyes to adjust from the glaring brightness outside and then he crossed over quickly to the kitchen counter where he'd left the box. Snatching it up, he began trying to read the inscriptions on the side as he hurried back out of the cabin.
He had to look up as he hit the stairs, or risk falling down them.
John stood at the bottom of the stairs, fists on his hips, looking back up at him. Every line of his body looked pissed, his eyes were shaded by dark aviator glasses.
It was odd seeing him dressed in his usual uniform instead of the casual clothing he preferred when using the cabin program. Damn him though, he didn't look cold at all. He took off the shades and hung them in the open collar of his button-up black shirt. "Rodney," he drawled slowly.
"I thought we agreed; everyone stays in pairs, no exceptions."
"If that's the case, where are your swim-buddies?" Rodney always thought a good offense was the best defense. He knew he'd gained some ground when John gave a little sigh of resignation.
"I sent Ronon and Teyla back to the armory when I realized that you were here. I'll see you back to the lab. Is that the box? You think what we're dealing with came out of that?" John indicated the box in Rodney's hands as he started down the stairs with it.
"Yes, I do. And hopefully we can contain whatever it is we're dealing with back in it again, like Aladdin's lamp and the genie."
"May I?" John reached for the box.
"No, no, not here. I'm not standing around here freezing my ass off. We'll look at it together down at the labs."
John gave a little shrug as if it didn't matter to him one way or another. They began to make their way across the front yard. The snow was deeper, but if they skirted past the ice-covered pond, they'd reach the exit faster than by taking the driveway.
"I hate cold, wet feet," Rodney said with loathing.
John gave a little half-laugh. The sharp crack of sound in the air that came on the heels of his laughter was shocking in the silence of the woodlands. A flock of crows rose in protest in the forest, their raucous cries just as startling.
Rodney turned to John to ask him what he thought had just happened. John was standing with a befuddled look on his face, a hand on his chest. He slowly pulled the hand away and Rodney could see the bright smear of blood covering it, even as he watched all the color drain out of John's face.
"John!" He cried out in horror, dropping the box and grabbing John by the arm he began to slowly fold up and crumple to the ground. Rodney followed him down, the cold snow biting through the cloth of his pants as he ended up on his knees.
The quantity of blood soaking the heavy black material of John's shirt was terrifying.
"Ohmygod. Ohmygod," Rodney chanted as he hurriedly pulled off his jacket and tried in vain to staunch the flow. "Okay, this is not so bad. I'm pretty sure you've had worse. Shit. Shit. Fuck! Stay with me here, John, help's on the way." He reached up and tapped his earpiece. "Medical emergency to the holodeck! John's been shot! I repeat—John's been shot. Jennifer, get down here on the double. Oh god, hurry!" He couldn't care less that he sounded hysterical.
John placed his hand over Rodney's where he was pressing down on John's chest; his hand already cold to the touch. "Huh," he breathed raggedly, his voice rattling with fluid. "I didn't see that coming."
His lips moved again, but no words came out and then he simply...stopped. Stopped everything. Stopped moving, stopped breathing. His eyes, the eyes that Rodney could stare into every day and never see the same thing twice, lost focus on Rodney's face and went somewhere else, into a distance that Rodney could not follow.
"No!" Rodney howled, the sound echoing in the small bowl of open land. "No, goddamn it, John! You stay here with me! This isn't supposed to happen. This can't be happening." He tried to pull John up against him, only half-successful, his hands slippery with blood. He began to rock back and forth on his heels, dry sobs catching his breath and stealing it away, the cold air slicing through his lungs like a knife.
The sound of booted feet on the snow behind him made him turn his head sharply.
Behind him, a man stood in a black hooded parka with a deer rifle in his hands. For an awful moment, Rodney thought it was his father, but then a hand came up to shove back the hood, to reveal a familiar, pock-marked face.
"Kolya," Rodney said in shock and disbelief.
"You know," Kolya began conversationally as he continued to walk up to where Rodney knelt over John's body in the snow. "Some people would consider it unsporting of me to shoot Colonel Sheppard like that, without warning, without giving him the chance to fight back. Sportsmanship is for fools," Kolya sneered, his eyes as black and dull and flat as those of a shark.
Rodney let John's body fall back to the snow, where he lay with his eyes open to the sky. The bright splashes of blood on the white ground were almost beautiful.
Kolya was dead. John had killed him on the miserable planet where they'd run into Lucius Lavin again. Lucius had been running a scheme with some renegade Genii, not knowing that Kolya was involved or how dangerous the man was. Kolya and John had been forced to a final showdown like some gunfight in the OK Corral. Rodney knew this, and yet he could not help but feel the reality of the experience in front of him. Maybe Kolya hadn't really been dead; it wasn't like they'd done an autopsy or anything.
Rodney looked back up at Kolya again. This time Fortune was standing behind him, wearing a summery floral dress and standing in her bare feet in the snow. "It's not real, Rodney, none of it. It's the creature from the planet," she said earnestly.
"End program," Rodney said, his mouth folded into a thin line. Dear god, please let it not be real.
The Canadian wilderness vanished, leaving Rodney on his knees in a small gray room. John still lay in front of him, a large pool of blood creeping slowly from his body. To Rodney's left, the Ancient box lay on its side. And in place of Kolya stood the biggest Iratus bug Rodney had ever seen. It rose up on its hind feet in front of him, standing at least four feet tall, the chitinous sections of its belly expanding and contracting as it breathed angrily at him. Its uppermost front legs clicked and chattered in his direction, reaching for him.
"Run program! Run program!" Rodney yelled.
He found himself kneeling before Kolya in the snow again. Fortune was gone.
"I respected Sheppard as a worthy adversary," Kolya spoke once again. "I do not respect you, Dr. McKay. Oh yes, certainly, I respect that great mind of yours, though I suspect not as much as you do yourself. But you I intend to take apart slowly, like pulling the wings from a fly. I've already removed your heart." He pointed to John's body with the muzzle of the rifle before smiling back at Rodney again. "You're dead already and you just don't know it."
Rodney looked down at John's body and he leaned forward to touch the side of John's cold face. As he did so, he placed his other hand on the ground for balance. It sank into the snow and he groped around for something, anything that he could use to defend himself. Please, please, he pleaded silently, but with whom, he did not know. Suddenly he felt as if something was materializing under his fingers and he felt his hand close on the shaft of a hockey stick buried in the snow. Presumably dropped after an impromptu game and long forgotten. His fingers curled around it as he looked up at Kolya with a tight little smile. "Ditto," he snarled.
He brought the hockey stick up with an explosion of snow that masked its movement as he slammed it into Kolya's hand. The gun flew out of it to land somewhere in the snow bank at the edge of the pond. Rodney didn't waste his advantage; he backhanded Kolya in the face and then hit him again in the abdomen. Kolya staggered backwards and dragged the back of his hand over his mouth, staring at the blood on his sleeve in disbelief.
"So you think you can fight, Dr. McKay? Well, now this has just become interesting." Kolya pulled a knife out of a sheath from under the parka.
"You know, some people should just learn to stay dead," Rodney sneered. He waited for Kolya to make his move; he could hear Ronon's voice in his head telling him never to move into the enemy's space, let him come into yours.
Kolya couldn't resist, he leapt forward with a snarl of rage and Rodney took great satisfaction in jabbing the hockey stick at his throat.
"You are a pathetic excuse of a man," Kolya taunted, even as he ducked Rodney's strike. "Do you remember our first meeting? You broke down at the first touch of the knife to your skin. I am looking forward to carving chunks of flesh off your body as you beg for mercy."
"Blah, blah, blah," Rodney said, swinging the hockey stick as Kolya feinted with the knife again. He'd always had mixed feelings about his performance during the storm that had almost destroyed Atlantis. Yes, he'd saved the city in the end. Yes, he'd been smart enough to bluff Kolya into believing that both he and Elizabeth were necessary to unlock the codes of the city. But he had crumpled under the threat of physical torture and had given Kolya what he wanted. It was not something he was proud of and it still haunted his dreams even after all these years.
It made him angry now. He could still hear Ronon's coaching running a playback in his head. Use the anger—don't let it blind you, though. Fight smart. He blocked several more attacks on Kolya's part, feeling a bit cocky until he realized that Kolya was just playing with him. He was conscious of the fact that angry or not, he was already getting tired and that was not a good thing. Maybe there was something to that whole working out thing after all. Just what was he really dealing with though? Not Kolya, not a Gigantor Iratus bug...but what? Whatever it was, it fought with Kolya's skill and Rodney suspected that it would have had the traits of the Iratus bug as well.
Kolya suddenly dove for the rifle again, a move Rodney hadn't expected. He leapt onto Kolya's back and the two of them began to struggle for the weapon.
Which is probably why Rodney didn't hear John's approach.
"Rodney!" John shouted.
Rodney looked down at John's body and then snapped his head back to see that John was coming at them at a dead run, carrying an angry, squirming Puffin in his arms. He slid to a halt as he got close and opened his arms wide. Puffin sprang out of them as the cat launched herself into the air, paws spread and claws fully extended. Rodney had just enough time to think she looked just like a tiger before he rolled out of the cat's way.
Kolya screamed like a little girl as the cat landed on his back. And then to Rodney's surprise, he began to writhe beneath Puffin's grip, shrinking in size, becoming buried in his clothing. Rodney rolled off the parka in shock, and then blinked when the clothing and dead-John disappeared from sight. He watched in fascinated horror as Puffin wrapped herself around an odd, rat-like animal that shrieked and scrabbled in the snow. It was slightly bigger than she was, but she ground down with her jaws clamped on its neck and rabbit-kicked with her rear feet until the creature stopped squeaking and lay limp beneath her paws. She then dragged the body of the creature over to Rodney where he sat on his ass in the cold snow, her chest puffed out with pride as she laid the dead thing before him and batted it a time or two with a gentle paw.
She stopped playing with it to fastidiously groom a smear of purplish blood off her foot.
"Okay, that's just wrong," Rodney said, rolling up on his knees to peer down at the ugly creature. It had the long, hairless snout of a possum, with tufts of wiry hair sticking up in random places on its bald head. A set of fangs jutted out of its mouth, belying the comical appearance of the animal. Its body was covered in greasy, brown fur and its paws resembled little hands. And, Rodney noted as he rocked back to cover his nose and mouth with the back of one hand, it reeked.
"Did you see that?" John said with pride. "Way to go, Puffball!"
Rodney scooped up the cat and hugged her tightly, trying to hold her still long enough to examine her for injuries, much to her protest. She wriggled out of his grasp and huffed out of reach, looking back over her shoulder at him balefully as she walked down the drive towards the exit.
"You don't think she's hurt, do you?" Rodney said anxiously as he watched her go, scrambling to his feet. "I mean, what if that thing was poisonous? Did you see those fangs? Do you think Jennifer will mind taking a look at her? Why the hell didn't we include a vet on this expedition?" Rodney finished at high volume, yelling at John.
"Hey, buddy, are you alright?" John took hold of his arm.
"No! No, I'm not alright!" Rodney shouted, pulling away roughly. "I just got to watch you bleed to death at Kolya's hands, so excuse me if I'm a little bit upset at the moment."
"Huh," John said, squinting a little at the brightness of the landscape as he looked around at the trampled snow at Rodney's feet. "I wondered what you were seeing."
"I thought you were dead!" Rodney punched John in the shoulder, hard. "I thought you were dead and I've never told you...I've never said...Jesus, I've never..." Rodney had to bend over suddenly and brace his hands on his knees to quell the feeling of dizziness that washed over him.
"Hey," John said ineffectually. "Hey," he repeated, patting Rodney on the shoulder. "It's okay. Really. I know, okay? You don't have to say anything."
Rodney raised himself up so he could glare into John's eyes. "Yes. Yes, I do. There are some things that need to be said. That people need to hear."
"Oh." John looked discomfited for a moment and then, making one of his weird faces, added, "But you know I love you, right?"
"I can't believe you!" Rodney shouted. "Here I am, all worked up to the point of an emotional breakthrough and you go and steal my thunder by admitting that you love me—just when I was about to say it first. Now I can't say it without sounding like a goddamned parrot. Now I'm going to have to wait for some other unexpected moment, like the next time we almost die or sometime over breakfast."
John blinked at him a moment, before starting to laugh. "Because those two situations are so much alike."
"It's not funny," Rodney insisted, still upset.
"I'll take it back, if you like."
"Oh you'd like that, wouldn't you? Don't you dare."
"No, seriously, Rodney, if it makes you feel better, I'll pretend I never said anything and then you can just..."
The rest of John's smirking sentence was lost as Rodney tackled him and he went over backwards into the snow with Rodney on top of him.
"Crap, that's cold. Get the hell off of me, McKay," John groused and then when Rodney did not move fast enough to suit him, he dumped a handful of snow down Rodney's neck. Rodney retaliated by washing John's hair with snow, which really, was a spiteful thing to do and he wasn't surprised when John dumped him on his ass.
They got to their feet, glaring at each other and dusting snow off themselves. Rodney's hands were red and aching with the cold; he was attempting to stomp the snow out of his shoes when he glanced up and caught John's eye. Something feral gleamed there, reminding Rodney of Puffin. John just stood for a second staring back at Rodney, the vapor of his breathing leaving little plumes in the air. And then he pounced.
His fingers were cold against Rodney's neck and jaw but his mouth was warm and inviting. Rodney accepted the invitation with a hunger that surprised him, clutching at John's wet clothing with numb fingers and wanting nothing more than to pull him by the hand up the stairs into the cabin. He could not tell if the moisture on his face was from melting snow or not. He thought briefly that it was possible they would melt all the snow in the program if John kissed him like this much longer.
"What made you come to the cabin?" Rodney asked suddenly when they pulled apart, naturally following when John began heading for the exit. "And why bring Puffin?"
John's cheekbones seemed suffused with color, though Rodney supposed that could be attributed to the cold. "I guessed where you were headed when Radek told me that you were going after the box. I was already on my way to ream you out for going off on your own. And then Fortune told me you were in trouble."
"Fortune told you? But I thought, outside of the holodeck, she could only communicate through Elizabeth and the ship's com." He recalled his miraculous find of the hockey stick just when he needed it most and wondered what else Fortune had been up to today.
John shrugged. "I could hear her in my head. She said the creature had you pinned in the holodeck. I remembered Puffin's reaction and it occurred to me that maybe the thing was afraid of cats."
"How could it be afraid of cats when it had never seen a cat before in its life?" Rodney countered, irritated that once again, John's freaking intuition had proved right.
John shrugged again. "It was scared though, right? And with good reason. She killed it just like that." John snapped his fingers in a pleased, proud manner.
Puffin sat at the end of the driveway and meowed plaintively at their arrival. She stood up to bump against Rodney's legs when they halted by the exit. "So what did you see when you came up on me?" Rodney asked as he reached for the control switch. "What did it look like I was fighting with to you?"
John's face got that shuttered expression that Rodney hated so much. "Nothing. I didn't see a thing."
Rodney sighed. Whatever John's demons were, he'd just keep them to himself.
At dinner that night, John regaled everyone with the actions of Puffin during Rodney's rescue. Ronon was unusually impressed; Rodney knew he didn't have a high opinion of the cat in general but he seemed to be changing his mind now that he knew of her potential lethality.
"Cool," he responded at the end of John's dramatic re-telling.
"And very fortunate for us," Jennifer chimed in. "I did a necropsy on the creature. It does secrete a mild neurotoxin in its fangs, but it's pretty weak compared to some. I suspect it uses the illusions that it creates to confuse its prey until it can bite. I imagine they hunt in packs in their native territory, though it would seem that sentient beings are its preferred victims."
"Did you find anything in the database to identify it?" Rodney was feeling generous at the moment. He could almost forgive Jennifer for that whole allergic-to-cats thing.
"I think it's a boggart," Ronon suggested.
"A boggart? Really? You've run into one before?"
Teyla burst out laughing. Ronon shot her a dirty look and she quickly tamed her amusement into a serene smile, which she directed at Torren, who was sitting in her lap. "A Boggart is a creature from the Harry Potter books, Rodney," she explained, while Ronon looked darkly embarrassed. "One that reads your mind and presents itself as your worst fear."
Rodney saw again John's lifeless body and the bloodied snow and his own amusement and appetite vanished. "No shit," he muttered.
He looked across the table where John sat watching him, his eyes acknowledging Rodney's memory with a rueful look of his own.
"I love you, you bastard," Rodney said without thinking about it any further.
There was a little gasp from someone at the table; probably Jennifer, Rodney theorized. He was conscious that both Ronon and Teyla grinned widely and then reached across the table and high-fived each other. But he had eyes only for John.
John sat staring at him, his eyebrows disappearing under the fringe of his hair. He gave a little cough, turning red as he began to nod slowly and purse his lips. "Yep. You win, McKay. I definitely did not see that coming."
Rodney closed his eyes at the words and then reopened them when he felt John's foot hook around his ankle. John's smile was the secret one, the one that made Rodney feel proud and possessive at the same time.
"Get a room, guys." Ronon threw a balled up napkin at them, while Jennifer and Teyla both smacked him on a shoulder. Teyla's blow was decidedly the firmer of the two.
The events of the day had exhausted Rodney. He'd fallen asleep while John was still puttering around their quarters, getting ready to turn in for the night. He had been dimly aware of John pulling the covers up over him and he'd recalled curling gratefully into John's side, until the man proved to be too much of a freaking furnace and Rodney had restlessly moved back to his side of the bed.
He woke immediately to the flinch and jerk of John by his side. John gasped and jolted awake, causing Rodney to roll over and check to see if he was okay. The glow of the little bedside clock read 0255. Rodney should have known better than to look at the clock.
John lay on his back, one hand on his chest, which was rapidly rising and falling.
Rodney reached out and laid a hand on John's shoulder, feeling the clamminess of his skin beneath his t-shirt. "You okay?" Rodney asked.
"Yeah. Yeah." John repeated as though reassuring himself and not Rodney. He reached up and ran a hand through his hair before letting it fall back to the bed again.
"Wanna talk about it?" Rodney made the offer, knowing he'd say no. John always said no. Most of the time, he'd get up and head into the bathroom, where Rodney would shortly hear the sound of running water and then John would return, face and hair damp from being splashed, only to dress in sweats and head out for a run, no matter what the time. Sometimes John would complete the face washing ritual, only to come back to bed and lay staring at the ceiling for the rest of the night. Rodney had never met anyone who could stare so loudly. Sometimes, John didn't get up and all and the two of them would eventually drift into an uneasy sleep again. Rodney was betting this was a running night.
To his surprise, John began to speak. "I was in Atlantis."
Rodney held his breath. He believed that of all of them, John had taken the recall notice from Atlantis the hardest and he seldom mentioned the city anymore. Rodney suspected it was the first place John had ever truly felt at home and he knew that John certainly would have died to protect the city.
"I was walking down the corridor towards the gateroom and everything was normal, you know? And then I realized that no one was there. And there was this bizarre little cottage standing in the gateroom where the gate was supposed to be—like Dorothy's house had been dropped there. I started to run towards the labs to find you but the corridors all ran back in circles to the same place and the infirmary was only a stone's throw from the gateroom and it was placed right under the briefing room, which made no sense whatsoever. I finally found the labs—only when I got there, the Keeper was there too."
There was little natural light in the room. Rodney could not see John's expression and he was afraid to move, afraid to breathe, afraid to disturb the flow of words. Rodney never saw the female Wraith known as the Keeper, but he knew that her death at John's hands was what had prematurely awakened the Wraith.
"She was standing there with that big staff shoved through her guts and she was smiling at me as I entered, because she had you pinned down and was feeding on you. And Sumner and Ford were holding you down for her. And the years were peeling away from you but you begged me not to do anything because you said it was for Jeannie..." John's voice trailed away and Rodney could hear it when he swallowed hard.
"Hey." Rodney pushed himself up on one elbow so he could reach across to John. "Hey. It was just a dream, okay. That's not going to happen." He oozed in closer to John, sliding his arm diagonally across John's chest and placing his chin at John's shoulder. John reached down to grab Rodney's forearm, his fingers moving restlessly against Rodney's skin.
They lay that way for several long moments, as Rodney felt John's heart rate slow and steady once more. The movement of John's fingers slowed as well, and finally stilled.
"Hey," Rodney said again, certain that John was not asleep. "You know what one of the other names for Argatha is?"
"Enlighten me, McKay," John's dry tone said he was well aware of what Rodney was trying to do but was willing to play along.
"Shangri-la." Rodney let the word roll off his tongue as though he were naming a fine wine.
He felt John lift his head slightly.
"Shangri-la? Isn't that the city where..."
"Yup," Rodney interrupted cheerfully. "The city where no one ages. Where people live for thousands of years. Forever, even."
"Forever, huh?" Rodney could now hear the slow smile developing in John's voice. "I like the sound of that."
John's hand reached up and he trailed his fingers through Rodney's hair, cupping the back of his head and drawing his hand out along Rodney's jaw. Rodney leaned forward to accept John's kiss. Warm lips parted and Rodney pushed his way languorously into John's mouth, feeling the building heat between them and recognizing that this was one of those kisses. Why had he thought there was anything here that needed fixing? Everything here was perfect.