Summary: This could not possibly be happening. Not *again*.
Lt. Col. John Sheppard stumbled blindly into his quarters like an old man, relieved beyond measure to hear the doors close behind him, to know that he was completely alone and no longer at the mercy of sympathetic glances or well-meaning but excruciating touches meant to comfort. Even the sight of Teyla cutting off people like an elegant and well-trained sheepdog hurt almost as much as if they'd managed to slip by her to speak to him. The fact that Teyla felt it was even necessary to shield him was reason enough for the pain.
But now he was alone and for at least the next 8 hours or so, he didn't have to speak, explain or relive the day's events. Only it that was impossible, he couldn't prevent the scenes rolling before him in an endless loop in his mind's eye. He would never stop reliving the day's events. Never.
He began mechanically to remove his tac vest and gear; the attachments stiff with blood and dirt. His hands were caked in blood too and he suddenly could not stand to look at them, but it seemed too much effort to do anything about it and he ended up sitting on the edge of the bed before falling on his back to stare at the ceiling, booted feet still on the floor. How could someone be so vividly, vibrantly alive one moment and exsanguinating beneath your desperate grasp the next? One moment Rodney was stalking ahead in the brush, waving his hands about, complaining loudly about the cold the night before and the expected heat of the day to come and the fact that come hell or high water he was not going to sleep on the ground again. The next instant he was hurtling through the air with the force of the unexpected explosion. Dear god, parts of him weren't even all in the same place any more and his blood was pumping out of where his leg had been attached. So much blood. Too much blood. Even as he scrabbled in the dirt to clamp down on Rodney's femoral artery, desperately trying to tie a tourniquet around the blood-slicked stump remaining, John could see the light, the energy, the passion that was Rodney leaving his face.
There had been that instant, that fragile microsecond in time, when they all heard the small snick as Rodney triggered the trip wire. Ronon recognized it for what it was instantaneously, and was already forming the words McKay, don't move! But it was too late—Rodney was already in motion. Since when was Rodney ever still? And the land mine, placed there by some forgotten faction of an army in wan hope of holding back the Wraith, took out Rodney McKay, PhD.
He was still now. Those expressive hands would no longer fly over a keyboard or radiate irritation or delicately repair a piece of 10,000 year old equipment. He would no longer rock on his heels with pleasure at being proved right once again, or scowl at the incompetent idiots surrounding him or trade sharp-witted banter with John with the skill of a trained swordsman.
There had been a brief moment, between the time that John dove on the fountain of blood pouring out of Rodney's leg and when there was no more blood to be lost, when Rodney had plucked at his sleeve. John had the tourniquet in place by then, but the hand that brushed against him was cold when he caught it in his own, and Rodney's normally pale features had been a sickly white, all color leached out of every part of him, except for his blue eyes.
"Hey," John had said, his voice thick, as though he had been swallowing Rodney's blood. "It's going to be okay. You're going to be okay. We're just going to get you patched up here..."
Rodney's fingers had tightened ever so slightly in John's wet grip and he gave him a much weakened version of his famous, 'yeah right, you moron' look.
"John." Rodney never called him John. To hear Rodney use his first name like that, a slight smile on his graying features, made something break inside him.
"NO!" He had shouted then, becoming incoherent with rage and loss. It had done no good. Rodney had slipped away from them anyway.
He had no idea how long they had all sat there on the blood-soaked ground beside Rodney. Ronon had moved first, face expressionless as a stone, getting up to scan the area for other booby traps. There had not been any others, and the one that had killed Rodney had been so old the trip wire had almost rusted through. Another day, another week, a good rainstorm and the mine would have gone off on its own, with no one involved at all. If a bomb goes off in the woods and there is no one there to be killed by it, then did it really go off at all?
When Ronon returned and John finally looked up, he saw that Teyla was sitting with exquisite stillness beside him, tears coursing silently down her face. He was struck by the image of Teyla as a bronze statue, somewhere in Rome perhaps, maybe something by Cellini. A part of him wanted to reach out to her, to comfort her, but he knew that he would only be stealing comfort from her instead and he that did not want; he could not be comforted now. Teyla and Ronon were strong, stronger than him. They would be okay. But for him to continue functioning, he had to maintain some semblance, some fiction of strength himself.
The rest of the day passed in an awful, agonizing feat of endurance. They had hiked in as far as they did the night before and made camp because the forest was too dense to fly a jumper to the base of the mountain. They had to build a makeshift litter to carry Rodney's body back to the Gate. They covered his body as best they could with Ronon's coat, knowing that they would never get the blood out of it again. Hours of one foot in front of the other, muscles protesting at the constant drag of Rodney's inert weight, the incessant buzzing of flies attracted to all the blood...that was not penance enough. Back at the Gate, there was the surreal communication with Elizabeth, in which he had to inform her of Rodney's death, and then when they came through the event horizon itself, the throngs of people crowding the Gateroom, shocked, pale faces following their movement as they carried Rodney home.
They wouldn't let anyone else take Rodney to the infirmary. Carson and Radek both fell into step alongside them, each taking hold of the litter and assisting, but they did not try to remove the burden from the exhausted team. When they reached the morgue and at last set Rodney down, Ronon turned to face John.
"I should have been in front." His face was as grim as John had ever seen it, and before he could respond, Ronon turned and stormed away. No one dared to stop him.
Carson turned to John as well, reaching out with a gentle hand and saying in his soft brogue, "Colonel..."
John threw both hands up as if to ward off a blow and spun on his heels to move away, to head anywhere else but there. He knew he was breaking protocol, but damn it, no one was going to be able to persuade Ronon to come back for his medical clearance, and by god, John wasn't above using that as an excuse to get out of his own. Just this once. He knew Carson wouldn't push it, not this time. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Teyla dropping in behind him. Most of the people they ran into on his way back to his quarters stopped cold in their attempt to speak to him after seeing the expression on his face, but he was deeply grateful when Teyla cut Elizabeth off as she approached. He couldn't talk to her just yet. Not now. Not tonight. He had run to his quarters like they were some sort of sanctuary, a den for a wounded animal, but he knew there was no solace to be had there either. He had entered his rooms without a backward glance, leaving Teyla standing in the hall.
He threw one arm over his eyes where he lay now on the bed. The awfulness of the next few days marched out in front of him. The debriefing. Contacting Rodney's sister. Packing his things. The memorial service. It all had to be endured and he was not certain he could bear it. He was a soldier. He understood sudden and unexplained death. They had already lost too many people on this expedition to believe that anyone was safe. But the Rodneys of this world weren't supposed to die. Well, not unless the whole city, the ship, the planet went with him, to sort of dilute out the effect. Not unless John went with him. Rodney wasn't supposed to go first, goddamn it.
The sharp, metallic smell of blood on his sleeve made him gag suddenly and he jerked upright, narrowly missing vomiting all over the floor. He quashed the nausea with the skill of long experience, hating himself for being able to do so. In abrupt, violent distaste he got up and began to peel his off his clothing, stiff with Rodney's blood. When his pants became hung over one foot because he forgot to take his boots off first, instead of sitting down and untying his laces, he fought with the clothing, struggling as it became increasingly stuck like a small animal caught in a snare, choking itself to death.
He caught himself hopping around in a small circle, trying to pull his pants leg off over his boot, the other half of his pants still on and hampering his movement and he ended up falling over onto the side of the bed. It struck him as suddenly funny and he could just picture Rodney giving him a hard time about it. He could almost hear Rodney's voice saying, "What, haven't you learned how to undress yourself yet? What are you, five?"
With a sudden wrench and the tearing of fabric, he successfully pulled off the pants leg over the boot and began to laugh. The laughter quickly morphed into a choking gasp for air and he found himself crying brokenly, nosily. This won't do. Stop it. To start now would be to lose it totally. He nipped the emotion in the bud on the third sob, swallowing it back down again. Quietly, he unlaced his boots and toed them off before standing and stripping off his remaining clothes.
Everything he wore had blood on it. Rodney's blood had even seeped through to his underwear. He left the clothes in a heap on the floor and moved slowly into the bathroom, turning on the shower and stepping into the spray. The blood on his hands began to run off as it re-hydrated, suddenly making it seem as though he himself were bleeding. He stayed in the shower a long time, scrubbing at his hands. He understood how Lady Macbeth felt now. The blood was stubborn to come off, embedded deep under his nails and clinging to his cuticles. He had Rodney's blood on his hands. Out, out damned spot.
Tomorrow, he thought as he lay naked on his bed, too tired to even throw on a pair of sweats, tomorrow he would seek out Ronon and Teyla and make sure they were okay. He would commiserate with Elizabeth; accept some Scotch from Carson and some vodka from Radek. He would listen as Rodney's friends told stories about him and he would tell a few himself. He would hug people and allow himself to be hugged. He would do it because Rodney's friends needed it and Rodney deserved it.
But tonight he would stare at the ceiling and wonder why it was that he never told Rodney how much he cared for him, more than a friend, more than a team leader should have cared for a member of the team. All the good reasons in the world for not telling Rodney before paled in comparison to the reality of not being able to tell him now. John wrapped himself in his blanket, the coldness within him seeping into his very bones.
His first coherent thought when he awoke was that he was getting a little too old for this camping on the ground shit. Even with the ground pad. Not that he would admit as much to Rodney, who had bitched non-stop the night before about needing a special orthopedic mattress before dropping off quickly to sleep.
As Rodney's name entered his mind, memory suddenly returned with full force and he froze on an intake of breath as he registered his surroundings. Rodney was dead. They took his body back to Atlantis yesterday. He had fallen into an exhausted sleep in his own quarters last night. So why was he in a tent, listening to someone snoring quietly on the other side? He rolled over abruptly to see the top of Rodney's head just barely visible from inside his sleeping bag, the soft snuffling sounds of 'someone who doesn't snore, thank you very much' coming from within.
John lay propped on his elbows within his own bag, breath coming in short, sharp bursts, as though he'd been running. What the fuck was going on? Disentangling himself from the sleeping bag, he crept over in his thermal shirt and boxers to peer down at the sleeping form in the other bag. Yup. Rodney alright. Yup. Alive. He rubbed the heel of one hand into his eye and looked again. Well, this was getting him no further...
He hurriedly pulled the rest of his clothing out of the sleeping bag where it was pleasantly warm. He dressed quickly, shivering more than just in the cold mountain air. He ducked under the tent flap, not bothering to lace up his boots before entering the small clearing where they had set up camp. The first pale streaks of dawn were lighting the sky. Ronon sat hunched by the fire in his great leather coat, tending to a pot of coffee whose aroma was filling the air.
With a terrible sense of déjà vu, John approached the fireside and spoke the same words he had said the previous morning. "I see you broke out the good stuff." He indicated the pot.
Ronon's grin gleamed whitely in the gray half-light. "Thought we might have trouble getting McKay up before noon otherwise." He filled a mug with the dark, rich liquid and passed it over to John, who once again, recognized it from Rodney's lab. He stared blankly at the lettering on the side.
"Call the village and tell them I found their idiot," it read. Someone had added an 's' after 'idiot' in white paint. John's hand started to shake slightly, causing the coffee to slop gently within the cup.
When he looked up, Ronon was eyeing him with that unfathomable expression that John took to be concern. He started to ask Ronon if he didn't feel as though they had this conversation before, like yesterday morning perhaps, but for some reason he could not utter the words. He gave Ronon a weak grin instead.
"Better go beard the lion in his den." He turned back towards the tent, feeling Ronon's eyes upon him. Inside the tent, he hesitated. He had long ago given up prodding Rodney awake. Rodney either tended to wake slowly in stages, grumbly and irritable like a bear coming out of hibernation or else he sat bolt upright, arms flailing, which tended to be hazardous to anything or anyone standing nearby. In the past, the best course of action was to nudge the sleeping bag with a foot, while verbally threatening to do dire things if Rodney did not get a move on. Today, John had the horrible sensation that if he used the usual method to wake Rodney, he might discover that his legs were no longer attached to his body.
Instead he settled for squatting close to Rodney's head while holding the steaming mug of coffee in near proximity, supporting his right elbow with the other hand braced across his knees. It took a moment or two, but then the sleeping bag began to twitch and Rodney's head appeared, much like a woodland creature cautiously exiting his burrow.
"Oh god," he moaned when he could focus on John. "I'm getting too old for this Boy Scout crap." He began to sniff the air appreciatively. "You've got coffee? Real coffee?" He struggled to sit up, his short brown hair going in all directions.
John waggled the cup slightly and saw Rodney's eyes fixate on it. Aha. Target acquired. Rodney's hands shot out of the bag and he reached for the mug, making greedy, grabbing motions with his fingers as John placed the mug within his reach. He pulled the mug in close, inhaling the scent of the coffee like it was oxygen to a drowning man.
He took a deep, appreciative swallow and then moaned his delight. "Ohmygod. This is the real thing. You've been holding out on me, haven't you? I thought we were all out of everything but that instant crap until the Daedalus came back again. Will you marry me?"
Startled, John almost stumbled in the act of rising to his feet, glancing back at Rodney who was smiling wickedly over the brim of his cup.
"Relax, Colonel." Rodney closed his eyes in bliss as he continued to make love to his mug. "I would marry a Wraith right now if it brought me coffee, real coffee, in bed."
"Eww. TMI, McKay," John automatically responded before withdrawing to his side of the tent. Okay, so the events of the day were already starting to diverge somewhat. This conversation was not one that he'd had with Rodney the day before. He busied himself with putting on the rest of his gear, but inside his head was spinning. Could 'yesterday' have possibly been an incredibly realistic and gruesome nightmare? It didn't feel like a nightmare though. It had been too real. His heart was pounding now and he felt the way he did on a mission when he could sense a trap, only he couldn't tell where it was just yet.
"Everything okay?" Rodney's voice broke in suddenly on his thoughts. He looked up to see Rodney fixing him with a very intense stare, the kind usually reserved for pieces of equipment that were not functioning according to specs.
"What? Uh, yeah, fine, just fine. Why?" If he told Rodney that he'd had a vivid and detailed dream in which he died in a horrific manner, he'd be dealing with the panic attack for the rest of the day. He glanced away from Rodney's face quickly and dropped down to lace up his boots.
"Oh, nothing," Rodney muttered into his coffee. "Only you brought me coffee when you normally reserve it as the motivational factor for getting me up out of bed and you haven't yet threatened me with cruel and sadistic ways to kill me and..."
John interrupted him by stalking over to where he was sitting still in the bag and snatching the cup out of his hands.
"Hey!" Rodney protested as John placed the cup just out of Rodney's reach.
"Jeez, who pissed in your Wheaties this morning?" Rodney grumbled, half lying back down and beginning the contortionist movement within the bag that signaled his attempt at getting dressed without leaving the warmth of the bedding. "Ow, ow, ow." He let his head fall back to the ground.
"What?" John's voice admittedly had a sharper edge of concern than it might have normally on a similar occasion.
"Muscle cramp," Rodney ground out through clenched teeth. As the spasm obviously passed, he made a face and said, "Remind me again why is it that I come on these missions? Hello, scientist here."
"You were the one that found the reference to the ZPM in the archives. And you're the one who is reasonably sure that this time, we will discover a working ZPM in the temple. It's not my fault said temple happens to be perched on a mountain peak that is inaccessible by jumper and that we've had to hike all this way out here. Hey, you want to call it a day, we can head back to the Gate right now, fine by me."
Rodney blinked owlishly at him. "Why are you so mad at me?"
Great. Of all the times for the normally oblivious astrophysicist to suddenly become incredibly perceptive. John bit back a sigh.
"I'm not mad at you, Rodney," he said at last. "I just had a really bad dream last night, okay?"
"Oh." Rodney sat up straighter in his bag, frowning.
"Really bad." John felt the need to expound.
"Bad," he added lamely.
"Got that part." There was a long pause. "Want to talk about it?"
"No!" John snatched up his pack and hefted it over his shoulders. "Look, if we want to make it to the temple and back before nightfall, we need to hustle. So hurry it up, will ya?" He made a hasty exit out of the tent.
God bless Teyla and Ronon. They had efficiently gotten breakfast started and they all fell into the routine of eating, performing morning ablutions, and securing the camp for the day. If anyone noticed that John seemed a little preoccupied, no one commented on it. Teyla did raise an eyebrow at him when he was a little short with Rodney about staying on the trail; he saw the eye roll Rodney gave her and the mouthed words 'bad dream'. His sense of unease grew as they slogged along the trail towards the base of the mountain and he found himself scanning the forest for anything that seemed remotely familiar, for any slight sound out of place.
He almost missed it when Rodney began his rant about the conditions on the planet and he looked back suddenly to see that he had indeed strayed from the trail, moving around a large fallen tree in order to avoid climbing over it.
"McKay! Freeze!" He barked out with the force of all his years of military training. Rodney lurched to a stop so suddenly, arms poised in mid-movement, that it would have been funny if the situation hadn't been so critical. Rodney opened his mouth to protest once he'd gotten over the initial shock; John could tell he was about to straighten and move again.
"I'm serious, Rodney. Don't move." He stepped quickly behind Teyla on the trail and moved over to where Rodney was standing, a worried expression on his face. Ronon and Teyla had halted as well, and he could see them testing the surroundings for the unseen danger, trying to locate whatever John had perceived. Lining himself up with Rodney's projected path, he made a careful note of the landmarks. Yes, there was the clearing where Rodney had ended up; there was the stone that sheltered the end of the trip wire. He raised his P-90 and let off a few short bursts into the brush ahead of them as Rodney covered his ears and flinched.
Rodney's "what the hell?" was lost in the subsequent explosion.
Clumps of dirt and vegetation rained down on them briefly as everyone around him stood open-mouthed in shock. Rodney was the closest; he turned to face John, blue eyes as wide as saucers.
John looked around at his team.
"Guys? We need to talk."
In the end, it was Rodney who made the best argument for continuing on with the mission.
"We need this ZedPM. We don't know what caused the 'potential' time loop so far, but it's possible that since the Colonel triggered the bomb, the timeline has been set back on the correct course again. Given the Ancients and their fondness for messing with time, I would be willing to bet that the ZedPM is behind the situation somehow. If nothing else, it is the most likely power source for whatever is happening here. I say we press on to the temple."
John heard the quotes around the word 'potential' and wondered which Rodney was having more difficulty believing, the possible time loop or the possibility that John had somehow become clairvoyant. He knew that SG1 had some sort of similar experience in the past with a time loop. He reminded himself once again that he should really read over those reports when he got the chance.
"Potential?" He heard himself ask sarcastically. He was betting Rodney just wanted that ZPM.
"One replay of the last 24 hours does not necessarily constitute 'time-looping', Colonel."
"Are you kidding me? Are we seriously having a discussion over the semantics of what just happened here?"
"I'm just saying..."
"If you want to get to the temple while there's still daylight, then we'd better go." Ronon interrupted.
"Ronon is correct," Teyla chimed in. "We need to make a decision quickly and act upon it before it is too late to reach our destination."
So, unable to entirely shake off the feeling that he had just made a serious mistake, John gave the order to press on. They reached the base of the mountain soon enough, but the trail to the temple at the peak was arduous. They left as much gear as they could at the base and began the ascent. The pathway was obvious enough but continued resolutely upwards, with switchbacks every fifty feet or so. The air was thinner too, and despite his daily running with Ronon, John could feel the strain on his lungs. It left Rodney with little to no breath for speech, for which the entire team had to be grateful John was sure.
Ronon forged on up ahead on the trail. Teyla, as usual, covered their six. John made a point to keep pace with Rodney and called breaks when absolutely necessary. On one such break, Ronon radioed back for Teyla to join him up ahead to discuss the direction of the trail. John waited with Rodney, leaning against a large boulder, sipping from his canteen as he watched Rodney soak a handkerchief and mop the back of his neck. There was little shade on the mountainside now—they were above the treeline. The crisp cold air of the morning was a distant memory in the face of the brutal sunshine.
Rodney looked up, caught his eye and then seemed to get flustered. He reached back behind him to feel for the surface of a rock of his own to lean on and then glanced back up at John again before looking out over the valley from which they had climbed.
"So," Rodney said, scanning the view. "I guess I stepped on the land mine in the previous time sequence?"
He made the question seem very casual, as though he were inquiring about what he had for breakfast. John closed his eyes. He could hear the explosion; he could smell the iron in Rodney's blood. He saw Rodney's fading expression, could hear his whispered 'John'. When he opened his eyes, Rodney was looking intently at him.
"Yes," he said tersely.
"So, ah, when you said you had a bad dream last night, that's what you were referring to?"
"I didn't know it wasn't a dream until we came upon the mine in the woods. Not for sure. Can we not talk about this?"
"We've never established what exactly triggered the time loop in the first place. It only makes sense to try and figure that out," he paused, and then with a change of tone, spoke again. "Did I...was it...well, instantaneous?" Rodney's voice was suddenly hesitant.
John felt his head jerk as though he had been slapped. He glared furiously at Rodney for a moment and then began studying the ground. "No. It was not instantaneous."
"Oh." Rodney's voice was quiet. Overhead, John could hear the soaring cry of some sort of gliding bird. He'd noted it before, riding the thermals and he wished he could be doing the same right about now.
"Soooo," Rodney began, but John cut him off.
"I'm not talking about it, Rodney." He stood up abruptly, re-balancing his pack.
"I thought we were waiting for Teyla and Ronon." Rodney looked at him in assessment again. There was a pause. "Did I say anything? You know, before I..." Rodney trailed off, his hand spun out the implied words not said.
"There wasn't any time. What part of 'not talking about it' do you not understand?" John pointed at the trail ahead and Rodney sighed before turning to start the ascent again. Up ahead, Ronon appeared on what looked to be some sort of plateau above them, Teyla moving in to stand by his shoulder. Ronon lifted his hand and let it fall. They were obviously waiting for John and Rodney to join them.
John watched Rodney's broad back moving ahead of him and when they had almost reached the ledge where Ronon and Teyla were waiting, he said, "You spoke my name."
Rodney came to an abrupt halt, looking back at John with a frown. "That's it?" He seemed incredulous.
John felt the idea of a smile tease at his lips but the remembrance of Rodney's face as he said John's name wiped it away. "You spoke my name," John repeated.
He wasn't sure just what Rodney saw in his face, but whatever it was made him swallow hard and turn abruptly to finish the climb upwards.
On the leveled out area, Ronon explained the choices. "The trail winds around this rock face here. We can follow it, or we can climb this surface here and pick up the trail above." He indicated a steep wall of rock rising above them. John ran a practiced eye over the cliff side; it had good footholds. It wouldn't be easy though.
Rodney gasped. "You've got to be kidding."
Ronon shook his head, causing his dreads to move stiffly. "It's not that bad. It'll cut off at least two hours of climbing time." He paused, appeared to assess Rodney's red face and perspiring brow and continued. "Maybe more. We've lost a lot of daylight already today." His tone implied 'by sitting around talking things to death'. "I can go up first and secure the ropes."
"Alternatively," Teyla added serenely, "we could plan on setting up camp once we reach the temple and not try to make it back tonight." Her proposal had the sound of an argument she had already begun with Ronon before their arrival.
"Set up camp? With what? We left everything back at the...real camp below." Rodney struggled only momentarily for words. "Not that our camp last night was anything to write home about, but at least it has our sleeping bags and our important staples like, I don't know, food?"
"And here I thought you were going to say 'coffee'," John commented. "So does this mean you want to try the climb?"
The look Rodney gave him was the 'you moron' look number twenty-three. The one that said, 'and I don't like you very much right now' as well.
They had watched in silence as Ronon casually scaled the cliff with careful slowness, testing footholds and choosing the best path. Once he had made it to the top, he began belaying down ropes to the others. Teyla climbed next, not being able to take the exact same path that Ronon took because her reach was so much shorter. When Rodney walked to the base of the cliff, John helped him hook into his harness and then did likewise, preparing to climb with him.
"You know, I'm not so good with heights," Rodney mumbled, checking his harness for the tenth time.
"Don't look down," John advised. "Besides, I'll be right there."
Rodney gave him a quick glance and then a stiff smile before starting to climb, huffing softly with each movement upwards. John paralleled his movement on the second set of ropes. They had gotten about halfway up the face when suddenly Rodney yelped, swinging his arm back with such force he caused himself to spin and he had to grab hard for the wall. "Sonofabitch!" He shouted, shaking his hand.
"Rodney?" John started but Rodney continued on.
"Jesus, some red and black thingy stung me! Oh god, red and black...in this galaxy that is soooo bad. It looked like a scorpion. I put my hand down on it before I saw it. Oh god, oh god..." John heard the wheeze in Rodney's voice and began working his way closer to where he was gripping the wall. Rodney was scrabbling at his vest pockets to pull out his epi-pen and John saw him fumble and drop it before he made it to Rodney's side.
"Oh god!" He swiveled again, staring after the pen as it made its bouncing descent down the cliff side, almost losing his grip on the wall. "We've got to go down, we've got to get it...I can feel, it's starting..."
John touched the radio headset in his ear. "Ronon. Rodney's been stung by something and is having a reaction. We're headed back down to the bottom. Don't try to come this way—I don't know what got him." As he finished speaking he swung himself over so that he was straddling Rodney's body, pinning him to the cliff.
"Rodney." He could hear the rattle in his chest, feel the panic in the body underneath him. "Stay calm. I have another pen." Even as he spoke, he fished it out of its secure location in his vest, popped the top on it with one hand and with a swift movement, injected it into Rodney's thigh, through his pants. "C'mon. Let's get you back down."
Rodney was resting his face against the cliff wall; he turned his head slightly to look at John over his shoulder. John was startled to see that his eyelids and lips were already getting puffy. Making the descent a little too quickly for safety, John had to nearly catch Rodney in his arms when their feet at last touched bottom again.
John lowered him carefully to the sharp-shaled surface of the trail. "Rodney?"
Damn it, that epi-pen surely should have kicked in by now. Rodney's features had not become any more swollen, but he was becoming distinctly cyanotic, his lips turning lavender in color. John could hear the fluid every time he tried to breathe. This didn't seem like any anaphylactic reaction that Carson had described to him, but he started to look for the original epi-pen just in case.
Rodney grabbed at his sleeve with his left hand. "Not ana...not ana..." he wheezed.
John gripped his hand. "What is it? What's going on?" Not again, he thought. Please god, not again.
"I can't feel my arm." John rolled Rodney slightly to pull out his right arm and push up the sleeve. He'd never seen anything like it. Rodney's hand was swollen and turning black, red streaks running up his arms along his veins. He pulled his eyes away to make shocked contact with Rodney's, hoping that he wouldn't give anything away in his expression.
"Okay," he said for the record. "Not some sort of anaphylaxis, but some sort of toxin." He began to fumble at Rodney's arm; the thought that he needed another goddamned tourniquet crossed his mind.
"I'm going to die." White flecks of foam appeared at the corners of Rodney's mouth.
"You're not going to die," John said fiercely, only to be brought up short by Rodney's violent coughing. He steadied Rodney's head in his hands and wiped away the trickle of dark, blackish blood that came up with the cough.
"John," Rodney said with difficulty.
"Okay, okay. So maybe you are dying. But this is the time loop thing, right? So when we wake up in the morning, we'll all be back at the base camp and this next time, we'll figure out how to stop it..."
Rodney fixed on him a beady stare. "That's supposed to make me feel better?" He wheezed, breath becoming more labored. "Asshole," he mouthed before he died.
John woke with a violent start, and took a deep sigh of relief when he realized that he was in his sleeping bag again. He lifted his head to look for Rodney, only to discover that his bag was empty. Empty.
Disoriented, panic starting to rise in his chest, he struggled to unzip the bag and rolled out of it onto his feet. He had just reached the tent flap when it lifted and Rodney barreled into his arms.
"Rodney! Where the fuck have you been?" His words were harsh, his breathing ragged. He clutched Rodney's biceps in a grip of steel, knowing he was going to leave bruises.
"Ow!" Rodney complained, wriggling in his grasp. "I had to take a leak. What the hell's wrong with you?"
John released him so abruptly Rodney almost fell down. "I'll explain later. Get dressed. I need to talk to everyone together."
He turned and began to swiftly pull on his own clothing. Behind him, he heard Rodney mutter, "Jeez, who pissed in your Wheaties?"
John opened his eyes slowly and stared up at the ceiling of the tent. On the other side of him, he could hear the soft snuffling sounds of Rodney not-snoring. He lay there a long moment, thinking about how many times he had woken up in this same position. He was beginning to lose track, beginning to think that the universe surely had to be running out of new and inventive ways to kill Rodney McKay. No matter what he did.
That was the most frustrating part about it all. No matter what he did, no matter what course of action he chose, the end result was always the same. Sometimes they made it back to the Gate with his body before nightfall. Sometimes there was no body to recover. Sometimes Ronon or Teyla were critically injured as well. He would have thought that with time he would have become inured to the sight of Rodney repeatedly dying in horrific manners, but he lived in fear that the loop would one day cease and whatever method that had killed Rodney that day would be the permanent one.
He thought about all the discussions they had as a team, once he had convinced them there really was a problem. Some days they could not be convinced. On one memorable day, Ronon had disarmed him and the team bound him in ropes as they headed back to the Gate, convinced he's lost his mind. That was the day the quicksand got Rodney and almost Ronon too.
Yesterday, they were convinced that they should abort the mission and head back to Atlantis in the hope that the problem was limited to the planet. They had packed up the camp and returned to the village, only to walk into the middle of a raiding party. The villagers, leery of strangers coming through the gate, had complained of the raiders on the very first day they had arrived on the planet and John had recognized this was one more thing he could feel responsible for, due to his inadvertent awakening of the Wraith. As the Wraith began to move in concert towards the goal of taking Atlantis, the massive cullings that took place preparatory to the siege left many worlds devastated. Armed parties were now attacking former allies and friends, stealing whatever they could to foster their own survival.
Everything had seemed peaceful enough as they entered the village late that morning, but the raiders' attack coincided with their arrival, launched suddenly and without warning. John saw Rodney go down in a welter of blood as a bullet tore through the side of his neck, arterial spatter spraying Ronon's shoulders and chest as he stood next to the scientist. Ronon had rushed to his side at the first indication they were under attack, and got a belly full of lead for his futile efforts to protect Rodney from death once again.
Something snapped inside John as he stared at Rodney's prone form once more, and with Teyla's voice buzzing in his ear like some insect he could not understand, he stepped calmly out into the street, gunning down the raiders with his P-90. They never stood a chance. He picked them off one by one and when they began to break and run, he hunted them down, kicking in doors, over turning tables, shooting even as the raiders laid down their weapons and begged for mercy. In less than ten minutes, he had killed ten men and was both praised and feared by the people of the village.
Teyla said nothing when he told her that he was leaving her with Ronon, who was sweating and trying to hold his intestines in place with his hands, while John went and brought the cloaked jumper to the village.
"It will be okay. You'll see," he'd said to her. She just looked at him like she no longer recognized him. He had been tempted not to go back.
It has to stop. It must. He got up from his sleeping bag and moved over to where Rodney lay, still not-snoring. Dropping to his knees, he grabbed Rodney's shoulder and shook it, hard.
"What?" Rodney bolted upright today, looked at John's face and groaned, covering his eyes with his hands. "Please tell me we have coffee, okay?"
"Listen, Rodney," John began his speech with the tone of one who has had long practice. "Don't interrupt." He threw up a hand to forestall the comment he knew was coming. "Reader's Digest version here, okay? We're stuck in a time loop. Yes, you heard me right, time loop. Every day, something kills you. No, this is not a joke, do I look like I'm joking? No matter what we do, you still end up dead. We have not figured out the cause. I've done everything I can think of to try and stop it. So today, I'm going to do nothing. We're all going to sit here in camp and contemplate our navels until the sun goes down, at which point hopefully we'll wake up and find that the next day has really arrived. And don't," he said with sudden emphasis, "you dare ask me who pissed in my Wheaties."
Rodney looked at him doubtfully. He opened his mouth to speak, but John interrupted him again. "Seriously Rodney, I considered simply shooting you this morning myself, just to get it over with so I could go back to bed, but then I would have to shoot Ronon and Teyla too, and with my luck, that would be the time sequence that would stick."
Rodney's eyes narrowed in that manner that boded no good for whatever hapless minion happened to stir his ire. "And just what makes me Joxer in your little Xena-induced nightmare? I'll have you know I'm neither an incompetent boob nor do I suffer from delusions of grandeur."
"Well you're at least half right." John managed a weak smile.
"Have you considered the possibility that you're insane?" Rodney raised a sharp eyebrow.
"Yes." John said simply. Rodney's smirky expression faded as he continued to stare at John's face. His breath hitched and he reached out gently with one hand, resting it on John's shoulder where he gave it a little squeeze.
John's breath caught at Rodney's response. There had been many reactions to the many versions of this speech, but none so quietly sympathetic. Something inside John broke.
With both hands, he fisted Rodney's t-shirt and pulled him forward to snarl in his face. "Don't be sorry, goddamn it. Make it stop."
Rodney's eyes narrowed and he began to puff up with outrage. He placed both hands on John's shoulders and pushed back, hard, trying to make him let go. "Since when did this become my fault?"
"Since you're the one who keeps fucking dying!" He rocked back on his heels with the force of Rodney's push, but he didn't let go.
Rodney opened his mouth to fire off a snarky retort but then stopped mid-action to scan John's face. "You're really pissed at me. You...oh...wow."
He could almost see the 'eureka' moment when it passed over Rodney's features. Oh what the hell...John leaned forward and pulled Rodney in for a kiss.
Rodney made a little startled noise of surprise as their lips made contact. John thought he was in control of the moment, but that was before Rodney's fingers tightened on his shoulders, bringing them suddenly together chest to chest. Rodney inhaled sharply and somehow pulled John in with his breath.
He should have known. He should have known. He did know. There was no way that Rodney would ever do anything in half measures and John knew that if anyone ever got past McKay's personal insecurities, he would bring all the passion, all the drama, all the intensity and focus that was Rodney to the situation. Rodney's tongue in his mouth was both fiendishly strong and wickedly mobile and he couldn't help moaning as a hand somehow made its way to the back of his neck while another worked its way under his shirt. His own hands were trapped against Rodney's chest but he worked them loose and down around Rodney's waist, pushing down at the sleeping bag, tugging at his clothing, intent on finding skin.
"Colonel? Dr. McKay?" Teyla's voice from outside the tent reached them. "Is everything all right?"
John broke contact with Rodney's mouth to stare at him, still frozen in a half embrace. Rodney was having difficulty controlling his breathing; his pupils were blown. His fingers were still on the back of John's neck, threading up into his hair. John pulled back slightly and called in the direction of the tent flap, "We're fine." His voice was embarrassingly husky; he cleared his throat and added, "We'll be right out."
"There was yelling." Teyla's voice was doubtful.
"What else is new?" Rodney said, loud enough to carry to Teyla. John caught his eye again and realized that he had put that look of unholy glee on Rodney's face. The two of them suddenly burst out laughing and then they tried unsuccessfully to muffle it. The hand on his back suddenly pinched him and he had to stifle a yelp before glaring at an unrepentant Rodney.
"Very well." Teyla's voice had a long-suffering quality to it. "Breakfast will be ready soon."
"Be right there." John managed to sound half-way composed. He listened for the sound of Teyla moving away from the tent and then turned back to Rodney, resting one hand on his thigh, warm from its confinement within the bag. Rodney's mouth slowly evolved into his familiar crooked smile.
John rolled in to kiss him again, but Rodney turned his head away with a laugh. "Rule number one: no kissing until after you've shaved. I'm going to have a hard time explaining the whisker burn this morning as it is."
John splayed his fingers along Rodney's leg, pleased at the little shudder this triggered in him. "And rule number two? Please tell me this is not going to be a list like the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition."
Rodney's eyes narrowed briefly. "I always knew you were a geek at heart. Rule number two..." he leaned forward and claimed John's mouth for his own again, holding John's face steady in between his hands. It was a long moment before they broke apart. "Know when to ignore rule number one."
John suddenly found himself being pushed back again.
"What?" Rodney challenged at his raised eyebrow. "This is the first real prospect of sex, that is with someone other than myself, that I've had in...well, let's just say a really long time. Sorry, but not in a tent with Ronon and Teyla listening in nearby. Well, not at first anyway. Ohmygod, you are a kinky bastard, aren't you?" Rodney seemed affectionately amused at John's embarrassed blush. He started to unzip the bag so he could get out. "Nope. We need to solve this time loop problem and get the hell back to Atlantis. Besides, breakfast is waiting."
John closed his eyes, willing himself to hold this moment. For just a second there, he'd forgotten everything except the immediacy of kissing Rodney. His eyes flew open when he felt Rodney's feather light touch on his face and discovered Rodney kneeling in front of him. "We'll figure this out. Trust me."
That's what you always say. John closed his eyes again.
"I've been thinking." Rodney's announcement hardly came as a surprise. Earlier John had sat down with the entire team and laid out the problem once more. Ronon disliked the idea of doing nothing for the day but he had eventually acquiesced; giving in with poor grace when John pointed out that they had had similar conversations before and nothing that they attempted had worked, so therefore today they would attempt nothing.
Ronon had merely eyed him and said, "Sheppard logic," while making a spinning motion with one finger in the air. John took that to mean he disagreed with John's circular reasoning.
The air of silence was apparently not appreciative enough for Rodney's pronouncement, so he repeated it. "I said, I've been thinking."
John lifted his arm off of his forehead where he had been lying in the shade, pretending to sleep. Teyla was mediating off to one side, within hearing distance but not acknowledging; Ronon appeared to actually be asleep. It was up to John. He rolled onto his side, propping his head with one arm. "You're always thinking. About what this time?"
"About what started all this. I bet it's not even on the planet at all. Remember yesterday? Just before the mission?"
John thought hard about 'yesterday' but came up blank. "Remind me. It's been a while."
Rodney gave him what he'd come to think of as Rodney's startled rabbit look but then continued. "You came down to the labs just as I was putting several new artifacts away so that no one would mess with them while we were off-world. I was labeling the things we had successfully identified that day and you reached over and picked up that marble-looking thingy..."
John remembered. He wouldn't have called it a marble—more like one of those Superballs he'd had as a kid—a kind of hard rubber, clear on the outside with sparkly stuff inside, bounced like crazy when you threw it down on pavement. Only when he picked up this Ancient 'toy', the sparkles had lit up and began to flash merrily within.
"Cool, what's this?" He'd said.
Rodney had come over and snatched the Superball out of his hand, prising his fingers open to retrieve the object and placing it back on the desk where it went dark again.
"Precisely what I intend to ask you at some future point, Colonel, but not at this immediate moment in time. I thought we were in a hurry? Didn't you come down to make sure I was going to be ready for the mission on time? Well, I don't have time to casually check out alien artifacts at the moment. That needs to be done in a controlled fashion." He had stopped and pointedly looked at his watch before grabbing the rest of the artifacts and sweeping them into a box labeled "DO NOT TOUCH UNDER PAIN OF DEATH". He placed the box in cabinet and stood, arms akimbo, facing John. "Well? Tick-tock, Colonel."
"You think the Superball was some sort of Ancient time device?" John had been making small patterns in the sandy soil with one finger; he stopped now to look up at Rodney.
Rodney, who inexplicably seemed to be making tiny baskets out of blades of grass, mouthed the word 'superball?' and then shrugged. "It's as good as explanation as anything else. We've not encountered anything on this world that we can think of that might have been the cause of the time loop." He went back to his miniaturized basket weaving.
"So why didn't we repeat yesterday? Why repeat the day after we both handled the device?" John was not going to take all the blame for this one, should the Superball prove to be the culprit.
"I don't know." Rodney suddenly crushed his little row of baskets, Gulliver's hand smiting the Lilliputians.
John glanced at his watch. 1030. Ye gods, would this day ever end?
Just before noon, Ronon came over and glowered over top of John. Rodney had retreated to the tent, complaining of the risk of sunburn despite the personal sun block SPF 10,000 that he never left home without. He'd given John a rather interesting look as he lifted the flap and ducked inside; a combination hopeful/seductive/bored out of my mind/join me look that John found endearing but chose to ignore. Teyla was on the edge of the clearing, practicing a complicated stick routine in slow motion, the grace and beauty of her movements reminding John of tai chi. He shielded his eyes and looked up at Ronon.
"This is stupid," Ronon complained. "I'm going to go look around."
"Okay," John waved him off. "There's a land mine located 2.3 klicks down the main trail towards the temple, be sure to look for the big fallen tree. If you go rock climbing, watch out for the red and black bugs that will kill you in less than five minutes if you get stung. Raiders will be attacking the village any minute now, the ravine in the valley below us is subject to flash-flooding and there are patches of quicksand on the south side of the village if you try to go that way back towards the Gate. Let's see, what else..."
Ronon stood looking at him for a long moment before turning and settling down by the remains of the fire, stirring it back into life in preparation of lunch. John rolled to his feet and went over to sit next to him.
"Something I've noticed throughout all this," he spoke casually, breaking up small sticks and poking them into the fire as well. "No matter what happens to Rodney, you're right there trying your damnedest to prevent it. Afterwards, you always blame yourself for failing to do so. I wonder, why is that?" He glanced up to gauge the Satedan's reaction.
Ronon thought for a moment before speaking. "McKay needs the most protection. You and Teyla can take care of yourselves...most of the time. McKay needs someone to protect him."
"All those years that you survived the Wraith..." John began slowly, knowing he had Ronon's full attention from the word 'wraith' on. "I've seen you almost die and be critically wounded half a dozen times on Rodney's behalf since all this started, Ronon." He struggled with the words, not wanting to say them but feeling like he needed to. "You're better off without us. We cripple you. We tie you down."
"You anchor me, Sheppard." Ronon's words were calm. "There's a difference."
After lunch, it was Teyla's turn. She settled beside him in a comfortable cross-legged pose, as Ronon stood at the edge of the clearing and practiced throwing knives at a bole of a tree. Rodney had looked interested in perhaps joining Ronon but a single filthy glare from John had sent him retreating into the tent again.
"You look tired," she said gently, but watching Ronon. He threw underhanded with an easy, deceptive grace. The knives flashed from his hands with unbelievable speed and shuddered their way into the bark of the tree.
God, he was so tired. Despite the fact that he fell into an exhausted sleep each night. "A bit," John conceded.
Teyla looked at him then, a small 'yeah, right' smile on her lips. He smiled back, knowing she had him pegged. She raised her eyebrows in a 'may I?' expression as she reached for him. He frowned but then sighed when she began to massage the back of his neck. She shifted position so that she was kneeling behind him and worked her thumbs into knots he had not known existed.
"I cannot understand why the Ancestors would create a device such as this."
"Uh-huh." He groaned as she hit a really bad spot.
"Why would anyone want to repeat their worst nightmare over and over again?"
John frowned again, but allowed his body to rock forward with the movements of Teyla's hands against his neck. "Maybe it was meant to give someone a chance to go back in time and correct a terrible wrong."
"And yet you say no matter what course of action you take, Rodney still dies." Her hands tightened briefly as the muscles of his neck seized up at her words and then she began working again. "So that cannot be the reason. There has to be another purpose behind this."
"Maybe it's broken," John said. God knows, it felt broken.
"This reminds me much of the situation in which you found yourself in that 'time dilation field'. Only instead of passing quickly, time here seems to be stuck. What have you learned from this experience, John?"
He noted the deliberate use of his first name here and groaned. "Oh god, Teyla, please don't tell me there's some object lesson to all this and I've just been too dense to see it."
She laughed, squeezing both shoulders briefly before starting to work on the middle of his back.
"I've learned that all of you are family," he said suddenly in the silence that ensued. "I'm not sure that's such a good thing. I mean, for us as a team. I think...I think maybe I should break up the team."
Teyla's hands went very still and then slowly began to move again. "I'm not sure I can picture Ronon taking orders from anyone else," she said mildly and John snorted. "I also know that you will always do the right thing, no matter how difficult a task or great a sacrifice that might be. That is reason enough for me to trust your leadership."
John felt his throat get tight and he swallowed hard, blinking furiously.
"As for Rodney..." Teyla's voice trailed off mischievously. "Well, no one can understand why you haven't shot him already. He doesn't exactly...what is your phrase? 'Play well with others'."
He gave a half-laugh. Her hands began to move upwards again, back up to his neck, thumbs moving up into his hairline. He had to resist the urge to whimper and roll back into her touch.
"I do not know that I could have survived this ordeal myself." Teyla's voice was reflective. "You are a very strong man, John."
He snorted loudly at that one. "Hardly, Teyla. You and Ronon have me beat hands down on the suffering-in-silence-and-strength front. It must be bred and born into you here in the Pegasus galaxy."
He could feel the shrug in her hands. "There is a different kind of strength to you, John Sheppard. You see solutions where no one else does. You can believe 'six impossible things before breakfast', like your Alice in Wonderland. An Athosian would have lost their sanity under these circumstances."
"Rodney would say that it helps not to be sane in the first place." He gave a slight laugh.
"Have you learned that you love him?" Teyla's voice was soft in his ear.
"Er...uh, yes." John mumbled.
"Enough to tell him?"
His response was little more than a sigh. "Yes." Sort of.
"Good," she said in a brisker tone. "There may be hope for you yet."
He started to laugh, but she caught her breath suddenly and using his shoulders for leverage, pushed herself abruptly to her feet.
He twisted around to look up at her. "Teyla?"
"Wraith," she said.
In the end, John had no choice but to lead them all into the dense forest. They were too exposed in the camp; at least in the woods they were safer from an overhead flyby with a Dart. He hated taking them off the trail altogether (watch out for the big sunflower-looking things that have sulfuric acid for sap) but he had few options. It meant however, they would not make very good time putting some distance between themselves and the camp, and if the camp was spotted by a Dart, they'd be looking for the campers. Somehow, they needed to circle back toward the Gate.
It seemed almost as though the Wraith knew where they were headed however. They had probably spotted the camp early on and then began searching in an ever increasing circle, knowing that the Gate was the only means of escape. The overhead whine of a Dart gave them scant warning; Ronon shouldered Rodney aside just as a culling beam swept down, and like that, Ronon was gone. John and Teyla brought up their weapons to shoot at the Dart, but the foliage that had only partly sheltered them now prevented them from getting a clean shot. Another whine and suddenly there were Wraith among them.
"Run!" His command to Rodney was urgent as he went back to help Teyla, her weapon jammed and a Wraith warrior tackling her in hand to hand combat. Only her agility on the uneven terrain had kept her alive so far.
"I'm not leaving you, damn it!" Rodney yelled back.
A Wraith stunner caught just the edge of John's neck and he went down, right arm useless, P-90 dropping to the ground. He fumbled for his handgun with his left hand, trying to spot the shooter. In the clearing, he saw Teyla roll away from the Wraith and was astonished when a short burst from Rodney's P-90 cut the Wraith down.
"Hah!" He heard Rodney say vindictively. "Regenerate from that, motherfucker!"
"Rodney!" Teyla's warning cut through his heart like a knife. "Behind you!"
John struggled to his feet even as he heard Rodney's agonized scream. He saw Rodney pressed against the trunk of a tree, a long haired Wraith with its hand plunged into his chest, saw the years peeling away from Rodney's face as it fed. John fired repeatedly into the Wraith, who merely turned its head over its shoulder to glare at him before resuming its feeding again.
Rodney met his eyes over the shoulder of the Wraith, his now-wizened face screwed up in suffering. Do it, his eyes said. John raised his hand to fire, to personally kill Rodney himself, praying his aim would be accurate enough, when the culling beam overtook him.
This is the last time. John awoke in the tent again and stared up at the ceiling. No more.
He did not bother to tell the others about the time loop. There was no point. He had spent the rest of the last sequence cocooned in a Hive ship, awaiting interrogation or being eaten, whichever came first. His captors had seemed intrigued by his air of 'whatever' during his time aboard the ship, but he had been busy thinking just the same. In every sequence so far, he had managed to survive. It was the only thing that had not changed from loop to loop. He went through the motions of breakfast and the prep for the long trek up the mountain in silence, earning a quiet word of concern from Teyla. He passed it off with not having slept well the night before, and though he knew she knew he was lying, there was not much she could do about it.
On the path to the base of the mountain, he stopped the team before the fallen log and detonated the landmine. When Ronon asked how he knew it was there, he shrugged and said he saw the wire in the sunlight. He knew Ronon knew he was lying and there was not much he could do about it either. He found Rodney's eyes on him frequently, assessing him, a slight frown on his face, but John ignored him. It didn't matter, today was the last day.
At the bottom of the cliff, John listened carefully to Ronon's proposed plan to climb the rock face instead of taking the long way around and then vetoed the idea. Ronon gave up with barely a sigh, but Rodney launched into a complaint about the decision resulting in their having to spend the night on the mountain in less than optimal conditions and if the Colonel didn't believe Rodney was capable of climbing the cliff, Rodney would have him know...
"I said no. The decision is made. Let's move on." John didn't think he sounded anything but matter-of-fact, but Rodney exploded.
"Jeezus, Colonel. Mind telling us who the hell pissed in your Wheaties this morning?"
John turned to face Rodney on the trail, where he stood in angry consternation. John began to move towards him in steady, deliberate strides, noting in a detached manner how Rodney started to shrink slightly as he approached. When he was close enough, he reached out and grabbed the back of Rodney's head, pulling him in for a kiss.
Rodney's mouth opened in a 'mmrph' of surprise and John slid his tongue in briefly, meltingly before withdrawing just enough to pull gently at Rodney's lips before straightening again.
"What...what..." Rodney was sputtering when John turned and started up the trail again.
He paused, looking over his shoulder at Rodney, who stood open-mouthed and confused.
"I've always wanted to do that," he shrugged. Ahead of them on the trail, Teyla looked back at him with heightened concern. Ronon seemed merely amused.
As they continued to grind their way up the trail in the baking sun, John could feel Rodney begin to say something and subside several times. A small, distant part of him thought damn, wish I had figured out this was the best way to silence him a long time ago. He dismissed the usefulness of the ploy on a regular basis though. Probably only worked the first time.
Ronon and Teyla continued to steadily pull away from them on the trail. Maybe to tactfully leave the two of them alone. The radio clicked in his ear and he touched the headset.
"Watch the trail as you climb the next section." Ronon's voice rumbled in his ear. "There's some water seeping down from somewhere. Parts of the trail are not stable."
John acknowledged Ronon's warning and his heart rate began to pick up. Getting closer now.
He almost grinned when he finally felt the tremor. He glanced up quickly and saw the beginnings of the slide, the tiny spill of gravel off the face of the mountain above them. Dropping his gear he turned and made for Rodney at a sprint. The sharp crack of the rock above splitting loose from the cliff side sounded like the report of a gun. No time to retreat down the trail. Rodney's horrified expression told him they were out of time. He dove on Rodney even as he was turning to run, forcing him down and against the mountain wall, protecting his body with the length of his own, covering Rodney's head with his arms as the first of the rocks began to rain down on them.
Consciousness returned; pain drove it back into the shadows. At one point he recognized a lilting accent and thought, 'oh good, Carson's here,' before all thought of 'here' was lost again. He felt himself being shifted and a shooting sensation of pain in his shoulder. Fuck, that hurt.
Someone laughed and he realized he must have spoken aloud. He thought of a witty retort, but then it was gone again.
When he awoke again, it was to the steady beeping of a heart monitor. Awareness crawled back slowly, like a drunk after a night out on the town. He shifted carefully; virtually everything hurt. He was in an infirmary bed, elevated so that he was almost sitting up. He was dressed in scrubs; he noticed with an odd sense of detachment that his watch had been removed, revealing a pale streak of pale skin around his tanned wrist. His right arm was strapped across his chest. A slight movement on his part brought a hiss of pain as he felt the ends of his collarbone rub together. God, he hated breaking his collarbone. Made getting dressed in the mornings a bitch and took forever to heal.
At his intake of breath, Teyla lifted her head from where she had been sleeping propped against the side of his bed. "John." She smiled at him, serene as ever. Scarcely raising her voice, she turned her head slightly and said, "Carson. He's awake again."
Carson Beckett swam into his peripheral vision. He placed a hand on Teyla's shoulder to reach around her and check John's pulse.
John tried to give her a 'what's up with that?' eyebrow, but he ended up wincing instead.
"You gave us quite a scare, Colonel." Carson seemed satisfied with his pulse and moved so as to check John's pupillary light response. "How are you feeling? Do you remember what happened?"
"Rockfall. Rodney?" John croaked out, seeking Teyla for confirmation, mouth as dry as the Afghani desert.
Teyla reached over for a cup of water, bending the straw so that John could take a sip without leaning too far forward.
"He's fine. A bit banged up," Carson added, "but nothing like he would have been if you had not intervened. A word of warning though, he's quite pissed at you."
"Pissed? What'd I do?" John complained. The 'this time' was audible, if unspoken.
"Besides save his life? You managed to break your collarbone, crack a shoulder blade and some ribs, as well as get a concussion. Plan on being grounded a while, Colonel." He conducted his exam briefly but thoroughly, asking John some pertinent questions regarding what he remembered from the day and being apparently satisfied with the answers. He gave Teyla's shoulder a lingering pat as he moved off.
"Rodney said you 'pulled a Griffin'." Teyla provided when John turned a puzzled eye towards her.
Huh. That one was going to be a little hard to argue with. Since basically it was the truth. Rodney had never quite gotten over the way Griffin had ruthlessly sacrificed himself to buy Rodney a chance to be rescued in the submerged puddlejumper.
"You scared him," Teyla said quietly. John caught her eye and she continued. "You scared all of us. You had been behaving...oddly...all day, and then when the rockslide occurred and we started digging the two of you out, we could hear Rodney complaining, but no sound from you. We thought you were dead."
"Sorry," John said lamely. "It's been a weird sort of day." He turned his head slightly but then gave up at the attempt to look for a clock when his bones protested at the movement. "What time is it?" John could not keep the urgency out of his voice. Yes, they'd made it back, but the day wasn't over yet...Teyla flicked her eyes up and behind him to look at a clock on the wall.
"It's late. A little after 2300. We were a long time getting you back to the Gate. We carried you down off the mountain and then found a reasonable clearing for an emergency landing. We sent Ronon back to the Gate to radio for help. Rodney at least, thought the clearing was reasonable. I understand it made Major Lorne 'sweat bullets'. The Major suggested next time Rodney chose a landing site, he'd better be prepared to land the jumper himself." Teyla paused to smile. "You've been a little fuzzy all afternoon and in a lot of pain, so after Dr. Beckett determined your head injuries were not serious, he gave you 'the good stuff', as Ronon calls it."
"And Rodney's really okay?"
Teyla seemed touched by his concern. If only she knew.
"Ronon took him to the mess to get some dinner. You know how they are about food. Rodney's face and hands are scratched where you forced him into the ground. The shale was very sharp. You will probably never hear the end of it."
"If I'm lucky," John sighed. Teyla flashed him a sharp, unreadable look and then shifted as though she was about to leave. John reached for her hand. "Stay?" He hated the raw need in his voice.
Teyla looked down on him in some confusion but she took his hand.
"Just until morning," he said as he closed his eyes.
When John awoke in the morning, it was to the accompaniment of rapid typing on a keyboard in addition to the rhythm of the heart monitor. He opened his eyes slowly; almost afraid at what he might see, despite the smile creeping across his face at the familiar sounds.
Teyla had been replaced at his bedside by Rodney, who was frowning as he clattering away on his laptop. John noted the shallow scrapes and cuts across his cheekbones and nose, as well as on the hands that moved purposefully over the keyboard. It occurred to John that Teyla had probably been chased out sometime during the night by that Nurse Ratchet person that was always in such a bad mood. He would have to say something to Carson about her one day.
Rodney was oblivious to his fond stare.
"Hey," he finally said.
Rodney's eyes flicked up and over him like laser beams before they narrowed into a scowl. "You see me sitting here? This is me having no sympathy for you whatsoever."
"So why are you here?"
"Teyla said you were asking for me."
Huh. He didn't remember that. On the other hand, he didn't put it past Teyla to decide to tell Rodney that regardless.
"Oh. Well. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
Rodney pinched the bridge of his nose with one hand and began to breathe heavily as he tried to control his temper. "You. You wanted to make sure I was okay," he finally ground out, one word at a time. He dropped his hand to glare at John again. "You just had to throw yourself on top of me and take the worst of the rockfall, didn't you? A simple, 'run Rodney' wouldn't have sufficed?"
"There wasn't any time to run. Besides, I can't see you as the Forrest Gump type." He paused for a beat and then decided he just couldn't help it; he had to say it. "Jeez, Rodney, who pissed in your Wheaties this morning?"
Rodney's expression was withering. "You know, I think that has to be one of your more vulgar American idioms. Where do you pick this crap up from, the Marines?" He hit 'save' on his laptop and closed it suddenly, preparing to leave. "Well now. I'm fine. You're fine. We can all just get back to our lives now."
Rodney was already half-turned towards the door, but at John's words he whipped around and stalked over to his bedside. "No, no 'Rawd-ney, wait'. I can't do this anymore, Colonel. You taking on the whole Genii strike force single-handedly. Popping in and out of Wraith hive ships like they were merely bad sections of town. Flying into things with nukes strapped to your back. I can't do this. I can't keep watching you as you try to die."
John burst into laughter.
Rodney reared back as though he'd been hit and spun on his heel to leave the infirmary.
"No, wait! Rodney, c'mon. I can explain." John lurched forward to try and stop him, sucking in air sharply as his collarbone shifted with the effort. His muffled sound of pain caused Rodney to stop in his tracks. He stood with his back towards John, shoulders quivering in indignation. "Rodney, sit back down. I can explain. Please."
Rodney slowly turned around and returned to his chair, sitting stiffly, laptop folded under one arm. John looked at his face and realized the emotion Rodney was struggling to contain was not indignation but something stronger than that. John felt suddenly bad for putting Rodney through even a tenth of the hurt he'd gone through these past days.
He launched into his explanation, he hoped for the very last time.
"Time loop," Rodney said when he was done.
John let his head fall back on his pillow. "Yeah. Seriously, we need to change the designation of that planet to MLE-THAL and lock it out of the dialing sequence. I've never seen so many goddamned ways to die on one planet in my entire life. And get Radek to do something with the Superball you were working on the other day. The marble-looking thingy," he sighed at Rodney's blank stare. "You had a theory at one point that it might be behind the time looping."
"Time loop," Rodney said again, more thoughtfully this time. "And I kept dying?"
John closed his eyes. "Yeah. Just you at first, but the more I tried...well, then Ronon and Teyla started going down too. I'm gonna have to put Heightmeyer on a lifetime retainer. I see years of therapy ahead of me." His smiled, eyes still closed. He knew Rodney would see the joke; everyone knew how much he hated being made to talk to Kate in the aftermath of some disastrous mission.
"You kissed me." Rodney's voice was startlingly close to his ear and John jumped slightly, eyes flying open before wincing in pain.
"Ah...yeah." John looked up. Rodney was leaning in, staring down at him as though he were some piece of Ancient text whose translation was proving difficult. "Um...time loop?"
Rodney straightened, eyes narrowing. "You kissed me because you knew it was a time loop." There was an implied 'coward' in there somewhere. John started to make an off the cuff snarky comment back, but he remembered sitting in the sun beside Teyla. What have you learned, John? He remembered the way he felt lying on his bed that first night before he realized what was going on, the way Rodney had looked when he said John's name with his dying breath. Tell him.
He took a shaky breath. "I kissed you because it was the final sequence. I was going to end the looping one way or another."
Rodney blinked several times in rapid succession and then abruptly left the room. Well, that went well...
It was quite a few days before he saw Rodney again. Elizabeth came to the infirmary for his report; together they decided the risk of possibly getting trapped in a time loop again was not worth pursing the possible ZMP—at least not at this time. John was amused at just how readily most people accepted the 'time loop' theory. It was surely an indication of just how weird things really were in this galaxy. Rodney seemed to be the only holdout in skepticism. John heard that he offered several alternative theories as to what really occurred on the planet, most of which centered on the supposition that John was completely insane. When Carson offered as supporting evidence for the time loop position that John's test findings indicated unusually high and prolonged levels of stress, Rodney reluctantly subsided.
There was no need to keep John in the infirmary, so he was discharged to begin the slow and painful process of healing. He did enjoy pointing out sadly to Major Lorne that with his right arm in a sling, it would be impossible for him to type for at least, oh, say 6 weeks or so, so the Major could just take over all the paperwork for the time being. Lorne acquiesced, but with the air of a man who would hire an investigator with a camera to try and catch John in the act of using his arm. The cracked ribs meant no running. The shoulder blade and collarbone meant no sparring as well and worse, no flying. John had a feeling that he might be wishing for paperwork again before too long. He thought about the long hours of enforced downtime that year at McMurdo and he knew he couldn't do that again. He'd changed. McMurdo was about keeping your head down and licking your wounds. McMurdo was about survival. He'd learned to live again since then. He knew if circumstances forced him to make a similar choice in the future, he would leave the Air Force rather than take a post like Antarctica again.
Ronon's response to the revelation that the last mission had been experiencing a time loop was typical. "Why does all the weird shit happen to you?"
John had snorted, but had no answer.
Teyla, predictably, was more concerned for his emotional and mental state. "Are you alright?" She had asked on one of her visits to the infirmary before his release.
"I will be," was his response.
Rodney was conspicuously absent. John didn't know what to think of that at first, but then decided a little time away from Rodney just now wasn't such a bad thing, especially as he still had a tendency to wake with a violent start some nights, uncertain as to the day's date or his immediate location. The inadvertent pain triggered by such actions was almost welcome in telling him where he was in space and time.
The day after he had been released from the infirmary, Teyla showed up at his quarters with a cardboard box.
"What's this?" He asked, stepping aside to let Teyla enter and place the box on the side table.
She smiled as she set it down. "Rodney referred to it as 'The Toybox for Bored Lt. Colonels' when he was passing it around."
John came over to Teyla's side, eyebrow raised for further explanation.
She laughed, a rich coppery sound. "Rodney took up a collection. People donated or loaned things they thought you might enjoy during your convalescence."
John reached around her with his left hand and pulled out an opened bag of Dove dark chocolate, which contained three pieces in the bottom. "Was there more of this before Rodney got a hold of it?"
She laughed again. "He said you would just get fat if you are ate all that chocolate."
"Oh he did, did he? Odd how he's never had that concern before."
"I guess you should be glad no one tried to include a serving of mashed potatoes," Teyla spoke solemnly. "Had that happened, I doubt seriously you would have ever seen this box at all." She smiled again. "I'll leave you to it then. I am meeting Ronon for a sparring session."
"Try not to hurt him too badly." John escorted her to the door and then turned to look at the box once more.
Curiosity drew him back to the box again, struck by the number of post-it notes with the names of the contributors (as well as apparent editorial commentary) attached to the various items within. Inside a partially completed sudoku book (donated by Radek, he noted) was a sheet of paper with a complicated mathematical theorem attached via a paperclip. Rodney's post-it note read "Real math problems for grown-ups. Try to solve it." John snorted.
A stack of books were bound together. John pulled them out of the box by the bindings, enjoying the heft of a real book; it was the whole reason he'd brought his own book to this galaxy as a space-occupying hard copy instead of placing it on a flash drive like a sensible person. He turned them to look at their titles. A couple of Agatha Christies. One of those Lord Peter Wimsey novels Elizabeth liked so much. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The Fighter Boys by Patrick Bishop. Rodney's note read "God forbid you get ahead of schedule on War and Peace."
The Athosian meditation candles were obviously from Teyla. Rodney's note read "If six months in a time dilation field couldn't teach you to mediate, I'm not sure what you can hope to gain from six weeks in a sling."
On the set of beautifully balanced throwing knives from Ronon, Rodney had attached "He expects you to practice throwing with your left hand."
On the copy of the Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook (from Lorne), Rodney's note said, "I hear the publishers are planning to expand their readership into the Pegasus galaxy. You should contact them."
On the bag of microwaveable popcorn, the note read, "Best when shared."
On the entire series of Firefly on DVD, Cadman had pointedly scrawled, "This is just a LOAN!!!" Underneath, Rodney had penned, "Don't even think of watching this without the team!!"
A coffee mug that read "Every morning I seize the day but by noon it has escaped me" and contained a bag of Starbuck's house blend had a note that said, "Trade you for the cold Killian's in my lab fridge."
At the bottom of the box were a stack of CDs. They ranged in artists and styles in everything from Nora Jones to Willie Nelson and Pink Floyd (cool...Dark Side of the Moon), with some musicians John had never heard of before. A recordable CD caught his eye, and he noted Rodney's precise lettering on the front, the handwriting he reserved for labeling important things, such as Ancient artifacts or post-its warning dire consequences to those idiots who did not obey the dictums of one Rodney McKay. The CD was labeled "Atlantis 2.0". The accompanying post-it read "Songs that remind me of events here in Atlantis."
John grinned as he read it. Rodney made a mix tape. Rodney had given him a mix tape. John wanted to radio him immediately and tell him he was such a girl, but as he looked over the contents of the box, he felt a little like the Grinch on top of the mountain as he looked down on Whoville that Christmas morning. Something embarrassingly like a warm fuzzy feeling touched him at the sight of all these offerings on his behalf, and the fact that Rodney had gone to such trouble to collect it all. With a start, he realized he was being wooed, Rodney-style.
Rodney hovered somewhat nervously outside the Colonel's door. He had been taken aback by the events that occurred on MK3-424 as well as the intensity with which he found a certain set of hazel eyes watching him—as though he were an apparition they did not really believe still existed. Initially, avoiding the whole situation seemed the politic thing to do. He had found himself perversely annoyed however, when the Colonel appeared to retreat behind the Great Wall of Sheppard. Carefully, he had begun baiting the Colonel like some sort of feral cat. Rodney could see that Sheppard was allowing himself to be tempted by the lure of food and the warmth of company, but he still retained that air of feline wariness and would frequently disappear into the woodwork with lanky, unhurried grace if he perceived that Rodney was watching him. That the Colonel could not be found when he desired no one to do so infuriated Rodney. It was just further proof that the damned city was on his side.
Team nights and lunch in the mess hall aside, Rodney found himself accountably nervous at spending a little one-on-one time with Sheppard. The Colonel had been uncharacteristically cooperative with performing what he called 'light switch duties' at Rodney's request in the labs and eerily non-aggressive during their sessions of the Game when they had a chance to sit down and play. Rodney still did not know what to make of his behavior back on the planet before the rockslide occurred and Rodney's mind boggled at the limited details the Colonel had provided Elizabeth on the time looping events themselves. Of Heightmeyer's sessions with Sheppard he knew nothing, though he half-expected to be asked to join in on them at any point. He was both relieved and disappointed when he was not. He only knew that Carson was clearing Sheppard for return to full active duty status soon and he himself was tired of pussy-footing around the Colonel as though he might slink off into the bushes never to be seen again.
Resolutely, he signaled at the Colonel's door.
It opened as though Sheppard were expecting him.
"Colonel." Despite all his time off, Sheppard still managed to look tired. Dark circles under his eyes, scruffy five o'clock shadow darkening his jaw line. In his right hand he held a book, thumb holding his place. He flicked his eyes coolly over Rodney where he stood in the doorway, holding a bowl of popcorn and with a DVD tucked under one arm. Sheppard stepped back to allow Rodney to enter without having to ask for an invitation, though one eyebrow was raised mockingly. It was a good thing cats did not have eyebrows, Rodney decided as he swept into the room. Otherwise they would all look like Spock.
"I was going to invite you to the common room to watch a movie," Rodney said on his way to the table, where he deposited the popcorn and then began to idly flip the DVD case in his hands. "When I got there it was already staked out by Elizabeth, Teyla and a bevy of women—they were watching some chick flick." He gave a mock shudder. "It was either Sleepless in Seattle or You've Got Mail. I can never tell those two apart."
Sheppard did that thing with his mouth where he appeared to be swallowing some comment in barely concealed mirth. Rodney's eyes were riveted to his lips, remembering again how it felt when Sheppard had stalked up to him on the trail and laid one on him.
"Sooo," Rodney began in the awkward silence, hoping that Sheppard had not somehow become telepathic when no one was looking, because hello, Pegasus galaxy. It could happen. "Are you up for a movie? You look as though you just found out someone has been kicking your puppy."
A rueful expression flitted across Sheppard's features and he moved to the bed, picking up a slip of paper he was using as a bookmark and closing the novel. "I was reading The Killer Angels. A good book, but a hard look at the battle of Gettysburg." He laid the book down on the table beside the popcorn.
"Well if it's that grim, why read it? I thought you were supposed to be enjoying yourself." Rodney frowned, disturbed at how long it had been since he'd seen Sheppard really and truly relaxed.
"I am enjoying myself, Rodney." Sheppard's half smile made a brief appearance. "All the best books hurt just a little."
"Well," Rodney said sharply, "would you like me to leave you to your exercise in literary masochism or would you rather take a break and watch a movie instead?"
Sheppard's real smile split his face and he ducked his head, bringing his hand up to rub at his nose, as though embarrassed to be caught smiling.
"So what did you bring?" He held out his hand for the DVD, moving in close enough to Rodney to accept it.
Wordlessly, Rodney handed it over, biting his lip as he waited for Sheppard's reaction.
He didn't have to wait long.
Sheppard's mouth fell open and he stared up incredulously at Rodney. "You brought Groundhog Day?"
"I thought it would be a change of pace from all those death and destruction movies you like so much," Rodney said with strained innocence. "You know, a little light comedy, albeit somewhat dark in nature..."
"Groundhog Day?" Sheppard repeated himself. "Very funny, Rodney. And oh yeah, this is such a chick flick." He waved the DVD case in Rodney's face.
Rodney felt a wave of relief at the reaction he got. If Sheppard could tease him about his taste in movies then he wasn't angry or upset about the choice itself.
"Oh c'mon. Bill Murray? And who can resist 'don't drive angry' as he takes the groundhog over the cliff?"
"You're a sick and twisted man," John snorted, but he scanned the room and appeared to decide the best place for them both to view the laptop screen was the bed. He began propping up pillows against the headboard as Rodney set up the DVD on Sheppard's laptop.
"Admit it, it's one of my more endearing qualities," Rodney said smugly as he brought laptop and popcorn over to the bed, settling in beside Sheppard and placing the bowl of popcorn between them. He feigned obliviousness at Sheppard's sudden stillness and busied himself with balancing the laptop between them. After a second, he could feel John relaxing beside him again. Hah. Don't look at him directly and maybe after a little while you can reach out and scratch him behind the ears. The thought of Sheppard reacting like a stray cat amused Rodney as the opening credits rolled, but then unbidden he pictured Sheppard curling into his touch, his fingers caressing those oddly pointed ears. Rodney had to reach for the bowl of popcorn and set it on his lap to disguise his sudden arousal and this time, not looking at Sheppard was a matter of self-preservation. He concentrated very hard on the movie. He did not think about the warmth of Sheppard's body heat seeping through his clothing where they sat shoulder to thigh on the bed. He did not think about how now Sheppard had to reach across his thigh to access the bowl of popcorn so squarely in his lap. He did not think about how good the Colonel smelled or what his skin would taste like or how it would feel to run his hands over those lean muscles. Nope. Not at all.
"Chick flick," Sheppard said in a sing-song voice as the closing credits rolled up over the snow-covered screen.
"I hope you were taking notes," Rodney said, stopping the movie and closing the laptop. "I'm guessing if you were just nicer to me, you could have ended that whole time loop thing without resorting to your usual self-sacrificing default mechanisms."
Sheppard stiffened, and then rolled off the bed suddenly.
Rodney sighed, setting bowl and laptop on the floor before settling back to his former position propped against the headboard. "Oh what, so we can never refer to this again?" He waved a hand for emphasis. "Never talk about it? It's off-limits, sacred, we can't even joke about it? C'mon, I seem to remember hearing more than one comment along the lines of the destruction I caused at Doranda. Which by the way, not funny, but hey, I take it as a sign that you've gotten past it, well to some degree anyway, so I let it go."
Sheppard's face was as raw as he'd ever seen it, but Rodney couldn't just ignore this one. It was eating the Colonel up inside and if Rodney didn't try to fix it, he wasn't sure they could function as a team ever again. Sheppard stood with his fists clenching and unclenching, as though looking for a fight but not finding a tangible opponent.
"It's not that simple, McKay." One of Sheppard's hands dove into his hair and out again as he moved restlessly in a small circle within the room. "You don't understand. I can't just pretend I was having some bad dreams. These things really happened to me. I keep seeing..." He broke off, shoving his hands into his pockets and staring down at the floor with a big sigh.
Rodney sat up, leaning forward and pulling one leg in front of him across the other as he rested his elbows on his thighs. "You keep seeing me dying in various gruesome ways. And if not me, then the whole team. Hate to break it to you, but those of us with really active imaginations do that sort of thing all the time." He straightened, gave his thighs a brisk slap and then began removing the shoe on the foot nearest to him, tossing it to the floor and pulling in his other foot to do the same.
"Rodney." Sheppard's voice was puzzled. Rodney didn't look up, carefully removing his socks and placing them inside his other shoe before setting that one on the floor as well. "What are you doing?"
Rodney paused with his arms crossed in front of him at the level of his waist, preparatory to pulling off his shirt over his head. "Getting naked. What does it look like I'm doing?" He pulled the shirt off over his head in one fluid movement, working each arm out one at a time and then turning the shirt right side out again, before folding it and placing it on the floor beside the shoes.
"Yeah, okay. Got that part." Sheppard sounded somewhat strangled. "I meant why?"
"Oh. That." Rodney stood up as he began to unbutton his pants, not taking his eyes off Sheppard as he did so. "I figured, you kissed me right? On that last day. Like it was something you had been meaning to do for a while. You even said that it was something you always wanted to do." Rodney unzipped his fly and began to shimmy out of his khakis. "Only I got to thinking, time loop." He shifted his weight to one foot to pull the pants off over his opposite foot and then changed sides, all while continuing to talk. "Yeah. Time loop. And Sheppard in a time loop." He folded his pants neatly and placed them on top of the rest of his clothing before straightening, clad only in boxers. He chose not to acknowledge in any way the undeniable presence of his erection now tenting his boxers. "So, this made me think, oh yeah, kissed me before, too."
He paused, hands on at the waistline of his boxers, trying hard not to blush or appear in any way uncertain. Sheppard stood looking at him a little as though his eyes were bugging out, but just as Rodney was beginning to think maybe he'd made a terrible mistake, he saw Sheppard's mouth drop open slightly and his tongue come out to flick over his lips. He seemed to be staring at Rodney's crotch. Hah. Bingo.
"And so that made me think, oh yeah, Sheppard, time loop and what else would you have done if you knew there would be no possible consequences..." Rodney pushed down his boxers and stepped out of them, standing in front of Sheppard with his hands at his sides, palms outward as if to say 'well?'
Sheppard raised bright eyes to meet his, an interesting flush across his cheekbones. "Um, Rodney..." It seemed to be an effort for him to keep his eyes centered on Rodney's face. "While I'll admit I did kiss you more than once in the time looping thing, um...that's all I did."
"Oh." Mortification smacked Rodney between the eyes like a sledgehammer and he began to wilt, in every since of the word. A full body blush overtook him and his face burned with the gross stupidity of his actions. In deep embarrassment, he turned and bent over to retrieve his clothing and was startled when he suddenly felt two warm hands on either side of his hips.
He straightened abruptly, clothing held protectively over his cock. Sheppard had somehow moved in that lightening fast, silent way that he had and was standing close behind Rodney, hands on the bones of Rodney's hips, pulling Rodney's ass into Sheppard's pelvis where Rodney could feel his erection through his BDU's. One hand pushed under the clothing bunched in Rodney's hand to begin stroking his cock while the other moved across his abdomen and pulled him in tighter into Sheppard's embrace. Sheppard widened his stance and began mouthing the back of Rodney's neck, his stubble rasping at delicate skin and provoking a tremor in Rodney.
"Not for lack of trying, mind you." Sheppard's breath felt like melted chocolate being poured against the back of his neck. "But you had this thing about Ronon and Teyla being right outside the tent, and then there was something about shaving first..." His murmured chuckle turned into a sucking, biting kiss along the juncture between neck and shoulder and then Sheppard began rocking against him, eliciting a groan from Rodney as he let the clothing drop to the floor and thrust into Sheppard's hand as well.
"You have the best ideas." Sheppard's voice was husky and amused in his ear.
"Yes, well, um, genius here." Rodney let his head fall back against Sheppard's shoulder briefly before suddenly seeming to collect himself.
"No wait, not like this." Rodney sensuously slid his hands down Sheppard's, lifting the one off his abdomen and stilling the movement on his cock. "You need less clothing."
Turning to face Sheppard, he began pushing him sideways until Sheppard fell over on the bed with a laugh. He helpfully lifted each foot as Rodney knelt on the bed and divested him of his boots and then his socks, all the while Sheppard smiled in that half-lidded, sultry way that made Rodney crazy to get skin to skin with him as soon as possible. Sheppard then pushed himself up and started to pull off his t-shirt. The caution with which he moved made Rodney lightly touch his arm and when Sheppard hesitated, Rodney assisted him in removing the shirt. The knot over the healed collarbone was still remodeling but palpable under Rodney's gentle touch as he reached out and ran his fingers over it. He traced the line of Sheppard's collarbone back to his neck, and then solemnly ran his fingers out the length of the chain hanging there, coming to rest with his dog tags in his palm.
They seemed suddenly heavy in his hand. He felt that they were the most concrete representation of Sheppard's career and everything that he took seriously about his job, both the defense of the expedition and Earth to the extent of putting his life on the line. Rodney knew that his loyalties ran strong even if the organization that placed him here preferred strict obedience to creative individualism. He felt his respiration rate increase. Holding Sheppard's tags in his hand, he felt like there was some line they were about to cross, and he needed to think very hard about pulling Sheppard across it with him.
Yo, genius. Naked already. No going back now. The oddest part was that he was not bothered by the fact that the back-chatter in his brain had begun to sound like Sheppard. Rodney felt his mouth crook up on one side as he met Sheppard's eyes over the tags. No. Not Sheppard. John.
John reached up and closed his hand over Rodney's, where he still held the tags.
"Rodney?" His voice was questioning.
"John." Rodney said with satisfaction, smiling back at him.
For an instant, Rodney thought he'd said something wrong. John took a sharp intake of breath and stared at him, eyes searching Rodney's face for so long Rodney felt a frown starting to form, but before he could complete the expression, John's pupils suddenly dilated and he pulled Rodney by his grip on the tags into him. The two of them collapsed back onto the bed and John grasped Rodney by the back of the neck, holding his head steady as John leaned up into him for an open-mouthed kiss.
Rodney had been kissed before. Plenty of times. He'd been kissed with that shy, first fumbling that came with being a teenager and inexperienced. He'd been kissed with the perfunctory skill of someone, like him, who just wanted to get off and he had been kissed with the passion of someone who really wanted him. Admittedly, it had been a long time since he'd been kissed at all. But he'd never been kissed like he was needed before, like he was necessary to breathing.
It was the hottest thing he's ever experienced.
Somewhere between trying to hold himself up off John's body (oh god, healing collarbone...ribs...shoulder...) and melting into John's mouth (oh god, amazing tongue...hot...wet...) Rodney's brain shorted out and only came back online when his hand was frustrated in seeking its goal by the waistband of John's BDU's.
"Goddamn it," Rodney growled when he pulled back for air, "you're still wearing too many clothes!"
John laughed and obligingly lifted his hips as Rodney expediently jerked his pants and boxers off together over them and tossed the clothing on the floor. Sliding a hand back up the inside of John's hairy, muscular leg (runner's legs, his brain supplied), he reveled in the way John arched into his touch, his cock hard and straining upward. Sincerely hoping this was not going to be just a one time thing and knowing somehow that it was more than that, Rodney rolled the two of them on their sides, sliding one leg in between John's and taking their cocks together in his hand. John gave a heartfelt groan and a shudder as his mouth sought Rodney's again, his fingers tightening on Rodney's shoulders hard enough to leave bruises. When John's tongue began to slide in Rodney's mouth to the same rhythm as his hand sliding along both their cocks, it was all over for Rodney. He came with a pulsing shudder between them and then rolled easily when John pushed him over onto his back. John climbed on top of him, his cock settling in the groove of Rodney's thigh, slick with his own come and he began to thrust in earnest as Rodney held on to him, small sounds of increasing tension coming from him until he too was shuddering and limp across Rodney's body.
They lay that way for a long moment, Rodney's fingers tracing nonsense patterns in lazy movements across the skin of John's back, John's fingers curling slightly in the hair at the base of Rodney's neck. When John finally moved, rolling off to one side on the narrow bed, Rodney was both relieved and regretful at the same time. It was certainly easier to breathe now, but his missed the warmth of John's body cloaking him. The combination of cooling sweat and drying come forced him into getting up. John made a muffled noise of protest that quickly faded into nothingness as Rodney made his way over to the sink in the small bathroom. Collecting a warm, damp towel as well as a dry one, he cleaned himself up first and then headed back to the bed where John lay sprawled, looking thoroughly debauched. One arm was flung over his head, the dark hair under his arm in startling contrast against the creamy tan of his skin. He certainly looks relaxed now. Rodney felt unbearably smug.
A lazy smile and a glint of hazel between half-lidded eyelids greeted him when he began to carefully clean John's abdomen and groin. When he was done, John brought his arm down from over his head, suddenly moving over to make room in the bed for Rodney to lie back down.
"Um, I thought maybe I should be going," Rodney said hesitantly.
John's eyes opened slightly wider and he seemed to be assessing Rodney's mood and intentions before he uttered a single word. "Stay."
He wanted to, so very badly. "I...I don't think, well maybe just for a little while..." He looked down at the bed and frowned. "You realize you're leaving me with the wet spot."
Kiss-swollen lips still managed to flatten and fold over a poorly concealed smile. "I thought that's what the other towel was for." He hitched over even further in the bed, turning on his side and patting the mattress invitingly. The lights overhead began to dim slowly. Show off.
With a huff, Rodney placed the dry towel over the wet spot and settled in the bed, turning his back towards John, who promptly curled around him before he even got comfortable. With a sigh, he placed his hand over John's arm where it had staked its claim across his abdomen. "You know, if we're trying to be discreet, then my staying the night is a really bad idea."
"I know." John's breath tickled the back of his neck, causing him to shudder slightly. John's arm tightened in response and then relaxed again. "I just want to wake up to the sound of you not-snoring in the morning."