"Yes," Rodney said, raising a finger, "you could shoot us. Or you could let me fix that Ancient ballistics console of yours. I think the right choice is pretty obvious, don't you?"
"Rodney..." John gritted his teeth, trying to glare inconspicuously.
The four Albagen soldiers shifted, looking at each other. John glanced around again, but the edge of the clearing they were being held in hadn't gotten any closer in the last five minutes. No chance to break for cover. Rodney sure as hell wouldn't make it, even if he caught on.
Their leader, the guy they called Rudis, turned and glared at Rodney suspiciously. "You can fix the console?"
Rodney looked offended and tapped his chest. "Hello? Rodney McKay from the city of the Ancients? Of course I can fix the device!"
"And he does windows," Ford said.
Rodney shot disgust over his shoulder at him.
"We must discuss this." Rudis went into a huddle with two of his goons while the fourth kept a gun trained on them.
"Rodney," John snapped under his breath, "what do you think you're doing?"
"Oh, just saving our skins," Rodney said breezily, a pleased look on his broad, soft face.
"Okay, first, if you get that console working for the Albagens, they're going to use it against the Clarians. You remember them, the nice friendly people who tipped us off that the ZPM might be here in the first place?"
"Of course, but—"
"Second, you told me that that console was trashed and that no one could fix it without killing themselves in the process. Don't you think that if you can't fix it, they might shoot us? You first?"
Rodney's confident grin got a little shakier. "Yes, ah, well then"—he clapped John on the shoulder—"you're, uh, just going to have to come up with a way to get us out of this before that happens." He brightened again. "But, hey, at least that takes care of the first problem!"
Rudis came back over to them. "We accept your offer. If you repair the console, we will spare your lives."
"Sounds good to me," Rodney said. "Don't wait up, boys and girls."
John stared after him as Rudis led him away. Rodney's shoulders hunched in a particularly obvious way when he was walking beside the sturdy Albagen warrior. The glare of the sun in the unshaded clearing faded out everything, made it almost unreal.
"Do not worry, Major," Teyla said behind him. "I am sure that Doctor McKay will not blow himself up."
John looked at her. Her face was just a little bit too calm.
"No, but they might shoot him just for being annoying," Ford said.
John frowned, but said, "He's making a bad habit of this kind of thing. It's got to stop." Ever since Kolya had stuck that damn knife in his arm, Rodney had started acting offworld like he was Indiana Jones. Like he was a soldier. But he wasn't. It wasn't his job to risk his neck in stupid heroic gestures. It had nearly gotten him killed a couple of times already. And one of these days, maybe soon—
John was starting to wish that there hadn't been any civilians on the Atlantis expedition at all.
"At any rate, he has delayed our execution. Let us use this time wisely."
"Enough talking," one of the Albagens growled.
"We're just chatting," John said, and produced one of those little grins that he seemed to be able to keep coming up with no matter what happened. Keep him talking, he thought, keep him off-balance. "How are you today, anyway? Hot enough for you? How 'bout those Red Sox, huh?"
The Albagen stared at him, puzzled.
"Maybe he's a Yankees fan," Ford said. "It figures."
A single gunshot rang out in the distance. John's chest went numb. Dammit, Rodney—but the shot had distracted the guards, and Teyla was already moving, and John stepped up to the Yankees fan and connected with a really good right hook that toppled him to the ground. Teyla's guard thudded down next to him a second later, and Ford's followed quickly.
"Make sure they're out," John said to Teyla, seizing his guard's gun. "I need to check Rodney."
But of course he knew, as he started for the edge of the clearing, that he didn't need to check Rodney, he knew what he'd find, and the best he could hope for was to put a bullet in the bastard who'd killed him.
"Major Sheppard—" Teyla said behind him, her voice catching, but he ignored her. Exhaustion settled on him practically mid-step; he didn't want to go and he didn't want to see. Not Rodney, too.
He didn't know what he had signed up for anymore, but he knew it wasn't this.
Before he even got into the trees, though, Rodney emerged, holding a gun like it might go off any second. "Oh, good," he said. "So I don't actually have to do all the rescuing around here myself."
Ford surged past him. "McKay! We thought you were toast!" He fake-punched Rodney in the ribs. Rodney winced back, hard. Ford just laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. "Are you serious? You took out your first bad guy?"
"Wow. And Major Sheppard said you were just gonna get yourself killed."
Rodney's mouth, which had looked a little slack, firmed. "Oh, he did, did he? You don't get rid of me that easily, Major."
"We are all relieved that you survived, Doctor," Teyla put in.
"Thank you, Teyla," he said pointedly.
John still hadn't moved forward. He cleared his throat, which felt thick with anger. "There's blood on your jacket, Rodney."
Rodney didn't look down. "Oh. Is there?"
"Maybe I should go check Rudis, make sure he's—"
"No," he said, half-raising a hand. "I'm pretty sure about that, actually."
"Guys, shouldn't we be escaping now?" Ford asked.
"That would be the plan," John said, holstering his weapon, shoving the anger away. "Dr. Weir will be just thrilled to hear that our last chance at a ZPM is gone."
"At least we are all in one piece," Teyla said, and squeezed Rodney's arm briefly. "Thanks to Doctor McKay."
"Yeah," John said, still looking at Rodney.
Rodney was rubbing fretfully at one of the dark stains at the hem of his jacket. When he caught John's glance, he jerked his hands away.
Jumpers flew themselves much better than choppers ever used to—it seemed like the more zoned-out John was, the smoother the trip was. He'd been tired a lot lately, so it was good that the jumper, at least, could take care of itself.
Rodney spent most of the trip back to Atlantis going over with Ford the story of how he'd ended up struggling with Rudis for his weapon until it went off, luckily pointed in the right direction. That wasn't how he told it, but it was obvious that was what had actually happened. John was used to guys having to blow off steam after a firefight, and he was used to tuning out Rodney's chatter as background noise, but this time he actually couldn't. Something about the pitch, the speed—it was like a radio tuned to the edge of a channel band, with bursts of static constantly disrupting the voice. You couldn't ignore it, but you couldn't really follow it, either.
Teyla dozed next to him, her arms folded over her chest, her head tilted slightly so that her hair fanned out over her shoulder in a protective curtain. John looked at her, because it was easier than looking back at Rodney's smug expression or Ford's fresh-faced grin. Teyla got it. Teyla knew it wasn't fun and games, wasn't about proving anything to anybody. But there weren't any Rodneys among Teyla's people. The Athosians were like the locals he'd met in every war-infested shithole he'd ever flown out of: beaten-down, cautious, knowing that their lives didn't mean anything to anyone who mattered. Rodney still thought the universe had reached out and made him special. He thought he could be a hero. He wanted to be one.
John thought about the five cremations he had already attended on Atlantis, and the times they hadn't even been able to recover the bodies. He thought about folding up the flag for Dex's mom. He thought about a Rodney he'd never known dying first, drowning in a flooded gateroom as the shield failed. He didn't watch Rodney and Ford, who from the sounds of it were now reenacting the damn fight.
When he told Elizabeth at the debriefing about how big a bust the mission had been, her forehead creased with worry. That was the last hope they'd had of recovering a ZPM before the Wraith arrived. She knew just as well as John did what was coming now. John had no intention of giving up the city without a fight, but he'd have been much happier to have the shield and not have the fight. She was so lost in her thoughts that Rodney had to tell her about his escapade twice—the second time with more colorful adjectives and lots more waving around of his hands.
"Well, I'm very glad you're all right," she said, visibly summoning up the appropriate look of concern and relief. "Do you need to see Dr. Heightmeyer?"
"Heightmeyer?" Rodney's voice cracked slightly, then steadied immediately. "No. No. Why?"
"After such a stressful event, it's generally helpful to—"
"Don't be ridiculous. I'm fine."
John frowned. Rodney was never "fine."
"I'm sure Zelenka's waiting for me with a whole pile of trivial problems he couldn't solve by himself," he continued, rising, "so I'll just—I'll just be going now."
After he went, Elizabeth leaned back, her wrists thin against the metal arms of the chair, her eyes growing far away. John sat and waited. After a few minutes, she straightened herself in her chair. "John—"
"I know," he said, very quietly.
"Make sure you forward me all the reports on potential alpha sites."
He nodded and left.
"He is not here." Zelenka frowned at John in the main lab. "Normally I have to spend a great deal of time humoring his tales of adventure after he returns from offworld, but I have not seen him since he left this morning."
"He didn't even call in to tell you where he'd be?"
"No. It is strange. Is anything wrong?"
That was a question he couldn't begin to answer—compared to what?—so he just shook his head and left. Rodney's quarters weren't too far away, so he headed there next.
"Rodney," he called outside the door, wondering briefly why there weren't any intercoms. Had the Ancients not had to talk to each other? That must have been very restful. There was no response, but he thought he heard something from inside. "McKay!"
Still no answer, so he waved his hand over the control-crystal and strode in.
Rodney was standing at his sink in his shirt-sleeves, scrubbing at his jacket, his shoulders drawn up practically to his ears. A minute passed. John cleared his throat loudly. "What do you want?" Rodney said, without turning around.
John scowled. "Busy?"
"I'm trying—trying to get the blood out."
"Didn't we get the laundry working a few months ago?"
"Of course I did," Rodney said, a little irritated, "but—well, I don't know much about bloodstains, but I remember hearing once that they had to come out right away, and this is the only one of my jackets that isn't all bindy in the shoulders."
John swallowed. He could see, of course he could see, but somehow that didn't stop the anger. "You have to stop this."
"What? Doing my own laundry?"
"Throwing yourself at the danger offworld. That happens to be my job, not yours."
Rodney snorted too hard, a kind of convulsive splutter. "Major, if you think I'm deliberately seeking out danger on missions—"
"Funny, that's exactly what I think," John said.
Rodney stopped scrubbing, and his hunch at the sink was pitiful. John wanted to make him stand up straight, or grab the damn jacket away from him, burn it so he'd never have to think of it again. "That's crazy. That's so beyond crazy, I'm not even going to dignify it with a response."
"Look me in the eye and say that."
He still didn't turn. "Just—just give me a minute, okay? We can't all be John Sheppard, unflappable action hero of the Pegasus galaxy."
Rodney's voice had cracked again, but John couldn't—"John Sheppard, unflappable action hero," he said slowly. "That's a good one. I know why you're in here instead of working, Rodney. You're freaked out because you shot a guy. Do you know what I feel when I shoot people, Rodney? I don't feel anything at all! Do you think that's a good thing?"
Rodney swung around to face him at that, his face pale, his eyes wide and shocked. His fingers were blue from the cold water.
"No," he said, staring at John. "No, I don't."
And—he hadn't actually meant to say that. It sounded worse out loud than he had been afraid of. He almost took a step back, but training kicked in and made him hold his ground. "You're not a soldier, Rodney. Don't put yourself there."
Rodney swallowed. "You know, I didn't come to Atlantis to be a soldier. I'm a physicist. It was going to be be physics beyond my wildest dreams. Physics to make Einstein cry like a little girl. Remember? I didn't come here to get tortured." His voice started to rise. "I didn't come here to see my team members collapse all around me and have to look at their brains to see how I was going to die, too. I didn't come here to have people shoot themselves behind me because they were beyond saving from a horrible death. I didn't come here to pull a trigger and splash someone's guts all over me. But that's what's happening. So how should I react, Major? Tell me what I'm supposed to do!"
His tone was challenging, but his expression was stricken. So open and so vulnerable, and John wanted to hide it and he wanted to have it. He took a breath and found he couldn't speak. He stepped in, seized Rodney's head, and kissed him.
He had a minute to think that if he'd read Rodney wrong, this could be a clusterfuck on a bigger scale than the rescue in Afghanistan, worse than waking the Wraith, but then Rodney clutched at him, chill from his fingers seeping into his back, and shuddered into the kiss. When it ended, Rodney pulled back to look at him, eyes startled, opening his mouth. John put his fingers over his lips. He couldn't have that conversation. Not now.
Rodney closed his eyes and inhaled against his fingers, as if John's scent alone was steadying him. The sight sent a rush through John's head, and he found himself kissing Rodney again and again. He didn't normally kiss so much, not with guys, but there was something he was trying to give, or to get, and he needed more. Chaya could've just raised her hand and made the connection, but Chaya wasn't here. She had left him with just this. Like everything else in this galaxy, he had to make it work somehow even though there just wasn't enough. Not enough power, not enough ammo, not enough time, not enough of whatever was left inside him.
Rodney was kissing back desperately and tugging at his shirt. Their clothes came off quickly, and John tumbled him onto the messy bed. Rodney said softly, "Doctor Gaul told me right before he died that I was changing, God, I don't know into what—" and cut himself off with a sad little laugh.
"It's going to be okay, Rodney," John murmured, and stroked the square line of his jaw as it trembled.
"Oh, yeah? And how do you reach that conclusion, because I don't see the Wraith going any—"
"It's going to be okay, Rodney," he repeated more firmly, curling his hand around Rodney's cock. Rodney gasped, and he looked up at John pleadingly. For the space of a breath, John felt hopelessly far away, and then Rodney gripped at his hips and he was there, wrapped around someone who would believe it if he made a promise like that.
Rodney wouldn't be still. Every touch registered all through his solid body, like there were just no filters at all, and John, over him, absorbed each little shock. He kept talking, too, breathless spurts of words about Rudis, about the gun, about dying, that it seemed more important for him to get out than for John to understand. But John did understand—he knew this story by heart, every word an echo of a pain he remembered from long ago. He was hard in a way that actually had some fucking thing to do with his brain for the first time in he didn't know how long. He wanted to bury himself inside Rodney, but he wanted more just to keep on feeling what Rodney was feeling.
The panting gaps between Rodney's words had gotten longer and longer. His fingers were digging into John's hipbones, almost enough to hurt. Abruptly, his back stiffened and started to arch, and John pressed himself down against him as he came.
"Oh," Rodney said, sounding stunned. "Oh, God."
"Yeah," John agreed. He started to shift off him, but Rodney held on, looking puzzled.
"Don't you want—" He slid his hand down to find John in the sticky warmth. After eight months, the shock of that feeling was enough.
More than enough. He bit down into his lip as he came.
After a minute, John realized he had hold of Rodney's shoulder and let it go. Rodney cleared his throat, looking unsure, but didn't say anything. John breathed out slowly and rolled onto his back, shutting his eyes. Neither of them spoke. So many complications, and John just didn't have anything left right now. Getting up and going seemed like the easiest solution, but he knew he would be a jerk if he did. So he didn't move, hoping inertia and exhaustion would take the matter out of his hands. Rodney, though, finally muttered something under his breath, sighed, and then turned to curl up against him. John could feel his heart, still thumping.
"It's going to be okay, John," he whispered, and draped an arm over him.
Being brave and stupid again, John realized, and the thought broke something inside him to pieces.