Spoilers: takes place after 4.09 "Miller's Crossing" with references to that
Summary: One person's bickering is another person's civil war.
Author's Note: For the_cephalopod, who wanted McKay/Sheppard first time, with a bit of angst and a happy ending. I hope this is okay! :)
The title is from Gerald England's poem, Schroedinger's Thought Experiment. ~9,500 words.
The Cat Is an Existentialist
"McKay, wake up."
Sheppard's warm breath gusts over his face, and Rodney winces because… no, just no, and on top of the mystery vegetables and grains (because the Amicarans are – of course – vegetarians, and it was just his luck to be locked up by a tribe of plant-eaters) they'd been eating, whatever the Amicarans had given them to clean their teeth has probably spent the past three days rotting them instead. He has a brief, horrible vision of Sheppard grinning his… his Sheppard grin and – and immediately recoils from the image, but not before he gets a flash of blackened stumps and one fang-like shard. He groans, and feels Sheppard's hand – Sheppard's hand which is, in fact, cupped around his shoulder, let us not forget – flinch, fingers lifting away briefly before settling back down.
"McKay, seriously, they're going to think I beat you up – "
"You did," Rodney says, keeping his eyes closed.
"Oh, come on, I did not; you tripped over your tablet." Sheppard sounds a lot less penitent and concerned now, and Rodney, knowing that Sheppard's sympathy has a half-life of about thirty seconds, sits up reluctantly. His back twinges with the promise of screaming agony later on.
"My tablet," Rodney whimpers, reaching out for it. It's the second of his three most valued possessions, and his body aches with a sympathetic pain. The screen flickers briefly, a heart about to arrest, before giving up and going black. "Oh, just fucking great.."
"Keep it down, McKay." Sheppard stares at the door, head tilted as though the angle can improve his view through it. "They won't come in unless it sounds like we're killing each other – " Rodney tries to point out that they have been trying to kill each other for the past day and a half, but Sheppard glares him into silence " – and then when we get out, Carter will kill us. We need this treaty."
"Really?" Sheppard's glare turns stony, but Rodney's sarcasm remains unblunted. "I thought we were in here because Teyla is a sadist."
"That, too." Rodney watches as Sheppard scuffs at the dirt floor with the heel of his sandal.
"You have mid-digital hair," Rodney says, and points.
"Huh." Sheppard wiggles his toes.
The shield over the main Amicaran settlement really is a thing of beauty, almost invisible except for the way it makes the sky a deeper, truer blue once Rodney passes under it, and every now and then sunlight sparks in washes of auroras off its ionized particles.
"You are a very peaceful people," Teyla is saying from her position at the Amicaran leader's right side. "I have rarely found such accord among the other civilizations…"
And they really are peaceful, Rodney thinks, and not like people on the good drugs, or the people from the commune he'd stumbled across after making a wrong turn in southern Colorado, and if they hadn't tried to rename him Buttercup Skyborne he might have considered – well, they're peaceful, with manners better than Rodney's will ever be and a cheerful willingness to show the team around and make them comfortable, and not in the creepy way that usually means Wraith, Genii, or explosions in their near future. Even Ronon seems disarmed, figuratively if not literally.
After Teyla's very diplomatic speech the Amicaran leader – whose name Rodney hadn't caught, and so he's decided to refer to her as "the Amicaran leader" – says something about how her people had once almost been destroyed by a feud between its most powerful families, the head of one family raising the shield before the family of his enemy, and a thousand or so innocent people, could get under it. Very tragic, very horrible, a lesson for the ages, and so now the Amicarans…
"Will you walk straight?" Sheppard hisses, elbowing at him.
"How do you know you're not walking straight?" Rodney asks, elbowing back. "Besides, these energy spikes are coming from everywhere. The circuitry for the shield device is probably redundant, or maybe not centralized at all."
"That's very nice, Rodney," Sheppard says, drawling his name out into the Raaawwd-nee-heee that makes Rodney want to… to smite him. To smite him dead with his energy detector, the beeping of which is beckoning Rodney off to the left. Or possibly kiss him to make him shut up, and then smite him. He follows the beeping obediently. Or possibly smite him and then kissing which, while slightly creepy would at least guarantee that Sheppard wouldn't –
"I said, walk straight," Sheppard snaps, and again with the elbow, pointy enough to punch through Kevlar.
"Do you run your elbow through a pencil sharpener?" Rodney tries to hip-check Sheppard, but he dances out of the way.
"I think they will do nicely," the Amicaran leader says from out of nowhere. She's looking straight at him and John in a way that promises nothing good.
"As do I," Teyla says, and smiles in a way that, nonononono, Rodney does not like at all.
The sky remains bright and clear, the auroras playing joyfully across the dome of the shield, but the darkest, blackest cloud hovers over Rodney for the rest of the day. It had all started out so promisingly, Rodney thinks despairingly, in the archive and the Amicaran leader's interest in Rodney's "technical expertise" (Rodney had preened while Sheppard had rolled his eyes), but things only become darker and blacker as the Amicaran leader – whose name Rodney now refuses to remember just out of spite – explains what it is they'll be expected to do, and then when Carter, like he and Sheppard are idiots, explains it to them again.
"Absolutely not," Rodney says after Carter's reiteration of the terms. "I refuse."
"I'm sorry McKay, Colonel, but we need this treaty and we need those manuscripts."
"Not that badly," Rodney mumbles. Carter glares at him in a way she hasn't done since back at Cheyenne, but he doesn't retract it. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is worth spending three days in a room. Alone. With John Sheppard.
"Those manuscripts could very well help us build our own ZPMs," Carter tells him, like Rodney doesn't know this, like Rodney hadn't almost orgasmed right there in the archives and might actually have made a sound that on Earth would be offensive but the Amicarans took for a sign of willingness to negotiate.
"We weren't fighting." Oh, another party heard from. Sheppard is slouching, very improper and unmilitary, in his chair, like the kid called to the principal's office either knowing the principal has nothing on him or else not caring what the principal can do. Not that Rodney would know anything about that, and really there was no possible way Dr. York could have traced the explosion back to him – wait, Sheppard was still talking. "It's sort of… the thing we do."
"The thing you do." Carter's face smoothes down into unreadability. "Well, gentlemen, that 'thing you do' has earned you a three day vacation."
"Vacation?" Rodney can't tell whose voice is shriller, his or Sheppard's.
"Look." Sheppard wears his most persuasive voice, mouth dressed to the soft smile that invites complicity and has gotten Rodney into so much trouble. "It's not that I don't want to spend time with McKay, Colonel," Sheppard says, "it's that I don't want to, well, you know. Spend time with McKay."
Well, way to rub it in, Colonel. Rodney almost says this, but clamps his mouth shut at the last second. Instead, he turns to Carter and explains that he has very legitimate reasons for not being in the same room as Sheppard for three days, that involve his sanity and the city, and the salvation or destruction thereof and most emphatically does not touch on the fact that three days with Sheppard is finely-honed psychological torture – nay, it is hell, pure, unadulterated –
"I love you too, McKay." Sheppard's slouch has, impossibly, beautifully, deepened, hollowing out his belly and curving his spine, and Rodney wants to run his hand along those curves – and Rodney has just said a lot of the above out loud. Fortunately not the part about touching, but he feels his face go red and Carter is looking at him.
"The Amicarans are, in accordance with the ritual, sending two of their most contentious citizens to Atlantis. They will stay in the guest quarters here while you stay in the – the guest yurt – "
"The Yurt of Reconciliation," Teyla interrupts.
" – for three days. You will be allowed three of your most precious personal possessions and nothing more; your clothing, food, and necessities will be provided for – "
"My allergies!" Rodney snaps his fingers, because really, hello! Even Sheppard straightens, looking hopeful. "There is no way I'm going in there and being fed citrus and have Colonel McSlinky over there laughing as I go into anaphylactic shock – " Sheppard mouths McSlinky? in a tone of soft wonderment, almost lost underneath Carter's impatient, "McKay, Lehala – " he knows her name now, dammit " – has been apprised of your medical situation. Situations. You'll be given epipens to take in with you, and they won't count towards your personal possessions."
They really have him, Rodney realizes bleakly. Both of them, Rodney McKay and Colonel McSlinky, over a barrel.
The next morning, he and Sheppard are standing by the stargate in their brand-new Amicaran uniforms. The cloth brushes gently across Rodney's skin, soothing even though he wants it to be itchy, a goddamned hair shirt, because that means he could complain without being made to feel like an ass about it. His shirt is black, the threads dyed unevenly so it looks dark grey in places, and his trousers tan and a bit too long, the cuffs spilling almost over his toes. Sheppard is in blue, fingering the collar where it rides low enough to reveal the dip of his neck.
Rodney swallows and looks away.
Their opposite numbers, a man and a woman called… something, Rodney's sure… stand in front of the stargate with Carter and Teyla, dressed in BDUs and t-shirts. The woman is plucking uncertainly at hers – she'd been asking Lehala for a robe earlier, and had been refused and told to apologize to Carter for the insult – her full mouth now thin with unhappiness. Her companion in misery, shuffling feet that are probably uncomfortable in expedition boots, holds himself stiffly next to her.
Lehala steps forward to begin the ceremony of exchange, and Rodney wonders why they don't make the aliens participate in some weird Lantean pre-trading ritual. He amuses himself with devising various tests while Lehala runs through the history behind the Reconciliation, and the importance the Amicarans attach to civil harmony.
"For three days, Dedicated Sheppard and Dedicated McKay, the two most contentious of your people will live together," Lehala says, "and on each of those days they must explain about the three possessions each has brought with him – the significance of the choice, the importance of it, its history. And on the third day, if they have achieved Reconciliation, the Amicarans will declare themselves satisfied and you will be given what you ask for."
"Sounds good." Carter smiles hesitantly; Teyla frowns and steps into the breach with the proper words, repeating verbatim what Lehala's just said, only replacing Dedicated Sheppard (ha!) and Dedicated McKay (ha!) with Dedicated Vaharam and Milec, who look at least as miserable as Rodney suspects he and Sheppard do.
And then, snap, Teyla and Lehala exchange bows and Carter herds Vaharam and Milec back through the stargate. Rodney sighs when the gate whooshes shut, loosening in resignation, but when Sheppard goes tense next to him, Rodney remembers that they're pretty much hostages now, and whatever it is Vaharam and Milec can do, it probably is nothing like what an extremely brilliant scientist and his extremely – extremely attractive co-hostage can do.
Lehala bows and indicates they should precede her, face showing nothing of whatever diabolical plan she's hiding. Sheppard stays tense next to him, all hot and coiled energy underneath the smirk and slouch he offers to the Amicarans, and even though neither of them have weapons and Lehala will probably have her people whip theirs out in thirty seconds, Rodney feels a bit better with the tight press of John's body close against him.
There's grunting behind them, and Rodney risks a glance over his shoulder to see four capable-looking Amicarans picking up his prescription mattress, and he wonders if it would be impolitic to demand that they be careful.
Sheppard's hand is sudden and swift on his wrist, and Rodney keeps his mouth shut.
He keeps it shut until they come to the prison/yurt of Reconciliation, and then, upon beholding the impossible microscopicness of it, Rodney's mouth falls open.
"I told you about my cat, right?" Rodney gestures at Planck's picture, which is on the little table next to Sheppard's copy of Crime and Punishment. His first question, asked on the first day of their Reconciliation (what the UN would call wrongful imprisonment, if they had the UN out here) in accordance with Amicaran custom, had been about the novel, and if Sheppard was planning on working his way through the canon of Russian authors.
"War and Peace got too depressing," Sheppard had said. He'd run the pages of the book against his fingers, a soft shushing sound. "Also, you know, nothing to do."
For the first time since yesterday, Sheppard's on Rodney's side of the room, which is really kind of overstating it because the room isn't a "room" so much as it is a not-quite circular jail cell. Also, Rodney's bed takes up at least half his space, which is okay by him because it's a lot more comfortable than the floor.
"No," the here-and-now Sheppard says in response to the question about Rodney's cat. He studies the plain silver frame and the stripey kitten in Rodney's arms. "So that's most treasured possession number two?" Oddly, Sheppard doesn't give it the same sarcastic inflection he'd given to it when he'd asked about Rodney's bed yesterday.
"Well, that would be my brain, but unless the Amicarans were going to remove that before we came in here…" He imagines Lehala, while distracting him with the ceremonial Kiss of Hope, brandishing a miniature buzz-saw in the manner of Dr. Strangelove. He shudders and tries to hook onto jealousy instead, remembering Lehala and Sheppard; she'd also given Sheppard the Kiss of Lechery, or something that looked a lot more like lechery than hope, and Sheppard had squeaked and slunk into the Yurt of Reconciliation.
"So what about your cat?" And Sheppard actually reaches for the picture, a gesture Rodney can't really account for.
"I found him in a trash can when he was a kitten," Rodney tells him. Sheppard's mouth lengthens in response to some mysterious distress. "He was, um, too little to be without his mom and in pretty bad shape. I took him to the vet and they put him up for adoption, but, uh, no one wanted him I guess, so a week later I took him back. To my apartment, I mean, not to the trash can."
Sheppard sets the picture back on the table. Rodney grins out at himself from behind scratched glass. Planck, who is little more than a kitten in the photo, has his eyes closed and is sleeping curled in the crook of Rodney's left arm.
"You miss him?" Sheppard asks, voice lightly casual.
"Yeah." Rodney looks at the guitar propped against John's bed. "You know, until today, I've never heard you play."
"No time," Sheppard says with enough irony, almost, to mask something Rodney doesn't understand but which still manages to hurt.
"Oh my god," Rodney mumbles.
"The Amicarans don't have a god," Sheppard tells him. He's stalking the perimeter of their closet of Reconciliation, scowling when he has to detour around Rodney's mattress. Even tripping over his own feet at the corner of the mattress, he's graceful, absurdly and disgustingly so.
Other than for them and Rodney's mattress, the yurt doesn't have much space for anything else. They – well, the Amicarans, under Rodney's supervision – had pushed the mattress against one corner. On the opposite side of the room, Sheppard's cot huddles in all its plain brown humbleness, made even more so by the guitar propped against one end, like Sheppard's living one of Johnny Cash's songs. There's one small table that holds the picture of Rodney's cat, his data tablet, and Sheppard's novel and, bizarrely enough, the now-useless scrap of Ancient synthetics that is the personal shield Rodney had discovered back at the beginning of all this.
"Will you stop pacing? You're making me dizzy. Also, anxious." Rodney makes himself stop thinking about the shield, wondering where the hell Sheppard had found it and why he'd held onto it. "Sit down already. We still have… seventy one hours and forty eight minutes until we're free."
Sheppard scowls at him but obediently flops down on his cot. He lies there, studying the ceiling, while Rodney turns on his data tablet. He'd had to fight to get it past Carter, who'd claimed it was cheating (which it was, it so was, but he wasn't going to let her know he agreed with her), and then explained to Lehala, with his most beseeching expression, exactly why his data pad should qualify – it both symbolized and contained his life's work, indeed, it translated his self-identity into binary – and she'd allowed it.
Rodney runs through some basic data from his scans of the settlement, allowing himself small, contented noises while he works – and hey, this is going to be easy. Sheppard has his book, he has his work, they can do three days no problem, especially if they sleep a lot.
Sleeping with Sheppard. Rodney curls in on himself a bit and wills away the wanting. Sheppard is stretched out all along his cot, feet dangling off the end, toes twitching to some silent rhythm. He has his hands clasped over his belly, not quite pressing it into concavity.
Rodney turns back to his tablet and presses a few buttons. The tablet beeps at him.
"What do you mean low battery?"
"Trouble in paradise, McKay?" Sheppard asks, and his feet keep twitching.
"Oh, shut up." Rodney powers down the tablet and resists the urge to throw it across the room. He sets it down next to him instead and flops back, tries to play a game of mental chess.
He's checkmated himself within twenty moves in two successive games – which is either really good or really bad, he can't decide – and Sheppard's toes are still twitching. Rodney's about to capture his own bishop when the humming, the nerve-grating, off-key, hrrrrrrnnnng-type of humming, starts.
"Do you mind?" The game vanishes under the influence of Sheppard's tone-deafness.
"Not at all, McKay." Sheppard tucks his hands under his head, still staring up at the ceiling. Hrrrrnn, hrrnnnngggg.
Rodney looks down at his data tablet and contemplates damaging a most valued possession.
He keeps contemplating it, even when Sheppard gets tired of humming and turns over for a nap. Then Sheppard starts snoring, and Rodney hides under his pillow and wonders why why why the terrible humming and cross-grain snoring fail to make Sheppard less improbably attractive. The old buckwheat-like smell of the pillow doesn't help.
The food doesn't help either; when it appears through a slot cut into the side of the yurt, it's a giant plate populated by a depressingly bland mix of vegetables and sauce, with juice for Sheppard and water for Rodney. He's almost tempted to take that badly, but then he remembers Lehala's concern for his allergies, even if she didn't quite understand them, and relents. Across from him, Sheppard's smiling his mind-reading smile, and Rodney smiles back. and tries not to think about Sheppard's quick fingers tearing apart pieces of bread and using them as the spoon the Amicarans have forgotten to give them.
Maybe this won't be so bad after all, he decides, but this is subject to revision.
That afternoon they decide to have the first of their three show-and-tells.
Sheppard produces his book and explains about giving up on War and Peace but finding himself bizarrely addicted to Russian novels. Rodney asks him if he thinks it's a metaphor and Sheppard asks for what, and "do I look like an English major?" Rodney demands, "the hell if I know," and Sheppard frowns his I-am-slightly-confused frown and says, "I guess it could be a metaphor."
"So is that really one of your most prized possessions?" Sheppard asks, pointing to Rodney's mattress.
"Do you know how much I had to bribe Caldwell to ship it for me?" Rodney pets the nearest available corner, smiling a bit at the reassuring texture of MemoryFoam. "I needed all sorts of documentation from Carson, and there may have been a small incident involving the Asgard, so yes, it is one of my most prized possessions." He pauses to assimilate John's barely-there smirk, the one that pulls at his lips but shows mostly in his eyes. "Besides, it's the only thing that's kept me from having to ship a chiropractor out here… Do you think Keller would go for that? A chiropractor?"
"If she doesn't, Dr. Kurasawa'll give you a massage in exchange for rations or twenty minutes of table hockey time."
"What?" Rodney sits up. "How did I not know about this?" Sheppard shrugs elaborately and Rodney scowls. "I was wondering how she'd gotten so good at it. I thought Griffith was going to cry when she beat him the other night."
"Radek says he did, later." Sheppard has his feet propped up on Rodney's bed, and he's lying stretched out along the thin-woven rug that covers the center part of the room. Rodney looks down the length of Sheppard's body, the flat glide from belly to chest, to his neck where there's a hint of stubble, a moment of dissonance when Rodney thinks that he's so rarely seen Sheppard out of uniform. "It's why that whiteboard was smeared."
"I was wondering about that too," Rodney says, and when Sheppard smiles his quick, unguarded smile, he thinks that yeah, it'll be okay.
"Sorry about your data tablet," Sheppard says at last, almost twenty-four hours after pushing Rodney and causing him to break it. He's on his back again, staring at the ceiling, which is made from the skins of some wild goat. The Amicarans don't hunt them, but every now and then go out to see if they can find already-dead ones for skins and simple bone tools, and supposedly there's something in their stomachs that is an all-purpose cleaner, which… Rodney swallows, trying not to think about Amicaran toothpaste, and he probably looks more than a bit green because Sheppard says, sounding alarmed, "But hey, you've got backups, right? Right?"
"Yeah, lots." Rodney swallows one more time to be sure. "I, um, I brought this one along because it has solitaire on it, and some papers I'm working on."
"Doesn't sound very important," Sheppard says.
"What, like the Modern Library edition of Crime and Punishment speaks to the depths of your tortured soul?" Rodney snaps. He sets the tablet – well and truly dead, since Rodney stepped on it yesterday – back on the table, pushing Sheppard's book close to the edge. "I think it's safe to say that most of what we brought along, with the exception of your guitar and my cat's picture, aren't exactly the things to which people develop deep and meaningful emotional attachments."
"True," Sheppard agrees, but something in his throat makes the word catch, and he's staring at nothing with a raptness that Rodney recognizes as Sheppard searching for words. Rodney gives it a moment, but Sheppard doesn't say anything else, only leans back against Rodney's mattress with a sigh and frustration-thin lips.
"Why'd…" Rodney swallows and makes himself say it, and crazy that he's the one who can't find words now because he's always the one with the words, the numbers, anything that's needed to fill silence or save the day. "Why'd you bring the personal shield? Did Radek get it working? Is it a different one? Did you think we were going to need it or something?"
Sheppard's silent a bit longer, considering this time, as though he's thinking about accepting the explanations Rodney's offered for him. Radek could (conceivably, maybe, on one of his better days) have found a way to recharge the shield; it could be a different one, and Sheppard could have hidden it from him (which kind of hurts in a way Rodney doesn't examine too closely); and they were walking unarmed into a potentially hostile situation, no matter how much the Amicarans carried on about peace and love, and there's all sorts of practical reasons for its presence in Sheppard three possessions that he almost doesn't let himself hear Sheppard's answer.
Rodney stumbles down the corridors of the Wraith ship, blinded by smoke and terror, and oh God where is his team? Imprisoned somewhere, or fed on, and he has to get out because there is a whale. A gigantic whale about to swallow the city whole and if he doesn't hurry, doesn't get out, didn't escape, everyone will die – John, Elizabeth, Carson, Zelenka, Sam, Dr. Das (his astrophysics dissertation chair, whom Rodney actually likes), his cat, April Bingham (even though she deserves it) – so many, so many and he has to get out –
A Wraith materializes from the shadows, pale, snarling, and there's nowhere to go, the corridor closed off behind him and there's a window where Rodney can see the whale bearing down on the city – only a moment, because the Wraith is there, filling Rodney's vision with its terrible smile, the upraised hand.
The Wraith pokes him in the chest.
"Wake up, McKay."
"What?" Rodney asks.
"Wake up." The Wraith pokes him again.
Rodney blinks, winces when he tastes the aftertaste from the Amicaran tooth-cleaning stuff – oh man is it foul, even worse when mixed in with the dry, gritty film coating his mouth.
The Wraith's fanged face melts, blurs, and resolves into Sheppard glaring down at him, one finger hovering as though he's trying to decide whether to poke Rodney once more.
"Will you stop it?" Sheppard hisses.
"Stop what?" Rodney glares, though he can barely see Sheppard's face in the thin light that comes through the hole the Amicarans have cut to let out smoke. "Stop sleeping?"
"Snoring." Sheppard's rocked back on his heels, one hand on the mattress helping him balance, and what? Snoring? Rodney is about to protest the rank hypocrisy of Sheppard's complaints about snoring but Sheppard cuts him off. "It sounds like you're dying."
"Yeah, well, I wish I was," Rodney snaps. He pulls his blanket – his one blanket – closer around him, irritated because he hates being woken up and because Sheppard's looking down at him with his face shadowed and Rodney's at a huge disadvantage, and oh God, Sheppard is so close. "Now go away."
Sheppard pauses, like he's trying to make it clear Rodney's not the boss of him, but goes. Rodney squeezes his eyes shut and tries not to listen (as he'd done earlier tonight) to the creak of Sheppard's weight settling onto his cot, the rustle as he pulls his blanket up. Unfortunately the darkness brings with it the painful awareness of sound, and Rodney's imagination fills it with images of Sheppard stretching out so his bare feet dangle loosely, body shifting until he finds a comfortable position, and Rodney's breath catches, thinking of that, and he tells himself do not think what you're thinking.
"You'd better not start snoring again," Sheppard says. "I'm not going to put up with another night of this."
"Oh, shut up." And yet Sheppard's completely unwarranted irritation – Rodney's sleep apnea is well documented and the Amicarans have never heard of BreatheRight Strips (and even if they did, Keller's out) – fails to cool the burn that's started low in Rodney's stomach, and no amount of hating Sheppard can bring it down, or do anything more than keep Rodney up for the rest of the night, listening to Sheppard's breath (which sounds suspiciously like – oh, can it be, snoring?) and watching the moonlight change through the hole in the ceiling.
He runs prime numbers, pi, the completely erroneous results handed to him by Pastis and Conley from their shield diagnostics (these irritate him; he goes back to pi), sheep jumping over a fence with prime numbers painted on their fleeces, but the numbers match themselves to Sheppard and his breathing, and the occasional creak when he turns over, or stretches, or does any one of a thousand invisible things that make Rodney lose his count and another shred of sanity.
By the morning he's cranky and a headache grips his temples. It refuses to let go during breakfast –an oatmeal-like substance, something sweet in it that's gratifying for a moment but there's no coffee (and oh man, he should have brought ground coffee, whether or not he could actually drink it – he could have smelled it, at least, or mixed it in with something, damn it) – and clings stubbornly while his brain clamors for caffeine. He glowers across the bowl – they're sharing again, but at least they have spoons – at Sheppard, whose eyes are dark and who isn't looking at Rodney.
They've divided the room in half, and the small space devoted to sanitation has become a neutral zone. They've bisected the bowl as well, so Rodney keeps his spoon on his side and Sheppard stays on his, and they eye each other across the invisible line. Every now and then one of Sheppard's fingers stray over and Rodney grunts to warn him off.
The silence, like Rodney's headache, holds on while they clean their teeth. Rodney tries hard not to gag and imagine what goes into the gritty paste he's spreading across his mouth, because imagining means he'll start speculating out loud, and Sheppard's silence crackles around him like a force field, forcing awkwardness and an answering hostility on Rodney, who knows enough of himself to know that if he starts talking now, he won't be able to stop.
"So," Sheppard says. He's back on his cot, guitar across his lap. Rodney squints; Sheppard's trying to tune it, fiddling absently with the pegs and producing a discordant thunk when he plucks a string. He has his legs crossed neatly under him, though he's slouched back against the wall, curving into it, and Rodney makes himself stop thinking about that.
"So?" he asks, and reaches for his data tablet, remembering at the last second that the battery is almost gone. And how? He wishes for his toolkit – he'd trade in his mattress (maybe) for the ability to have functional technology and solitaire for the next two days.
"Huh?" The guitar twangs dolefully, still out of tune. Sheppard, relaxed in his loose, collarless shirt and bare feet, looks like a hippie. Rodney scowls as Sheppard shrugs and goes back to his completely tuneless playing. "Nothing."
Rodney bites down on the comment he really wants to make and goes back to staring at his tablet. And he tries, he really does, not to pay attention to Sheppard starting to pick out a tune, or something that might have been a tune except for the utter lack of rhythm or anything resembling an on-key note, and while Rodney would usually find Sheppard's unexpected incompetence heartening (because really, no one should be that perfect), at the moment he's locked in a yurt with nothing to do except talk about his feelings – which are swiftly shading toward pissed off – and stare in silent fury at his data tablet, and if Sheppard is making an effort to irritate him he really couldn't be doing a better job.
He flops down and tries to suffocate himself under his pillow, but all he can smell is old not-buckwheat and he can't breathe, and it's like Sheppard is standing right over him, emphatically picking out "Folsom Prison Blues."
"Would you quit it?"
"Quit what?" Sheppard fumbles the next note.
"Playing." Rodney ponders self-asphyxiation. "I didn't get much sleep last night."
"I would," Sheppard says placidly, "but I don't feel like it. And I didn't get much sleep either."
"I can't help that!" Oh for crying out loud. Rodney sits up. The pillow slumps softly to the floor. "You know I have sleep apnea and it's hardly my fault that I – "
"Maybe I thought you were dying." Sheppard scowls prettily as he starts massacring another song. "I would hate for your tombstone to read 'Died of suffocation in a yurt.'"
"I'm beginning to wish it did."
Rodney goes back to prime numbers, to a paper he's been trying to write and he tries to concentrate, he does, but the guitar is insidious and oh God, even Johnny Cash doesn't deserve to be treated like this and Rodney McKay definitely doesn't either, and please, for the love of God, Sheppard, is it too much to ask you to at least play on key? Or, if not, stop playing altogether?
"No," Sheppard says.
"Read your damn book!" Rodney points commandingly at the copy of Crime and Punishment at Sheppard, who regards it curiously, as though he can't remember having brought it.
"I'm not in a reading mood," Sheppard says at last.
"Oh for god's sake!"
"You can read it if you want to," Sheppard offers, like the searing torment of Russian literature is preferable to death by boredom. "You can even reach onto my side of the table to get it."
The morning crawls to the tortured pace of Sheppard's playing, with Rodney's last nerve wearing very quickly down and Sheppard pretending to be oblivious in his corner. Rodney spends a bit more battery power to learn that there's a fault in the tablet's power systems, consoles himself by winning two games of free cell before powering it down again. When lunch comes it's more grain and vegetables and Rodney takes a moment to hate Vaharam and Milec, who are feasting on MREs and chocolate and drinking coffee and get to have real toothpaste.
He sits as far away from Sheppard as he can while still being able to reach his half of the bowl. Sheppard gives him an odd look, which usually Rodney can ignore but there's no getting past it this time, and the man is laughing at him, eyes bright with it.
"Seriously, are you trying to be more obnoxious than usual?"
"No," Sheppard says after a moment, like he's had to give it some thought.
"Look." Rodney sets down his half-eaten piece of bread. "I'm tired. I have a headache. I have no coffee. I have nothing to do and I am going insane."
"Well, so am I," Sheppard says, frowning.
"Are you trying to take me with you?"
"Hey, you were the one who kept walking into me." Sheppard sets down his own bread and draws himself up. "If you could actually walk in a straight line, we would have found someone else to do this, and you and I – "
"Oh, so it's my fault now? Who was trying to eviscerate me with his elbow?"
"Which I wouldn't have done if you could walk in a goddamned straight line." The words grate on the edge of Sheppard's indignation, which no, no, Sheppard does not get to be the indignant one here, not when he's been torturing Rodney with his terrible guitar.
"Well, if you'd have gotten out of my way – "
"Your way?" Sheppard asks incredulously. He pushes the plate to the side. "You were the one – "
"Who couldn't walk straight, yes I know." Rodney waves his hands as though to brush Sheppard's words into the ether. "And if you'd gotten out of my way and not tried to perforate my lung, you wouldn't have had to worry about any of this happening."
Sheppard scowls, and for a second Rodney thinks Sheppard's going deck him, but all Sheppard's irritated energy stays thrumming under his skin for a long moment before he sways to his feet, moving too fast for balance and "oh fuck" Rodney whimpers as the bowl tips over and spills the rest of their lunch – their faintly disgusting but still it's food lunch – onto the floor.
"Hell." Sheppard takes a moment to study the slow ooze of their lunch across the floor. "McKay!"
"How was that my fault?" Rodney stands up quickly, unable to stand Sheppard looming over him. Sheppard's glaring at him, expression stormy, but Rodney can glare too and he's furious enough not to be intimidated by the look Sheppard usually reserves for the Wraith. "You cannot pin that on me."
And of course he's right, because Sheppard's unexpected klutziness is in no way at all Rodney's fault, but Sheppard still looks like he wants to protest, standing there with one hand tense at his thigh and his mouth shut against furious words. Rodney watches him for a long moment as Sheppard works through whatever he's working through, and Rodney really wants to ask what the hell is your problem? but he doesn't want to know the answer. At last, though, Sheppard comes to some conclusion and spins around to stalk the few feet back to his cot and guitar.
"You are not playing that again," Rodney squawks.
"Watch me." The cot creaks as Sheppard collapses into it, and the guitar sends up a mournful plunk-twang of agreement.
"Put that the hell down," Rodney says tightly.
"No," Sheppard says, and oh, Rodney now understands where Sheppard's superior officers were coming from.
He suffers through a half-hour of mutilated, incoherent guitar, almost sighs with relief when Sheppard finally stops. The guitar produces one last unhappy noise, the whimper of something small dying in its sound hole. Rodney keeps still on his bed, staring fixedly at the picture of Planck, and tries not to mind it too much when Sheppard starts pacing.
The not-minding lasts for a couple of minutes.
"Do you mind?" Rodney asks.
"No," Sheppard says. "I'm bored."
Rodney cracks an eye open. Sheppard's marching the twelve feet or so back and forth, feet scuffing on the carpet and stirring up dust in the places the carpet doesn't cover.
"Quit, okay?" Rodney barks, sitting up. "Just quit."
Sheppard freezes in his perpetual motion.
"Rodney," he says, voice tight with what Rodney is sure is the effort of not striking him, "I'm bored. I'm bored, tired, my back is killing me, we still have another day and a half in here, and also? You're driving me crazy."
"How?" Rodney asks incredulously. He has to stand up again, because lying in bed while Sheppard looks down at him... No. Just, no. He's good at multi-tasking, but managing boredom, indignation, and lust is too much to ask, even of him. "I'm trying to sleep and make it through the next thirty-six hours without inventing a way to kill you with a buckwheat pillow and my blanket. You're the one with the stupid music and the neurotic pacing, and, I might add, the one who got us into this in the first place."
Sheppard whirls past him, pushing him hard enough so Rodney takes a step back to balance himself, and hears the crack of breaking plastic, and just as he hears it remembers he'd set his data tablet on the floor after he'd already sat down for lunch.
He also remembers that the table is, more or less, directly behind him, and this convenient memory is the last thing that crosses his mind before the table threatens to cross it too, and the last thing he sees in a halo of pain is Sheppard's alarmed face, and hands reaching for him.
Sheppard's holding the shield now, turning it over and over in his clever fingers. It doesn't light, like so many things do (like Rodney does) when Sheppard touches them. And when Sheppard hands it to him, Rodney almost expects it to hum to life, but the crystal doesn't so much as flicker. He hasn't touched the shield since that day years ago, but the synthetics and stone are intimately familiar under his hands.
"It's dead," Rodney says, and hands it back.
"You almost were, too," Sheppard says, voice small and tight, sharp with a pain that snags low in Rodney's chest.
"I didn't," Rodney says, his own voice nearly gone. "I'm not."
Rodney's head hurts, but there's just a bump – Sheppard had checked, fingers unexpectedly gentle when they'd pushed aside Rodney's hair – and they decide that they won't call for bandages or painkillers, assuming the Amicarans have such things, because then there might be questions and answers more uncomfortable than Rodney's headache. Rodney had endured Sheppard looking, trying not to think too hard about Sheppard's fingers smoothing across his temple, and thanked him with a politeness that had Sheppard smiling briefly before he'd retreated to his cot.
Aside from trying not to talk about Sheppard's guitar or Rodney's cat, they spend the rest of the afternoon quietly, Sheppard mercifully not playing his guitar or pacing, but Rodney's too grateful – and too tired – to snark at him or be superior about it. He has the data tablet safely on the table, not that it makes much difference at this point, because stepping on it had not only broken the screen but had been the Rodney McKay that had broken the battery's back, and after a few last flickers the tablet, like the shield, had given up the ghost.
And, God help him, Rodney can't be angry about his tablet, even though he really wants to be, and he can't be angry at Sheppard about his stupid guitar anymore – again, even though he really wants to be – because Sheppard's never had time, maybe, until now, to play the thing, and no no no Rodney will not feel bad about that. He will not.
"You can play, if you want," he says.
"No, s'okay," Sheppard says, the contrary bastard.
"Did you teach yourself?"
Sheppard blinks. "Yeah. I had a... a friend I was stationed with for a while, stateside. We'd get weekend passes, you know? And he'd find a bar with an open mike and borrow someone's guitar."
"Was he good?" Rodney straightens a bit, maneuvering the pillow behind him.
"Pretty good. He played the blues," Sheppard tells him. He's folded in on himself again, elbows resting on his knees, and across the narrow space between them, his gaze is sharp. Without the distraction of Atlantis and a thousand things to do, Rodney the keen, inescapable weight of it. "This used to be his."
Sheppard's voice has gone thin again, stretched along by the unspoken he's dead now. And Rodney, who's come to understand a little bit of what loss is (Carson, Elizabeth, gone one-two, and he knows it doesn't get any easier), can only nod.
Dinner materializes and they take it back to Rodney's mattress to eat, as most of their lunch still splatters the floor. Rodney meditates on Sheppard – John, he's been John to Rodney before, though it's only so very recently Rodney can bring himself to call Sheppard by his name – as he eats, one leg tucked under him, the graceful turn of his wrist when a cuff slides back. When they're done, John pushes the bowl back through the slot and stands there, looking at Rodney.
Amicaran days are short; by local nineteen-hundred, darkness is almost fully established, though the same auroras dance blue and red and silver through the hole in the roof. Unexpected light catches in John's eyes, the line of his body, and Rodney wants, oh how he wants to get up, to pull John to him, say he can spend the night in Rodney's own small space.
But he doesn't, and reminds himself it's their second night and tomorrow is the third day, and then one more night of this and the next day John will take his guitar and Rodney will take his broken tablet, and they'll go home.
He tells John good night, and John mutters g'night back at him, and when Rodney closes his eyes he can still see John in his private darkness, making his slow way back to his cot and lying down.
They walked into the Yurt of Reconciliation at local nine-hundred two and a half days ago, and the Amicarans are sticklers for observing all the formalities, so it's three full days and three nights of captivity; they'll be released tomorrow morning. If they aren't, Rodney's already started to figure out ways to manufacture a low-grade explosive from their plate and the now-useless battery and wiring in his data tablet.
He worries at the morning, unsettled by Sheppard's odd quiet – he's back to Sheppard again, a safer distance Rodney had felt he'd gained after spending all of last night hovering at the edge of sleep – and dreading their last exchange, when Sheppard will tell him about the shield and Rodney will tell him about his computer. And he'd brought the computer for precisely this reason, because it's a shield as much as that little piece of plastic and crystal is, and safe to talk about, or was until Sheppard had gone and told Rodney about his dead guitar-playing friend.
"You should eat," Sheppard tells him over breakfast.
"Not really hungry," Rodney says, which is true enough, and mercifully, Sheppard doesn't press. He also doesn't eat much, either.
Rodney tries to twitch quietly on his mattress and tries not to count the hours. He wants out, for so many reasons, his claustrophobia, the forced inactivity of two days with no room to move or think or do anything that isn't bounded by goat skins, these walls, and Sheppard's inescapable presence. He wants to ask Sheppard if he knows what he's doing to Rodney, if he's ever had any idea, even just once, one time, in the three years or so they've been together.
This would, however, qualify as an emotional conversation, and Rodney's planned to have as few of those as possible. The computer, on the other hand: safe, and Sheppard can guess enough to fill in the blanks with the answers he needs, not the ones Rodney knows are true.
At last they have the third and final exchange, and after apologizing for breaking Rodney's tablet, Sheppard tells him about the shield, It's dead Rodney says, and Sheppard says (tightly, near to breaking) You almost were, too and Rodney says I didn't, I'm not and Sheppard – John – says, Yeah.
He looks away briefly, and Rodney can see his jaw tighten a little.
"So," John says when he looks back, "your computer."
"Yeah." Rodney shrugs. "You can probably guess why I brought it."
John nods, barely-there smile saying he can, only his guess is totally the wrong one, Rodney knows. And this is when Rodney's supposed to say something profound and meaningful, but the words back up in his throat so he chokes on them and the moment he needs to say these things is the one he needs to find his breath again. So really, all he can do is stare at the strong line of John's shoulder and wonder how well his hand would fit against it, how closely they would match, if John would lean back into him.
"You almost died," John says, out of nowhere. "But you know, before we found out that you couldn't get the shield off? That was... that was a really great day."
"Yeah," Rodney agrees, because it was, it had been really great, because not just anyone will shoot you in the leg if you ask, or push you off a balcony and grin about it and be crazy, and let himself be as high on discovery as Rodney can be.
"After, though... it got a lot worse." Something threads through the words, through John's voice, woven there by the fingers that take the shield back and turn it over and over.
"Yeah." Rodney feels himself hovering at the edge of revelation, or a something very close to it, the rush in his blood and a dizzying fear. "It wasn't... Well, death by hypoglycemia or energy creature really wasn't the kind of choice I wanted to make."
"You shouldn't have had to," John says fiercely, like this is something he's been obsessing about for the past three years, when so much worse has happened to them, when people have actually died. "And I didn't want you to."
"I know." And Rodney does know, though mostly what he remembers isn't walking into that darkness, but offering himself to the Wraith, the pain in John's voice – and he'd been John then, and there hadn't been any way to tell him that, that Rodney hadn't wanted to die, but needing and wanting were two different things and if anyone knew that it had to be John.
"The tablet – it isn't – " he starts to say, falling over the words like an idiot, like he isn't the most brilliantly articulate person in two galaxies who has enough words for any ten people. "It isn't one of the three things."
"It isn't?" And confusion draws John from his distress, which would be okay because if John's freaking out then it's all up shit creek, but now John's lookingat him, desperation riding under a face so calm Rodney's frightened.
"No," Rodney says. "It's – it's – "
When Lehala fetches them the next morning, it's with a broad smile and one Kiss of Reconciliation apiece. One of her assistants has the manuscripts in his arms, and another has a list of things the Amicarans would like Rodney and his staff to look at in the near future.
"Vaharam and Milec did okay then?" John asks, squinting a bit in the sun.
"They did indeed," Lehala says. The smile she wears is fond, but she looks at Rodney as she speaks. "It would be an honor done to us, if you would consent to trade."
"Of course," Rodney butts in before John can say anything. "Very great honor."
Lehala bows. "I will take you to the gate myself. Your Colonel Carter and others are waiting, and she has already been so good as to send Radek Zelenka to begin inspecting our shield generator."
This is, quite possibly, the first time in living memory that they haven't been kidnapped, double-crossed, or sacrificed. Rodney almost says this, but John flicks his wrist with swift fingers that Lehala doesn't see and mouths don't jinx it, and Rodney keeps his mouth shut, even when he hears his mattress scraping awkwardly against the door of the yurt as the Amicarans carry it out.
Sam and the others look appropriately happy to see them, and no one makes comments about how it's a miracle that one of them hasn't killed the other – they probably know that this isn't a joke to the Amicarans. Vaharam and Milec are there, still dressed in their BDUs, though Vaharam looks much more comfortable and Milec is talking to her in a soft voice that makes her smile.
Lehala releases them with no more ceremony – things will be much less formal now that Dedicated McKay and Dedicated Sheppard have demonstrated that the Lanteans are civilized and decent people who can put quarrels behind them, even though there was no quarrel in the first place, Rodney still wants to say. He keeps that to himself, as well as the finally of relief, until they step through to the Lantean side of the stargate.
Atlantis closes around him, climate-controlled and welcomingly high-tech but jarringly loud, with footsteps and words that echo in the high ceilings of the tower. Rodney watches John as he talks to Lorne and wonders if John, too, wants the quiet again.
The thought and a quiet fear keep him company up the stairs and through the short visit to Keller, who obligingly looks at the bump on Rodney's temple and makes vague noises.
"Are you sure I don't need an MRI? What about the scanner?"
"You don't have a concussion," Keller says with an asperity that reminds Rodney, forcibly, of Carson. "If you lapse into a coma, call me."
"I'm sure you two are ready for some well-earned solitude," Sam says. She stands like Elizabeth used to, with her fingers laced politely together in front of her. "Are they clear to go?"
"All clear." Keller strips off her gloves.
Rodney hurries out before John can get up, waving away Sam's compliments on a job well done and something about starting to translate those manuscripts. He doesn't stop hurrying until he gets to his quarters, chased on by thoughts of John last night and the past three days.
The mattress almost looks odd, reinstalled on its box spring and metal frame. Rodney digs in his backpack for Planck's photo and sets it on his bedside table, where there's a thin, dust-free line to mark its place. All around him are his familiar things, his degrees, a spare data tablet, his clothes, his space, Lantean sunlight (early afternoon now) in the window.
And so silent.
He tries to decide what to do about it, reluctant to deal with the bustle of the lab but not liking how his thoughts can't fill what space his body doesn't take up. And he's hovering between his bed, the shower, and the door, when the chime startles him out of confusion.
It's John – he knows this before he asks the door to open, John who's still in his Amicaran clothes (like Rodney is), a little dusty and bewildered.
"John," Rodney makes himself say, and nods.
John takes that for the invitation it is and walks in, walks straight up to Rodney, and his face – his face, so much like yesterday.
"It's not important." Rodney points to the tablet, like John could possibly be confused as to what they're talking about. "Well, it is, but it's not important-important. Not in that way. It's a cover, I guess... I brought it because I honestly couldn't think of anything else. Well, I could, but I couldn't bring them."
"I think we've already established that we've cheated, McKay," John says. He's on Rodney's bed now, sitting on the edge and ready to jump up at the wrong breath, and Rodney knows how he feels because he wants to stand up and move, but there's no room.
"No, it's... When I was trying to think of what to bring, I mean, the mattress, yes, important because I don't want to spend the next month hunched over in excruciating agony. Cat, again, important. I'd come home, you know? And he'd be there, and he'd knead my chest with his claws, and it hurt, but it was kind of okay. You know?"
"Not really," and John's brow is creased in a way that says no, he really doesn't.
"But, um, the third... The third I couldn't figure out. There aren't that many things that are important to me. Really important, or irreplaceable. Except there are a few things, but like I said, they're things I couldn't bring... Or they're things that, uh, that brought themselves."
He makes his hands fall still in his lap, hating the tension and the staying still. The waiting, for John to work it out.
And the thing is, he knows John has a brain under that hair, a terrifyingly intelligent brain that can almost match Rodney's synapse for synapse, and it's one of the things that keeps Rodney tied to him, helpless and fascinated and prone to saying stupid things that are supposed to be enigmatic but end up being clear as day.
Or clear, Rodney thinks, as John's face when he gets it, and looks up, and smiles that unguarded smile that doesn't falter or turn away.
They don't kiss the last night in the yurt, because the Amicaran rotting-meat toothpaste would, Rodney points out, put them off kissing forever. Dinner is another awkward dance of looking and Rodney's occasional helpless grins and John's own softer, rueful ones, and of Rodney watching the flex of John's neck and even John watching him, though Rodney wonders what he sees, past almost four years of quiet wanting.
When they get ready for bed, Rodney makes the offer, You can sleep over here if you want, like John has to drive across town instead of step across the room. But it's a distance made of two days of hostility and three years of confusion, though John covers it in two steps and slides hesitantly down alongside Rodney. He's warm against a night that promises coolness, and the careful hand on Rodney's face, his neck, makes Rodney shiver.
But they do kiss their first night back home, with the ocean outside and huge windows, and after five minutes of mouthwash and the brushing of teeth. It's everything Rodney's imagined and nothing, more more more and if he wants to climb into John's skin that's okay, with the way John holds them both closecloseclose together and guides them both down to rumpled sheets.
"It's a good mattress," John murmurs to Rodney's temple, brilliant in Rodney's eyes and dark against regulation white sheets. He laughs at something, Rodney doesn't know, and it's a terrible laugh but the way his chest rumbles and the laughter makes him brighten is beautiful.
"Yeah," Rodney says, delighted with John under his hands and in his bed. "A good mattress is always important."