sgasesa_admin (sgasesa_admin) wrote in sga_santa,

Fic: Tiny Pieces of Fear (McKay/Sheppard, PG-13)

Title: Tiny Pieces of Fear
Author: gottalovev
Recipient: temaris
Pairing: John/Rodney, Ronon, Teyla
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: No warnings apply. The show and characters sadly don’t belong to me.
Author's Notes: I want to thank my wonderful beta, mckaysmonkey, who did such a great job. Also many thanks to the mods for a fest well run and that brings so much joy. You are the best!
Summary: The Team has to prove that they are suitable potential allies (it must be Tuesday).

Gradually, John's senses start to come back online. That's the impression he has, at least, since it doesn't feel as if he's waking up. Was he knocked out? Maybe he was drugged. The stimuli follow a natural progression: hearing (a buzz), touch (he's restrained), taste (that's definitely blood), smell (antiseptic) and finally sight (fade in on a room so bright, John has to close his eyes again).

First assessment? Not good. Especially since he doesn't know where he is and how he got there in the first place. At least the blood is only from a small bite on the side of his tongue, nothing serious.

"Colonel Sheppard?"

John forces his eyes open again and realizes he can turn his head. He's standing up in what looks like the stasis unit made by the Ancients, held in place by some sort of force field. A dark haired alien is watching John intently with what looks like concern. Most of the races John's met, except from the Wraith and the Asgard, could easily be mistaken for people from Earth. This particular one could not in many ways: a very slender figure with a larger than usual cranium, eyes almost twice as big as normal... it's a step between human and Asgard or some sort of hybrid (a possibility John doesn't even want to think about). The alien, who John guesses is male, smiles when he meets John's eyes.

"Ah, yes, you are aware," he says, noting something on a glass panel with a stylus. John notices the way the device changes color as the alien writes on it.

"Where's my Team?" John asks, as first order of business. There seem to be other stasis units lined up with his own, but even though he can turn his head a little, John cannot lean forward to check his surroundings. Maybe they're filled with his friends, which would not be ideal. A better scenario would be that they have escaped and are planning to get him back. The guy with the stylus makes an appreciative sound and notes something more.

"They are right here," the alien says, pointing first to the stasis unit on John's left and then to the unit on his right. "Doctor McKay, Counselor Emmagan and Specialist Dex I believe."

All captured, then. Crap.

"Are they," John stops, because he's still kind of reeling and he might as well ask for them all, "- are we okay?"

The alien smiles and makes another note. "No one is physically harmed. The discomfort is temporary, until we explain the Esta."

That is all fine and dandy, but the more John comes back to full awareness, the more pissed he becomes.

"Look, I don't know who you are or what you want..." he starts.

"You may call me Oji, and as I said, explanations are forthcoming." Oji exchange his glass tablet for a gizmo that looks a lot like the medical scanners on Atlantis and makes a slow sweep of John's body. "Just one moment," he adds, as if this is a regular visit to the doctor.

"I want to get out of this," John says. "I don't remember what happened, or..."

Oji pauses at the affirmation and tilts his head.

"Oh, I am sorry, I can fix that," he says, before walking in an almost bouncing sort of gait to a control panel further down the lab. "It is less stressful for the guests to become aware without the additional input of what came before, but I see that your bio-readings are degrading none the less... Let me restore your memory. I suggest that you brace yourself."


The sudden input of information is like a blow to John's head and images flicker rapidly behind his eyelids.

A new planet - hotter than usual, especially in contrast with the cold of the wormhole - that at first sight seemed covered in jungle, so much green everywhere.

Meeting the natives, two men and a woman, three hundred yards from the gate, who had smiled at them and invited them to their village. A smile exchanged with Ronon because they had a good feeling about them instantly.

How the natives had looked harmless and welcoming. They had modern enough technology to have fans and plumbing, to Rodney's delight.

The rapid fire questions about where they were from, and what they wanted and everything else. The Volan people were eager to know everything, in the information craving way lots of worlds had, and the Team had mostly dodged the most personal and sensitive inquiries.

An agreeable afternoon where Teyla had started negotiation for a fruit that looked a lot like a pineapple, very sweet, that had gained the immediate stamp of approval of both Ronon and Rodney.

A tea ceremony where one of the village leaders, Min, had told them that there was an abandoned city half a day away, buried in the jungle.

Rodney's eyes lighting up - no surprise there - and how he had insisted that they go have a look as soon as possible and how John was truly unable to resist that particular eagerness.

John contacting Atlantis to announce their intention to spend the night to travel to the city in the morning, and how they had received permission to prolong the mission by 24 hours.

It all unravels like a movie, one John has emotional responses to, so he guesses it's all true. And there are more memories coming, as if once the dam is broken, it can't be stopped.

They'd had a fun evening, relaxing around a campfire while eating bread and meat and drinking a honey-based beverage similar to mead that had made John slightly tipsy. He remembers that he had enjoyed laughing with his friends and sitting closer to Rodney than he'd generally indulge, but how it had felt so right. John also remembers wishing that they had more missions like this one, low on stress. He could not imagine at the time that it would eventually go all to hell.

The next morning, after a couple hours walk in the jungle that Rodney hadn't even complained about, they'd reached what the natives called a city. It was more of a collection of disparate looking buildings, unlike anything they'd ever seen before. The structures were seamlessly integrated to the vegetation in a way that reminded John of Caras Galadhon in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Ronon had immediately taken his gun out.

"There is nothing to worry about," Min, who had volunteered as their guide, had said with a reassuring smile.

"So you says," Ronon had replied as he scoped their surroundings carefully.

"You said this place is abandoned," Rodney had complained, frowning, as he studied the readings on his scanner. "I'm picking up several life signs."

John had raised his gun at that. He remembers that he could not see anyone but he could feel eyes on them. "Well there's someone who does the weeding," he'd quipped. The place had looked pretty lived in, definitely too clean to be abandoned. John smiles as he remembers the expression on Rodney's face, warring between being cautiousness and having a geek-gasm as he prodded at the wall of one of the buildings.

"This building material is fantastic," Rodney had informed them. "It looks semi-organic, but not at all like the Wraith ships, thank goodness."

"I have never seen anything like this," Teyla had agreed.

John had started to circle the building they were standing closest to, wanting if possible to secure a small area just in case something went south.

The last thing John remembers is a sudden whirring sound coming from the top of the next building. He remembers Rodney's concerned grumbling and Ronon deploying his weapon, but all too soon they were enveloped in a beam of white light"

Gradually, John's senses start to come back online.


John blinks, brought back to the present. Oji is monitoring his reactions closely and it's a relief for John when he stops examining him with those unnerving huge grey eyes and turns his gaze away to note something on his tablet.

"I trust you now have all of your memories back," Oji says.

"That's what you say. I have no way to know if there are a couple missing, right?"

It makes Oji smile, amused, and his teeth are just a little pointier than normal, which puts the alien thing back to the forefront again. "True. But we don't hold memories unless we're asked to do so by the subject."

"How very Lacuna Inc. of you," John says, knowing that the reference will go about a thousand feet over his head. Ask him if he cares. "Now that I'm all restored in the memory department, how about you tell me why we're here and what happened?"

"Our friends the Volans brought you and your team here, so we could assess your naessa."

A set up, then. Well, that's a disappointment. John's opinion of the locals just went down several notches.

"Our naessa?" he asks.

"Valor, if you wish. If you would make trustworthy allies," Oji says.

At least John is able to raise an eyebrow at that, even if the rest of his body is paralyzed.

"Wow, trickery and kidnapping, what a way to build a solid partnership."

Oji tilts his head,

"We are aware that the method to assure of the naela, with the help of the Esta, is flawed. But you won't be harmed and you can choose to leave without any more interactions if you desire."

John will believe that the moment he's through the gate and not before.

"Thanks, then. We'll leave right now," John says with a smile he knows looks fake.

"As you wish," Oji says with a nod. "But right after the Esta, or the evaluation if you prefer."

An evaluation? Wow, this gets better and better. "What does it entail, exactly?"

"It is better if I show you the settings," Oji says. "Wait one moment as I disengage your unit. I want to warn you in advance that I am presently protected by a personal shield, so any or all attempts on my physical integrity will lead you nowhere. There is also no way to escape this room without the code to the transport beam." John cannot say that the thought of overpowering Oji hasn't crossed his mind: he could take the guy, he's pretty sure. But now that he looks around more carefully, John doesn't see any apparent door or opening. Crap.

Oji taps his tablet and all of a sudden John is standing on his own power again and has to brace a hand against the side of the pod not to fall down. He steps out and immediately turns to see his friends in the adjacent pods, immobile and with their eyes opened. John tries to touch Rodney but there's a force field that tickles like low grade electricity that prevents it, and when he snaps his fingers near Rodney's face he gets no reaction. Frankly, it's a little creepy.

"Get them out," John demands.

"Not yet." Oji says. "They are perfectly safe and will remain so all through the evaluation."

Oji looks calm and poised, but John doesn't know if he's hiding the fact that he's really a mad scientist. They've seen weirder.

"What evaluation? Can you read their minds or something?" John asks.

Oji shakes his head. "No, nothing of the sort. We will put them in a simulation and see how they react."

John frowns. "Like the holodeck?"

"I do not know what a holodeck is, but we will create a carefully controlled virtual environment and send each of your friends into it, with a predetermined scenario, and note how they react. There will be examiners inside said reality, invisible to your friends, who will evaluate the naela.

That's a creative use of the technology, but as a principle John is weary of people who make them jump through hoops to prove something. He's always felt as if those games or ceremonies were biased.

"Why am I the only one awake?" he asks.

"Because we need your input for a fair assessment," Oji says.

"How so?"

"I have three scenarios, and you have to decide which will be matched to what person."

Let the games begin, John thinks. "Okay, what are they?"

"One that measures agility, one that measures cleverness and one that measures courage," Oji lists.

Okay, so that's good, they can do it. John's first thought is to suggest Teyla for agility, Rodney for cleverness and Ronon for courage, but his spidey senses are tingling: too easy.

"Can I choose who goes first?" John asks.

"Of course."

It's a risk, but John is pretty sure that there's a test for him in this, too. He takes a deep breath and hopes he's taking the right decision.

"I want Ronon to be given the chance to prove his agility," he says.

John is pretty sure that he sees the corner of Oji's mouth twitch up and he feels marginally better for it.

"Understood. Just a moment while the examiners get ready," Oji says, back to making color swirl on his tablet.

"Can I see, too?" John asks.

John realizes Oji is frowning by the furrowing of his large forehead - no eyebrows makes for limited facial expression.

"That is highly unusual, but I cannot see why not. You will not be able to intervene at all and the participant will not hear or feel you," Oji says.

"That's better than nothing," John says.

"Then I will ask that you step back into the unit," Oji says. John shivers uneasily - he's always hated the pods, especially since his trip to the future and back - but he does as he's told and takes position. Oji then presses a button and John is suddenly back in the jungle. The illusion is perfect and John feels humidity and heat, the lush decor around him flawless in every detail, including mosquitoes buzzing around. When John looks down at his hand, it's to see only a shimmer: he's mostly invisible, just a distortion in the air that you have to focus on to see. Most probably someone else in the environment could not.

"Okay, so that's pretty great," John can't help saying, though it comes out flat and muted even to his own ears.

John's currently standing on a wooden platform high up in a tree. There are two metal wires, one at platform level and one above eye level, and they lead to another tree with a platform, maybe 50 yards away. John would not be surprised if the course carries on from one tree to the next for several miles. John smiles because if Teyla would have flown through the proposed course, Ronon is more than able to do this, too, and it should be a piece of cake.

Speaking of Ronon, the man himself appears suddenly on the platform near John. Ronon blinks several times and grabs a vine so that he will not stumble off the very narrow ledge. John tries to catch his arm but he passes right through him, which is quite unsettling. A small woman with red hair has also appeared out of thin air and is sitting by the ledge, feet dangling in the air. She's examining Ronon closely, even though she tries to be casual about it.

"Welcome, Ronon Dex," she says.

"What is this?" Ronon asks, looming menacingly over the woman who doesn't seem impressed at all. She looks completely human, which is probably a disguise for her true form.

"An obstacle course," the woman says. "You need to reach the red lantern, over there, as efficiently as you can."

"Okay," Ronon says, as loquacious as ever, not even questioning the whole setup and why he suddenly found himself near the top of a tree. He must think he's dreaming. Ronon looks around and after a moment of consideration he goes to where the top metal wire is fixed to the tree. There's a pulley with handles that can be used to move around the course, but it's firmly attached to the tree. Ronon pokes at the tangle of ropes that holds the pulley in place as he pats himself down (John knows he's looking for a knife, but unfortunately he's clearly out of luck). When it becomes clear that he'll need to untangle the thing, Ronon messes with the knots for a minute before stopping and following the ropes with a finger. When he starts fiddling again it's methodical and he makes good progress until the pulley is free. It took him maybe fifteen minutes, give or take.

"That's great," John speaks up, but neither Ronon nor the woman reacts.

"To the red lantern?" Ronon asks the red haired woman as he gets in position, using the handles on the pulley for balance and climbing on the lower wire.

"Yes," she confirms. "Follow the wires."

"Piece of cake," Ronon says, starting to walk in the direction of the other tree, as if walking metal wires when way up in a tree is something he does every day. The cable sways, which makes Ronon slow down, but off he goes and John can't help it, he does a victorious fist pump.

Suddenly John opens his eyes to the lab again, and Oji looks amused when John grins at him while he steps out of the pod.

"So?" John asks. "How was that?"

Oji nods. "He did well. Now it's time for the second test."

An idea occurs to John when he looks at Ronon, unnaturally still as if nothing at all happened (which is true, in the real world).

"Ronon is done, right?" John asks.


"Then you can wake him and give him his memories back," John argues.

"At the end..." Oji starts.

"I don't like this," John points at his friend's rigid forms in the pods. "If, and I say if, there's a chance that your people or the Volans and mine could form an alliance, waking Ronon would show you're willing to compromise. And he could come with me in Teyla and Rodney's simulation, too."

"I hear your argument. But if he went in the simulation, it would not change anything. Specialist Dex would not be able to intervene more than you can," Oji argues.

"Well I'd want to be there, if I was him and I was done," John says. He might have a better chance to come up with up a plan if Ronon's awake, too.

"I can wake him, but he will stay in the pod for now. And I want to mention again that I am wearing a personal shield and that it is absolutely impossible to escape without me supplying the codes for the transport beam," he warns again.

It's like Oji read his mind and John can't help the unease at that. He sure hopes that they are not telepaths and sends a mental sheepish salute if they are.

"I know," John says as he walks to Ronon's pod. It will probably be easier if he sees him as soon as he wakes up. It doesn't take long and Ronon focuses on him for a moment before scoping the place. John's pretty sure he can't move yet because he'd be out and about right now.

"Hey, big guy," John says with a smile. Ronon frowns.

"Where are we? Get me out."

"It's a lab, and you're in a pod, but I can't let you out, sorry," John says. "I made Oji wake you to see if you were okay."

Ronon takes a moment before he answers. "I'm fine, I think. Teyla..."

"She and Rodney are right here," John says, pointing to the side. "Long story short, the Volans deceived us and now Oji and his friends are 'testing us' to see if we're worthy of trade."

"The tree thing," Ronon says.

"Exactly," John confirms. "You did great by the way."

"I didn't see you," Ronon says.

"But I was there. Want to see how Teyla and Rodney do?" John asks.

"Yes. Then we can go?"

Oji chooses this time to walk closer. "Yes, Specialist Dex," he says and John watches with amusement how Ronon's eyebrow lift upon seeing the alien, but not much more than that. "If Colonel Sheppard will go back in the unit, we can proceed."

John nods at Ronon and does so. Better get this done.

"What will be next? Agility was given to Specialist Dex and now we have cleverness and courage left," Oji says.

John's still convinced that there's a second degree to this whole thing, so he keeps with his earlier game plan. "I want Teyla to demonstrate her cleverness."

"Very well," Oji says.


Upon appearing - or failing to appear properly, he should say - in the virtual environment, John is sure that there has been a glitch.

"This is what I did," Ronon says by his side and John turns his head and catches a faint glimmer of what must be Ronon's outline that shines in the sunlight. Thank god they can communicate, it makes John feel a bit less helpless. For the moment, they are back in the jungle environment with the tree to tree course that Ronon just did and John is amazed again at how realistic it is.

"Yeah, it must be an error," John says. He's expecting a sudden change of scenery when the red haired woman from before appears on the platform, closely followed by Teyla.

"Welcome, Teyla Emmagan," the woman says.

And wow, either the Oji only have one scenario in their holodeck, which would be lame, or choosing whom for what was indeed a test in itself.

Teyla frowns as she takes in her surroundings.

"Am I dreaming?" she asks.

"Not exactly," the sentry - because that must be what she is - says. "This is an obstacle course and you need to reach the red lantern, over there, as efficiently as you can."

"How was I brought here and where are my friends?" Teyla asks.

"They are safe but you will have more satisfactory answers when you reach the lantern. I unfortunately cannot help you," the sentry says.

Teyla muses on that for a moment and John realizes that Ronon is by the pulley and is trying to glare it into submission (touching it went as well as John would have guessed).

"She'll figure it out," John says, moving next to Ronon.

Teyla bows her head at the sentry. "I accept your challenge."

"I am glad you do," the woman says. "Go forth."

With that settled, Teyla looks around and, as John knew she would, comes to the pulley. She then pulls on the cables that go from tree to tree.

"That's it," John encourages, even though he knows she cannot hear him. She observes the knots in the ropes and gets to work. It takes a couple of minutes but she frees the pulley, and Ronon lets out a cheer.

When Teyla gets in position on the cable to start the course to the other tree, John know it's in the bag. As he thought, she moves on the wire with the grace of a dancer, using the handles attached to the pulley for balance. The whole thing barely sways and Teyla reaches the end of the course easily.

Suddenly, John is pulled from the simulation and finds himself back to the lab. The contrast from simulated jungle to the climate controlled room leaves John more disoriented than the first time.

"The second simulation is done," Oji says.

"Are you lacking budget or what?" John asks.

"The question is irrelevant," Oji says. "Do you still wish to witness Doctor McKay's Esta?"

"Yes," John says.

"Me too," Ronon adds.

"Teyla..." John starts but Oji is waving a hand.

"I understand, now we proceed." It's the only warning they get before they are again in the trees, ready to see Rodney being tested. First, though, they take the time to reassure Teyla who had no time to disconnect from her own stint in the holodeck.

"What is this," she asks, unsettled.

"Hey, Teyla! Just wait a second..." John says as she turns, watching her surroundings.

"I just did this," she's saying.

"I know, you did great," John says.

"John?" she's looking for him until she spots his form, as translucent as before. "I had been told..."

"Yes, they made you do this and you aced it," John says. "Ronon did it before you and now it's going to be Rodney's turn."

"How?" she asks.

"Think about the virtual environment on the Aurora," John says. "In those buildings we saw in the jungle, before, the Volans have friends who are evaluating us right now."

The red haired woman has appeared and then Rodney does too, at the same exact spot where Ronon and Teyla did earlier. He has the most violent reaction of them all, as John expected. Rodney reflexively grabs a rope but then makes the mistake to look down over the edge of the platform and yelps.

"What? Oh my god, what is this?" he says, stepping closer to the tree and looping an arm around it. He then answers his own question. "I'm dreaming."

"Welcome, Doctor McKay," the sentry says. It surprises Rodney who had just laid eyes on her. He scrunches his eyes, and John recognizes the face he'd done to go in and out of the VR on the Aurora. He sure catches up fast, John shouldn't be surprised by that, but escaping the virtual environment that way doesn't work this time.

"Oh, hey, it looks like I made up someone to explain my own dreams to myself, fantastic," Rodney says after it fails.

"This is not a dream, but an evaluation," the sentry says. "You need to go through this obstacle course and reach the red lantern, over there, as efficiently as you can."

"What? Oh, I get it, it's one of these humiliation dreams, just a step up from showing up to class naked, great," Rodney grumbles.

"That is not the goal," the woman says with a frown.

John wonders if there are many people taking notes on what is going on. John's reaction is to step closer to Rodney, even if he knows he won't feel him.

"Whatever," Rodney says. He peaks at the line leading to the other tree, then down at the possible long hard fall and winces. "This is simply fantastic. I'll have you know that my friends would run down that rope like squirrels, no problem. I, on the other hand," Rodney looks around and spots the pulley. "I'm going to need all the help I can find."

"Come on, McKay," Ronon grumbles. Not being able to help must be killing him, too.

When he reaches the tangle of knots, Rodney runs a finger on it for a second, a lot like Ronon did when it was his turn. John can see his 'I'm going to solve this' face and lo and behold, Rodney grabs one piece of rope that looks just like the rest and pulls sharply. To their amazement (even Teyla makes a surprised sound) the whole thing unravels. John can't help but to laugh, especially when Rodney has a fleeting smug smile at the result. There is knowing your best friend is crazy smart and being reminded of it so plainly. Not that Rodney doesn't save their asses all the time with his gigantic mind; he does, but often his ease with tech and math gets taken for granted.

Now that the pulley is free, Rodney needs to get going and that's another problem entirely. He pulls it in position but then looks down and recoils. Rodney looks terrified, not even pretending to put a mask of false bravado on since he thinks no one is looking. It reminds John that Teyla, Ronon and he are not the only ones watching, and he feels a renewed burst of annoyance at this stupid test.

"Come on, McKay," Ronon says again, hands on his hips as if the power of his mind will send Rodney on his way.

"I am confidant you can do it, Rodney," Teyla adds. "It starts with one step."

It's really a shame that Rodney cannot hear, but it sure won't stop them. John hovers right by Rodney's shoulder.

"C'mon, buddy," he coaxes.

But Rodney is still poised at the edge of the platform, paralyzed.

"I hate this!" Rodney exclaims. "I've never liked heights, and I certainly don't like to be in situations where if I slip, I break my neck!"

He's talking to the sentry, or out loud at the unfairness of the universe, or both; no one answers. In fact, the red-haired woman continues to just stare at him calmly. Sensing a public that won't volley back, Rodney shuts up and peeks over the edge once more with predictable results. They could be here all day if this continues.

"Just don't look down!" John says, getting so close that he can feel Rodney's body heat even though he can't touch him - and that Rodney's not actually real. "You can do it, Rodney. You're one of the bravest people I know."

John means it, too. As he's read once upon a time, thanks to Twain: courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. And Rodney? Well he's afraid of so many things but he's still in Pegasus, putting his neck on the line for the success of the mission and to help others. He can deal with his fear of heights, John's sure of that.

"Oh god, oh god," Rodney chants under his breath when he finally puts a foot on the wire, clutching the handles attached to the pulley with a white knuckled grip. "I am so going to die!"

"No one is dying here, I won't let it happen," John all but promises. He knows that he doesn't have any control over this virtual environment, and that they are, in fact, captive for the moment and things can change fast, but even if Rodney falls he won't die. John's ninety-eight percent sure of that.

After another moment of hesitation when the wire sways, Rodney puts his second foot on it and does a little shuffling forward motion, eyes screwed shut. They are shouting encouragement non-stop by this time, urging Rodney on, and slowly but surely he starts to cross the gap towards the next tree. After doing close to four feet with his eyes closed, Rodney now squints at the objective, jaw clenched tight, the picture of resolution even though his fast breathing betrays his almost panic.

"That's it, you are doing well! Just a little more" John keeps repeating, with backups from Teyla and Ronon.

Ronon and Teyla breezed over the course in a few minutes, but it takes a lot more time for Rodney, who progresses with fits and stops and no grace what so ever. When Rodney does reach the next platform, though, it's an explosion of cheer from the ghost squad.

That's my boy, John can't help but think, relieved. The next thing he knows he's out of the VR and looking at Oji's face, back in the lab, and the contrast startles him.

"Oh, hey," he says intelligently. "He did it," John adds with a smile.

"Doctor McKay managed the Esta indeed," Oji says and he looks happy at the news, too, which is a good sign. "In fact, you all succeeded, congratulations."

"Excellent," John says, and it's getting frustrating that he can't move because of the pod. "Can we go, now?"

"We thought we could discuss a possible collaboration, first," Oji says.

Is he serious? John isn't sure if this is a very elaborate joke or another test.

"There will be no discussions until my friends and I are out of the pods. And yes, I know, we won't try to hurt you because of the shield and the transport beam to get out."

"Very well. Please note that the Examiners are here, too."

Oh well, John would have preferred not, but he's not running this show. "Fine."

He's out of the pod a bit before the others and he notices three aliens sitting at a table near the back of the lab, all on the same side and facing them as if they're judges from American Idol. John notices that Teyla and Ronon are waking up while it takes a little longer for Rodney to come round. By tacit agreement they crowd in front of Rodney's pod.

"Whoa, hey," he says as soon as he focuses on them. "You wouldn't believe the dream I just had."

John snorts and Rodney frowns at his amusement. Oji disengages the pod and Rodney steps out, looking alright.

"I might have an idea about that dream," Teyla says.

"So do I," Ronon adds with a smirk.

"Ronon and Teyla went through the same thing," John explains before Rodney takes offense.

"The wires and the pulley gimmick?" Rodney asks.

"Yeah," Ronon says. "That. I got to the red lantern faster, though."

"Of course you did," Rodney says, rolling his eyes. "I'm sure you breezed through it too," he tells Teyla.

"You did very well, Rodney," she says reassuringly, a hand on his arm.

John's observing the jury, Examiners or whatever, sitting behind their table. Oji is now standing by them, hands behind his back.

"So, what's the verdict?" he asks. Oji said they'd all succeeded, but he wants a confirmation that they are going to get out ASAP.

"You all showed strength of character and remarkable qualities," the alien in the center says, voice measured and strong. John is pretty sure he's the top honcho in the room just by the body language of the others. "Strong interpersonal bonds, too, it is commendable."

They are Team, John thinks, he would not have it any other way. He looks at his friends and can't help the smile. Now that he's had a minute to recover, Rodney is looking around the room, eyes wide as he takes in the level of technology.

"We are so glad that you had fun at our expenses, or at least at mine," Rodney says. "I've got to say that your VR was impressive, though. Could I..."

Now is not the time for making nice, so John interrupts.

"What I want to know is if we're prisoners," John asks.

Oji shakes his head and the Examiners look at each other before raising placating hands.

"No, no you are not. The Esta was to learn..."

"Respectfully, you have to agree that the justness of our intentions towards the Volans and yourselves cannot be seen through an obstacle course," Teyla says. "I would not be surprised that even Wraith worshipers would cheer for their companions."

Exactly, John thinks. The whole process is inherently flawed.

"This evaluation only proves that we don't agree on the way to build trust," John says. "If we're not prisoners, I demand that we are immediately released."

"But John," Rodney pipes up.

"Not now McKay," Ronon says for him.

"We are saddened that you feel this way," the head Examiner says. "The Esta is tradition as much as it is a test and we hope that upon further consideration, you might want to start discussions on trade."

"We'll see," John says. Neither of the people they met on this world looks hostile, and he's pretty sure that they don't want to double cross them, but they cannot take any chance. "For now we'd like to go back to the stargate."

"You shall be returned outside of the facilities right away."

Rodney's "But!" gets swallowed as a white beam, much like the Asgard tech, plucks them from the lab and deposit them right back into the jungle. The Volans who led them here are all smiles, which pisses John off some more.

"Welcome back," Min says.

John glares. "I though we'd been getting along fine, Min."

"Yes?" Min answers, looking confused. "Very much so, I am not surprised the Esta was a success."

"What, was there white smoke just like for the pope?" Rodney asks, looking around.

"No, the blue light shone," Min says earnestly.

"You lead us into a trap, Min," John says. He raises a hand when he sees the start of the protest. "It was a trap, with a surprise test. That's not cool."

"But no harm was done," Min argues.

The habit is obviously too ingrained and the Volans would not get the 'break of trust' point of view right away, if ever. Over the last six years in Pegasus, John has seen trust tests over and over again. Getting to know people is always a test: this one had just been more elaborate than anything they'd seen before.

"No, we're fine. But we want to go home now," John says.

Min looks extremely disappointed but nods, leading the way, followed by Ronon, Teyla and Rodney while John takes the rear. After a couple of minutes, Rodney deliberately slows down until they are walking together.

"Can I talk, now?" he asks. He sounds miffed, as he always does when he's told to shut up for the good of a mission.

"Sure, though I am pretty sure that I know what you're going to say," John says.

Rodney's eyes narrow. "Is that so?"

"That those aliens had great tech that we should have looked at more closely, or at least made a deal to have the excuse to come back. Am I on track?"

"Well yes," Rodney says. "And you know it's true. Who knows what advances they made, they looked like the Asgard's long lost third cousins."

"You also know that we can't condone kidnapping and surprise tests. We'll discuss it back home," John says. He doesn't want to argue here, it's not safe yet.

"Why not right now?" Rodney asks, oblivious and primed for a fight.

John tilts his head then makes an exaggerated sweep of the surroundings with a hand.

It takes a second before Rodney clicks that they could very well be monitored. Who knows what technology the aliens have.

"Oh!" he says, never smooth with those things. "Okay, then, we'll do that."

Ready to change the subject, John smiles at Rodney.

"The VR was incredible, right?"

"You had to do the tree thing, too?" Rodney asks.

"No, but I was there to see you guys. Even invisible I could feel the heat and humidity, hear all of those birds."

Rodney focuses on only one part of the sentence. "You saw that?" he says, obviously not pleased. "Well that's embarrassing."

"What are you talking about?" John asks. "I thought you did great. The knot thing was amazing."

Rodney smiles at that, pleased with himself.

"I know, right? It wasn't stellar knotting but done well enough to keep someone occupied for a little while if they didn't realize where to pull," Rodney says.

"Teyla and Ronon took a bit longer," John says to boost his morale.

"Yeah? Well I am sure that they made up for it once on the wire."

"What's important is that everyone got it done and we're out," John says, wanting to close the subject.

"You can say that again. I'm surprised that they didn't fail me, I was terrified," Rodney admits.

"Maybe, but you did it. That's real courage. That's why I chose you for that,"

"What are you talking about?" Rodney asks and John's not really sure he wants to get into his own trial, which he supposes he passed since they let them all go. "And please, courage is a big word."

"No, it's not," John insists. "I wish I had half of your guts."

Rodney laughs at that. "You do insane things all the time, please."

"It's not the same." John is convinced of that.

"Yeah, right. You mean to tell me that the great John Sheppard lets fear stop him? I don't think so," Rodney says.

"Yes, I do." John says with a shrug. "More than you think."

"Not when Atlantis or someone's safety is on the line."

John is warmed that Rodney thinks of him that highly and smiles.

"That's in my job description," he winks.

"Then I don't know what you're talking about," Rodney argues.

"Maybe because it's private." John sure doesn't want to expand on the fact that he's never had the nerves to make a move on Rodney, for one.

"Ohhhh," Rodney crows, shoulder checking him. "You mean private."

"I mean let's stop talking about this right now," John says with a bland smile. How did he manage to get into this conversation again?

"You like someone and you're too afraid to tell her?" Rodney asks.

He should deny it, Rodney's getting dangerously close to the truth, but John's never liked lying to him.

"Something like that," he mutters. "Which I know you can relate with, seeing how smooth you are yourself."

Rodney shakes his head. "Oh, I do relate. I'm terrible with that stuff, too. But I generally speak up, in the end, even if I mostly end up putting a foot in my mouth."

John snorts. "See? More guts than me."

"That is so wrong. I cannot believe that you, of all people, are insecure about that," Rodney says ruefully. "You have to know that your odds for success are leaps and bounds higher than average."

"Believe me, there are situations where you can't win, so it's better to keep quiet," John says. He might sound a bit bitter, but it he's been nursing this thing for years, and it does take a toll.

"So move on then!" Rodney exclaims, throwing his hands in the air in frustration (as if John hasn't tried that, of course he did).

"Says the man who's had a crush on Sam Carter for years," John volleys right back.

"That's different. It's my goal and quite possibly my destiny," Rodney says seriously. The smirks at John after a second proves that he doesn't really believe that, thank god. "Can't hurt to daydream! And it doesn't get in the way of pursuing other relationships as long as she's not interested back."

"Which, and you'll have to face it one day, she never will be, buddy," John says. To be quite honest, John's always resented the woman a little for the devotion she generates in Rodney. She'd been a good commanding officer while on Atlantis, he won't deny it, but he's kind of glad to have Woolsey now.

"I see what you are doing, you are deflecting the conversation! No, I say that you have to man up and let her know. Unless you can't... is it someone on Atlantis?"

"Yeah," John says before he thinks about how this would have been a great opportunity to make the whole thing a non issue.

"Not in a relationship?" Rodney prods some more.

"No. Let it go, okay?"

Rodney's eyes go round and for a moment John is certain he has connected the dots and his heart speeds up.

"Is it Jennifer?" Rodney looks uncomfortable. He doesn't even take a breath before continuing. "Okay, so that would suck, but..."

John is kind of appalled. Where does Rodney even get those ideas?

"No!" John says forcefully. "It's definitely not Jennifer. Why would you even think that?"

"Because you never told me and I have the feeling it's been going on for a while," Rodney explains. "And what's up with that, huh? I thought we were friends."

"Of course we are. I just don't talk about that stuff, never have."

"Right, I didn't even know you'd been married. Seriously, it's like pulling teeth. Fine, don't tell me, whatever." Rodney hand waves the issue. "But you're going to do something about it."

"No, I am not," John says automatically.

"And then what? Be miserable and pine away?" Rodney rolls his eyes.

"I'm not miserable!"

"Then go for it, she's probably interested anyway, and you'll have been too chicken shit for nothing." Rodney makes it sound so easy, when it's nothing but.

John snorts. "Maybe I don't want things to be awkward if it doesn't work out."

"Better to be awkward for a while and know for sure. And it wouldn't last forever."

Which... well, it's tempting. So very tempting.

"Look at me, listening to relationship advice from Rodney McKay," John says, shaking his head and Rodney punches him on the arm in retaliation.

"You just... ask her on a date. That's all. And see from there," Rodney says.

"Just like that, huh?"


"Okay, then," John says. He takes a deep breath and his stomach is tied up in a very very tight knot. "Wanna grab dinner and see a movie this Friday?"

John thinks he might be sick, that's how nervous he is. Rodney's pace doesn't even slow down, and he gestures a bit.

"Sure," he agrees and John immediately realizes that he didn't get it. John just asked him out on a date and it breezed right over his head. In a way it's understandable because they do dinner and movies all the time and it's never been a date before.

It would be so, so simple to take the easy way out and not to correct him. But if John doesn't make this clear now, he's afraid that he's never going to be able to do it. He stops walking and Rodney continues for a moment before turning to him with a frown.

"What's wrong?"

John takes the couple of steps necessary to stop right in front of Rodney, then grabs his arm.

"Rodney," he says, making sure he has all of his attention. "Do you want to grab dinner and see a movie this Friday?" he asks again.

"I already said yes," Rodney says slowly as if John's a small kid and needs lots of explanations.

There is no choice, John has to bring the eyebrows into it. He raises one and looks at Rodney pointedly, without a word. He's a smart guy, he should get it. Any second now. When Rodney does get it, his eyes widen and he opens and closes his mouth a little, speechless. If he wasn't a wreck right now, John would certainly try to break the tension with a joke but it stays stuck in his throat.

"You mean as in a date?" he finally asks. Or more squeaks. He's not stepping back or shaking John's hand off, though, which can be interpreted as a good sign.

"I mean a date," John confirms. He's proud to see that he sounds a lot more cool and collected right now than he actually is.

Rodney is blinking, and maybe even blushing, which is particularly endearing. "You are asking me on a date date. With dinner and movie and... and maybe kissing?"

John feels a grin coming, because this is not an immediate rebuttal, this he can work with.

"If you want to," he says, eyes dropping to Rodney's mouth because yes, he'd love if there could be kissing on said date.

John steps even closer to Rodney, right into his personal space and when he looks back up at his face Rodney is definitely pink. And not running away. In fact he takes a handful of John's t-shirt, either in the need to steady himself or to make sure John doesn't step back.

"I'm not sure I want -" for a millisecond John's heart beats faster but then he actually listens to the words Rodney are saying. "- to wait that long. For the date I mean, and the kissing. Friday?"

John's blood is rushing now, making him feel giddy, because that's a 'yes' and this is really happening. John can imagine the anticipation of waiting until Friday, how they'd be on edge all week. It could be real good, but John's waited long enough as it is, he doesn't want to drag it out either.

"What about tonight?" John asks. He can surely borrow a movie they haven't seen from Zelenka.

"What about right now?" Rodney counters, surging up to press their mouths together.

John's so surprised that it takes a moment before he unfreezes - a small one - though he makes up for it by cupping Rodney's face with both hands to kiss him as he's always dreamed of doing. Rodney opens up eagerly and the kiss turns deep and wet in a second, so frigging good it's like everything but the kiss disappears. Rodney's hands are soon on his shoulder blades before he slides them right down John's back, encouraging him closer. He ends up grabbing John's ass to pull him flush, groin to groin and John moans into the kiss, breaking it off to pant against Rodney's lips. He's hard and straining and he wants more of this so fucking bad.

"Fuck yeah," he growls. "That's what I'm talking about."

Rodney chuckles, biting John's lower lip lightly. "That's your idea of first date kissing?"

"I'm easy," John winks at him. "I meant that it took guts, going for a kiss right here, right now."

"You seemed like a sure thing," Rodney teases right back, eyes crinkling with amusement.

"Meh," John shrugs, kissing Rodney's smirk away. "That's because I am."

That's when John is hit on the side of the head by a sort of pine cone, making him step back and go for his gun. Fuck, how could he let his guard down like that? Rodney makes another high pitched noise and fumbles a bit while trying to get to his own piece. It only takes a second to spot Ronon, 20 yards away or so, with another pine cone in his hand. He's smirking and John feels his ears heat up at having been caught (kissing and unaware).

"Come on. Atlantis now, kissy faces later," Ronon shouts. "Get a move on."

"And here I thought you were my friend," Rodney yells at Ronon's disappearing back.

"He's right," John has to admit. "We should blow this popsicle stand."

He takes a step away from Rodney, towards the gate, even if all he wants to do is plaster himself to Rodney again.

Rodney heaves a big sigh and follows. "I was enjoying the kissing."

John grins. "So why don't we kiss some more as soon as possible?"

Rodney nods enthusiastically before making a face. " Damn, the whole sort of kidnapping incident means we'll have to debrief Woolsey first, right?"

It's John turn to sigh. "Yeah."

To his surprise Rodney starts walking faster, grabbing John's hand as he passes besides him to haul him down the path.

"Let's get this over with, then," Rodney says.

He then throws a wide grin to John over his shoulder and John laughs, happier that he's been in a long while. This is going to be fantastic.

"In a hurry?" he asks, definitely following the fast pace Rodney sets, linking their fingers together and hanging on.

"Yeah," Rodney says with his most insufferable - and irresistible - smirk. "I have a hot date."

The End

Courage is tiny pieces of fear all glued together. ~Terri Guillemets
Tags: genre: slash, pairing: mckay/sheppard

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