Pairing: Rodney McKay/John Sheppard
Notes: Kindly beta-ed by peeveee
Summary: Rodney reluctantly attends a party on New Athos.
Rodney has nothing against the Athosians. Honestly, if he has to spend several unproductive hours away from his lab, sitting on damp grass around an unnecessarily large bonfire and listening to hippie drumming, they’re his first choice of people to do it with but, as he’d pointed out at some length, he doesn’t have to and so-
Sheppard’s great big clomping military boot had landed, as if by accident, right on top of Rodney’s foot. “Of course, Teyla,” he’d said, smiling away like an advert for orange juice and ignoring Rodney’s manly whimpers of pain. “We’d be honored.” And so Rodney found himself trekking through the forest with John and Woolsey and Ronon to the re-inhabited village of New Athos to say ‘welcome back’ and ‘congratulations on no longer being either a Wraith/human hybrid or a deemed security risk’ by sitting through an interminable and meaningless ceremony. (And occasionally getting goosed by some weird squid-like creature burrowing through the topsoil at high speed. He’s still not clear on whether or not this is part of the ceremony)
“Quit it,” whispers John out of the corner of his mouth after Rodney blows his nose for the fiftieth time.
“Believe me, I would love to. It’s not my fault you dragged me out here in the middle of spring when the pollen count is-”
“Quiet,” rumbles Ronon from Rodney’s other side.
Rodney sneezes once more to make a point and then subsides.
The bonfire itself isn’t entirely unpleasant, as inefficient power sources go; they’ve built it with different types of wood so it burns brightly with minimal smoke and a sharp pine-y smell. Since the sun set at some point during the second epic song cycle it has become their main source of light, casting everyone in an flattering golden glow. It is also their only source of heat so Rodney’s front is uncomfortably warm while his back is distinctly chilly, a state of affairs he associates with off-world missions and his one ill-fated camping trip with the Fort McMurray Eager Beavers.
Altogether there are about sixty people sitting round the fire in a loose circle listening to Teyla sing … something about trees or death, Rodney hasn’t been paying attention. The Athosians all look enthralled but then they grew up without television. Ronon looks bored (or possibly intent - Rodney finds it difficult to read Ronon unless his teeth are showing) and John is second only to Teyla in pretending to be interested in stuff. Next round the circle is Woolsey, whose resting face appears to be one of faint discomfort, then Teyla (standing), and then Kanaan, who has a sleeping Torren cradled in his arms and is staring up at Teyla with an awestruck expression.
Rodney can sympathise. Teyla has always been worryingly close to perfect, what with the looks and the ass-kicking and the horrible, sneaking suspicion he has that she is in fact very, very smart even though she doesn’t have even one PhD. Motherhood has somehow added a whole extra dimension to her that on the surface seems soft and nice but is in fact terrifyingly primal and powerful. And hot. Rodney has come to feel a whole new degree of empathy with (a) goddess-worshipping religions, and (b) Freud.
When Teyla stops singing and sits back down, Halling stands up. “We will now pray to the Ancestors, to ask for their blessing and protection on this place,” he says before bringing his hands together and starting to intone in Ancient-sounding syllables.
Copying everyone else, Rodney bows his head, closes his eyes and prays that this will soon be over.
Ever since the whole near-ascension business, Rodney has been uncomfortably aware that Halling holds him in a high regard that is not strictly warranted. Which is not to say that there aren’t many excellent reasons for Rodney to be admired, respected, even revered! But a sincere interest in Athosian culture is not, he is forced to admit, one of them.
Even taking into account his fuzzy memory of the experience (it’s all there, theoretically, he’s just not capable of re-playing it with his baseline processing power, like trying to run a graphics-heavy game on an old PC), Rodney’s well aware that his motivation was basically ‘do something nice for Teyla’. He’s happy to get the credit for that from Teyla, who understands what the gesture meant, but feels oddly awkward about getting extra mis-attributed credit. He’s not used to it. Also, Halling keeps wanting to talk to him about theology.
Rodney knows that he’s got a maximum of two minutes worth of conversation before he can’t help pointing out that the Athosian religion is (a) morbid (seriously, do they have a ceremony that doesn’t mention death?) and (b) flawed (all religions are, obviously, but the Athosian religion is unusual in that he can produce a Powerpoint presentation entitled ‘Why The Ancients Should Not Be Worshipped As Gods’. Exhibits include Chaya, Helia, the Asurans, assorted abandoned experiments of more than dubious morality, and, conclusively, their accidental creation of the Wraith).
As he is reasonably confident that this will go down poorly, it is clear that Atlantis’s continuing good relationship with the people of New Athos (and, more importantly, Rodney’s status as honorary uncle in the Emmagen family) depend entirely on his ability to avoid Halling for the rest of the visit.
Rodney’s busy thinking tactics when he’s interrupted by a poke in the side.
“Hey,” he objects automatically, blinking up at a grinning John.
“Yes, yes, so I see.” Rodney scrambles to his feet, wincing as various muscles in his back and legs make their complaints known. “Ow.”
“You, Carter, mud-wrestling,” says Rodney as he stretches.
John pulls a face. “Was I at least winning?”
“You wish. Carter’s got serious moves.” Rodney claps his hands together. “So, food?” he says hopefully. People are milling around and there’s a promising smell of cooking meat in the air.
“Over there,” says John, hands in his pockets, jerking his head at the lantern-lit path back to the village.
“Lead the way.”
Teyla and Kanaan’s tent is large and decorated by a variety of richly colored blankets and dozens of candles on high metal stands (which is frankly appalling fire safety but mentioning that to Teyla tends to get a tight, toothy smile and ‘Thank you for your opinion’ in response so Rodney has learned to let it go). More importantly, the table in the middle is piled high with thick fluffy breads and roast meat of indeterminate species.
Rodney and John squeeze themselves on at the end and apply themselves to catching up. Rodney is vaguely aware of noise going on around him - music from the other tents, occasional burbling from Torren in his cot in the corner, Teyla having a serious, in-depth conversation with Woolsey about how the politics and economics of various worlds in the Pegasus galaxy had been shaped by the presence of the Wraith - but ignores it all in favor of happily stuffing his face.
“-in common with many worlds, the sparse population of this planet together with the changes wrought by the Ancestors mean that there are ample resources for us to survive by hunting and gathering. We raise crops so that we have goods with which to trade,” says Teyla
“Interesting,” says Woolsey, reaching for a thin, crispy bit of meat. “What did you say that this animal was again?”
“That is the groosla beast.”
“Big beetle,” adds Ronon helpfully. “Shot it this morning.”
“Thank you,” says Woolsey, retracting his hand. Rodney takes advantage of his squeamishness to nab the groosla leg (which tastes like spicy lobster) for himself.
“- and then you hit the little ball with the stick, correct?” says Kanaan, looking doubtful.
“It’s better than it sounds,” says John. “Ok, let me explain football instead-”
When they’ve cleared most of the platters, a skinny teenager enters the tent.
“Excuse me, Teyla,” he says, lingering by the entrance. “But my father wants to know if Mr Woolsey would like to join him for a drink.”
Woolsey glances at Teyla, who nods almost imperceptibly. Across the table John’s still chewing but he’s gone tense, watching them both as if a lot more than a drink is a stake here, which it almost certainly isn’t and John would know that if he’d paid attention to Rodney’s explanation on how the different realities split on a chaotic rather than a deterministic basis (which is, coincidentally, the reason why the reality drive’s navigation system didn’t work).
John’s been twitchy on the subject ever since he got back from the future; if Rodney didn’t know better, he’d think that John had realised for the first time just how fucked they’d be without him, but Rodney can’t contemplate that without lying down because it’s so monumentally stupid that it sends his blood pressure through the roof (and unlike some people he’s entirely aware of the importance of his continued survival so he has no intention of taking that kind of risk).
“Thank you, Jinto,” says Woolsey. He dabs his lips with a handkerchief, gets up from the table and follows the teenager out of the tent.
“What?” says Rodney, belatedly. “That’s not Jinto. Jinto’s-” He gestures in the air at waist-height.
“He has grown,” says Teyla with a smile. “Children do.”
“Well, yes, in theory, but-” Rodney darts a quick glance at Torren and is relieved to see that he still looks roughly the same size.
“It’s been, what, four years?” says John, and if there’s a hint of rebuke there Rodney chooses to ignore it. He wouldn’t even have remembered Jinto’s name in the first place if it wasn’t associated in his memory with the discovery of the transporters (good) and the release of the shadowy energy creature (less good, although his brave attempt at self-sacrifice was something of a highlight). And anyway he’s generally too busy saving the city to spend time glad-handing the neighbors; he barely even remembers the names of the people who work with him every day, and it isn’t like he spends much more time with his own niece (who’s probably grown as well since he last saw her, shit, he should remember to ask Jeannie for photos)-
“Four years?” says Rodney. “Jesus, that makes me feel old.”
John smiles at him, crinkle-eyed, all soft and fond and confusing.
“So does looking at you, Colonel ‘Too cool for sunscreen’. What, you think I track your lifetime radiation exposure for my own amusement?”
“The thought had occurred to me,” says John, leaning back in his chair, all loose-limbed and relaxed now. All he needs is a stalk of wheat to chew on. “Seeing as you’re a crazy person.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t,” says Rodney, a little offended. “Oh, that reminds me, our jaunt round that red giant won’t have helped so if you ever want to have kids you should probably give serious consideration to freezing some of your-”
“McKay!” Wide-eyed, John holds out a hand to cut Rodney off. “I’m not talking about this with you.” He glances round the table and Rodney follows his gaze to see everyone staring at them.
“I took the precaution of making a deposit myself last time we were back on Earth,” Rodney says to Teyla and Kanaan - they’re parents, they’ll understand. “You know, for future generations. Madison seems bright enough but she’s half-English major so-”
“Dr McKay,” says Kanaan, who, now that Rodney thinks about it, kind of reminds him of Kaleb, in that he’s quiet, seems pleasant enough, and Rodney doesn’t really know anything about him other than that he’s demonstrably fertile. “Would you like some more wine?”
Ruus wine is somewhere between brandy and port in taste, about thirty percent proof and throat-numbingly delicious. Luckily, unlike some people, Rodney can handle his drink.
“Hey, where did Ronon go?”
“Taking Woolsey back to the gate,” says John as they stumble into their tent. It’s the guest tent at the edge of the village, with one huge cot piled with blankets and not much else. Friendly people, the Athosians. “Here, hold this.”
The candle-holder is warm in Rodney’s hands. He sways a little as he watches the flickering yellow light.
John is sitting on the floor unlacing his boots with exaggerated care. When he eventually manages to get them off, he rests his head in his hands for a moment before pushing himself up on his feet and immediately sitting down heavily on the edge of the bed. “Ok, now you.”
Rodney hands over the hypnotic little candle before embarking on his own boot-removal mission. It goes a lot more smoothly than John’s, probably because Rodney ties his laces properly instead of knotting them randomly. The dumb thing is that he knows John knows how to tie his laces because he does it on missions (Rodney used to check out of paranoia that a crucial fight would be lost from their military commander tripping over a trailing lace). Maybe it’s some sort of rebellion thing, or a fetish, or-
“You done?” asks John sleepily, the candle wavering in his hand.
Rodney finds the jug of water they brought with them and takes a long draught before passing it up to John and swapping it for the candle, which somehow seems more complicated than it should be. When John’s drunk his fill Rodney sets the jug back down on the floor, worries about insects, remembers that Teyla gave him something to save their water from insects and, with a triumphant flourish, fishes a woven square out of his pocket.
It has tassels.
“Neat,” says John approvingly as Rodney carefully covers the jug before placing it under the bed, out of the way of clumsy feet.
“Ok, I’m going to blow out the candle now,” says Rodney, half hoping John will stop him. He likes the candle. It’s friendly. It’s possibly the friendliest source of light he’s ever met.
John signifies his approval by climbing under the blankets.
“Well, ok then.” Rodney blows out the flame, tucks the candle safely under the bed next to the veiled jug of water, and climbs into bed. It creaks complainingly as he settles himself and sags in the middle so that his arm bumps against John’s.
“Night,” mumbles Rodney into his pillow.
“Yeah.” John’s lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling. “I think Woolsey had a good time.”
“It’s important, you know? It’s important that he understands.” John’s voice trails off at the end of the sentence and Rodney listens to his breathing for a moment, quietly drifting off to- “Do you want kids?”
Rodney is suddenly, horribly awake. “What?” He turns and stares at John, or at least where he thinks John’s head is in the complete darkness of the tent. “Jesus Christ. Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”
“Just wondering,” says John, and Rodney can feel the shrug. “You like Torren. And you keep going on about your … stuff.”
“I can’t believe you can’t say sperm,” says Rodney, distracted. John hits his back weakly in what is either a sympathetic pat or a smack of rebuke. Just in case, Rodney says ‘ow’ on principle, and, “Don’t know. My genes should be passed on, obviously. I think Teyla was probably being generous when she said I’d make a good father, but as my parents demonstrated that never stopped anyone.” He suddenly feels shockingly maudlin and has to take a couple of deep breaths before continuing. “I like Torren. I like Madison. I like being an uncle.”
“Me too,” whispers John. His hand’s still on Rodney’s back, just resting there as if he’s forgotten all about it, warm through Rodney’s t-shirt.
“Good,” whispers Rodney, having flashbacks to when he was eight and formed an astronomy club with Stanley Wilson. They stayed out all night in Stanley’s backyard with a tent and a telescope, looking at the stars and eating brownies Stanley’s dad had made. He remembers noticing that the quieter they whispered, the closer the stars felt.
Stanley’s at CalTech now, that sad bastard.
Rodney’s just started drifting off again when John’s hand starts moving, inscribing slow circles across his back. “I lied,” he whispers, confidingly. “Last year.”
John’s not normally a chatty drunk - normally he just laughs a lot and eventually falls over or asleep depending on whether he’s standing or sitting at the time. Rodney’s sober enough to recognise that he should probably do or say something but not sober enough to work out what it is. “Ok?” he hazards.
John heaves a huge sigh. “Thought you’d be mad.”
“Well, I’m not.” Rodney decides that firmer reassurance is needed, and pats John’s shoulder. John sighs again and captures Rodney’s hand before he can withdraw it, holding it tightly in his.
“You seemed mad.”
There’s no shortage of occasions that John could be referring to in his wine-addled state - Rodney’s been mad at him five times just this week, three on Thursday - but Rodney’s finding it hard to concentrate when John’s thumb is brushing his palm in a slow, repetitive pattern that makes the hairs on his arm stand on end.
“Um,” he says, mouth dry. “I.” And John shouldn’t be doing this, it’s really not fair, because this is exactly the sort of thing that led Rodney to think-
Son of a bitch.
Rodney rolls over to face John and pulls his hand back, forcing John to follow until he’s on his side facing Rodney. Their noses bump in the dark.
“You said you weren’t interested,” says Rodney, scowling, his heart thumping in his chest.
“Wasn’t possible,” whispers John, his breath warm on Rodney’s cheek. “The regs-”
“Oh, like Sam would have-”
“That’s the point!” John takes a deep breath. “Sam wouldn’t,” he continues, quieter. “Which means someone who wanted to cause trouble for her could have used me to do so, and she was too good to risk compromising her command.” The words flow fluently, as if they’ve been rehearsed.
“And you couldn’t have told me that? Because it sucked, John, it really sucked.” Not so much the rejection itself – Rodney’s ego was robust enough to cope with much worse than John’s awkward politeness – as the humiliation of having been so spectacularly wrong. And as quickly as that humiliation is recalled Rodney can feel it being washed away by the heady thrill of vindication fizzing through his veins because he’d been right, he’d known that John was interested, he’s hardly ever sure of anything when it comes to reading people but he’d been sure of that and he was right.
“You don’t know the meaning of the word impossible,” says John, oblivious to Rodney’s emotional turmoil. It sounds like he’s smiling.
Rodney’s mouth falls open. “Oh my god, is this you trying to flirt your way out of trouble? Because it’s way less effective than I’ve been led to believe.”
John kicks Rodney. Kicks him! As his socks are thick, the kick is feeble and Rodney’s leg is protected by his pants, the physical impact is less than the shock of realising that John is a complete child.
“Stop that,” says Rodney, squeezing John’s hand. “Give me a minute.”
Over the past four years, from John and Elizabeth and Teyla and Ronon and Radek and Katie and, to put the matter on a professional basis, Heightmeyer, Rodney has been made aware that emotionally significant interactions tend to go better if he doesn’t say the absolute first thing that comes to mind. Or the second. And he may be drunk and therefore even less capable of filtering than usual, but this feels very significant and he doesn’t think he can risk screwing it up. So, he concentrates.
The first thing he feels is the sweet, smug feeling of having the moral high ground. God, how he loves the moral high ground. He’d marry it and live up there if he could.
The second thing is - John is stroking his palm again.
“Fine,” whispers Rodney. “If this is your clumsy attempt at making a pass then-”
John kisses him, sweet and sure, tasting of berry-wine and barbecue. His lips are hot against Rodney’s and his tongue slides in with confidence, as if they’ve kissed before, and Rodney’s pretty sure that’s only true in his head (and John’s, he suddenly realises with middle-of-the-night clarity).
Rodney feels dizzy. He lets go of John’s hand and rests his hand in the small of John’s back instead, to anchor himself. When he runs his hand up to between John’s shoulder-blades, John arches like a cat, pressing closer against him. John’s hard, his erection pushing against Rodney’s stomach.
When John sticks his hand between them to cop a feel, Rodney exhales sharply. “Not a chance,” he says, biting John’s earlobe gently. “Too much wine. I couldn’t get it up with a crane and a crowbar.”
“That a challenge?” John’s voice is low, the vibrations of the air against Rodney’s lips almost felt more than heard, and he’s still groping Rodney in a way which Rodney has no intentions of objecting to even though he’s pretty sure it’s not going to go anywhere. Rodney’s just in favour of being groped, whether John wants to squeeze his dick or his ass or his elbow-
The groping pauses. John puts his hand over Rodney’s mouth and pulls back a little, presumably listening for something, then suddenly rolls away onto his back.
A moment later Rodney hears footsteps and then the tent’s entrance flap is pulled back and he sees Ronon’s silhouette against the moon-and-star-lit sky.
“Hey,” says John, his voice rough as if he’s just woken up.
“Hey,” says Ronon, coming in and letting the flap fall shut. There are two thumps as he kicks his boots off and then the bed dips. “Night.”
“Night,” says John.
“Night, Jim-Bob,” says Rodney, feeling confused and frustrated and trying to remember if Ronon’s a heavy sleeper. He’s just regretfully reached a negative conclusion when John’s fingers brush the back of his hand, almost as if by accident.
Rodney stretches out one foot and touches his toes against John’s bony ankle in response. Then he settles back onto his front, turns his face away, and falls into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Rodney is shaken roughly awake.
“Nnrgh,” he complains, cracking his eyes open just far enough to see Ronon looming over him, candle in hand. “Stoppit.”
“It’s morning,” says Ronon calmly, which is something of a non sequitur as far as Rodney is concerned because whatever time of day it is Ronon doesn’t usually roust him out of bed and Rodney can’t imagine what possessed him to start now. “Teyla’s making tea,” says Ronon, continuing with his theme of statements that don’t relate to the matter at hand, and, “Sheppard said to wake you.”
“Oh,” says Rodney intelligently, and he’s about to expound on all the errors contained in that statement when he notices the gleam in Ronon’s eyes and deduces that Ronon intends to carry out that order by any means necessary. He leaps out of bed, instantly regretting it when his head pounds and swirls like a out-of-control jackhammer, and shoves his feet into his untied shoes, Sheppard-style.
Once outside in the fresh air, Rodney realises that Ronon has lied to him. “That,” he says, coming to a stop and pointing at the dark sky with its scattering of stars and pale crescent moon and a notable lack of sun, “is not morning. I don’t know how they defined these things on Sateda but for us the morning traditionally starts at sunrise. This? This is night-time.”
“They’re farmers,” says Ronon, taking hold of Rodney’s collar, and since when did man-handling become the default way of settling arguments? “They get up early.”
“Fine,” says Rodney, batting Ronon’s hand away and starting to walk. “But the wake-up call leaves something to be desired.”
Ronon’s teeth gleam in the darkness.
The white tents loom dimly in the gloom, like icebergs, or marshmallows floating in hot chocolate. Ronon wasn’t lying about the Athosians being early risers, at least; from the number of people bustling about and the volume of chatter coming from each tent as they pass, everyone in the village must be up already.
Teyla and Kanaan’s tent is crowded with people. Teyla is sitting at the table, talking to Halling and various other people Rodney doesn’t recognise, Kanaan is walking back and forth with a red-faced Torren over his shoulder, and John is slouching in the corner with a mug of tea in his hand.
Rodney makes his way over. “Hey,” he says, standing next to John, ostensibly watching the people at the table but looking at John out of the corner of his eye.
“Hey,” says John, sounding as rough as Rodney feels. At least he doesn’t look it; Rodney decided a long time ago that John chose his distinctly non-regulation hairstyle so that no-one would ever be able to tell if he had bed-head or not.
“How’s the tea?”
“Good.” The back of John’s neck has gone pink - it’s utterly fascinating.
“So, you wanna watch a movie or something tonight?” says Rodney, pitching his voice a little lower.
“Kay,” says John, scratching his ear.
Rodney takes a moment to marvel that this thing between them, whatever it is, appears to have gotten off the ground despite John apparently being even worse at this than he is. “Ok,” he says decisively. “Good. That’s - good.”
Teyla chooses that moment to look up and catch his eye. “Rodney!” She budges up on the bench, making enough space for a very slim person to sit down. “Will you join us?”
Finding no obvious way to decline, Rodney moves round to her side of the table and squeezes in, conscious all the time of John’s eyes on him. Someone hands him a cup of steaming hot tea, which he accepts gratefully - Athosian tea does actually contain some caffeine, and at this time of the morning (night!) he’s perfectly capable of tolerating the bitter-earthy-mint taste.
“Did you sleep well?” asks Teyla.
“Oh yes, absolutely, like a log,” says Rodney, aware as he speaks that this is already more than is needed in response to the question but entirely unable to help himself. “Which is an Earth expression meaning, ah, that I slept well. Thank you.”
“I’m glad,” says Teyla after a beat, giving him a curious look but evidently deciding not to pursue the matter (she does that a lot, which is actually a shame because he frequently has things to say that she would find both interesting and useful, but in this case he’s glad of it).
Risking a brief glance upwards, Rodney sees that John is watching them in that faux-casual way that doesn’t fool anyone. He’s horribly distracting, especially now that Rodney knows how he kisses and can make an educated guess what he’d be like in the sack. If Rodney thought he could get away with just ogling John for the next hour then he would, but being that indiscreet would almost certainly preclude gaining actual, uninterrupted knowledge of John’s proclivities and so Rodney forces himself to turn to Halling and say, “Hey, swell ceremony yesterday.”
Halling looks moderately pleased (it’s always hard to tell when people have beards). “I am glad you enjoyed it Dr McKay. The ceremony of reunion is one of our more beautiful traditions; it has been too long since we had the opportunity to celebrate it.”
Rodney nods vigorously. Fortified by the (potential) love of a (mostly) good man, he feels capable of handling almost anything. He takes a big gulp of his tea and beams at Halling in an encouraging way.
Halling gives him an odd look and turns to listen to the conversation taking place on his other side.
“You seem very … happy today, Rodney,” says Teyla in a delicate tone, leaving the impression that she could have substituted ‘high’ or ‘insane’ and had much the same effect.
“Yes, well, why wouldn’t I be? Fresh air, good company, tea…” Rodney waves his hands around in a sort of ‘etcetera’ gesture.
If anything, Teyla looks even more concerned. John’s got his eyebrows raised and even Ronon’s looking at him now, and Rodney is just on the verge of panicking when he realises the truth is the least likely thing for them to suspect. Ronon and Teyla just think he’s crazy; Rodney can live with that.
“You’ll all be jealous when I get my Nobel prize,” says Rodney loftily, and he drinks the rest of his tea.