Elizabeth looks at the people sitting around the table before she settles on John. He knows what she's thinking, it's what she's been saying to him for the past month, what he's been trying to avoid for far longer than that.
He meets her gaze, every tense line in his posture daring her to say it and willing her to keep quiet, to let it slide down to where he can bury it and leave it. But Elizabeth Weir is leader of the Atlantis Expedition for a reason and John knows she's let him ignore it for longer than she should.
"I need a name for the fourth member of your team, Colonel."
"My team has a fourth member." Even if he's not there, even if they haven't found him yet.
But he ignores her. "I need you to authorise the mission to P3A-178. One of the traders on the last world heard a rumour--"
And it's her turn to cut him off. "You've been chasing down rumours for months now, Colonel, and not one of them has led to anything."
"Then we're due some luck, aren't we?" Had been due some ever since a bout of food poisoning had meant Lorne's team had accompanied Rodney on what should have been a standard follow-up to check the shield on Vetara was running as it should.
"It's a good thing Lorne's team weren't back in time for the lemon chicken, Colonel. I'm sure he can hold my hand just as well as you can."
John had thought so, too. Right up until the moment the Stargate had spit them into Atlantis, battered and bloody and incomplete.
She doesn't answer him as she glances down, her hand reaching out to rest on the folder next to her. "Word came through from the SGC on this morning's data burst. They've officially classed Rodney as missing in action."
"You said you'd hold them off." Because John knows what those words mean. Knows that the next step will be pulling back on the search, stopping it all together. And oh god, what's he going to tell Jeannie? He'd promised her he'd find Rodney, bring him home. How can he look her in the eye knowing he failed?
"And I did so as long as I could. You know the channels as well as I do, they weren't going to leave his status as 'Unknown' indefinitely."
Because the Ts need to be crossed and the Is dotted and Rodney McKay becomes one more statistic in the history of the SGC.
"John, you need to make a decision."
Her words are careful, firm. Because even if they've been rotating scientists on and off for the missions, he knows it's no way to create a balanced team, knows it's impossible to really trust someone to watch your back when you've barely known them for five minutes. He knows it, and Elizabeth knows it as well.
He doesn't look to his left, where he can feel Teyla watching him, her gaze almost palpable. She's the one person he's felt tempted to speak to during this, but no matter how many times he's walked past her door at 3am, he's never yet stopped. So he falls back onto the smell of oil and the sound of wood striking wood. It's a language that John finds far easier than the platitudes Heightmeyer tried on him before he just stopped going back.
"Colonel?" She sounds like she's waiting for him to disagree, to argue, to say anything but the words he actually does.
"I'll take Simpson."
She's not his first choice, but they've learned the hard way not to put the expedition's lead scientist on a first contact team, and they can't afford to lose Zelenka as well. And Simpson's capable in the field, knows what she's talking about. At least, more than some of the scientists he's had to take out with them, straight off the Daedalus with no idea of what was waiting for them.
Elizabeth holds John's gaze for long moments before she speaks, the silence stretching out and making John want to say something, anything. "I know how difficult this is for you," she says. I lost him, too, he almost hears.
John clamps down on the laugh he can feel bubbling up inside him. She has no idea how it is. It's not just their head of science they've lost, it's Rodney. Rodney, with his sharp mind and sharper tongue and the heat John can feel from across a room. She has no idea at all. "I said I'd take Simpson." The words are harsher than they should be, harsher than he wants them to be, but Elizabeth just looks at him and nods.
Zelenka looks up from the laptop he's typing on. "It will mean reassigning some of her smaller projects, but it is fine. I'll let her know."
Let her know that a place on Atlantis's first team is hers.
And like that, it's over.
"If that's all?" Elizabeth asks.
John doesn't look at anyone as he leaves.
It's night when the call comes through, earpiece buzzing softly until John puts it on and answers. He's not sure what he expects, but it's still a surprise when Elizabeth's voice floats into his ear, careful and edged with something he can't quite identify.
"John, it's Rodney. Lorne's team has found Rodney."
He doesn't know what the rest of her words are, mind blanking out and focusing on the one important thing. Rodney. Elizabeth's barely cut the link when he rolls out of bed, clothes grabbed off the floor and t-shirt still being pulled over his head as he runs out of the room, activating his radio. "Carson--" Because Beckett's not on night shift tonight, because he doesn't want Rodney in the infirmary with anyone else.
But Carson cuts him off. "I'm already on my way." And he should get there first because Carson's quarters are closer to the infirmary than John's are, and all John can think is Rodney.
He almost careens off the wall of the transporter as he runs in and infirmary, central spire, now, now, now.
And Atlantis is listening, carrying him along as the doors open and he spills into the corridor at a run with the infirmary, Rodney, coming closer, closer, closer with each step.
It's only when he's finally outside the infirmary that he falters, legs refusing to carry him any further. All he knows is Rodney's here. He doesn't know how or why, but he's here, and John's body is refusing to move.
There's a hand on his back, and even though it's not pushing him, it's propelling him forward, making him move. He walks in, Teyla on one side and Ronon on the other, and Rodney right in front of him.
He's sitting on one of the examination beds with Lorne's jacket wrapped around his shoulders and swirls of red and gold on the arms he's hugging himself with. Carson's with him, speaking too softly for John to hear the words, but he can see the worry in the doctor's eyes, the concern for his friend.
And it's only Teyla's hand, still resting on his back, that's keeping John upright. Because Rodney's here and for the first time in too long his team, his family, is complete.
John knows they shouldn't be doing this, knows there are a hundred reasons he should have told Rodney to go back to his own quarters when he found him sitting on the bed. But Rodney looked at him, "I'm fine. I'm back and I'm fine," and every reason John could think of died in his throat. Every reason slipped a little further away as Rodney moved forward, fingers tangling in John's jacket as their lips met.
So many reasons why they shouldn't, but Rodney is there. He's there and his hands and mouth are on John, and it's been so long since John's felt the heat from Rodney's body and taste of his lips. Rodney pushes him back, the hands balled up in his jacket manoeuvring John back towards the bed, and John can't stay passive anymore.
Hands pull at their uniforms and clothes hit the floor with each step they take. His BDUs still bunched around his boots when his calves hit the bed, Rodney pushes John back, taking only seconds to strip out of the rest of his clothes before he's straddling John's thighs, skin hot against skin.
He wants to wrap his hands around Rodney's waist, to roll them until Rodney's under him. Wants to push, press, fuck. Wants to slide into the body he spent so many nights thinking about when he was alone. But Rodney's holding his wrists, pressing John's arms into the bed as he nudges forward, letting their cocks slide over each other.
It's heat and want and John needs more.
Rodney frees one of John's wrists, frees his wrist to be able to wrap his fingers around John's cock. And the slickglidepull has John moaning and thrusting up as much as he can with his legs trapped under Rodney.
Because Rodney knows how to touch him, has always known how to touch him. And he's here and it's now and John is coming, balls tightening, come hitting his chest and running over Rodney's fingers.
Rodney moves before John can reach out to him, leaning over the bed to grab a t-shirt off the floor, wiping John clean before dropping it. Dropping it and pressing against John, arm over his chest and John thinks that maybe, maybe, he'll finally be able to sleep.
He doesn't know how long it's been. Day blurs into night blurs into day blurs into hands shaping him, moulding him into something he isn't, something he shouldn't be. He shouldn't be here, not like this. He's a scientist, belongs in a lab with numbers in his mind and technology at his fingers, not in a room of red and gold, plush fabrics under his feet and collar around his throat.
He fights them at first, threatens violence and destruction and promises that his team will come for him, that they won't leave him. But she just laughs. How can they find you, she asks, if they don't know where you are?
Still he resists them. He resists them when they bathe him and dress him, kohl around his eyes and red on his lips. Resists them until the cup is pressed to his lips and his body starts burning.
Speak to us, she says, her hand moving over his chest and their passion sated on his body. Speak to us and tell us of your life before us. But he ignores them. Ignores them as they pet him, as they talk to him. Ignores them as hands turn him over and a body blankets his.
He is still silent when they leave.
Each night they come and each night he defies them. Defies them until she laughs and the liquid runs down his throat, sharp and sweet.
Each night they come and each night he burns.
John's alone when he wakes up, hand reaching out for Rodney, expecting him to be there but finding only air and cool sheets that indicate he's been gone for a while. Rolling out of bed and grabbing his clothes from the floor, he asks Atlantis where Rodney is, feeling his heartbeat calm as the single lifesign in Lab 2 gives John his answer.
John knows it's not the first time he's ever woken up to discover Rodney gone, but it's the first time Rodney's been there at all since he came back. So he'll go to Lab 2 and find Rodney working on an equation that he just couldn't leave, like he has so many times before. And like those times he'll give Rodney time to finish his thought and then drag him back to bed.
The walk down to Lab 2 is quiet at this time. The night patrols have already passed this way and won't be back along the corridors for another couple of hours. He likes Atlantis like this, soft and muted and devoid of the throng of people normally in her corridors, like he's the only one she's there for.
The door to Lab 2 slides open and the light from inside spills out into the darkness of the corridor. John's errant scientist is standing in front of one of the whiteboards, marker clutched in his hand. And John's about to say something, about to call him back to the warmth of the bed they've left, when the words die before they've even left his lips.
Rodney's fingers are wrapped around one of the red markers, but he's not writing on the whiteboard. John backs out of the room, unable to take his eyes off the swirling red designs decorating Rodney's arm and, for a moment, he's thrown back to the infirmary and Rodney with Lorne's jacket and those self-same marks in paint that took over a week to fade. He doesn't reach for his radio until his back hits the wall, waiting for too long until a sleep-addled voice drifts into his ear.
"Carson, I need you to come to Lab 2. It's Rodney." It's all the explanation John gives. It's all the explanation Carson needs.
His legs unsteady, John slides downs the wall, his ass hitting the floor with a muted thump, as he waits.
And it's only when Carson comes that John can finally, finally, tear his eyes away from the red.
John's knows it's coming, it's been building, growing, ever since that night. Ever since he'd followed them to the infirmary and then left Rodney to Beckett, to the care and concern of people who could help. He'd left and ignored the almost betrayed look in Rodney's eyes as John had all but stumbled out of the room, feet heavy with the realisation that Rodney's time away has involved a hell of lot more than either Rodney or Carson has ever let on.
And Elizabeth knew, she knew, and she'd kept it from him, like he was some sort of child that couldn't handle being told Santa wasn't real.
"Rodney's not a member of your team, John. It was my call to keep the details between Doctor Beckett and myself."
Because it doesn't concern you, he hears. It doesn't concern him except in the ways that it does. Because his body still reacts to the sight of Rodney, still reacts to the thought of the warm brush of fingers against his skin.
The meetings are the hardest, John thinks. Sitting there, opposite Rodney, and trying to pay attention, but it's hard to care about what the botanists have done down in the south pier labs when all he can focus on are Rodney's fingers, moving steadily across the laptop. So John's not surprised when it's after one of the meetings that Rodney stays behind, stays behind when he's normally the first out of the door.
At least he waits until everyone else has left, until they're alone before the words come.
"Stop watching me."
Only John can't stop. He can't stop because every time he looks at Rodney he sees heat and want and swirls of red over flesh.
"I'm fine, Colonel. I don't need to be checked constantly, and I don't need a babysitter who can't even touch me."
And John wants to laugh. Wants to laugh and then shake Rodney until he sees sense. It's only his nails digging into his palm, little crescents of pain, that stop him from taking that step forward. The only reason he's not touching Rodney is because if he starts he doesn't think he'll be able to stop. And both Heightmeyer and Carson have already called him out for doing exactly that after Rodney came back. Only, it's not as though he knew what would happen. It's not as though he thought, 'Hey, won't it be fun to watch McKay just crack.'
"You're not fine, Rodney. I found you in a lab drawing patterns on your arm."
Careful and precise, like it had to be perfect, like he couldn't be wrong.
"You weren't there, Rodney. There was someone, but it sure as hell wasn't you."
That was what scared John the most. That the person Carson brought out of that lab had followed, quiet and docile and so unlike the Rodney McKay John has known.
There's no hesitation before, "Heightmeyer says--"
And John will take a lot of things, but he can't hear Rodney standing there and lying to him.
"How would you know what Heightmeyer says? Carson said you've refused to see her." Even though he already knew long before he'd overheard Carson tell Elizabeth. Even though he knew the moment he'd sat in Kate's office and her glance had slid subtly to the left when he'd mentioned Rodney, slid away before she'd had time to think, time to mask it. Even though he'd gone back when Elizabeth had ordered him to.
"Well, maybe Carson should take his oath of patient confidentiality a little more seriously." The words are cold, heavy between them, and the anger in John slips away. He's too tired to be angry, not when Rodney is carrying enough for both of them.
"Why won't you talk to me?" Let me be there with you.
But Rodney just looks at him, eyes like ice. "It's all there, laid out in glorious detail in the reports."
The reports that Elizabeth had locked down as confidential as soon as she'd received them from Lorne and Beckett. Even though John has access, even though he's typed half of his password a hundred times. Even though what he's thinking has to be a thousand times worse than anything that could be written there in black and white. He just can't.
"That's the reason." Rodney's voice is quieter, almost accepting, and John lifts his eyes to look at him.
"People look at me, Colonel. They may think I don't notice, but they're wrong. They look at me and I can see it, the curiosity. They want to know what happened and they want to know it in every prurient little detail." Rodney pauses, the corner of his mouth almost curling upwards before it's gone. "And then they think about it. And whatever they're thinking means they don't look anymore.
"I see the way Carson and Elizabeth act around me. I see the way Lorne can barely meet my eyes when he has to speak to me." His hand twitches, like he wants to reach out, wants to touch John, but won't. "I didn't tell you because I wanted you to look at me, John. I wanted you to see me. I guess I was asking too much."
There's a beat, two, and then, "I see you, Rodney," he says. But Rodney's already gone.
For the amount of times John seems to have been there, he can never decide if he likes Kate's office or not. The colours are soothing, and all of Atlantis is laid before him when he looks out of the window, but something just seems off every time he steps through the door.
Maybe it just reminds him a little too much of his childhood.
"Did you know my mother was a psychiatrist?" With her office all wood panelling and warm colours, and her secretary, Janine, who used to feed John sweets whenever he dropped by after school.
Kate looks up at him. "She was?"
John nods absently as he presses his fingers against the window. He never realised how much he appreciated stark lines and cool colours until he'd stepped foot on Atlantis.
"That-- explains a lot, actually."
He supposes it does. After all, it's easy enough to know how to work the tests if you grew up with them. Easy enough to know how to say the words without actually answering the questions.
But Kate will never let the silence go on as long as his mother did. "Have you spoken to Rodney recently?"
He presses harder against the glass, his fingers leaving streaks he knows will be gone by tonight.
"Shouldn't the question be, have you spoken to him recently?"
"John." Because rank doesn't matter in here, is left at the door under Elizabeth's orders.
"Actually," he says, pulling his fingers away from the glass and sliding his hand into his pocket, "I just came to ask if we could reschedule from this afternoon." Not cancel, though, never cancel. Because Kate speaks to them all, even Elizabeth. Speaks to them all, except for Rodney. "There are some issues with the new people from the Daedalus I need to sort out." Even though he doesn't have to explain, he still feels the need to.
Kate looks at him for long moments before leaning over the desk and picking up the diary next to her laptop. He wonders if it helps her, the physical act of writing down her thoughts. Wonders if that's why he never sees her on the laptop but always writing. He wonders, but he's never asked.
"Okay, we can reschedule from this afternoon to tomorrow."
And it's not much of a reprieve but he'll take it anyway.
She nods, and her eyes flick to the clock on her desk before she focuses her attention back on him. You need to leave, the glance says. I have people to see, he doesn't hear. And if he looks out of the corner of his eyes, he can almost see the certificate for Dr. Mary Sheppard hanging on the wall.
The door opens with a thought, opens before he can think it.
"Well, I'm--" The words end abruptly as Rodney stops bare inches away from John. "Colonel." Clipped, quiet, like John doesn't know this man by touch.
Moving out of the door, he lets Rodney pass, lets Rodney into the room of soothing colours and the best view of Atlantis. Lets Rodney in and starts to breathe again.
The paint is flaking from his skin, leaving whorls of colour behind that she runs her fingers across.
Prize, she whispers into his shoulder, teeth nipping at the design so intricately drawn onto him.
Pet, murmured into his hip as blunt, solid hands hold him down while she bites, marking him further.
Ours. Even if there isn't any paint to mark that one. They don't need it written on his skin when it's starting to appear in every line of his body.
Prize. Pet. Theirs.
He used to believe these weren't the words that described him. He used to believe so many things before they started to be swept away in a sweet river of need and want that only they control.
Speak to us, she says, as she has said every night. Speak to us, as her fingers slide through the slickness on his stomach, moving through colour and sweat and painting him for the second time that night.
Speak to us, she says, even if her tone says she doesn't expect him to answer.
Speak to us.
Speak to us.
Speak to us.
Speak to us. And so he does.
Speak to us, she says. And so he tells them of a warrior, proud and lost, survivor of a fallen race. Of how he ran across worlds and revenged himself on those who took everything from him. Of how he ran until he finally found another place he could call home, another people he could call his. He tells them of a man he willingly trusts with his life.
The next night is the first night they leave him alone.
John looks down at the report in front of him, words swimming together and blurring. Next to him, Lorne shifts in his seat and John feels the urge to tell him that this is what's in store for him if anything ever happens to John. Meetings. Long meetings. Long meetings where scientists speak for unending amounts of time on subjects where you only understand every third word. He glances up and catches Elizabeth's eye, a well of relief running through him as she nods almost imperceptibly.
"I think we've gone as far as we can with this tonight," she says said after Radek finishes.
"I still don't see why--"
"Rodney," she stops him before he can start. "Tomorrow, please. It's late and we're all tired."
He glances around the table, his gaze deliberately missing John before he nods. "Very well."
And John thinks Rodney never used to capitulate so easily.
They wrap up quickly after that, the meeting room disgorging them into the empty corridor, the muted lighting signalling the later hour of Atlantis's day.
Rodney doesn't look up from his laptop as he walks away, away from John, even though their quarters are in the same direction.
The corridors are empty as he walks along them, hand trailing lazily along the wall and feeling Atlantis under his fingers.
The lights are dimmed when John walks into his quarters, like she knows he's tired, like she knows it's late. He strips off, dropping his clothes where he stands before he heads into the bathroom, into the shower with its water so hot it's bordering on scalding.
He doesn't stay under the water for long, hand against the wall as he tips his head back to let the spray wash over his face. Hand on the wall and not feeling the press of another hand over his, not hearing his name murmured into the steam.
He snaps the water off with a thought, the steam dissipating into the air for long moments before he reaches out for a towel, roughly scrubbing the wet from his hair, from his body. Gooseflesh rises on his skin as he heads back into the bedroom, cool air brushing over his still steam-warmed body as he ignores the bed in favour of the desk.
There's a soft whir as the laptop boots, username and password granting him access to the inner workings of the network. He knows where he's going. It's the same place he's gone every night since Rodney stepped back through the Stargate. His fingers know the pathways, the folders. Seven clicks and he's there. Eight clicks and it's prompting him for his password. All he needs to do is type it in and he'll know the answers to the questions that have been with him since he saw Rodney sitting on an infirmary bed, since he looked at Lorne and Lorne looked away.
His hands move over the keyboard, letters and numbers covered by his fingertips. Everything he wants to know, and it's all just one keystroke away.
"I didn't tell you because I wanted you to look at me, John. I wanted you to see me."
He reaches out to press the key. And lets the laptop fall dark as he heads to bed.
This isn't the first year Rodney has been to the mainland for the Athosian crop gathering, but it's the first year he's done it without sotto voce mutterings about bad memories of harvest festivals.
When Teyla had first mentioned it, once again inviting all Atlantis personnel who wished to join them, John had thought Rodney would refuse. They've been every other year, Teyla asking them to stand with her as her team. That first year with Aiden bringing the knowledge that Ford really couldn't hold his alcohol, and the subsequent years with Ronon, who really could, but none of them have been like this.
It starts the same as every other year has, Teyla and Halling leading the thanks for the crops, for the land, for their freedom. Teyla singing the song of the dead, Halling singing that of the born. For the first year since they came to Atlantis, Halling's song is the longer.
It's after the meal, when the sky is darkening and the fire is dying, that the people start leaving, some to their homes, some back to Atlantis. Some of them chose to stay on the mainland, wanting to maintain the freedom from Atlantis, from the expedition, for another night.
John watches as Rodney and Teyla move into one of the guest huts set up for those staying the night. It's not the first night they've stayed, but it's the first night it hasn't been John with Rodney.
The last jumper for Atlantis leaves, the sound of her engines fading into the distance and everyone else who is staying on the mainland drifts off towards the beds they've claimed for the night.
"Gonna stay up all night watching?" Ronon sits next to him, picking up a stick and poking at the dying fire.
Well, it's not like he's got anything better to do.
"Don't do this, Sheppard."
"Do what?" He joins Ronon in poking at the fire, watching as the sparks dance up to die in the night.
"Wonder. The questions'll only lead to answers you might not like." And John wants to laugh, because what could Ronon possibly know about it?
Although, Rodney's already turned from John to go to Teyla, so why wouldn't he turn from John to go to Ronon as well?
"Do you know?" Do you know what happened? Do you know what they did to him?
Do you know why he's in there with her instead of with me?
"Don't need to. Doesn't matter."
And John looks at Ronon for the first time since he's sat next to him. "Of course it matters." How can't Ronon see that?
Ronon just shrugs. "He's still McKay."
Is he? Not according to Heightmeyer.
"Rodney won't be the same, Colonel. He's undergone a traumatic experience and that changes people."
But Ronon's voice drowns out the Heightmeyer he's hearing in his head. "He's gone through some shit, but under it all he's still McKay."
"How can you be so sure?" Because he knows Carson isn't, Elizabeth isn't. He knows he's not.
Ronon jams the stick into the fire and leaves it there. "Because it's how you survive." His voice is quiet, sure. "Because they can throw anything at you, take everything away from you, but the only way you get through it is by holding yourself in there," he presses a finger against John's head, "and there." Ronon's hand stays against John's chest until John finally looks away, eyes drawn back to the fire that's burnt down to embers.
"So, don't you have a hut to go to?" John pulls his jacket closer, warding off the chill that the night air has taken.
"Figure being out here's just as good."
Ronon shrugs as John looks at him, face dark and shadowed, barely lit by the dying embers.
"Suit yourself." But he doesn't tell Ronon to leave, won't tell Ronon to leave.
And he knows that come morning he still won't know what happened between Teyla and Rodney, but he also knows he won't be asking.
"You're not concentrating."
Teyla delivers the rebuke with a sharp smack to John's ass, sticks twirling in her grip as she deftly moves out of his retaliatory swipe.
She's right. Although maybe it would be easier to concentrate without the image of Rodney leaving Teyla's quarters running through his mind.
"I was passing by your quarters last night," he says lightly, taking up his stance as he looks at her.
The hesitation is barely there. Barely. And then she moves.
I saw him.
Words exchanged with the strike of wood.
Why you, he doesn't say. Why not me, he doesn't think. But it's more than that, deeper. Because Rodney's talking to Teyla and John doesn't know which one of them he resents most.
Because he's tried talking to Kate, but the most she'll say is that he has to face his emotions, to own them. Then he'll be able to understand where his anger is coming from, be able to work through it.
Only, he doesn't want to work through his anger because it's the only thing that's keeping him sane.
Teyla's eyes widen slightly as he advances, but he's forgotten her first rule and it makes him sloppy, careless.
Her sticks stop his attack with ease, vibrations jarring his arms as they collide. He's got the disadvantage here because no matter how much he trains, how good he gets, Teyla will always be better, more experienced.
The colours on her skirt catch the light as she moves, the purples reflecting into the air mixing with the sound of wood clashing against wood.
But he doesn't.
His name broken off by stick against stick.
And his back's against the wall and Teyla's sticks are against his throat, and--
"I want to hurt them." Because he can say it to Teyla the way he can't say it to Heightmeyer. Because Teyla understands.
The pressure on his throat eases and his own sticks fall to the floor. "That won't do Rodney any good."
But he doesn't want to hurt them for Rodney, not totally. They took Rodney from him and John wants to hurt them for it. Because even though Rodney's back, it's still not right, and he wants them to pay for that. He wants to see designs created from blood instead of red marker. And it's not as if he couldn't do it. Elizabeth may have locked the planet's address out of the system, but John still knows it. Still has it lying under his skin like a parasite. And it wouldn't take much. A puddlejumper and a trip to another planet and he could be there.
"I could do it." The words are quiet, intent.
And Teyla knows what he means, reads it in every inch of his body.
"And what would you do?"
Anything, everything. He doesn't know exactly. All he knows is that he wants them to hurt, and he wants to be the one to do it.
Crawl to me, she says, the long skirt flowing loose about her legs as she sits.
And he knows he should, knows he should drop to his knees without hesitation, but the part of him that's still him refuses. He's saved worlds and held galaxies in his hand, he won't, can't crawl like a dog to his fate.
Crawl to me, pet. She's sitting straighter now, chin resting on her hand.
But still he doesn't move. Doesn't move until she nods softly and hands are on his shoulders, forcing him down.
He bites his lip as fingers press colour into his pale skin, blues and purples standing stark again a canvas of white and lines of red crossing his back.
Crawl to me, she says. And he does.
The carpet is soft under his hands and knees, fingers sinking into the pile with each movement. Seconds, minutes, hours and finally he is at the bed.
Her foot is careful, gentle, as she places it under his chin and lifts his face to look at her. So much unnecessary struggle, she says, as arms lift him, their clothes falling from him as he is placed next to her, and their bodies bracket his.
Speak to us, she says, her nails raking over the lines on his back, bright and sharp.
Speak to us, she says. And even though his voice is rough and dry and too many words taste like ashes, he tells them of a leader, strong and graceful. Of how she passes on her knowledge to those who stumble blindly in, not comprehending what could be waiting for them. Of how she holds her people together, even when the darkness comes. He tells them of a woman he is lucky enough to call his friend.
The next night, he crawls without being told to.
John can't remember most of the mission. He remembers the natives showing them a temple and Simpson commenting about the energy readings coming from inside. He remembers flashes of dark and red and pain. Remembers carrying Teyla back to the puddlejumper like she weighed nothing, matching his breath with hers as he willed her to just hold on until they got her to Beckett. Remembers Ronon carrying Simpson, hands slick with red and knowing that it was already too late for at least one of them. And most of all, he remembers thinking that it would never have happened if Rodney was with them.
Rodney joins John and Ronon outside of the infirmary, waiting for word on Teyla. None of them speak from the relative comfort of the floor; the silence broken only by the soft tapping of Rodney's laptop, fingertips pressing each key in turn.
Elizabeth comes and sits for a while, exchanging soft words with Rodney about Simpson before she joins in the silence. Her duties call her back before they hear anything, Beckett still hidden behind white doors with Teyla, and it's only when John promises to contact her as soon as they hear that she heads back towards the transporter.
John's back presses against the wall as Elizabeth walks away, the normal coolness of Atlantis feeling so cold through his clothes. His gaze fixes on Rodney's fingers, watching them depress the laptop keys as they type, thoughts and ideas spilling onto the screen. He can feel it run through him, the want to reach out, to take the fingers in his own and feel the warmth from them spread through him and banish the coldness that seems to have settled in him since he first saw Teyla fall in a sea of sound and red.
It's only when the fingers stop moving that John looks up, eyes meeting the blue looking back at him. And John can't stop his fingers from clenching, flexing along the slick smoothness of the floor as Rodney stares at him. Because John can remember those fingers on him, moving over sweat and skin, pressing inside him. And Rodney's eyes are on his, bright and deliberate, like he knows exactly what's going through John's mind, exactly what images John's memory is supplying him with.
John swallows, trying to work some saliva into his dry mouth, trying to get the words out past his lips when Beckett finally emerges, looking tired but relieved.
Ronon is on his feet before the rest of them. "How is she?"
Carson looks at them, wearing a smile tempered with caution and scrubs that have too much blood on them. "She came through just fine. You can all see her tomorrow."
"Not tonight?" John asks, wanting to replace the last image he has of her in his mind, pale and still and being rushed away on a stretcher.
"She's still in a serious condition, Colonel and I'd like my staff to be able to do their jobs tonight without you lot cluttering up the infirmary." Carson pulls the scrubs off, bundling them up into one of the containers just inside the infirmary door as he shakes his head. "Tomorrow," he says, "I promise. Now, I'm going to go let Dr Weir know how Teyla is and then I'm going to get some sleep -- I suggest the rest of you do the same."
Ronon reaches out, squeezing Beckett's arm and giving him a grateful smile. John would do the same but he doesn't think can lift his arm under the weight of the relief coursing through his body. They're his team and every time something happens to them it chips a little bit of John away with it. But Teyla's safe and Rodney's safe and--
But John turns to find himself alone.
It's late when John finally returns to his quarters, tired and more than a little surprised to find Rodney pacing outside.
"Can I talk to you?"
And John nods. He feels like he's waited forever to hear Rodney say those words. Nods and lets them into his quarters, waiting as Rodney stands in the middle of the room.
"Have you ever done something you never thought you would?" Rodney says the words slowly, like he's sounding them out in his mind before saying them. "Accepted doing it because the alternative was unthinkable?"
And this John understands. "They were going to ground me," he says. "They were going to ground me, and it would have killed me." Would have killed him, because it's not just about the speed or the height. It's about soaring so high that gravity doesn't matter. It's about tumbling and falling and not caring because the only thing you need is the wind running through you. They were going to ground him, and so he accepted being sent to the bottom of the world to stop that from happening. And all he did was fly people back and forth from McMurdo, but it didn't matter. It didn't matter because he was still flying.
Rodney nods, nods like he gets what John is saying, hears what he isn't.
"I-- They made me not me. Made me someone I'm not, someone I don't want to be."
And John wants to reach out, wants to stop Rodney from pacing, stop him from rubbing his fingers over his forearm.
"She kept telling me to speak to them," he continues, flicking glances at John as he walks the length of the room and back again. "Turned me into some sort of fucked up Scheherazade, and I let them." He stops and looks at John. "What do you see when you look at me?"
Although he's sure that Rodney has different words, ones that lie unspoken on the ground, sharp and dangerous, and wielded like a shield. But John bypasses them, ignoring them as he steps forward and closes the distance between them.
"I still see you, Rodney." John's hand reaches out to curl around the back of Rodney's neck, drawing him gently to John until their foreheads touch. "I still see you."
John's fingers are rubbing soft, careful circles across the back of Rodney's neck, and if he could write the words into Rodney's skin he would. Because he needs Rodney to understand.
And finally, finally, Rodney nods, eyes closed and voice quiet as John's fingers rewrite the history on his skin.
Elizabeth doesn't look up from the reports on her desk when John walks in, the closing door behind him shutting off all the sounds from the gateroom.
"Elizabeth?" But she's still not looking at him, doesn't look up until he repeats her name a second time.
"We were lucky today, John."
He's not disagreeing with her. They still don't know why the sensors didn't pick up the hiveships until they were nearly on top of them, and Zelenka's diagnostics haven't finished running yet.
"If Rodney hadn't--" Elizabeth's words trail off as she glances out of the window and John knows what she's thinking, can see it in the lines around her eyes downturn of her lips.
They were lucky, given that the klaxon that went off in the middle of the senior staff meeting heralded the arrival of not one, but two hiveships. "But he did, Elizabeth." He and Zelenka both. And if John closes his eyes, he can still see their fingers buried inside the drones, manually re-wiring them, re-coding them so they'd glide through the Wraith shields. It's a concept Rodney and Radek had been playing with for a little while now, they just didn't think they'd have to implement it so quickly and so off the cuff.
It's not how John had thought it would end, with the Wraith bombarding the shield from above and darts doing flyovers over the towers. John had wanted to be there, with the other pilots, protecting the mainland, defending the towers. Had found himself moving towards the transporters before he'd been stopped in his tracks.
"Get in the damn chair, Colonel. Stop trying to be a martyr and think 'Fire' when I tell you."
And it worked, drones sliding under the Wraith defences and debris from hiveships creating rainbows of patterns as they landed on Atlantis's shield. They didn't come out unscathed, though, and John still has letters to write to families who are waiting for loved ones who will never see Earth again.
He looks down at the report in his hands, crinkled at the edges where he's been gripping it too tightly. "I'll leave this with you."
Elizabeth nods and he leaves her with the thoughts running through her head.
He thinks that a shower and bed sounds good, but Rodney is waiting for him when he steps out of Elizabeth's office, bright eyed and fingers drumming a steady tattoo against his thigh until they still around John's wrist.
The journey to the balcony is done in silence, their arms occasionally brushing as they walk, corridor blending into corridor until the lure of the open ocean is in front of them and Atlantis is blocked out behind closed doors.
"I want back on the team."
They're the words John has waited too long to hear. "Are you sure?"
Rodney pauses, glancing out to the ocean, and John wishes he knew what he's thinking, what he's seeing. But the moment is passed and Rodney is looking at him, eyes steady. "No. But I want it anyway."
And John's thrown back to a mission that nearly went horribly wrong and the two of them standing too close in one of the supply closets, John's skin still tinged with red and the taste of iron on Rodney's lips.
"Are you sure?"
"No. But I want it anyway."
And John nods, nods because he has to, because there's no other option. Because Rodney belongs with them, with him. He's team, and that's the only answer that John needs.
His fingers grip the railing, and he doesn't look down when he feels Rodney's hand cover his, when Rodney's fingers twine with his own. He doesn't look down because he's not sure what this is, but he thinks it feels a lot like hope.
He can see the delight in her eyes when they walk in to find him already kneeling, hands behind his back to hide the fine tremors running through them.
She holds the cup she's carrying out to him. Do you want it, pet, she says
Because begging's not beneath him any more, he's done far worse things in the time, so long, how long, he's been with them.
She holds the cup to his lips and tilts it to let him drink, sharp sweetness coating his tongue as the tremors change into a need and want of a different tone.
There's no resistance when they lead him to the bed, their hands holding him, pressing him down into softness and their bodies cleaving into him as he breaks open.
Speak to us, she says when they are through with him.
Speak to us, she says. And the words come unbidden, falling from his lips in a stream that won't stop. He tells them of a soldier, a pilot, a reluctant commander who he would follow anywhere. Of dark eyes, numbers that dance through his mind and a body he held willingly within himself. Of how he will come for him. Of how he always comes for him. He tells them of the man that holds his hope.
Speak to us of something else, she says, the fingers on his flesh harder as his pain blossoms and her words sharper as his eyes close.
Speak to us, she says. And so he does. He tells them of a city that sank beneath the ocean, abandoned and lost. Of how she waited in the darkness for as long as she needed to. Of the people that came to her from galaxies away to bring light and hope. He tells them of a city that rose again.
The next night he's given as a gift to new trading partners who take him through the Stargate as soon as they are allowed to leave. Who take him back to a world of sharp cool lines and people who look at him with nothing but concern in their eyes.
The next night he stands before a man who reaches out like he's afraid what he's seeing isn't real. Stands before a man who holds him tightly and whispers his name.