Knowing sleep is going to elude her for at least another hour, Sam scoops up her robe from the foot of her bed and throws it around her shoulders, heading out onto the balcony.
Stars. So many stars crowding the sky and not a single constellation she could recognize. It pains her, just a little, to know how far from home she is. Below, she can hear the ocean lapping against the city. Everything is so exotic here, so alien. She rests her palms against the railing and casts an eye across the sleepy Atlantis.
Movement catches her attention and she glances down to the balcony below. Someone has flicked on a light and is stepping out. It looks like ... Rodney McKay. Rodney McKay in a tee-shirt and boxer shorts. Bitting her lip, Sam watches him go up to the railing and lean against it. Were those smiley faces on his ass?
She might have chuckled, and maybe the sound carried, because Rodney turns up and does a double-take when he sees her. He lifts his hand in a wave... and then remembers what he is wearing. Snapping his fingers and then pointing up at her, he rocks back on his heels and beats a retreat for his room.
Sam laughs this time, a full sound that feels good to let loose. She stands there for a few moments before she shakes her head and pushes away from the railing. About to turn back towards her own room, McKay reappears again, this time in a robe of his own and black sweatpants. She can see his feet are bare, little pale smudges against the blue-gray of the floor.
They stand that way, looking at each other across the distance of balconies when McKay snaps his fingers again and dashes back inside. He comes out holding something up that she can't see from here but when he tucks it behind his ear, Sam figures out it's his radio.
Why not, she thinks, and goes back inside to fetch her own. When she comes back out, he makes a big show of telegraphing a private channel. "402" his exaggerated movements count for her. She taps the channel out before sliding the earbud in.
"Uh... hey." He waves at her again.
She smiles. "Hi Rodney."
"So... what're you doing up?"
"Can't sleep." Sam leans back against the railing, looking down on McKay.
"Yeah, me neither." He pauses, looking up at her. "You settling in okay? Getting the hang of things?"
Sam chuckles again, gathering her hair in a pony tail before letting it spill freely down her back. "I'm... getting there. Things are different here."
"You're in charge here," he reminds her unnecessarily.
"Yes, yes I am."
"Did I ever mention how incredibly attractive a woman in authority is?"
Sam rolls her eyes gently and smirks into the mic. "Is that so."
"Oh yes." Rodney rocks back on his heels again, looking smug.
Sam should have shut him down right then, like she always has, but it's late and maybe she's a little punch-drunk after a long day. Leaning against the railing, she cups her chin in her hands and looks down on her unconventional Romeo. "And you find me attractive, McKay?"
"Oh, I, uh--" She's caught him flat-footed. It wasn't like her to play along. She usually made some biting comment and then brushed him off. It'd been that way for years. He hadn't expected her to... flirt back? What should he say? How should he play this? He shuffles his feet first left, then right in his indecision.
"Goodnight, Rodney." Sam says before he can choose an avenue of pursuit. Humor, even if it was at his expense, makes her voice warm, a sound Rodney doesn't hear all that often. He likes it. "Uh, night, Sam."
Sam slides the radio off her ear and tosses it gently onto her nightstand, grinning. She feels like she can sleep now.
Three nights later, Sam finds herself back out on the balcony, her pink and gray striped jammy bottoms fluttering against her ankles as the soft ocean breeze ripples up the spiraling tower. She turns her face up and watches the wash of stars against the impossibly black sky, her thoughts wandering. Meetings and reports, projects to be reviewed, missions on which to be briefed. Her plate is a busy one.
From inside her quarters her radio chirps, pulling her back to the here and now. She turns to fetch it off her desk. "Carter."
"Hey, go back outside and look up." It was McKay. When she does as he says, McKay is waving down at her from a window over head. He looks a little like a dork.
"What are you doing?"
"Late night Zed-PM calibrations on off-peak hours. There was a memo--"
"I mean what are you doing paging me?"
"Oh," and he shuffles his feet a bit. "I, uh. I saw you down there and just thought... you might be having trouble sleeping again."
Sam tilts her head, looking up at Rodney's silhouette against the lab's light. "Yeah," she admits reluctantly. "Maybe I am."
"You know, Teyla's got this tea -- tastes a bit like chamomile -- but it's very soothing. Sometimes I'll have a cup if I can't sleep. You want some?"
"No, I'll be fine." A smile creeps into her voice. "Thanks."
"Well, if you change your mind..."
"I'll let you know."
"You know, the other night," Rodney starts.
"Yes?" And Sam wonders where he's going to go with this.
"I just, uh. It was nice. To just talk."
"McKay, we said, maybe, four things to each other."
"I know, I know, but. Still. We should do it more often." She hears the smile in his voice.
And again, Sam knows she should cut him off, stop this before it starts. You can't give McKay an inch because he won't stop at just a mile. But there's a flicker of something inside her, something that she doesn't quite understand, but it blossoms under McKay's attention.
"Yeah," she begins, drawing the word out to buy herself some time while she thinks.
But she's saved by Dr. Zelenka breaking into the conversation, a quick burst of static heralding his arrival. "Rodney," Radek says, his tone tetchy. "If you are done trying to impress Colonel Carter with your sensitive side, I could actually use your help here."
"Goodnight Doctor McKay, Doctor Zelenka," Sam says indulgently, waving up at Rodney before tapping the conversation clear. There's both a sense of relief and... something that feels an awful lot like reluctance as she does so. She frowns at the thought. Has it really been so long that Rodney McKay is looking good to her?
She watches Rodney up in the window throw his hands into the air as he turns, no doubt giving poor Radek a piece of his mind.
It's almost a week before Sam finds herself back out on her balcony again, looking out over a star-swallowed Atlantis. Tonight she's in her blue pajama bottoms with the light blue, long sleeved shirt. It's turned a bit chilly, and even though she's thrown an extra blanket across her bed, she still can't sleep.
Rodney is already on his balcony, like he's waiting, and that makes Sam smile. Maybe he is and something about the idea makes her glow inside despite her better judgment. She makes a noise, drawing his attention up and she can see his lopsided grin from here. He holds up a finger and darts back into his quarters. She's already a step ahead and pulls her radio out of her pocket.
He mimes "402" again in his exaggerated hand gestures and she taps that in, sliding it over her ear.
"Evening," he says with a smile.
Sam grins. "Hey."
She's not entirely sure how it becomes a habit, but somehow she and Rodney make their evening chats a regular thing. It starts sporadically, weeks apart at first, but eventually they fall into an almost daily routine. It becomes something they both secretly look forward to. The chance to unwind, a chance to be honest with someone.
It sets up a duality, though. During the day, they're still as they always were, Carter and McKay: sometimes snarky, sometimes curt, always brilliant, and always separated by that barrier of civilian scientist and military leader.
But at night, they somehow drop all that to become just Sam and Rodney. And it's a secret of sorts, something they seem to keep even from each other. They never talk about it, they never discuss it. It just... happens. Every night. It makes everything seem real and unreal at the same time.
"You know, you have a great smile. And I mean that," Rodney shares once.
"Braces. Four years." They're on their balconies that evening, so Sam flashes Rodney one of her best megawatt smiles.
"Yeah, me too." He does likewise.
And she laughs.
The weeks turn into months and they talk about the innocuous and the serious. The peculiar and the personal.
"What are you talking about," Sam says one evening, twirling a stylus as she kicks her feet up onto the desk. "Journey is totally make-out music."
"Please," Rodney says, throwing his head back and chin up. "That's Peter Gabriel. Everyone knows that. 'In Your Eyes'? Gets a girl every time."
"Maybe in Canada," snorts Sam.
He pretends offense. "Hey!"
And they both laugh.
They share the intimate.
"Without Selmak... I don't know if I'd've known who my father was. Not really. She was the best 'step-mother' I could ever have had."
"You know, I really miss science fairs. They're the only place I really felt appreciated when I was growing up."
Sam slowly stops thinking of Rodney as the man who wanted to give up on Teal'c stuck inside the Stargate's buffer. She's even able to over look some of his more overt and terrible pick-up lines from the past. Because she's begun to understand just how insecure he is. Oh, he's supremely confident in his intelligence, but that's the easy part. It's people he doesn't seem to get. They're the variable he just can't take into the equation. So he hides behind the fuss and bluster, the irritability and the sarcasm. But he cares, deeply and truly, and Sam's slowly coming to see that.
Instead, she starts to think of Rodney as the guy who sneezes like a freight train and then apologizes for it in his funny Canadian accent. The guy who makes her laugh until she's out of breath by doing dead-on impressions of her staff. And maybe the one person who understands what it's like to constantly be called upon to be the team's miracle worker.
One particularly bad week, when trade negotiation go south and staff rotation is tight, Rodney leaves two bags of Kona coffee in Sam's office with a note that reads, 'You need it more then me! -- RM'. In appreciation, Sam provides her entire stash of hot chocolate to the science labs. It lasts them a month.
Another evening together, they listen to Shostakovich's Second Sonata for Piano off Rodney's directory on the intranet. Sam's never listened to music so complex before. It's enthralling, intoxicating. Sure, she's heard classical before, and O'Neill had his operas, but this... this is something else entirely.
"I used to know how to play that," Rodney says, almost as a confession.
"What do you mean 'used to'?"
"Oh." There's self-deprecation in his voice. "It's been years."
"I'm sure it's like riding a bike."
"A very complicated bike."
"But you like complications," she jokes.
He chuckles softly into the mic. "Yeah" His confession is real this time. "I do."
Sam starts to think of Rodney as a friend.
When Sheppard radios ahead to have a med team standing by, Sam knows -- just knows! -- it's for Rodney.
She stands at the railing looking down into the gate room as Sheppard's team comes through. Rodney has his arm looped over Sheppard's shoulder and John is bracing him, helping him. They both look winded. Rodney's limping badly and blood is running down his neck from a jagged cut on his forehead.
The med team swarms over McKay as he sets up a loud protest about their handling of him.
"Colonel?" Sam demands as she comes down the steps, catching Sheppard, Teyla and Ronon. They can hear McKay complaining of brain damage as he's led out on a gurney.
John winces, his hand coming up to grasp at the air. "He was there one second and the next he's sliding down the ravine, right into the river."
"Wasn't that steep," Ronon says with a note of defensiveness in his voice. Teyla just purses her mouth. Clearly, her expression reads, it was steep enough.
John tacks on, "Thankfully it was on our way back." As if that somehow helps.
Sam sighs out a breath before she waves them on. "Go ahead, change, get dry. Briefing in an hour."
Sam falls into step with Sheppard as he heads down to the infirmary after the debriefing. She's fighting a swirl of emotions that don't all make sense: anger, jealousy, and concern. The concern she understands, though its depth surprises her, but the anger, the jealousy? Sheppard is companionably silent, leaving her to her thoughts as they walk the halls of Atlantis.
They round the curve and head into the medical wing, she and Sheppard, shoulder to shoulder. Keller greets them.
"McKay?" Sam tries for casual, but it still comes out sounding too thick with concern. She clears her throat and puts on her best smile.
"Over there," Keller points, smiling in return. "He's all yours." And maybe there's a bit of relief in her voice.
Sheppard grins. "Giving you trouble?"
"No more than usual."
Keller chuckles, shaking her head wryly at Sheppard. Sam pats Jennifer on the shoulder as they pass, walking the distance to Rodney's bed.
Rodney is just sliding his jacket on as they near him, wincing as he does so.
"Hey buddy," Sheppard says, clasping Rodney on the shoulder before sliding his hands into his pockets.
"Ow, ow, ow!" Rodney flaps his hands at Sheppard as if shooing him away. "Delicate condition!"
John falls easily into a banter. "You're not pregnant, McKay."
"No," Rodney says with a tight expression. "I only almost died today."
It's like listening to Daniel and O'Neill all over again.
And that stab of jealously is back. It keeps her emotionally off-balance and she hates that. Sam bites at the inside of her mouth and keeps her smile in place.
"They said you'll live." She goes for levity, pushing through the unreasonable resentment she suddenly has for Sheppard.
"It's sprained, you know." Rodney gives them his best hang-dog expression as he points down towards his ankle. "Probably confine me to a wheelchair for weeks. And I'm lucky I didn't get a concussion," he says, pointing up at the butterflied bandage closing the cut just above his temple.
Sheppard rolls his eyes ever so slightly. He's used to this song and dance with McKay when it comes to personal injury. He picks up the cane Keller provided Rodney with and twirls it between his long fingers like a magician.
"I still expect a report on those energy signatures," Sam says, folding her hands behind her neatly. She has the most compelling urge to reach out and touch Rodney, just double-check that he's really alright. And maybe that's part her jealous envy, she thinks. Sheppard has that luxury, he's Rodney's teammate, his best friend. She doesn't have that right, that permission. She's just his... secret phone buddy.
"What?" Rodney is of course oblivious to her musings. "Oh, right. Yeah. Just your typical Ancient outpost retrofitted by a tribe of barbarians. No Zed-PM."
"I hope you didn't actually say that to them?" Sam looks from Rodney to Sheppard, casually alarmed.
"Not within earshot," Sheppard assures her, spinning the cane up under his arm like Patton.
"Good," Sam says, smirking just a bit.
She hesitates a moment before, "Well, I'm glad you're okay." And she reaches out, unable to stop herself. Her hand rests lightly on Rodney's shoulder, just at the curve where it meets the nape of his neck, but it's enough to make his eyes open wider and catch hers. There's a spark of electricity, a connection, that carries down her limbs and pools in her stomach, something tingly that makes her smile sweetly.
Sheppard waits for some cheesy come-on from Rodney, but all McKay does is smile: a sweet, genuine expression that rarely graces Rodney's face. John looks between them. They're just... smiling. At each other. Eyes locked with one another like he isn't even there.
John arches an eyebrow.
"Thanks," Rodney says eventually and frankly, John is a little stunned. Humility isn't McKay's strongest suit.
Sam nods with yet another smile before she pulls her shoulders back. "Well I've got to get back. Reports to file, meetings to field. Colonel. McKay." And John is left with the distinct impression he just missed something as she passes around the corner and out of the infirmary. Something big. Maybe huge. But she's gone and already Rodney is back to fussing with his jacket. John lets out a breath he didn't realize he was holding.
Setting his hands on his hips, Sheppard turns on Rodney. "And what was that?"
Rodney snaps his fingers at the cane until John finally hands it over. "What was what?" He stands, testing both cane and cast. Neither seems to meet his immediate approval. He keeps his face turned down, frowning, and avoiding Sheppard's look.
"Just now. With you, and Carter, and the smiling and the eyes."
Rodney lifts his chin, a classic tell-tale, because he's a terrible liar. "I have no idea what you're talking about." He waves his free hand around as if he can sweep the issue aside.
Sheppard just arches his eyebrow higher, cocking his head to the side.
Rodney licks his lips but holds firm, chin jutting out.
Narrowing his eyes, Sheppard presses his lips thin. "You and she... I mean, she's been turning you down for years and years and years and--"
"Yes, thank you Colonel, for keeping track." Rodney breathes an exasperated breath through his nose. The cane is suddenly fine as Rodney makes use of it to hobble away.
"So...?" John's hands leave his hips to motion about in the air as he easily falls into step beside McKay.
"It's her job to care about me now, in case you've forgotten."
"Uh huh," Sheppard drawls, clearly unconvinced.
"I'm her chief of science! I'm vital to the on-going function of Atlantis! Why would she not be concerned for me when I'm hurt?"
John's just smiling like a cat in the cream.
"So," Rodney says as a tactical diversion. "Race cars?"
"You're on." If Rodney doesn't want to talk, that's fine, John thinks. He'll get it out of him eventually; Rodney likes to brag, if nothing else.
It's late when Rodney finally makes it back to his quarters. Sheppard had decided McKay nearly breaking his neck was reason enough to throw a movie night.
So it was Star Wars. Again.
Rodney's shuffling around the room with his cane -- peeling off his jacket, checking his inbox for any pressing emails, and considering a snack despite all the popcorn he's eaten -- when his door chimes.
He frowns gently, hobbling back to palm it open. When the doors part, Sam's standing there, hands in her back pockets.
"Uh... hi," Rodney says, startled.
"Hi. You busy?"
"It's kind of late and I did almost die today," he notes as she walks past him. "But please," he adds, his voice snide. "Come on in."
"Thanks," she says automatically, ignoring his tone. After all this time, Sam has more or less become immune to it.
She glances around the room, taking it in. It was really the first time she's ever seen anything of Rodney's quarters besides his balcony. It was fairly typical for Atlantis: a living area, a separate alcove for sleeping, a private bath. It's also neater then she expected. For some reason, she imagined cluttered shelves and a paper-strewn desk. Instead, it's tidy picture frames and a neatly made bed.
"Did you bring all of your diplomas?" Sam's expression was somewhat incredulous as she takes in the sea of certificates lining the walls. There's even a picture of him holding a diploma that in of itself is on display right next to it.
"No?" Sam just turns to blink at him.
"Oh." His mouth draws long before shifting into something curious. "How did you know when I was back, to come over?" Rodney's finger is jumping between Sam and his door. "Are you stalking me?" He actually grins at that, resting both hands on the curve of his cane.
"I might have written a subroutine, alerting me to when your life sign was back in here." Sam bounces her fingertips together, grimacing a guilty smile.
"You didn't." But Rodney's grin widens.
Sam shrugs sheepishly. "Yeah, well." She licks her lips, turning first towards Rodney then away, staring at her own reflection in the darkened sliding glass door. She clears her throat, trying to catch at something to say.
"Sam?" There is a layer of concern as Rodney comes up behind her. He hesitates for a moment, then brings a hand up to rest on her shoulder. For all their conversations, he can count on one hand the number of times he's had the opportunity to touch her.
It feels nice to have reason to touch her. That same wave of electricity from the infirmary grabs him and sends a thrill down to his toes. He flexes his fingers gently, relishing the feel of her under his palm.
"I don't know why I'm here," Sam says in a sudden explosion of voice. "I don't... I don't even know what I want to say." She looks up then, catching his eyes in the glass's reflection. "I just know I didn't want to say it over the radio anymore."
"Is... is something wrong?" His hand tenses then flutters over her shoulder. Should he remove it?
She reaches up slowly, laying her own hand over his. It charges the moment between them and now its Rodney's turn to clear his throat.
Turning around slowly to face him, Rodney's hand slides up from her shoulder to the back of her neck and Sam knows with absolute certainty that he is going to try to kiss her. She can see it written in his clear blue eyes, the way just the tip of his tongue touches his upper lip.
She decides in that split second she's going to let him. That... she actually wants that. Quite a bit.
He moves slowly, threading his fingers through her hair first, luxuriating in the feel of its length. She smiles at him encouragingly, and she can see the surprised delight cross his face. He moves in slowly, pressing his lips against hers, more of a promise of a kiss then the actual act itself. And she kisses back, applying no more pressure than Rodney, and together they make that promise true.
They part softly, looking bashfully at one another.
She thinks they're going to share a quiet moment together, revel in this new development, when Rodney suddenly throws his cane aside and surges forward, taking her into an embrace. He presses his mouth to hers again, something more passionate this time that sends fingers of pleasure racing down Sam's spine. His tongue swipes against her bottom lip and she sighs softly against it. She takes the kiss in, takes Rodney in, and it's been so long since she's had this, and who knew Rodney McKay was so good at it? He tastes of popcorn and soda.
When they break away this second time, Sam's a touch breathless and her cheeks are flushed delightfully pink.
"I've wanted to do that for years," crows Rodney, grinning stupidly at her. Sam can't help but laugh and rests her forehead against his shoulder. He folds his arms around her, holding her close. It feels good. It feels right.
He whispers into the quiet room, "So is this it, then? The next step?"
Sam's smile is hopeful. "I think so."