"...just one more reason I detest flying commercial. Jeannie keeps insisting it would be a waste of money, not to mention the unwarranted environmental impact, to buy a company plane...umph...because everything is handled electronically...this is ridiculous...stuck. She has a point, it's not as if I really have to travel anywhere for the business, but right now I think...there...I should have kept that...get through you stupid...that Learjet when I bought out that biotech startup a couple of months back."
A litany of complaints in a precise, oddly pleasant tenor was John's first hint that his unscheduled passengers had finally arrived for the last leg of their journey to the exclusive singles resort on Makatea. Glancing up from the plane's engine, he watched as an average-sized man wrestled two suitcases through the uncooperative terminal doors before pausing to dab at a high and extremely sweaty forehead with a handkerchief as travel-creased as his baggy khakis. The suitcases, as well as the bulging laptop case slung over a broad shoulder, appeared to be quite heavy, but that hadn't slowed the rambling objections directed toward his coolly elegant female companion.
Sweltering inside his full-length coveralls, John felt more than a little sympathy for the overheated man. There was no wind to help dissipate the hot waves rising off the sun-warmed asphalt, and at least John could look forward to a cool shower in the locker room after he finished changing the oil. Too hot was no excuse for neglecting his baby.
Indulging his curiosity, John continued to eavesdrop on the pair as he returned a portion of his attention to the stubborn bolt holding the oil filter captive. The other man had resumed complaining after rubbing his lower back with a groan of relief. "...when you think about it, Sam, we've arrived at least thirty to forty minutes late on every leg of this trip and almost missed our connection in...."
John winced when the slim, leggy blonde, now identified as 'Sam' and who had obviously reached her limit on patience, interrupted in a strained voice. "I'm sure you're absolutely right, Rodney. We made it here, though, so that's what counts in the long run." John didn't envy the other man at all. He was sure the temperature had just dropped five degrees in her immediate vicinity...and was still falling. He felt another pang of sympathy when she smoothed non-existent wrinkles from her flirty little sundress before gritting out through a thin-lipped smile, "Tell you what, Rodney. Why don't I go find a restroom and freshen up while you...you go find the charter, okay?" She didn't wait for an answer, just yanked the door open and disappeared back inside the small building with an irritated flick of her ponytail.
Head down, busily rummaging through the side pocket of his laptop case, Rodney belatedly waved her away with a mumbled, "Sure, sure, now where did I put that.... Found it!" With a triumphant chortle, he pulled out a glossy folder, only to frown in puzzlement when he looked up to find himself without an audience. "Sam?"
John paid for his amused snort when his wrench slipped on the bolt and his hand slammed against the firewall. With a curse, he dropped the offending tool to the tarmac and inspected the damage, wincing at the shreds of skin across the back of three knuckles. Although there wasn't much blood, he knew it was going to sting like a bitch when he scrubbed away the grease later. He shook his head at his carelessness, muttering, "Good one, John."
"Oh hey, you speak English." John lifted his head to see Rodney standing a few feet away, the glossy folder extended in John's direction. Rodney didn't wait for an acknowledgement, just continued speaking as if John's attention was a given. "That's good. I have to admit my French has gotten a little rusty. It's been too long since I spent any time in Canada, so...uh, yes, well. I'm looking for Tumatoa Charters. The person at the desk just pointed in this general direction when we checked in." He craned his neck to peer at John's bleeding fingers with a sympathetic grimace. "Uh, you should probably get that cleaned up. You don't want to end up with an infection with all that..." A slightly crooked mouth dipped a little lower on the left and one broad hand waved in a descriptive circle as if to gather up the right words. "...grease...and dirt."
The unexpected concern softened John's natural inclination to sarcasm, and he restricted himself to a simple, "Thanks, I'll take care of it when I'm finished. You're headed for Makatea, right?"
"Yes. The Pandanus Resort," Rodney confirmed with quick nod.
"Well, we'll be ready for takeoff in about ten..." John frowned toward the recalcitrant bolt and revised his estimate upward. "Better make that twenty minutes."
John tried hard to conceal his amusement when Rodney took two steps back in obvious dismay, his ocean-blue eyes widening as he surveyed John's thirty-foot long, single-engine plane. Shaking his head slowly, Rodney actually sputtered as he waved his hands and protested John's casual statement. "Uh...wait...no...that...are you saying that thing is what we're flying in to the resort?"
John chuckled as he nodded and confirmed Rodney's assumption. "Yep. Just as soon as I'm done here."
As if by magic, John's flippant answer transmuted the distress to anger. "Ah yes, how very amusing." Rodney folded his arms, which John just happened to notice pulled Rodney's shirtsleeves tight against impressive biceps, and tilted his chin up, his winter-pale face reddening, his voice sharpening in disdain. "Where do you hide the adult-sized planes?"
Beginning to feel more than a little annoyed, John shrugged and explained, "Tumatoa's plane is laid up in Fiji and Sheppard Aviation is filling in." He bent down to pick up the wrench and turned back to the engine, ignoring Rodney as he tackled the bolt again.
"Oh, no, that can't be right." John could see Rodney's hands waving again in the corner of his eye as Rodney blustered his objections. "I, um...I can't possibly go in this. It's too small and uh... It's broken. And it's small."
"It's not broken. It's undergoing routine maintenance," John retorted, any remaining sympathy evaporating at the insult to his pride and joy. With a jerk and a grunt, he was finally able to loosen the bolt and the dirty oil began to pour into the waiting bucket. Wiping his hands on a dirty rag, he turned back to Rodney to point out in a sarcastic drawl, "You should appreciate the fact that the owner of Sheppard Aviation, who also happens to be your pilot, is personally making sure that everything is working properly before takeoff."
A chilling voice of reason interceded before Rodney could offer a rebuttal. "Rodney, is there a problem?"
"Oh, Sam. There you are." John watched in amusement as Rodney pulled a one-eighty, crooked mouth twitching into an awkward smile, hands freezing mid-flail. "I was just...this person...."
John interrupted the babbling, just for the hell of it. "That would be John Sheppard, by the way."
Aiming a brilliant smile in John's direction, Sam supplied her own introduction in return, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Sheppard. I'm Dr. Samantha Carter and this is Dr. Rodney McKay."
"Doctors." John held up his right hand with a grin. "I'd offer to shake hands, but I'm afraid I'm less than sterile right now."
Glaring at John, Rodney floundered back into his rant. "Not medical, astrophysics, plus mechanical engineering in my case, not that I'm using either one these days. As I was trying to explain, Sheppard here is trying to convince me that we're going to fly out to the resort in this...this...aviation accident looking for a place to happen."
John's temper flared at the slur against his plane's condition. "Listen, buddy. There's nothing wrong with my plane," he snapped back. "This old puddlejumper's a de Havilland Beaver, one of the safest, most reliable aircraft ever built." He took a deep breath and continued more calmly. "You mentioned Canada earlier. Well, this just so happens to be a Canadian plane."
"Rodney, I really don't think this is as big a problem as you're making it out to be." Sam narrowed her eyes as her lips thinned once again in aggravation. "I'm sure the plane is perfectly safe and the pilot a trained professional."
"He's the pilot." With a single contemptuous wave of Rodney's hand, John suddenly became very conscious of his well-scuffed boots and oil-stained, worn-thin overalls. "Canadian or not, there has to be a more reasonably-sized plane we can charter."
With a huff of disgust, John immediately shot down that plan. "You won't find another one here today. There's a ferry from the port, stops at a couple islands along the way. Takes three days to get to Makatea, and that'll put a dent in your six days and seven nights package." John shrugged, turned back to the engine to tighten the bolt enough to guarantee he'd be struggling to loosen it in the future, and then set the bucket off to one side. "No skin off my back. I'm covered either way. Find someplace to stay tonight and catch Tumatoa's next flight tomorrow or the day after." He unscrewed the top of the first of several large bottles of oil and tipped it into the waiting funnel.
"But, but, we have to arrive at the resort today! It's our anniversary!" Rodney blurted out.
Although his attention, for the most part, was focused on carefully pouring in the replacement oil, John glanced up from the engine in time to see Sam's eyes widen in surprise. "We have an anniversary?"
"Of course we do." Rodney frowned at Sam's apparent forgetfulness. "We met for the first time exactly one year ago today. You rear-ended my car at that stoplight."
John swapped an empty bottle for a full, narrowly avoiding a spill when he choked at Sam's startled response. "Oh, right. I remember now. I called you an anal-retentive jerk because you slammed on the brakes the second the light turned yellow."
The furrow between Rodney's brows deepened when Sam laughed as she recalled the details of their introduction. "Oh, great. That part you remember." He looked away from her for a moment and then sighed in resignation, his broad shoulders drooping. "Okay, okay...you're right, Sam. I can do this, my claustrophobia and acrophobia be damned. We're going to have fun, even if it kills us and, in a plane this size, it's a distinct possibility."
John found himself almost sorry to see Rodney backpedaling in the face of Sam's disapproval; he'd actually enjoyed the argumentative change of pace up to a point. Realizing they'd finally reached a decision, he shook the last few drops of oil from the last bottle, closed the plug firmly, and lowered the engine cover before turning to them to announce, "Well then, I guess I just need to clean up a bit and we'll take off. Give me ten minutes or so. You can wait inside if you like."
"We'll be here," Sam assured John, with a smile more pleasant than any she'd bestowed on Rodney.
Rodney huffed and pointed at John's hand. "Make it fifteen or twenty instead, so you can disinfect and bandage those scrapes while you're at it."
John bent over to grab the full bucket and empty bottles, and then straightened up to flash a grin in their direction. "Thanks for the reminder, Dr. McKay." His usual good humor restored by Rodney's unexpected thoughtfulness, despite his proclaimed lack of a medical degree, John walked away with a slight bounce to his step. He was looking forward to that cool shower and then being in the air again.
The peace and quiet of his courtesy bungalow hadn't appealed to John after the sun had disappeared over the horizon. It had only taken a few minutes after he'd walked into the resort's bar for him to be certain that the noise and music and glut of young, perfect bodies with equally perfect hair wasn't what he'd been craving either. Grabbing his beer, he made his way around the writhing dancers to the tables and booths in the back, hoping to find a spot where he could sit and pretend he didn't mind being alone.
He settled for sharing with someone a little less young and perfect. One of the cane-backed booths held a slightly familiar-looking solitary drinker, and John flexed his hand, feeling the aching pull of healing skin as he recalled how they'd met. With a smile and a casual "Mind if I join you?" John slid in across from Dr. Rodney McKay, confident the chance of rejection was low with no other drinks waiting for an owner to return.
All his attention seemingly on a small velvet-covered box sitting on the table, and not the umbrella-topped drink in the signature faux coconut shell, Rodney's head jerked up in surprise at John's greeting. He looked puzzled for a moment before he nodded and confirmed that he wouldn't ask John to leave. "Uh...sure. If you want to.... Sure."
John looked him over, deciding the other man looked a lot better than he had on the flight out from Tahiti, less frazzled. His slate-grey shirt flattered his coloring and broad-shouldered physique, while his blue eyes appeared darker, shadowed behind the thin gold frames that were something new. John could only assume that Rodney had been wearing contacts before or only needed the glasses for close work, since he hadn't been wearing them earlier.
"I'm surprised to see you here alone. Where's your girlfriend hiding?" John asked, after checking the crowd to see if she was out on the dance floor with someone else.
"She has a...headache," Rodney explained with a shrug. He picked up the hinged box, shifted to tuck it away in a pocket, then reached out to toy with the paper umbrella. "She...uh...wanted some time alone. It was a long trip."
Based on the frown shadowing Rodney's face, John suspected that things hadn't gone well after he'd delivered the couple to the resort. When Rodney didn't elaborate any further, John glanced around the room again and took a swig of beer before offering his condolences. "That's too bad. Hope she'll be able to enjoy the rest of your stay."
Rodney nodded, his mouth twitching into a sad imitation of a smile. "Me too. It was tough enough arranging the time off for Sam. It's not turning out to be the romantic anniversary I'd planned for."
"Hate to say it, but you wouldn't be the first person to leave here disappointed." John waved his beer bottle toward the dance floor. "They come here expecting to find romance, but they're forgetting something important."
John finished his beer and set the bottle to the side, then leaned forward to share the reason. "It's an island, buddy. If you don't bring it with you, then chances are you won't find it here." He raised his hand and caught the eye of one of the waitresses, who smiled and began making her way toward their booth.
In the meantime, amusement warred with aggravation for control of Rodney's face. Humor won and a real smile was set free, the blue eyes suddenly alight with laughter and awakening something John hadn't felt in quite a while. "So, you're not just a pilot, you're a philosopher. I'm impressed."
John shrugged and grinned back. "I just call them as I see them."
Before Rodney could reply, the scantily clad waitress interrupted with a trilled, "John! It's been a while, sweetie."
John ducked his head shyly and smiled up at her. "Hey, Suzie. I've been pretty busy, you know how it is." He tapped the side of Rodney's untouched cocktail and nudged his foot under the table. "It'd be a shame for you to miss out on all the fun. Why don't you let me buy you something you'll actually drink? What'll you have?"
The smile vanished from Rodney's face as he shook his head and slid out of the booth. "Thanks, but it was...I ordered it just for show. I never drink in a bar like this. I'm deathly allergic to citrus and it's too easy to cross-contaminate and...." His broad hands flitted between the waitress and the drink to illustrate his problem. "I don't care very much for choking to death." He pointed toward the door. "I should really get back and check on Sam. Thanks again." After offering a firm handshake, he left John sitting there and made his way past the beautiful people without looking back.
Apologizing to Suzie for wasting her time, John surveyed the room one last time, decided it held nothing he was interested in, and followed Rodney out into the balmy moonlit night. Still feeling a little restless, he set off for a walk along the beach, the sound of the waves more appealing than the rowdy music he was leaving behind.
At first, John thought the noise was part of the dream, auditory background to the all-too-often replay of the failures in his past. Sitting up with a groan, he tried to rub away the throbbing behind his eyes, only to realize the distinctive sound was real and growing louder by the second. Lurching from the bed, he fumbled his way to the bungalow's veranda, wondering why a helicopter was landing on the beach at the ungodly hour of 4:00 am.
As he stood there, concealed by the darkness, peering out at the sleek black machine, he soon discovered that he wasn't the only one who'd been awakened. All the lights came on the bungalow next door and Dr. Samantha Carter exited in a rush, with Rodney following close behind and asking querulously what she thought she was doing running around outside in the dark. It was only John's recognition of the markings on the side of the helicopter that convinced him to wait, instead of joining the other two to make sure no one got hurt.
His patience paid off when Sam intercepted the single figure that had emerged and led him back to the bungalow. She and the newcomer stayed outside, while Rodney returned to the bungalow after a token protest. John had no qualms about eavesdropping, thankful that the helicopter's engine had shut down making it easier to hear the low-voiced conversation.
"All right, Daniel. What's this really about?"
"I told you, Sam. We're heading for the Antarctic base and we need you with us."
"The team needs me."
"Alright then, Jack needs you."
"That's what I thought. Well, I'm so important to him, why isn't he the one standing here asking me to cancel my vacation?"
"Come on, Sam. Do you really want Jack coming within ten feet of McKay, knowing what Jack thinks of him?"
"A smartass dotcom millionaire. I've heard it before. That's not fair, though. There's more to Rodney than that. At least, sometimes there is."
"If you say so, Sam. I'll have to take your word for it. In the meantime, the helicopter's waiting for us."
"Damn it, Daniel, he's...."
"Come on. Give Jack another chance, Sam. I...I'm pretty sure he gets it now."
"I.... Fine, you and he win. You know, he's just damn lucky that I've had enough undiluted Rodney McKay during the last two days to make Antarctica sound like a paradise."
"Exactly. Just make sure Jack never hears that from you, Daniel. I'm looking forward to some long-deserved groveling. Now, give me fifteen minutes to get changed and explain this mess to Rodney, and then I'll meet you out there."
When the two conspirators split up to go their separate ways, John went back inside and forced himself to stop listening by selecting one of the CD's supplied by the resort and turning the player on high. He'd guessed what was in the box Rodney had tucked away, and John didn't need to bear witness to the crash and burn of Rodney's plans. Smartass dotcom millionaire or not, no one deserved that kind of humiliation.
The breeze off the ocean proving irresistible, John had moved his lunch outside to the table and comfortable lounge chair on the veranda. The trials and tribulations of the Russian nobility were waging a losing battle against the seductive charms of a nap when a shadow fell over the page. Taking the hint, John peered over the top of his sunglasses to discover Rodney blocking the sunlight. Closing his book in favor of a livelier encounter, John smiled and greeted his unexpected visitor. "Hey. What's up?"
"Uh...hi. Philippe, the manager? He...uh...told me I could find you here." A pair of mirrored sunglasses concealed Rodney's eyes but, considering how awkwardly Rodney was fidgeting in front of him, John had a good idea what they were hiding. Pointing in the general direction of John's plane, Rodney explained why he'd been looking for John. "I'd like to charter your plane...uh...to fly back to Tahiti. Today."
John set the book on the table next to him and stood, lazily stretching as he declined the last-minute booking. "I'm sort of on my layover here. I have a full load back to Tahiti tomorrow, but Tumatoa's due the day after and you should be able to catch a ride then. Why don't you just kick back and relax a little? That's why you're here, remember?"
Rodney's tentativeness disappeared at John's words. His chin rose as he crossed his arms and protested, "That's where you'd be wrong. I was supposed to be here with my girlfriend, who not only happens to be unavailable, but also is no longer my girlfriend. Now I'm stuck here with a laptop without an internet connection, because that was one of the many conditions that she stipulated before agreeing to join me on this ill-conceived trip." His hands escaped to wave at the lounge chairs and cabanas scattered along the sandy beach. "I am now going to go stark staring mad without something to do besides court melanomas while sitting on the beach calculating the total volume of silicone surrounding me at any given point in time."
Keeping his voice low and soothing, John stepped back to avoid the flailing hands. "Whoa there, buddy. Like I said before, you need to chill out a little."
Rodney backed up a few steps, then began to pace. After a few moments, he snapped his fingers and burst out with a new proposal. "I'll pay double, American not Canadian, if you'll cut your layover short. You could easily fly back to pick your other passengers up later today or tomorrow. It's not that long a trip, roughly an hour and half, two hours at the most. Right?"
Feeling a little sympathetic to Rodney's situation, John decided to cut Rodney some slack and rescue him from the scene of his disaster. However, he couldn't resist a little teasing first. "I was kind of thinking about catching some of those sweet breakers on the south tip later."
Rolling his eyes in disgust, Rodney countered with, "Then how about twenty-five hundred to cover the loss of your gnarly waves, dude?"
John shook his head at Rodney's obtuseness, rubbing the back of his neck and drawling, "You know, money isn't the answer to everything, McKay."
"Yes, yes, I'm well aware that money is the root of all evil and all that rubbish, except when it manages to get extremely important things done that wouldn't happen otherwise," Rodney volleyed back. "Well? Do we have a deal or not?"
"Cash?" John asked, already resigned to his fate.
Rodney frowned for a moment, then nodded. "Uh, sure. I'll just ask what-his-name, the resort manager, to cash some traveler's checks for me."
Still reluctant to appear a pushover, John reached into his pocket and pulled out a quarter, flipping it and slapping it back against his wrist as he ordered, "Call it, McKay."
Peeking under his fingers, John sighed and then nodded, even though the coin's position hadn't mattered to his decision. "Okay, give me an hour. I want to check on whether Philippe, the resort manager, has anything he wants me to take back since I'll have extra space this trip."
Rodney clapped his hands together and rubbed them vigorously, a triumphant smile brightening his face. "Great, I'll just go get my things together." He headed next door to his bungalow, turning back after only a few steps to say, "And, uh, Sheppard? Thanks."
John waved him off with a smile and walked back inside to do some packing of his own.
The last time Rodney had climbed into John's plane, he'd stopped to make sure John had taken care of his scrapes properly, huffed in satisfaction at the clean bandage, and had said little else until their arrival at Makatea. When Rodney selected the seat directly behind him for the trip by to Tahiti, John had suspected conversation was going to be just as sparse. Without Sam to help relay questions and answers, John gave up after a few aborted attempts to shout back and forth over the wind and engine noise and resigned himself to a quiet flight, relatively speaking. However, all that changed about twenty minutes out from Makatea.
The third time the plane dropped twenty feet in less than a second, John began thinking the line of increasingly darker clouds that he could see in the distance would be more trouble than he wanted to tackle with a passenger on board. Grabbing the radio handset from the dash, he depressed the talk button and calmly requested the information he needed to make a decision. "Island Flight Watch, this is Beaver zero-three-niner-niner. We are currently holding steady at thirty-five hundred on a heading of one-one-zero. I'm looking for a weather update along our course. Repeat, this is Beaver zero-three-niner-niner at thirty-five hundred, heading one-one-zero, requesting weather update. Do you copy?"
"...thirty-six Victor...be advised..." John's hand tightened on the handset when the station's reply kept dissolving into crackling bursts of static with no usable information being passed along in-between. "...southeastern..."
A headache began throbbing behind John's eyes as he thumbed the handset again and shouted over the rising wind, "Please say again. I repeat, Beaver zero-three-niner-niner looking for a weather update on heading one-one-zero." After another minute passed with no answer, John shook his head in frustration and called back over his shoulder, "Sorry, buddy. This weather's changing too fast for my taste. I'm heading back to Makatea. It's too risky to keep going."
Worried about a distinct lack of a response from behind him, John glanced back just in time to watch Rodney's naturally pale face go a shade whiter and hear a shaky, "Uh, all right, I guess."
Unfortunately, John didn't have much time to consider Rodney's comfort. Rising winds buffeted the small aircraft as he changed their heading, forcing him to shout a warning. "Damn it, a line of squalls has got us boxed in. You'd better...."
A hand leaning on his shoulder cut John short, and then Rodney shoved between the seats to drop into the co-pilot's position. Rodney fumbled for the seatbelt as he raised his voice to ask John's permission after the fact, "You won't mind if I, uh, just come sit up here with you, Sheppard. Right?"
Recognizing he had no real choice in the matter, John nodded as he ordered, "Fine. Just get that seatbelt on. Tight." Glimpsing an odd movement out of the corner of his eye, John turned his head to see Rodney tossing a number of pills into his mouth before closing a small bottle. Curious, John asked, "What are those?"
After swallowing the pills dry with a gulp and a grimace, Rodney answered, "Uh, they're for motion sickness, you know, the turbulence." One hand twirled in the air to help describe the problem before latching onto the dashboard in front of him with a white-knuckled grip.
Trying to remember where he'd stashed the airsickness bags and wrestle the wind for control of the plane at the same time, John asked worriedly, "Hey, McKay. You're not going to throw up on me, are you, buddy?"
Rodney cracked open one tightly closed eye and whimpered, "Uh, no?"
"Good," was all John could manage as he reached across to turn on the windshield wipers, then he swallowed hard as the plane imitated a rollercoaster on fast forward. It was good reminder of why John preferred Ferris wheels. "On second thought, maybe I could use a couple of those too."
"No way," Rodney declared, tossing the bottle over his shoulder into the back. "They make you drowsy, so no operating heavy machinery and I think a plane definitely qualifies as heavy machinery even when it's in the air. Besides, that bottle's empty." Point made, he twisted in his seat to rummage through the laptop case lying on the floor behind his seat. With a crow of triumph, he turned back around and attempted to punch open a small blister package with shaking fingers.
John spared a quick look from the darkly roiling clouds surrounding them to check out Rodney's latest acquisition and then demanded, "What the hell are you taking now, McKay?"
Rodney waved his prize in the air and slurred, "My emergency backup. They're sotion mickness pills so I don't...uh...yeah."
"Oh no, I think you've had more than enough there, Dr. Feelgood. Hand them over before you end up flying high enough to melt your wings." John snatched the package and stuffed it into his shirt pocket, ignoring Rodney's whine of protest.
The question of whether or not Rodney needed more pills became moot when the interior of the plane lit up with a blue-white flash and then juddered with a loud bang. Rodney reeled in his seat, shouting, "Whoa! Hey, that was really close, hunh? I could hear the sizzle!"
Hands locked on the bouncing yoke, John tried to blink away the lingering spots before his lightning-flashed eyes. "Fuck!" he groaned, knowing exactly what had happened. "More than just close. That one hit us."
"Oh, that sounds like it could be...bad." Eyes wide, Rodney stared past the inert windshield wipers at the slashing rain.
"No shit, Sherlock. I think it fried all the electronics." John grabbed the handset and thumbed it on, even though he knew it was probably as useless as the lifeless dials in front of him. Trying to sound as calm as possible, he sent out a distress message. "Mayday. Mayday. Mayday. Beaver zero-three-niner-niner. Unable to maintain altitude. I repeat, Beaver zero-three-niner-niner. I'm unable to maintain altitude. Last known location forty miles south-southeast of Makatea. Mayday. Mayday. Mayday."
"My turn now, Sheppard." Rodney yanked the handset away from John by the cord, lifted it to his mouth, and began to sing off-key. "Marconi plays the Mamba, listen to the radio. Don't you remember? We built this city; we built this city on rock and roll!"
Unable to believe just how unlucky his coin toss had ended up being, John snatched the useless handset back, shouting, "Give me that! Jesus, how many of those things did you take, McKay?"
"Um, you know, I'm not really sure, but at least I don't feel like I'm going to hurl all over you anymore." Yawning, Rodney let his head fall back against the headrest. "A nap would be good, though."
Allowing the plane to drop still lower in an attempt to find calmer air, John took a deep breath before attempting to explain how dire their situation had become. "Listen, McKay. I...." He faltered as he tried to find the right words, wishing he could think of something positive about ditching in the ocean.
After a few moments of hearing nothing but the engine and wind, Rodney rolled his head toward John and asked querulously, "Well? What? I'm listening, but you're not talking."
Biting his lower lip, John thought for a moment then blurted out, "Damn it. We're definitely in trouble here. I need you to sit back...be quiet, keep your seatbelt tight, and let me fly this thing."
"Yes, sir...Mr. Pilot Sheppard...sir." Rodney fumbled a sloppy salute in John's direction, and then let his eyes drift closed.
After another ten minutes spent fighting against the wind and rain, John spotted something in the ocean a few miles ahead. Watching their unexpected haven draw closer by the second, he reached out to shake Rodney's shoulder so he could hear the good news. "Hey, we just got lucky! There's an island down there. I'm going set us down on that beach. It'll be safer than flying with no instruments in this crap."
"Where?" Rodney blinked owlishly as he roused from his light doze. He leaned forward to peer out the window, his voice raspy as he acknowledged John. "Okay, I see where you're headed, right there...uh...where there's a rock on the beach." Suddenly, his voice rose to a shout. "Sheppard, there's a rock on the beach!"
Rodney's warning came too late. Unable to slow the plane's forward momentum any faster or steer away from the obstacle in the wet sand, John only had time for one final "Son of a bitch!" before a hard lurch and a sideways jolt sent his head slamming into the side window and the world went black.
"...need to wake up because there's blood and I can't tell if you have a neck or a back injury and that means choosing between a fiery death or paralysis and I'd really rather not have that responsibility. Sheppard? Sheppard, can you hear me?"
John groaned and tried to move away from the frantic voice that was attempting to drill to China by way of his head. When that didn't work, he forced his eyes open, actually only one eye open because the other was gummed shut with something thick and sticky. It didn't really help because all he could see was a smear of red and a lot of sand. With a jerk, he pulled back from the window that he'd been staring through, and then groaned again because it had been a very bad idea.
The voice seemed to disagree. "That's it! Now can you try to move your legs? Preferably in a direction that will get you out of this plane before it blows up?"
Out. John decided he could do out. Easy. All he had to do was push down on the lever...so that he ended up dangling four feet above the sand by the seatbelt he'd forgotten to unbuckle first. Closing his one good eye, instead of watching the ground swaying back and forth, suddenly seemed like a better plan.
"Oh, bad idea. No! No! Good idea! Just wait there and I'll come around and pull you out that way."
The blood rushing to John's head didn't help at all. In fact, it just forced his stomach to join in the fun, which the voice didn't seem to appreciate any more than John did.
"Oh, gross. Couldn't you have waited until I wasn't underneath you? Well, I guess this rain will take care of that pretty quick. Here, let me get this buckle...whoa, whoa, easy. Come on, just lean on me and walk over there where, with any sort of luck, the exploding airplane won't reach us. Okay, Sheppard? Hey, you with me yet? You know, you weigh a lot more than a skinny guy like you should. That's it, using your legs for support is good."
With the ground under his feet where it belonged, John felt as if he could try the whole opening the eye trick again. It turned out to be a good idea, because that meant he could steer himself down onto the big rock that he and the voice were headed for instead of just being dropped on it unceremoniously.
"Okay, okay, that should be far enough for now. You just stay here and I'll go get the emergency kit out of the plane...."
Even with his head threatening to fall off, John knew that allowing his helper, and the name Rodney suddenly came to mind, to go back was wrong. He reached out and grabbed an arm and held on tight. "No...don't...not safe," he managed to groan between waves of nausea.
"We're on a damn island and I don't see anyone else here, Sheppard! I know that I'm being uncharacteristically heroic, but unless I go get that kit, and whatever else I can salvage, safe is an extremely moot point. Now let go!"
John shook his head and immediately regretted it, but he didn't let go. Instead, he yanked and ended up flat on his back in the sand with Rodney on top. Wrapping his arms around the struggling man, John shouted, "Stop! Just stop and think for a moment!" When Rodney's squirming became less forceful, John continued a little more calmly, "It's raining. Just give it a little more time and everything will cool down and there'll be less chance of an explosion. Okay?"
With a sigh, Rodney relaxed against him. "Okay, but if you die because the first aid kit is blown to bits, don't blame me."
"I won't blame you." Promise made in a graveled whisper, John loosened his grip so Rodney could roll off to one side, and then he let the rain wash away the blood and the pain.
The sand underneath him was surprisingly comfortable despite the constant drumming of the rain but, unfortunately for the state of John's headache, the very stubborn voice, Rodney, was at it again. "Sheppard?"
Aware that Rodney would keep repeating John's name until he would be more than willing to file all the necessary paperwork required for a new one, John finally gave in and answered. "Hmmm?"
Although it had only been a single syllable answer, it was enough to open the floodgates. "It's been an hour. You need to wake up now because that's what everyone says you should do when you have a head injury. Then, while you're awake, you can tell me whether you think it's safe to climb into the unexploded plane now. I'm really tired of sitting here in the rain, even though it's warm rain, which means that at least we don't have to worry about hypothermia, and God I could use about a gallon of coffee about now because those pills were a really bad idea."
With a groan, John opened his eyes to see Rodney bending over him, his blue eyes popped wide in distress. Squinting against the pain, John asked in wonder, "How do you go that long without breathing?"
A little of the worry cleared from Rodney's face at John's response. "Good, you're really awake this time." He lifted a cloth away from the left side of John's forehead and grimaced. "It looks like the bleeding's finally stopped. How do you feel?"
John had to disagree about the pills being a bad idea. They'd probably kept Rodney loose enough during the landing to avoid most of the muscle strains plaguing John. After briefly assessing the aches and pains lurking in various portions of his body, John levered himself up slowly with a grunt, muttering, "I'm fine. How are you doing?"
"Well, if it weren't for the rain, I think my palms would be sweaty and...." The articles in question waved through the air, and John closed his eyes for a moment to fight off another wave of dizziness. "So you're fine, too," he sighed, then grabbed one of Rodney's busy hands for assistance lurching to his feet. "Let's go check things out."
John couldn't help being a little impressed with Rodney's performance after they'd landed. He'd managed to move John a good thirty yards away from the crash site, and John knew he hadn't been much help at the time. Oddly silent until they came within a few yards of the plane, Rodney suddenly blurted, "Oh, hey, the rain's stopping. Now we can..." His enthusiasm trailed off as John began to inspect the damage. "...not fly anywhere else until you fix that."
John leaned against the tilted fuselage and carefully did not shake his head as he disagreed. "That side of the landing gear became history when we hit that rock. At least the wing didn't rip off when the plane tipped to that side."
Rodney wasn't willing to leave it there, insisting, "Can't we...can't we reattach it somehow?"
"I'm sorry, but I forgot to pack the super-strength airplane glue this trip," John drawled sarcastically. "I'll be sure to remember next time." Turning away from Rodney, he attempted to open the passenger-side door, the weight working against him due to the height and awkward angle.
Rodney took over, his shoulder muscles bulging as he jerked the door partway open. With an impatient sound, he let it shut again with a slam. "This is stupid. We should be working from the other side where we won't have to climb." Leading the way around the plane, Rodney scrambled inside using the pilot's door, which was conveniently hanging open from earlier. He pulled himself up the slanted floor and wedged himself against a seat so he could open the cargo locker and begin searching through the contents.
John was content to lean against the wing and watch, knowing there wasn't enough room for both of them to maneuver easily. Rodney pulled out the first aid kit and handed it to John, who began making a pile of salvaged items. Rodney, who'd been mumbling under his breath, abruptly turned to John and demanded, "Aren't you one of those guys? You know; the ones you send out into the wilderness with a pocketknife and some chewing gum...and they build you a shopping mall. Fixing an airplane this small should be a piece of cake."
John straightened carefully from setting Rodney's suitcase on the sand and squinted in disbelief at Rodney. "No, that wasn't included in my survival training." One eyebrow went up in spite of his headache as the sarcasm came out to play again. "I do know at least seventeen different ways to kill you with a spork. Does that help?"
Rodney paused for a moment to consider that tidbit and then shook his head, replying entirely too seriously, "Not really, no." He began snapping his fingers, his eyes wide with excitement. "Wait, why am I asking you? I'm a genius. I can come up with some way to get us off this island." He groped blindly under the front passenger seat and retrieved his laptop case, unzipping the front compartment to search inside it.
"Great. I'm all for that, as long as it doesn't involve a tribal council and a torch," John sighed, hoping Rodney's idea wouldn't involve anything too strenuous until he'd had some time to rest.
"Great, still has a charge. Now all I need is a signal. Here, see if it's better out there." Rodney tossed John the cell phone that he'd finally found in the case, grinning smugly at his achievement.
John looked down at the useless piece of electronics in his hand and sighed. "You know, I haven't seen a lot of cell towers around here." He handed the phone back to Rodney and leaned against the wing again, waiting.
"Right. You're right. Deserted island in the South Pacific." Rodney groaned and dropped his head into his palm, muttering, "I would have thought of that myself if there'd been some coffee available to clear the last of the drugs out of my system."
"I'm sure you would have," John soothed. "Well, you want the good news or the bad news first?"
Subdued by his earlier mistake, Rodney shrugged. "Uh, you pick."
"Okay, the engine's obviously in one piece and we have fuel, but without the landing gear we can't take off. Air-Sea will search for us because we're overdue, but we were blown way off course and the lightning fried both the radio and the emergency location transmitter, so the odds are slim to none on them finding us here." Squatting down, John opened the larger of two waterproof survival packs that Rodney had tossed out earlier and checked the contents before continuing. "If they do show up, the only thing we've got for signaling is..." He held up a wide-mouthed pistol. "...this flare gun."
Rodney slumped against the seat and asked plaintively, "Is it too late to get the good news first?"
"That was the good news." John tucked the flare gun back inside before sealing the pack carefully. "The bad news is we may be here for a long time. You and me. For a very...long...time." He stood and shoved the survival pack firmly under the pilot's seat, safely out of the way.
"Well, then I want my twenty-five hundred back." Rodney demanded in a belligerent tone.
John looked at him in disbelief. "What?"
"You heard me. I want my money back." Rodney snapped his fingers and then held out his hand impatiently. "You said you were going to fly me to Tahiti for twenty-five hundred cash and you didn't. That's a breach of contract, so hand it over."
Not quite understanding how he'd managed to fall into the rabbit hole while marooned on a desert island, John reached into his back pocket and pulled out his decidedly damp wallet. He extracted the wad of bills Rodney had given him earlier in the surrealistically long day and began to count them into Rodney's outthrust palm. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, and...." He tore the last one hundred dollar bill in half and then replaced one-half and the remaining bills into his wallet and put it away. The solitary half was placed atop the pile in Rodney's hand with a flourish.
Rodney's mouth dropped open in shock for a moment, then he sputtered, "What...what are you doing? Are you insane?"
"I figure I got you halfway there." John smirked, enjoying the explosion entirely too much, but he figured he deserved some kind of fun after the day he'd had.
"Halfway? You got me halfway! That's outrageous!" Rodney began digging through the remainder of the cargo, tossing items out the door and narrowly missing John in the process.
"What the hell! What are you doing? Cut it out!" John's amusement evaporated under the barrage and he attempted to dislodge Rodney from the compartment. Unfortunately, he was wedged in tightly enough that John failed.
"Obviously it's up to me to get us the rest of the way back." Rodney released the latch on a hinged metal box and opened it. "There has to be something here I can use. What's all this?"
"They're tools I borrowed from the resort for a little remodeling project at my place. I took advantage of the extra space on this trip." John ducked to avoid a coil of rope that flew past. "Hey! Quit throwing my stuff around!"
"What's this?" Rodney hefted a heavy black vinyl object and read the printing on the side. "It's a boat! Perfect. We can use it to get off the island."
John shook his head, ignoring the throb of pain. "You don't even know where we are. Last thing you want to do is to go bouncing around the ocean in an eight-foot blowup boat."
"No, the last thing I want to do is stay on this island until I start calling you Wilson! How does this work?" Curious, Rodney started unfolding the boat.
Trying to head off the trouble he saw looming on the horizon, John grabbed for the boat. "You don't want to...give that to me." He wrestled Rodney for possession, jerking back instinctively with a shout when Rodney touched the wrong protrusion. "Hey, don't...."
The warning was too late. The auto-inflate initiated and the boat rapidly filled the compartment, Rodney disappearing under the expanding folds with muffled shouts. "Oh! Oh! Get... Wait! Stop! Get me out! No! Oh! Sheppard! Sheppard!" John ran around to the passenger side as the boat protruded from the pilot's side, jammed solidly in place. He could hear Rodney still shouting inside, so he figured he hadn't been hurt, just immobilized. "Get me out of here! Get me... Get me out of here!"
John knocked on the passenger door and called out, "Are you going stop acting like a lunatic?"
Despite the insulation, Rodney's reply was amazingly clear. "Fuck! You!"
After chuckling for a moment, John shouted a little louder. "What was that, Dr. McKay? I couldn't quite make out what you were saying." There were a few thumps, and then a hand appeared pressed against the window, middle digit extended. John nodded and shouted back, "That's what I thought you said."
After checking to be sure that the seats were keeping the majority of the raft off McKay, John decided a five-minute walk down the beach would help his headache...and prevent him from laughing himself sick.
"I'm getting tired and don't say it's my own fault. I don't want to hear it."
John looked over from where he was repacking everything Rodney had tossed on the ground and grinned. "Then I won't say it. I'll just remind you that the sooner you finish re-inflating the boat, using the hand pump instead of the auto-inflate you already wasted, the sooner we can get some rest."
"What about some food and something to drink?" There was the edge of a whine in Rodney's voice, but John thought he'd recovered well after he'd finally been extracted from the raft-filled plane.
"That too. I always have some snacks and water with me, plenty for tonight." John held the items in question up so Rodney could see them. "We'll leave the emergency rations until we have no other choice. We're not going to be able to find anything else in the dark. We can sort things out in the morning."
After capping off the valve, Rodney stood up, stretching his back from the crouched position he'd been in. "Right, right, except what about...uh...animals and...stuff?"
John joined him, dumping two foil blankets and an oversized towel inside the boat and handing Rodney a protein bar and a bottle of water. "Listen, I could try to light a fire, but everything's wet and, besides, there's nothing on these islands big enough to eat you or me." Shaking out one of the blankets, he laid it down, and then covered it with the towel. "The sides of the boat will keep the crawling things away, so we're perfectly safe."
"Safe." Rodney bit into the bar and chewed, not bothering to swallow before asking John, "Aren't you eating?"
John was the one who swallowed, fighting nausea. He lightly touched the bandage Rodney had applied earlier and remembered not to shake his head. "No, I don't think it would stay down right now. I drank some water. I'll be fine." He started pulling off his shirt, stopping at a choked sound from Rodney. "What?" When Rodney just stared, John frowned back and explained, "Wet clothes are not fun to sleep in and I'm saving the clean ones for tomorrow." When Rodney nodded and turned his back, John finished stripping, laying the clothes out on the side of the raft to hopefully dry overnight. He crawled inside the boat, used the second blanket as a cover, and then informed Rodney, "Your turn."
Finishing off his water, Rodney repeated John's actions and settled under the blanket, carefully making sure he wasn't touching John anywhere. John chuckled under his breath and closed his eyes, hoping he'd wake up without the throbbing pain that had been his constant companion the last few hours.
There was a rustle beside him and Rodney announced, "Okay, I'm setting an alarm to go off every hour so I can wake you up. Head injury, remember?"
Opening his eyes again, John turned his head to see Rodney peering at the expensive-looking timepiece and fiddling with a few knobs, mumbling under his breath. "I don't need...." John gritted his teeth, too tired for another argument, then he remembered a piece of information he'd kept tucked away, just in case. "Okay. Goodnight, Meredith."
John was glad there was enough light left that he could see the expression on Rodney's face as he sputtered, "How...how did you...?"
"Charter paperwork has to match your passport. Remember?"
Rodney groaned. "I really hate that name."
John shut his eyes again, already knowing he'd won. "Let me sleep, McKay, and it will remain the name that is not spoken. Deal?"
There were several beeps, then a resigned sigh. "Deal."
Exhaustion had obviously removed any lingering embarrassment on Rodney's part, and John had ended up having to disentangle himself from clinging arms and heavy legs before he could exit the boat to take advantage of some convenient bushes. Rodney had only mumbled something about coffee and starfished facedown into the vacant spot.
With his headache reduced overnight to a more manageable level, John decided he'd scout out some fruit for breakfast and check on the potential for fishing. Scrambling into his dried clothes, he bent down to nudge Rodney awake, wanting to let him know his plans. Rodney just mumbled again and John left him to his dreams knowing his fellow castaway was going to have to face harsh reality soon enough.
Fortune was shining on John that morning and it wasn't long before he located a banana tree with fruit ripe enough to eat. He was filling his shirt with his prize when he heard shouting from the beach and he dropped everything to go running, following the sound of Rodney's voice.
"Oh, my God. It's a plane. Oh! Oh, it's a plane. What do we...uh... Flare! Sheppard! Sheppard! We need...Okay. Oh. Oh!"
John emerged from the brush at the edge of the beach in time to see Dr. Rodney McKay, PhD times two, wearing nothing but his glasses and standing hip-deep in the surf raising the flare gun toward the sky. With nothing in sight that would explain what John was seeing, he stalked across the sand toward Rodney shouting, "What the hell are you doing, McKay?"
Rodney automatically turned at John's shout, but he also happened to pull the trigger at that same moment, so the flare hit the top of the palm tree standing about ten feet behind John, which immediately burst into flame.
John had automatically ducked when the gun had pointed in his direction. When he straightened up from his stunned crouch, he yanked off his boots and socks and then ran toward Rodney yelling, "Holy shit! Are you fucking insane!"
Eyes and mouth wide in horror as he watched John splashing toward him, Rodney threw up his hands and the gun went flying into the water along with an oblong shape.
"McKay! Did you just waste a flare to shoot a goddamn palm tree...or me?" John's hands clenched tight around Rodney's biceps as he berated the traumatized man. "What the hell?"
Anger rapidly replaced shock as McKay stopped imitating a fish and shouted back, "I wouldn't have shot the goddamn tree if you hadn't startled me. I was trying to signal the goddamn plane!"
"What goddamn plane?" John's hands loosened as he reacted to the excuse and he began to search the surroundings for Rodney's hallucination.
Rodney pointed up and out over the ocean. "That goddamn plane!"
John released Rodney and threw his hands in the air in disbelief. "You mean that goddamn commercial airliner that's five miles above us, going six hundred miles an hour! Jesus, McKay!" His headache returning in full force, John pressed his palms against his eyes, his voice automatically lowering from a shout to a grating protest. "They wouldn't see a goddamn nuclear explosion if they were looking for it, much less a fucking flare!"
"How the hell was I supposed to think of that?" Rodney's tone turned plaintive for a moment. "I could barely sleep last night, so I'm exhausted and there's no coffee." It didn't stay that way for long. "If you hadn't gone off to play Robinson Crusoe, maybe you could've stopped me before I did something...stupid!" Standing there taking deep breaths, John tensed and dropped his hands from his eyes when Rodney gasped in horror. "Oh, no."
"What?" John looked around for the latest disaster, beginning to wonder whether he should be expecting shark fins or something worse. When he saw nothing but Rodney waving his hands under the water, he backed up a few steps and asked in bewilderment, "Why the hell aren't you wearing any clothes?"
Rodney tried to avoid John's eyes when he admitted, "I was in a hurry and then I didn't want to start a fire by accident."
With one eyebrow arched as high as it could reach, John turned and looked pointedly at the tree that was still smoldering on the edge of the beach.
Rodney winced sheepishly and then lunged for something under the water. "I dropped...dropped...here it is!" Holding up the dripping flare gun, he resumed peering down into the water.
John grabbed the gun and examined it. "It'll be fine. We'll clean...what are you looking for now?"
Rodney held out his second find, water pouring from it in a stream. "The rest of the flares. I...uh...dropped them."
John took the open package and watched the water drip off the flares inside for a moment before growling, "McKay! Do you see what it says here on the waterproof package? They're useless if they get wet. Do you have any idea what you've done?"
Rodney backed up a step, crossed his arms, and lifted his chin; a pose John was becoming all too familiar with and not very fond of. "Don't you dare blame all of this on me! If you were a decent pilot, we wouldn't be stuck on this island and we wouldn't need flares!"
Furious, John drew himself up and loomed over Rodney, his voice low and dangerous. "I am the best goddamn pilot you're ever going to meet!"
Despite John's slight height advantage, Rodney wouldn't back down. "Hah! I've flown with you twice. You've crashed half the time!"
John turned and threw the flare gun toward the beach, shouting, "I didn't crash! I landed the damn plane on the beach in a storm!"
"Landing implies the plane will fly again!" Rodney shouted back.
John couldn't counter that rebuttal without resorting to violence, so he waded out of the water and stomped over to the plane. Locating a handsaw in the box of tools, he carried it over to the still-smoldering tree in order to cut it down before anything else caught on fire. He figured by the time he was done with that, he'd no longer be considering all the possible ways he could manage to end up the sole inhabitant of the goddamn deserted island.
"Can't we slow it down a little here? What's the rush?"
Hearing the strain in Rodney's voice, John paused to look back at him. He'd halted a few yards behind John, sweat darkening his t-shirt in a deep vee down his chest and under his arms, the dense vegetation thwarting any cooling breeze from the ocean. Even John, who was more accustomed to island temperatures, was feeling the heat, the sweat trickling down his back to soak into the waistband of his cargo shorts.
Taking advantage of the brief stop, Rodney removed his glasses to mop his face and under his bucket hat with one of several handkerchiefs he'd had packed for his aborted trip. John had guessed right about the contacts that first night. Rodney had only recently tried wearing them and had stopped using them after they'd become too uncomfortable during the long trip. He'd also decided a deserted island was no place to try again. Holding the glasses up, Rodney frowned at them and then shrugged, settling them back on his nose with a sigh.
John walked back to hand him one of the few bottles of water they had left. "I told you that we need to find water if we're going to be here for a while," he reminded Rodney as he guzzled down half the bottle without stopping to breathe. "If we're lucky, there's a freshwater spring at the end of this game trail. If not, then we're going to be rigging up a rainwater catch and a still for seawater." He paused and wrinkled his nose as he sniffed the air. "Why does it suddenly smell like I'm back on the beach at the resort?"
"Oh, it's probably my sunscreen. SPF 100." Handing back the bottle, Rodney pulled a tube out of the pack he was carrying and handed it to John. "You can't buy this kind of protection off the shelf. I had it specially made to my own formulation," he announced with pride. "Waterproof too. Go ahead. It probably wouldn't hurt if you used some too."
John handed the tube back with a grimace. "That's okay. I'm pretty used to the sun." The break over, John went back to shoving his way through the brush, using the faint path as his guide.
The short respite had revived Rodney enough that he had the energy to pursue his earlier point, albeit still a little breathlessly in the still hot air. "I'm telling you, you'll be sorry some day. Skin cancer is not something to be ignored." Hoping to change channels on the twenty-four hour complaint radio behind him, John accidentally on purpose allowed a few branches to spring back violently as he passed by.
It worked, sort of. "Hey, Indy. Why don't you let me lead for a while?"
Caught by surprise by his new nickname, John snickered and stood aside to let Rodney take the lead. "Sure, Short Round. Should be good for a laugh or two." He fell in behind, making sure to keep more than enough space between them that any retaliatory branches missed their target.
He was about ten yards back, having stopped to investigate a breadfruit tree, when he heard a crow of triumph, "Okay, Sheppard, you can start laughing now. I found it. Looks perfect." There was a crashing sound and then a more frantic-sounding shout, which sent John running. "What the hell is that? You said there weren't any animals! Hey!"
John burst out into the clearing around the small pond in time to see Rodney backing away from a small feral pig. Realizing the creature was half-grown at best and harmless, he laughed, just as Rodney had said he would. "Of course, there're animals. We were following a game trail. What I said was there weren't any big enough to eat us." When Rodney ignored him and kept backing closer to the edge of the water, John tried again, without the laughter. "Take it easy. Look, it's just a pig and it's more afraid of us than...."
Flapping his hands frantically, Rodney argued, "I'm sure that's what they said on boar hunts right before they were gored to death! Ah...go away...shoo!"
Giving in to the inevitable, John moved forward to try herding the scary beast away. Waving his arms, he shouted, "Hah! Go on! Get outta here! Leave Rodney alone!" All his attention on shooing the pig, he only faintly registered a yelp followed by a splash. "Hyah! Go on, you better get away before Rodney uses his genius to turn you into bacon."
Finally successful, John stood and watched as the young porker headed for the underbrush, only turning back around when he heard a shaky-sounding, "Sheppard?"
Rodney was waist-deep in the small pond, not far from a trickling waterfall, standing oddly rigid and still, ignoring the hat floating next to him. John slowly walked closer and asked, "What?"
"I'm sorry to interrupt you while you're indulging your need to play swineherd, but, uh, I'm having a bit of a problem." Hands frozen at his sides, Rodney blinked rapidly behind water-spotted lenses, barely moving his lips as he talked.
Getting worried, John crouched down to unlace and remove his boots and socks so he could join Rodney in the water. He kept his voice calm and even as he asked, "What's going on?" trying to remember if he'd ever heard of bogs swallowing up natives on the islands.
He started to breathe a little easier when Rodney explained, "Something...uh...swam up inside my shorts. I suppose it could be a fish, but I'm...uh...guessing by the feel it's a snake."
John suppressed a smile as he slowly began to wade into the water. "Oh. That sounds bad."
"So, uh, what do I do? I mean, I could reach down and, and grab it." John could see that not moving his hands was requiring an enormous effort on Rodney's part, and he had to admit he was impressed by Rodney's physical restraint as he babbled, "But that... that could be risky. On the other hand...say it's poisonous...do I really want it...swimming around in my shorts?"
"It's good to consider all the possible outcomes before committing to a course of action," John solemnly agreed as he halted in front of Rodney.
"Some advice here? Some of your survival tips, input, anything. Just give it to me straight. I'm very open for suggestions." Reaching out slowly for the hem of Rodney's shirt, John had a difficult time keeping a straight face when Rodney suggested, "Maybe this is a good time for those spork skills you mentioned before."
Carefully tugging the shirt up so he could see the top button of Rodney's shorts, John used his other hand to flick it through the buttonhole as he whispered, "Just stand still."
"Really can't stand much stiller than I already am," Rodney gritted through his teeth. "Uh, what are you doing?"
John slowly slid the zipper open while murmuring, "Relax. All right, let's just see...." Holding Rodney's shorts open, he let go of the shirt and slid his hand inside, his arm rubbing against the slight curve of Rodney's belly as he leaned in closer.
He was close enough to hear Rodney swallow before moaning, "Oh, God."
"Shhh. I'm trying to concentrate here." The back of John's hand encountered a soft bulge behind wet cotton that shifted as he pressed against it.
Rodney sucked in a breath at the intimate touch and then, after a moment, he sputtered, "What are...hey...are you...smiling!" His outrage melted away when something else slithered across his thigh and John's open hand. "Oh, God. Oh, God!"
John grabbed the slim body of the creature and yanked it out, taking a step back to display it to a wide-eyed Rodney. "Got it!" He gently tossed the writhing snake to the bank of the pond and turned back with a grin.
Slowly melting out of his frozen position, Rodney offered an obviously heartfelt, "Thanks."
"Well, I happen to be pretty good without a spork too," John drawled as he tugged his shirt off and tossed it toward a convenient rock next to the waterfall. His shorts and boxers followed with a few quick motions.
"What are you doing?" Rodney blurted, backing away.
"What does it look like? Going swimming. Got pretty hot hiking here, didn't you?" John ducked under the water and came up dripping, feeling cooler instantly.
Rodney shook his head in disbelief. "But the snakes!"
John shrugged and settled on his back to float, wishing he was in the sky overhead instead of the water. "Don't wear anything they can swim inside. After all, you don't have anything I didn't already see this morning, right?" he teased.
"But that doesn't mean I can't get bitten anyway!" Rodney objected, sloshing heavily through the water towards the bank.
Banishing his regret at losing access to the brilliant blue above him, John sculled gently with his hands as he chuckled and finally confessed. "Oh, did I forget to mention there aren't any poisonous snakes or spiders in the islands?" Anticipating Rodney's reaction, he took a deep breath.
"What? You son of a bitch!"
It was a good thing he had.
"Okay, I caught them, so you get to clean them for dinner." John dumped the string of fish on a moderately flat rock next to Rodney, who immediately glared at him from under his hat and swiped at the drops of water that had landed on his bare leg. "Great fishing off the point. What are you doing there?" John asked, toeing the navigation map Rodney had spread out across the sand, weighted down by his drying sneakers and a notepad covered with equations.
"You didn't think I was going to just take your word about not being able to use the lifeboat to get to an inhabited island, did you? Hey, you make a better door than window, Sheppard." Rodney scowled up at John until he shifted so that his shadow was no longer falling across the paper. With a nod, Rodney returned his attention to the map, pointing out a symbol. "I've been trying to calculate exactly where we are and I noticed these. Where's the key on this thing?"
John squatted to take a closer look. "Hmmm, those are navigation beacons. The beacons are used...crap!" Rising quickly, John began to pace, rubbing the back of his neck as he muttered to himself about missing something so simple, "Why the hell didn't I think of that before?"
Rodney slowly rose to his feet, obviously puzzled by John's behavior. "What is it?" he demanded, reaching out to still John's pacing.
Bending down, John grabbed the map and then held it out so Rodney could see what John needed to explain. "Look, the storm blew us southeast for about forty minutes. We're on the western shore of this island and there's nothing else in sight, no people, so there's a good chance we're on Vanavana." He pointed to one of the islands in the southwestern cluster.
John could almost see the gears turning as Rodney tried to work out John's solution on his own, but he finally broke down and asked. "Okay, I'm guessing that's good, and that it doesn't having anything to do with the boat. Right?"
"It's damn good," John assured him with a wide grin. "First thing tomorrow, we'll go find the radio navigation beacon on the northern tip of Vanavana and shut it down. When they come out to fix it, we'll be waiting. Piece of cake."
Rodney's eyes were bright behind his glasses, hope warring with his usual negativity. "A piece of cake." John winced a little when pessimism won. "Do you know it once took two years and about twenty phone calls for someone to fix the streetlight outside my apartment building?"
They'd made it past the thicker vegetation and were headed upwards when Rodney broke a long silence by calling out, "So the fishing and finding water and no snakes. How'd you learn all that?"
John didn't slow his climbing to answer; he just raised his voice enough that Rodney could hear him a few yards behind. "Training, mostly. Saved my life more than once. I listen to people wherever I go. I've even read a book or two, believe it or not."
There was no response for a few moments, then Rodney startled John a little by speeding up enough to draw even with him. He laid a conciliatory hand on John's arm. "So, uh...I suppose I should apologize for some of the things I've said. I know you're not stupid and it's not your fault we crash...uh...that we're stuck here. My sister tells me all the time that I'm terrible with people...and she's right." Halting, he tugged at John's arm so that he would stop and face him. His face was red from exertion, his voice distressed as he apologized. "So, I'm sorry. I really mean it."
"It's okay," John assured him with a slightly worried smile. He reached out and patted Rodney's shoulder, feeling a little uncomfortable with the unexpected emotion. "I understand it's been kind of rough the past few days." He turned to check how far they still had to go, and then pointed toward a nearby clump of trees that would provide some shade on the rock-strewn hillside. "Why don't we take a break?"
The speed at which Rodney headed for the spot was a clear indication he thought it was an excellent idea. He dropped to the ground with a groan and pulled one of the refilled water bottles from his pack with a gusty sigh of relief. John smiled and followed suit, with fewer sound effects.
After a few sips, John put his bottle away and settled back against a tree trunk. Something Rodney had mentioned earlier prompted him to say, "So, your sister sounds kind of tough."
"I guess she's learned she has to be when it comes to me." Rodney grimaced as he admitted, "We didn't talk for almost a year after she got pregnant and quit school to get married. She finally marched into my office one day and told me to stop being so petty and arrogant and suck it up because I was an uncle whether I liked it or not."
"Do you like it?" prompted John, interested in learning more about the man who kept surprising him.
Rodney thought for a moment, then nodded. "Sure, I do. Most of the time. Madison's a cute kid."
John smiled in agreement. "Yeah, kids can be cool." Feeling more than ready to go on, he scrambled to his feet, holding out a hand to help Rodney up. "Okay, we're back on track, but let's pick up the pace a little. I want to get to the top and back down before dark."
Rodney groaned a little as he took advantage of John's assistance. "You know, I've had just about as much vacation as I can stand. We better find that beacon, that's all I can say."
Taking the lead again, John teased, "Come on, McKay. This is easy. You should work out more when you get back home, get in better shape."
Rodney squawked in indignation, "I do work out! I don't go to the gym three days a week just to ogle sweaty men. I'll have you know my BMI is in the normal range, well, in the upper normal, but I'm fit! These are extraordinary circumstances and...."
Unable to resist, John interrupted. "BMI?"
"Body-mass index? You don't know...wait...you know perfectly well what I'm talking about, don't you!"
Busted, John shrugged and admitted, "I figure putting up with 'lecture the idiot' is always better than you panicking."
"I haven't been panicking!" Rodney protested.
"Not today, at least so far," John drawled in amusement, not bothering to look back.
Rodney stayed silent, although John thought he could feel hot waves of aggravation rising behind him. It stayed that way for almost fifteen minutes before Rodney blurted out, "You're impossible. You know that?"
With three giant strides, John crested the hill and stood there, grinning down at Rodney. "Hey, I may be impossible, but we made it up here, didn't we?"
Rodney scrambled the final few feet to join John. "Oh, we were closer than I thought." He turned to look out over the island and the ocean beyond, his eyes wide in amazement. "Hey, it's really beautiful from up here, isn't it?"
John nodded in agreement. "Yeah. Closest we can get to flying, for now." Pulling the map from his pack, he glanced at it, and then pointed across the plateau. "This way. Should be over there."
They ambled toward the location, resting from the strenuous climb and enjoying the vista along the way. At the farthest edge, perched about a hundred feet above the ocean, Rodney turned to John with a look of bafflement. "So, where's the beacon? Do I need to get out the field glasses?"
"No, it should be in plain sight." Equally puzzled when he saw no evidence of a radio antennae or transmitter, John consulted the map again. "I...well...."
"Oh, let me see." Impatient at the delay, Rodney snatched the map to check it himself. "It's this one. Vanavana, the one with the funny-shaped peninsula to the north, right?" He pointed to the same island they'd discussed on the beach.
John nodded. "Right."
Glancing at the compass on his watch, Rodney lined himself up with the edge and verified the direction. "Well, that's definitely north."
John nodded again. "Looks that way."
"But there's no peninsula." Rodney waved an arm over the edge to demonstrate the lack of any land to the north, his voice rising in frustration. "That means we're not on Vanavana, therefore there's no beacon to turn off so that they'll find us."
All John could do was nod again. "Can't fault your logic, Dr. McKay."
"Well, where the hell are we then!" Rodney shouted, sending a small flock of rock pigeons fluttering in the opposite direction.
"I'm not sure." Carefully retrieving the map from Rodney's shaking hand, John checked again. "We might have ended up even further to the southwest." Looking up at Rodney, he shrugged. "Since there's still no sign of any settlements, or French patrols, my best guess is this could be Morane."
Taking a deep breath and then blowing it out slowly, Rodney asked, relatively calmly, "So what's on Morane?"
John winced, as he reluctantly owned up to their new circumstances. "Us." When Rodney took an incautious step back, John grabbed his arm and yanked him back. "Whoa, take it easy there."
Jerking his arm free, Rodney trudged heavily toward the middle of the plateau where he could pace and wave his arms and explode safely. "Wait, don't tell me. I already know this part. We're going to be here for a very...long...time" Whirling around, he jabbed an accusing finger in John's direction. "How could you make a mistake like that? All that walking and climbing for nothing. I'm exhausted and starving and sunburned in spite of my SPF 100 because you're an air-headed flyboy who...."
Just as tired and sick of feeling guilty, John stomped over to Rodney and shouted back, "Hey! It's kind of hard to match shapes on the map when you're on the ground! And what happened to not blaming me? You're always so damn worried about UV radiation; you should be thrilled we're not on one of islands France used for nuclear testing!"
Taken by surprise by John's anger, Rodney subsided, dropping his arms to his side as he sheepishly acknowledged John's points. "Oh, uh, you're...you're right. And thank you for that."
Disarmed by Rodney's about-face, John calmed down enough to return a gruff, "You're welcome."
The ceasefire didn't last long. "Although, if we had landed on one of those islands, we might have been rescued already because they probably patrol...."
"Goddamn it, McKay!" John growled, clenching his fists in impotent rage.
Thankfully, Rodney immediately backed down again, recognizing his mistake. "Sorry, sorry. You're right." He dropped his eyes, focusing on his watch as he absently fiddled with the dials on the side. "Ever since we've been here, you've been competent and surprisingly optimistic despite the overwhelming odds against us surviving."
John wasn't willing to let things go so easily again, but his voice was a little calmer as he pointed out, "Well, I'm the one in charge. It won't do us any good for me to wave my arms in the air and go around screaming, "Oh God, we're going die."
Rodney looked up at John, his eyes wide and earnest. "No, no, it doesn't, and I need you to keep on being in charge." There was an edge of despair in his voice as he confessed, "I can't tell you how incredibly difficult all this is going be for me if you lose it."
Unable to resist the distress on Rodney's face, John forced himself to relax so he could reassure him, "Hey, I promise I'm not going to lose it." Slinging an arm around Rodney's shoulders, John pulled him close for a few moments before releasing him with a gentle, "Come on, buddy. Let's take a quick look through the field glasses and then start back."
"...you'd think that missing Niagara Falls would be no big deal, but you know what? It gnaws at you. There are a lot of movies I wish I'd seen and won't see now. Never saw "Grease," even though I had a thing for Olivia Newton John when I was a kid. Always the blondes, you know? Only saw the first half of "The Sixth Sense." I always wondered how that ended. Are you lost? This doesn't look like the same way we came," Rodney huffed, as much out of breath from non-stop talking as shoving his way through the underbrush.
John shook his head, still walking in the same direction. "Not lost. When I looking around up top to make sure we weren't missing anything, I thought I saw something metallic in the trees in this direction. I decided to make a detour to check it out."
"Why didn't I have anything to say about this detour?" Rodney protested. "There are two of us here, you know."
"But only one of us can lead." John stopped and pointed up. "There it is."
Nestled in the top of a clump of palms, about twenty-five feet above them, was something amazing that John had only seen before in books or old newsreels on the History Channel. Rodney didn't share John's awe at their find. "This is definitely not a good place for airplanes. Where the hell are we, in the Polynesian Triangle or something? Are we going to end up on some list of the world's greatest unsolved mysteries? You know; Amelia Earhart, the Mary Celeste, Dr. Rodney McKay and John Sheppard?"
John laughed and clapped Rodney on the shoulder, too excited to be cranky about Rodney's reaction. "Technically we are in the Polynesian Triangle, the one formed by Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island."
Rodney looked at John and rolled his eyes in mock disgust, his grin betraying him. "What are you, some kind of geography geek?"
"You'd be surprised how much I know. Could've been in Mensa." John tipped his head up and sniffed haughtily before breaking into a grin himself. Returning his attention to the suspended plane, he mused aloud, "Huh. Looks like a...hmmm...what's left of the markings? Yeah, it's definitely a Japanese floatplane, probably crashed sometime during World War II. Jeez, that's got to have been stuck up there for over fifty years."
Rodney stood next to him, looking wherever John pointed. "You don't suppose there's any way you could...never mind, stupid question." He jumped when John dropped his pack on the ground and stripped off his belt. Wrapping it around the trunk of one of the thinner supporting palms, John slid it upward and started climbing.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Rodney sounded worried, but John was too busy keeping his grip to look down and check. He just shouted down to him, "I want to see if there's anything useful up there."
"What? Like human bones?"
"Like...I don't know...something." John huffed, as he pulled himself into the crown of the tree.
"After fifty years? Admit it, Sheppard. You just want to geek out over the old plane."
Peering down into the cockpit of the ancient fighter, which was filled with rotting leaves and water, John had to agree with Rodney about the potential usefulness. "Okay, you were right," he called down, then he looked at the tree next to him. "Well, at least we have dinner."
"Tonight you get to try breadfruit." Breaking off one of the large green ovals, he held it out above Rodney's head and yelled, "Catch!"
Enjoying the brilliant hues of the sunset, John relaxed next to Rodney, legs stretched out on the sand, leaning against a segment of the tree Rodney had killed the first morning they were on the island. Earlier, they had raked two of the breadfruits out of the small firepit that was still putting out heat a few feet away. After John had sliced the roasted fruit open and presented Rodney with his halves on a broad leaf, he'd tentatively scooped out some of the whitish flesh to taste.
"So this is breadfruit." Based on Rodney's expression, John guessed that he wasn't impressed. "Not really fruit-like and definitely not bread. Sort of potato-ish, but definitely needs some butter and sour cream. Maybe chives."
"We can add coconut milk next time," John offered, glad to see Rodney eating what might end up being a staple of their diet without too much of a fuss. "Mix in some banana."
"You're a gourmet chef, too. Be still my beating heart." Rodney rolled his eyes at John, then reached up to gingerly press against the side of his head. "I still can't believe you hit me with one of these. You could have broken my glasses."
The complaint was already old, so John just nudged Rodney with his shoulder and repeated, "I said I was sorry. I really did think you were going to catch it. At least you were wearing that stupid hat."
"Unfortunately for my very important brain, I excelled in hockey growing up, not baseball, and it's not a stupid hat. Some of us don't possess an excess amount of freakishly thick and messy hair to protect them from a sunburned scalp." Setting the empty shells of the breadfruit to one side, Rodney looked around and then wiped his fingers off on his shorts with a disgusted sound, before scrubbing his hand through his already disheveled hair. The action only added to the odd tufts already created by sweat and wind, and John suddenly had to restrain an impulse to reach out and smooth the fine hair down himself.
Changing the subject helped. "Every time I see that hat, I get the urge to paint 'S.S. Minnow' on the jumper's fuselage," John teased. With the limited options available, getting a rise out of Rodney was turning into John's favorite sport.
Rodney's response was a lot more subdued than John had hoped. "Now I'm Gilligan?" he sighed wearily. Sliding a little lower against the log, he leaned his head back and pulled off his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose. "Funny, I always saw myself as the Professor except, in my case, I'd have actually come up with something useful enough to get them off the island. Guess I was wrong."
Finished with his meal, John threw the remains in the firepit, then returned to the fray, determined to break Rodney out of his funk. "I don't know, I see you as a mix of Gilligan and the Professor. Oh, and Mr. Howell...for the money and complaints."
Rodney turned his head toward John and narrowed his eyes, studying him for a moment before declaring, "I guess that makes you the Skipper, with more than a dash of Mary Ann."
"Mary Ann?" John played along with Rodney's whimsy, enjoying the smile that flirted with the corners of Rodney's mouth. "What about Ginger?"
Rodney shuddered dramatically. "She always gave me the creeps. It was Mary Ann all the way for me."
"So since you liked Mary Ann the best, then that must mean you like me." Reluctant to see Rodney's reaction to his sudden resemblance to a fourteen-year-old girl, John industriously poked at the remaining embers of the fire with a stick.
He needn't have worried. Rodney was still busy assigning characteristics. "You have a lot of the Professor, too. You've come up with what we need to stay alive. I just feel so useless. I'm the one who always has the answers, who comes up with the brilliant plan to...." Suddenly, he slipped his glasses back on and sat up straight, snapping his fingers excitedly. "I have it!"
John grinned at Rodney's enthusiasm. He didn't want to dampen it again, so he kept his teasing light. "So just like Newton, fruit plus head equals great idea. Cool."
"Yes, very cool. Do you recall that question I was going to ask you about the floatplane? Well, it wasn't so stupid after all. I was just thinking of the wrong parts at the time.
John shrugged and shook his head. "Parts. I don't get it."
"You said that the only reason we couldn't fly out of here was because we're missing a wheel, the broken landing gear, right?" Rodney was almost vibrating in place as he waited for John's answer.
"Granted I haven't done a lot of mechanical engineering lately, I mean, these days I tend to do a little more of the, uh, buying and selling of tech companies, but...." Rodney began to lose the thread in his rambling, his initial excitement settling into something closer to the lectures John had been listening to for most of the day.
"Is this going somewhere useful, McKay?" John yawned and then slowly rose to his feet. He prodded a disgruntled-looking Rodney with a toe. "Because if it's not, I'm just going to clean up here and crawl into the raft to sleep. It's been a long day."
Refusing to be ignored, Rodney shoved John's foot away, his voice rising as he demanded, "What if we tried to take off from the water instead?"
Suddenly, it all came together in John's head. He dropped to his knees to grab Rodney by the shoulders, shouting, "You're a genius!"
He even forgave the almost unbearable smugness of Rodney's reply. "I told you I was."
John had found himself even more convinced of Rodney's genius as their days and nights on the island had passed. It had been Rodney's insistence on rigging a harness cannibalized from rear seats of the plane that had saved John from a twenty-five foot fall the very first day. Of course, it had been embarrassing to admit that the reason he'd ended up dangling from the tree was due to the centipede that had crawled up his leg while he'd been trying to break through a rivet with a hammer.
He really hated bugs.
At least Rodney had sympathized. It had turned out he was quite content not using the lifeboat because he'd had nightmares about whales eating him for years after his father had read him "Moby Dick," and still did.
After a frustrating day spent suspended in a harness, attempting to break the pontoons free using only a hammer and a screwdriver repurposed as a chisel, John had been ready to switch tactics and cut down the trees to drop the plane to the ground. Rodney had agreed to the idea, but had stipulated they'd needed to lower it, not simply allow it to fall twenty-five feet and end up damaging what they were trying to salvage.
Another day had been consumed setting up an elaborate set of ropes, pulleys and levers. In the end, John had considered the time well-spent when the plane finally settled to the ground the next day as intact as it had started, using the strength of two men's muscles and Rodney's brain. Once on the ground, the disassembly had become exponentially easier.
However, it hadn't been all work and no play. Surprisingly enough, John had been the one insisting on regular breaks, forcing Rodney to stop for food and rest. A viable plan in place, Rodney had discarded most of his complaints and thrown himself into the work with a passion. Rodney had been willing to do it all; it didn't matter whether it was design, construction, heavy lifting and hauling, or day-to-day chores. In addition, he'd absorbed everything John had been able to teach him about surviving on the island; his only real grievance had been the lack of a substitute for his dwindling supply of sunscreen.
The one thing that hadn't changed was Rodney's need to talk. John had been surprised at how much he'd enjoyed their conversations while they'd worked and rested. They'd discussed an amazing range of topics from movies to books to games to music. It hadn't been all one-sided either. Rodney had learned about Evel Knievel, John's childhood hero while attempting to convince John that Batman was the one he should be emulating. Johnny Cash was weighed against Bach, with no clear winner, although John's choice of "Back to the Future" as his favorite movie brought derision down on his 'fluffy-brained' head. The only way John had been able to redeem himself was to reveal his aptitude for math, which had resulted in sharing logic puzzles and rounds of prime-not prime.
Their days had ended usually early enough to allow a trip to the pond for a refreshing swim, although there had been one unforgettable day when they'd stood naked on the beach in a downpour, indulging in soap and shampoo under Mother Nature's shower. John had needed to turn his back to conceal his response to the sight of Rodney's hands gliding over a body that had finally acquired a hint of gold from the tropical sun. Although Rodney had lost a little weight with the 'deserted island diet plan,' he was still appealing sturdy, the muscle he'd been adding showing to good advantage. That night, John had found it particularly difficult to lie quietly in the boat, listening to Rodney's mild grumbling about his back and his beloved prescription mattress. It had taken all his resolve not to pull Rodney close so he could feel his solid weight and the soft rasp of his beard, taste the musky salt of his skin.
It hadn't been easy restoring John's old 'jumper to flight-ready status but, with a genius on the team, they were bound to succeed eventually. As he stood on the beach next to Rodney surveying the Rube Goldberg additions to his plane, John thought back on the nine days they'd spent marooned together, how they'd become Rodney and John instead of McKay and Sheppard, and almost regretted that they'd reached an end.
"So this was a good idea, John. I'm glad we had the chance to see this."
John turned his head to look at Rodney, ignoring the view from the edge of the plateau in order to study his friend's face. There was a gentle curve to Rodney's lips as he looked out over their island, as they watched the sun setting together one last time.
It had been John's idea to leave the final packing for the next morning and instead hike up to the plateau where they hadn't found the beacon. He'd enticed Rodney with the promise of a spectacular sunset and a three hundred-sixty degree view of the stars. It hadn't taken much convincing. Rodney had been jittery with anticipation and welcomed the distraction.
As the final rays slipped under the horizon, Rodney turned away and walked back to the small fire they'd started, settling down with a quiet sigh on the layers of palm fronds and blankets that John had setup for sleeping. He looked up at John with a smile. "You know, I think I get why. I never thought I would but, now that I've lived it, I can see the appeal."
John joined him on the makeshift bed, removing his boots and socks so he could sit cross-legged comfortably. He leaned enough to nudge Rodney's shoulder and asked quietly, "Yeah? What do you get?"
Rodney nudged him back and then shifted closer so he could lean against John. "Why people come to places like this, leave their nine-to-five jobs, although I've never worked those hours in my life. Do you know how long it's been since I looked at a computer? I don't even miss it. Well, not much."
John didn't say anything to that, just relaxed against Rodney's warmth, savoring the closeness while it lasted. Rodney, however, had never been able to tolerate silence for long. "I guess it takes me longer than most to understand how other people see the world, and how I might fit in. For a while, seeing my little sister so happy with her family, I actually thought I might like to get married. I convinced myself of that so completely that I was going to propose to Sam on this trip."
Although the subject brought up some uncomfortable memories, John didn't interrupt, sensing Rodney was working something out the same way he had tackled the problems they'd encountered while working on the plane. "I don't think she had any idea, because I really had to work hard to convince her to come. Guess that should have been my first clue that she and I weren't anywhere close to being on the same page. My sister helped me pick out the ring because I'm clueless when it comes to women's jewelry, although I knew it couldn't be a solitaire, that could get caught on...things, so it ended up being a hundred point pave setting. Conflict-free, of course."
It seemed like Rodney was waiting for a comment, so John obliged. "That's really sounds like some kind of ring."
"Yeah, my sister liked it." Leaning back on his outstretched arms, Rodney tipped his face to the sky, his expression shadowed under the first few stars. "The closer I came to it, the more I wondered why, and then I ended up not asking."
John nodded in sympathy. "Hell, everyone gets cold feet one time or another. It's a big decision."
Rodney straightened up and pointed a knowing finger at John. "Exactly. I'm sure you've figured out I'm the kind of guy that needs to think ahead to the worst possible outcome to any situation so I can properly defend against it. This trip, it was the first time we'd spent more than half a night together, and I could tell it was driving Sam crazy, that she thought I was being too negative about everything."
John had to chuckle at that insight. "Well, I guess I could see how she might think that, if she hadn't been around you long enough."
"The thing is, you and I are living proof that it doesn't take much for a perfectly good situation to turn ugly. Now, you can call me a catastrophist, but it's a necessary burden I bear." Rodney looked away, his shoulders slumping a little.
John reached out to squeeze the back of Rodney's neck gently. "You may be a catastrophist, but you also have what it takes to survive whatever catastrophe it ends up being. Like you said, we're living proof."
"Thanks. I guess I don't feel so bad now about being happy to see her leave." Rodney laid his hand over John's and squeezed back. He stretched and let their hands fall free, then leaned forward to take off his sneakers, peeling off his socks to stuff them inside. With a few slightly awkward maneuvers, he ended up flat on his back, hands tucked behind his head, looking as though he'd settled in for the night. After a few moments, he nudged John with a foot to ensure he had John's attention. "I never asked before. Is there someone back on Tahiti, or do you just have a girl in every port?
John laughed and answered without turning around to watch Rodney's face. "If I was the kind of guy who had a girl in every port, I'd probably still be in the Air Force." When Rodney didn't say anything, John began to worry that he'd read the signs wrong from the beginning, but then he felt Rodney's leg press against him, as if to offer mute support.
It was enough to let John finish. "Someone told and I was out. It made it easy; they were already looking for reasons after I cost them a very expensive helicopter. I didn't care. There was no way I was ever going to follow an order to leave guys behind." Needing more, John stretched out next to Rodney, close enough that their shoulders were touching after Rodney lowered his arms. "My father pulled some strings, kept me out of Leavenworth. Ten years of combat pay investments paid off, so I cashed most of them in, bought my old 'jumper, and came down here where no one cares about my past as long as I can get them where they need to go."
Of all the things Rodney could have said, John hadn't expected to hear, "So...you really were hitting on me that first night, weren't you? It wasn't just a joke."
He turned his head to look at Rodney, disappointed that he couldn't really see his eyes in the dim starlight. He made sure there was no trace of amusement in his voice, as he answered, "No, Rodney. It wasn't a joke."
Rodney turned on his side toward John, his voice tentative as he explained, "I thought maybe but, with all those beautiful women to choose from, and that waitress...."
"It's not that I don't like women, but sometimes sex with guys is just...easier." John rolled to his side, mirroring Rodney. "All you have to do is show up. It's a bonus if they can actually put up with your crap and stick around for more than one night."
Rodney leaned in closer, his lips only a few scant inches from John's as he whispered, "I could be easy. Very, very, easy."
With a sigh, John closed the distance and there was softness with a prickle that made John press harder. Inside sun-chapped lips, he tasted the fruit they'd eaten earlier and the coconut Rodney liked to chew while he walked, and faintest hint of the salt sweat after the climb to the plateau. Rodney moaned and John swallowed the sound until it warmed and then burned inside. That heat grew to be too much and John needed the cool air against his skin, clothes, his and Rodney's, irritants to be removed and tossed aside.
For days he'd wanted Rodney's weight on him, to anchor him while electricity sizzled through his veins making him lighter than air, and it was there firm and solid. A slick glide against silken skin and rough hair was added, heavy strength holding John down as the stars wheeled above them, his name on Rodney's lips spoken in whispers and promises.
It was easy to touch, to caress, to kiss Rodney, easy to move slow and smooth, tension winding tight in the base of his spine, coiling deeper with each deliberate stroke until the release that sparked high and bright and sharp between them. That was when John understood how big a mistake he'd made thinking it was easy, because shifting out from beneath a slack-muscled Rodney and whispering, "Get some sleep. Big day tomorrow," felt like the hardest thing he'd ever done.
Up shortly before the sun, John eased away from Rodney and rose to his feet, snagging his clothing to take with him to the eastern edge of the plateau. After dressing, he took care of business over the side, musing that there were certain aspects of roughing it that he'd never miss. He couldn't say the same for the sunrise. As the rich dark purples began to give way to lavender and lighter pinks, John heard a muffled groan behind him, then a confused, "John?"
John turned around to see Rodney sitting up and enacting the startled owl imitation John had been enjoying each morning. Hair standing up in tufts, wide eyes blinking slowly, he yawned and fumbled in his immediate vicinity for his glasses. When he finally found them wrapped in his shirt, he inspected them for smudges, and then slid them on with a sigh of relief, only to frown when he saw how far away John was standing. "What's wrong?"
John hadn't thought he was revealing his thoughts so blatantly, but Rodney quickly proved him wrong. Scrambling into his clothing, he slipped his sneakers on before crossing the plateau to stand in front of John. As he watched the bafflement on Rodney's face slowly change to pain, John felt his plan slip away, banished as he whispered, "I can't."
Rodney reached out, but stopped short of touching John. "Can't what? Is it last night? I thought...it was good...right?"
John forced a smile to his face, hoping it would be enough to satisfy Rodney. "Are you kidding? It was great." He placed a quick kiss where Rodney's frown drooped lowest and patted his arm. "It's getting late. Why don't I get everything packed up and we'll head out."
"Late?" Rodney glanced at the sun, which had barely crested the ocean, and huffed, "Okay. Then why didn't you wake me up earlier?"
John hadn't been prepared for that question. All his answers were for what was no longer going to happen. "Rodney, I...."
He could see when Rodney connected the dots, why John hadn't wanted to pack the night before, all the survival lessons, their current distance from the plane. John remembered that Rodney had always claimed he was bad with people, and he thought that maybe that was how Rodney had become such a genius at recognizing goodbyes, even after plans had changed.
Rodney took a step back from John, dismay quickly overtaken by anger on his face. "You were going to leave me here!"
John reached out and then dropped his hand, along with his eyes so that he didn't have to watch Rodney's expression turn to hate. "I thought...I couldn't take the chance that the plane was going to go down again with you in it. I figured that if I made it, then Air-Sea would come back for you and, if I didn't, you'd be safe. I knew I'd taught you what you needed to stay alive until someone finally showed up."
Rodney didn't have the same problem with touching. He grabbed John's shirt and hauled him close, his voice low and bitter. "What was all that about not leaving people behind? Last night? Lies to keep me dumb and happy until you could run?"
"No!" John couldn't let Rodney go on believing that John had lied to him. "I know I was selfish last night, but I couldn't leave without...." John took a deep breath trying to regain control and raised his eyes to Rodney's face, willing him to believe. "I wasn't leaving you behind, Rodney. I was keeping you safe."
Rodney slowly released John's shirt and stepped back, the pain of John's planned betrayal still evident in every line of his body and face. "You had no right to make that decision for me, John."
John nodded. "I know. That's why I'm still here."
Rodney looked away for a few moments, then turned back to John with a faint smile and quietly informed him, "That's why I'll probably forgive you."
Rodney had been unusually quiet all the way back to the plane, but John had received the impression that it hadn't been that Rodney was still angry with John as much as he'd been engaged solving a complex problem. John had just wished he'd shared whatever he'd been thinking. He'd gotten accustomed to not having to guess with Rodney, unlike most other people.
After everything they'd gone through, the takeoff had been anticlimactic. An easy start and glide across the water and into the air, light as a feather, or as light as Rodney had been able to make it by ripping out and dumping every extraneous ounce on the beach before takeoff. The plane's interior had nearly echoed without the rear seat and cargo bin, only what was left of the survival packs, the deflated boat, John's duffel, and Rodney's suitcase and laptop case making the final cut.
Once he'd reached the right altitude, John had circled the island to allow Rodney to verify that they had been marooned on Morane, as John had guessed. After that, they'd been able to use the string of islands to help navigate without instruments. The only remaining difficulty after that had been Rodney's continued silence.
John had tried to lighten the atmosphere with a little teasing, suggesting that he could offer Rodney a lesson or two in flying, but Rodney had declined, maintaining that John likely had plans to jump and leave Rodney to land the plane by himself. John had given up after that.
It wasn't until Makatea came into view that Rodney finally spoke up. "Remember, we can't be sure how well all this is going to hold up when it hits the water." He rocked his hand in the air to show how carefully John needed to land, making John grin. "You need to touch down gently, like a leaf kissing the surface of a pond."
John lined up on the beach and brought the plane down slow and easy, the touchdown barely jarring either one of them. Rodney whooped in glee. "Nice kissing!"
Even though he knew what would be happening later, John couldn't resist pulling Rodney into a deep, spine-tingling celebratory kiss, although they weren't able to get as close as John would have preferred due to the seatbelts. He pulled back and grinned as he reminded Rodney, "Told you I'm the best goddamn pilot you're ever going to meet."
Rodney considered for a moment then granted, "Two out of three. Your success rate is improving."
"Gee, thanks," John drawled, flopping back into his seat with feigned pout. It didn't last long before he straightened and offered a handshake with a sincere, "You did a great job, Professor. Thanks." He knew he'd finally found the right words when he saw the gratitude and relief shining in Rodney's eyes, and he felt at least some the weight he'd been carrying disappear.
That was when John caught sight of Philippe running toward them with waving arms, and he knew their quiet celebration was over. He chuckled and suggested lightly, "What say we go park this baby?" and then he turned the engine on to idle slowly across the water to the nearest pier.
Four hours after landing, his interview with Air-Sea over, John stood on the pier looking at his cobbled-together plane and trying to figure out what he was going to do next. A familiar voice behind him made the answer simple.
"I just got off the radio with Jeannie. She was very happy to hear I wasn't lost at sea after all. She also had quite a few other things to say about my habit of giving up too easily. I was lucky to walk away with my hearing still intact, let alone my ego."
John turned around to see Rodney standing a few feet away. It appeared as though he'd taken advantage of the time since they landed to shower and shave, although his clothes were showing a little wear and tear. John thought he looked pretty damn good: patchy sunburn, wind-blown hair, baggy pants, and all. Suddenly realizing Rodney was still waiting for a response, he blurted, "That's...great."
Of course, Rodney being Rodney, he cut to the chase. "John? What's the deal here?"
John being John, he thought playing dumb was worth a try. "What do you mean?"
It was the wrong choice. It just made Rodney even more stubborn. "Don't give me that. You know exactly what I mean. Was what we had back there real, or was it just something that happens to two people when they're stranded together?"
Rubbing the back of his neck where he could feel the tension knotting and twisting, John sighed and admitted the truth. After all, Rodney deserved it. "It was real."
Rodney walked closer, frowning at John. "I know I'm terrible at this stuff, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't a ringing endorsement."
"You and Sam...." John began.
Rodney waved the attempt away. "I told you before that was a mistake that was over long before she got on that helicopter, hell, even before this trip started. If you worried that you're just a rebound, to be perfectly honest, I was the rebound for Sam."
"So, I'm the re-rebound?" John joked, knowing he was going down hard.
"Ha-ha, very funny," Rodney snapped back. He kept advancing until he was right in front of John, until John had no choice but to look into the blue eyes that held nothing back. "You're the guy I'd pick every damn time to be stranded on a deserted island with. I mean it, John. When do we leave? I'm ready."
John bit his lower lip to hold back the "now" that struggled to break free and, after a moment, managed, "Rodney...I...."
Rodney shook his head and tried again. "We make a good team, you and I, and I thought...no...I want to stick around."
Rodney was so damn brave that it was killing John to keep pushing him away. "Look, I'm... I'm no great catch, and...you've got all kinds of possibilities. Remember what you told me about your sister? You have to go get the girl, so you can have that white picket fence and the babies."
"That wasn't all I said on that island, John," An edge of anger was creeping into Rodney's voice, but he was still keeping his cool. "You have no right to make that decision for me."
John shook his head and drawled, "Come on, you're the genius. It's not like you're going to move here to be my copilot. I'm not going to Denver to be your personal assistant. Game over." When he saw the hurt rise in Rodney's eyes, John knew he'd finally found the words to cut Rodney free.
With a disheartened sigh, Rodney confirmed it. "And I lose." He shrugged and smiled sadly. "Story of my life, I guess. I really need to stop falling for people that are out of my reach." He offered a handshake to John saying, "It turns out Tumatoa has a plane to Tahiti leaving in about a half-hour, so if I'm going to catch it, I better...oh, hell." With a jerk, Rodney transformed the handshake into a hug, and John was fairly certain he felt Rodney's lips brush softly against his neck as he pulled away. "Take care of yourself, John." He began to back away down the pier, as if he were still reluctant to turn his back on John and walk away.
John nodded. "You, too." He smiled and raised his hand in a wave. "So, we're cool, right?"
Rodney shook his head and corrected him. "No, you're cool. I'm...I'll be fine."
John nodded and turned back to the plane, opening the pilot's door and leaning inside so he didn't have to watch Rodney walk away. It actually turned out to be a good choice because he'd forgotten his duffel was still inside. Dragging it out, he slammed the door shut and headed for his bungalow, keeping his head down so he didn't have to meet anyone's eyes and end up in a conversation he wasn't looking for.
The bungalow was the same as always. Everything was tidy, the air cool and sweet, the only noise faint voices drifting up from the beach. John walked into the bedroom and looked around at the impersonal surrounding and then unzipped the duffel and dumped its contents on the bed, sand and all. He sat on the edge of the bed and idly stirred the mess until he pulled out a dingy white bucket hat.
"Forgot your hat, Professor." The raspy words breaking the quiet startled John. He hadn't realized he'd said it aloud. He shook his head, tossed the hat back on the pile, and picked up his wallet instead. He flipped through the bills until he reached one that had been torn in half, and that was when he finally admitted to himself that he'd been an idiot and a coward.
Grabbing the hat again, John jumped to his feet and started running. Pounding down the beach toward the landing strip, he heard the familiar sound of engines revving higher and he realized he was almost out of time. As he rounded the corner of the resort office, he heard the sound of the engines moving away and he looked up to see Tumatoa's twin-engine rising into the sky.
John stood and watched the plane until it was out of sight, then turned and walked back to the office hoping that he could convince the Air-Sea pilot to give him a lift to Tahiti. He thought there was a good chance he could stop Rodney before he boarded the flight back to Denver, if he could just get there in time.
That plan changed the minute he walked inside.
"I really don't care about your policy, and neither will my very highly-paid attorneys. I paid for six days and seven nights and I only used one of each. Now unless you're prepared to refund the difference right now, and provide immediate transportation back to Tahiti, I expect to be accommodated for the next five days and six nights."
"But, M'sieu McKay, as I explained, we're completely booked...."
That was John's cue. "You've got that wrong, Philippe. That's Dr. Rodney McKay, the smartass dotcom millionaire...and he's staying with me."
"John?" When Rodney turned around and John saw the look on his face, he knew he'd made the right choice. "I...."
John decided they needed to be somewhere else, so he cut Rodney short. "I'm glad you're here. You just saved me a trip to Tahiti." He held the door for Rodney as he walked outside with his battered suitcase, calling back over his shoulder, "Thanks, Philippe. I'll see you later." Following Rodney down the short walkway, he caught up to walk by his side down the beach.
Rodney was already in full swing. "So do you happen to have a prescription mattress? I checked when I was booking and...."
Enjoying the sound that was replacing the silence in his life, John suddenly had to ask, "Are you always going to be this way?"
Rodney stopped walking and turned toward John with a worried look in his eyes. "Uh...yes? Is that going to be a problem?"
John shook his head. "No. Just checking." With a grin, he plopped the disreputable-looking hat on Rodney's head, then tipped his chin up for a hit-and-run kiss. "Now, what say we go test that mattress, Professor?" Rewarded with a relieved smile and quick nod of agreement, John slung his arm around Rodney's shoulders and led him toward their bungalow.
"I thought you hated this hat?"
"It grew on me."
"Any chance of coffee?"
"I meant after, of course."
"Then, yes. I'll make it myself."
"Told you we make a good team."